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Authors: John Brunner

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The Stardroppers

BOOK: The Stardroppers
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THE STARDROPPERS

John Brunner

www.sf-gateway.com

Enter the SF Gateway …

In the last years of the twentieth century (as Wells might have put it), Gollancz, Britain's oldest and most distinguished science fiction imprint, created the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series. Dedicated to re-publishing the English language's finest works of SF and Fantasy, most of which were languishing out of print at the time, they were – and remain – landmark lists, consummately fulfilling the original mission statement:

‘SF MASTERWORKS is a library of the greatest SF ever written, chosen with the help of today's leading SF writers and editors. These books show that genuinely innovative SF is as exciting today as when it was first written.’

Now, as we move inexorably into the twenty-first century, we are delighted to be widening our remit even more. The realities of commercial publishing are such that vast troves of classic SF & Fantasy are almost certainly destined never again to see print. Until very recently, this meant that anyone interested in reading any of these books would have been confined to scouring second-hand bookshops. The advent of digital publishing has changed that paradigm for ever.

The technology now exists to enable us to make available, for the first time, the entire backlists of an incredibly wide range of classic and modern SF and fantasy authors. Our plan is, at its simplest, to use this technology to build on the success of the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series and to go even further.

Welcome to the new home of Science Fiction & Fantasy. Welcome to the most comprehensive electronic library of classic SFF titles ever assembled.

Welcome to the SF Gateway.

I

Glancing up from Dan Cross’s passport to see whether the face in the picture matched the live version, the dark-uniformed immigration control officer said, “Stardropper?”

He could have meant Dan himself, or the instrument slung over his shoulder on a strap. Either way the answer ought to be yes. Dan nodded, and the immigration officer thawed noticeably.

“Been at it long?” he asked. “I’m a recent convert myself.”

“So am I!” Dan said, feigning enthusiasm. To be precise, he had been issued the instrument four days ago. “What model do you have? This is a custom-built job, hand-assembled. A guy in LA turns them out.”

“Wish I could spare the time to try it out,” the immigration officer said with real envy. “Powerful, is it?”

“One of the best!”

Faintly through the heavy double walls of the airport building came the stunning roar of a Concorde supersonic taxiing toward takeoff. The man next in line behind Dan coughed and shuffled his feet impatiently. The immigration officer recollected himself and inquired how long Dan proposed to remain in Britain.

“I’m not sure,” Dan said. “I’m on vacation. I guess I might be here about a month.”

“I’ll mark you down for two, then, just in case,” the immigration officer said, and stamped the appropriate entry permit on the passport. Handing it back, he added, “I hope you enjoy your stay, sir.”

Dan smiled mechanically, tucking the document back into an inside pocket, and moved on to collect his baggage from the “Nothing to Declare” sector of the customs hall. A porter answered his signal and loaded the bags on a
humming electric trolley, offering to find Dan a taxi. Having told him yes, Dan walked on leisurely across the customs hall to a door labeled in dayglo letters
TRANSIT LOUNGE—EXCHANGE FACILITIES—SHOPS—CONVENIENCES
.

All very smart and impressive, this brand-new building: easily the equivalent of anything he’d seen in the States. The people, too, seemed brisk and alert. There was a sense of bustle in the air, and he heard a great deal of laughter. Dan was chary of first impressions, but he cautiously admitted that so far he thought he was going to like England.

He kept his long-jawed face set in the right expression for a curious tourist making his first visit here, but behind it his mind was very busy. It was one thing to be told that the stardropping craze had a stronger grip in Europe than at home; it was another to have had the point demonstrated within minutes of his arrival.

And here was another proof on top of the first. Standing just inside the brightly lit transit lounge was a wild-eyed young man, hair untidy, in jeans and a soiled cotton T-shirt, with a smear of grime on one cheek. As the newly arrived passengers filed through the door he was saying fiercely to one after another, “Klatch remoo! Listen to me, will you?
Klatch remoo
!”

The passengers scowled and brushed him aside in irritation. Against a nearby wall Dan saw a policeman and a member of the airport staff, watching the young man with serious faces but making no move to interfere. He wondered why not.

Then, the instant the young man caught sight of Dan’s stardropper, he seized him by the sleeve and thrust his face close. His breath stank, as though he had lived on cigarettes for days past.

“You! Klatch remoo—what does that mean to you?”

“Nothing,” Dan said shortly. “Take your hands off me.”

“It
must
! Listen again. Klatch—”

Dan broke the grip on his arm with a twist toward the man’s thumb. It looked as though the speed of the movement had made it painful. It was meant to. Angrily, Dan shot a glare at the policeman, who came forward at last.

“Mr. Grey!” he said sharply. “If you’re going to be a
nuisance, we’ll have to turn you out, understand? This is your last warning.”

Grey let his hands fall hopelessly to his sides. A tear squeezed out of his eye and mingled with the grime on his cheek. He turned away and began to put his meaningless question to some one else.

Dan looked at the policeman. “What does he have to do to be classed as a nuisance?” he demanded.

“Well, he’s expecting someone, you see, sir. Someone he says he heard of through his stardropper. You can hardly blame him, can you? After all, I see you’re a fan yourself.” The policeman gave a conspiratorial smile. “So am I, as a matter of fact.”

“Yes, but surely he must be annoying a hell of a lot of people.”

The policeman shrugged. “He’s no great trouble, really. And the slightest chance, you know, is always worth taking.”

“I guess so,” Dan conceded; it seemed like the proper thing for a stardropper fan to agree, though he would have liked to ask what sort of chance the policeman had in mind. Much puzzled, he walked on across the lounge to an exchange counter.

While waiting to be served, he had plenty more reminders of the extent of the stardropper craze here. In glass-fronted display cases he counted four posters issued by firms making the things—two portable models, one fixed home installation, and a do-it-yourself kit. And on one of the padded benches nearby a girl sat waiting for her flight number to be called, meantime holding a stardropper on her knee with the earpiece half-hidden among her bright fair hair.

Building up a charge like the man Grey? Dan hoped not. She looked too pretty to go mad.

As his taxi spun down the Great West Road toward London he lit a cigarette and leaned back in his seat. Opening the case of his own instrument he stared at it for the twentieth time.

What the hell
were
these things all about, anyway?

About half the contents of the shallow square box made sense—the earpiece on its lightly coiled cord; the transistorized
amplifier, conventional in design; and the power source. You could run a stardropper off anything within reason: flashlight cells were naturally commonest, or house current for the bigger models, but he’d seen at least one model advertised with a tiny built-in generator driven by clockwork. This one, though, as he’d told the immigration officer, was an expensive hand-crafted version; its power came from a fuel cell that converted butane gas directly into electricity, water vapor, and CO
2
, just about the most efficient process yet devised.

So far, so good. What could be made of the rest? Item: one Alnico magnet on a brass slide; the slide was toothed and engaged with a worm. Item: one calibrated plastic knob on the same shaft as the worm, with millimeter gradations intended to be lined up against the point of a little chromed triangle on the side of the case. Item: one ultra-hard vacuum in a little aluminum box. There was a getter in the box to keep the vacuum swept, but the makers recommended trading it in for a new one about once a month. The butane tank—a standard cigarette-lighter refill—was guaranteed to last a year, minimum, and in practice might go for twice that long.

Add it up, and you got nonsense. But …

Dan lifted the earpiece and put it in. It was covered with foam rubber and tapered for a snug fit. He’d wondered already why full sets of earphones weren’t supplied as standard with even an expensive stardropper like this one, but so far he hadn’t found anyone able to answer the question. Apparently, within a couple of years, stardropping had developed its own brand of conservatism. Though it was of course true that there could be no stereo effect from a stardropper.

He switched on the power, twisted the calibrated knob at random, and waited. Nothing. He moved it a little farther, and a susurrus of noise began, like surf on a distant beach crossed with a pouring sound which rose steadily in pitch as the gurgle of water rises when a bottle is filled from a tap.

He closed his eyes attentively. One had to grant that the sound had an attractive quality. It hinted at meaning, like a voice speaking a foreign language. Or—more nearly—like
music, capable of conjuring up images and ideas but not communicating them as such.

This was not a good setting, though. After a little while the pleasant sound broke up in a gabble of shrill squawks, and he took out the earpiece quickly. Noticing the
driver
eying him in the rear-view mirror, he decided against another try and shut the case.

Obviously, he just wasn’t with it. Plenty of his friends had joined the multiplying hordes of addicts, but whenever he had been persuaded to try out one of their instruments he’d found the experience merely interesting. Not fascinating. He’d taken the things for toys.

Yet, according to what he’d been told at his briefing in New York, they had in fact a subtle deadliness. Indeed, he’d been convinced of that this morning. At the end of the line might be a man like Grey, shouting desperate nonsense syllables at strangers and begging for a meaningful answer.

Asking what a stardropper really did seemed nearly as futile. Dan had been accorded the privilege of an interview with Berghaus himself, the only person with a theory to fit the facts, and he had hardly made heads or tails of the explanations he’d been offered. To judge by his helpless expression as he talked, even Berghaus couldn’t be that much further forward.

Moreover, for a scientist he had been driven to use some appallingly unscientific-sounding terms: “psychic continum,” for example. There was apparently no alternative. This was simply an unscientific sort of phenomenon.

Point one: there was no conventional reason why a hard vacuum plus a magnet plus a power source should generate signals you could display on an oscilloscope, record on tape, feed through a speaker, or cause to jiggle needles back and forth across a dial.

Point two: the signals were
not
random noise. They were at least as highly organized—and therefore presumably information-full—as the most complex human speech. Information, as Berghaus had been at pains to emphasize even though Dan was well aware of the fact, was not
meaning;
it was a technical term related to degree of ordering. When the phenomenon had not yet been given its nickname, but was simply “the Rainshaw effect” after
its discoverer, people naturally assumed the signals related in some way to periodicity of atomic or molecular vibration in the matter composing the equipment.

It was Berghaus who—after beating his head against the wall of the problem for months, along with uncountable others, both experts and ambitious laymen—found the extraordinary statistical correlation between the signals and the output of living nervous systems. The evidence was too technical for Dan, but he accepted Berghaus’s word. So did millions of other people. The way Berghaus put it was this: “Just as the Zeeman effect, for example, informs an astronomer of the existence of a magnetic field surrounding a star, so these signals have characteristics suggesting an origin in an organized, percipient nervous system.”

That was about a year after he proposed his now-famous theory of precognition. Evidence had finally piled up to such an extent that one was badly needed. To account for transfer of information future-to-past he invoked a space-equivalent for it to travel through, non-Einsteinian in that instantaneity there reacquired a definite meaning, and permitting knowledge of an event at moment
x
to become available at moment
x-y
when it was not yet appreciable by the normal senses. Controversy was still going on, but so far the hypothesis was standing up well to criticism.

Reluctantly, Berghaus said, “It seems to me that these devices utilizing the Rainshaw effect may tap the space-equivalent which I have called the “psychic continuum” just as the mind of a man with ESP does.”

His precognition theory had made Berghaus one of the most newsworthy of living scientists. Reporters accordingly descended on him in hordes to interrogate him about this new idea. Seeking an angle, one of them demanded why, if these signals originated in living minds, they could not be translated in some way, perhaps into words. Honesty compelled Berghaus to say that, if one followed the implications of his theory to the ultimate conclusion, one had to assume that all living, aware beings—human or otherwise—might have access to this timeless channel of information, and many of them might very well not employ words.

“Human or otherwise?” the reporter pressed him. “You mean creatures on other planets, under other stars?”

“If they exist, as they very probably do,” Berghaus agreed. To him it was just an interesting possibility which could not be excluded on the basis of the evidence at hand.

But the reporter went away and coined the phrase “eavesdropping on the stars.” Someone put out a cheap portable version of the Rainshaw device, intending it as an amusing gimmick. Someone else nicknamed it a stardropper.

And the world seemed suddenly to go insane.

BOOK: The Stardroppers
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