Space travel is hard. Not just the physics of it, though even today’s leading edge of the space industry focuses on the hardware the most. But what of the software? The wetware? By exploring what it might do to a person to travel in space, Frederick Pohl brings us an interesting twist on the limits of space travel.
Is it possible to rub elbows with the same five people for nine months? How about putting them in a compartment the size of a large sedan? This may sound inhumane, but remember the earliest Mercury capsules were tiny, and the larger the craft the harder it is to fly. The first travelers to Mars may very well travel in a tiny tin can.
While we may be looking at larger craft, the commentary on the nature of humanity, and the limits of the human part of manned spaceflight, are novel even today. What mental stress is waiting for our astronauts on extended journeys, and what treatment can we possibly offer them? Pohl gives us one fascinating option.
Frederick G. Pohl stands as one the giants of science fiction, his career spanning over sixty years. He lived through the Great Depression, served in WWII, and edited Galaxy and If magazine. He won six Hugos and multiple Nebula Awards. He is perhaps best known for his Heechee novels, which weave biting criticism of runaway free markets with his trademark wit.
[starbox id=”Nicholas Narbutovskih”]
By Frederick Pohl
The bar didn’t have a name. No name of any kind. Not even an indication that it had ever had one. All it said on the outside was:
which doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it was a bar. It had a big TV set going ya-ta-ta ya-ta-ta in three glorious colors, and a jukebox that tried to drown out the TV with that lousy music they play. Anyway, it wasn’t a kid hangout. I kind of like it. But I wasn’t supposed to be there at all; it’s in the contract. I was supposed to stay in New York and the New England states.
Cafe-EAT-Cocktails was right across the river. I think the name of the place was Hoboken, but I’m not sure. It all had a kind of dreamy feeling to it. I was—
Well, I couldn’t even remember going there. I remembered one minute I was downtown New York, looking across the river. I did that a lot. And then I was there. I don’t remember crossing the river at all.
I was drunk, you know.
You know how it is? Double bourbons and keep them coming. And after a while the bartender stops bringing me the ginger ale because gradually I forget to mix them. I got pretty loaded long before I left New York. I realize that. I guess I had to get pretty loaded to risk the pension and all.
Used to be I didn’t drink much, but now, I don’t know, when I have one drink, I get to thinking about Sam and Wally and Chowderhead and Gilvey and the captain. If I don’t drink, I think about them, too, and then I take a drink. And that leads to another drink, and it all comes out to the same thing. Well, I guess I said it already, I drink a pretty good amount, but you can’t blame me.
There was a girl.
I always get a girl someplace. Usually they aren’t much and this one wasn’t either. I mean she was probably somebody’s mother. She was around thirty-five and not so bad, though she had a long scar under her ear down along her throat to the little round spot where her larynx was. It wasn’t ugly. She smelled nice—while I could still smell, you know—and she didn’t talk much. I liked that. Only—
Well, did you ever meet somebody with a nervous cough? Like when you say something funny—a little funny, not a big yock—they don’t laugh and they don’t stop with just smiling, but they sort of cough? She did that. I began to itch. I couldn’t help it. I asked her to stop it.
She spilled her drink and looked at me almost as though she was scared—and I had tried to say it quietly, too.
“Sorry,” she said, a little angry, a little scared. “Sorry. But you don’t have to—”
“Sure. But you asked me to sit down here with you, remember? If you’re going to—”
“Forget it!” I nodded at the bartender and held up two fingers. “You need another drink,” I said. “The thing is,” I said, “Gilvey used to do that.”
She looked puzzled. “You mean like this?”
“Goddam it, stop it!” Even the bartender looked over at me that time. Now she was really mad, but I didn’t want her to go away. I said, “Gilvey was a fellow who went to Mars with me. Pat Gilvey.”
“Oh.” She sat down again and leaned across the table, low. “Mars.”
The bartender brought our drinks and looked at me suspiciously. I said, “Say, Mac, would you turn down the air-conditioning?”
“My name isn’t Mac. No.”
“Have a heart. It’s too cold in here.”
“Sorry.” He didn’t sound sorry.
I was cold. I mean that kind of weather, it’s always cold in those places. You know around New York in August? It hits eighty, eighty-five, ninety. All the places have air-conditioning and what they really want is for you to wear a shirt and tie.
But I like to walk a lot. You would, too, you know. And you can’t walk around much in long pants and a suit coat and all that stuff. Not around there. Not in August. And so then, when I went into a bar, it’d have one of those built-in freezers for the used-car salesmen with their dates, or maybe their wives, all dressed up. For what? But I froze.
“Mars,” the girl breathed. “Mars.”
I began to itch again. “Want to dance?”
“They don’t have a license,” she said. “Byron, I didn’t know you’d been to Mars! Please tell me about it.”
“It was all right,” I said.
That was a lie.
She was interested. She forgot to smile. It made her look nicer. She said, “I knew a man—my brother-in-law—he was my husband’s brother—I mean my ex-husband—”
“I get the idea.”
“He worked for General Atomic. In Rockford, Illinois. You know where that is?”
“Sure.” I couldn’t go there, but I knew where Illinois was.
“He worked on the first Mars ship. Oh, fifteen years ago, wasn’t it? He always wanted to go himself, but he couldn’t pass the tests.” She stopped and looked at me.
I knew what she was thinking. But I didn’t always look this way, you know. Not that there’s anything wrong with me now, I mean, but I couldn’t pass the tests any more. Nobody can. That’s why we’re all one-trippers.
I said, “The only reason I’m shaking like this is because I’m cold.”
It wasn’t true, of course. It was that cough of Gilvey’s. I didn’t like to think about Gilvey, or Sam or Chowderhead or Wally or the captain. I didn’t like to think about any of them. It made me shake.
You see, we couldn’t kill each other. They wouldn’t let us do that. Before we took off, they did something to our minds to make sure. What they did, it doesn’t last forever. It lasts for two years and then it wears off. That’s long enough, you see, because that gets you to Mars and back; and it’s plenty long enough, in another way, because it’s like a strait-jacket.
You know how to make a baby cry? Hold his hands. It’s the most basic thing there is. What they did to us so we couldn’t kill each other, it was like being tied up, like having our hands held so we couldn’t get free. Well. But two years was long enough. Too long.
The bartender came over and said, “Pal, I’m sorry. See, I turned the air-conditioning down. You all right? You look so—”
I said, “Sure, I’m all right.”
He sounded worried. I hadn’t even heard him come back. The girl was looking worried, too, I guess because I was shaking so hard I was spilling my drink. I put some money on the table without even counting it.
“It’s all right,” I said. “We were just going.”
“We were?” She looked confused. But she came along with me. They always do, once they find out you’ve been to Mars.
In the next place, she said, between trips to the powder room, “It must take a lot of courage to sign up for something like that. Were you scientifically inclined in school? Don’t you have to know an awful lot to be a space-flyer? Did you ever see any of those little monkey characters they say live on Mars? I read an article about how they lived in little cities of pup-tents or something like that—only they didn’t make them, they grew them. Funny! Ever see those? That trip must have been a real drag, I bet. What is it, nine months? You couldn’t have a baby! Excuse me— Say, tell me. All that time, how’d you—well, manage things? I mean didn’t you ever have to go to the you-know or anything?”
“We managed,” I said.
She giggled, and that reminded her, so she went to the powder room again. I thought about getting up and leaving while she was gone, but what was the use of that? I’d only pick up somebody else.
It was nearly midnight. A couple of minutes wouldn’t hurt. I reached in my pocket for the little box of pills they give us—it isn’t refillable, but we get a new prescription in the mail every month, along with the pension check. The label on the box said:
Use only as directed by physician. Not to be taken by persons suffering heart condition, digestive upset or circulatory disease. Not to be used in conjunction with alcoholic beverages.
I took three of them. I don’t like to start them before midnight, but anyway I stopped shaking.
I closed my eyes, and then I was on the ship again. The noise in the bar became the noise of the rockets and the air washers and the sludge sluicers. I began to sweat, although this place was air-conditioned, too.
I could hear Wally whistling to himself the way he did, the sound muffled by his oxygen mask and drowned in the rocket noise, but still perfectly audible. The tune was Sophisticated Lady. Sometimes it was Easy to Love and sometimes Chasing Shadows, but mostly Sophisticated Lady. He was from Juilliard.
Somebody sneezed, and it sounded just like Chowderhead sneezing. You know how everybody sneezes according to his own individual style? Chowderhead had a ladylike little sneeze; it went hutta, real quick, all through the mouth, no nose involved. The captain went Hrasssh; Wally was Ashoo, ashoo, ashoo. Gilvey was Hutch-uh. Sam didn’t sneeze much, but he sort of coughed and sprayed, and that was worse.
Sometimes I used to think about killing Sam by tying him down and having Wally and the captain sneeze him to death. But that was a kind of a joke, naturally, when I was feeling good. Or pretty good. Usually I thought about a knife for Sam. For Chowderhead it was a gun, right in the belly, one shot. For Wally it was a tommy gun—just stitching him up and down, you know, back and forth. The captain I would put in a cage with hungry lions, and Gilvey I’d strangle with my bare hands. That was probably because of the cough, I guess.
She was back. “Please tell me about it,” she begged. “I’m so curious.”
I opened my eyes. “You want me to tell you about it?”
“About what it’s like to fly to Mars on a rocket?”
“All right,” I said.
It’s wonderful what three little white pills will do. I wasn’t even shaking.
“There’s six men, see? In a space the size of a Buick, and that’s all the room there is. Two of us in the bunks all the time, four of us on watch. Maybe you want to stay in the sack an extra ten minutes—because it’s the only place on the ship where you can stretch out, you know, the only place where you can rest without somebody’s elbow in your side. But you can’t. Because by then it’s the next man’s turn.
“And maybe you don’t have elbows in your side while it’s your turn off watch, but in the starboard bunk there’s the air-regenerator master valve—I bet I could still show you the bruises right around my kidneys—and in the port bunk there’s the emergency-escape-hatch handle. That gets you right in the temple, if you turn your head too fast.
“And you can’t really sleep, I mean not soundly, because of the noise. That is, when the rockets are going. When they aren’t going, then you’re in free-fall, and that’s bad, too, because you dream about falling. But when they’re going, I don’t know, I think it’s worse. It’s pretty loud.
“And even if it weren’t for the noise, if you sleep too soundly you might roll over on your oxygen line. Then you dream about drowning. Ever do that? You’re strangling and choking and you can’t get any air? It isn’t dangerous, I guess. Anyway, it always woke me up in time. Though I heard about a fellow in a flight six years ago—
“Well. So you’ve always got this oxygen mask on, all the time, except if you take it off for a second to talk to somebody. You don’t do that very often, because what is there to say? Oh, maybe the first couple of weeks, sure—everybody’s friends then. You don’t even need the mask, for that matter. Or not very much. Everybody’s still pretty clean. The place smells—oh, let’s see—about like the locker room in a gym. You know? You can stand it. That’s if nobody’s got space sickness, of course. We were lucky that way.
“But that’s about how it’s going to get anyway, you know. Outside the masks, it’s soup. It isn’t that you smell it so much. You kind of taste it, in the back of your mouth, and your eyes sting. That’s after the first two or three months. Later on, it gets worse.
“And with the mask on, of course, the oxygen mixture is coming in under pressure. That’s funny if you’re not used to it. Your lungs have to work a little bit harder to get rid of it, especially when you’re asleep, so after a while the muscles get sore. And then they get sorer. And then—
“Before we take off, the psych people give us a long doo-da that keeps us from killing each other. But they can’t stop us from thinking about it. And afterward, after we’re back on Earth—this is what you won’t read about in the articles—they keep us apart. You know how they work it? We get a pension, naturally. I mean there’s got to be a pension, otherwise there isn’t enough money in the world to make anybody go. But in the contract, it says to get the pension we have to stay in our own area.
“The whole country’s marked off. Six sections. Each has at least one big city in it. I was lucky, I got a lot of them. They try to keep it so every man’s home town is in his own section, but—well, like with us, Chowderhead and the captain both happened to come from Santa Monica. I think it was Chowderhead that got California, Nevada, all that Southwest area. It was the luck of the draw God knows what the captain got.
“Maybe New Jersey,” I said, and took another white pill.
We went on to another place and she said suddenly, “I figured something out. The way you keep looking around.”
“What did you figure out?”
“Well, part of it was what you said about the other fellow getting New Jersey. This is New Jersey. You don’t belong in this section, right?”
“Right,” I said after a minute.
“So why are you here? I know why. You’re here because you’re looking for somebody.”
She said triumphantly, “You want to find that other fellow from your crew! You want to fight him!”
I couldn’t help shaking, white pills or no white pills. But I had to correct her.
“No. I want to kill him.”
“How do you know he’s here? He’s got a lot of states to roam around in, too, doesn’t he?”
“Six. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland—all the way down to Washington.”
“Then how do you know—”
“He’ll be here.” I didn’t have to tell her how I knew. But I knew.
I wasn’t the only one who spent his time at the border of his assigned area, looking across the river or staring across a state line, knowing that somebody was on the other side. I knew. You fight a war and you don’t have to guess that the enemy might have his troops a thousand miles away from the battle line. You know where his troops will be. You know he wants to fight, too.
I spilled my drink.
I looked at her. “You—you didn’t—”
She looked frightened. “What’s the matter?”
“Did you just sneeze?”
“Sneeze? Me? Did I—”
I said something quick and nasty, I don’t know what. No! It hadn’t been her. I knew it.
It was Chowderhead’s sneeze.
CHOWDERHEAD. Marvin T. Roebuck, his name was. Five feet eight inches tall. Dark-complected, with a cast in one eye. Spoke with a Midwest kind of accent, even though he came from California—”shrick” for “shriek,” “hawror” for “horror,” like that. It drove me crazy after a while. Maybe that gives you an idea what he talked about mostly. A skunk. A thoroughgoing, deep-rooted, mother-murdering skunk.
I kicked over my chair and roared, “Roebuck! Where are you, damn you?”
The bar was all at once silent. Only the jukebox kept going.
“I know you’re here!” I screamed. “Come out and get it! You louse, I told you I’d get you for calling me a liar the day Wally sneaked a smoke!”
Silence, everybody looking at me.
Then the door of the men’s room opened.
He came out.
He looked lousy. Eyes all red-rimmed and his hair falling out—the poor crumb couldn’t have been over twenty-nine. He shrieked, “You!” He called me a million names. He said, “You thieving rat, I’ll teach you to try to cheat me out of my candy ration!”
He had a knife.
I didn’t care. I didn’t have anything and that was stupid, but it didn’t matter. I got a bottle of beer from the next table and smashed it against the back of a chair. It made a good weapon, you know; I’d take that against a knife any time.
I ran toward him, and he came all staggering and lurching toward me, looking crazy and desperate, mumbling and raving—I could hardly hear him, because I was talking, too. Nobody tried to stop us. Somebody went out the door and I figured it was to call the cops, but that was all right. Once I took care of Chowderhead, I didn’t care what the cops did.
I went for the face.
He cut me first. I felt the knife slide up along my left arm but, you know, it didn’t even hurt, only kind of stung a little. I didn’t care about that. I got him in the face, and the bottle came away, and it was all like gray and white jelly, and then blood began to spring out. He screamed. Oh, that scream! I never heard anything like that scream. It was what I had been waiting all my life for.
I kicked him as he staggered back, and he fell. And I was on top of him, with the bottle, and I was careful to stay away from the heart or the throat, because that was too quick, but I worked over the face, and I felt his knife get me a couple times more, and—
And I woke up, you know. And there was Dr. Santly over me with a hypodermic needle that he’d just taken out of my arm, and four male nurses in fatigues holding me down. And I was drenched with sweat.
For a minute, I didn’t know where I was. It was a horrible queasy falling sensation, as though the bar and the fight and the world were all dissolving into smoke around me.
Then I knew where I was.
It was almost worse.
I stopped yelling and just lay there, looking up at them.
Dr. Santly said, trying to keep his face friendly and noncommittal, “You’re doing much better, Byron, boy. Much better.”
I didn’t say anything.
He said, “You worked through the whole thing in two hours and eight minutes. Remember the first time? You were sixteen hours killing him. Captain Van Wyck it was that time, remember? Who was it this time?”
“Chowderhead.” I looked at the male nurses. Doubtfully, they let go of my arms and legs.
“Chowderhead,” said Dr. Santly. “Oh—Roebuck. That boy,” he said mournfully, his expression saddened, “he’s not coming along nearly as well as you. Nearly. He can’t run through a cycle in less than five hours. And, that’s peculiar, it’s usually you he— Well, I better not say that, shall I? No sense setting up a counter-impression when your pores are all open, so to speak?” He smiled at me, but he was a little worried in back of the smile.
I sat up. “Anybody got a cigarette?”
“Give him a cigarette, Johnson,” the doctor ordered the male nurse standing alongside my right foot.
Johnson did. I fired up.
“You’re coming along splendidly,” Dr. Santly said. He was one of these psych guys that thinks if you say it’s so, it makes it so. You know that kind? “We’ll have you down under an hour before the end of the week. That’s marvelous progress. Then we can work on the conscious level! You’re doing extremely well, whether you know it or not. Why, in six months—say in eight months, because I like to be conservative—” he twinkled at me—”we’ll have you out of here! You’ll be the first of your crew to be discharged, you know that?”
“That’s nice,” I said. “The others aren’t doing so well?”
“No. Not at all well, most of them. Particularly Dr. Gilvey. The run-throughs leave him in terrible shape. I don’t mind admitting I’m worried about him.”
“That’s nice,” I said, and this time I meant it.
He looked at me thoughtfully, but all he did was say to the male nurses, “He’s all right now. Help him off the table.”
It was hard standing up. I had to hold onto the rail around the table for a minute. I said my set little speech: “Dr. Santly, I want to tell you again how grateful I am for this. I was reconciled to living the rest of my life confined to one part of the country, the way the other crews always did. But this is much better. I appreciate it. I’m sure the others do, too.”
“Of course, boy. Of course.” He took out a fountain pen and made a note on my chart; I couldn’t see what it was, but he looked gratified. “It’s no more than you have coming to you, Byron,” he said. “I’m grateful that I could be the one to make it come to pass.”
He glanced conspiratorially at the male nurses. “You know how important this is to me. It’s the triumph of a whole new approach to psychic rehabilitation. I mean to say our heroes of space travel are entitled to freedom when they come back home to Earth, aren’t they?”
“Definitely,” I said, scrubbing some of the sweat off my face onto my sleeve.
“So we’ve got to end this system of designated areas. We can’t avoid the tensions that accompany space travel, no. But if we can help you eliminate harmful tensions with a few run-throughs, why, it’s not too high a price to pay, is it?”
“Not a bit.”
“I mean to say,” he said, warming up, “you can look forward to the time when you’ll be able to mingle with your old friends from the rocket, free and easy, without any need for restraint. That’s a lot to look forward to, isn’t it?”
“It is,” I said. “I look forward to it very much,” I said. “And I know exactly what I’m going to do the first time I meet one—I mean without any restraints, as you say,” I said. And it was true; I did. Only it wouldn’t be a broken beer bottle that I would do it with.
I had much more elaborate ideas than that.
N.T. Narbutovskih is a bestselling author and writes in the tech and security fields. His work has appeared in Metastellar, Air and Space Power Journal and Over the Horizon Journal for both fiction and non-fiction, and he has spoken on leadership and geopolitics at the USAF Squadron Officer School and NavyCON. His first book, Steel in the Blood, has received rave reviews and is available now wherever books are sold. Join his mailing list for exclusive early access and an opportunity to pre-order his next book at Narbutov.com.