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Ambition

2nd October 2017
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She broke off, looking a little self-conscious. “You understand, what I have been saying applies to most of the world. In some places like Aresund, things are different. Backward. I still do not feel that I belong here, although the people of the town have accepted me as one of them.”

“Even,” he said, “granting that you have solved the population problem, there’s still the adventure of the thing. Surely, somewhere, there must be men who still feel that…. Ingrid, doesn’t it fire something in your blood, the idea of going to Mars—just to go there and see what’s there and walk under a new sky and a smaller Sun? Aren’t you interested in finding out what the canals are? Or what’s under the clouds of Venus? Wouldn’t you like to see the rings of Saturn from, a distance of only two hundred thousand miles?” His hands were trembling as he stopped.

She shrugged her shapely shoulders. “Go into the past—yes! But go out there? I still cannot see why.”

“Has the spirit of adventure evaporated from the human race, or what?”

She smiled. “In a room downstairs there is the head of a lion. Swarts killed the beast when he was a young man. He used a spear. And time traveling is the greatest adventure there is. At least, that is the way I feel. Listen, Bob.” She laid a hand on his arm. “You grew up in the Age of Technology. Everybody was terribly excited about what could be done with machines—machines to blow up a city all at once, or fly around the world, or take a man to Mars. We have had our fill of—what is the word?—gadgets. Our machines serve us, and so long as they function right, we are satisfied to forget about them.

“Because this is the Age of Man. We are terribly interested in what can be done with people. Our scientists, like Swarts, are studying human rather than nuclear reactions. We are much more fascinated by the life and death of cultures than by the expansion or contraction of the Universe. With us, it is the people that are important, not gadgets.”

Maitland stared at her, his face blank. His mind had just manufactured a discouraging analogy. His present position was like that of an earnest 12th Century crusader, deposited by some freak of nature into the year 1950, trying to find a way of reanimating the anti-Mohammedan movement. What chance would he have? The unfortunate knight would argue in vain that the atomic bomb offered a means of finally destroying the infidel….

Maitland looked up at the girl, who was regarding him silently with troubled eyes. “I think I’d like to be alone for a while,” he said.

In the morning, Maitland was tired, though not particularly depressed. He hadn’t slept much, but he had come to a decision. When Ingrid woke him, he gave her a cavalier smile and a cheery “Good morning” and sat down to the eggs and ham she had brought. Then, before she could leave, he asked, “Last night when we were talking about spaceships, you mentioned some kind of vessel or vehicle. What was it?”

She thought. “Vliegvlotter? Was that it?”

He nodded emphatically. “Tell me about them.”

“Well, they are—cars, you might say, with wheels that go into the body when you take off. They can do, oh, 5,000 miles an hour in the ionosphere, 50 miles up.”

“Fifty miles,” Maitland mused. “Then they’re sealed tight, so the air doesn’t leak out?” Ingrid nodded. “How do they work? Rocket drive?”

“No.” She plucked at her lower lip. “I do not understand it very well. You could picture something that hooks into a gravity field, and pulls. A long way from the Earth if would not work very well, because the field is so thin there…. I guess I just cannot explain it very well to you.”

“That’s all I need.” Maitland licked his lips and frowned. “On that point, anyway. Another thing—Swarts told me I’d be here for about a week. Is there any set procedure involved in that? Have other persons been brought to this period from the past?”

She laughed. “Thousands. Swarts has published nearly a hundred case studies himself, and spent time adding up to years in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Maitland interrupted incredulously. “How on Earth could he ever manage to keep that many disappearances quiet? Some of those people would be bound to talk.”

She shook her head definitely. “The technique was designed to avoid just that. There is a method of ‘fading’ the memories people have of their stay here. The episode is always accepted as a period of amnesia, in the absence of a better explanation.”

“Still, in thousands of cases….”

“Spread out over centuries in a total population of billions.”

He laughed. “You’re right. But will that be done to me?”

“I suppose so. I can’t imagine Swarts letting you take your memories back with you.”

Maitland looked out the window at the green horizon. “We’ll see,” he said.

Maitland removed his three-day beard with an effective depilatory cream he discovered in the bathroom, and settled down to wait. When Swarts arrived, the engineer said quietly, “Sit down, please. I have to talk with you.”

Swarts gave him the look of a man with a piece of equipment that just won’t function right, and remained standing. “What is it now?”

“Look,” Maitland said, “Ingrid has told me that men never reached the planets. You ought to know how I feel about space flight. It’s my whole life. Knowing that my work on rockets is going to pay off only in the delivery of bombs, I don’t want to go back to the 20th Century. I want to stay here.”

Swarts said slowly, “That’s impossible.”

“Now, look, if you want me to cooperate….”

The big man made an impatient gesture. “Not impossible because of me. Physically impossible. Impossible because of the way time travel works.”

Maitland stared at him suspiciously.

“To displace a mass from its proper time takes energy,” Swarts explained, “and it’s one of the oldest general physical principles that higher energy states are unstable with respect to lower ones. Are you familiar with elementary quantum theory? As an analogy, you might regard yourself, displaced from your proper time, as an atom in an excited state. The system is bound to drop back to ground state. In the atomic case, the time which elapses before that transition occurs is a matter of probabilities. In the case of time travel, it just depends on the amount of mass and the number of years the mass is displaced.

“In short, the laws of nature will insist on your returning to 1950 in just a few days.”

Maitland looked at the floor for a while, and his shoulders sagged. “Your memories of this will be faded,” Swarts said. “You’ll forget about what Ingrid has told you—forget you were ever here, and take up your life where you left off. You were happy working on rockets, weren’t you?”

“But—” Maitland shook his head despairingly. Then he had an idea. “Will you let me do one thing, before I go back? I realize now that our time is limited, and you have a lot of tests to give me, but I’m willing to help speed things up. I want to see the stars, just once, from deep space. I know you’ll make me forget it ever happened, but once in my life…. You have vessels—vliegvlotter, Ingrid called them—that can go into space. If you’d give me just a couple days to go out there, maybe circle the Moon…?” There was a pleading note in his voice, but he didn’t care.

Swarts regarded him dispassionately for a moment, then nodded. “Sure,” he said. “Now let’s get to work.”

“The Earth doesn’t change much,” Maitland mused. Sitting on the cot, his arm around Ingrid’s yielding waist, he was wearing the new blue trunks she had given him to replace his rumpled pajamas. The room was full of evening sunlight, and in that illumination she was more beautiful than any other woman he could remember. This had been the last day of tests; tomorrow, Swarts had promised, he would begin his heart-breakingly brief argosy to the Moon, with Ingrid as pilot.

Over the past four days, he had been with the girl a lot. In the beginning, he realized, she had been drawn to him as a symbol of an era she longed, but was unable, to visit. Now she understood him better, knew more about him—and Maitland felt that now she liked him for himself.

She had told him of her childhood in backward Aresund and of loneliness here at the school in Nebraska. “Here,” she had said, “parents spend most of their time raising their children; at home, they just let us grow. Every time one of these people looks at me I feel inferior.”

She had confided her dream of visiting far times and places, then had finished, “I doubt that Swarts will ever let me go back. He thinks I am too irresponsible. Probably he is right. But it is terribly discouraging. Sometimes I think the best thing for me would be to go home to the fiord….”

Now, sitting in the sunset glow, Maitland was in a philosophic mood. “The color of grass, the twilight, the seasons, the stars—those things haven’t changed.” He gestured out the window at the slumbering evening prairie. “That scene, save for unessentials, could just as well be 1950—or 950. It’s only human institutions that change rapidly….”

“I’ll be awfully sorry when you go back,” she sighed. “You’re the first person I’ve met here that I can talk to.”

“Talk to,” he repeated, dissatisfied. “You’re just about the finest girl I’ve ever met.”

He kissed her, playfully, but when they separated there was nothing playful left about it. Her face was flushed and he was breathing faster than he had been. Savagely, he bit the inside of his cheek. “Two days! A lifetime here wouldn’t be long enough!”

“Bob.” She touched his arm and her lips were trembling. “Bob, do you have to go—out there? We could get a couple of horses tomorrow, and we would have two days.”

He leaned back and shook his head. “Can’t you see, Ingrid? This is my only chance. If I don’t go tomorrow, I’ll never get to the Moon. And then my whole life won’t mean anything….”

He woke with Ingrid shaking him. “Bob! Bob!” Her voice was an urgent whisper. “You’ve got to wake up quick! Bob!”

He sat up and brushed the hair out of his eyes. “What’s the matter?”

“I didn’t really believe that Swarts would let you go into space. It wasn’t like him. Bob, he fooled you. Today is when your time runs out!”

Maitland swallowed hard, and his chest muscles tightened convulsively. “You mean it was all a trick?”

She nodded. “He told me just now, while he was putting something in your milk to make you sleep.” Her face was bitter and resentful. “He said, ‘This is a lesson for you, Ching, if you ever do any work with individuals like this. You have to humor them, tell them anything they want to believe, in order to get your data.'”

Maitland put his feet on the floor, stood up. His face was white and he was breathing fast.

She grasped his arm. “What are you going to do?”

He shook her hand off. “I may not get to the Moon, but I’m going to teach one superman the advantage of honesty!”

“Wait! That won’t get you anywhere.”

“He may be bigger than I am,” Maitland gritted, “but—”

She squeezed his arm violently. “You don’t understand. He would not fight you. He’d use a gun.”

“If I could catch him by surprise….”

She took hold of his shoulders firmly. “Now, listen, Bob Maitland. I love you. And I think it’s the most important thing in the world that you get to see the stars. Swarts will never let me time travel, anyway.”

“What are you thinking?”

“I’ll go down to the village and get a vliegvlotter. It won’t take twenty minutes. I’ll come back, see that Swarts is out of the way, let you out of here, and take you—” she hesitated, but her eyes were steady—”wherever you want to go.”

He was trembling. “Your career. I can’t let you….”

She made as if to spit, then grinned. “My career! It’s time I went home to the fiord, anyway. Now you wait here!”

The vliegvlotter was about 50 feet long, an ellipsoid of revolution. Maitland and Ingrid ran hand in hand across the lawn and she pushed him up through the door, then slammed it shut and screwed the pressure locks tight.

They were strapping themselves into the seats, bathed in sunlight that flooded down through the thick plastic canopy, when she stopped, pale with consternation.

“What’s the matter?” he demanded.

“Oh, Bob, I forgot! We can’t do this!”

“We’re going to,” he said grimly.

“Bob, sometime this morning you’re going to snap back to 1950. If that happens while we’re up there….”

His jaw went slack as the implication soaked in. Then he reached over and finished fastening the buckle on her wide seat belt.

“Bob, I can’t. I would be killing you just as surely as….”

“Never mind that. You can tell me how to run this thing and then get out, if you want to.”

She reached slowly forward and threw a switch, took hold of the wheel. Seconds later they were plummeting into the blue dome of the sky.

The blue became darker, purplish, and stars appeared in daylight. Maitland gripped the edge of the seat; somewhere inside him it seemed that a chorus of angels was singing the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth.

There was a ping and Ingrid automatically flicked a switch. A screen lit up and the image of Swarts was looking at them. His eyes betrayed some unfamiliar emotion, awe or fear. “Ching! Come back here at once. Don’t you realize that—”

“Sorry, Swarts.” Maitland’s voice resonated with triumph. “You’ll just have to humor me once more.”

“Maitland! Don’t you know that you’re going to snap back to the 20th Century in half an hour? You’ll be in space with no protection. You’ll explode!”

“I know,” Maitland said. He looked up through the viewport. “Right now, I’m seeing the stars as I’ve never seen them before. Sorry to make you lose a case, Swarts, but this is better than dying of pneumonia or an atomic bomb.”

He reached forward and snapped the image off.

Twenty minutes later, Maitland had Ingrid cut the drive and turn the ship, so that he could see the Earth. It was there, a huge shining globe against the constellations, 10,000 miles distant, 100 times the size of familiar Luna. North America was directly below, part of Canada covered with a dazzling area of clouds. The polar ice-cap was visible in its entirety, along with the northern portions of the Eurasian land mass. The line of darkness cut off part of Alaska and bisected the Pacific Ocean, and the Sun’s reflection in the Atlantic was blinding.

And there was Venus, a brilliant, white jewel against the starry blackness of interstellar space, and now he could see the Sun’s corona….

The ship was rotating slowly, and presently the Moon, at first quarter, came into view, not perceptibly larger than seen from Earth. Maitland heaved a sigh of regret. If only this could have been but the beginning of a voyage….

Ingrid touched his arm. “Bob.”

He turned to look at her golden beauty.

“Bob, give me one more kiss.”

He loosened his seat strap and put his arms around her. For a moment he felt her soft lips on his….

Then she was gone, and the ship had vanished. For perhaps as long as a second, alone in space, he was looking with naked, unprotected, ambition-sated eyes at the distant stars.

The luring white blaze of Venus was the last image he took with him into the night without stars.

 

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