“South,” said the captain.
“But,” said his crew, “there simply aren’t any directions out here in space.”
“When you travel on down toward the sun,” replied the captain, “and everything gets yellow and warm and lazy, then you’re going in one direction only.” He shut his eyes and thought about the smoldering, warm, faraway land, his breath moving gently in his mouth. “South.” He nodded slowly to himself. “South.”
Their rocket was the Copa de Oro, also named the Prometheus and the Icarus and their destination in all reality was the blazing noonday sun. In high good spirits they had packed along two thousand sour lemonades and a thousand white-capped beers for this journey to the wide Sahara. And now as the sun boiled up at them they remembered a score of verses and quotations:
‘”The golden apples of the sun’?”
“‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’?”
“Shakespeare, of course!”
“‘Cup of Gold? Steinbeck. ‘The Crock of Gold’? Stephens. And what about the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end? There’s a name for our trajectory, by God. Rainbow!” “Temperature?” “One thousand degrees Fahrenheit!” The captain stared from the huge dark-lensed port, and there indeed was the sun, and to go to that sun and touch it and steal part of it forever away was his quiet and single idea. In this ship were combined the coolly delicate and the coldly practical. Through corridors of ice and milk-frost, ammoniated winter and storming snowflakes blew. Any spark from that vast hearth burning out there beyond the callous hull of this ship, any small firebreath that might seep through would find winter, slumbering here like all the coldest hours of February.
The audiothermometer murmured in the arctic silence: “Temperature:
two thousand degrees!”
Falling, thought the captain, like a snowflake into the lap of June, warm July, and the sweltering dog-mad days of August.
“Three thousand degrees Fahrenheit!”
Under the snow fields engines raced, refrigerants pumped ten thousand miles per hour in rimed boa-constrictor coils.
“Four thousand degrees Fahrenheit.”
Noon. Summer. July.
“Five thousand Fahrenheit!”
And at last the captain spoke with all the quietness of the journey in his voice:
“Now, we are touching the sun.”
Their eyes, thinking it, were melted gold.
“Seven thousand degrees!”
Strange how a mechanical thermometer could sound excited, though it possessed only an emotionless steel voice.
“What time is it?” asked someone.
Everyone had to smile.
For now there was only the sun and the sun and the sun. It was every horizon, it was every direction. It burned the minutes, the seconds, the hourglasses, the clocks; it burned all time and eternity away. It burned the eyelids and the serum of the dark world behind the lids, the retina, the hidden brain; and it burned sleep and the sweet memories of sleep and cool nightfall.
Bretton, the first mate, fell flat to the winter deck. His protective suit whistled where, burst open, his warmness, his oxygen, and his life bloomed out in a frosted steam.
Inside Bretton’s plastic face-mask, milk crystals had already gathered in blind patterns. They bent to see.
“A structural defect in his suit, Captain. Dead.”
They stared at that other thermometer which showed how winter lived in this snowing ship. One thousand degrees below zero. The captain gazed down upon the frosted statue and the twinkling crystals that iced over it as he watched. Irony of the coolest sort, he thought; a man afraid of fire and killed by frost. The captain turned away. “No time. No time.