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Archive for the ‘Notable Prose and Poetry’ Category

Edmond M. Hamilton (1904-1977) was a child prodigy who entered college at 14, dropped out at 17, and began writing science fiction. He was noted for rousing space-opera-type adventure stories.

Married to fellow sci-fi writer Leigh Brackett, he signed with DC Comics in 1942 to write Superman and Batman stories. That collaboration continued into the 1960s. He was instrumental in nurturing the concept of superheros, but I won’t hold that against him.

Because science fiction was Hamilton’s life, he was bound, eventually, to write a story like the one below.

———

Exile

By Edmond Hamilton
Published in Super Science Stories, May 1943

I wish now that we hadn’t got to talking about science fiction that night! If we hadn’t, I wouldn’t be haunted now by that queer, impossible story which can’t ever be proved or disproved.

But the four of us were all professional writers of fantastic stories, and I suppose shop talk was inevitable. Yet, we’d kept off it through dinner and the drinks afterward. Madison had outlined his hunting trip with gusto, and then Brazell started a discussion of the Dodgers’ chances. And then I had to turn the conversation to fantasy.

I didn’t mean to do it. But I’d had an extra Scotch, and that always makes me feel analytical. And I got to feeling amused by the perfect way in which we four resembled a quartet of normal, ordinary people.

Protective coloration, that’s what it is,” I announced. “How hard we work at the business of acting like ordinary good guys!”

Brazell looked at me, somewhat annoyed by the interruption. “What are you talking about?”

About us,” I answered. “What a wonderful imitation of solid, satisfied citizens we put up! But we’re not satisfied, you know — none of us. We’re violently dissatisfied with the Earth, and all its works, and that’s why we spend our lives dreaming up one imaginary world after another.”

I suppose the little matter of getting paid for it has nothing to do with it?” Brazell asked skeptically.

Sure it has,” I admitted. “But we all dreamed up our impossible worlds and peoples long before we ever wrote a line, didn’t we? From back in childhood, even? It’s because we don’t feel at home here.”

Madison snorted. “We’d feel a lot less at home on some of the worlds we write about.”

Then Carrick, the fourth of our party, broke into the conversation. He’d been sitting over his drink in his usual silent way, brooding, paying no attention to us.

He was a queer chap, in most ways. We didn’t know him very well, but we liked him and admired his stories. He’d done some wonderful tales of an imaginary planet — all carefully worked out.

He told Madison, “That happened to me.”

What happened to you?” Madison asked.

“What you were suggesting — I once wrote about an imaginary world and then had to live on it,” Carrick answered.

Madison laughed. “I hope it was a more livable place than the lurid planets on which I set my own yarns.”

But Carrick was unsmiling. He murmured, “I’d have made it a lot different — if I’d known I was ever going to live on it.”

Brazell, with a significant glance at Carrick’s empty glass, winked at us and then asked blandly, “Let’s hear about it, Carrick.”

Carrick kept looking dully down at his empty glass, turning it slowly in his fingers as he talked. He paused every few words.

“It happened just after I’d moved next to the big power station. It sounds like a noisy place, but actually it was very quiet out there on the edge of the city. And I had to have quiet, if I was to produce stories.

“I got right to work on a new series I was starting, the stories of which were all to be laid on the same imaginary world. I began by working out the detailed physical appearance of that world, as well as the universe that was its background. I spent the whole day concentrating on that. And, as I finished, something in my mind went click!

“That queer, brief mental sensation felt oddly like a sudden crystallization. I stood there, wondering if I were going crazy. For I had a sudden strong conviction that it meant that the universe and world I had been dreaming up all day had suddenly crystallized into physical existence somewhere.

“Naturally, I brushed aside the eerie thought and went out and forgot about it. But the next day, the thing happened again. I had spent most of that second day working up the inhabitants of my story world. I’d made them definitely human, but had decided against making them too civilized — for that would exclude the conflict and violence that must form my story.

“So, I’d made my imaginary world, a world whose people were still only half-civilized. I figured out all their cruelties and superstitions. I mentally built up their colorful barbaric cities. And just as I was through — that click! echoed sharply in my mind.

“It startled me badly, this second time. For now I felt more strongly than before that queer conviction that my day’s dreaming had crystallized into solid reality. I knew that it was insane to think that, yet it was an incredible certainty in my mind. I couldn’t get rid of it.

“I tried to reason the thing out so that I could dismiss that crazy conviction. If my imagining a world and universe had actually created them, where were they? Certainly not in my own cosmos. It couldn’t hold two universes — each completely different from the other.

“But maybe that world and universe of my imagining had crystallized into reality in another and empty cosmos? A cosmos lying in a different dimension from my own? One which had contained only free atoms, formless matter that had not taken on shape until my concentrated thought had somehow stirred it into the forms I dreamed?

“I reasoned along like that, in the queer, dreamlike way in which you apply the rules of logic to impossibilities. How did it come that my imaginings had never crystallized into reality before, but had only just begun to do so?

Well, there was a plausible explanation for that. It was the big power station nearby. Some unfathomable freak of energy radiated from it was focusing my concentrated imaginings, as super-amplified force, upon an empty cosmos where they stirred formless matter into the shapes I dreamed.

“Did I believe that? No, I didn’t believe it — but I knew it. There is quite a difference between knowledge and belief, as someone said who once pointed out that all men know they will die and none of them believe it. It was like that with me. I realized it was not possible that my imaginary world had come into physical being in a different dimensional cosmos, yet at the same time I was strangely convinced that it had.

“A thought occurred to me that amused and interested me. What if I imagined myself in that other world? Would I, too, become physically real in it? I tried it. I sat at my desk, imagining myself as one of the millions of persons in that imaginary world, dreaming up a whole soberly realistic background and family and history for myself over there. And my mind said click!”

Carrick paused, still looking down at the empty glass that he twirled slowly between his fingers.

Madison prompted him. “And of course you woke up there, and a beautiful girl was leaning over you, and you asked — ’Where am I?'”

“It wasn’t like that,” Carrick said dully. “It wasn’t like that at all. I woke up in that other world, yes. But it wasn’t like a real awakening. I was just suddenly in it.

“I was still myself. But I was the myself I had imagined in that other world. That other me had always lived in it — and so had his ancestors before him. I had worked all that out, you see.

“And I was just as real to myself, in that imaginary world I had created, as I had been in my own. That was the worst part of it. Everything in that half-civilized world was so utterly, common-placely real.”

He paused again. “It was queer, at first. I walked out into the streets of those barbaric cities, and looked into the people’s faces, and I felt like shouting aloud, ‘I imagined you all! You had no existence until I dreamed of you!’

“But I didn’t do that. They wouldn’t have believed me. To them, I was just an insignificant single member of their race. How could they guess that they and their traditions of long history, their world and their universe, had all been suddenly brought into being by my imagination?

“After my first excitement ebbed, I didn’t like the place. I had made it too barbaric. The savage violences and cruelties that had seemed so attractive as material for a story were ugly and repulsive at first hand. I wanted nothing but to get back to my own world.

“And I couldn’t get back! There just wasn’t any way. I had had a vague idea that I could imagine myself back into my own world as I had imagined myself into this other one. But it didn’t work that way. The freak force that had wrought the miracle didn’t work two ways.

“I had a pretty bad time when I realized that I was trapped in that ugly, squalid, barbarian world. I felt like killing myself at first. But I didn’t. A man can adapt himself to anything. I adapted myself the best I could to the world I had created.”

“What did you do there? What was your position, I mean?” Brazell asked.

Carrick shrugged. “I don’t know the crafts or skills of that world I’d brought into being. I had only my own skill — that of story telling.”

I began to grin. “You don’t mean to say that you started writing fantastic stories?”

He nodded soberly. “I had to. It was all I could do. I wrote stories about my own real world. To those other people my tales were wild imagination — and they liked them.”

We chuckled. But Carrick was deadly serious.

Madison humored him to the end. “And how did you finally get back home from that other world you’d created?”

“I never did get back home,” Carrick said with a heavy sigh.

“Oh, come now,” Madison protested lightly. “It’s obvious that you got back some time.”

Carrick shook his head somberly as he rose to leave.

“No, I never got back home,” he said soberly. “I’m still here.”

Hamilton-Brackett

Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton.

 

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More poetry that isn’t pretentious and a waste of time…

———

Mother o’ Mine

By Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

If I were hanged on the highest hill,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
I know whose love would follow me still,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!

If I were drowned in the deepest sea,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
I know whose tears would come down to me,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!

If I were damned of body and soul,
I know whose prayers would make me whole,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!

———

Angels

By Mary Oliver

Oliver M

Mary Jane Oliver (1935-2019)

You might see an angel anytime
and anywhere. Of course you have
to open your eyes to a kind of
second level, but it’s not really
hard. The whole business of
what’s reality and what isn’t has
never been solved and probably
never will be. So I don’t care to
be too definite about anything.
I have a lot of edges called Perhaps
and almost nothing you can call
Certainty. For myself, but not
for other people. That’s a place
you just can’t get into, not
entirely anyway, other people’s
heads.

I’ll just leave you with this.

I don’t care how many angels can
dance on the head of a pin. It’s
enough to know that for some people
they exist, and that they dance.

———

Mother to Son

By Langston Hughes

Hughes-L

James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor –
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now –
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

———

Perhaps

By Vera Brittain

Brittain V

Vera Mary Brittain (1893-1970)

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.

– Dedicated to her fiancé Roland Aubrey Leighton, who was killed during WWI.

———

A Poison Tree

By William Blake

Blake W

William Blake (1757-1827)

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,
And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

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Because of our current and understandable preoccupation with COVID-19, I decided to reread Earth Abides, a post-apocalyptic novel from 1949.

I did so mostly because of the plot, in which a deadly virus wipes out most of the human race in a matter of days, leaving scattered survivors who, for various reasons, were immune to the virus. They are left to cope as earth is reclaimed by nature and the animals.

The novel is interesting, plausible, and reasonably well-written. On a list I found of the 100 best sci-fi novels of all time, it is ranked 43rd. The author, George R. Stewart (1895-1980), was an English professor at Berkeley, a historian, and a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction.

The novel takes place in the decades post-virus, and the beginning deftly avoids the gruesome concept of a planet full of dead people. As time passes, the story becomes surprisingly positive and uplifting.

Also, I was struck by this quotation, which Stewart presents in the preface to the book:

If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutation… it could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the deaths of millions of people.” – W. M. Stanley, in Chemical and Engineering News, December 22, 1947.


The author included that ominous thought in order to set the scene, but I was curious about the ellipsis – the dot-dot-dot that indicates an intentional omission from the passage. So I Googled it.

The quotation is, indeed, genuine. Wendell M. Stanley (1904-1971) was a PhD biochemist, a virologist, and one of Stewart’s colleagues at Berkeley.

The ellipsis, it turned out, skipped nothing important. But in his 1947 article, Dr. Stanley added important information about the behavior of viruses. He wrote this:

If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutation among the viruses which attack human beings, it could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the deaths of millions of people.

Such a killing type of virus cannot perpetuate itself because it soon destroys susceptible individuals. It would then pass from the earth for lack of susceptible cells in which to reproduce. For survival or for perpetuation of a given virus, it must not kill all susceptible hosts.

Thus most of our most common virus diseases are those which are caused by viruses which live in at least partial harmony with their hosts.

In other words, for a virus, wiping out the host population would be self-defeating. I hesitate to say that virus molecules know this instinctively, but the description seems to fit.

The abridged version in Stewart’s novel is appropriately dramatic, but Stanley’s broader explanation is much more illuminating.

It is, however, small comfort in the middle of an actual pandemic.

Anyway, for a worthwhile story about an abrupt end to human civilization and what might come next, check out Earth Abides.

Earth Abides

 

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Charles Vincent De Vet (1911-1997) was an author of science fiction short stories and a few novels. He was active from the 1950s to the 1980s and published about 50 works.

Mr. De Vet tended to lean toward the melodramatic. Indeed, the decidedly melodramatic story below caught my attention less for its plot than for its breathless and florid prose.

If I weren’t such a nice guy, I’d say it brings to mind the Bulwer-Lytton  Fiction Contest. But I’m a nice guy.

———

There Is A Reaper…

By Charles V. De Vet
Published in IMAGINATION Stories of Science and Fantasy, August 1953

The amber brown of the liquor disguised the poison it held, and I watched with a smile on my lips as he drank it. There was no pity in my heart for him. He was a jackal in the jungle of life, and I… I was one of the carnivores. It is the lot of the jackals of life to be devoured by the carnivore.

Suddenly the contented look on his face froze into a startled stillness. I knew he was feeling the first savage twinge of the agony that was to come. He turned his head and looked at me, and I saw suddenly that he knew what I had done.

“You murderer!” he cursed me, and then his body arched in the middle and his voice choked off deep in his throat.

For a short minute he sat, tense, his body stiffened by the agony that rode it – unable to move a muscle. I watched the torment in his eyes build up to a crescendo of pain, until the suffering became so great that it filmed his eyes, and I knew that, though he still stared directly at me, he no longer saw me.

Then, as suddenly as the spasm had come, the starch went out of his body and his back slid slowly down the chair edge. He landed heavily with his head resting limply against the seat of the chair. His right leg doubled up in a kind of jerk, before he was still.

I knew the time had come. “Where are you?” I asked.

This moment had cost me sixty thousand dollars.

Three weeks ago the best doctors in the state had given me a month to live. And with seven million dollars in the bank I couldn’t buy a minute more.

I accepted the doctors’ decision philosophically, like the gambler that I am. But I had a plan: one which necessity had never forced me to use until now. Several years before I had read an article about the medicine men of a certain tribe of aborigines living in the jungles at the source of the Amazon River. They had discovered a process in which the juice of a certain bush – known only to them – could be used to poison a man.

Anyone subjected to this poison died, but for a few minutes after the life left his body the medicine men could still converse with him. The subject, though ostensibly and actually dead, answered the medicine men’s every question. This was their primitive, though reportedly effective method of catching glimpses of what lay in the world of death.

I had conceived my idea at the time I read the article, but I had never had the need to use it – until the doctors gave me a month to live. Then I spent my sixty thousand dollars, and three weeks later I held in my hands a small bottle of the witch doctors’ fluid.

The next step was to secure my victim – my collaborator, I preferred to call him.

The man I chose was a nobody. A homeless, friendless non-entity, picked up off the street. He had once been an educated man. But now he was only a bum, and when he died he’d never be missed. A perfect man for my experiment.

I’m a rich man because I have a system. The system is simple: I never make a move until I know exactly where that move will lead me. My field of operations is the stock market. I spend money unstintingly to secure the information I need before I take each step.

I hire the best investigators, bribe employees and persons in position to give me the information I want, and only when I am as certain as humanly possible that I cannot be wrong do I move. And the system never fails. Seven million dollars in the bank is proof of that.

Now, knowing that I could not live, I intended to make the system work for me one last time before I died. I’m a firm believer in the adage that any situation can be whipped, given prior knowledge of its coming – and, of course, its attendant circumstances.

For a moment he did not answer and I began to fear that my experiment had failed. “Where are you?” I repeated, louder and sharper this time.

The small muscles about his eyes puckered with an unnormal tension while the rest of his face held its death frost. Slowly, slowly, unnaturally – as though energized by some hyper-rational power – his lips and tongue moved.

The words he spoke were clear. “I am in a… a… tunnel,” he said. “It is lighted, dimly, but there is nothing for me to see.” Blue veins showed through the flesh of his cheeks like watermarks on translucent paper.

He paused and I urged, “Go on.”

“I am alone,” he said. “The realities I knew no longer exist, and I am damp and cold. All about me is a sense of gloom and dejection. It is an apprehension – an emanation – so deep and real as to be almost a tangible thing. The walls to either side of me seem to be formed, not of substance, but rather of the soundless cries of melancholy of spirits I cannot see.

“I am waiting, waiting in the gloom for something which will come to me. That need to wait is an innate part of my being and I have no thought of questioning it.” His voice died again.

“What are you waiting for?” I asked.

“I do not know,” he said, his voice dreary with the despair of centuries of hopelessness. “I only know that I must wait – that compulsion is greater than my strength to combat.”

The tone of his voice changed slightly. “The tunnel about me is widening and now the walls have receded into invisibility. The tunnel has become a plain, but the plain is as desolate, as forlorn and dreary as was the tunnel, and still I stand and wait. How long must this go on?”

He fell silent again, and I was about to prompt him with another question – I could not afford to let the time run out in long silences – but abruptly the muscles about his eyes tightened and subtly a new aspect replaced their hopeless dejection. Now they expressed a black, bottomless terror. For a moment I marveled that so small a portion of a facial anatomy could express such horror.

“There is something coming toward me,” he said. “A – beast – of brutish foulness! Beast is too inadequate a term to describe it, but I know no words to tell its form. It is an intangible and evasive – thing – but very real. And it is coming closer!

“It has no organs of sight as I know them, but I feel that it can see me. Or rather that it is aware of me with a sense sharper than vision itself. It is very near now. Oh God, the malevolence, the hate – the potentiality of awful, fearsome destructiveness that is its very essence! And still I cannot move!”

The expression of terrified anticipation, centered in his eyes, lessened slightly, and was replaced, instantly, by its former deep, deep despair. “I am no longer afraid,” he said.

“Why?” I interjected. “Why?” I was impatient to learn all that I could before the end came.

“Because…” He paused. “Because it holds no threat for me. Somehow, someday, I understand – I know – that it too is seeking that for which I wait.”

“What is it doing now?” I asked.

“It has stopped beside me and we stand together, gazing across the stark, empty plain. Now a second awful entity, with the same leashed virulence about it, moves up and stands at my other side. We all three wait, myself with a dark fear of this dismal universe, my unnatural companions with patient, malicious menace.

“Bits of…” He faltered. “Of… I can name it only aura, go out from the beasts like an acid stream, and touch me, and the hate, and the venom chill my body like a wave of intense cold.

“Now there are others of the awful breed behind me. We stand, waiting, waiting for that which will come. What it is I do not know.”

I could see the pallor of death creeping steadily into the last corners of his lips, and I knew that the end was not far away. Suddenly a black frustration built up within me. “What are you waiting for?” I screamed, the tenseness, and the importance of this moment forcing me to lose the iron self-control upon which I have always prided myself.

I knew that the answer held the secret of what I must know. If I could learn that, my experiment would not be in vain, and I could make whatever preparations were necessary for my own death. I had to know that answer.

“Think! Think!” I pleaded. “What are you waiting for?”

“I do not know!” The dreary despair in his eyes, sightless as they met mine, chilled me with a coldness that I felt in the marrow of my being. “I do not know,” he repeated. “I… Yes, I do know!”

Abruptly the plasmatic film cleared from his eyes and I knew that for the first time, since the poison struck, he was seeing me, clearly. I sensed that this was the last moment before he left – for good. It had to be now!

“Tell me. I command you,” I cried. “What are you waiting for?”

His voice was quiet as he murmured, softly, implacably, before he was gone.

“We are waiting,” he said, “for you.”

Reaper

Original illustration for Imagination Magazine by W. E. Terry.

 

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Miriam Allen DeFord (1888-1975) was a feminist, activist, newspaper reporter, editor, and a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction.

Early in her career, she wrote chiefly about historical events and politics from a left-wing perspective. She said in an interview, “I am unalterably and actively opposed to fascism, Nazism, Hitlerism, Hirohitoism, or whatever name may be applied to the monster.”

DeFord later turned to science fiction and, from the 1950s to the 1970s, published over 80 stories in various trade publications.

One critic described her writing as “a crisp, clear-cut style that sometimes lacks grace, but never vigor.” Which is a good description of the story below.

———

Oh, Rats!

By Miriam Allen DeFord
Published in Galaxy Magazine, December 1961

SK540, the 27th son of two very ordinary white laboratory rats, surveyed his world.

He was no more able than any other rat to possess articulate speech, or to use his paws as hands. All he had was a brain which, relative to its size, was superior to any rat’s that had hitherto appeared on Earth. It was enough.

In the first week of gestation his embryo had been removed to a more suitable receptacle than the maternal womb, and his brain had been stimulated with orthedrin, maxiton and glutamic acid. It had been continuously irrigated with blood. One hemisphere had been activated far in excess of the other, since previous experiments had shown that increased lack of symmetry between the hemispheres produced superior mentality. The end-result was an enormous increase in brain-cells in both hemispheres. His brain showed also a marked increase in cholinesterase over that of other rats.

SK540, in other words, was a super-rat.

The same processes had been applied to all his brothers and sisters. Most of them had died. The few who did not, failed to show the desired results, or showed them in so lopsided and partial a manner that it was necessary to destroy them.

All of this, of course had been mere preparation and experimentation with a view to later developments in human subjects. What SK540’s gods had not anticipated was that they would produce a creature mentally the superior, not only of his fellow-rats, but also, in some respects, of themselves.

He was a super-rat: but he was still a rat. His world of dreams and aspirations was not human, but murine.

What would you do if you were a brilliant, moody young super-rat, caged in a laboratory?

SK540 did it.

What human beings desired was health, freedom, wealth, love, and power. So did SK540. But to him health was taken for granted; freedom was freedom from cages, traps, cats, and dogs; wealth meant shelter from cold and rain and plenty to eat; love meant a constant supply of available females.

But power! It was in his longing for power that he most revealingly displayed his status as super-rat.

Therefore, once he had learned how to open his cage, he was carefully selective of the companions – actually, the followers – whom he would release to join his midnight hegira from the laboratory. Only the meekest and most subservient of the males – intelligent but not too intelligent – and the most desirable and amiable of the females were invited.

Once free of the cages, SK540 had no difficulty in leading his troop out of the building. The door of the laboratory was locked, but a window was slightly open from the top. Rats can climb up or down.

Like a silver ribbon they flowed along the dark street, SK540, looking exactly like all the rest, at their head. Only one person in the deserted streets seems to have noticed them, and he did not understand the nature of the phenomenon.

———

Young Mr. and Mrs. Philip Vinson started housekeeping in what had once been a mansion. It was now a rundown eyesore.

It had belonged to Norah Vinson’s great-aunt Martha, who had left it to her in her will. The estate was in litigation, but the executor had permitted the Vinsons to settle down in the house, though they weren’t allowed yet to sell it. It had no modern conveniences, and was full of rooms they couldn’t use and heavy old-fashioned furniture; but it was solidly built and near the laboratory where he worked as a technician, and they could live rent-free until they could sell the house and use the money to buy a real home.

“Something funny happened in the lab last night,” Philip reported, watching Norah struggle with dinner on the massive coal-stove. “Somebody broke in and stole about half our experimental animals. And they got our pride and joy.”

“The famous SK540?” Norah asked.

“The same. Actually, it wasn’t a break-in. It must have been an inside job. The cages were open but there were no signs of breaking and entering. We’re all under suspicion till they find out who-dunit.”

Norah looked alarmed.

“You too? What on earth would anybody want with a lot of laboratory rats? They aren’t worth anything, are they – financially, I mean?”

“Not a cent. That’s why I’m sure one of the clean-up kids must have done it. Probably wanted them for pets. They’re all tame, of course, not like wild rats – though they can bite like wild rats if they want to. Some of the ones missing are treated, and some are controls. It would just be a nuisance if they hadn’t taken SK540. Now they’ve got to find him, or do about five years’ work over again, without any assurance of as great a success. To say nothing of letting our super-rat loose on the world.”

“What on earth could even a super-rat do that would matter – to human beings, I mean?”

“Nobody knows. Maybe that’s what we’re going to find out.”

———

That night Norah woke suddenly with a loud scream. Philip got the gas lighted – there was no electricity in the old house – and held her shaking body in his arms. She found her breath at last long enough to sob: “It was a rat! A rat ran right over my face!”

“You’re dreaming, darling. It’s because I told you about the theft at the lab. There couldn’t be rats in this place. It’s too solidly built, from the basement up.”

He finally got her to sleep again, but he lay awake for a long time, listening. Nothing happened.

Rats can’t talk, but they can communicate. About the time Norah Vinson dropped off after her frightened wakening, SK540 was confronting a culprit. The culprit was one of the liberated males. His beady eyes tried to gaze into the implacable ones of SK540, but his tail twitched nervously and if he bared his teeth it was more in terror than in fight. They all knew that strict orders had been given not to disturb the humans in the house until SK540 had all his preparations made.

A little more of that silent communication, and the rat who had run over Norah’s face knew he had only two choices – have his throat slit or get out. He got.

“What do you know?” Philip said that evening. “One of our rats came back.”

“By itself?”

“Yeah. I never heard of such a thing. It was one of the experimental ones, so it was smarter than most, though not such an awful lot. I never heard of a rat with homing instinct before. But when we opened up this morning, there he was, sitting in his cage, ready for breakfast.”

“Speaking of breakfast, I thought I asked you to buy a big box of oatmeal on your way home yesterday. It’s about the only thing in the way of cereal I can manage on that old stove.”

“I did buy it. Don’t you remember? I left it in the kitchen.”

“Well, it wasn’t there this morning. All I know is that you’re going to have nothing but toast and coffee tomorrow. We seem to be out of eggs, too. And bacon. And I thought we had half a pound left of that cheese, but that’s gone too.”

“Good Lord, Norah, if you’ve got that much marketing to do, can’t you do it yourself?”

“Sure, if you leave the car. I’m not going to walk all that way and back.”

So of course Philip did do the shopping the next day. Besides, Norah had just remembered she had a date at the hairdresser’s.

———

When he got home her hair was still uncurled and she was in hysterics. One of the many amenities great-aunt Martha’s house lacked was a telephone; anyway, Norah couldn’t have been coherent over one. She cast herself, shuddering and crying, into Philip’s arms, and it was a long time before he got her soothed enough for her to gasp: “Philip! They wouldn’t let me out!”

“They? Who? What do you mean?”

“The – the rats! The white rats. They made a ring around me at the front door so I couldn’t open it. I ran to the back and they beat me there and did the same thing. I even tried the windows but it was no use. And their teeth – they all – I guess I went to pieces. I started throwing things at them and they just dodged. I yelled for help but there’s nobody near enough to hear. Then I gave up and ran in our bedroom and slammed the door on them, but they left guards outside. I heard them squeaking till you drove up, then I heard them run away.”

——–

Philip stared at her, scared to death. His wife had lost her mind.

“Now, now, sweetheart,” he said soothingly, “let’s get this straight. They fired a lab boy today. They found four of our rats in his home. He told some idiotic story of having ‘found’ them, with the others missing, running loose on the street that night, but of course he stole them. He must have sold the rest of them to other kids; they’re working on that now.”

Norah blew her nose and wiped her eyes. She had regained her usual calm.

“Philip Vinson,” she said coldly, “are you accusing me of lying, or just of being crazy? I’m neither. I saw and heard those rats. They’re here now. What’s more, I guess I know where that oatmeal went, and the eggs and bacon too, and the cheese. I’m – I’m a hostage!

“I don’t suppose,” she added sarcastically, “that your SK540 was one of the ones they found in the boy’s home?”

“No, it wasn’t,” he acknowledged uneasily. A nasty little icy trickle stole down his spine. “All right, Norah, I give in. You take the poker and I’ll take the hammer, and we’ll search this house from cellar to attic.”

“You won’t find them,” said Norah bitterly. “SK540’s too smart. They’ll stay inside the walls and keep quiet.”

“Then we’ll find the holes they went through and rout them out.”

They didn’t, of course. There wasn’t a sign of a rathole, or of a rat.

They got through dinner and the evening somehow. Norah put all the food not in cans inside the old-fashioned icebox which took the place of a refrigerator. Philip thought he was too disturbed to be able to sleep, but he did, and Norah, exhausted, was asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow.

His last doubt of his wife’s sanity vanished when, the next morning, they found the icebox door open and half the food gone.

———

“That settles it!” Philip announced. “Come on, Norah, put your coat on. You’re coming with me to the lab and we’ll report what’s happened. They’ll find those creatures if they have to tear the house apart to do it. That boy must have been telling the truth.”

“You couldn’t keep me away,” Norah responded. “I’ll never spend another minute alone in this house while those dreadful things are in it.”

But of course when they got to the front door, there they were, circling them, their teeth bared. The same with the back door and all the first floor windows.

“That’s SK540 all right, leading them,” Philip whispered through clenched jaws. He could smash them all, he supposed, in time, with what weapons he had. But he worked in the laboratory. He knew their value to science, especially SK540’s.

Rats couldn’t talk, he knew, and they couldn’t understand human speech. Nevertheless, some kind of communication might establish itself. SK540’s eyes were too intelligent not to believe that he was getting the gist of talk directed to him.

“This is utterly ridiculous,” Philip grated. “If you won’t let us out, how can we keep bringing food into the house for you? We’ll all starve, you and we together.”

He could have sworn SK540 was considering. But he guessed the implicit answer. Let either one of them out, now they knew the rats were there, and men from the laboratory would come quickly and overwhelm and carry off the besiegers. It was a true impasse.

“Philip,” Norah reminded him, “if you don’t go to work, they know we haven’t a phone, and somebody will be here pretty soon to find out if anything’s wrong.”

But that wouldn’t help, Philip reflected gloomily; they’d let anyone in, and keep him there.

And he thought to himself, and was careful not to say it aloud: rats are rats. Even if they are 25th generation laboratory-born. When the other food was gone there would be human meat.

He did not want to look at them any more. He took Norah’s arm and turned away into their bedroom.

They stayed there all day, too upset to think of eating, talking and talking to no conclusion. As dusk came on they did not light the gas. Exhausted, they lay down on the bed without undressing.

After a while there was a quiet scratching at the door.

“Don’t let them in!” Norah whispered. Her teeth were chattering.

“I must, dear,” he whispered back. “It isn’t ‘them,’ I’m sure of it – it’s just SK540 himself. I’ve been expecting him. We’ve got to reach some kind of understanding.”

“With a rat?”

“With a super-rat. We have no choice.”

Philip was right. SK540 alone stood there and sidled in as the door closed solidly again behind him.

How could one communicate with a rat? Philip could think of no way except to pick him up, place him where they were face to face, and talk.

“Are your – followers outside?” he asked.

A rodent’s face can have no expression, but Philip caught a glance of contempt in the beady eyes. The slaves were doubtless bedded down in their hideaway, with strict orders to stay there and keep quiet.

“You know,” Philip Vinson went on, “I could kill you, very easily.” The words would mean nothing to SK540; the tone might. He watched the beady eyes; there was nothing in them but intelligent attention, no flicker of fear.

“Or I could tie you up and take you to the laboratory and let them decide whether to keep you or kill you. We are all much bigger and stronger than you. Without your army you can’t intimidate us.”

There was, of course, no answer. But SK540 did a startling and touching thing. He reached out one front paw, as if in appeal.

Norah caught her breath in astonishment.

———

“He – he just wants to be free,” she said in a choked whisper.

“You mean you’re not afraid of him any more?”

“You said yourself he couldn’t intimidate us without his army.”

Philip thought a minute. Then he said slowly:

“I wonder if we had the right to do this to him in the first place. He would have been an ordinary laboratory rat, mindless and contented; we’ve made him into a neurotic alien in his world.”

“You’re not responsible, darling; you’re a technician, not a biochemist.”

“I share the responsibility. We all do.”

“So what? The fact remains that it was done, and here he is – and here we are.”

The doorbell rang.

Philip and Norah exchanged glances. SK540 watched them.

“It’s probably Kelly, from the lab,” Philip said, “trying to find out why I wasn’t there today. It’s just about quitting time, and he lives nearest us.”

Norah astonished him. She picked up SK540 from the bed-side table where Philip had placed him, and hid him under her pillow.

“Get rid of whoever it is,” she said defensively. Philip stared for an instant, then walked briskly downstairs. He was back in a few minutes.

“It was Kelly, all right,” he told her. “I said you were sick and I couldn’t leave you to phone. I said I’d be there tomorrow. Now what?”

SK540’s white whiskers emerged from under the pillow, and he jumped over to the table again. Norah’s cheeks were pink.

“When it came to the point, I just couldn’t,” she explained shamefacedly. “I suddenly realized that he’s a person. I couldn’t let him be taken back to prison.”

“Aren’t you frightened any more?”

“Not of him.” She faced the super-rat squarely. “Look,” she said, “if we take care of you, will you get rid of that gang of yours, so we can be free too?”

“That’s nonsense, Norah,” Philip objected. “He can’t possibly understand you.”

“Dogs and cats learn to understand enough, and he’s smarter than any dog or cat that ever lived.”

“But –”

The words froze on his lips. SK540 had jumped to the floor and run to the door. There he stood and looked back at them, his tail twitching.

“He wants us to follow him,” Norah murmured.

There was no sign of a hole in the back wall of the disused pantry. But behind it they could hear squeaks and rustlings.

SK540 scratched delicately at almost invisible cracks. A section of the wall, two by four inches, fell out on the floor.

“So that’s where some of the oatmeal went,” Norah commented. “Made into paste.”

“Sh!”

SK540 vanished through the hole. They waited, listening to incomprehensible sounds. Outside it had grown dark.

———

Then the leader emerged and stood to one side of the long line that pattered through the hole. The two humans stared, fascinated, as the line made straight for the back door and under it. SK540 stayed where he was.

“Will they go back to the lab?” Norah asked.

Philip shrugged.

“It doesn’t matter. Some of them may… I feel like a traitor.”

“I don’t. I feel like one of those people who hid escaped war prisoners in Europe.”

When the rats were all gone, they turned to SK540. But without a glance at them he re-entered the hiding-place. In a minute he returned, herding two white rats before him. He stood still, obviously expectant.

Philip squatted on his heels. He picked up the two refugees and looked them over.

“Both females,” he announced briefly. “And both pregnant.”

“Is he the father?”

“Who else? He’d see to that.”

“And will they inherit his – his –”

“His ‘super-ratism’? That’s the whole point. That’s the object of the entire experiment. They were going to try it soon.”

The three white rats had scarcely moved. The two mothers-to-be had apparently fallen asleep. Only SK540 stood quietly eying the humans. When they left him to find a place where they could talk in private he did not follow them.

“It comes down to this,” Philip said at the end of half an hour’s fruitless discussion. “We promised him, or as good as. He believed us and trusted us.

“But if we keep to our promise we’re really traitors – to the human race.”

“You mean, if the offspring should inherit his brain-power, they might overrun us all?”

“Not might. Would.”

“So –”

“So it’s an insoluble problem, on our terms. We have to think of this as a war, and of them as our enemies. What is our word of honor to a rat?”

“But to a super-rat – to SK540 –”

As if called, SK540 appeared.

Had he been listening? Had he understood? Neither of them dared to voice the question aloud in his presence.

“Later,” Philip murmured.

“We must eat,” said Norah. “Let’s see what’s left in the way of food.”

———

Everything tasted flat; they weren’t very hungry after all. There was enough left over to feed the three rats. But they had evidently helped themselves earlier; they left the scraps untasted.

Neither of the humans guessed what else had vanished from the pantry shelves – what, when he had heard enough, SK540 had slipped away and sprinkled on the remaining contents of the icebox, wherever the white powder would not show.

They did not know until it was too late – until both of them lay writhing in their last spasms on their bedroom floor.

By the time the house was broken into and their bodies found, SK540 and his two wives were far away, and safe…

And this, children, is the true account, handed down by tradition from the days of our great Founder, of how the human race ceased to exist and we took over the world.

Rats

 

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More poetry that isn’t pretentious and a waste of time…

———

The Song of Wandering Aengus*

By William Butler Yeats

Yates-WB

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

* In Irish mythology, Aengus is the Love God. This poem tells the story of Aengus and the beautiful Caer, who appeared in his dreams, and for whom he searched for years thereafter. https://bardmythologies.com/aengus-og/

———

I Am

By Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Wilcox EW2

Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919)

I Know not whence I came,
I know not whither I go;
But the fact stands clear that I am here
In this world of pleasure and woe.
And out of the mist and murk
Another truth shines plain
It is my power each day and hour
To add to its joy or its pain.

I know that the earth exists,
It is none of my business why;
I cannot find out what it’s all about,
I would but waste time to try.
My life is a brief, brief thing,
I am here for a little space,
And while I stay I would like, if I may,
To brighten and better the place.

The trouble, I think, with us all
Is the lack of a high conceit.
If each man thought he was sent to this spot
To make it a bit more sweet,
How soon we could gladden the world,
How easily right all wrong,
If nobody shirked, and each one worked
To help his fellows along!

Cease wondering why you came
Stop looking for faults and flaws;
Rise up to-day in your pride and say,
‘I am part of the First Great Cause!
However full the world,
There is room for an earnest man.
It had need of me, or I would not be

I am here to strengthen the plan.’

———

The Peace Of Wild Things

By Wendell Berry

Berry-W

Wendell Erdman Berry (B. 1934)

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

———

I’m Nobody! Who Are You?

By Emily Dickinson

Dickenson-E

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886)

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! They’d advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!

———

Ode 1.11

By Horace

Horace

Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC – 8 BC)

Leucon, no one is allowed to know his fate.
Not you, not me. Don’t ask, don’t hunt for answers
In tea leaves or palms.

Be patient with whatever comes.
This could be the last winter,
Or the Tuscan Sea could be
Pounding these rocks for many more.

Be wise, tend your vines,
And forget about long-term hopes.
Time flies, even as we talk.
Seize the day, trusting tomorrow as little as possible.

 

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The celebrated American writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007) had the unsettling ability to create preposterous, madcap scenarios, usually a blend of satire and gallows humor, then insert elements of catastrophic horror and dread.

To wit, in “Cat’s Cradle,” his 1963 novel about religion and the arms race, the molecules of all the water on the planet simultaneously crystallize into a substance called ice-nine.

Further, “Slaughterhouse Five, his 1969 anti-war/time-travel novel, includes the terrible firebombing of Dresden during WWII. As you may know, Vonnegut was a prisoner there during the Allied bombing. He and other POWs survived by hiding in a meat locker at the slaughterhouse where they were imprisoned.

The short story below is similarly bleak and awful in tone. “2BR02B” (To Be or Naught to Be) tells of a future Earth where aging and death are optional, and strict population control is enforced; to make room for a newborn, someone must volunteer to die.

Vintage Vonnegut.

———

2BR02B

By Kurt Vonnegut
Published in Worlds of If Science Fiction, January 1962

Everything was perfectly swell.

There were no prisons, no slums, no insane asylums, no cripples, no poverty, no wars.

All diseases were conquered. So was old age.

Death, barring accidents, was an adventure for volunteers.

The population of the United States was stabilized at forty-million souls.

One bright morning in the Chicago Lying-in Hospital, a man named Edward K. Wehling, Jr., waited for his wife to give birth. He was the only man waiting. Not many people were born a day any more.

Wehling was fifty-six, a mere stripling in a population whose average age was one hundred and twenty-nine.

X-rays had revealed that his wife was going to have triplets. The children would be his first.

Young Wehling was hunched in his chair, his head in his hand. He was so rumpled, so still and colorless as to be virtually invisible. His camouflage was perfect, since the waiting room had a disorderly and demoralized air, too. Chairs and ashtrays had been moved away from the walls. The floor was paved with spattered dropcloths.

The room was being redecorated. It was being redecorated as a memorial to a man who had volunteered to die.

A sardonic old man, about two hundred years old, sat on a stepladder, painting a mural he did not like. Back in the days when people aged visibly, his age would have been guessed at thirty-five or so. Aging had touched him that much before the cure for aging was found.

The mural he was working on depicted a very neat garden. Men and women in white, doctors and nurses, turned the soil, planted seedlings, sprayed bugs, spread fertilizer.

Men and women in purple uniforms pulled up weeds, cut down plants that were old and sickly, raked leaves, carried refuse to trash-burners.

Never, never, never — not even in medieval Holland nor old Japan — had a garden been more formal, been better tended. Every plant had all the loam, light, water, air and nourishment it could use.

A hospital orderly came down the corridor, singing under his breath a popular song:

If you don’t like my kisses, honey,
Here’s what I will do:
I’ll go see a girl in purple,
Kiss this sad world toodle-oo.
If you don’t want my lovin’,
Why should I take up all this space?
I’ll get off this old planet,
Let some sweet baby have my place.

The orderly looked in at the mural and the muralist. “Looks so real,” he said, “I can practically imagine I’m standing in the middle of it.”

“What makes you think you’re not in it?” said the painter. He gave a satiric smile. “It’s called ‘The Happy Garden of Life,’ you know.”

“That’s good of Dr. Hitz,” said the orderly.

He was referring to one of the male figures in white, whose head was a portrait of Dr. Benjamin Hitz, the hospital’s Chief Obstetrician. Hitz was a blindingly handsome man.

“Lot of faces still to fill in,” said the orderly. He meant that the faces of many of the figures in the mural were still blank. All blanks were to be filled with portraits of important people on either the hospital staff or from the Chicago Office of the Federal Bureau of Termination.

“Must be nice to be able to make pictures that look like something,” said the orderly.

The painter’s face curdled with scorn. “You think I’m proud of this daub?” he said. “You think this is my idea of what life really looks like?”

“What’s your idea of what life looks like?” said the orderly.

The painter gestured at a foul dropcloth. “There’s a good picture of it,” he said. “Frame that, and you’ll have a picture a damn sight more honest than this one.”

“You’re a gloomy old duck, aren’t you?” said the orderly.

“Is that a crime?” said the painter.

The orderly shrugged. “If you don’t like it here, Grandpa –” he said, and he finished the thought with the trick telephone number that people who didn’t want to live any more were supposed to call. The zero in the telephone number he pronounced “naught.”

The number was: “2 B R 0 2 B.”

It was the telephone number of an institution whose fanciful sobriquets included: “Automat,” “Birdland,” “Cannery,” “Catbox,” “De-louser,” “Easy-go,” “Good-by, Mother,” “Happy Hooligan,” “Kiss-me-quick,” “Lucky Pierre,” “Sheepdip,” “Waring Blender,” “Weep-no-more” and “Why Worry?”

“To be or not to be” was the telephone number of the municipal gas chambers of the Federal Bureau of Termination.

The painter thumbed his nose at the orderly. “When I decide it’s time to go,” he said, “it won’t be at the Sheepdip.”

“A do-it-yourselfer, eh?” said the orderly. “Messy business, Grandpa. Why don’t you have a little consideration for the people who have to clean up after you?”

The painter expressed with an obscenity his lack of concern for the tribulations of his survivors. “The world could do with a good deal more mess, if you ask me,” he said.

The orderly laughed and moved on.

Wehling, the waiting father, mumbled something without raising his head. And then he fell silent again.

A coarse, formidable woman strode into the waiting room on spike heels. Her shoes, stockings, trench coat, bag and overseas cap were all purple, the purple the painter called “the color of grapes on Judgment Day.”

The medallion on her purple musette bag was the seal of the Service Division of the Federal Bureau of Termination, an eagle perched on a turnstile.

The woman had a lot of facial hair — an unmistakable mustache, in fact. A curious thing about gas-chamber hostesses was that, no matter how lovely and feminine they were when recruited, they all sprouted mustaches within five years or so.

“Is this where I’m supposed to come?” she said to the painter.

“A lot would depend on what your business was,” he said. “You aren’t about to have a baby, are you?”

“They told me I was supposed to pose for some picture,” she said. “My name’s Leora Duncan.” She waited.

“And you dunk people,” he said.

“What?” she said.

“Skip it,” he said.

“That sure is a beautiful picture,” she said. “Looks just like heaven or something.”

“Or something,” said the painter. He took a list of names from his smock pocket. “Duncan, Duncan, Duncan,” he said, scanning the list. “Yes — here you are. You’re entitled to be immortalized. See any faceless body here you’d like me to stick your head on? We’ve got a few choice ones left.”

She studied the mural bleakly. “Gee,” she said, “they’re all the same to me. I don’t know anything about art.”

“A body’s a body, eh?” he said. “All righty. As a master of fine art, I recommend this body here.” He indicated a faceless figure of a woman who was carrying dried stalks to a trash-burner.

“Well,” said Leora Duncan, “that’s more the disposal people, isn’t it? I mean, I’m in service. I don’t do any disposing.”

The painter clapped his hands in mock delight. “You say you don’t know anything about art, and then you prove in the next breath that you know more about it than I do! Of course the sheave-carrier is wrong for a hostess! A snipper, a pruner — that’s more your line.” He pointed to a figure in purple who was sawing a dead branch from an apple tree. “How about her?” he said. “You like her at all?”

“Gosh –” she said, and she blushed and became humble — “that — that puts me right next to Dr. Hitz.”

“That upsets you?” he said.

“Good gravy, no!” she said. “It’s — it’s just such an honor.”

“Ah, You… you admire him, eh?” he said.

“Who doesn’t admire him?” she said, worshiping the portrait of Hitz. It was the portrait of a tanned, white-haired, omnipotent Zeus, two hundred and forty years old. “Who doesn’t admire him?” she said again. “He was responsible for setting up the very first gas chamber in Chicago.”

“Nothing would please me more,” said the painter, “than to put you next to him for all time. Sawing off a limb—that strikes you as appropriate?”

“That is kind of like what I do,” she said. She was demure about what she did. What she did was make people comfortable while she killed them.

And, while Leora Duncan was posing for her portrait, into the waiting-room bounded Dr. Hitz himself. He was seven feet tall, and he boomed with importance, accomplishments, and the joy of living.

“Well, Miss Duncan! Miss Duncan!” he said, and he made a joke. “What are you doing here?” he said. “This isn’t where the people leave. This is where they come in!”

“We’re going to be in the same picture together,” she said shyly.

“Good!” said Dr. Hitz heartily. “And, say, isn’t that some picture?”

“I sure am honored to be in it with you,” she said.

“Let me tell you,” he said, “I’m honored to be in it with you. Without women like you, this wonderful world we’ve got wouldn’t be possible.”

He saluted her and moved toward the door that led to the delivery rooms. “Guess what was just born,” he said.

“I can’t,” she said.

“Triplets!” he said.

“Triplets!” she said. She was exclaiming over the legal implications of triplets.

The law said that no newborn child could survive unless the parents of the child could find someone who would volunteer to die. Triplets, if they were all to live, called for three volunteers.

“Do the parents have three volunteers?” said Leora Duncan.

“Last I heard,” said Dr. Hitz, “they had one, and were trying to scrape another two up.”

“I don’t think they made it,” she said. “Nobody made three appointments with us. Nothing but singles going through today, unless somebody called in after I left. What’s the name?”

“Wehling,” said the waiting father, sitting up, red-eyed and frowzy. “Edward K. Wehling, Jr., is the name of the happy father-to-be.”

He raised his right hand, looked at a spot on the wall, gave a hoarsely wretched chuckle. “Present,” he said.

“Oh, Mr. Wehling,” said Dr. Hitz, “I didn’t see you.”

“The invisible man,” said Wehling.

“They just phoned me that your triplets have been born,” said Dr. Hitz. “They’re all fine, and so is the mother. I’m on my way in to see them now.”

“Hooray,” said Wehling emptily.

“You don’t sound very happy,” said Dr. Hitz.

“What man in my shoes wouldn’t be happy?” said Wehling. He gestured with his hands to symbolize care-free simplicity. “All I have to do is pick out which one of the triplets is going to live, then deliver my maternal grandfather to the Happy Hooligan, and come back here with a receipt.”

Dr. Hitz became rather severe with Wehling, towered over him. “You don’t believe in population control, Mr. Wehling?” he said.

“I think it’s perfectly keen,” said Wehling tautly.

“Would you like to go back to the good old days, when the population of the Earth was twenty billion — about to become forty billion, then eighty billion, then one hundred and sixty billion? Do you know what a drupelet is, Mr. Wehling?” said Hitz.

“Nope,” said Wehling sulkily.

“A drupelet, Mr. Wehling, is one of the little knobs, one of the little pulpy grains of a blackberry,” said Dr. Hitz. “Without population control, human beings would now be packed on this surface of this old planet like drupelets on a blackberry! Think of it!”

Wehling continued to stare at the same spot on the wall.

“In the year 2000,” said Dr. Hitz, “before scientists stepped in and laid down the law, there wasn’t even enough drinking water to go around, and nothing to eat but sea-weed — and still people insisted on their right to reproduce like jackrabbits. And their right, if possible, to live forever.”

“I want those kids,” said Wehling quietly. “I want all three of them.”

“Of course you do,” said Dr. Hitz. “That’s only human.”

“I don’t want my grandfather to die, either,” said Wehling.

“Nobody’s really happy about taking a close relative to the Catbox,” said Dr. Hitz gently, sympathetically.

“I wish people wouldn’t call it that,” said Leora Duncan.

“What?” said Dr. Hitz.

“I wish people wouldn’t call it ‘the Catbox,’ and things like that,” she said. “It gives people the wrong impression.”

“You’re absolutely right,” said Dr. Hitz. “Forgive me.” He corrected himself, gave the municipal gas chambers their official title, a title no one ever used in conversation. “I should have said, ‘Ethical Suicide Studios,'” he said.

“That sounds so much better,” said Leora Duncan.

“This child of yours — whichever one you decide to keep, Mr. Wehling,” said Dr. Hitz. “He or she is going to live on a happy, roomy, clean, rich planet, thanks to population control. In a garden like that mural there.” He shook his head. “Two centuries ago, when I was a young man, it was a hell that nobody thought could last another twenty years. Now centuries of peace and plenty stretch before us as far as the imagination cares to travel.”

He smiled luminously.

The smile faded as he saw that Wehling had just drawn a revolver.

Wehling shot Dr. Hitz dead. “There’s room for one — a great big one,” he said.

And then he shot Leora Duncan. “It’s only death,” he said to her as she fell. “There! Room for two.”

And then he shot himself, making room for all three of his children.

Nobody came running. Nobody, seemingly, heard the shots.

The painter sat on the top of his stepladder, looking down reflectively on the sorry scene.

The painter pondered the mournful puzzle of life demanding to be born and, once born, demanding to be fruitful… to multiply and to live as long as possible — to do all that on a very small planet that would have to last forever.

All the answers that the painter could think of were grim. Even grimmer, surely, than a Catbox, a Happy Hooligan, an Easy Go. He thought of war. He thought of plague. He thought of starvation.

He knew that he would never paint again. He let his paintbrush fall to the drop-cloths below. And then he decided he had had about enough of life in the Happy Garden of Life, too, and he came slowly down from the ladder.

He took Wehling’s pistol, really intending to shoot himself.

But he didn’t have the nerve.

And then he saw the telephone booth in the corner of the room. He went to it, dialed the well-remembered number: “2 B R 0 2 B.”

“Federal Bureau of Termination,” said the very warm voice of a hostess.

“How soon could I get an appointment?” he asked, speaking very carefully.

“We could probably fit you in late this afternoon, sir,” she said. “It might even be earlier, if we get a cancellation.”

“All right,” said the painter, “fit me in, if you please.” And he gave her his name, spelling it out.

“Thank you, sir,” said the hostess. “Your city thanks you; your country thanks you; your planet thanks you. But the deepest thanks of all is from future generations.”

Triplets

 

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Science fiction writer Dallas McCord “Mack Reynolds (1917-1983) was an avowed socialist. (His father Verne twice ran for President as the candidate of the Socialist Labor Party.) Reynolds was who he was, and his political views often showed up in his fiction.

Few of his fellow writers agreed with his politics, but they either kept quiet or kept their distance. The publishers, however, were not so discreet. Reynolds struggled to find willing publishers, especially in the top publications.

Nevertheless, he was talented and popular with the public, and he succeeded in spite of the bias. You have to admire a guy who stays true to his beliefs.

———

I’m a Stranger Here Myself

By Mack Reynolds
Published in Amazing Stories, December 1960

The Place de France is the town’s hub. It marks the end of Boulevard Pasteur, the main drag of the westernized part of the city, and the beginning of Rue de la Liberté, which leads down to the Grand Socco and the medina. In a three-minute walk from the Place de France you can go from an ultra-modern, California-like resort to the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid.

It’s quite a town, Tangier.

King-size sidewalk cafes occupy three of the strategic corners on the Place de France. The Cafe de Paris serves the best draft beer in town, gets all the better custom, and has three shoeshine boys attached to the establishment. You can sit of a sunny morning and read the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune while getting your shoes done up like mirrors for thirty Moroccan francs which comes to about five cents at current exchange.

You can sit there, after the paper’s read, sip your espresso and watch the people go by.

Tangier is possibly the most cosmopolitan city in the world. In native costume you’ll see Berber and Rif, Arab and Blue Man, and occasionally a Senegalese from further south. In European dress you’ll see Japs and Chinese, Hindus and Turks, Levantines and Filipinos, North Americans and South Americans, and, of course, even Europeans — from both sides of the Curtain.

In Tangier you’ll find some of the world’s poorest and some of the richest. The poorest will try to sell you anything from a shoeshine to their not very lily-white bodies, and the richest will avoid your eyes, afraid you might try to sell them something.

In spite of recent changes, the town still has its unique qualities. As a result of them the permanent population includes smugglers and black-marketeers, fugitives from justice and international con men, espionage and counter-espionage agents, homosexuals, nymphomaniacs, alcoholics, drug addicts, displaced persons, ex-royalty, and subversives of every flavor. Local law limits the activities of few of these.

Like I said, it’s quite a town.

I looked up from my Herald Tribune and said, “Hello, Paul. Anything new cooking?”

He sank into the chair opposite me and looked around for the waiter. The tables were all crowded and since mine was a face he recognized, he assumed he was welcome to intrude. It was more or less standard procedure at the Cafe de Paris. It wasn’t a place to go if you wanted to be alone.

Paul said, “How are you, Rupert? Haven’t seen you for donkey’s years.”

The waiter came along and Paul ordered a glass of beer. Paul was an easy-going, sallow-faced little man. I vaguely remembered somebody saying he was from Liverpool and in exports.

“What’s in the newspaper?” he said, disinterestedly.

“Pogo and Albert are going to fight a duel,” I told him, “and Lil Abner is becoming a rock’n’roll singer.”

He grunted.

“Oh,” I said, “the intellectual type.” I scanned the front page. “The Russkies have put up another manned satellite.”

“They have, eh? How big?”

“Several times bigger than anything we Americans have.”

The beer came and looked good, so I ordered a glass too.

Paul said, “What ever happened to those poxy flying saucers?”

“What flying saucers?”

A French girl went by with a poodle so finely clipped as to look as though it’d been shaven. The girl was in the latest from Paris. Every pore in place. We both looked after her.

“You know, what everybody was seeing a few years ago. It’s too bad one of these bloody manned satellites wasn’t up then. Maybe they would’ve seen one.”

“That’s an idea,” I said.

We didn’t say anything else for a while and I began to wonder if I could go back to my paper without rubbing him the wrong way. I didn’t know Paul very well, but, for that matter, it’s comparatively seldom you ever get to know anybody very well in Tangier. Largely, cards are played close to the chest.

My beer came and a plate of tapas for us both. Tapas at the Cafe de Paris are apt to be potato salad, a few anchovies, olives, and possibly some cheese. Free lunch, they used to call it in the States.

Just to say something, I said, “Where do you think they came from?” And when he looked blank, I added, “The Flying Saucers.”

He grinned. “From Mars or Venus, or someplace.”

“Ummmm,” I said. “Too bad none of them ever crashed, or landed on the Yale football field and said Take me to your cheerleader, or something.”

Paul yawned and said, “That was always the trouble with those crackpot blokes’ explanations of them. If they were aliens from space, then why not show themselves?”

I ate one of the potato chips. It’d been cooked in rancid olive oil.

I said, “Oh, there are various answers to that one. We could probably sit around here and think of two or three that made sense.”

Paul was mildly interested. “Like what?”

“Well, hell, suppose for instance there’s this big Galactic League of civilized planets. But it’s restricted, see. You’re not eligible for membership until you, well, say until you’ve developed space flight. Then you’re invited into the club. Meanwhile, they send secret missions down from time to time to keep an eye on your progress.”

Paul grinned at me. “I see you read the same poxy stuff I do.”

A Moorish girl went by dressed in a neatly tailored gray djellaba, European style high-heeled shoes, and a pinkish silk veil so transparent that you could see she wore lipstick. Very provocative, dark eyes can be over a veil. We both looked after her.

I said, “Or, here’s another one. Suppose you have a very advanced civilization on, say, Mars.”

“Not Mars. No air, and too bloody dry to support life.”

“Don’t interrupt, please,” I said with mock severity. “This is a very old civilization and as the planet began to lose its water and air, it withdrew underground. Uses hydroponics and so forth, husbands its water and air. Isn’t that what we’d do, in a few million years, if Earth lost its water and air?”

“I suppose so,” he said. “Anyway, what about them?”

“Well, they observe how man is going through a scientific boom, an industrial boom, a population boom. A boom, period. Any day now he’s going to have practical space ships. Meanwhile, he’s also got the H-Bomb and the way he beats the drums on both sides of the Curtain, he’s not against using it, if he could get away with it.”

Paul said, “I got it. So they’re scared and are keeping an eye on us. That’s an old one. I’ve read that a dozen times, dished up different.”

I shifted my shoulders. “Well, it’s one possibility.”

“I got a better one. How’s this. There’s this alien life form that’s way ahead of us. Their civilization is so old that they don’t have any records of when it began and how it was in the early days. They’ve gone beyond things like wars and depressions and revolutions, and greed for power or any of these things giving us a bad time here on Earth. They’re all like scholars, get it? And some of them are pretty jolly well taken by Earth, especially the way we are right now, with all the problems, get it? Things developing so fast we don’t know where we’re going or how we’re going to get there.”

I finished my beer and clapped my hands for Mouley. “How do you mean, where we’re going?”

“Well, take half the countries in the world today. They’re trying to industrialize, modernize, catch up with the advanced countries. Look at Egypt, and Israel, and India and China, and Yugoslavia and Brazil, and all the rest. Trying to drag themselves up to the level of the advanced countries, and all using different methods of doing it. But look at the so-called advanced countries. Up to their bottoms in problems. Juvenile delinquents, climbing crime and suicide rates, the loony-bins full of the balmy, unemployed, threat of war, spending all their money on armaments instead of things like schools. All the bloody mess of it. Why, a man from Mars would be fascinated, like.”

Mouley came shuffling up in his babouche slippers and we both ordered another schooner of beer.

Paul said seriously, “You know, there’s only one big snag in this sort of talk. I’ve sorted the whole thing out before, and you always come up against this brick wall. Where are they, these observers, or scholars, or spies or whatever they are? Sooner or later we’d nab one of them. You know, Scotland Yard, or the F.B.I., or Russia’s secret police, or the French Sûreté, or Interpol. This world is so deep in police, counter-espionage outfits and security agents that an alien would slip up in time, no matter how much he’d been trained. Sooner or later, he’d slip up, and they’d nab him.”

I shook my head. “Not necessarily. The first time I ever considered this possibility, it seemed to me that such an alien would base himself in London or New York. Somewhere where he could use the libraries for research, get the daily newspapers and the magazines. Be right in the center of things. But now I don’t think so. I think he’d be right here in Tangier.”

“Why Tangier?”

“It’s the one town in the world where anything goes. Nobody gives a damn about you or your affairs. For instance, I’ve known you a year or more now, and I haven’t the slightest idea of how you make your living.”

“That’s right,” Paul admitted. “In this town you seldom even ask a man where’s he’s from. He can be British, a White Russian, a Basque or a Sikh and nobody could care less. Where are you from, Rupert?”

“California,” I told him.

“No, you’re not,” he grinned.

I was taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“I felt your mind probe back a few minutes ago when I was talking about Scotland Yard or the F.B.I. possibly flushing an alien. Telepathy is a sense not trained by the humanoids. If they had it, your job — and mine — would be considerably more difficult. Let’s face it, in spite of these human bodies we’re disguised in, neither of us is humanoid. Where are you really from, Rupert?”

“Aldebaran,” I said. “How about you?”

“Deneb,” he told me, shaking.

We had a laugh and ordered another beer.

“What’re you doing here on Earth?” I asked him.

“Researching for one of our meat trusts. We’re protein eaters. Humanoid flesh is considered quite a delicacy. How about you?”

“Scouting the place for thrill tourists. My job is to go around to these backward cultures and help stir up inter-tribal, or international, conflict — all according to how advanced they are. Then our tourists come in — well shielded, of course — and get their kicks watching it.”

Paul frowned. “That sort of practice could spoil an awful lot of good meat.”

Tangier

It’s quite a town.

 

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Author Michael Shaara (1928-1988) is best known for his novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, “The Killer Angels,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. But Shaara also wrote science fiction.

His father was an immigrant from Italy named “Sciarra,” which a bonehead clerk at Ellis Island recorded phonetically.

A graduate of Rutgers, Shaara was at various times a paratrooper, merchant seaman, police officer, and amateur boxer — who ended up teaching literature at Florida State and writing a lot of memorable stuff.

———

Man of Distinction

By Michael Shaara
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1956

The remarkable distinction of Thatcher Blitt did not come to the attention of a bemused world until late in the year 2180. Although Thatcher Blitt was, by the standards of his time, an extremely successful man financially, this was not considered real distinction. Unfortunately for Blitt, it never has been.

The history books do not record the names of the most successful merchants of the past unless they happened by chance to have been connected with famous men of the time. Thus Croesus is remembered largely for his contributions to famous Romans and successful armies. And Haym Solomon, a similarly wealthy man, would have been long forgotten had he not also been a financial mainstay of the American Revolution and consorted with famous, if impoverished, statesmen.

So if Thatcher Blitt was distinct among men, the distinction was not immediately apparent. He was a small, gaunt, fragile man who had the kind of face and bearing that are perfect for movie crowd scenes. Absolutely forgettable. Yet Thatcher Blitt was one of the foremost businessmen of his time. For he was president and founder of that noble institution, Genealogy, Inc.

Thatcher Blitt was not yet 25 when he made the discovery which was to make him among the richest men of his time. His discovery was, like all great ones, obvious yet profound. He observed that every person had a father.

Carrying on with this thought, it followed inevitably that every father had a father, and so on. In fact, thought Blitt, when you considered the matter rightly, everyone alive was the direct descendant of untold numbers of fathers, down through the ages, all descending, one after another, father to son. And so backward, unquestionably, into the unrecognizable and perhaps simian fathers of the past.

This thought, on the face of it not particularly profound, struck young Blitt like a blow. He saw that since each man had a father, and so on and so on, it ought to be possible to construct the genealogy of every person now alive. In short, it should be possible to trace your family back, father by father, to the beginning of time.

And of course it was. For that was the era of the time scanner. And with a time scanner, it would be possible to document your family tree with perfect accuracy. You could find out exactly from whom you had sprung.

And so Thatcher Blitt made his fortune. He saw clearly at the beginning what most of us see only now, and he patented it. He was aware not only of the deep-rooted sense of snobbishness that exists in many people, but also of the simple yet profound force of curiosity.

Who exactly, one says to oneself, was my forty-times-great-great-grandfather? A Roman Legionary? A Viking? A pyramid builder? One of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand? Or was he, perhaps (for it is always possible), Alexander the Great?

Thatcher Blitt had a product to sell. And sell he did, for other reasons that he alone had noted at the beginning. The races of mankind have twisted and turned with incredible complexity over the years; the numbers of people have been enormous.

With thirty thousand years in which to work, it was impossible that there was not, somewhere along the line, a famous ancestor for everybody. A minor king would often suffice, or even a general in some forgotten army. And if these direct ancestors were not enough, it was fairly simple to establish close blood kinship with famous men. The blood lines of Man, you see, begin with a very few people. In all of ancient Greece, in the time of Pericles, there were only a few thousand families.

Seeing all this, Thatcher Blitt became a busy man. It was necessary not only to patent his idea, but to produce the enormous capital needed to found a large organization. The cost of the time scanner was at first prohibitive, but gradually that obstacle was overcome, only for Thatcher to find that the government for many years prevented him from using it. Yet Blitt was indomitable. And eventually, after years of heart-rending waiting, Genealogy, Inc. began operations.

It was a tremendous success. Within months, the very name of the company and its taut slogan, “An Ancestor for Everybody,” became household words. There was but one immediate drawback. It soon became apparent that, without going back very far into the past, it was sometimes impossible to tell who was really the next father in line. The mothers were certain, but the fathers were something else again. This was a ponderable point.

But Blitt refused to be discouraged. He set various electronic engineers to work on the impasse and a solution was found. An ingenious device which tested blood electronically through the scanner — based on the different sine waves of the blood groups — saved the day.

That invention was the last push Genealogy, Inc. was ever to need. It rolled on to become one of the richest and, for a long while, most exclusive corporations in the world.

Yet it was still many years before Thatcher Blitt himself had time to rest. There were patent infringements to be fought, new developments in the labs to be watched, new ways to be found to make the long and arduous task of father-tracing easier and more economical. Hence he was well past sixty when he at last had time to begin considering himself.

He had become by this time a moderately offensive man. Surrounded as he had been all these years by pomp and luxury, by impressive names and extraordinary family trees, he had succumbed at last. He became unbearably name-conscious.

He began by regrouping his friends according to their ancestries. His infrequent parties were characterized by his almost Parliamentarian system of seating. No doubt, all this had been in Thatcher Blitt to begin with — it may well be, in perhaps varying quantities, in all of us — but it grew with him, prospered with him. Yet in all those years he never once inspected his own forebears.

You may well ask, was he afraid? One answers, one does not know. But at any rate, the fact remains that Thatcher Blitt, at the age of 67, was one of the few rich men in the world who did not know who exactly their ancestors had been.

And so, at last, we come to the day when Thatcher Blitt was sitting alone in his office, one languid hand draped vacantly over his brow, listening with deep satisfaction to the hum and click of the enormous operations which were going on in the building around him.

What moved him that day remains uncertain. Perhaps it was that, from where he was sitting, he could see row upon row of action pictures of famous men which had been taken from his time scanners. Or perhaps it was simply that this profound question had been gnawing at him all these years, deeper and deeper, and on this day broke out into the light.

But whatever the reason, at 11:02 that morning, he leaped vitally from his chair. He summoned Cathcart, his chief assistant, and gave him the immortal command.

“Cathcart!” he grated, stung to the core of his being. “Who am I?”

Cathcart rushed off to find out.

There followed some of the most taut and fateful days in the brilliant history of Genealogy, Inc. Father-tracing is, of course, a painstaking business. But it was not long before word had begun to filter out to interested people.

The first interesting discovery made was a man called Blott, in eighteenth century England. (No explanation was ever given for the name’s alteration from Blott to Blitt. Certain snide individuals took this to mean that the name had been changed as a means to avoid prosecution, or some such, and immediately began making light remarks about the Blotts on old Blitt’s escutcheon.) This Blott had the distinction of having been a wineseller of considerable funds.

This reputedly did not sit well with Thatcher Blitt. Merchants, he snapped, however successful, are not worthy of note. He wanted empire builders. He wanted, at the very least, a name he had heard about. A name that appeared in the histories.

His workers furiously scanned back into the past.

Months went by before the next name appeared. In 9th century England, there was a wandering minstrel named John (last name unprintable) who achieved considerable notoriety as a ballad singer, before dying an unnatural death in the boudoir of a lady of high fashion.

Although the details of this man’s life were of extreme interest, they did not impress the old man. He was, on the contrary, rather shaken. A minstrel. And a rogue to boot.

There were shakeups in Genealogy, Inc. Cathcart was replaced by a man named Jukes, a highly competent man despite his interesting family name. Jukes forged ahead full steam past the birth of Christ (no relation). But he was well into ancient Egypt before the search began to take on the nature of a crisis.

Up until then, there was simply nobody. Or to be more precise, nobody but nobodies. It was incredible, all the laws of chance were against it, but there was, actually, not a single ancestor of note. And no way of faking one, for Thatcher Blitt couldn’t be fooled by his own methods.

What there was was simply an unending line of peasants, serfs, an occasional foot soldier or leather worker. Past John the ballad-singer, there was no one at all worth reporting to the old man.

This situation would not continue, of course. There were so few families for men to spring from. The entire Gallic nation, for example, a great section of present-day France, sprang from the family of one lone man in the north of France in the days before Christ. Every native Frenchman, therefore, was at least the son of a king. It was impossible for Thatcher Blitt to be less.

So the hunt went on from day to day, past ancient Greece, past Jarmo, past the wheel and metals and farming and on even past all civilization, outward and backward into the cold primordial wastes of northern Germany.

And still there was nothing. Though Jukes lived in daily fear of losing his job, there was nothing to do but press on. In Germany, he reduced Blitt’s ancestor to a slovenly little man who was one of only three men in the entire tribe, or family, one of three in an area which now contains millions. But Blitt’s ancestor, true to form, was simply a member of the tribe. As was his father before him.

Yet onward it went. Westward back into the French caves, southward into Spain and across the unrecognizable Mediterranean into a verdant North Africa, backward in time past even the Cro-Magnons, and yet ever backward, 30,000 years, 35,000, with old Blitt reduced now practically to gibbering and still never an exceptional forebear.

There came a time when Jukes had at last, inevitably, to face the old man. He had scanned back as far as he could. The latest ancestor he had unearthed for Blitt was a hairy creature who did not walk erect. And yet, even here, Blitt refused to concede.

“It may be,” he howled, “it must be that my ancestor was the first man to walk erect or light a fire — to do something.”

It was not until Jukes pointed out that all those things had been already examined and found hopeless that Blitt finally gave in. Blitt was a relative, of course, of the first man to stand erect, the man with the first human brain. But so was everybody else on the face of the Earth. There was truly nowhere else to explore. What would be found now would be only the common history of mankind.

Blitt retired to his chambers and refused to be seen.

The story went the rounds, as such stories will. And it was then at last, after 40,000 years of insignificance, that the name of Blitt found everlasting distinction. The story was picked up, fully documented, by psychologists and geneticists of the time, and inserted into textbooks as a profound commentary on the forces of heredity.

The name of Thatcher Blitt in particular has become famous, has persisted until this day. For he is the only man yet discovered, or ever likely to be discovered, with this particular distinction.

In 40,000 years of scanner-recorded history, the blood line of Blitt (or Blott) never once produced an exceptional man.

That record is unsurpassed.

Man of Distinction

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by Dick Francis.

 

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Ray Bradbury is one of the best-known and most celebrated authors of science fiction, but it wasn’t always thus. Early in his career, many readers, editors, and critics considered him a marginal talent.

Bradbury published his first short story in 1938. He sold stories sporadically over the next decade, but success came slowly. He wrote the story below in 1951, a year after “The Martian Chronicles” prompted the industry to give him a second look and finally a seal of approval.

———

A Little Journey

By Ray Bradbury
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, August 1951

There were two important things — one, that she was very old; two, that Mr. Thirkell was taking her to God. For hadn’t he patted her hand and said: “Mrs. Bellowes, we’ll take off into space in my rocket, and go to find Him together.”

And that was how it was going to be. Oh, this wasn’t like any other group Mrs. Bellowes had ever joined. In her fervor to light a path for her delicate, tottering feet, she had struck matches down dark alleys, and found her way to Hindu mystics who floated their flickering, starry eyelashes over crystal balls. She had walked on the meadow paths with ascetic Indian philosophers imported by daughters-in-spirit of Madame Blavatsky.

She had made pilgrimages to California’s stucco jungles to hunt the astrological seer in his natural habitat. She had even consented to signing away the rights to one of her homes in order to be taken into the shouting order of a temple of amazing evangelists who had promised her golden smoke, crystal fire, and the great soft hand of God coming to bear her home.

None of these people had ever shaken Mrs. Bellowes’ faith, even when she saw them sirened away in a black wagon in the night, or discovered their pictures, bleak and unromantic, in the morning tabloids. The world had roughed them up and locked them away because they knew too much, that was all.

And then, two weeks ago, she had seen Mr. Thirkell’s advertisement in New York City:

COME TO MARS!

Stay at the Thirkell Restorium for one week. And then,
on into space on the greatest adventure life can offer!

Send for Free Pamphlet: “Nearer My God To Thee.”

Excursion rates. Round trip slightly lower.

“Round trip,” Mrs. Bellowes had thought. “But who would come back after seeing Him?”

And so she had bought a ticket and flown off to Mars and spent seven mild days at Mr. Thirkell’s Restorium, the building with the sign on it which flashed: THIRKELL’S ROCKET TO HEAVEN! She had spent the week bathing in limpid waters and erasing the care from her tiny bones, and now she was fidgeting, ready to be loaded into Mr. Thirkell’s own special private rocket, like a bullet, to be fired on out into space beyond Jupiter and Saturn and Pluto. And thus — who could deny it? — you would be getting nearer and nearer to the Lord. How wonderful! Couldn’t you just feel Him drawing near? Couldn’t you just sense His breath, His scrutiny, His Presence?

“Here I am,” said Mrs. Bellowes, “an ancient rickety elevator, ready to go up the shaft. God need only press the button.”

Now, on the seventh day, as she minced up the steps of the Restorium, a number of small doubts assailed her.

“For one thing,” she said aloud to no one, “it isn’t quite the land of milk and honey here on Mars that they said it would be. My room is like a cell, the swimming pool is really quite inadequate, and, besides, how many widows who look like mushrooms or skeletons want to swim? And, finally, the whole Restorium smells of boiled cabbage and tennis shoes!”

She opened the front door and let it slam, somewhat irritably.

She was amazed at the other women in the auditorium. It was like wandering in a carnival mirror-maze, coming again and again upon yourself — the same floury face, the same chicken hands, and jingling bracelets. One after another of the images of herself floated before her. She put out her hand, but it wasn’t a mirror; it was another lady shaking her fingers and saying:

“We’re waiting for Mr. Thirkell. Sh!

“Ah,” whispered everyone.

The velvet curtains parted.

Mr. Thirkell appeared, fantastically serene, his Egyptian eyes upon everyone. But there was something, nevertheless, in his appearance which made one expect him to call “Hi!” while fuzzy dogs jumped over his legs, through his hooped arms, and over his back. Then, dogs and all, he should dance with a dazzling piano-keyboard smile off into the wings.

Mrs. Bellowes, with a secret part of her mind which she constantly had to grip tightly, expected to hear a cheap Chinese gong sound when Mr. Thirkell entered. His large liquid dark eyes were so improbable that one of the old ladies had facetiously claimed she saw a mosquito cloud hovering over them as they did around summer rain-barrels. And Mrs. Bellowes sometimes caught the scent of the theatrical mothball and the smell of calliope steam on his sharply pressed suit.

But with the same savage rationalization that had greeted all other disappointments in her rickety life, she bit at the suspicion and whispered, “This time it’s real. This time it’ll work. Haven’t we got a rocket?”

Mr. Thirkell bowed. He smiled a sudden Comedy Mask smile. The old ladies looked in at his epiglottis and sensed chaos there.

Before he even began to speak, Mrs. Bellowes saw him picking up each of his words, oiling it, making sure it ran smooth on its rails. Her heart squeezed in like a tiny fist, and she gritted her porcelain teeth.

“Friends,” said Mr. Thirkell, and you could hear the frost snap in the hearts of the entire assemblage.

“No!” said Mrs. Bellowes ahead of time. She could hear the bad news rushing at her, and herself tied to the track while the immense black wheels threatened and the whistle screamed, helpless.

“There will be a slight delay,” said Mr. Thirkell.

In the next instant, Mr. Thirkell might have cried, or been tempted to cry, “Ladies, be seated!” in minstrel-fashion, for the ladies had come up at him from their chairs, protesting and trembling.

“Not a very long delay.” Mr. Thirkell put up his hands to pat the air.

“How long?”

“Only a week.”

“A week!”

“Yes. You can stay here at the Restorium for seven more days, can’t you? A little delay won’t matter, will it, in the end? You’ve waited a lifetime. Only a few more days.”

At twenty dollars a day, thought Mrs. Bellowes, coldly.

“What’s the trouble?” a woman cried.

“A legal difficulty,” said Mr. Thirkell.

“We’ve a rocket, haven’t we?”

“Well, ye-ess.”

“But I’ve been here a whole month, waiting,” said one old lady. “Delays, delays!”

“That’s right,” said everyone.

“Ladies, ladies,” murmured Mr. Thirkell, smiling serenely.

“We want to see the rocket!” It was Mrs. Bellowes forging ahead, alone, brandishing her fist like a toy hammer.

Mr. Thirkell looked into the old ladies’ eyes, a missionary among albino cannibals.

“Well, now,” he said.

“Yes, now!” cried Mrs. Bellowes.

“I’m afraid –” he began.

“So am I!” she said. “That’s why we want to see the ship!”

“No, no, now, Mrs. –” He snapped his fingers for her name.

“Bellowes!” she cried. She was a small container, but now all the seething pressures that had been built up over long years came steaming through the delicate vents of her body. Her cheeks became incandescent. With a wail that was like a melancholy factory whistle, Mrs. Bellowes ran forward and hung to him, almost by her teeth, like a summer-maddened Spitz.

She would not and never could let go, until he died, and the other women followed, jumping and yapping like a pound let loose on its trainer, the same one who had petted them and to whom they had squirmed and whined joyfully an hour before, now milling about him, creasing his sleeves and frightening the Egyptian serenity from his gaze.

“This way!” cried Mrs. Bellowes, feeling like Madame Lafarge. “Through the back! We’ve waited long enough to see the ship. Every day he’s put us off, every day we’ve waited, now let’s see.”

“No, no, ladies!” cried Mr. Thirkell, leaping about.

They burst through the back of the stage and out a door, like a flood, bearing the poor man with them into a shed, and then out, quite suddenly, into an abandoned gymnasium.

“There it is!” said someone. “The rocket.”

And then a silence fell that was terrible to entertain.

There was the rocket.

Mrs. Bellowes looked at it and her hands sagged away from Mr. Thirkell’s collar.

The rocket was something like a battered copper pot. There were a thousand bulges and rents and rusty pipes and dirty vents on and in it. The ports were clouded over with dust, resembling the eyes of a blind hog.

Everyone wailed a little sighing wail.

“Is that the rocket ship Glory Be to the Highest?” cried Mrs. Bellowes, appalled.

Mr. Thirkell nodded and looked at his feet.

“For which we paid out our one thousand dollars apiece and came all the way to Mars to get on board with you and go off to find Him?” asked Mrs. Bellowes.

“Why, that isn’t worth a sack of dried peas,” said Mrs. Bellowes.

“It’s nothing but junk!”

Junk, whispered everyone, getting hysterical.

“Don’t let him get away!”

Mr. Thirkell tried to break and run, but a thousand possum traps closed on him from every side. He withered.

Everybody walked around in circles like blind mice. There was a confusion and a weeping that lasted for five minutes as they went over and touched the Rocket, the Dented Kettle, the Rusty Container for God’s Children.

“Well,” said Mrs. Bellowes. She stepped up into the askew doorway of the rocket and faced everyone. “It looks as if a terrible thing has been done to us,” she said. “I haven’t any money to go back home to Earth and I’ve too much pride to go to the Government and tell them a common man like this has fooled us out of our life’s savings.

“I don’t know how you feel about it, all of you, but the reason all of us came is because I’m eighty-five, and you’re eighty-nine, and you’re seventy-eight, and all of us are nudging on toward a hundred, and there’s nothing on Earth for us, and it doesn’t appear there’s anything on Mars either. We all expected not to breathe much more air or crochet many more doilies or we’d never have come here. So what I have to propose is a simple thing — to take a chance.”

She reached out and touched the rusted hulk of the rocket.

“This is our rocket. We paid for our trip. And we’re going to take our trip!”

Everyone rustled and stood on tiptoes and opened an astonished mouth.

Mr. Thirkell began to cry. He did it quite easily and very effectively.

“We’re going to get in this ship,” said Mrs. Bellowes, ignoring him. “And we’re going to take off to where we were going.”

Mr. Thirkell stopped crying long enough to say, “But it was all a fake. I don’t know anything about space. He’s not out there, anyway. I lied. I don’t know where He is, and I couldn’t find Him if I wanted to. And you were fools to ever take my word on it.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Bellowes, “we were fools. I’ll go along on that. But you can’t blame us, for we’re old, and it was a lovely, good and fine idea, one of the loveliest ideas in the world. Oh, we didn’t really fool ourselves that we could get nearer to Him physically. It was the gentle, mad dream of old people, the kind of thing you hold onto for a few minutes a day, even though you know it’s not true. So, all of you who want to go, you follow me in the ship.”

“But you can’t go!” said Mr. Thirkell. “You haven’t got a navigator. And that ship’s a ruin!”

“You,” said Mrs. Bellowes, “will be the navigator.”

She stepped into the ship, and after a moment, the other old ladies pressed forward. Mr. Thirkell, windmilling his arms frantically, was nevertheless pressed through the port, and in a minute the door slammed shut. Mr. Thirkell was strapped into the navigator’s seat, with everyone talking at once and holding him down. The special helmets were issued to be fitted over every gray or white head to supply extra oxygen in case of a leakage in the ship’s hull, and at long last the hour had come and Mrs. Bellowes stood behind Mr. Thirkell and said, “We’re ready, sir.”

He said nothing. He pleaded with them silently, using his great, dark, wet eyes, but Mrs. Bellowes shook her head and pointed to the control.

“Takeoff,” agreed Mr. Thirkell morosely, and pulled a switch.

Everybody fell. The rocket went up from the planet Mars in a great fiery glide, with the noise of an entire kitchen thrown down an elevator shaft, with a sound of pots and pans and kettles and fires boiling and stews bubbling, with a smell of burned incense and rubber and sulphur, with a color of yellow fire, and a ribbon of red stretching below them, and all the old women singing and holding to each other, and Mrs. Bellowes crawling upright in the sighing, straining, trembling ship.

“Head for space, Mr. Thirkell.”

“It can’t last,” said Mr. Thirkell, sadly. “This ship can’t last. It will –”

It did.

The rocket exploded.

Mrs. Bellowes felt herself lifted and thrown about dizzily, like a doll. She heard the great screamings and saw the flashes of bodies sailing by her in fragments of metal and powdery light.

“Help, help!” cried Mr. Thirkell, far away, on a small radio beam.

The ship disintegrated into a million parts, and the old ladies, all one hundred of them, were flung straight on ahead with the same velocity as the ship.

As for Mr. Thirkell, for some reason of trajectory, perhaps, he had been blown out the other side of the ship. Mrs. Bellowes saw him falling separate and away from them, screaming, screaming.

There goes Mr. Thirkell, thought Mrs. Bellowes.

And she knew where he was going. He was going to be burned and roasted and broiled good, but very good.

Mr. Thirkell was falling down into the Sun.

And here we are, thought Mrs. Bellowes. Here we are, going on out, and out, and out.

There was hardly a sense of motion at all, but she knew that she was traveling at fifty thousand miles an hour and would continue to travel at that speed for an eternity, until…

She saw the other women swinging all about her in their own trajectories, a few minutes of oxygen left to each of them in their helmets, and each was looking up to where they were going.

Of course, thought Mrs. Bellowes. Out into space. Out and out, and the darkness like a great church, and the stars like candles, and in spite of everything, Mr. Thirkell, the rocket, and the dishonesty, we are going toward the Lord.

And there, yes, there, as she fell on and on, coming toward her, she could almost discern the outline now, coming toward her was His mighty golden hand, reaching down to hold her and comfort her like a frightened sparrow…

“I’m Mrs. Amelia Bellowes,” she said quietly, in her best company voice. “I’m from the planet Earth.”

A Little Journey

 

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