I awoke with a start, with the frightening conviction that something was dreadfully wrong. It was, I decided, the silence. The thin, high keening of the interstellar drive is so much part of a spaceman's life that its abrupt cessation is more shocking than the sudden cacophony of alarm bells and sirens. But why hadn't the alarm been sounded? Not only was the drive silent but so were the sobbing pumps, the whining fans.
But there were other sounds.
There was someone breathing gently. I held my own breath for a few seconds, established the fact that it was not my own respiration to which I was listening. There was the ticking of a clock. And--faint, muffled--there were other noises. I tried to identify them. There was a distant, screaming roar that I knew, somehow, was far overhead. There were not so distant mechanical growlings and purrings. There was the sudden knowledge--it should have been comforting, but it was not--that it was the pulsebeat of a city that I was hearing, not that of a ship.
I moved uneasily in the bed--a bed, not a narrow bunk--and felt a woman's body, soft yet firm, warm, smooth, against my own. The contact should have been stimulating, but it was not. The situation, which should have been beautifully right, was still dreadfully wrong. I groped for the switch of the bedside lamp--the lamp that we had left turned on until, exhausted, we had fallen into a deep sleep. I could remember, now, summoning my last reserves of energy to switch the light off.
I pressed the switch. The soft, amber light was kind to my eyes. It was reflected from the sleek, auburn hair against the white pillow, from the smooth shoulder, from the golden curve of her back. It illumined the dial of the wall clock, the black hands and numerals showing up with startling, frightening clarity.
"Ilona!" I said sharply.
She replied with a sound that was half purr, half grunt, stirred, pulled the sheet and the light blanket over her bare shoulders, more than half over her head.
This time she did not reply.
I shook her, gently at first, then more urgently. She turned to face me, her eyes opening slowly, reluctantly, startlingly blue under the dark hair.
She said, "It's you..."
She said, peevishly, "Can't you let a girl sleep?"
"That clock..." I began.
"What about it?" She started to slide again under the bedclothes.
"Is it right?"
"Of course it's right."
I jumped out of the bed, walked swiftly to the window. I remembered that she had shown me, the previous evening, the polarization controls. I turned the dial and the black, featureless expanse of glass became translucent, then cloudily transparent and then crystal clear. Bright sunlight streamed into the bedroom.
"Have you no consideration?" she complained.
I ignored her, looked out over New Prague, at the tall shining buildings, the gleaming, artificial lakes, the green parks. To the northeast was the spaceport, and looking towards it I was looking into the sun. Nevertheless I could make out the gleaming spire that was the control tower, the tall, oddly convoluted columns of the Carlotti Beacons. There should have been another tower there, another gleaming spire, but I couldn't see it.
But, at this time, that other tower should not have been there in any case.
I knew then, and the knowledge was a dreadful emptiness more dreadful than a first tripper's first experience of free fall. I knew, but I had to be sure. I walked slowly to the telephone, opened the book that was on the table beside the instrument, found the number of spaceport control, punched the combination. The screen came alive and an attractive girl looked out at me from behind the circular transparency. Her eyebrows lifted at the sight of my nakedness but she said, calmly enough, "Spaceport inquiries here. Can I help you, sir?"
"What are you playing at?" came a muffled voice from the bed.
I ignored it. "The Lightning," I said. "Has she blasted off yet?"
"Of course, sir. At 0830 hours. She was half an hour behind schedule."
"Thank you," I muttered, switching off.
"Have you quite finished?" demanded the voice from beneath the huddle of bedclothes.
I punched another combination, found myself facing another attractive girl. She, like the girl in the spaceport office, was blonde and attractive, but, obviously, far more used to dealing with callers in a state of undress. Or, it could be she was more broad-minded. "Exchange," she cooed. "Good morning, sir."
"Is anything wrong, sir?"
"Yes. Do you keep a record of early morning calls?"
"We do, sir."
"Did you call this number," I glanced at the numerals printed on the card on the punchboard, repeated them, "at 0530 hours this morning?"
"Hold the line, sir." Her eyes were downcast, her brow slightly furrowed, as she consulted some sort of record. "Yes sir. The number was called. There was an acknowledgement."
"Now can I get some sleep?" Ilona asked coldly.
"No!" I almost shouted.
I strode to the bed, pulled the light coverings from her. She sat upright, glaring at me. She was beautiful, but her beauty failed to register. She was no more than an arrangement of arms and legs and breasts that, although aesthetically satisfactory, was without real significance. I was beginning to hate her.
"Do you realize what's happened?" I shouted.
She winced. "Please be quiet. You aren't aboard your ship now, bellowing orders."
I said, "I never shall be aboard a ship again."
She asked, without much interest, "What do you mean?"
I said, "I've missed my ship, and you know what that means."
She became more aware of me. She pulled up the sheet so that it covered her. She repeated my words tonelessly. "You missed your ship..."
"Yes. Damn it all, Ilona, what happened last night?"
She laughed. "You should know. You were here too."
"But what happened? I rang the Exchange myself, asking for a call at 0530 hours. That would have given me ample time to get out to the Spaceport. I checked with the girl, and she assures me that the call was made, and acknowledged."
She laughed again. "That's funny, darling. I seem to remember a vague sort of dream about getting out of bed to answer the phone."
"Damn it!" I swore. "This is serious. Don't you realize what you've done?"
"What I've done?" she countered. "Don't forget that you were quite keen on trying the euphorine, even after I'd warned you of the possible consequences."
"But you assured me that you'd taken the stuff so many times that you were practically immune."
"Did I, darling? But I've been away from home a long time and I've been cut off from supplies. And I've been told that in such cases immunity vanishes, that a person such as myself is even less immune than somebody trying euphorine for the first time. But, after all, I did get up to answer the phone."
"Ilona, this is serious."
She started to laugh again, then thought better of it. "Go through to the bathroom," she told me. "You'll find a bottle in the cabinet--anti-euphorine. Bring it through, with a glass."
I did as she told me, finding the bottle without difficulty. When I got back into the bedroom she was up, standing naked before the big window, letting the sunlight play over her slim body. She turned, smiling, murmuring, "The sun is my only true lover..."
I kept my eyes on her face, said, "Here's the bottle."
She sighed, "Must I?"
I began to wish that the effects of the drug had persisted in my case. I asked, "What do I do with this?"
She smiled impishly, replying, "Unluckily I'm too much of a lady to give the correct answer." Then: "If you really must, pour just three drops into the glass."
I did so, handed her the goblet. She raised it to her lips and drained it, shuddering slightly. She let the glass fall, walked rapidly to where her robe was hanging over a chair, shrugged herself into it. The heavy black material covered her from neck to ankle, from shoulder to wrist. Over it her face was white and hard.
She said, "Get something on. Then you'd better get out of here."
I was suddenly conscious of my own nakedness. I found slacks and shirt, climbed into them, my back to her. Then I turned to face her. "Ilona," I said, "this is quite a jam I'm in."
"This is quite a jam you're in," she agreed.
"My career..." I said.
"You told me," she remarked coldly, "that you were tired of being a spaceman. Well, now's your big chance to be something else."
"That's your problem." She walked to the bedside table, took a cigarette from the box, drew sharply on the cylinder to ignite it. Her narrowed eyes regarded me through the wreathing smoke. "That's your problem. I suggest that you get out of here, buy yourself a morning paper and start looking through the classified ads for a job."
Her voice rose. "Get out, I said. You needn't think that I'm going to keep you, that I'm going to supply you with free board and lodging. You got yourself into this mess; get yourself out of it, if you can. On your bicycle, spaceman. Hit the track."
I spoke slowly and carefully. "I suppose that I'm allowed to use your bathroom before I go?"
"Don't be too long," she said.
I used the bathroom.
I was noisily sick first of all and felt a little better. Then I took a shower, washing the scent of her from my skin. I used the tube of depilatory cream in the cabinet, then dressed again. Back in the bedroom, while she watched silently, I put on my socks and shoes, my necktie, my jacket.
"Ilona," I said.
"Goodbye," she said tonelessly.
I let myself out of the apartment, rode the cushion of compressed air in the drop shaft down to ground level.