A Tall Ship...

by Colin Barrett

Copyright© 2014 by Colin Barrett

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

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

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.

And maybe it was in his head even then, what he was going to do. Maybe not, too, I can't say. I didn't know him then, not till he got pretty far along and hired me, just fresh out of high school, to work in his garden and his big house. And then it wasn't for a few years after that, while we got to know each other in little bits and pieces, that he really started talking anything much to me.

First time, I remember it a lot, it was late one night after he'd had a bunch of people in for the kind of party he used to have—political bigwigs and corporate hotshots and that. I was helping out in the kitchen and cleaning up and all that night, the way it was my job, and pretty soon the other help had all left or gone to bed and the work was about done and I started to head off to my room, pretty tired. But first I went to check the locks, and I passed his study and he was just sitting there staring at a big globe he had there, and since he was my boss I thought I ought to make sure he didn't need nothing so I asked him.

"Certainly, Will," he told me—I can still hear him saying the words, they struck me so. "Certainly. What I need is a tall ship and a star to steer her to. To steer her to, Will. Can you get me that?"

Well, of course I couldn't. But what I could do was listen to him if that was what he wanted, and he pretty sure did. I don't claim to be that bright, but I can listen to people and hear what they're saying all right—anybody can, if only they'll take the time and make the effort, which most people won't because they're too busy with themselves. And he was a good boss, and I thought a pretty good man, too, even then, and if he wanted to talk I'd give him all the ear I had to give. And that's what I did, and he talked and he talked and then it was morning and the sun already up.

Some of what he said that night I've already told. And he said a lot more, too, about people and going to the Moon and to space and a lot of other stuff. Every once in a while he'd get up and go to the bar and pour out just a little more brandy—not getting drunk, you know, just enough to keep him going like he was, just sipping and talking. Mostly what I did was listen, just every once in a while saying maybe a word or two so he'd know I was still hearing him. But tired as I was, I never got sleepy, not for a minute. He was "a spellbinding man," they used to say in the magazines and the newspapers and the TV, and that's why he got so far as he did in business, I guess, and anyway he surely spellbound me that night.

"We can't give up our future like this!" he said, just about shouting. "Human history has been the saga of growth, in the spirit and the body. Now we're trying to say we've grown enough for now, we must stand still and take stock. Take stock! Will, the only way you can ever take stock is to close your doors to count up your inventory—and while you're counting you're turning away customers, turning away opportunities. So in business you take stock damned fast, because the longer you take the more of those customers, the more of those opportunities will walk away and never come back. But the human race keeps taking stock and taking stock and taking stock, while opportunities, and even the spirit to take advantage of opportunities, dwindles away."

And later on:

"I don't want to go into space just 'because it's there.' Hillary said that about Everest, and he was an ass. You don't go anywhere or do anything because of what it is, you do it because of what you are. And because if you don't do it you can't remain who you are; inevitably, sooner or later, you'll diminish to less than you are, less than you could be, and eventually to nothing at all. I want to go to space because of who we are, we human beings, and because I want us to keep on being who we are as a living species."

He said a lot of things that night, and later on other nights when we had other talks. That night somehow brought us a lot closer together, I guess, and every once in a time he'd call me in and we'd talk some more, or he'd talk and I'd listen. That's how I came to call him Johnny; he asked me to one time, said it made him feel better, and it was awkward at first but after a while it seemed natural. Things happen that way, I guess, you get comfortable doing them after a while even when they're strange at first.

Even after we'd started talking sort of regular, like that, it was quite a time before he told me what he was up to. It had already been going on, in kind of a small way, for a good while before that first night, but he was keeping it private. And he had pretty good success in keeping it private for a long time, as I guess you know by now.

See, even when they stopped going to the Moon they didn't just throw away everything to do with space. There was a lot of satellites that had to be kept going, and replaced when they wore out or fixed when they got broke. Military satellites for spying and things, and communications satellites for the TV and the telephone and the Internet and all, and weather satellites to look at the clouds and say what was going to happen, and so on.

"The technology's still in place, Will!" Johnny'd tell me. "It's still there, ready to be tooled up! We could go tomorrow if we wanted, if we had the will and the desire. We could—but we won't, not tomorrow or the next day or perhaps ever at all."

That's what Johnny aimed to change. By then he was already president of the company, and he had charge of a lot of Defense contracts for space and other things. And he started stealing.

Not stealing money, he had plenty of that. Not stealing things, either, though I guess there had to be some of that involved. But what he was mainly stealing was ideas, the ideas that came out of the work the company was doing. He wanted them for himself, to help him reach that dream he'd had ever since he was twelve. It's always seemed sort of silly to me that ideas could be secrets, could have to be stolen, but that's the way it was and still is. And Johnny was stealing them left, right and sideways, taking everything he needed and starting to build that tall ship he wanted to take him to the stars.

You know, you can't do very much in secret these days, not without you're pretty damn smart. People have to get involved, because things today are too complicated to do all yourself, and those people talk too much, and pretty soon the wrong people find out and the whole world comes down all over you like dandruff. But what you can do, you can break things down into little pieces, and get each person to do just the one piece and not let him know how it fits with the other pieces or even that there are any other pieces. And you can get pretty far down the line before anybody really wises up to what's going on. You got to be awful smart and a little bit lucky to get away with it and still get anything really done, but Johnny was all of that. Bit by bit, piece by piece, he was starting to put that ship together.

I couldn't do much but sit there and stare at him like a fool when he told me about it the first time. I still don't know why he told me; there wasn't any "need to know," which was how he was working the thing. Maybe he just had to tell somebody and figured I'd be the best and the safest person to tell. He knew by then for pretty good sure that I wouldn't go blabbing it around to anybody. By that time I guess he knew me as well as anybody could know anybody, and I'm pretty sure he knew that I loved him, and maybe that was enough.

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