Grand Central Station
THE AIRLOCK Was designed to accommodate only one person at a time. When questions of priority had come up – which nation would be first represented on the planet of another star – the Five had thrown up their hands in disgust and told the project managers that this wasn’t that kind of mission. They had conscientiously avoided discussing the issue among themselves.
Both the interior and the exterior doors of the airlock opened simultaneously. They had given no command. Apparently, this sector of Grand central was adequately pressurized and oxygenated. “Well, who wants to go first?” Devi asked. Video camera in hand, Ellie waited in line to exit, but then decided that the palm frond should be with her when she set foot on this new world. As she went to retrieve it, she heard a whoop of delight from outside, probably from Vaygay. Ellie rushed into the bright sunlight. The threshold of the airlock’s exterior
doorway was flush with the sand. Devi was ankle-deep in the water, playfully splashing in Xi’s direction. Eda was smiling broadly.
It was a beach. Waves were lapping on the sand. The blue sky sported a few lazy cumulus clouds. There was a stand of palm trees, irregularly spaced a little back from the water’s edge. A sun was in the sky. One sun. A yellow one. Just like ours, she thought. A faint aroma was in the air; cloves, perhaps, and cinnamon.
It could have been a beach on Zanzibar.
So they had voyaged 30,000 light-years to walk on a beach. Could be worse, she thought. The breeze stirred, and a little whirlwind of sand was created before her. Was all this just some elaborate simulation of the Earth, perhaps reconstructed from the data returned by a routine scouting expedition millions of years earlier? Or had the five of them undertaken this epic voyage only to improve their knowledge of descriptive astronomy, and then been unceremoniously dumped into some pleasant corner of the Earth? When she turned, she discovered that the dodecahedron had disappeared. They bad left the superconducting supercomputer and its reference library as well as some of the instruments aboard. It worried them for about a minute. They were safe and they had survived a trip worth writing home about. Vaygay glanced from the frond she had struggled to bring here to the colony of palm trees along the beach, and laughed.
“Coals to Newcastle,” Devi commented. But her frond was different. Perhaps they had different species here. Or maybe the local variety had been produced by an inattentive manufacturer. She looked out to sea.
Irresistibly brought to mind was the image of the first colonization of the Earth’s land, some 400 million years ago. Wherever this was – the Indian Ocean or the center of the Galaxy – the five of them had done something unparalleled. The itinerary and destinations were entirely out of their hands, it was true. But they had crossed the ocean of interstellar space and begun what surely must be a new age in human history. She was very proud.
Xi removed his boots and rolled up to his knees the legs of the tacky insignia-laden jump suit the governments had decreed they all must wear. He ambled through the gentle surf. Devi stepped behind a palm tree and emerged sari-clad, her jump suit draped over her arm. It reminded Ellie of a Dorothy Lamour movie. Eda produced the sort of linen hat that was his visual trademark throughout the world. Ellie videotaped them in short jumpy takes. It would look, when they got home, exactly like a home movie. She joined Xi and Vaygay in the surf.