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The Long Way Home

By Poul Anderson


The spaceship flashed out of superdrive and hung in a darkness that blazed with stars. For a moment there was silence, then:

“Where’s the sun?”

Edward Langley swiveled his pilot’s chair around. It was very still in the cabin, only the whisper of ventilators had voice, and he heard his heart thutter with an unnatural loud-ness. Sweat prickled his ribs, the air was hot.

“I... don’t know,” he said finally. The words fell hard and empty. There were screens on the control panel which gave him a view of the whole sky, he saw Andromeda and the Southern Cross and the great sprawl of Orion, but nowhere in that crystal black was the dazzle he had expected.

Weightlessness was like an endless falling.

“We’re in the general region, all right,” he went on after a minute. “The constellations are the same, more or less. But—” His tones faded out.

Four pairs of eyes searched the screens with hunger. Finally Matsumoto spoke. “Over here... in Leo... brightest star visible. Do you see it?”

They stared at the brilliant yellow spark. “It’s got the right color, I think,” said Blaustein. “But it’s an awful long ways off.”

After another pause he grunted impatiently and leaned over in his seat toward the spectroscope. He focused it carefully on the star, slipped in a plate of the solar spectrum, and punched a button on the comparison unit. No red light flashed.

“The same, right down to the Fraunhofer lines,” he declared. “Same intensity of each line to within a few quanta. That’s either Sol or his twin brother.”

“But how far off?” whispered Matsumoto.

Blaustein tuned in the photoelectric analyzer, read the answer off a dial, and whipped a slide rule through his fingers. “About a third of a light-year,” he said. “Not too far.”

“Much too far,” grunted Matsumoto. “We should’a come out within one A. U. on the nose. Don’t tell me the engine’s gone haywire again.”

“Looks that way, don’t it?” murmured Langley. His hands moved toward the controls. “Shall I try jumping her in close?”

“No,” said Matsumoto. “If our positioning error is this bad, one more hop may land us right inside the sun.”

“Which’d be almost like landing in hell or Texas,” said Langley. He grinned, though there was an inward sickness at his throat. “O. K., boys, you might as well go aft and start overhauling that rattletrap. The sooner you find the trouble, the sooner we can get back home.”

They nodded, unbuckled themselves, and swung out of the pilot room. Langley sighed.

“Nothing you or I can do but wait, Saris,” he said.

The Holatan made no answer. He never spoke unnecessarily. His huge sleek-furred body was motionless in the acceleration couch they had jury-rigged for him, but the eyes were watchful. There was a faint odor about him, not unpleasing, a hint of warm sunlit grass within a broad horizon. He seemed out of place in this narrow metal coffin, he belonged under an open sky, near running water.

Langley’s thoughts strayed. A third of a light-year. It’s not too much. I’ll come back to you, Peggy, if I have to crawl all the way on my belly.

Setting the ship on automatic, against the unlikely event of a meteor, Langley freed himself from his chair. “It shouldn’t take them too long,” he said. “They’ve got it down to a science, dismantling that pile of junk. Meanwhile, care for some chess?”

Saris Hronna and Robert Matsumoto were the Explorer’s chess fiends, they had spent many hours hunched over the board, and it was a strange thing to watch them: a human whose ancestors had left Japan for America and a creature from a planet a thousand light-years distant, caught in the trap of some ages-dead Persian. More than the gaping emptinesses he had traversed, more than the suns and planets he had seen spinning through darkness and vacuum, it gave Langley a sense of the immensity and omnipotence of time.

“No, t’ank you.” The fangs gleamed white as mouth and throat formed a language they were never meant for. “I would rather this new and surprissing dewelopment consider.”

Langley shrugged. Even after weeks of association, he had not grown used to the Holatan character—the same beast of prey which had quivered nose to spoor down forest trails, sitting as hours went by with dreamy eyes and a head full of incomprehensible philosophy. But it no longer startled him.

“O. K., son,” he said. “I’ll write up the log, then.” He pushed against the wall with one foot and shot out the doorway and along a narrow hall. At the end, he caught himself by a practiced hand, swung around a post into a tiny room, and hooked his legs to a light chair bolted in front of a desk.

The log lay open, held by the magnetism of its thin iron backstrap. With an idleness that was a fight against his own furious impatience, the man leafed through it.

Title page: United States Department of Astronautics, I/S Explorer, experimental voyage begun 25 June 2047. Mission: development of the superdrive; secondary mission: gathering information about other stars and their hypothetical planets.


Captain and pilot: Edward Langley, age 32, home address Laramie, Wyoming; graduate of Goddard Academy, rank of captain in the Astronautic Service, spaceman since his late teens. Long record as pilot of exploratory trips, including the Mercury run. Medal of Merit for heroism in Ares rescue. (Hell, somebody had to do it, and if they knew how scared I was at the time-)

Engineer and electronician: Robert Matsumoto, age 26, home address Honolulu, Hawaii, former space-force marine, present rank A/S lieutenant. Work on Luna, Mars, Venus; inventor of improved fuel injector and oxygen recycler.

Physicist: James Blaustein, age 27, home address Rochester, New York, civilian. Work on Luna for the A. E. C. Politically active. Major contributions to physical theory, creator of several experimental systems for testing same.

Biologist: Thomas Forelli—Well, Tom is dead. He died on that unknown planet we thought was safe, and nobody knows what he died of—disease, acute allergy, any of a thousand deaths that a billion years of alien evolution could prepare for creatures from Earth. We buried him there, committed his soul to a God who somehow seemed very far away from that green sky and talking red grass, and went on. It’s going to be hard to tell his people.

Langley’s eyes raised themselves to the photograph above the desk. The red-haired girl smiled at him across a mist of years and leagues. Peggy, darling, he thought, I’m coming home.

She would have grown thin, poor kid, and though she said nothing there would be an emptiness of long nights within her, and she would often hold their child—the child he had never seen—close to her. Spacemen had no right to get married. Still less did they have a right to venture beyond the sun, riding a witch’s broom of a ship whose engine no one really understood. But when the offer came to Langley, she had seen the enormous hunger in his eyes and told him to go. Pregnant and unsure, she had still given him to the high stars and herself to aloneness.

“O wha is this has done this deed, And tauld the king o’ me, To send us out, at this time of the year, To sail upon the sea?”

None but myself, he thought.

Well, this was the last time. He was getting too old for the work, his strength and speed imperceptibly lessened, and there was a lot of pay and bonuses saved up. He’d come home—incredibly, he would be home again!—and they’d settle down on the ranch and raise pure-bred horses, and at night he would look up to the wheeling constellations and smoke his pipe and trade a friendly wink with Arcturus.