From “Thirteen for Centaurus”, from The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard
Tell me, Abel,” Dr. Francis began, “has it ever occurred to you to ask why the Station is here?”
Abel shrugged. “Well, it’s designed to keep us alive, it’s our home.”
“Yes, that’s true, but obviously it has some other object than just our own survival. Who do you think built the Station in the first place?”
“Our fathers, I suppose, or grandfathers. Or their grandfathers.”
“Fair enough. And where were they before they built it?” Abel struggled with the reductio ad absurdum.
“I don’t know, they must have been floating around in midair!” Dr. Francis joined in the laughter. “Wonderful thought. Actually it’s not that far from the truth. But we can’t accept that as it stands.”
The doctor’s self-contained office gave Abel an idea. “Perhaps they came from another Station? An even bigger one?”
Dr. Francis nodded encouragingly. “Brilliant, Abel. A first-class piece of deduction. All right, then, let’s assume that. Somewhere, away from us, a huge Station exists, perhaps a hundred times bigger than this one, maybe even a thousand. Why not?”
“It’s possible,” Abel admitted, accepting the idea with surprising ease.
“Right. Now you remember your course in advanced mechanics the imaginary planetary system, with the orbiting bodies held together by mutual gravitational attraction? Let’s assume further that such a system actually exists. O.K.?”
“Here?” Abel said quickly. “In your cabin?” Then he added, “In your sleeping cylinder?”
Dr. Francis sat back. “Abel, you do come up with some amazing things. An interesting association of ideas. No, it would be too big for that. Try to imagine a planetary system orbiting around a central body of absolutely enormous size, each of the planets a million times larger than the Station.” When Abel nodded, he went on. “And suppose that the big Station, the one a thousand times larger than this, were attached to one of the planets, and that the people in it decided to go to another planet. So they build a smaller station, about the size of this one, and sent it off through the air. Make sense?”
“In a way.” Strangely, the completely abstract concepts were less remote than he would have expected. Deep in his mind dim memories stirred, interlocking with what he had already guessed about the Station. He gazed steadily at Dr. Francis. “You’re saying that’s what the Station is doing? That the planetary system exists?”
Dr. Francis nodded. “You’d more or less guessed before I told you. Unconsciously, you’ve known all about it for several years. A few minutes from now I’m going to remove some of the conditioning blocks, and when you wake up in a couple of hours you’ll understand everything. You’ll know then that in fact the Station is a spaceship, flying from our home planet, Earth, where our grandfathers were born, to another planet millions of miles away, in a distant orbiting system. Our grandfathers always lived on Earth, and we are the first people ever to undertake such a journey. You can be proud that you’re here. Your grandfather, who volunteered to come, was a great man, and we’ve got to do everything to make sure that the Station keeps running.”
Abel nodded quickly. “When do we get there the planet we’re flying to?”
Dr. Francis looked down at his hands, his face growing somber. “We’ll never get there, Abel. The journey takes too long. This is a multi-generation space vehicle, only our children will land and they’ll be old by the time they do. But don’t worry, you’ll go on thinking of the Station as your only home, and that’s deliberate, so that you and your children will be happy here.”
He went over to the TV monitor screen by which he kept in touch with Captain Peterr, his fingers playing across the control tabs. Suddenly the screen lit up, a blaze of fierce points of light flared into the cabin, throwing a brilliant phosphorescent glitter across the walls, dappling Abel’s hands and suit. He gaped at the huge balls of fire, apparently frozen in the middle of a giant explosion, hanging in vast patterns.