10

It'd be great if anyone could remember the source of this short story I only dimly remember, but recall finding quite haunting back in my youth. I read it maybe 20 years ago in a paperback that probably dated from the '80s.

It begins with the protagonist (a young man) being being woken by a deafening noise coming through his cochlear implant. He's on a spaceship, and has volunteered to be put in a capsule and fired off to a remote part of the solar system.

Once in place in their capsule, the volunteers are visited by what is (presumably) a highly intelligent alien life-form, and gifted with some artefact containing priceless knowledge, like, for example, the cure for cancer.

The (unexplained) encounter leaves the them completely and irrevocably insane, perhaps terrified out of the minds. Yet despite this, volunteers still clamour to be chosen for the mission.

  • 2
    This has a similar idea to Frederick Pohl's classic Gateway, although there the aliens are long extinct, leaving just the ships which might take the volunteer to a source of priceless artefacts - or dump them in the middle of a star. – Daniel Roseman Feb 27 '12 at 17:13
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I think this is “Hinterlands” by William Gibson. It was first published in 1981. It was republished in the collection Burning Chrome.

The story is told by the narrator, Toby Halpert, through a series of expositions detailing the history of the space station in which he lives, nicknamed Heaven.

The history begins with Soviet cosmonaut Olga Tovyevsky, who disappears from radar while en route to Mars shortly after a routine scientific experiment. She returns into space-time two years later, and after being discovered her spacecraft is towed back to Earth orbit to be examined. Tovyevsky is in a catatonic state, and the spacecraft has been sabotaged in an attempt to make it impossible to find and to hide any details of the missing two years. In her hands Tovyevsky has a seashell, the likes of which is unknown in Earth's biosphere. Tovyevsky never regains her sanity.

The Russians send another probe to the same space coordinates Tovyevsky had travelled to. The solo cosmonaut also disappears, at precisely the same point, after performing the same experiment, and returns dead 234 days later. He has committed suicide before anyone can reach him. Further attempts always end the same way; most of the cosmonauts have killed themselves before they can be found, while a very few have attempted to and failed, and are now insane. Attempts to send through unmanned spacecraft all fail, as well, and some manned spacecraft are simply never picked up for reasons unknown.

....

Everything changes when a Frenchman returns dead, carrying an iron ring encoded with information that proves to be the "Rosetta Stone for cancer". From that point on the astonishing frequency of the events creates a cargo cult mentality, with line-ups of prospective astronauts ready to take the trip regardless of its inescapable fatal end. The coordinates are the same each time, and referred to as the Highway, Metro, or River by various cultures.

  • Brilliant, from the description on Wikipedia this is definitely it - I look forward to tracking it down and reading it again! Thanks! – Mike Feb 27 '12 at 21:46

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