Back | Next

Chapter 1

Grimes—Lieutenant John Grimes, Federation Survey Service, to give him his full name and title—had the watch. Slowly, careful not to break the contact of the magnetized soles of his shoes with the deck, he shuffled backwards and forwards in the narrow confines of the control room. Captain Daintree, commanding officer of the cruiser Aries, was a martinet, and one of the many things that he would not tolerate was a watchkeeper spending his spell of duty lounging in an acceleration chair, not even in (as now) Free Fall conditions. Not that Grimes really minded. He was a young and vigorous man and still not used to the enforced inactivity that is an inescapable part of spacefaring. This regulation pacing was exercise of a sort, was better than nothing.

He was a stocky young man, this Grimes, and the stiff material of his uniform shirt did little to hide the muscular development of his body. His face was too craggy for conventional handsomeness, but women, he already had learned, considered him good-looking enough. On the rare occasions that he thought about it he admitted that he was not dissatisfied with his overall appearance, even his protuberant ears had their uses, having more than once served as convenient handles by which his face could be pulled down to a waiting and expectant female face below. To complete the inventory, his close-cropped hair was darkly brown and his eyes, startlingly pale in his space-tanned face, were gray, at times a very bleak gray.

So this was Lieutenant John Grimes, presently officer-of-the-watch of the Survey Service cruiser Aries, slowly shuffling back and forth between the consoles, the banked instruments, alert for any information that might suddenly be displayed on dials or screens. He was not expecting any; the ship was in deep space, failing free through the warped continuum induced by her Mannschenn Drive through regions well clear of the heavily frequented trade routes. There was only one human colony, Grimes knew, in this sector of the Galaxy, the world that had been named, not very originally but aptly, El Dorado; and two ships a standard year served the needs of that fabulous planet.

El Dorado . . .

Idly—but a watch officer has to think about something—Grimes wondered what it was really like there. There were stories, of course, but they were no more than rumors, exaggerated rumors, like as not. The El Doradans did not encourage visitors, and the two ships that handled their small trade—precious ores outwards, luxury goods inwards—were owned and manned by themselves, not that the vessels, space-borne miracles of automation, required more than two men, captain and engineer, apiece.

Grimes looked out through the viewports, roughly to where El Dorado should be. He did not see it, of course, nor did he expect to do so. He saw only warped Space, suns near and far that had been twisted to the semblance of pulsating, multicolored spirals, blackness between the suns that had been contorted into its own vast convolutions, sensed (but with what sense?) rather than seen. It was, as always, a fascinating spectacle; it was, as always, a frightening one. It was not good to look at it for too long.

Grimes turned his attention to the orderly universe in miniature displayed in the chart tank.

"Mr. Grimes!"

"Sir!" The Lieutenant started. He hadn't heard the old bastard come into the control room. He looked up to the tall, spare figure of Captain Daintree, to the cold blue eyes under the mane of white hair. "Sir?"

"Warn the engine room that we shall be requiring Inertial Drive shortly. And then, I believe that you're qualified in navigation, you may work out the trajectory for El Dorado."

Back | Next