Desertion by Clifford D. Simak Four men, two by two, had gone into the howling mael­strom that was Jupiter and had not returned. They had walked into the keening gale – or rather, they had loped, bellies low against the ground, wet sides gleaming in the rain. For they did not go in the shape of men. Now the fifth man stood before the desk of Kent Fowler, head of Dome No. 3, Jovian Survey Commission. Under Fowler’s desk, old Towser scratched a flea, then settled down to sleep again. Harold Allen, Fowler saw with a sudden pang, was young – too young. He had the easy confidence of youth, the face of one who had never known fear. And that was strange. For men in the domes of Jupiter did know fear – fear and humility. It was hard for Man to reconcile his puny self with the mighty forces of the monstrous planet. »You understand,« said Fowler, »that you need not do this. You understand that you need not go.« It was formula, of course. The other four had been told the same thing, but they had gone. This fifth one, Fowler knew, would go as well. But suddenly he felt a dull hope stir within him that Allen wouldn’t go. »When do I start?« asked Allen. There had been a time when Fowler might have taken quiet pride in that answer, but not now. He frowned briefly. »Within the hour,« he said. Allen stood waiting, quietly. »Four other men have gone out and not returned,« said Fowler. »You know that, of course. We want you to return. We don’t want you going off on any heroic rescue expedition. The main thing, the only thing is that you come back, that you prove man can live in a Jovian form. Go to the first survey stake, no farther, then come back. Don’t take any chances. Don’t investigate anything. Just come back.« Allen nodded. »I understand all that.« »Miss Stanley will operate the converter,« Fowler went on. »You need have no fear on that particular score. The other men were converted without mishap. They left the converter in apparently perfect condition. You will be in thoroughly competent hands. Miss Stanley is the best qualified conversion operator in the Solar System. She has had experience on most of the other planets. That is why she’s here.« Allen grinned at the woman and Fowler saw something flicker across Miss Stanley’s face – something that might have been pity, or rage – or just plain fear. But it was gone again and she was smiling back at the youth who stood before the desk. Smiling in that prim, school­teacherish way she had of smiling, almost as if she hated herself for doing it. »I shall be looking forward,« said Allen, »to my conversion.« And the way he said it, he made it all a joke, a vast ironic joke. But it was no joke. It was serious business, deadly serious. Upon these tests, Fowler knew, depended the fate of men on Jupiter. If the tests succeeded, the resources of the giant planet would be thrown open. Man would take over Jupiter as he already had taken over the other smaller planets. And if they failed – if they failed, Man would continue to be chained and hampered by the terrific pressure, the greater force of gravity, the weird chemistry of the planet. He would continue to be shut within the domes, unable to set actual foot upon the planet, unable to see it with direct, unaided vision, forced to rely upon the awkward tractors and the televisor, forced to work with clumsy tools and mechanisms or through the medium of robots that themselves were clumsy. For Man, unprotected and in his natural form, would be blotted out by Jupiter’s terrific pressure of fifteen thousand pounds per square inch, pressure that made terrestrial sea bottoms seem a vacuum by comparison. Even the strongest metal Earthmen could devise couldn’t exist under pressure such as that, under the pressure and the alkaline rains that forever swept the planet. It grew brittle and flaky, crumbling like clay, or it ran away in little streams and puddles of ammonia salts. Only by stepping up the toughness and strength of that metal, by increasing its electronic tension, could it be made to withstand the weight of thousands of miles of swirling, choking gases that made up the atmosphere. And even when that was done, everything had to be coated with tough quartz to keep away the rain – the liquid ammonia that fell as bitter rain. Fowler sat listening to the engines in the sub­floor of the dome – engines that ran on endlessly, the dome never quiet of them. They had to run and keep on running, for if they stopped the power flowing into the metal walls of the dome would stop, the electronic tension would ease up and that would be the end of everything. Towser roused himself under Fowler’s desk and scratched another flea, his leg thumping hard against the floor. »Is there anything else?« asked Allen. Fowler shook his head. »Perhaps there’s something you want to do,« he said. »Perhaps you —« He had meant to say write a letter and he was glad he caught himself quick enough so he didn’t say it. Allen looked at his watch. »I’ll be there on time,« he said. He swung around and headed for the door. Fowler knew Miss Stanley was watching him and he didn’t want to turn and meet her eyes. He fumbled with a sheaf of papers on the desk before him. »How long are you going to keep this up?« asked Miss Stanley and she bit off each word with a vicious snap. He swung around in his chair and faced her then. Her lips were drawn into a straight, thin line, her hair seemed skinned back from her forehead tighter than ever; giving her face that queer, almost startling death­mask quality. He tried to make his voice cool and level. »As long as there’s any need of it,« he said. »As long as there’s any hope.« »You’re going to keep on sentencing them to death,« she said. »You’re going to keep marching them out face to face with Jupiter. You’re going to sit in here safe and comfortable and send them out to die.« »There is no room for sentimentality, Miss Stanley,« Fowler said, trying to keep the note of anger from his voice. »You know as well as I do why we’re doing this. You realize that Man in his own form simply cannot cope with Jupiter. The only answer is to turn men into the sort of things that can cope with it. We’ve done it on the other planets. »If a few men die, but we finally succeed, the price is small. Through the ages men have thrown away their lives on foolish things, for foolish reasons. Why should we hesitate, then, at a little death in a thing as great as this?« Miss Stanley sat stiff and straight, hands folded in her lap, the lights shining on her greying hair and Fowler, watching her, tried to imagine what she might feel, what she might be thinking. He wasn’t exactly afraid of her, but he didn’t feel quite comfortable when she was around. Those sharp blue eyes saw too much, her hands looked far too competent. She should be somebody’s Aunt sitting in a rocking chair with her knitting needles. But she wasn’t. She was the top­notch conversion unit operator in the Solar System and she didn’t like the way he was doing things. »There is something wrong, Mr. Fowler,« she declared. »Precisely,« agreed Fowler. »That’s why I’m sending young Allen out alone. He may find out what it is.« »And if he doesn’t?« »I’ll send someone else.« She rose slowly from her chair, started towards the door, then stopped before his desk. »Some day,« she said, »you will be a great man. You never let a chance go by. This is your chance. You knew it was when this dome was picked for the tests. If you put it through, you’ll go up a notch or two. No matter how many men may die you’ll go up a notch or two.« »Miss Stanley,« he said and his voice was curt, »young Allen is going out soon. Please be sure that your machine —« »My machine,« she told him icily, »is not to blame. It operates along the co­ordinates the biologists set up.« He sat hunched at his desk, listening to her footsteps go down the corridor. What she said was true, of course. The biologists had set up the co­ordinates. But the biologists could be wrong. Just a hair­breadth of difference, one iota of digression and the converter would be sending out something that wasn’t the thing they meant to send. A mutant that might crack up, go haywire, come unstuck under some condition or stress of circumstance wholly unsuspected. For Man didn’t know much about what was going on outside. Only what his instruments told him was going on. And the samplings of those happenings furnished by those instruments and mechanisms had been no more than samplings, for Jupiter was unbelievably large and the domes were very few. Even the work of the biologists in getting the data on the Lopers, apparently the highest form of Jovian life, had involved more than three years of intensive study and after that two years of checking to make sure. Work that could have been done on Earth in a week or two. But work that, in this case, couldn’t be done on Earth at all, for one couldn’t take a Jovian life form to Earth. The pressure here on Jupiter couldn’t be duplicated outside of Jupiter and at Earth pressure and temperature the Lopers would simply have disappeared in a puff of gas. Yet it was work that had to be done if Man ever hoped to go about Jupiter in the life form of the Lopers. For before the converter could change a man to another life form, every detailed physical characteristic of that life form must be known – surely and positively, with no chance of mistake. Allen did not come back. The tractors, combing the nearby terrain, found no trace of him, unless the skulking thing reported by one of the drivers had been the missing Earthman in Loper form. The biologists sneered their most accomplished academic sneers when Fowler suggested the co­ordinates might be wrong. Carefully, they pointed out, the co­ordinates worked. When a man was put into the converter and the switch was thrown, the man became a Loper. He left the machine and moved away, out of sight, into the soupy atmosphere. Some quirk, Fowler had suggested; some tiny deviation from the thing a Loper should be, some minor defect. If there were, the biologists said, it would take years to find it. And Fowler knew that they were right. So there were five men now instead of four and Harold Allen had walked out into Jupiter for nothing at all. It was as if he’d never gone so far as knowledge was concerned. Fowler reached across his desk and picked up the personnel file, a thin sheaf of paper neatly clipped together. It was a thing he dreaded but a thing he had to do. Somehow, the reason for these strange disappearances must be found. And there was no other way than to send out more men. He sat for a moment listening to the howling of the wind above the dome, the everlasting thundering gale that swept across the planet in boiling, twisting wrath. Was there some threat out there, he asked himself? Some danger they did not know about? Something that lay in wait and gobbled up the Lopers, making no distinction between Lopers that were bona fide and Lopers that were men? To the gobblers, of course, it would make no difference. Or had there been a basic fault in selecting the Lopers as the type of life best fitted for existence on the surface of the planet? The evident intelligence of the Lopers, he knew, had been one factor in that determination. For if the thing Man became did not have capacity for intelligence, Man could not for long retain his own intelligence in such a guise. Had the biologists let that one factor weigh too heavily, using it to offset some other factor that might be unsatisfactory, even disastrous? It didn’t seem likely. Stiff­necked as they might be, the biologists knew their business. Or was the whole thing impossible, doomed from the very start? Conversion to other life forms had worked on other planets, but that did not necessarily mean it would work on Jupiter. Perhaps Man’s intelligence could not function correctly through the sensory apparatus provided Jovian life. Perhaps the Lopers were so alien there was no common ground for human knowledge and the Jovian conception of existence to meet and work together. Or the fault might lie with Man, be inherent with the race. Some mental aberration which, coupled with what they found outside, wouldn’t let them come back. Although it might not be an aberration, not in the human sense. Perhaps just one ordinary human mental trait, accepted as commonplace on Earth, would be so violently at odds with Jovian existence that it would blast human sanity. Claws rattled and clicked down the corridor. Listening to them, Fowler smiled wanly. It was Towser coming back from the kitchen, where he had gone to see his friend, the cook. Towser came into the room, carrying a bone. He wagged his tail at Fowler and flopped down beside the desk, bone between his paws. For a long moment his rheumy old eyes regarded his master and Fowler reached down a hand to ruffle a ragged ear. »You still like me, Towser?« Fowler asked and Towser thumped his tail. »You’re the only one,« said Fowler. He straightened out and swung back to the desk. His hand reached out and picked up the file. Bennett? Bennett had a girl waiting for him back on Earth. Andrews? Andrews was planning on going back to Mars Tech just as soon as he earned enough to see through a year. Olson? Olson was nearing pension age. All the time telling the boys how he was going to settle down and grow roses. Carefully, Fowler laid the file back on the desk. Sentencing men to death. Miss Stanley had said that, her pale lips scarcely moving in her parchment face. Marching men out to die while he, Fowler, sat here safe and comfortable. They were saying it all through the dome, no doubt, especially since Allen had failed to return. They wouldn’t say it to his face, of course. Even the man or men he called before this desk and told they were the next to go wouldn’t say it to him. They would only say: »When do we start?« For that was the formula. But he would see it in their eyes. He picked up the file again. Bennett, Andrews, Olson. There were others, but there was no use in going on. Kent Fowler knew that he couldn’t do it, couldn’t face them, couldn’t send more men out to die. He leaned forward and flipped up the toggle on the inter­communicator. »Yes, Mr. Fowler.« »Miss Stanley, please.« He waited for Miss Stanley, listening to Towser chewing half­heartedly on the bone. Towser’s teeth were getting bad. »Miss Stanley,« said Miss Stanley’s voice. »Just wanted to tell you, Miss Stanley, to get ready for two more.« »Aren’t you afraid,« asked Miss Stanley, »that you’ll run out of them? Sending out one at a time, they’d last longer, give you twice the satisfaction.« »One of them,« said Fowler, »will be a dog.« »A dog!« »Yes, Towser.« He heard the quick, cold rage that iced her voice. »Your own dog! He’s been with you all these years —« »That’s the point,« said Fowler. »Towser would be unhappy if I left him behind.« It was not the Jupiter he had known through the televisor. He had expected it to be different, but not like this. He had expected a hell of ammonia rain and stinking fumes and the deafening, thundering tumult of the storm. He had expected swirling clouds and fog and the snarling flicker of monstrous thunderbolts. He had not expected the lashing downpour would be reduced to drifting purple mist that moved like fleeing shadows over a red and purple sward. He had not even guessed the snaking bolts of lightning would be flares of pure ecstasy across a painted sky. Waiting for Towser, Fowler flexed the muscles of his body, amazed at the smooth, sleek strength he found. Not a bad body, he decided, and grimaced at remembering how he had pitied the Lopers when he glimpsed them through the television screen. For it had been hard to imagine a living organism based upon ammonia and hydrogen rather than upon water and oxygen, hard to believe that such a form of life could know the same quick thrill of life that humankind could know. Hard to conceive of life out in the soupy maelstrom that was Jupiter, not knowing, of course, that through Jovian eyes it was no soupy maelstrom at all. The wind brushed against him with what seemed gentle fingers and he remembered with a start that by Earth standards the wind was a roaring gale, a two­hundred­mile­an­hour howler laden with deadly gases. Pleasant scents seeped into his body. And yet scarcely scents, for it was not the sense of smell as he remembered it. It was as if his whole being was soaking up the sensation of lavender – and yet not lavender. It was something, he knew, for which he had no word, undoubtedly the first of many enigmas in terminology. For the words he knew, the thought symbols that served him as an Earthman would not serve him as a Jovian. The lock in the side of the dome opened and Towser came tumbling out – at least he thought it must be Towser. He started to call the dog, his mind shaping the words he meant to say. But he couldn’t say them. There was no way to say them. He had nothing to say them with. For a moment his mind swirled in muddy terror, a blind fear that eddied in little puffs of panic through his brain. How did Jovians talk? How — Suddenly he was aware of Towser, intensely aware of the bumbling, eager friendliness of the shaggy animal that had followed him from Earth to many planets. As if the thing that was Towser had reached out and for a moment sat within his brain. And out of the bubbling welcome that he sensed, came words. »Hiya, pal.« Not words, really, better than words. Thought symbols in his brain, communicated thought symbols that had shades of meaning words could never have. »Hiya, Towser,« he said. »I feel good,« said Towser. »Like I was a pup. Lately I’ve been feeling pretty punk. Legs stiffening up on me and teeth wearing down to almost nothing. Hard to mumble a bone with teeth like that. Besides, the fleas give me hell. Used to be I never paid much attention to them. A couple of fleas more or less never meant much in my early days.« »But... but —« Fowler’s thoughts tumbled awkwardly. »You’re talking to me!« »Sure thing,« said Towser. »I always talked to you, but you couldn’t hear me. I tried to say things to you, but I couldn’t make the grade.« »I understood you sometimes,« Fowler said. »Not very well,« said Towser. »You knew when I wanted food and when I wanted a drink and when I wanted out, but that’s about all you ever managed.« »I’m sorry,« Fowler said. »Forget it,« Towser told him. »I’ll race you to the cliff.« For the first time, Fowler saw the cliff, apparently many miles away, but with a strange crystalline beauty that sparkled in the shadow of the many­coloured clouds. Fowler hesitated. »It’s a long way —« »Ah, come on,« said Towser and even as he said it he started for the cliff. Fowler followed, testing his legs, testing the strength in that new body of his, a bit doubtful at first, amazed a moment later, then running with a sheer joyousness that was one with the red and purple sward, with the drifting smoke of the rain across the land. As he ran the consciousness of music came to him, a music that beat into his body, that surged throughout his being, that lifted him on wings of silver speed. Music like bells might make from some steeple on a sunny, springtime hill. As the cliff drew nearer the music deepened and filled the universe with a spray of magic sound. And he knew the music came from the tumbling waterfall that feathered down the face of the shining cliff. Only, he knew, it was no waterfall, but an ammonia­fall and the cliff was white because it was oxygen, solidified. He skidded to a stop beside Towser where the waterfall broke into a glittering rainbow of many hundred colours. Literally many hundred, for here, he saw, was no shading of one primary to another as human beings saw, but a clear­cut selectivity that broke the prism down to its last ultimate classification. »The music,« said Towser. »Yes, what about it?« »The music,« said Towser, »is vibrations. Vibrations of water falling.« »But, Towser, you don’t know about vibrations.« »Yes, I do,« contended Towser. »It just popped into my head.« Fowler gulped mentally. »Just popped!« And suddenly, within his own head, he held a formula – a formula for a process that would make metal to withstand pressure of Jupiter. He stared, astounded, at the waterfall and swiftly his mind took the many colours and placed them in their exact sequence in the spectrum. Just like that. Just out of blue sky. Out of nothing, for he knew nothing either of metals or of colours. »Towser,« he cried. »Towser, something’s happening to us!« »Yeah, I know,« said Towser. »It’s our brains,« said Fowler. »We’re using them, all of them, down to the last hidden corner. Using them to figure out things we should have known all the time. Maybe the brains of Earth things naturally are slow and foggy. Maybe we are the morons of the universe. Maybe we are fixed so we have to do things the hard way.« And, in the new sharp clarity of thought that seemed to grip him, he knew that it would not only be the matter of colours in a waterfall or metals that would resist the pressure of Jupiter. He sensed other things, things not yet quite clear. A vague whispering that hinted of greater things, of mysteries beyond the pale of human thought, beyond even the pale of human imagination. Mysteries, fact, logic built on reasoning. Things that any brain should know if it used all its reasoning power. »We’re still mostly Earth,« he said. »We’re just beginning to learn a few of the things we are to know – a few of the things that were kept from us as human beings, perhaps because we were human beings. Because our human bodies were poor bodies. Poorly equipped for thinking, poorly equipped in certain senses that one has to have to know. Perhaps even lacking in certain senses that are necessary to true knowledge.« He stared back at the dome, a tiny black thing dwarfed by the distance. Back there were men who couldn’t see the beauty that was Jupiter. Men who thought that swirling clouds and lashing rain obscured the planet’s face. Unseeing human eyes. Poor eyes. Eyes that could not see the beauty of the clouds, that could not see through the storm. Bodies that could not feel the thrill of trilling music stemming from the rush of broken water. Men who walked alone, in terrible loneliness, talking with their tongue like Boy Scouts wigwagging out their messages, unable to reach out and touch one another’s mind as he could reach out and touch Towser’s mind. Shut off forever from that personal, intimate contact with other living things. He, Fowler, had expected terror inspired by alien things out here on the surface, had expected to cower before the threat of unknown things, had steeled himself against disgust of a situation that was not of Earth. But instead he had found something greater than Man had ever known. A swifter, surer body. A sense of exhilaration, a deeper sense of life. A sharper mind. A world of beauty that even the dreamers of the Earth had not yet imagined. »Let’s get going,« Towser urged. »Where do you want to go?« »Anywhere,« said Towser. »Just start going and see where we end up. I have a feeling, well, a feeling —« »Yes, I know,« said Fowler. For he had the feeling, too. The feeling of high destiny. A certain sense of greatness. A knowledge that somewhere off beyond the horizons lay adventure and things greater than adventure. Those other five had felt it, too. Had felt the urge to go and see, the compelling sense that here lay a life of fullness and of knowledge. That, he knew, was why they had not returned. »I won’t go back,« said Towser. »We can’t let them down,« said Fowler. Fowler took a step or two, back towards the dome, then stopped. Back to the dome. Back to that aching, poison­laden body he had left. It hadn’t seemed aching before, but now he knew it was. Back to the fuzzy brain. Back to muddled thinking. Back to the flapping mouths that formed signals others understood. Back to eyes that now would be worse than no sight at all. Back to squalor, back to crawling, back to ignorance. »Perhaps some day,« he said, muttering to himself. »We got a lot to do and a lot to see,« said Towser. »We got a lot to learn. We’ll find things —« Yes, they could find things. Civilizations, perhaps. Civilizations that would make the civilization of Man seem puny by comparison. Beauty and, more important, an understanding of that beauty. And a comradeship no one had ever known before – that no man, no dog had ever known before. And life. The quickness of life after what seemed a drugged existence. »I can’t go back,« said Towser. »Nor I,« said Fowler. »They would turn me back into a dog,« said Towser, »And me,« said. Fowler, »back into a man.«

Desertion by Clifford D. Simak First published in Astounding Science Fiction, November 1944.
Reproduced by permission of Pollinger Limited and the Estate of Clifford Simak.
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