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EVEN THE STURDY OLD WALLS OF THE WHITE HOUSE DID NOT keep out all the winter drafts. The great gold drapes of the Grand Ballroom rippled slightly, though the windows were closed, and some of the arriving guests had cherry cheeks and frosty noses. They did not relish standing in the blowing snow on the White House lawn for the obligatory identity check and weapons search. But, like everyone else in America, they had got used to the Troubles and to the lower-case troubles the Troubles made for everybody. Besides, this was a jolly occasion. Dr. Dieter von Knefhausen rubbed his hands and beamed as he greeted each new dignitary. "A great day for your country, Dieter." "Jawohl, Herr Doktor Präsident! For all our countries!" "My deepest congratulations. Dr. von Knefhausen, from myself personally and from all France." "Merci, M. 1'Ambassadeur!" Oh, they were all there to see his triumph, and he almost hopped with excitement.

Technically, to be sure, the guests of honor were many and von Knefhausen was only ninth in precedence among them—well, tenth, if you gave the President of the United States a place. He was not jealous. There was glory enough for all. Because the eight principal guests had a hard several weeks ahead of them, not to mention the rather unprecedented several years which would follow, the receiving line was kept mercifully short. Even so, it was more than two hours from the time the first of the guests shook the hand of the smiling, mellow President of the United States, at the head of the line, until the last of them paid his respects to Science Advisor Dieter von Knefhausen, at the end. It was a long line. In between President and Science Advisor were the First Lady, sleek in gold lamé, the Vice President and his eldest daughter—he had no wife at the moment—and, of course, the four bright young couples who were about to devote their lives to making a trip to another star. They were the real celebrities. Unfortunately, they had had less practice at it than the politicians, and as the short winter day waned they waned too.

They were a handsome and impressive lot. Two of the men and one of the women had distinguished military careers. Seven of the eight held pilot's ratings, ranging from Eve Barstow's Saturday afternoon sports flying to Colonel Jackman's eight thousand command hours, including chief piloting in five deep-space missions. Among the eight of them they held nineteen earned and seven honorary degrees; and every one of them was very good to look at. "May I suggest," boomed the Soviet Ambassador affably as he pumped Dr. von Knefhausen's hand, "that one of your criteria for selecting these wonderful young people must have been the way they photographed?"

"Your Excellency may certainly suggest it," beamed the Science Advisor, as dapper and delighted clasping the hand of his enemy as with any friend. "But I fear you are mistaken. Nevertheless! Since they are to be the parents, perhaps, of a whole new human race on Alpha-Aleph, why not be sure that these new human generations will be quite handsome?"

A cloud passed over the Ambassador's face. "As to that," he said slowly, "let us speak instead of the weather."

Since the day was, more than anything else, Knefhausen's personal triumph, he could afford to be generous to a foe. In any case, there was a delay in the receiving line, as the daughter of the Canadian ambassador was presenting wreaths of roses and maple leaves to each of the four astronaut wives. Knefhausen allowed the Russian to chatter of the snow in Washington as contrasted with the snow in Moscow. "Ah," said Knefhausen genially, "but one knows nothing of snow unless one has experienced the winters of Kiel! When I was a boy—" And he told the patient Ambassador of the winds that came down the Kattegat, and the bitter Januarys of his childhood. At the time of which he spoke his nation and the Ambassador's had been grinding each other to powder all across the Ukraine, and both of them knew it. Generously Knefhausen forebore to mention the thousand Russian POWs his unit of the Hitler Youth drove across the frozen fields to scour out each last overlooked turnip and wizened potato. There were things about that time that were best not mentioned anymore. Though there was nothing to be ashamed of! Not in the least! Young Dietz von Knefhausen was a member of the Youth, certainly, but he had never believed in the Führerprinzip, or even in the war. One joined such organizations because one wished to survive, even to thrive; but even in early adolescence he had understood that such things were to be used by him, not he by them, no matter what blood-chilling oaths one spoke. His unit leader had been no harder to manipulate than any other nominal superior in von Knefhausen's long life. Including the one who now stood at the head of this line. "I beg your pardon?" he said, recalled from the reverie of the sound of his own voice as he saw that the Russian was peering past him.

"Only a small accident, I think," the Ambassador smiled. The young Canadian girl was picking herself off the floor, very near to tears. "Ah, the poor little thing! While she was handing the flowers to Mrs. Barstow she perhaps tripped on her mother's train. Well. I have enjoyed our chat, Dr. von Knefhausen, but now you have other guests. We will continue it, I think, at another time."


The astronauts got one big break. They were excused early. That was not charity on the part of the protocol experts of the White House, it was only bowing to necessary reality. At a quarter to five the whir of a helicopter came from the landing pad. The eight starfarers exited to a round of applause and well-wishing, bundled up against the winter, and dashed through the blowing snow. The chopper lifted rapidly. No pilot wanted to stay on the White House grounds any longer than he had to. The four young couples were jounced against their seat belts so violently that Ann Becklund gasped and clutched at her husband's arm, and Will Becklund hastily found her an airsick bag. But she didn't need it, quite. At Dulles they transferred to Air Force One without incident. The feared demonstrations had not materialized, and the identity checks were almost perfunctory. In less than ten minutes they were cleared for Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, and airborne.

As the big jet leveled off, Jim Barstow left the third pilot's seat to come back to where his wife was sitting, in the private Presidential lounge. He bounced cheerfully on the leather couch. "Hey, this is luxury, hon!" He stretched, and yawned, and finally noticed his wife's damp cheek. "Aw, Eve. What's the matter?" She smiled and shook her head. "No, come on. Scared? I can't blame you for that!"

"No—anyway," she added honestly, "no more than I've been all along. I guess it was that little Canadian girl. She was so sweet."

He squeezed her shoulders sympathetically. They had talked all that out, of course. They had agreed that giving up any real chance of raising a family was certainly painful. Still, when you measured it objectively against the chance to be the first human beings to visit a planet of another star, it just was not really important. A steward came by to save him the necessity of talking about it. "Anything for you folks, sir?"

"No, thanks. Yes." It wasn't every day you flew in Air Force One. "I changed my mind. I'll have a very dry Martini, Beefeater's, with a key-lime twist, and for the lady a banana Daiquiri." Watching the steward's white-jacketed back go away, he said, "Might as well enjoy it while we can, hon."

"That's affirmative," Eve Barstow said, sitting up and looking more lively. "What does Will want?" The Becklunds were turning over a stubby chrome object; from the weeks of drill in nomenclature and repair, Eve recognized it as a spare part of the refrigerant circuits for the plasma jet. Will was looking toward them.

"Wants a real expert, I guess," her husband called, and swayed over to join them around a teak veneer coffee table. Eve was glad enough to let him go. He was a fine person, her husband; they were all fine persons, and had proved it over and over again in the long months of training for the mission. But Eve liked to be by herself sometimes. What terrified her about the next ten years most of all was that there would be no good place in their little spacecraft to do that.

Shef Jackman came back from where he had replaced Barstow in the third pilot's seat. "All squared away. We're climbing through twenty-five thousand, and it's going to be clear skies once we get past Hatteras. We'll ETA Patrick by seven o'clock, get to the Cape at eight, in bed by ten."

"I can stand some clearing up," his wife said. "I've been freezing for the last ten days."

Jackman sat down beside her, grinning. "Cheer up, Flo. We'll be warm enough in another couple of weeks."


The Space Shuttle launch was no longer newsworthy in itself, there had been so many of them, but this one was special. The VIP galleries were full, and out across the Banana River the shore was lined with ordinary citizens, watching eight human beings start the longest trip ever made by man. A million and a half people, at least. There was a difference between the audiences on the two sides of the river. The VIPs were festive and congratulatory. The citizens along the river were a mixed bag. Among them there were hundreds of placards, hard to read from the launch pad. But no one had to read them. They would all say the same thing, even though the words were different in a hundred ways: Unemployed Need Help! Cut Back Welfare Cutbacks! Stop the Andaman Islands War! Pass ERA! Do! Don't! Stop! Ban! They were all peremptory orders to a government that most of the watchers on the riverbank perceived as an enemy, and each one carried the unspoken alternative: Or Else! The nation had never been more divided. Everyone had had plenty of time to get used to division, but nothing had healed. The last time the condition of the country could have been called joyful was—when? The end of World War II? The President could not remember exactly, but he was sure that it had certainly not been within his own administration.

The President could see the riverside crowds out of the corner of his eye if he let himself. He did not. He had trained his eyes not to look at what it was best not to notice, just as he had trained his smile muscles never to ache no matter how long they had to maintain the look of joy. Well, damn it, this was a day for joy! He was entitled! Some individual occasions could be pleasing even now—as long as no crank with paranoia in his mind and a grudge in his heart appeared—as long as you did not look too far into the worrisome future—

The smile on his face flickered for a second, but he brought it back. Nothing was going to spoil this day! His chief aide, Murray Amos, helped all he could by bringing a constant stream of encouraging statistics. There were more than 4,000 accredited press people present, passing the early Apollo record of 3,497. They had run out of the 500-page press kits, and copies were selling as high as $300 each on the black market. It was taking more than 200 chartered buses to bring the dignitaries in. Eighty ambassadors. Fifteen heads of state. Two hundred and fifty television stars. More than 3,000 "legislative guests"—it worked out to better than five apiece for every Representative and Senator. The official count was 22,000 spectators authorized, not counting the million-plus who were rumbling and chanting and sometimes firing off what looked like firecrackers—the President hoped they were firecrackers—across the Banana River. "Good, good," said the President. "Go tell Knefhausen, Murray."

"Yes, Mr. President," Amos said obediently. Not enthusiastically. He located Knefhausen, wheeling and dealing among the celebrities, accepting a ritual kiss from the head of the French space program, another one from a blonde singing star in see-through hiphuggers, clapping the back of the representative of the British Royal Society, exchanging bows and handshakes with the Japanese group.

Knefhausen glanced at Amos, gave him half a quick nod, and accepted the slip of paper from the Public Information Office. "Ah, yes, good," he said, dismissing the aide. A sullen little piece of goods, that one, von Knefhausen told himself. But not important. Murray Amos was not one of the people who knew anything. He was close enough to the President to know, however, that there was something he didn't know, and that was no doubt what made him sullen. It did not matter. In a very short time now, the voyage would be launched, the program would be begun, success was then in the hands of the gods. The wife of the President of Argentina was clamoring for his attention, in any case.

"Ah, yes, my dear lady," Knefhausen said when he had understood her question, "you wish to know why it is that when this ship is to go so far away from the Sun it begins by going so quite close? Yes. A paradox, it seems. But by circling quickly around the Sun, you see, we steal some of its very great force; the ship goes faster as a result and, in the long run, reaches the star Alpha Centauri much sooner. You see? Now you understand as much as the greatest astronomer!"

The Argentinean President's lady dimpled prettily, and put a hand on his arm to detain him. "It will be such a great adventure," she said wistfully.

"Indeed! To be sure! And they will see such sings—things! Can you imagine, dear lady, all of the stars in the sky sweeping together in a glorious rainbow of color? Yes. That is one thing. A starbow! Can you imagine, also, that for each one of them time itself will slow down? Yes. It is so! Not a great deal, but they will come back only about twenty-two years older than they leave, while all of us will age by twenty-four—excepting, of course, your charming self, dear lady!" A lie, of course—or if you wanted the truth of it, two lies. But she would not know that.

Yet she was looking at him curiously. "You do not mention that they will see this marvelous new planet, Alpha-Aleph, as you call it."

"But to be sure!" he said quickly, and caught sight of the CBS news team coming purposefully in his direction, not a moment too soon. "Ah, I fear duty calls me now. Adieu, my dear lady." And to the newscaster: "How good to see you, Alfred! Are you getting all the cooperation you need?"

"Oh, yes, just fine. Dr. Knefhausen." The cameras were panning the crowd, and the newsman's microphone was lowered. "I just wondered. Can you tell me who it is the Russian Ambassador is talking to?"

Knefhausen peered over the newsman's shoulder and scowled. "Yes, of course, Alfred. It is Dr. Hauptmann, the astronomer from our Farside Base on the Moon, who has been personally responsible for the discovery of the planet of Alpha Centauri."

"It looks as though the Ambassador's giving him a hard time. Do you know why?"

What pests these media persons were! But useful when properly managed, so Knefhausen said cheerfully, "Because he is a Russian, to be sure! It is a great occasion for us in America but, you understand, not as great for our competitors. Do you wish a statement?"

It was the easiest way to get rid of anyone from the media. "Another time. Doctor," the CBS man said; and as soon as he had turned away Knefhausen walked briskly past the astronomer and the Ambassador. He only glanced at them once, and then sat down in one of the VIP armchairs. He fixed his gaze on the President and his perpetual farmhand's grin. One could see the utility of this as a means of concealing the man's appalling overbite, but how like an American President to grin like a golliwog all the time! A true leader could be more serious. He looked up courteously as the man from the Moon joined him, but did not rise or offer his hand. "A splendid day, eh, Hauptmann? Although I perceive our Russian friends are seeking to dampen it for you?"

The astronomer shrugged morosely. "Same as always, Knefhausen."

Now here was a man who would be improved by a smile! What a weakling this creature was. But Knefhausen said kindly, "It does not matter. In a moment they will launch. Look, the outer hatches are secured and the gantry is pulling away. In six hours they will be in orbit; in another twenty they will be transshipped and on their way. And then all the world will see what a great, I could even say what a perfect, achievement this will be. And then, for all of us, you will see! Fame, lecture contracts, no doubt an honorary degree or two!"

The man refused to be cheered up. "I certainly hope so," he said, and turned, gaze lackluster, to confront the explosion of light and the great wash of sound as the old shuttle began its rise into the sky.





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