Niven, Larry - Rammer

By Rick Stone,2014-09-10 20:43
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Niven, Larry - Rammer



    Larry Niven

     I Once there was a dead man. He had been waiting for two hundred years inside a coffin whose outer shell held liquid nitrogen. There were frozen clumps of cancer all through his frozen body. He had had it bad. He was waiting for medical science to find him a cure. He waited in vain. Most varieties of cancer could be cured now, but no cure existed for the billions of cell walls ruptured by expanding crystals of ice. He had known the risk when he took it and had gambled anyway. Why not?. He‟d been dying. The vaults held millions of frozen bodies. Why not? They‟d been dying. Later there was a criminal. His name is forgotten and his crime is a secret, but it must have been a terrible one. The State wiped his personality for it. Afterward he was a dead man: still warm, still breathing, even reasonably healthybut empty. The State had use for an empty man. Corbett woke on a hard table, aching as if he had slept too long in one position. He started incuriously at a white ceiling.

    Memories floated back to him of a double-walled coffin and sleep and pain.

The pain was gone.

He sat up at once.

And flapped his arms wildly for balance. Everything felt wrong. His arms would not swing right. His body was too light. His head

    bobbed strangely on a thin neck. He reached frantically for the nearest support, which turned out to be a blond young man in a white

    jumpsuit. Corbett missed - his arms were shorter than he had expected. He toppled to his side, shook his head and sat up more


His arms. Scrawny, knobbyand not his.

The man in the jumpsuit asked, “Are you all right?”

    “Yah,” said Corbett. His throat was rusty, but that was all right. His new body didn‟t fit, but it didn‟t seem to have cancer, either. “What‟s the date? How long has it been?”

A quick recovery. The checker gave him a plus. “Twenty-one ninety, your dating. You won‟t have to worry about our dating.”

That sounded ominous. Cautiously Corbett postponed the obvious question: What‟s happened to me? and asked instead, “Why


“You won‟t be joining our society.”

“No? What, then?”

“Several professions are open to you—a limited choice. If you don‟t qualify for any of them we‟ll try someone else.”

Corbett sat on the edge of the hard operating table. His body seemed younger, more limber, definitely thinner. He was acutely

    aware that his abdomen did not hurt no matter how he moved.

He asked, “And what happens to me?”

“I‟ve never learned how to answer that question. Call it a matter of metaphysics,” said the checker. “Let me detail what‟s happened

    to you so far and then you can decide for yourself.”

There was an empty man. Still breathing and as healthy as most of society in the year twenty-one ninety. But empty. The electrical

    patterns in the brain, the worn paths of nervous reflexes; the memories, the personality of the man had all been wiped away.

And there was this frozen thing.

“Your newspapers called you people “corpsicles,” said the blond man. “I never understood what the tapes meant by that.”

    “It comes from popsicle. Frozen sherbet.” Corbett had used the word himself before he had become one of them. One of the corpsicles, frozen dead.

    Frozen within a corpsicle‟s frozen brain were electrical patterns that could be recorded. The process would warm the brain and destroy most of the patterns, but that hardly mattered, because other things must be done too.

Personality was not all in the brain. Memory RNA was concentrated in the brain, but it ran all through the nerves and the blood. In

    Corbett‟s case the clumps of cancer had to be cut awaythen the RNA could be extracted from what was left. The operation would have left nothing like a human being. More like bloody mush, Corbett gathered.

“What‟s been done to you is not the kind of thing we can do twice,” said the checker. “You get one chance and this is it. If you

    don‟t work out we‟ll terminate and try someone else. The vaults are full of corpsicles.”

“You mean you‟d wipe my personality,” Corbett said unsteadily. “But I haven‟t committed a crime. Don‟t I have any rights?”

    The checker looked stunned. Then he laughed. “I thought I‟d explained. The man you think you are is dead. Corbett‟s will was probated long ago. His widow—”

“Damn it I left money to myself! A trust fund!”

    “No good.” Though the man still smiled, his face was impersonal, remote, unreachable. A vet smiles reassuringly at a cat due to be fixed. “A dead man can‟t own property—that was settled in the courts long ago. It wasn‟t fair to the heirs. It took the money out of


Corbett jerked an unexpectedly bony thumb at his bony chest. “But I‟m alive now."

“Not in law. You can earn your new life; the State will give you a new birth certificate and citizenship if you give the State good


Corbett sat for a moment, absorbing that. Then he got off the table. “Let‟s get started then. What do you need to know about me?”

“Your name.”

“Jerome Corbett.”

    “Call me Pierce.” The checker did not offer to shake hands. Neither did Corbett, perhaps because he sensed the man would not respond, perhaps because they were both noticeably overdue for a bath. “I‟m your checker. Do you like people? I‟m just asking. We‟ll test you in detail later.”

“I get along with the people around me but I like my privacy.”

    The checker frowned. “That narrows it more than you might think. This isolationism you called privacy was, well, a passing fad. We don‟t have the room for it—or the inclination either. We can‟t sent you to a colony world ..

“I might make a good colonist.”

“You‟d make terrible breeding stock. Remember, the genes aren‟t yours. No. You get one choice, Corbett. Rammer.”


„Fraid so.”

    “That‟s the first strange word you‟ve used since I woke up. In fact—hasn‟t the language changed at all? You don‟t even have an


“Part of the job. I learned your speech through RNA training. You‟ll learn your trade the same way if you get that far. You‟ll be

    amazed how fast you can learn with RNA shots to help you along. But you‟d better be right about liking your privacy, Corbett. Can you take orders?”

“I was in the army.”

“What does that mean?”


“Good. Do you like strange places and faraway people—or vice versa?”

“Both.” Corbett smiled hopefully. “I‟ve raised buildings all over the world. Can the world use another architect?”

“No. Do you feel that the State owes you something?”

There could be but one answer to that. “No.”

“But you had yourself frozen. You must have felt that the future owed you something.”

“Not at all. It was a good risk. I was dying.”

    “Ah.” The checker looked him over thoughtfully. “If you had something to believe in, perhaps dying wouldn‟t mean so much.”

Corbett said nothing.

    They gave him a short word-association test in English. The test made Corbett suspect that a good many corpsicles must date from near his own death. They took a blood sample, then exercised Corbett to exhaustion on a treadmill and took another blood sample. They tested his pain threshold by direct nerve stimulationexcruciatingly unpleasantand took another blood sample. They gave

    him a Chinese puzzle and told him to take it apart.

    Pierce then informed him that the testing was over.

“After all, we already know the state of your health.”

“Then why the blood samples?”

The checker looked at him for a moment. “You tell me.”

    Something about that look gave Corbett the creepy feeling that he was on trial for his life. The feeling might have been caused only by the checker‟s rather narrow features, his icy blue gaze and abstracted smile. Still, Pierce had stayed with him all through the testing, watching him as if Corbett‟s behavior were a reflection on Pierce‟s judgment. Corbett thought carefully before he spoke.

    “You have to know how far I‟ll go before I quit. You can analyze the blood samples for adrenaline and fatigue poisons to find out just how much I was hurting, just how tired I really was.”

“That‟s right,” said the checker.

Corbett had survived again.

He would have given up much earlier on the pain test. But at some point Pierce had mentioned that Corbett was the fourth

    corpsicle personality to be tested in that empty body.

    He remembered going to sleep that last time, two hundred years ago.

    His family and friends had been all around him, acting like mourners. He had chosen the coffin, paid for vault space, and made out his Last Will and Testament, but he had not thought of it as death. He had been given a shot. The eternal pain had drifted away in a soft haze. He had gone to sleep.

He had drifted off wondering about the future, wondering what he would wake to. A vault into the unknown. World government?

Interplanetary spacecraft? Glean fusion power? Strange clothing, body paints, nudism?

Or crowding, poverty, all the fuels used up, power provided by cheap labor? He had thought of those, but it was all right. They

    would not be able to afford to wake him if they were that poor. The world he dreamed of in those last moments was a rich world, able

    to support such luxuries as Jerome Corbett.

It looked as if he weren‟t going to see too damn much of it.

    A guard led Corbett away after the testing. He walked with a meaty hand wrapped around Corbett‟s thin upper arm. Leg irons would have been no more effective had Corbett thought of escaping. The guard took him up a narrow plastic staircase to the roof.

    The noon sun blazed in a blue sky that shaded to yellow, then brown at the horizon. Green plants grew in close-packed rows on parts of the roof. Elsewhere many sheets of something glassy were exposed to the sunlight.

Corbett caught one glimpse of the world from a bridge between two roofs. It was a cityscape of close-packed buildings, all of the

    same cold cubistic design.

    And Corbett was impossibly high on a narrow strip of concrete with no guardmils at all. He froze. He stopped breathing.

The guard did not speak. He tugged at Corbett‟s arm, not hard, and watched to see what he would do. Corbett pulled himself

    together and went on.

The room was all bunks: two walls of bunks with a gap between. The light was cool and artificial, but outside it was nearly noon.

    Could they be expecting him to sleep?

    The room was big, a thousand bunks big. Most of the bunks were full. A few occupants watched incuriously as the guard showed Corbett which bunk was his. It was the bottom-most in a stack of six. Corbett had to drop to his knees and roll to get into it. The

    bedclothes were strange; silky and very smooth, even slipperythe only touch of luxury in that place. But there was no top sheet,

    nothing to cover him. He lay on his side, looking out at the dormitory from near floor level.

Three things were shocking about that place.

    One was the smell. Apparently perfumes and deodorants had been another passing fad. Pierce had been overdue for a bath. So was Corbett‟s new self. Here the smell was rich.

     The second was the double bunks, four of them in a vertical stack, wider than the singles and with thicker mattresses. The doubles

    were for loving, not sleeping. What shocked Corbett was that they were right out in the open, not hidden by so much as a gauze curtain.

The same was true of the toilets. How can they live like this?

    Corbett rubbed his nose and jumpedand cursed at himself for jumping. It was the third time he had done that. His own nose had been big and fleshy and somewhat shapeless. But the nose he now rubbed automatically when trying to think was small and narrow with a straight, sharp edge. He might very well get used to the smell and everything else before he got used to his own nose.

     Some time after dusk a man came for him. A broad, brawny type wearing a gray jumper and a broad expressionless face, the guard

    was not one to waste words. He found Corbett‟s bunk, pulled Corbett out by one arm and led him stumbling away. Corbett was facing

    Pierce before he was fully awake.

In annoyance he asked, “Doesn‟t anyone else speak English?”

“No,” said the checker.

    Pierce and the guard guided Corbett to a comfortable armchair facing a wide curved screen. They put padded earphones on him. They set a plastic bottle of clear fluid on a shelf over his head. Corbett noticed a clear plastic tube tipped with a hypodermic needle.


Pierce missed the sarcasm. “You‟ll have one meal each day—after learning period and exercise.” He inserted the hypodermic into

    a vein in Corbett‟s arm. He covered the wound with a blob of what might have been silly putty.

Corbett watched it all without emotion. If he had ever been afraid of needles the months of pain and cancer had worked it out of

    him. A needle was surcease, freedom from pain for a time.

    “Learn now,” said Pierce. “This knob controls speed. The volume is set for your hearing. You may replay any section once. Don‟t worry about your arm—you can‟t pull the tube loose.”

“There‟s something I wanted to ask you, only I couldn‟t remember the word. What‟s a rammer?”

“Starship pilot.”

Corbett studied the checker‟s face. “You‟re kidding.”

“No. Learn now.” The checker turned on Corbett‟s screen and went away.


    A rammer was the pilot of a starship.

The starships were Bussard ramjets. They caught interstellar hydrogen in immaterial nets of electromagnetic force, guided and

    compressed and burned the hydrogen for thrust. Potentially there was no limit at all on their speed. They were enormously powerful,

    enormously complex, enormously expensive.

Corbett found it incredible that the State would trust so much value, such devastating power and mass to one man. To a man two

    centuries dead! Why, Corbett was an architect, not an astronaut. It was news to him that the concept of the Bussard ramjet predated his

    own death. He had watched the Apollo XI and XIII flights on television and that had been the extent of his interest in space flight until


Now his life depended on his “rammer” career. He never doubted it. That was what kept Corbett in front of the screen with the

    earphones on his head for fourteen hours that first day. He was afraid he might be tested.

He didn‟t understand all he was supposed to learn. But he was not tested either.

The second day he began to get interested. By the third day he was fascinated. Things he had never understoodrelativity

    and magnetic theory and abstract mathematicshe now grasped intuitively. It was marvelous!

And he ceased to wonder why the State had chosen Jerome Corbett. It was always done this way. It made sense, all kinds of sense.

The payload of a starship was small and its operating lifetime was more than a man‟s lifetime. A reasonably safe life-support

    system for one man occupied an unreasonably high proportion of the payload. The rest must go for biological package probes.

    As for sending a citizen, a loyal member of the Statewhat for? The times would change enormously before a starship could return. The State itself might change beyond recognition. A returning rammer must adjust to a whole new culturewith no way of

    telling in advance what it might be like.

Why not pick a man who had already chosen to adjust to a new culture? A man whose own culture was two centuries dead before

    the trip started?

And a man who already owed the State his life?

    The RNA was most effective. Corbett stopped wondering about Pierce‟s dispassionately possessive attitude. He began to think of himself as property being programmed for a purpose.

And he learned. He skimmed microtaped texts as if they were already familiar. The process was heady. He became convinced that

    he could rebuild a ramship with his bare hands, given the parts. He had loved figures all his life, but abstract mathematics had been

    beyond him until now. Field theory, monopole field equations, circuitry design. When to suspect the presence of a gravitational point

    source - how to locate it, use it, avoid it.

The teaching chair was his life. The rest of his timeexercise, dinner, sleepseemed vague, uninteresting.

He exercised with about twenty others in a room too small for the purpose. Like Corbett, the others were lean and stringy, in sharp

    contrast to the brawny wedge-shaped men who were their guards. They followed the lead of a guard, running in place because there

    was no room for real running, forming precise rows for scissors jumps, pushups, sit-ups.

After fourteen hours in a teaching chair Corbett usually enjoyed the jumping about. He followed orders. And he wondered about

    the stick in a holster at the guard‟s waist. It looked like a cop‟s baton. It might have been just that—except for the hole in one end.

    Corbett never tried to find out.

Sometimes he saw Pierce during the exercise periods. Pierce and the men who tended the teaching chairs were of a third type: well

    fed, in adequate condition, but just on the verge of being overweight. Corbett thought of them as Olde American types.

    From Pierce he learned something of the other professions open to a revived corpsicle/reprogramed criminal. Stoop labor; intensive hand cultivation of crops. Body servants. Handicrafts. And easily taught repetitive work. And the hours! The corpsicles were

    expected to work fourteen hours a day. And the crowding!

He was leading that life now. Fourteen hours to study, an hour of heavy exercise, an hour to eat and eight hours to sleep in a dorm

    that was two solid walls of people.

“Time to work, time to eat, time to sleep! Elbow to elbow every minute! The poor bastards,” he said to Pierce. “What kind of a life

    is that?”

    “It lets them repay their debt to the State as quickly as possible. Be reasonable, Corbett. V/hat would a corpsicle do with his off hours? He has no social lifehe has to learn one by observing citizens. Many forms of corpsicle labor involve proximity to citizens.”

“So they can look up at their betters while they work? That‟s no way to learn. It would take ... I get the feeling we re talking about

    decades of this kind of thing.”

“Thirty years‟ labor generally earns a man his citizenship. That gets him a right to work—which then gets him a guaranteed base

    income he can use to buy education tapes and shots. And the medical benefits are impressive. We live longer than you used to,


“Meanwhile it‟s slave labor. Anyway, none of this applies to me—”

“No, of course not. Corbett, you‟re wrong to call it slave labor. A slave can‟t quit. You can change jobs any time you like. There‟s

    a clear freedom of choice.”

Corbett shivered. “Any slave can commit suicide.”

    “Suicide, my ass,” the checker said distinctly. If he had anything that could he called an accent it lay in the precision of his pronunciation. “Jerome Corbett is dead. I could have given you his intact skeleton for a souvenir.”

“I don‟t doubt it.” Corbett saw himself tenderly polishing his own white bones. But where could he have kept such a thing?

    “Well, then. You‟re a brain-wiped criminal, justly brain-wiped, I might add. Your crime has cost you your citizenship, but you still have the right to change professions. You need only ask for another personality. What slave can change jobs at will?”

“It would feel like dying.”

“Nonsense. You go to sleep, that‟s all. When you wake up you‟ve got a different set of memories.

The subject was an unpleasant one. Corbett avoided it from then on. But he could not avoid talking to the checker. Pierce was the

    only man in the world he could talk to. On the days Pierce failed to show up he felt angry, frustrated.

Once he asked about gravitational point sources. “My time didn‟t know about those.”

    “Yes, it did. Neutron stars. You had a number of pulsars located by nineteen seventy, and the math to describe how a pulsar decays. The thing to watch for is a decayed pulsar directly in your path.”


Pierce regarded him in some amusement. “You really don‟t know much about your own time, do you?”

    “Astrophysics wasn‟t my field. And we didn‟t have your learning techniques.” Which reminded him of something. “Pierce, you said you learned English with RNA injections. Where did the RNA come from?”

Pierce grinned and left.

Corbett did not want to die. He was utterly, disgustingly healthy and twenty years younger than he had been at death. He found his

    rammer education continually fascinating. If only they would stop treating him like property ....

Corbett had been in the army, but that had been twenty years before his death. He had learned to take orders, but never to like it.

    What had galled him then had been the basic assumption of his inferiority. But no army officer in Corbett‟s experience had believed in

    Corbett‟s inferiority as completely as did Pierce and Pierce‟s guards.

The checker never repeated a command, never seemed even to consider that Corbett would refuse. If Corbett refused, once, he

    knew what would happen. And Pierce knew that he knew. No army could have survived in such a state. The attitude better fitted a

    death camp.

They must think I‟m a zombie....

Corbett carefully did not pursue the thought. He was a corpse brought back to lifebut not all the way.

The life was not pleasant. His last-class citizenship was galling. There was nobody to talk tonobody but Pierce, whom he was

    learning to hate. He was hungry most of the time. The single daily meal barely filled his belly and it would not stay full. No wonder he

    had wakened so lean.

More and more he lived in the teaching chair. Vicariously he became a rammer then and the impotence of his life was changed to

    omnipotence. Starman! Riding the fire that feeds the suns, scooping fuel from interstellar space itself, spreading electromagnetic fields

    like wings hundreds of miles out ...

    Two weeks after the State had wakened him from the dead, Corbett was given his course.

He relaxed in a chair that was not quite a contour couch. RNA solution dripped into him. The needle no longer bothered himhe

    never noticed it. The teaching screen held a map of his course, in green lines in three-space. Corbett had stopped wondering how the

    three-dimensional effect was achieved.

The scale was shrinking as he watched.

Two tiny blobs, and a glowing ball surrounded by a faintly glowing corona. This part of his course he already knew. A linear

    accelerator would launch him from the moon, boost him to Bussard ramjet speeds and hurl him at the sun. Solar gravity would

    increase his speed while his electromagnetic fields caught and burned the solar wind itself. Then out, still accelerating, to the stars

    In the teaching screen the scale shrank horrendously. The distances between stars were awesome, terrifying. Van Maanan‟s Star was twelve light-years away.

He would begin deceleration a bit past the midpoint. The matching would be tricky. He must slow enough to release the biological

    package probebut not enough to drop him below ram speeds. In addition he must use the mass of the star for a course change. There

    was no room for error here.

Then on to the next target, which was even farther away. Corbett watched . . . and he absorbed . . . and a part of him seemed to

    have known everything all along even while another part was gasping at the distances. Ten stars, all yellow dwarves of the Sol type,

    an average of fifteen light-years apartthough he would cross one gap of fifty-two light-years. He would almost touch lightspeed on that one. Oddly enough, the Bussard ramjet effect would improve at such speeds. He could take advantage of the greater hydrogen

    flux to pull the fields closer to the ship, to intensify them.

Ten stars in a closed path, a badly bent and battered ring leading him back to the solar system and Earth. He would benefit from the

    time he spent near the speed of light. Three hundred years would pass on Earth, but Corbett would only live through two hundred

    years of ship‟s time—which implied some kind of suspended animation technique.

It didn‟t hit him the first time through, or the second; but repetition had been built into the teaching program. It didn‟t hit him until

    he was on his way to the exercise room.

Three hundred years?

Three hundred years!


It wasn‟t night, not really. Outside it must be midafternoon. Indoors, the dorm was always coolly lit, barely brightly enough to read

    if there had been any books. There were no windows.

Corbett should have been asleep. He suffered every minute he spent gazing out into the dorm. Most of the others were asleep, but a

    couple made noisy love on one of the loving bunks. A few men lay on their backs with their eyes open and two women talked in low

    voices. Corbett didn‟t know the language. He had been unable to find anyone who spoke English. He suspected that there were two shifts, that someone slept in his bunk, morningsbut he could prove nothing. The slippery sheets must be fantastically easy to clean. Just hose them down.

Corbett was desperately homesick.

The first few days had been the worst.

He had stopped noticing the smell. If something reminded him he could sniff the traces of billions of human beings. Otherwise the

    odor was part of the environment.

    But the loving bunks bothered him. When they were in use he watched. When he forced himself not to watch he listened. He couldn‟t help himself. But he had tamed down two sign-language invitations from a small brunette with straggly hair and a pretty, elfin face. Make love in public? He couldn‟t.

    He could avoid using the loving bunks, but not the exposed toilets. That was embarrassing. The first time he was able to force himself only by staring rigidly at his feet. When he pulled on his jumper and looked up a number of sleepers were watching him in

    obvious amusement. The reason might have been his self-consciousness or the way he dropped his jumper around his ankles, or he may have been out of line. A pecking order determined who might use the toilets before whom. He still hadn‟t figured out the details.

Corbett wanted to go home.

    The idea was unreasonable. His home was gone and he would have gone with it without the corpsicle crypts. But reason was of no use in this instancehe wanted to go home. Home to Mirian, who long since must have died of old age. Home to anywhere: Rome, San Francisco, Kansas City, Hawaii, Brasiliahe had lived in all those places, all different, but all home. Corbett had been a born traveler, “at home” anywhere—but he was not at home here and never would be.

Now they would take here away from him. Even this world of four rooms and two roofsthis world of elbow-to-elbow mutes and

    utter slavery, this world of which he knew nothingwould have vanished when he returned from the stars.

    Corbett rolled over and buried his face in his arms. If he didn‟t sleep he would be groggy tomorrow. He might miss something essential. They had never tested his training. Read that: Not yet, not yet

He dozed.

He came awake suddenly, already up on one elbow, groping for some elusive thought.


Why haven‟t I been wondering about the biological package probes?

A moment later he did wonder.

What are the biological package probes?

But the wonder was that he had never wondered.

    He knew what and where they were: heavy fat cylinders arranged around the waist of the starship‟s hull. Ten of these, each weighing almost as much as Corbett‟s own life-support system. He knew their mass distribution. He knew the clamp system that held them to the hull and he could operate and repair the clamps under various extremes of damage. He almost knew where the probes went

    when released; it was just on the tip of his tonguewhich meant he had had the RNA shot but had not yet seen the instructions.

But he did not know what the probes were for.

It was like that with the ship, he realized. He knew everything there was to know about a seeder ramship, but nothing at all about

the other kinds of ramship or interplanetary travel or ground-to-orbit vehicles. He knew that he would be launched by linear

    accelerator from the moon. He knew the design of the acceleratorhe could see it, three hundred and fifty kilometers of rings standing on end in a line across a level lunar mare. He knew what to do if anything went wrong during launch. And that was all he

    knew about the moon and lunar installations and lunar conquest, barring what he had watched on television two hundred years ago.

What was going on out there? In the two weeks since his arrival (awakening? resuscitation?) he had seen four rooms and two

    rooftops, glimpsed a fantastic cityscape from a bridge and talked to one man who was not interested in telling him anything. What had

    happened in two hundred years?

    These men and women who slept around him. Who were they? Why were they here? He didn‟t even know if they were corpsicles or contemporary. Probably. contemporary. Not one of them was self-conscious about the facilities.

Corbett had raised his buildings in all sorts of strange places but he had never jumped blind. He had always brushed up on the

    language and studied the customs before he went Here he had no handle, nowhere to start. He was lost.

If only he had someone he could really talk to!

    He was learning in enormous gulps, taking in volumes of knowledge so broad that he hadn‟t realized how rigidly bounded they were. The State was teaching him only what he needed to know or might need to know some time. Every bit of information was aimed

    straight at his profession.


    He could see the reasoning. He would be gone for several centuries. Why should the State teach him anything at all about today‟s technology, customs, geography? There would be trouble enough when he came back if hecome to think of it, who had taught him to call the government the State? He knew nothing of its power and extent. How had he come to think of the State as all-powerful?

It must be the RNA training. With data came attitudes below the conscious level, where he couldn‟t get at them.

What were they doing to him?

He had lost his world. He would lose this one. According to Pierce, he had lost himself four times already. A condemned criminal

    had had his personality wiped four times. Now Corbett‟s beliefs and motivations were being lost bit by bit to the RNA solution as the

    State made him over into a rammer.

Was there nothing that was his?

He failed to see Pierce at exercise period. It was just as well. He was somewhat groggy. As usual, he ate dinner like a starving man.

    He returned to the dorm, rolled into his bunk and was instantly asleep.

He looked up during study period the next day and found Pierce watching him. He blinked, fighting free of a mass of data on the

    attitude jet system that bled plasma from the inboard fusion plant that was also the emergency electrical power sourceand asked,

    “Pierce, what‟s a biological package probe?”

“I would have thought they would teach you that. You know what to do with the probes, don‟t you?”

“The teaching widget gave me the procedure two days ago. Slow up for certain systems, kill the fields, turn a probe loose and

    speed up again.”

“You don‟t have to aim them?”

“No, I guess they aim themselves. But I have to get them down to a certain relative velocity to get them into the system”

“Amazing. They must do all the rest of it themselves.” Pierce shook his head. “I wouldn‟t have believed it. Well, Corbett, the

    probes steer for a terrestrial world with a reducing atmosphere. They outnumber oxygen-nitrogen worlds about three to one in this arm

    of the galaxy and probably everywhere else, tooas you may know, if your age got that far.”

“But what do the probes do?”

„They‟re biological packages. Bacteria. The idea is to turn a reducing atmosphere into an oxygen atmosphere just the way certain

    bacteria did it for Earth, something like fifteen-times-ten-to-the-eighth years ago.” The checker smiled—barely. His small narrow

    mouth wasn‟t built to express any great emotion, “You‟re part of a big project, Corbett.”

“Good Lord. How long does it take?”

“We think about fifty thousand years. Obviously we‟ve never had a chance to measure it.”

“But, good Lord! Do you really expect the State to last that long? Does even the State expect to last that long?”

“That‟s not your affair, Corbett. Still—” Pierce considered. “—I don‟t suppose I do. Or the State does. But humanity will last. One

    day there will be men on those worlds. It‟s a Cause, Corbett. The immortality of the species. A thing bigger than one man‟s life. And

    you‟re part of it.”

He looked at Corbett expectantly. Corbett was deep in thought. He was running a finger tip back and forth along the straight line of

    his nose.

Presently he asked, “What‟s it like out there?”

“The stars? You‟re-"

“No, no, no. The city. I catch just a glimpse of it twice a day; cubistic buildings with elaborate carvings at the street level—”

“What the bleep is this, Corbett? You don‟t need to know anything about Selerdor. By the time you come home the whole city will

    be changed.”

     “I know, I know. That‟s why I hate to leave without seeing something of this world. I could be going out to die—”

Corbett stopped. He had seen that considering look before but he had never seen Pierce actually angry.

The checker‟s voice was flat, his mouth pinched tight. “You think of yourself as some kind of tourist.”

“So would you if you found yourself two hundred years in the future. If you didn‟t have that much curiosity you wouldn‟t be


“Granted that I‟d want to look around. I certainly wouldn‟t demand it as a right. Corbett, what were you thinking when you foisted

    yourself off on the future? Did you think the future owed you a debt? It‟s the other way around—and time you realized it!”

Corbett was silent.

“I‟ll tell you something. You‟re a rammer because you‟re a born tourist. We tested you for that. You like the unfamiliar, it doesn‟t

    send you scuttling back to something safe and known. That‟s rare.” The checker‟s eyes said: And that‟s why I‟ve decided not to wipe

    your personality yet. His mouth said, “Was there anything else?”

Corbett pushed his luck. “I‟d like a chance to practice with a computer like the ship‟s computer-autopilot.”

“We don‟t have one. But you‟ll get your chance in two days. You‟re leaving then.”


The next day he received his instructions for entering the solar system. He was to try anything and everything to make contact, up

    to and including flashing his attitude jets in binary code. The teaching widget was fanatical on the subject.

He found that he would not be utterly dependent on rescue ships. He could slow the ramship by braking directly into the solar wind

    until the proton flux was too slow to help him. He could then proceed on attitude jets, using whatever hydrogen was left in the

    emergency tank. A nearly full tank would actually get him to the moon and land him there.

The State was through with him when he dropped his last probe. It was good of the State to provide for his return, Corbett

    thoughtand then he shook himself. The State was not altruistic. It wanted the ship back.

    Now, more than ever, Corbett wanted a chance at the computer-autopilot.

    He found one more chance to talk to the checker. “A three-hundred-year round trip—maybe two hundred, ship‟s time,” said Corbett. “I get some advantage from relativity. But Pierce, you don‟t really expect me to live two hundred years, do you? With nobody to talk to?

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