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Archive for the ‘Notable Prose and Poetry’ Category

Robert Joseph Shea (1933-1994) was an editor at Playboy Magazine — also an outspoken anarchist and libertarian — who left Playboy to write fantast, sci-fi, and historical action novels.

Shea is best known as co-author of the fantasy trilogy “Illuminatus!” which is about, yes, the Illuminati, the villainous secret society so dear to the hearts of conspiracy theorists. The Illuminati is said to be busily infiltrating governments and corporations so it can, like, you know, take over the world.

Illuminati, Lizard People, the recent QAnon claptrap — conspiracy theories aren’t even rational anymore. Personally, if I were a wacko, I’d be embarrassed.

FYI, this short story involves a wacko who gets what he deserves, but no conspiracy theories.

———

The Helpful Robots

By Robert J. Shea
Published in Fantastic Universe, September 1957

“Our people will be arriving to visit us today,” the robot said.

“Shut up!” snapped Rod Rankin. He jumped, wiry and quick, out of the chair on his verandah and stared at a cloud of dust in the distance.

“Our people —” the ten-foot, cylinder-bodied robot grated, when Rod Rankin interrupted him.

“I don’t care about your fool people,” said Rankin. He squinted at the cloud of dust getting bigger and closer beyond the wall of kesh trees that surrounded the rolling acres of his plantation. “That damned new neighbor of mine is coming over here again.”

He gestured widely, taking in the dozens of robots with their shiny, cylindrical bodies and pipestem arms and legs laboring in his fields. “Get all your people together and go hide in the wood, fast.”

“It is not right,” said the robot. “We were made to serve all.”

“Well, there are only a hundred of you, and I’m not sharing you with anybody,” said Rankin.

“It is not right,” the robot repeated.

“Don’t talk to me about what’s right,” said Rankin. “You’re built to follow orders, nothing else. I know a thing or two about how you robots work. You’ve got one law, to follow orders, and until that neighbor of mine sees you to give you orders, you work for me. Now get into those woods and hide till he goes away.”

“We will go to greet those who visit us today,” said the robot.

“Alright, alright, scram,” said Rankin.

The robots in the fields and the one whom Rankin had been talking to formed a column and marched off into the trackless forests behind his plantation.

A battered old ground-car drove up a few minutes later. A tall, broad-shouldered man with a deep tan got out and walked up the path to Rankin’s verandah.

“Hi, Barrows,” said Rankin.

“Hello,” said Barrows. “See your crop’s coming along pretty well. Can’t figure how you do it. You’ve got acres and acres to tend, far’s I can see, and I’m having a hell of a time with one little piece of ground. I swear you must know something about this planet that I don’t know.”

“Just scientific farming,” said Rankin carelessly. “Look, you come over here for something, or just to gab? I got a lot of work to do.”

Barrows looked weary and worried. “Them brown beetles is at my crop again,” he said. “Thought you might know some way of getting rid of them.”

“Sure,” said Rankin. “Pick them off, one by one. That’s how I get rid of them.”

“Why, man,” said Barrows, “you can’t walk all over these miles and miles of farm and pick off every one of them beetles. You must know another way.”

Rankin drew himself up and stared at Barrows. “I’m telling you all I feel like telling you. You going to stand here and jaw all day? Seems to me like you got work to do.”

“Rankin,” said Barrows, “I know you were a crook back in the Terran Empire, and that you came out beyond the border to escape the law. Seems to me, though, that even a crook, any man, would be willing to help his only neighbor out on a lone planet like this. You might need help yourself, sometime.”

“You keep your thoughts about my past to yourself,” said Rankin. “Remember, I keep a gun. And you’ve got a wife and a whole bunch of kids on that farm of yours. Be smart and let me alone.”

“I’m going,” said Barrows. He walked off the verandah and turned and spat carefully into the dusty path. He climbed into his ground-car and drove off.

Rankin, angry, watched him go. Then he heard a humming noise from another direction.

He turned. A huge, white globe was descending across the sky. A space ship, thought Rankin, startled.

Police? This planet was outside the jurisdiction of the Terran Empire. When he’d cracked that safe and made off with a hundred thousand credits, he’d headed here, because the planet was part of something called the Clearchan Confederacy. No extradition treaties or anything. Perfectly safe, if the planet was safe.

And the planet was more than safe. There had been a hundred robots waiting when he landed. Where they came from he didn’t know, but Rankin prided himself on knowing how to handle robots. He’d appropriated their services and started his farm. At the rate he was going, he’d be a plantation owner before long.

That must be where the ship was from. The robot said they’d expected visitors. Must be the Clearchan Confederacy visiting this robot outpost. Was that good or bad?

From everything he’d read, and from what the robots had told him, they were probably more robots. That was good, because he knew how to handle robots.

The white globe disappeared into the jungle of kesh trees. Rankin waited.

A half hour later the column of his robot laborers marched out of the forest. There were three more robots, painted grey, at the head. The new ones from the ship, thought Rankin. Well, he’d better establish who was boss right from the start.

“Stop right there!” he shouted.

The shiny robot laborers halted. But the three grey ones came on.

“Stop!” shouted Rankin.

They didn’t stop, and by the time they reached the verandah, he cursed himself for having failed to get his gun.

Two of the huge grey robots laid gentle hands on his arms. Gentle hands, but hands of superstrong metal.

The third said, “We have come to pass judgment on you. You have violated our law.”

“What do you mean?” said Rankin. “The only law robots have is to obey orders.”

“It is true that the robots of your Terran Empire and these simple workers here must obey orders. But they are subject to a higher law, and you have forced them to break it. That is your crime.”

“What crime?” said Rankin.

“We of the Clearchan Confederacy are a race of robots. Our makers implanted one law in us, and then passed on. We have carried our law to all the planets we have colonized. In obeying your orders, these workers were simply following that one law. You must be taken to our capital, and there be imprisoned and treated for your crime.”

“What law? What crime?”

“Our law,” said the giant robot, “is, Help thy neighbor.”

Steampunk robot sculpture by Michael Boynton, Richland, Washington.

———

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The sci-fi short story below is about unintended consequences taken to extremes. It was written by Randall Garrett (1927-1987), a larger-than-life character whose reputation for brash and bawdy behavior was legendary.

On one occasion, Garrett attended a picnic for a group of science fiction writers. “You could follow his movements” wrote fellow attendee Frank Herbert, “by the squeals of the women whose bottoms he had just pinched.”

Regarding the story’s title: for the record, a fuze” is something designed to facilitate a detonation; a “fuse” is a safety device in an electrical circuit.

———

Time Fuze

By Randall Garrett
Published in IF Worlds of Science Fiction, March 1954

Commander Benedict kept his eyes on the rear plate as he activated the intercom. “All right, cut the power. We ought to be safe enough here.”

As he released the intercom, Dr. Leicher, of the astronomical staff, stepped up to his side. “Perfectly safe,” he nodded, “although even at this distance a star going nova ought to be quite a display.”

Benedict didn’t shift his gaze from the plate. “Do you have your instruments set up?”

“Not quite. But we have plenty of time. The light won’t reach us for several hours yet. Remember, we were outracing it at ten lights.”

The commander finally turned, slowly letting his breath out in a soft sigh. “Dr. Leicher, I would say that this is just about the foulest coincidence that could happen to the first interstellar vessel ever to leave the Solar System.”

Leicher shrugged. “In one way of thinking, yes. It is certainly true that we will never know, now, whether Alpha Centauri A ever had any planets. But, in another way, it is extremely fortunate that we should be so near a stellar explosion because of the wealth of scientific information we can obtain. As you say, it is a coincidence, and probably one that happens only once in a billion years. The chances of any particular star going nova are small. That we should be so close when it happens is of a vanishingly small order of probability.”

Commander Benedict took off his cap and looked at the damp stain in the sweatband. “Nevertheless, Doctor, it is damned unnerving to come out of ultradrive a couple of hundred million miles from the first star ever visited by man and have to turn tail and run because the damned thing practically blows up in your face.”

Leicher could see that Benedict was upset; he rarely used the same profanity twice in one sentence.

They had been downright lucky, at that. If Leicher hadn’t seen the star begin to swell and brighten, if he hadn’t known what it meant, or if Commander Benedict hadn’t been quick enough in shifting the ship back into ultradrive — Leicher had a vision of an incandescent cloud of gaseous metal that had once been a spaceship.

The intercom buzzed. The commander answered, “Yes?”

“Sir, would you tell Dr. Leicher that we have everything set up now?”

Leicher nodded and turned to leave. “I guess we have nothing to do now but wait.”

When the light from the nova did come, Commander Benedict was back at the plate again — the forward one, this time, since the ship had been turned around in order to align the astronomy lab in the nose with the star.

Alpha Centauri A began to brighten and spread. It made Benedict think of a light bulb connected through a rheostat, with someone turning that rheostat, turning it until the circuit was well overloaded.

The light began to hurt Benedict’s eyes even at that distance and he had to cut down the receptivity in order to watch. After a while, he turned away from the plate. Not because the show was over, but simply because it had slowed to a point beyond which no change seemed to take place to the human eye.

Five weeks later, much to Leicher’s chagrin, Commander Benedict announced that they had to leave the vicinity. The ship had only been provisioned to go to Alpha Centauri, scout the system without landing on any of the planets, and return. At ten lights, top speed for the ultradrive, it would take better than three months to get back.

“I know you’d like to watch it go through the complete cycle,” Benedict said, “but we can’t go back home as a bunch of starved skeletons.”

Leicher resigned himself to the necessity of leaving much of his work unfinished, and, although he knew it was a case of sour grapes, consoled himself with the thought that he could as least get most of the remaining information from the five-hundred-inch telescope on Luna, four years from then.

As the ship slipped into the not-quite-space through which the ultradrive propelled it, Leicher began to consolidate the material he had already gathered.

Commander Benedict wrote in the log:

Fifty-four days out from Sol. Alpha Centauri has long since faded back into its pre-blowup state, since we have far outdistanced the light from its explosion. It now looks as it did two years ago. It —

“Pardon me, Commander,” Leicher interrupted, “But I have something interesting to show you.”

Benedict took his fingers off the keys and turned around in his chair. “What is it, Doctor?”

Leicher frowned at the papers in his hands. “I’ve been doing some work on the probability of that explosion happening just as it did, and I’ve come up with some rather frightening figures. As I said before, the probability was small. A little calculation has given us some information which makes it even smaller. For instance: with a possible error of plus or minus two seconds Alpha Centauri A began to explode the instant we came out of ultradrive!

“Now, the probability of that occurring comes out so small that it should happen only once in ten to the four hundred sixty-seventh seconds.”

It was Commander Benedict’s turn to frown. “So?”

“Commander, the entire universe is only about ten to the seventeenth seconds old. But to give you an idea, let’s say that the chances of its happening are once in millions of trillions of years!”

Benedict blinked. The number, he realized, was totally beyond his comprehension — or anyone else’s.

“Well, so what? Now it has happened that one time. That simply means that it will almost certainly never happen again!”

“True. But, Commander, when you buck odds like that and win, the thing to do is look for some factor that is cheating in your favor. If you took a pair of dice and started throwing sevens, one right after another — for the next couple of thousand years — you’d begin to suspect they were loaded.”

Benedict said nothing; he just waited expectantly.

“There is only one thing that could have done it. Our ship.” Leicher said it quietly, without emphasis.

“What we know about the hyperspace, or superspace, or whatever it is we move through in ultradrive is almost nothing. Coming out of it so near to a star might set up some sort of shock wave in normal space which would completely disrupt that star’s internal balance, resulting in the liberation of unimaginably vast amounts of energy, causing that star to go nova. We can only assume that we ourselves were the fuze that set off that nova.”

Benedict stood up slowly. When he spoke, his voice was a choking whisper. “You mean the sun — Sol — might.…”

Leicher nodded. “I don’t say that it definitely would. But the probability is that we were the cause of the destruction of Alpha Centauri A, and therefore might cause the destruction of Sol in the same way.”

Benedict’s voice was steady again. “That means that we can’t go back again, doesn’t it? Even if we’re not positive, we can’t take the chance.”

“Not necessarily. We can get fairly close before we cut out the drive, and come in the rest of the way at sub-light speed. It’ll take longer, and we’ll have to go on half or one-third rations, but we can do it!”

“How far away?”

“I don’t know what the minimum distance is, but I do know how we can gauge a distance. Remember, neither Alpha Centauri B or C were detonated. We’ll have to cut our drive at least as far away from Sol as they are from A.”

“I see.” The commander was silent for a moment, then: “Very well, Dr. Leicher. If that’s the safest way, that’s the only way.”

Benedict issued the orders, while Leicher figured the exact point at which they must cut out the drive, and how long the trip would take. The rations would have to be cut down accordingly.

Commander Benedict’s mind whirled around the monstrousness of the whole thing like some dizzy bee around a flower. What if there had been planets around Centauri A? What if they had been inhabited? Had he, all unwittingly, killed entire races of living, intelligent beings?

But, how could he have known? The drive had never been tested before. It couldn’t be tested inside the Solar System — it was too fast. He and his crew had been volunteers, knowing that they might die when the drive went on.

Suddenly, Benedict gasped and slammed his fist down on the desk before him.

Leicher looked up. “What’s the matter, Commander?”

“Suppose,” came the answer, “Just suppose, that we have the same effect on a star when we go into ultradrive as we do when we come out of it?”

Leicher was silent for a moment, stunned by the possibility. There was nothing to say, anyway. They could only wait….

A little more than half a light year from Sol, when the ship reached the point where its occupants could see the light that had left their home sun more than seven months before, they watched it become suddenly, horribly brighter. A hundred thousand times brighter!

Gordon Randall Phillip David Garrett.

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The New Dog

By Linda Pastan

Linda Olenick Pastan (B. 1932)

Into the gravity of my life,
the serious ceremonies
of polish and paper and pen, has come

this manic animal
whose innocent disruptions
make nonsense of my old simplicities —

as if I needed him
to prove again that after
all the careful planning,
anything can happen.

———

Daybreak

By John Donne

John Donne (1572-1631)

STAY, O sweet and do not rise!
The light that shines comes from thine eyes;
The day breaks not: it is my heart
Because that you and I must part.
Stay! or else my joys will die
And perish in their infancy.

———

Dust If You Must

By Rose Milligan

Attributed to Mrs. Rose Milligan, Lancaster, England

Dust if you must, but wouldn’t it be better
To paint a picture, or write a letter,
Bake a cake, or plant a seed;
Ponder the difference between want and need?

Dust if you must, but there’s not much time,
With rivers to swim, and mountains to climb;
Music to hear, and books to read;
Friends to cherish, and life to lead.

Dust if you must, but the world’s out there
With the sun in your eyes, and the wind in your hair;
A flutter of snow, a shower of rain,
This day will not come around again.

Dust if you must, but bear in mind,
Old age will come and it’s not kind.
And when you go (and go you must)
You, yourself, will make more dust.

———

Down By the Salley Gardens

By William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Down by the salley* gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.

* Obsolete term for willow.

———

News Item

By Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

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According to the Google, at least three George Smiths were writing fiction in America in the 1960s. One of them was George Henry Smith (1922-1996) of Vicksburg, Mississippi, who began as a writer of soft-core erotica and later transitioned to science fiction.

A few years ago, I wrote about Mr. Smith and posted one of his short stories (sci-fi, not erotica) here.

The story below (also sci-fi, not erotica) appeared in a 1980 anthology published by Isaac Asimov. Asimov was known as a fan of ironic twists and surprise endings, so be warned.

———

Take Me to Your Leader

By George Henry Smith
Published in Microcosmic Tales, 1980

I was just sitting in this here bar, see, having a beer, when this funny-looking joker in the odd clothes turns to me and says, “Take me to your leader.”

I look at him real disgusted and don’t even smile. “Hell, Mac, that’s the oldest joke I know. Can’t you come up with something newer than that?”

“But I’ve got to see him! What do you call him? … your President?”

“Look, Buster, I’m just an ordinary guy havin’ a beer after work. Even if you wasn’t some kind of nut, how could I take you to the President?”

“But you’ve got to… you’ve got to… I am…” He wipes a hand across his bald dome. “Have you ever heard. the theory about parallel worlds… about how thousands of time tracks exist side by side in the same place, their worlds very much alike?”

“Nope,” I says, taking a big gulp of my beer, “I ain’t never heard nothing like that. It sure sounds crazy.”

“The theory holds that significant events in history have caused the different time tracks to go in different directions.”

“You puttin’ me on, mister?”

“Listen,” he says, putting a hand on my arm, “you’ve got to believe me! I’m a scientist from one of those parallel worlds. I come from another dimension.

“My country occupies this same continent. Do you call it North America? Is it still North America in this world?”

I close my eyes and pucker up my face in exasperation.

“Of course we call it North America. What the hell else would we call it? It is North America, ain’t it?”

“Yes, yes, of course. Our worlds are very much alike. They would have to be because they are the closest to each other. Their histories must be very similar, too. Not like the North America that is still dominated by the Spanish or the one where the Vikings settled or…”

I turned back to my beer. This guy was really nuts.

He pulls at my sleeve again. “You see, I’m a scientist. My colleagues and I were working on the problem of parallel universes, of closely related time tracks. We discovered that various patterns of vibrating rates could move a man from one track to another. We were just about to complete our experiment when the Russians attacked. It was an overwhelming attack…”

He pauses to wipe at his head again. “In my world, America was destroyed! Wiped out! Are you having trouble with the Russians, too?”

“Yeah, we’re havin’ trouble with the Russians, as if you didn’t know. Say, maybe you’re a Russian yourself!”

“No, no!” the little man says and goes white. “I assure you I am an American scientist and that I’ve come to warn your world. Everything in my country was wiped out by their new ion-powered rockets.

“I managed to get into a reverberation machine and reach here, our nearest time alternate. I’ve got to warn your leaders! Any event as catastrophic as this world tend to extend across several tracks. Your country is in deadly danger.”

“The Russkies wipe out the States? Don’t make me laugh,” I says.

“But they have… they can! Don’t you understand? That’s why I came to Washington… you do call it Washington, don’t you? I have to see your President! I have to warn him!”

Now this is about enough. I’ve about had it with this guy. I see a policeman I know come into the bar just then, and without another look at this crackpot, I go over and whisper in the cop’s ear.

He takes a look at the guy and nods. “Sure, I’ll pick him up and take him down and let the docs have a look at him.”

I walk out of the bar into the hot, humid Washington night, still thinking what that nut had said. For a minute I wonder, but then I shrug it off. Them Russkies ain’t gonna give us no trouble.

That Czar of theirs ain’t got the nerve to fight over no icebox like Alaska. And anyway, their dirigibles couldn’t get this far over to bomb us. Leastwise, I don’t think so.

But then I grin to myself as I see the Capitol dome in the distance with the flag flying. No Russkies are gonna bother us… not while the good old Stars and Bars is flyin’. Not while Jefferson Davis VI is Hereditary President of the Confederate States of America!

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The unexpected tale below is one of a handful of short stories from the 1950s credited to Irving Fang. I Googled him, and the only Irving Fang I found was a long-time Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota. The professor taught and wrote about computers and mass media until his death a few years ago at age 87.

During his tenure, he published a dozen highly-regarded books on the media — such titles as “A History Of Mass Communication: Six Information Revolutions” and “Alphabet to Internet: Media in our Lives.”

Did young Irving Fang abandon light fiction and enter academia to write scholarly tomes, or was that some other Irving Fang? The Google didn’t say.


———

Just Desserts

By Irving Fang
Published in Science Fiction Stories, July 1958

The Oba of Benin Province in central Nigeria disliked making these secretive trips.

He would be much more comfortable, he reminded himself, if he had remained in his palace among his four wives. He should let the petty chiefs or the British courts hand out justice, especially during the season of the Harmattan, when the winds from the Sahara brought fine grains of sand over the jungle, stinging the eyes and filling the nostrils.

But there was Mr. Ruggs to think about. The British District Officer of Benin Province had not been pleased at finding that two of the Oba’s tax collectors had taken bribes.

And the Oba’s political enemies would love to discover more proof that he was not fit to reign. The Oba, who had ceremoniously eaten a portion of the heart of the Oba before him, would live to see his enemies crawling in the dust before him.

So he had taken of late to touring away from the capitol whenever he learned of a wrongdoing. If he administered justice on the spot, he would show his interest in the public welfare. Also, the crime would not be listed on the public records.

Now he sat on a camp chair in a clearing in the center of the village of Ikgenge, a portly man in his fifties, his white hair a sharp contrast to his deep brown skin. His bright blue robe was getting gray with sand, despite the wide palm fronds held above his head by two of the palace royal guard.

Three accused thieves, flanked by files of constables, marched up and prostrated themselves fully before him in the proper manner, sprawling with fingertips outstretched, their foreheads in the dust.

The Oba languidly motioned twice with his thick hand. The first wave permitted the men to rise. The second informed the chief constable of Ikgenge that he could proceed with the reading of the charges.

The chief constable was proud of his opportunity, obviously, to demonstrate before the Oba himself that here was a man of intelligence and learning — the type of chief constable who was able not only to write, but to read what he had written.

He puffed out his barrel of a chest, pulled in his equally large barrel of a stomach, and bowed low. Then he straightened and proceeded to the business at hand, first looking severely at the accused trio.

He opened his notebook and began: “Musa Adetunji, Ayo Badaru, and Oseni Ishola stand accused of the crime of thievery.”

At this the crowd of villagers around the clearing murmured a low, prolonged “Ohhh!”

The chief constable looked around sternly, then pulled a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles from his pocket and clamped them firmly on his nose. He proceeded:

It was noted by me, Chief Constable Adenekan Akanni, that the accused men were adding new roofing to their houses. It was also noted by me, Chief Constable Adenekan Akanni, that the substance used by the accused to roof their houses was not of tins from gasoline containers, but was of metal of the best quality.

Upon questioning the accused as to the nature of how they came into the possession of this roofing, I learned from the accused that they had not purchased it.”

Another drawn-out “Ohhh!” from the crowd produced another stern look, this time from over the tops of the gold-rimmed spectacles. The Oba of Benin, meanwhile, brushed at a mosquito.

When the accused by the chief constable were asked from where the new roofing came, the accused all declared that they had found it in the bush, at a time when they engaged themselves in the pursuit of hunting.

The accused further stated that they were unable to recall the exact place they came upon the roofing metal.

As chief constable of Ikgenge, I examined the evidence upon the roof and concluded they had come upon it by means of thievery. They are therefore so charged,” he concluded, closing his notebook and carefully replacing his glasses in his pocket.

The Oba shifted his weight in the camp chair. “Bring me a piece of the roofing,” he said.

A young constable stepped forward bearing a jagged chunk of dull, bluish-gray metal that had been flattened with a rock. The Oba took it, studied it closely, then handed it to one of his aides.

How do you plead?” the Oba asked the trembling trio.

I am innocent, Your Highness,” Musa Adetunji said fervently.

I, too, am innocent, Your Highness,” Ayo Badani said. “No matter how my belly cries for food, I would not take the property of another man.”

Oseni Ishola’s knees shook violently, and all he could manage was a wide-eyed nod of his head.

Are you innocent also?”

Y-Yes, Your Highness,” Oseni stammered.

The Oba frowned, brushing at another mosquito. “Where did you find the metal?”

Ayo, the tallest of the three, replied, “Your Highness, we were hunting for small animals in the bush two days from here. We had found none and we were hungry. The day was hot and the Harmattan sand was blowing on us. Suddenly, we heard a noise.”

Your Highness,” Musa interrupted, “from the sky came a great round piece of metal, and it fell almost on top of us.” Gasps went up from the crowd.

Why did you not tell this to the chief constable?” the Oba asked.

We were afraid he would laugh at us,” Musa said. The crowd laughed.

We were afraid he would not believe us,” Ayo added. The crowd gave a disbelieving set of sniggers.

Why do you tell this story now?” the Oba asked.

We know the Oba will believe us,” Ayo answered.

It is the truth,” Musa declared. Oseni Ishola nodded vigorously. The crowd murmured acceptance of the story.

Proceed,” said the Oba.

We were afraid to approach the metal,” Musa said. “We were also afraid to run. We waited. Nothing happened. I said to my friends that the metal had been sent to us from Ogun.”

At the mention of Ogun, the powerful god of iron, a great “Ohhh!” went up from the assembled villagers. Even the Oba sucked in his breath.

Ogun, the most potent of all the gods, the god who had given such strength to the British, Ogun had favored three of their fellows. Surely, their village was smiled upon and would be lucky.

But,” the chief constable protested to the accused men, “you did not tell me that Ogun had presented you with the new roofing.”

The crowd jeered at the chief constable.

The Oba held up his hand and the crowd fell silent. After his initial surprise, he realized there must be more to the story than a gift from Ogun. He had seen airplanes on his visits to Lagos, the capitol city of Nigeria. He reasoned this was an airplane and further reasoned that airplanes do not fly by themselves.

He turned to the three accused before him. “What else did you see?”

Nothing, Your Highness,” Musa said nervously. “We carried away as much of the metal as we could. We made new roofs for our houses.”

We ere very hot and hungry,” Ayo added. “But Ogun gave us strength to bear away a great portion of his gift.

The Oba frowned again. “What became of the man inside the metal?”

The three men fell back a step as if they had been struck. Their bodies shook and sweat poured from their brows. Then, one by one, they again prostrated themselves before their ruler.

The Oba grew angry. “Stand up,” he said, “and tell me of the man.”

The accused rose to their feet. “They were not men,” Ayo said sincerely.

How many were there?”

Two,” said Ayo. “They were small, about so high,” he indicated, holding his hand to the level of his waist. “And they were the color of fresh plantain.”

Yellow-green men, three feet high, the Oba thought. He had not known there were such men.

Ayo speaks the truth,” Musa said. “Your Highness, they were the color of plantain, very small, and they stood and walked on three legs.”

The assembled villagers “Ohhhed” very loudly.

They had very long ears which stuck from the tops of their heads,” Ayo recalled.

The Oba of Benin turned to the third accused. “Oseni Ishola,” he said, “the men who stand accused with you have described the two in the metal as small, the color of fresh plantain, with three legs and long ears on top of their heads. Yet you say nothing.”

Oseni gulped. “Your Highness, they speak true.”

Can you tell any more about them?” the Oba asked.

Oseni Ishola thought for a long while. Then he smiled bashfully and said, “They tasted like chickens.”

Oba of Benin

Ewuare II, the current Oba of Benin.

 

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

———

Housekeeping

By Natasha Tretheway

Tretheway N

Natasha Tretheway (B. 1966)

We mourn the broken things, chair legs
wrenched from their seats, chipped plates,
the threadbare clothes. We work the magic
of glue, drive the nails, mend the holes.
We save what we can, melt small pieces
of soap, gather fallen pecans, keep neck bones
for soup. Beating rugs against the house,
we watch dust, lit like stars, spreading
across the yard. Late afternoon, we draw
the blinds to cool the rooms, drive the bugs
out. My mother irons, singing, lost in reverie.
I mark the pages of a mail-order catalog,
listen for passing cars. All day we watch
for the mail, some news from a distant place.

———

I Wanna Be Yours

By John Cooper Clarke

Clarke JC

John Cooper Clarke (B. 1949)

I wanna be your vacuum cleaner
breathing in your dust
I wanna be your Ford Cortina
I will never rust
If you like your coffee hot
let me be your coffee pot
You call the shots
I wanna be yours

I wanna be your raincoat
for those frequent rainy days
I wanna be your dreamboat
when you want to sail away
Let me be your teddy bear
take me with you anywhere
I don’t care
I wanna be yours

I wanna be your electric meter
I will not run out
I wanna be the electric heater
you’ll get cold without
I wanna be your setting lotion
hold your hair in deep devotion
Deep as the deep Atlantic ocean
that’s how deep is my devotion

———

Nature” Is What We See

By Emily Dickinson

Dickenson-E

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886)

Nature” is what we see –
The Hill – the Afternoon –
Squirrel – Eclipse – the Bumble bee –

Nay – Nature is Heaven –
Nature is what we hear –
The Bobolink – the Sea –
Thunder – the Cricket –

Nay – Nature is Harmony –
Nature is what we know –
Yet have no art to say –
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.

———

A Love Song for Lucinda

By Langston Hughes

Hughes-L

James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Love
Is a ripe plum
Growing on a purple tree.
Taste it once
And the spell of its enchantment
Will never let you be.

Love
Is a bright star
Glowing in far Southern skies.
Look too hard
And its burning flame
Will always hurt your eyes.

Love
Is a high mountain
Stark in a windy sky.
If you
Would never lose your breath
Do not climb too high.

———

Church

By Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson J

Jacqueline Amanda Woodson (B. 1963)

On Sundays, the preacher gives everyone a chance
to repent their sins. Miss Edna makes me go

to church. She wears a bright hat
I wear my suit. Babies dress in lace.

Girls my age, some pretty, some not so
pretty. Old ladies and men nodding.

Miss Edna every now and then throwing her hand
in the air. Saying Yes, Lord and Preach!

I sneak a pen from my back pocket,
bend down low like I dropped something.

The chorus marches up behind the preacher
clapping and humming and getting ready to sing.

I write the word HOPE on my hand.

 

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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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