He didn’t expect to be last—but neither did he anticipate the horror of being the first!
By LESTER DEL REY
Illustrated by JOHNS
NEARLY TWO hundred years of habit carried the chairman of Exodus Corporation through the morning ritual of crossing the executive floor. Giles made the expected comments, smiled the proper smiles and greeted his staff by the right names, but it was purely automatic. Somehow, thinking had grown difficult in the mornings recently.
Inside his private office, he dropped all pretense and slumped into the padding of his chair, gasping for breath and feeling his heart hammering in his chest. He’d been a fool to come to work, he realized. But with the Procyon shuttle arriving yesterday, there was no telling what might turn up. Besides, that fool of a medicist had sworn the shot would cure any allergy or asthma.
Giles heard his secretary come in, but it wasn’t until the smell of the coffee reached his nose that he looked up. She handed him a filled cup and set the carafe down on the age-polished surface of the big desk. She watched solicitously as he drank.
“That bad, Arthur?” she asked.
“Just a little tired,” he told her, refilling the cup. She’d made the coffee stronger than usual and it seemed to cut through some of the thickness in his head. “I guess I’m getting old, Amanda.”
She smiled dutifully at the time-worn joke, but he knew she wasn’t fooled. She’d cycled to middle age four times in her job and she probably knew him better than he knew himself—which wouldn’t be hard, he thought. He’d hardly recognized the stranger in the mirror as he tried to shave. His normal thinness had looked almost gaunt and there were hollows in his face and circles under his eyes. Even his hair had seemed thinner, though that, of course, was impossible.
“Anything urgent on the Procyon shuttle?” he asked as she continue staring at him with worried eyes.
SHE JERKED her gaze away guiltily and turned to the incoming basket. “Mostly drugs for experimenting. A personal letter for you, relayed from some place I never heard of. And one of the super-light missiles! They found it drifting half a light-year out and captured it. Jordan’s got a report on it and he’s going crazy. But if you don’t feel well—”
“I’m all right!” he told her sharply. Then he steadied himself and managed to smile. “Thanks for the coffee, Amanda.”
She accepted dismissal reluctantly. When she was gone, he sat gazing at the report from Jordan at Research.
For eighty years now, they’d been sending out the little ships that vanished at greater than the speed of light, equipped with every conceivable device to make them return automatically after taking pictures of wherever they arrived. So far, none had ever returned or been located. This was the first hope they’d found that the century-long trips between stars in the ponderous shuttles might be ended and he should have been filled with excitement at Jordan’s hasty preliminary report.
He leafed through it. The little ship apparently had been picked up by accident when it almost collided with a Sirius-local ship.