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A figure edged along the narrow corridor, his cushioned feet barely touching the floor. In the timeless interior of the spaceship where there was no change between day and night, Travis had had to wait a long time for this particular moment. His brown hands, too thin nowadays, played with the fastening of his belt. Under that was a gnawing ache which never left him now.
They had stretched their water supply with strict rationing, and the concentrate bars the same way. But tomorrowor in the next waking period they would arbitrarily label "tomorrow"they would have only four of those small squares. And Travis was keenly aware not only of that indisputable fact but of something which Ross had said when they had argued out the need for experiment with alien food supplies.
"Case Renfry," the younger time agent had pointed out the obvious, "is certainly not going to be your tester. If we are ever going to be able to find out what makes this bus tick and get it started home again, he's the one to do it. And, chief"he had then turned upon Ashe"you've the best brainit's up to you to help him. Maybe somewhere in this loot we've found you can locate a manual, or a do-it-yourself tape that'll give us a fair break."
They had been pulling over the material they had found in the cabins. Objects such as the disappearing picture were set aside on the hope that Ashe, with his archaeologist's training in the penetration of age-old mysteries, might understand them through study.
"Which," Ross had continued, "leaves the food problem up to a volunteerme."
Travis had remained quiet, but he had also made plans. He had already followed Ross's reasoning to a logical end, but his conclusion differed from Murdock's. Of the four men on board he, not Murdock, was certainly the most expendable. And the history of his people testified that Apaches possessed remarkably tough digestions. They had been able to live off a land where other races starved. Sohe was now engaged in his own private project.
Last sleep period he had tackled the first container chosen from the supply cupboard, the one which had sloshed when shaken. He had swallowed two large mouthfuls of a sickly sweet substance with the consistency of stew. And, while the taste had not been pleasant, Travis had suffered no discomfort afterward. Now he chose a small round can, prying off the lid quickly while listening for any warning from the corridor.
He had left Ross asleep in the small cabin they shared and had looked in upon Renfry and Ashe before he made this trek. There was so little time and he had to wait a reasonable period between each tasting.
Travis wanted a drink, but he knew better than to take one. He had palmed his concentrate bar at the last "meal," held the canteen to his mouth but not drunk, keeping his stomach empty. Now he studied his new selection with disgust.
It was a brown jelly that quivered slightly with the movement of the cylinder in his hand, its surface reflecting the light. Using the edge of the lid as an improvised spoon, Travis ladled a portion into his mouth. Unlike the stew, the stuff had little flavor, though he did not relish the greasy feel on his tongue. He swallowed, took a second helping. Then he chose a third samplea square box. He would wait. If there were no ill effects from the jellythen this. If he could prove four or five of these different containers held food the humans could stomach, they might have enough to outlast the voyage.
He did not return to his bunk. The magnetic bottoms of each container clung to the surface of the table, just as the thick soles of his suit feet clung to the walking surfaces in the ship when he planted them firmly. They had all adapted in a measure to the lack of gravity and the actual conditions of space flight. But Travis had a struggle to conceal his dislike of the ship itself, of the confinement forced upon them. And now, to sit alone brought him a fraction of comfort, for he dared to relax that strict control.
He had enjoyed the venture into time. The prehistoric world had been an open wilderness he could understand. But the ship was different. It seemed to him that the taint of death still clung to its small cabins, narrow corridors, and ladders. The very alienness of it was a menace far more acute than a sabertooth or a charging mammoth.
Once he had believed that he wanted to know more about the Old Ones. He had wanted to probe the mysteries which could be deduced from bits of broken pottery or an arrowhead pried from a dust-filled crevice. But those Old Ones had been distantly akin to him; those who had built this ship were not. For a moment or two his claustrophobia welled up, shaking his control, making him want to batter the walls about him with his fists, to beat his way out of this shell into the light, the air, into freedom.
But outside these walls there was no light, no air, and only the freedom of vacuumor of the mysterious hyperspace that canceled the distance between the stars. Travis fought his imagination. He could not face that picture of the ship hanging in emptiness without even the frigid points of light to mark the starswhere there was nothing solid and stable.
The travelers could only hope that sometime they would reach the home port for which the dying alien pilot had set controls. But that course had been set twelve thousandperhaps moreyears ago. What port would they find waiting beyond the wall of time? Twelve-fifteen thousand years . . . These were figures too great for ordinary comprehension. At that time on earth, the first mud-walled villages had not yet been built, nor the first patch of grain sown to turn man from a wandering hunter into a householder. What had the Apache been thenand the white man? Roving hunters with skill in spear and knife and chasing game. Yet at that time the aliens had produced this ship, voyaged space, not only between the planets of a single system, but from star to star!
Travis tried to think of their future, but his thoughts kept sliding back to his craving for open space. He yearned to stand under the sun with windyes, even a desert wind hot and laden with gritblowing against him. That longing was as acute as a paina pain!
His hands went to his middle. A sudden thrust of pure agony that rent him was not born out of any homesickness. The cramping was physical and very real. He bent half double, trying to ease that hot clawing in his insides as the cabin misted before his eyes. Then the stab was gone, and he straighteneduntil it caught him again. This was it. His luck at his second attempt with the alien food was bad.
Somehow he got to his feet, lurching against the table as a third bout of cramps caught him. The torture ebbed, leaving his hands and face wet. And in the few moments before the next pang he made it halfway along the corridor, reaching the haven he sought just as his outraged stomach finally revolted.
Travis would not have believed that two mouthfuls of a greasy jelly could so weaken a man. He pulled his spent body back to the mess cabin, dropping limply into a chair. More than anything now he wanted water, to cleanse the foulness from his mouth, to slake the burning in his throat. The canteens mocked him for he dare not take one up, knowing just how little of the precious liquid still remained.
For a while he hunched over the table, weakly glad of his freedom from pain. Then he drew the can of jelly to him. This must be marked poisonous. Only two containers had been testedand how many more would prove impossible?
Only five concentrate bars were left, counting the one he had hidden that day. Nothing was going to multiply that five into tenor into two hundred. If they were to survive the voyage of unknown duration, they must use some of this other food. But Travis could not control the shaking of his hands as he worked to free the lid of the square box. Maybe he was rushing things, taking another sample so soon after the disastrous effects of the other. But he knew that if he did not, right now, he might not be able to force himself to the third attempt later.
The lid came free and he saw inside dry squares of red. To his questing finger these had the texture of something between bread and a harder biscuit. He raised the can to sniff. For the first time the odor was faintly familiar. Tortillas paper-thin and crisp from the baking had an aroma not unlike this. And because the cakes did arouse pleasant memories, Travis bit into one with more eagerness than he would have believed possible moments earlier.
The stuff crumbled between his teeth like corn bread, and he thought the flavor was much the same, in spite of the unusual color. He chewed and swallowed. And the mouthful, dry as it was, appeared to erase the burning left by the jelly. The taste was so good that he ventured to take more than a few bites, finishing the first cake and then a second. Finally, still holding the box in one hand, he slumped lower in his seat, his eyes closing as his worn body demanded rest.
He was riding. There was the entrance to Red Horse Canyon, and the scent of juniper was in the air. A bird flew uphis eyes followed that free flight. An eagle! The bird of power, ascending far up into a cloudless sky. But suddenly the sky was no longer blue, but black with a blackness not born of night. It was black, and caught in it were stars. The stars grew swiftly largerbecause he was being drawn up into the blackness where there were only stars . . .
Travis opened heavy-lidded eyes, looked up foggily at a blue figure. Looming over him was a thin, drawn face, slight hollows marked the cheeks, dark smudges under cold gray eyes.
"Ross!" The Apache lifted his head from his arm, wincing at the painful crick in his back.
The other sat down across the table, glanced from the array of supply containers to Travis and back again.
"So this is what you've been doing!" There was accusation in his tone, almost a note of outrage.
"You said yourself it was a job for the most expendable."
"Trying to be a hero on the quiet!" Now the accusation was plain and hot.
"Not much of a one." Travis rested his chin on his fist and considered the containers lined up before him. "I've sampled three so farexactly three."
Ross's eyelids flickered down. His usual control was back in place, though Travis did not doubt the antagonism was still eating at him.
"With what results?"
"Number one"Travis indicated the proper can"too sweet, kind of a stewbut it stays with you in spite of the taste. This is number two." He tapped the tin of brown jelly. "I'd say its only use was to get rid of wolves. This"he cradled the can of red cakes"is really good."
"How long have you been at it?"
"I tried one last sleep period, two this."
"Poison, eh?" Ross picked up the tin of jelly, inspecting its contents.
"If it isn't poison, it puts up a good bluff," Travis shot back a little heatedly, stung by the suggestion of skepticism.
Ross set it down. "I'll take your word for it," he conceded. "What about this little number?" He had arisen to stand before the cupboard, and now he turned, holding a shallow, round canister. It was hard to open, but at last they looked at some small dark balls in yellow sauce.
"D'you know, those might just be beans," Ross observed. "I've yet to see any service ship where beans in some form or other didn't turn up on the menu. Let's see if they eat like beans." He scooped up a good mouthful and chewed thoughtfully. "BeansnoI'd say they taste more like cabbagewhich had been spiced up a bit. But not bad, not bad at all!"
Travis found himself nursing a small wicked desire to have the cabbage-beans do their worst to Ross, not with as devastating results as the jellyhe wouldn't wish that on anyone! But if they would just make themselves felt enough to prove to Murdock that food testing was not as easy as all that . . .
"Waiting for them to turn me inside out?" Ross grinned.
Travis flushed and then the stain spread and deepened on his cheeks as he realized how he had given himself away. He pushed the cracker-bread to one side and got up to select with inwardif not outwarddefiance a tall cylinder which sloshed as he pried at its cap.
"Misery loves company," Ross continued. "What does that smell like?"
Travis had been encouraged by his discovery of the bread. He sniffed hopefully at the cone opening, then snatched the holder away from his nose as a white froth began to puff out.
"Maybe you have the push-button soap," Ross commented unhelpfully. "Give the stuff a lick, fella, you have only one stomach to lose for your country."
Travis, so goaded, lickedsuspicious and expecting something entirely unpalatable. But, to his surprise, though it was sweet, the froth was not so sickly as the stew had been. Rather, the result on the tongue was refreshing, carrying satisfaction for his craving for water. He gulped a bigger mouthful and sat waiting, a little tensely, for fireworks to begin inside him.
"Good?" Ross inquired. "Well, your luck can't be rotten all the time."
"This luck is mixed." Travis capped the foam which had continued to boil wastefully from the bottle. "We're aliveand we're still traveling."
"Traveling is right. A little more information as to our destination would be useful and comfortingor the reverse."
"The world the builders of this ship owned can't be too different from ours," Travis repeated observations made earlier by Ashe. "We can breathe their air without discomfort, and maybe eat some of their food."
"Twelve thousand years . . . D'you know, I can say that but I can't make it mean anything real." Ross's hostility had either vanished or been submerged. "You say the words but you can't stretch your imagination to make them picture something for youor do you know what I mean?" he challenged.
Travis, rasped on an ancient raw spot, schooled his temper before he replied. "A little. I did four years at State U. There's more to us than beads and feathers."
Ross glanced up, a flicker of puzzlement in those cold gray eyes.
"I didn't mean it like thatfor what it's worth." Then he smiled and for the first time there was nothing superior or sardonic in that expression. "Want the whole truth, fella? I picked up what education I had before I went into the Project the hard wayno State U. But you studied the chief's racketarchaeologydidn't you?"
"Sowhat does twelve thousand years mean to you? You deal with time in big doses, don't you?"
"That's a long span on our world, jumps one clear back to the cave period."
"Yeahbefore they put up the pyramids of Egyptbefore they learned to read and write. Well, twelve thousand years ago, these blue boys had the stars for theirs. But I'm betting they haven't kept them! There hasn't been a single country on our world, not even China, that has had a form of civilization lasting that long. Up they climb and then" he snapped his fingers. "It's kaput for them, and another top dog takes over the power. So maybe when we get to this port Renfry believes we're homing for, we'll find nothing, or else someone else waiting for us there. You can bet one way or another and have a good chance of winning on either count. Only, if we do find nothingthen maybe our number's up for sure."
Travis had to accept the logic of that. Suppose they did come into a port which had ceased to exist, set down on a strange world from which they could not lift again because they had not the skill to pilot the ship. They would be exiles for the rest of their lives in a space uncharted by their kind.
"We're not dead yet," Travis said.
Ross laughed. "In spite of all our efforts? Nothat's our private battle cry, I think. As long as a man's alive he's going to keep kicking. But it would be good to know just how long we're going to be shut up in this ship." His usual flippancy of tone thinned at that last remark as if his carefully cultivated self-sufficiency was beginning to show the slimmest of cracks.
In the end their experiments with the food were partially successful. The crackers Travis continued to label "corn"; the foam and Ross's cabbage-beans could be digested by a human being without difficulty. And they added to that list a sticky paste with the consistency of jam and a flavor approaching bacon, and another cake-like object which, despite a sour tang that puckered the mouth, was still edible. Greatly daring, Travis tapped the aliens' water supply and drank. Though the liquid had an unpleasant metallic aftertaste, it was not harmful.
In addition the younger members of the involuntary crew made themselves useful in the cautious investigations carried on by Ashe and Renfry. The technician was in an almost constant state of frustration during the hours he spent in the control cabin trying to study machines he dared not activate or dismantle for the fuller examination he longed to make. Travis was seated behind him one morningat least it was ten o'clock by Renfry's watch, their only method of time-keepingwhen there was a change to report, to report and take action on.
A shrill buzz pierced the usual silence, beeping what must be a warning. Renfry grabbed at the small mike of the ship's com circuit.
"Strap down!" He rasped the order with rising excitement. "There's an alert sounding herewe may be coming in to land. Strap down!"
Travis grabbed at the protecting bands on his chair. Below they must be scrambling for the bunks. There was vibration againhe was sure he could not mistake that. The ship no longer felt inert and driftingshe was coming alive.
What followed was again beyond his powers of description. It came in two stages, the first a queasy whirl of sensation not far removed from what they had experienced when the ship had been whirled through the time transfer. Limp from that, Travis lay back, watching the screen which had been blank for so long. And when his eyes caught what was now appearing there, he gave a cry of recognition.
"That's the sun!"
A point of blazing yellow set a beacon in the black of space.
"A sun," Renfry corrected. "We've made the big hop. Now it's the homestretchinto the system . . ."
That blaze of yellow-red was already sliding away from the screen. Travis had an impression that the ship must be slowly rotating. Now that the brighter glare of the sun was gone he could pick up a smaller dot, far smaller than the sun which nurtured it. That held steady on the screen.
"Something tells me, boy," Renfry said in a small and hesitant voice, "that's where we're going."
"Earth?" A warm surge of hope spread through Travis.
"An earth maybebut not ours."
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