A Tall Ship...

by Colin Barrett

Tags: Science Fiction, Science fiction story, sci-fi story, science-fiction Adult story, sci-fi short story, sci-fi space story

Desc: Science Fiction Short Story: Short story, the exploration of space

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking,

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

John Masefield

They stopped going to the Moon after a while because it cost too much.

Better uses for the money here at home, they said. I guess they had a point, too; things sure don't seem real good any place you look, with people starving and dying of all kinds of diseases and killing each other for no real reason and always more and more people. And it didn't seem like there was much on the Moon, or anywhere else they got to, that was going to do much good for the people here on Earth.

Sure, there was some didn't agree—always is, it seems, no matter what's being decided. Some people come down one way, some another, you always got disagreement. Maybe too much disagreement. Johnny always said human beings is "a contentious lot," that's the words he'd use. Maybe too contentious for their own good, he'd say; maybe too much disagreeing and arguing and fighting for things to be going on much longer, now we've found ways of fighting can end pretty much everything for good. But that's human nature, he'd say; it's what makes human beings great as much as it's what makes them bad, you got to take it both ways.

Johnny was one of the ones that disagreed, about space I mean. He wanted to go back out there, go to the Moon and the planets and the stars even. Man, he wanted that! He never could understand why everybody didn't want the same thing he did, didn't want to go no matter how much it cost. It was the way he was, that's all. Maybe it's like that for everybody, think everyone else ought to want the same as they do and can't understand it when they want different.

He used to tell me about when they first went to the Moon back in 1969. Johnny would of been about twelve then, just a boy dreaming the dreams boys dream and excited beyond anything he could say at watching one of those dreams happen right in front of his eyes. They took a TV camera along with them for that first landing, and the TV camera was the first thing out of the spaceship after it settled down, and they sent pictures back to Earth where everybody could watch the whole thing.

Doesn't really sound to me like there was all that much to see. They got out, first Armstrong and then that other guy, Buzz somebody, and walked around some in their spacesuits, and then they got back in and just left the camera there showing the same picture hour after hour, nothing moving of course and nothing happening. But Johnny told me he sat there watching that picture till the TV station finally turned it off at three or four in the morning. It wasn't the picture, see, it was that it came from a spaceship that had landed on the Moon for the first time, and what kept Johnny watching was what was in his mind, not what was in the picture. He used to tell me that was the kind of thing made people special, that the ideas in their heads can count for more than what's going on in front of their eyes.

Anyhow, they made a few more trips to the Moon with some other guys, and did a few things. One fellow even hit a golf ball up there. Maybe that'll give you an idea why they quit going, if they didn't have anything to do but stupid stuff like that.

"And do you know what happened to the people who went to the Moon?" Johnny would ask me. "To the people who participated in the greatest human adventure in history?"

I'd always tell him no, I didn't. Hell, after the first few times he said it I could of give you chapter and verse. But he wanted to say it, again and again, it was his way of getting stuff off his chest. And you see, I loved Johnny; if it was what he wanted to say, I wanted to hear it, no matter how many times.

"The first man to step out on the Moon," he'd go on, "the first man to walk where no other human being, no other living creature, had ever walked before, he came back and became a college professor! It was almost as though it never happened, that he'd never been on another world. And Aldring (I forget what the hell his name was, the Buzz guy), he at least had a little better sense of history and meaning than that; it took him years after he came back to get himself readjusted. But he finally did it. The trouble was, I think he was saner before he 'readjusted' than afterwards. How is it possible to readjust yourself to being just another human being, another cog in the machine of meaningless existence, after you've taken part in the greatest adventure of all time?"

That's the way Johnny used to talk. He'd go on about some of the others who'd been on those trips to the Moon back then, how they'd gone into politics or business or something. I guess you figure they did OK for themselves, and I do too, kind of; what else was there for them to do but get back to the business of living and doing like everyone else? But Johnny'd keep wondering how they could go on to ordinary lives after they'd stood on the Moon and looked down at that little blob in the sky that was the whole Earth. And then when one of them went back a lot of years later, that Glenn guy who was a Senator, Johnny knew he was right, that it was forever for them.

Like I said, Johnny was twelve or so when that first landing on the Moon happened. That's what they call a pretty impressionable age, and the whole thing sure impressed the holy hell out of Johnny; he never really got over it. When he grew up, he was sure, he'd go to the Moon himself, or maybe Mars or Venus or one of the other planets, or maybe even the stars.

But then they sent some machines to Mars and found it was just about like the Moon, with only the littlest bit of air which you couldn't of breathed even if there was more of it, and nothing alive at all—not even germs or microbes or nothing. And they sent some more machines to Venus and it turned out to be nothing but hellfire and brimstone, hot as a sonofabitch and sulfuric acid all over and dead too. And Mercury was dead, like the Moon only a lot hotter, and Jupiter and Saturn were just big gobs of gas with nothing much solid at all about them, and Uranus and Neptune and Pluto, all dead, dead, dead. Even the stars, they had all these fancy radio receivers and telescopes, stuff so sensitive you could hear a louse itch a million miles away, all pointing to the stars, and they couldn't hear a damn thing. All of space seemed like it was dead.

And there was this economics stuff. People kept saying to wait till we got our own problems settled before we spill money on things that don't have any real value for people, until after a while nobody but crackpots put up much of an argument, at least in public. And things never did seem to get settled down properly on Earth so we could get back to exploring in space; there was always something else needed or wanted, always more mouths to feed and it was always tougher to feed them all.

So that was pretty well that. Time Johnny got up old enough to go anywhere in space, nobody was going any more except just right around Earth or purely machines further than that; like the astronauts, everybody'd got busy with things here at home and that's what they were going to stick to for as long ahead as anybody was looking. Johnny'd come along too late; he wasn't going to get to go.

"It's nonsense!" he'd yell at me, like I was the one who was making the decisions. "Human beings don't need just material things! What about dreams, what about adventures, what about the future? What happens when we've plumbed the depths of our own planet, and of ourselves? Men have always lived for the next step, the next rung up the ladder. In the ages when people didn't think that way, societies crumbled; they sat back safely behind their borders and ultimately died of spiritual putrefaction. We're deliberately choosing the same fate for ourselves, only this time we're consigning the whole race to stagnation."

That's how he talked, did Johnny. To me, anyhow, after he'd maybe had a few, late in the night when he had to let it out before it ate him up.

In public he was different, of course. John T. Candelier, president and chairman of the board of one of the biggest companies in the whole world, all sober and straight and saying all the right things everybody wanted to hear. But if you want to know what was really in his head, that was it, what I been saying, whether you believe it or whether you don't.

See, when he finally got used to the idea that he wasn't ever going to make it out in space, not to the Moon or anywhere else much, he turned to other stuff. Had a lot of energy, Johnny did, and a lot of smarts; he put his mind to something, no matter what it was, he did pretty well at it. Pretty damn well.

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