Something had gone wrong, Noren decided. This dream must be natural, not controlled; only in natural dreams could the disorientation be so extreme. Controlled dreams had logic. One met the unknown, the incomprehensible, but never the incongruities that arose spontaneously while one slept. He had been neither drugged nor hypnotized; he could will himself awake if the dream was indeed natural . . . yet he wasn’t sure he wanted to. The weightless feeling, now that he had gotten used to it, was really quite pleasant.
He put out his hand to touch the silvery surface of the horizontal tower, feeling a kind of wonder. Disoriented he might be, but his mind was clear; the impressions he was gathering were sharp, detailed—not hazy as they’d been in dreams where he had struggled with abstractions that were beyond him. He was near the tower’s top, at least what would have been the top had it been standing. Seizing a handhold that projected from the wall, he reached for another above and began to pull himself around—“up” in terms of his present position, though there was little of the effort involved in climbing—curious as to what might be visible from greater height. To his astonishment, he got no higher. He passed handhold after handhold, only to see the convex wall stretch on and on above him as if its span had become infinite.
Once again fear stirred in Noren. A black shadow cut sharply across the wall, coming ever closer; if he kept going he would soon re-enter darkness. And he had no choice. He had no volition as far as the actions of his body were concerned; when he tried to control them, he discovered that the Dream Machine was doing so after all. His only freedom was in his personal inner response. To be sure, that had been the case in the previous dreams, but always before there had been the compensation of shared thought. He had not been compelled to proceed into the unknown with no idea of what his alter ego’s goal had been. Then too, he had not been so alone. There had been people around, talking to him, listening to words that came from his lips and by their reaction guiding his adjustment. Here he was isolated; it was all taking place in utter silence.
He approached the shadow, thinking how very odd it was that the tower, when first seen from a short distance, had been fully illuminated. Something behind him must be casting that shadow, some monstrous thing that was advancing. . . If only he could turn his head! His heart thudded painfully and he felt chills permeate his flesh, yet his hands were firm as he moved them from grip to grip. The physical symptoms of fear must be his own, he realized; they were occurring in his sleeping body, while the recording contained only the confident motions of a man who had not trembled. He held to that thought as his right arm disappeared into the dark.
Then, without any foreknowledge of the intent, he did turn for an instant, looking back over his shoulder toward the source of light he was leaving behind; and it so startled Noren that he felt he was not only falling, but spinning. Though the tower was still there, he was sure that he’d lost contact with it, that he would fall forever toward a fire that was worse than darkness. There was no shape to cast a shadow. There was only a vast black sky dominated by a sun, immense and horribly brilliant, that looked much as it had on film and in his first controlled dream and in all too many of his natural ones; but he had no shelter from it now . . .
One glance was enough. It was a relief to creep on into the dark where that intolerable flame could not reach him. Why couldn’t it? Noren wondered, momentarily baffled. A sun, when it shone, shone everywhere. Why wasn’t it shining on the whole tower? His head and shoulders were by this time enveloped in blackness; he raised his free hand to turn a knob on the helmet he hadn’t realized he was wearing. Instantly there was light again: not sunlight, but innumerable swarms of blazing points that could be nothing but stars.
Awestruck, Noren clung to the wall of the tower, facing outward, while comprehension flooded into his mind. It came not from the recorder’s thoughts, to which he still had no access, but from his own power of reason; the pieces at last began to fit. He’d been climbing not up, but around—around the circular tower to the side opposite from the sun. And it wasn’t really a tower yet; it was still a starship. He was in space! . . .
The stars . . . he could not grasp what it meant to be seeing the stars this way! Obscured by the polarization that had protected his eyes from the naked sun, they’d burst into visibility when he, the astronaut, had changed the filter setting of his helmet. The astronaut had no doubt seen them often, but Noren did not share his thoughts and was still overpowered as he clambered further around the ship—and came face to face with the most awesome sight of all.
It was a planet, a huge planet half-filling his field of vision, that except for some yellow splotches was shrouded in grayish-white. Noren turned cold. Not one of the Six Worlds had looked like that! He had seen films showing all of them; most had been predominantly green or blue, with their white areas forming clear, though shifting, patterns. Was this then an alien solar system, one judged unsuitable for use and quickly abandoned? There had been many such. The planet looked inhospitable enough; some deep, racial instinct told him that it was not right for colonizing, that it could not support life of his kind. As a human refuge it would indeed be useless. . .
No, he thought suddenly. Inhospitable, yes, but not quite useless. It was not an abandoned planet. It was his own.