A wayfarer's return from a far country to his wife and family may be a shining experience, a kind of second honeymoon. Or it may be so shadowed by Time's relentless tyranny that the changes which have occurred in his absence can lead only to tragedy and despair. This rarely discerning, warmly human story by a brilliant newcomer to the science fantasy field is told with no pulling of punches, and its adroit unfolding will astound you.
by ... Walter M. Miller, Jr.
A space rover has no business with a family. But what can a man in the full vigor of youth do—if his heart cries out for a home?
They all knew he was a spacer because of the white goggle marks on his sun-scorched face, and so they tolerated him and helped him. They even made allowances for him when he staggered and fell in the aisle of the bus while pursuing the harassed little housewife from seat to seat and cajoling her to sit and talk with him.
Having fallen, he decided to sleep in the aisle. Two men helped him to the back of the bus, dumped him on the rear seat, and tucked his gin bottle safely out of sight. After all, he had not seen Earth for nine months, and judging by the crusted matter about his eyelids, he couldn't have seen it too well now, even if he had been sober. Glare-blindness, gravity-legs, and agoraphobia were excuses for a lot of things, when a man was just back from Big Bottomless. And who could blame a man for acting strangely?
Minutes later, he was back up the aisle and swaying giddily over the little housewife. "How!" he said. "Me Chief Broken Wing. You wanta Indian wrestle?"
The girl, who sat nervously staring at him, smiled wanly, and shook her head.
"Quiet li'l pigeon, aren'tcha?" he burbled affectionately, crashing into the seat beside her.
The two men slid out of their seats, and a hand clamped his shoulder. "Come on, Broken Wing, let's go back to bed."
"My name's Hogey," he said. "Big Hogey Parker. I was just kidding about being a Indian."
"Yeah. Come on, let's go have a drink." They got him on his feet, and led him stumbling back down the aisle.
"My ma was half Cherokee, see? That's how come I said it. You wanta hear a war whoop? Real stuff."
He cupped his hands to his mouth and favored them with a blood-curdling proof of his ancestry, while the female passengers stirred restlessly and hunched in their seats. The driver stopped the bus and went back to warn him against any further display. The driver flashed a deputy's badge and threatened to turn him over to a constable.
"I gotta get home," Big Hogey told him. "I got me a son now, that's why. You know? A little baby pigeon of a son. Haven't seen him yet."
"Will you just sit still and be quiet then, eh?"
Big Hogey nodded emphatically. "Shorry, officer, I didn't mean to make any trouble."
When the bus started again, he fell on his side and lay still. He made retching sounds for a time, then rested, snoring softly. The bus driver woke him again at Caine's junction, retrieved his gin bottle from behind the seat, and helped him down the aisle and out of the bus.
Big Hogey stumbled about for a moment, then sat down hard in the gravel at the shoulder of the road. The driver paused with one foot on the step, looking around. There was not even a store at the road junction, but only a freight building next to the railroad track, a couple of farmhouses at the edge of a side-road, and, just across the way, a deserted filling station with a sagging roof. The land was Great Plains country, treeless, barren, and rolling.
Big Hogey got up and staggered around in front of the bus, clutching at it for support, losing his duffle bag.
"Hey, watch the traffic!" The driver warned. With a surge of unwelcome compassion he trotted around after his troublesome passenger, taking his arm as he sagged again. "You crossing?"
"Yah," Hogey muttered. "Lemme alone, I'm okay."
The driver started across the highway with him. The traffic was sparse, but fast and dangerous in the central ninety-mile lane.
"I'm okay," Hogey kept protesting. "I'm a tumbler, ya know? Gravity's got me. Damn gravity. I'm not used to gravity, ya know? I used to be a tumbler—huk!—only now I gotta be a hoofer. 'Count of li'l Hogey. You know about li'l Hogey?"
"Yeah. Your son. Come on."
"Say, you gotta son? I bet you gotta son."
"Two kids," said the driver, catching Hogey's bag as it slipped from his shoulder. "Both girls."
"Say, you oughta be home with them kids. Man oughta stick with his family. You oughta get another job." Hogey eyed him owlishly, waggled a moralistic finger, skidded on the gravel as they stepped onto the opposite shoulder, and sprawled again.
The driver blew a weary breath, looked down at him, and shook his head. Maybe it'd be kinder to find a constable after all. This guy could get himself killed, wandering around loose.
"Somebody supposed to meet you?" he asked, squinting around at the dusty hills.
"Huk!—who, me?" Hogey giggled, belched, and shook his head. "Nope. Nobody knows I'm coming. S'prise. I'm supposed to be here a week ago." He looked up at the driver with a pained expression. "Week late, ya know? Marie's gonna be sore—woo-hoo!—is she gonna be sore!" He waggled his head severely at the ground.
"Which way are you going?" the driver grunted impatiently.
Hogey pointed down the side-road that led back into the hills. "Marie's pop's place. You know where? 'Bout three miles from here. Gotta walk, I guess."
"Don't," the driver warned. "You sit there by the culvert till you get a ride. Okay?"
Hogey nodded forlornly.
"Now stay out of the road," the driver warned, then hurried back across the highway. Moments later, the atomic battery-driven motors droned mournfully, and the bus pulled away.
Big Hogey blinked after it, rubbing the back of his neck. "Nice people," he said. "Nice buncha people. All hoofers."
With a grunt and a lurch, he got to his feet, but his legs wouldn't work right. With his tumbler's reflexes, he fought to right himself with frantic arm motions, but gravity claimed him, and he went stumbling into the ditch.
"Damn legs, damn crazy legs!" he cried.
The bottom of the ditch was wet, and he crawled up the embankment with mud-soaked knees, and sat on the shoulder again. The gin bottle was still intact. He had himself a long fiery drink, and it warmed him deep down. He blinked around at the gaunt and treeless land.
The sun was almost down, forge-red on a dusty horizon. The blood-streaked sky faded into sulphurous yellow toward the zenith, and the very air that hung over the land seemed full of yellow smoke, the omnipresent dust of the plains.
A farm truck turned onto the side-road and moaned away, its driver hardly glancing at the dark young man who sat swaying on his duffle bag near the culvert. Hogey scarcely noticed the vehicle. He just kept staring at the crazy sun.
He shook his head. It wasn't really the sun. The sun, the real sun, was a hateful eye-sizzling horror in the dead black pit. It painted everything with pure white pain, and you saw things by the reflected pain-light. The fat red sun was strictly a phoney, and it didn't fool him any. He hated it for what he knew it was behind the gory mask, and for what it had done to his eyes.
* * * * *
With a grunt, he got to his feet, managed to shoulder the duffle bag, and started off down the middle of the farm road, lurching from side to side, and keeping his eyes on the rolling distances. Another car turned onto the side-road, honking angrily.
Hogey tried to turn around to look at it, but he forgot to shift his footing. He staggered and went down on the pavement. The car's tires screeched on the hot asphalt. Hogey lay there for a moment, groaning. That one had hurt his hip. A car door slammed and a big man with a florid face got out and stalked toward him, looking angry.
"What the hell's the matter with you, fella?" he drawled. "You soused? Man, you've really got a load."
Hogey got up doggedly, shaking his head to clear it. "Space legs," he prevaricated. "Got space legs. Can't stand the gravity."
The burly farmer retrieved his gin bottle for him, still miraculously unbroken. "Here's your gravity," he grunted. "Listen, fella, you better get home pronto."
"Pronto? Hey, I'm no Mex. Honest, I'm just space burned. You know?"
"Yeah. Say, who are you, anyway? Do you live around here?"
It was obvious that the big man had taken him for a hobo or a tramp. Hogey pulled himself together. "Goin' to the Hauptman's place. Marie. You know Marie?"
The farmer's eyebrows went up. "Marie Hauptman? Sure I know her. Only she's Marie Parker now. Has been, nigh on six years. Say—" He paused, then gaped. "You ain't her husband by any chance?"
"Hogey, that's me. Big Hogey Parker."
"Well, I'll be—! Get in the car. I'm going right past John Hauptman's place. Boy, you're in no shape to walk it."
He grinned wryly, waggled his head, and helped Hogey and his bag into the back seat. A woman with a sun-wrinkled neck sat rigidly beside the farmer in the front, and she neither greeted the passenger nor looked around.
"They don't make cars like this anymore," the farmer called over the growl of the ancient gasoline engine and the grind of gears. "You can have them new atomics with their loads of hot isotopes under the seat. Ain't safe, I say—eh, Martha?"
The woman with the sun-baked neck quivered her head slightly. "A car like this was good enough for Pa, an' I reckon it's good enough for us," she drawled mournfully.
Five minutes later the car drew in to the side of the road. "Reckon you can walk it from here," the farmer said. "That's Hauptman's road just up ahead."
He helped Hogey out of the car and drove away without looking back to see if Hogey stayed on his feet. The woman with the sun-baked neck was suddenly talking garrulously in his direction.
It was twilight. The sun had set, and the yellow sky was turning gray. Hogey was too tired to go on, and his legs would no longer hold him. He blinked around at the land, got his eyes focused, and found what looked like Hauptman's place on a distant hillside. It was a big frame house surrounded by a wheatfield, and a few scrawny trees. Having located it, he stretched out in the tall grass beyond the ditch to take a little rest.
Somewhere dogs were barking, and a cricket sang creaking monotony in the grass. Once there was the distant thunder of a rocket blast from the launching station six miles to the west, but it faded quickly. An A-motored convertible whined past on the road, but Hogey went unseen.
When he awoke, it was night, and he was shivering. His stomach was screeching, and his nerves dancing with high voltages. He sat up and groped for his watch, then remembered he had pawned it after the poker game. Remembering the game and the results of the game made him wince and bite his lip and grope for the bottle again.
He sat breathing heavily for a moment after the stiff drink. Equating time to position had become second nature with him, but he had to think for a moment because his defective vision prevented him from seeing the Earth-crescent.
Vega was almost straight above him in the late August sky, so he knew it wasn't much after sundown—probably about eight o'clock. He braced himself with another swallow of gin, picked himself up and got back to the road, feeling a little sobered after the nap.
He limped on up the pavement and turned left at the narrow drive that led between barbed-wire fences toward the Hauptman farmhouse, five hundred yards or so from the farm road. The fields on his left belonged to Marie's father, he knew. He was getting close—close to home and woman and child.
He dropped the bag suddenly and leaned against a fence post, rolling his head on his forearms and choking in spasms of air. He was shaking all over, and his belly writhed. He wanted to turn and run. He wanted to crawl out in the grass and hide.
What were they going to say? And Marie, Marie most of all. How was he going to tell her about the money?
Six hitches in space, and every time the promise had been the same: One more tour, baby, and we'll have enough dough, and then I'll quit for good. One more time, and we'll have our stake—enough to open a little business, or buy a house with a mortgage and get a job.
And she had waited, but the money had never been quite enough until this time. This time the tour had lasted nine months, and he had signed on for every run from station to moon-base to pick up the bonuses. And this time he'd made it. Two weeks ago, there had been forty-eight hundred in the bank. And now ...
"Why?" he groaned, striking his forehead against his forearms. His arm slipped, and his head hit the top of the fencepost, and the pain blinded him for a moment. He staggered back into the road with a low roar, wiped blood from his forehead, and savagely kicked his bag.
It rolled a couple of yards up the road. He leaped after it and kicked it again. When he had finished with it, he stood panting and angry, but feeling better. He shouldered the bag and hiked on toward the farmhouse.
They're hoofers, that's all—just an Earth-chained bunch of hoofers, even Marie. And I'm a tumbler. A born tumbler. Know what that means? It means—God, what does it mean? It means out in Big Bottomless, where Earth's like a fat moon with fuzzy mold growing on it. Mold, that's all you are, just mold.
A dog barked, and he wondered if he had been muttering aloud. He came to a fence-gap and paused in the darkness. The road wound around and came up the hill in front of the house. Maybe they were sitting on the porch. Maybe they'd already heard him coming. Maybe ...
He was trembling again. He fished the fifth of gin out of his coat pocket and sloshed it. Still over half a pint. He decided to kill it. It wouldn't do to go home with a bottle sticking out of his pocket. He stood there in the night wind, sipping at it, and watching the reddish moon come up in the east. The moon looked as phoney as the setting sun.
He straightened in sudden determination. It had to be sometime. Get it over with, get it over with now. He opened the fence-gap, slipped through, and closed it firmly behind him. He retrieved his bag, and waded quietly through the tall grass until he reached the hedge which divided an area of sickly peach trees from the field. He got over the hedge somehow, and started through the trees toward the house. He stumbled over some old boards, and they clattered.
"Shhh!" he hissed, and moved on.
The dogs were barking angrily, and he heard a screen door slam. He stopped.
"Ho there!" a male voice called experimentally from the house.
One of Marie's brothers. Hogey stood frozen in the shadow of a peach tree, waiting.
"Anybody out there?" the man called again.
Hogey waited, then heard the man muttering, "Sic 'im, boy, sic 'im."
The hound's bark became eager. The animal came chasing down the slope, and stopped ten feet away to crouch and bark frantically at the shadow in the gloom. He knew the dog.
"Hooky!" he whispered. "Hooky boy—here!"
The dog stopped barking, sniffed, trotted closer, and went "Rrrooff!" Then he started sniffing suspiciously again.
"Easy, Hooky, here boy!" he whispered.
The dog came forward silently, sniffed his hand, and whined in recognition. Then he trotted around Hogey, panting doggy affection and dancing an invitation to romp. The man whistled from the porch. The dog froze, then trotted quickly back up the slope.
"Nothing, eh, Hooky?" the man on the porch said. "Chasin' armadillos again, eh?"
The screen door slammed again, and the porch light went out. Hogey stood there staring, unable to think. Somewhere beyond the window lights were—his woman, his son.
What the hell was a tumbler doing with a woman and a son?
After perhaps a minute, he stepped forward again. He tripped over a shovel, and his foot plunged into something that went squelch and swallowed the foot past the ankle. He fell forward into a heap of sand, and his foot went deeper into the sloppy wetness.
He lay there with his stinging forehead on his arms, cursing softly and crying. Finally he rolled over, pulled his foot out of the mess, and took off his shoes. They were full of mud—sticky sandy mud.
The dark world was reeling about him, and the wind was dragging at his breath. He fell back against the sand pile and let his feet sink in the mud hole and wriggled his toes. He was laughing soundlessly, and his face was wet in the wind. He couldn't think. He couldn't remember where he was and why, and he stopped caring, and after a while he felt better.
The stars were swimming over him, dancing crazily, and the mud cooled his feet, and the sand was soft behind him. He saw a rocket go up on a tail of flame from the station, and waited for the sound of its blast, but he was already asleep when it came.
It was far past midnight when he became conscious of the dog licking wetly at his ear and cheek. He pushed the animal away with a low curse and mopped at the side of his face. He stirred, and groaned. His feet were burning up! He tried to pull them toward him, but they wouldn't budge. There was something wrong with his legs.
For an instant he stared wildly around in the night. Then he remembered where he was, closed his eyes and shuddered. When he opened them again, the moon had emerged from behind a cloud, and he could see clearly the cruel trap into which he had accidentally stumbled. A pile of old boards, a careful stack of new lumber, a pick and shovel, a sand-pile, heaps of fresh-turned earth, and a concrete mixer—well, it added up.
He gripped his ankles and pulled, but his feet wouldn't budge. In sudden terror, he tried to stand up, but his ankles were clutched by the concrete too, and he fell back in the sand with a low moan. He lay still for several minutes, considering carefully.
He pulled at his left foot. It was locked in a vise. He tugged even more desperately at his right foot. It was equally immovable.
He sat up with a whimper and clawed at the rough concrete until his nails tore and his fingertips bled. The surface still felt damp, but it had hardened while he slept.
He sat there stunned until Hooky began licking at his scuffed fingers. He shouldered the dog away, and dug his hands into the sand-pile to stop the bleeding. Hooky licked at his face, panting love.
"Get away!" he croaked savagely.
The dog whined softly, trotted a short distance away, circled, and came back to crouch down in the sand directly before Hogey, inching forward experimentally.
Hogey gripped fistfuls of the dry sand and cursed between his teeth, while his eyes wandered over the sky. They came to rest on the sliver of light—the space station—rising in the west, floating out in Big Bottomless where the gang was—Nichols and Guerrera and Lavrenti and Fats. And he wasn't forgetting Keesey, the rookie who'd replaced him.
Keesey would have a rough time for a while—rough as a cob. The pit was no playground. The first time you went out of the station in a suit, the pit got you. Everything was falling, and you fell, with it. Everything. The skeletons of steel, the tire-shaped station, the spheres and docks and nightmare shapes—all tied together by umbilical cables and flexible tubes. Like some crazy sea-thing they seemed, floating in a black ocean with its tentacles bound together by drifting strands in the dark tide that bore it.
* * * * *
Everything was pain-bright or dead black, and it wheeled around you, and you went nuts trying to figure which way was down. In fact, it took you months to teach your body that all ways were down and that the pit was bottomless.
He became conscious of a plaintive sound in the wind, and froze to listen.
It was a baby crying.
It was nearly a minute before he got the significance of it. It hit him where he lived, and he began jerking frantically at his encased feet and sobbing low in his throat. They'd hear him if he kept that up. He stopped and covered his ears to close out the cry of his firstborn. A light went on in the house, and when it went off again, the infant's cry had ceased.
Another rocket went up from the station, and he cursed it. Space was a disease, and he had it.
"Help!" he cried out suddenly. "I'm stuck! Help me, help me!"
He knew he was yelling hysterically at the sky and fighting the relentless concrete that clutched his feet, and after a moment he stopped.
The light was on in the house again, and he heard faint sounds. The stirring-about woke the baby again, and once more the infant's wail came on the breeze.
Make the kid shut up, make the kid shut up ...
But that was no good. It wasn't the kid's fault. It wasn't Marie's fault. No fathers allowed in space, they said, but it wasn't their fault either. They were right, and he had only himself to blame. The kid was an accident, but that didn't change anything. Not a thing in the world. It remained a tragedy.
A tumbler had no business with a family, but what was a man going to do? Take a skinning knife, boy, and make yourself a eunuch. But that was no good either. They needed bulls out there in the pit, not steers. And when a man came down from a year's hitch, what was he going to do? Live in a lonely shack and read books for kicks? Because you were a man, you sought out a woman. And because she was a woman, she got a kid, and that was the end of it. It was nobody's fault, nobody's at all.
He stared at the red eye of Mars low in the southwest. They were running out there now, and next year he would have been on the long long run ...
But there was no use thinking about it. Next year and the years after belonged to little Hogey.
He sat there with his feet locked in the solid concrete of the footing, staring out into Big Bottomless while his son's cry came from the house and the Hauptman menfolk came wading through the tall grass in search of someone who had cried out. His feet were stuck tight, and he wouldn't ever get them out. He was sobbing softly when they found him.
This etext was produced from Fantastic Universe September 1955. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and typographical errors have been corrected without note.