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Archive for the ‘Notable Prose and Poetry’ Category

The short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is highly regarded, and deservedly so. It’s also grim and a bit unsettling to read. The author was a Civil War veteran known for his realistic fiction, much of which, like the story below, related to the Civil War.

A few years ago, I featured another Bierce short story on this blog. That post included more about the author and his mysterious fate.

———

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

By Ambrose Bierce
Published in the San Francisco Examiner, July 1890

– I –

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the ties supporting the rails of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners — two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff.

At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as “support,” that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest — a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.

Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The other bank of the stream was open ground — a gentle slope topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge.

Midway up the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators — a single company of infantry in line, at “parade rest,” the butts of their rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieutenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right.

Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.

The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good — a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well fitting frock coat.

He wore a moustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.

The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties.

The arrangement commended itself to his judgment as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his “unsteadfast footing,” then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!

He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift — all had distracted him.

And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by — it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell.

He awaited each new stroke with impatience and — he knew not why — apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the 4 trust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.

He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. “If I could free my hands,” he thought, “I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader’s farthest advance.”

As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man’s brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.

– II –

Peyton Farquhar was a well to do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with that gallant army which had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in wartime.

Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure to perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.

One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.

“The Yanks are repairing the railroads,” said the man, “and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels, or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order.”

“How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?” Farquhar asked.

“About thirty miles.”

“Is there no force on this side of the creek?”

“Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge.”

“Suppose a man — a civilian and student of hanging — should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel,” said Farquhar, smiling, “what could he accomplish?”

The soldier reflected. “I was there a month ago,” he replied. “I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood 6 against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tinder.”

The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away.

An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.

– III –

As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened — ages later, it seemed to him — by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs.

These pains appeared to flash along well defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fullness — of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment.

He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream.

There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river! — the idea seemed to him ludicrous.

He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface — knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable.

“To be hanged and drowned,” he thought, “that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair.”

He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort! — what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo!

The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake.

“Put it back, put it back!” He thought he shouted these 8 words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire, his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface.

He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!

He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived.

He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf — he saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies’ wings, the strokes of the water spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat — all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.

He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.

Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a gray eye and remembered having read that gray eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.

A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking at the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears.

Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieutenant on shore was taking a part in the morning’s work. How coldly and pitilessly — with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquility in the men — with what accurately measured interval fell those cruel words: “Company!… Attention!… Shoulder arms!… Ready!… Aim!… Fire!”

Farquhar dived — dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dull thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.

As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther downstream — nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.

The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning: “The officer,” he reasoned, “will not make that martinet’s error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!”

An appalling splash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo*, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps! A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken an hand in the game.

As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond. 10 “They will not do that again,” he thought; “the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me — the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun.”

Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round — spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men, all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color — that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick.

In few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream — the southern bank — and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble.

The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of Aeolian harps. He had not wish to perfect his escape — he was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.

A whiz and a rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.

All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman’s road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation. By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famished. The thought of his wife and children urged him on.

At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective.

Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great golden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange 11 constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which — once, twice, and again — he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.

His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air.

How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue — he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet! Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene — perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home.

All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is!

He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon — then all is darkness and silence!

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

* Decreasing in loudness.

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Time Does Not Bring Relief

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go, — so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

———

Always Marry An April Girl

By Ogden Nash

Frederic Ogden Nash (1902-1971)

Praise the spells and bless the charms,
I found April in my arms.
April golden, April cloudy,
Gracious, cruel, tender, rowdy;
April soft in flowered languor,
April cold with sudden anger,
Ever changing, ever true —
I love April, I love you.

———

The Summer Day

By Mary Oliver

Mary Jane Oliver (1935-2019)

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean —
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

———

A Question

By Robert Frost

Robert Lee Frost (1874-1963)

A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.

———

If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking

By Emily Dickinson

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886)

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

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I can’t seem to stop posting sci-fi short stories by Fredric Brown. Here’s another one, and it’s a beauty.

———

Hall of Mirrors

By Fredric Brown
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1953

For an instant you think it is temporary blindness, this sudden dark that comes in the middle of a bright afternoon.

It must be blindness, you think; could the sun that was tanning you have gone out instantaneously, leaving you in utter blackness?

Then the nerves of your body tell you that you are standing, whereas only a second ago you were sitting comfortably, almost reclining, in a canvas chair. In the patio of a friend’s house in Beverly Hills. Talking to Barbara, your fiancée. Looking at Barbara — Barbara in a swim suit — her skin golden tan in the brilliant sunshine, beautiful.

You wore swimming trunks. Now you do not feel them on you; the slight pressure of the elastic waistband is no longer there against your waist. You touch your hands to your hips. You are naked. And standing.

Whatever has happened to you is more than a change to sudden darkness or to sudden blindness.

You raise your hands gropingly before you. They touch a plain smooth surface, a wall. You spread them apart and each hand reaches a corner. You pivot slowly. A second wall, then a third, then a door. You are in a closet about four feet square.

Your hand finds the knob of the door. It turns and you push the door open.

There is light now. The door has opened to a lighted room… a room that you have never seen before.

It is not large, but it is pleasantly furnished — although the furniture is of a style that is strange to you. Modesty makes you open the door cautiously the rest of the way. But the room is empty of people.

You step into the room, turning to look behind you into the closet, which is now illuminated by light from the room. The closet is and is not a closet; it is the size and shape of one, but it contains nothing, not a single hook, no rod for hanging clothes, no shelf. It is an empty, blank-walled, four-by-four-foot space.

You close the door to it and stand looking around the room. It is about twelve by sixteen feet. There is one door, but it is closed. There are no windows. Five pieces of furniture. Four of them you recognize — more or less.

One looks like a very functional desk. One is obviously a chair… a comfortable-looking one. There is a table, although its top is on several levels instead of only one. Another is a bed, or couch. Something shimmering is lying across it and you walk over and pick the shimmering something up and examine it. It is a garment.

You are naked, so you put it on. Slippers are part way under the bed (or couch) and you slide your feet into them. They fit, and they feel warm and comfortable as nothing you have ever worn on your feet has felt. Like lamb’s wool, but softer.

You are dressed now. You look at the door — the only door of the room except that of the closet (closet?) from which you entered it. You walk to the door and before you try the knob, you see the small typewritten sign pasted just above it that reads:

This door has a time lock set to open in one hour. For reasons you will soon understand, it is better that you do not leave this room before then. There is a letter for you on the desk. Please read it.

It is not signed. You look at the desk and see that there is an envelope lying on it.

You do not yet go to take that envelope from the desk and read the letter that must be in it.

Why not? Because you are frightened.

You see other things about the room. The lighting has no source that you can discover. It comes from nowhere. It is not indirect lighting; the ceiling and the walls are not reflecting it at all.

They didn’t have lighting like that, back where you came from. What did you mean by back where you came from?

You close your eyes. You tell yourself: I am Norman Hastings. I am an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Southern California. I am twenty-five years old, and this is the year nineteen hundred and fifty-four.

You open your eyes and look again.

They didn’t use that style of furniture in Los Angeles — or anywhere else that you know of — in 1954. That thing over in the corner — you can’t even guess what it is. So might your grandfather, at your age, have looked at a television set.

You look down at yourself, at the shimmering garment that you found waiting for you. With thumb and forefinger you feel its texture.

It’s like nothing you’ve ever touched before.

I am Norman Hastings. This is nineteen hundred and fifty-four.

Suddenly you must know, and at once.

You go to the desk and pick up the envelope that lies upon it. Your name is typed on the outside: Norman Hastings.

Your hands shake a little as you open it. Do you blame them?

There are several pages, typewritten. Dear Norman, it starts. You turn quickly to the end to look for the signature. It is unsigned.

You turn back and start reading.

Do not be afraid. There is nothing to fear, but much to explain. Much that you must understand before the time lock opens that door. Much that you must accept and — obey.

You have already guessed that you are in the future — in what, to you, seems to be the future. The clothes and the room must have told you that. I planned it that way so the shock would not be too sudden, so you would realize it over the course of several minutes rather than read it here — and quite probably disbelieve what you read.

The ‘closet’ from which you have just stepped is, as you have by now realized, a time machine. From it you stepped into the world of 2004. The date is April 7th, just fifty years from the time you last remember.

You cannot return.

I did this to you and you may hate me for it; I do not know. That is up to you to decide, but it does not matter. What does matter, and not to you alone, is another decision which you must make. I am incapable of making it.

Who is writing this to you? I would rather not tell you just yet. By the time you have finished reading this, even though it is not signed (for I knew you would look first for a signature), I will not need to tell you who I am. You will know.

I am seventy-five years of age. I have, in this year 2004, been studying ‘time’ for thirty of those years. I have completed the first time machine ever built — and thus far, its construction, even the fact that it has been constructed, is my own secret.

You have just participated in the first major experiment. It will be your responsibility to decide whether there shall ever be any more experiments with it, whether it should be given to the world, or whether it should be destroyed and never used again.

End of the first page. You look up for a moment, hesitating to turn the next page. Already you suspect what is coming.

You turn the page.

I constructed the first time machine a week ago. My calculations had told me that it would work, but not how it would work. I had expected it to send an object back in time — it works backward in time only, not forward — physically unchanged and intact.

My first experiment showed me my error. I placed a cube of metal in the machine — it was a miniature of the one you just walked out of — and set the machine to go backward ten years. I flicked the switch and opened the door, expecting to find the cube vanished. Instead I found it had crumbled to powder.

I put in another cube and sent it two years back. The second cube came back unchanged, except that it was newer, shinier.

That gave me the answer. I had been expecting the cubes to go back in time, and they had done so, but not in the sense I had expected them to. Those metal cubes had been fabricated about three years previously. I had sent the first one back years before it had existed in its fabricated form. Ten years ago it had been ore. The machine returned it to that state.

Do you see how our previous theories of time travel have been wrong? We expected to be able to step into a time machine in, say, 2004, set it for fifty years back, and then step out in the year 1954… but it does not work that way. The machine does not move in time. Only whatever is within the machine is affected, and then just with relation to itself and not to the rest of the Universe.

I confirmed this with guinea pigs by sending one six weeks old five weeks back and it came out a baby.

I need not outline all my experiments here. You will find a record of them in the desk and you can study it later.

Do you understand now what has happened to you, Norman?

You begin to understand. And you begin to sweat.

The I who wrote that letter you are now reading is you, yourself at the age of seventy-five, in this year of 2004. You are that seventy-five-year-old man, with your body returned to what it had been fifty years ago, with all the memories of fifty years of living wiped out.

You invented the time machine.

And before you used it on yourself, you made these arrangements to help you orient yourself. You wrote yourself the letter which you are now reading.

But if those fifty years are — to you — gone, what of all your friends, those you loved? What of your parents? What of the girl you are going — were going — to marry?

You read on:

Yes, you will want to know what has happened. Mom died in 1963, Dad in 1968. You married Barbara in 1956. I am sorry to tell you that she died only three years later, in a plane crash. You have one son. He is still living; his name is Walter; he is now forty-six years old and is an accountant in Kansas City.

Tears come into your eyes and for a moment you can no longer read. Barbara dead — dead for forty-five years. And only minutes ago, in subjective time, you were sitting next to her, sitting in the bright sun in a Beverly Hills patio…

You force yourself to read again.

But back to the discovery. You begin to see some of its implications. You will need time to think to see all of them.

It does not permit time travel as we have thought of time travel, but it gives us immortality of a sort. Immortality of the kind I have temporarily given us.

Is it good? Is it worth while to lose the memory of fifty years of one’s life in order to return one’s body to relative youth? The only way I can find out is to try, as soon as I have finished writing this and made my other preparations.

You will know the answer.

But before you decide, remember that there is another problem, more important than the psychological one. I mean overpopulation.

If our discovery is given to the world, if all who are old or dying can make themselves young again, the population will almost double every generation. Nor would the world — not even our own relatively enlightened country — be willing to accept compulsory birth control as a solution.

Give this to the world, as the world is today in 2004, and within a generation there will be famine, suffering, war. Perhaps a complete collapse of civilization.

Yes, we have reached other planets, but they are not suitable for colonizing. The stars may be our answer, but we are a long way from reaching them. When we do, someday, the billions of habitable planets that must be out there will be our answer… our living room. But until then, what is the answer?

Destroy the machine? But think of the countless lives it can save, the suffering it can prevent. Think of what it would mean to a man dying of cancer. Think…

Think. You finish the letter and put it down.

You think of Barbara dead for forty-five years. And of the fact that you were married to her for three years and that those years are lost to you.

Fifty years lost. You damn the old man of seventy-five whom you became and who has done this to you… who has given you this decision to make.

Bitterly, you know what the decision must be. You think that he knew, too, and realize that he could safely leave it in your hands. Damn him, he should have known.

Too valuable to destroy, too dangerous to give.

The other answer is painfully obvious.

You must be custodian of this discovery and keep it secret until it is safe to give, until mankind has expanded to the stars and has new worlds to populate, or until, even without that, he has reached a state of civilization where he can avoid overpopulation by rationing births to the number of accidental — or voluntary — deaths.

If neither of those things has happened in another fifty years (and are they likely so soon?), then you, at seventy-five, will be writing another letter like this one. You will be undergoing another experience similar to the one you’re going through now. And making the same decision, of course.

Why not? You’ll be the same person again.

Time and again, to preserve this secret until Man is ready for it.

How often will you again sit at a desk like this one, thinking the thoughts you are thinking now, feeling the grief you now feel?

There is a click at the door and you know that the time lock has opened, that you are now free to leave this room, free to start a new life for yourself in place of the one you have already lived and lost.

But you are in no hurry now to walk directly through that door.

You sit there, staring straight ahead of you blindly, seeing in your mind’s eye the vista of a set of facing mirrors, like those in an old-fashioned barber shop, reflecting the same thing over and over again, diminishing into far distance.

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by René Vidmer.

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Obscurity, thy name is early science fiction.

The short story below appeared in the July 1941 issue of the pulp magazine Comet. Comet debuted in December 1940, published five issues, and folded after the July 1941 issue.

As for author Edmund H. Leftwich, I found nothing about him online except that he wrote this story.

The Bell Tone” was published 80 years ago, and it shows. The structure and plot have an antiquated feel, as if written by Dickens or one of the Brontës. By the 1940s, writing style was moving on from the Victorian, but Leftwich still did it old school.

This story also reminds me of sci-fi stories written by my grandfather Bill Horne. I guess Bill was most comfortable as a traditionalist.

I would love to know how my writing style will be viewed in 80 years.

—–

The Bell Tone

By Edmund H. Leftwich
Published in Comet, July 1941

To Whom It May Concern:

In order to clear up any misunderstanding or false impressions regarding the amazing case of my beloved friend and co-worker, Professor Howard E. Edwards, I submit herewith, extracts from the professor’s notebook, which I found on the desk.

Evans Barclay, B.S. Fellow IRE.

***

Jan. 25.

Last night, in my dreams, I was a monstrous ant, and had been digging myself a burrow in the soft fresh earth. The dream was intensely real, and when I awoke, I felt as tired as if I had actually been digging. My arms ached, and I was astonished, upon examining my hands, to find them raw.

Dressing hastily, I rushed to the back yard, and there, sure enough, near the fence, was a large hole about two feet deep and three feet long. Hurriedly, I filled it in and returned to the house.

I must rest for a few days, as I feel that the intense excitement caused by my investigations, is preying too heavily upon my mind.

At this time, I feel that I should make a brief summary of my findings in respect to the ants, so that Barclay may go over these notes upon his return from his vacation.

First: The ant colony is the source of a powerful bell-like tone which is radiated continuously on two wave-lengths, .0018 meter, and .00176 meter. This tone acts as a radio-beacon, and directs the ants to the colony, no matter where they may be located.

The .0018 meter wave is used by the ants for their “clacking” conversations, by means of which they communicate with each other and the colony, receiving orders from the directing intelligence, reporting the location of food, and requesting help, when needed.

The wave .00176 meter, is used for sending thought images or pictures which may be sent with the “clacking” code, or independently. I cannot conceive a more efficient or highly specialized communications system. I must learn their secret, their methods.

***

Jan. 30.

This morning, while sitting at the receiver in a semi-doze, with the bell-tone ringing in my ears, I fell into that state known as “day-dreaming.” Little “Nippy,” my beloved fox terrier, and constant companion, rushed into the laboratory and ran up to me.

For a moment my mind went blank. My hands shot out. I grasped the dog around the throat and began to throttle him. I had risen from my chair, and the dog was nearly dead, when I slipped and fell, pulling the phone plug out of the receiver.

Instantly, my mind cleared, and words cannot express the remorse I felt at my inhuman actions. Nippy would have nothing to do with me, and crawled dejectedly from the room, a terrified look in his eyes.

I have no explanation for my actions.

***

Feb. 3.

The transmitter is ready for operation. I have constructed a pair of metal disc-electrodes which clamp tightly to my head and press upon my temples. This device will pick up the thought impulses from my brain, feed them directly into the radio-frequency amplifier, where they will be amplified, and then radiated in a tight directed beam.

My two ants were in their little enclosure under the microscope when I threw the switch to the “send” position. I pictured myself as I looked as a man, and sent the thought, “I am a man.”

Hastily, I threw the switch to the “receive” position. I looked through the microscope.

The ants were lying on their sides. Somehow, I felt that the power was too great, and had stunned them. Keeping my eye to the microscope, I again threw the switch to “send,” and cut the power to half.

“Get up, friends… get up,” I thought, as I pictured them rising. Sure enough… the ants slowly regained their feet. They looked about in apparent bewilderment. Back again, in “receive” position, I was conscious of the thought image,

“The man… he is the man. The man holds us here. He is killing us. We must kill the man.”

They gnashed their fierce-looking mandibles. I snapped back to “send” and thought.

“No… you must not kill the man. The man will not harm you… he is your friend. He will help you.”

As I watched, the ants seemed to become less excited. From the larger of the two, I received the thought,

“We are dying. The man is killing us with his strong vibrations. We must kill the man.”

Then a very powerful thought impression burst upon my brain.

It seemed to come from the colony, three feet away.

“Warning to the man. Stop your thought transmissions at once! Your vibrations are killing us. We want nothing from you. We have everything we need. You will learn nothing from us. You will stop at once!”

I threw the switch to “send.” Viewed through the microscope, the two ants were lying on their backs… dead, to all appearances.

“What if I don’t stop?” I sent the thought question, “I want to learn the secret of your communication. In return, I will teach you many things. I can’t stop now!”

I changed to receive, and the answer came back,

“If you do not stop… we will kill you!”

I turned off the apparatus, but the powerful bell tone continued to pound incessantly into my brain.

I laughed. They’d kill me… would they? Those tiny insects… what could they do? Well — let them try, but I’d get what I was after. I would not quit now, with success so near. What if my transmissions did kill a few of them? Of what importance were the lives of a few ants as compared to the advancement of the science of Communication?

***

Feb. 9.

I found myself digging again in the back yard yesterday. As before, I had been “day-dreaming,” when an overwhelming desire to go outside and feel the cool moist earth between my fingers and on my face took possession of me.

I rushed out into the back yard, and began digging feverishly… madly, until finally I fell, exhausted. Then my mind cleared and I filled in the hole.

About half the ants have died, due no doubt to the strength of my radiations. No matter how low I cut the power, they still cannot live but a short time under the force of my transmissions. They have stopped sending thought impressions entirely, and are using only their “clacking” code signals, which they seem to realize I cannot understand.

I feel that they are undertaking some sort of campaign against me. For hours they congregate, closely packed, their antennae stiffly pointed straight up. Their thought currents seem to be flowing into and merging with the bell tone, which grows stronger and more penetrating day by day.

In my back yard, there are four large ant hills, and at each hill, curiously, there is no activity except the same mass concentration of the ants. Have they, too, been affected by my radiations and joined forces with the original colony against myself?

The bell tone continues to grow stronger.

***

Feb. 11

Mrs. Winslow, the middle-aged widow, who comes to clean my house and laboratory twice a week, was here this morning.

She is short, dumpy, and inclined to be stout. As she went about her work, I noticed particularly the fat firm flesh of her neck, just below the jaw. I felt an uncontrollable desire to sink my teeth deep into that flesh, and enjoy the taste of the warm fresh blood.

I had actually risen from my chair to accomplish my desire, when the telephone rang… and my mind cleared.

***

Feb. 14.

I have decided to stop my experiments with the ants.

As they refuse to send any more thought impressions, there is nothing further I can learn from them. Somehow, I feel that they are gaining a hold upon my mind, and that every time I listen in on the receiver, that hold becomes stronger. I firmly believe that I would have attacked poor Mrs. Winslow, had not the ringing of the ‘phone so opportunely interrupted me. I have sent word for her to stay away… as I cannot trust myself.

I keep a box of fresh earth on the table in my laboratory. I often run my hands through it, and taste it. It is remarkable how much this soothes my nerves.

***

Feb. 16.

It is too late!

For two days, I have kept my apparatus shut off. I have not so much as looked at the ants, but still that confounded bell tone rings in my ears with all the insistence of African tom-toms. Hour by hour… the tone becomes more penetrating. I cannot sleep, and can eat but little.

As a last resort, I destroyed my ant colony. I even went so far as to pour boiling water on the four ant hills in my yard.

Still… the bell tone persists. I can stand it no longer!

Perhaps if I were to dig… again in the yard… in the soothing earth, I could forget…

***

(News Clipping: From Philadelphia Banner)


RADIO COMMUNICATIONS ENGINEER DEAD

Howard E. Edwards, Suicide

Philadelphia, Feb. 18. The body of Howard E. Edwards, B.S., PhD., Member I. R. E., eminent authority on Radio Communications, aged 56, was found this morning in the back yard of his residence, 1427 Raines Avenue. The body was almost completely buried in a long narrow hole in the ground.

At first, foul-play was suspected, but later it appeared that Edwards had dug himself into the ground and died of suffocation, as his nostrils and mouth were filled with dirt.

Dr. P. A. Hofner, who examined the body, found no wounds, stated that Edwards had been dead for about two days, and pronounced the death as a clear case of suicide, the strange means employed probably due to an unbalanced mental condition.

Elaborate radio apparatus upon which Edwards had been working had been smashed to bits.

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The science fiction short story below by Arnold Marmor, like another Marmor story I posted back in January, is more evidence he was a fan of black humor.

I included bio information with the January story. Marmor was an interesting character.

———

Marty the Martian

By Arnold Marmor
Published in Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy, August 1954

It’s still very clear in my mind. The whole episode. The afternoon visit to Marsten’s office, the trip to Mars, and the journey back.

It was one of those warm summer afternoons. All one craved for was a patch of green grass to recline on and maybe a faint breeze to tingle one’s forehead. I was sure of the grass and hopeful for the breeze. But one of Marsten’s messengers popped up and the grass and the breeze would have to wait. After all, Marsten was my boss.

He had his office in the Empire State Building. Norbert Marsten was the owner of the Marsten Circus, the greatest, biggest, loudest circus in the world. And if you don’t believe it, ask Mr. Marsten.

“Sit down, Nick,” he invited, speaking from one corner of his mouth as the other corner was busy chewing a dollar cigar. Marsten was a small man with sleek black, hair. A small man with big ideas.

I sat down.

“Nick, you’re the best ‘bring ’em back alive’ man I’ve got. The best.”

This was very true. “You’ve got a job for me,” I said.

“That’s correct.”

“So why the buildup? Tell me what you want.”

“I want something that no other circus has.”

“You must be kidding. You have every known animal there is. Why, the bushmaster I brought you two months ago is the longest — “

“It isn’t exactly an animal I want.”

“Oh? You mean you want a performer? What the hell have I got to do — “

“What I want is out of this world.”

“A different kind of act? I still say — “

“I want a Martian.”

I was glad I didn’t have a mirror in front of my face. I could imagine how foolish I looked with my mouth hanging open.

“I even have a name picked out for him,” Marsten persisted. “Marty, the Martian. What do you think of that?”

I stood up slowly. “Let me know when you’ve recovered.”

Marsten came around the desk. “Sit down. Now listen to me. Did you ever hear of a man named Hendrick Ritter?”

“No.”

“The greatest scientist in the world. He’s been working for me for over a year. I hired him to do one particular job for me: to concoct a fuel that will get a space ship to Mars and back. Well, it’s done. Did you ever hear of a man named Sam Young?”

“Same answer as before.”

“He’s a designer for air ships. The best in the business. He’s finished a job for me. And, Nick, it’s already built. And I’ve got Joe Roane working for me.”

“I’ve heard of him,” I said.

“The greatest pilot in the world,” Marsten said.

“The greatest this, the greatest that. And for what? Why, the ship probably won’t get off the ground.”

Marsten chewed furiously on his cigar. “But what if it does get off the ground? What if it does get to Mars?”

“All right. So what? How do you know there’s life on Mars?”

“There is. I hired the greatest — “

“Oh, no,” I groaned. “I believe you, I believe you. So now we’re on Mars.”

“You capture a Martian and bring him back.”

“What if he doesn’t care to be captured?”

“What do I pay you for?”

I thought this out, then said, “To capture Martians.”

“Exactly.”

“You wouldn’t settle for a moon maiden, would you? I heard they’re cute. And sexy.”

“A Martian.” He was very adamant. “I’ll have the greatest attraction in the world. Nick, I’m the kind who gets what he wants. I’ve spent over three million dollars on this project and I’m ready to spend another three million. Just get me my Martian and you’ll be a rich man. You’ll be rich enough to quit working for me and to tell me to go to hell. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“I’d like that very much.”

Two weeks later we went to Arizona. A week after that we took off. I didn’t really think we would. But we did.

Just me and Joe Roane. Two men in a space ship.

A huge metal tube hurtling through the longest and blackest of nights.

Joe Roane was a good-looking chap. Good-looking, young, and excited. He was the first to pilot a ship to Mars. He was looking ahead to the glory that awaited him.

We landed on Mars.

We put on helmets that Ritter and Young had made for us. We stepped down the metal ladder.

They were there, waiting for us.

I’d rather have faced a bushmaster or a rhino.

They stood on three legs. They had globe bellies, tiny heads, and no necks. They were of a color I had never seen before. They had two arms with two hands attached to each arm. I suppose they were hands. They were more like claws.

I stood frozen solid. Joe Roane screamed and turned to run back up the ladder. A beam flashed and Joe fell forward, silent and very dead.

After that it was all a blank.

When I came to I was strapped down by metal clasps on a long board made of some kind of marble. I was alone for some time.

I don’t remember how long it was before one of them appeared. He stood by my side, looking down at me. His eyes were purple. There were no whites. “You have come a long way,” he said.

“You — you speak English?”

“We used a 64-V machine on you. We learned your language, your thoughts, your name. We know about Norbert Marsten. A very enterprising man, it seems.”

“What are you going to do with me?”

“We haven’t decided yet. So you were going to take one of us back with you for Marsten’s circus. To exhibit one of us to your stupid race. My followers wanted to kill you when this information was learned. But I believe I have a better idea.”

He went away. I yelled for him to come back. I yelled till my throat was dry. Eventually he did come back. He came back with Joe Roane and… myself.

“I want you to meet Klar and Grat,” he said. “They have taken over your bodies; you will take theirs—and return to Marsten. We have a transformer machine to accomplish this. Only we never had an opportunity to use it until you were so gracious as to visit us.” He spoke on, telling me of his idea. I shuddered and wished for death. I begged him to kill me.

Then a contraption was fitted over me and it hummed and I passed out. I remember the trip back to earth.

I’m no longer Nick Faber. I’m Marty the Martian. What a cute title Marsten had hung on me. I’ve got a nice home and I get plenty to eat. Only my home is a cage and it’s made of glass. People come from all over the world just to see me. And Marsten has been to see me every day. He chews on his big cigar and there’s a smile on his face a yard wide.

I’ve tried to talk to my keepers but all I can manage is some crazy kind of gibberish. I also see Klar and Grat. But they’re only there when Marsten is around. They’re keeping very close to him.

My being transformed into a Martian was just part of it. Klar and Grat were going to carry out the rest of it.

On one dark night, and very soon, Klar, Grat, and Marsten were going to disappear.

Maybe I was the greatest attraction on earth. But Norbert Marsten was going to be the greatest attraction on Mars.

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Harry Harrison (1925-2012) began his career in science fiction as an illustrator and eventually began writing novels and short stories, many of them breathless adventures and parodies. Friends say Harrison was funny, sarcastic, eccentric, and intolerant of authority.

The 1973 movie “Soylent Green” was based on Harrison’s 1966 novel “Make Room! Make Room!” His 1965 novel “Bill, the Galactic Hero” was a satire of, and a finger in the eye to, Robert Heinlein’s highly militaristic “Starship Troopers.”

At various times, Harrison and his family lived in New York, Mexico, England, Italy, Denmark, and San Diego. He spent his later years in Ireland and died in London.

———

Toy Shop

By Harry Harrison
Published in Analog Science Fiction & Fact, April 1962

Because there were few adults in the crowd, and Colonel “Biff” Hawton stood over six feet tall, he could see every detail of the demonstration. The children — and most of the parents — gaped in wide-eyed wonder. Biff Hawton was too sophisticated to be awed. He stayed on because he wanted to find out what the trick was that made the gadget work.

“It’s all explained right here in your instruction book,” the demonstrator said, holding up a garishly printed booklet opened to a four-color diagram. “You all know how magnets pick up things and I bet you even know that the earth itself is one great big magnet — that’s why compasses always point north. Well… the Atomic Wonder Space Wave Tapper hangs onto those space waves. Invisibly all about us, and even going right through us, are the magnetic waves of the earth. The Atomic Wonder rides these waves just the way a ship rides the waves in the ocean. Now watch…”

Every eye was on him as he put the gaudy model rocketship on top of the table and stepped back. It was made of stamped metal and seemed as incapable of flying as a can of ham — which it very much resembled. Neither wings, propellers, nor jets broke through the painted surface. It rested on three rubber wheels and coming out through the bottom was a double strand of thin insulated wire. This white wire ran across the top of the black table and terminated in a control box in the demonstrator’s hand. An indicator light, a switch and a knob appeared to be the only controls.

“I turn on the Power Switch, sending a surge of current to the Wave Receptors,” he said. The switch clicked and the light blinked on and off with a steady pulse. Then the man began to slowly turn the knob. “A careful touch on the Wave Generator is necessary as we are dealing with the powers of the whole world here…”

A concerted ahhhh swept through the crowd as the Space Wave Tapper shivered a bit, then rose slowly into the air. The demonstrator stepped back and the toy rose higher and higher, bobbing gently on the invisible waves of magnetic force that supported it. Ever so slowly the power was reduced and it settled back to the table.

“Only $17.95,” the young man said, putting a large price sign on the table. “For the complete set of the Atomic Wonder, the Space Tapper control box, battery and instruction book…”

At the appearance of the price card the crowd broke up noisily and the children rushed away towards the operating model trains. The demonstrator’s words were lost in their noisy passage, and after a moment he sank into a gloomy silence. He put the control box down, yawned and sat on the edge of the table. Colonel Hawton was the only one left after the crowd had moved on.

“Could you tell me how this thing works?” the colonel asked, coming forward. The demonstrator brightened up and picked up one of the toys.

“Well, if you will look here, sir…” He opened the hinged top. “You will see the Space Wave coils at each end of the ship.” With a pencil he pointed out the odd shaped plastic forms about an inch in diameter that had been wound — apparently at random — with a few turns of copper wire. Except for these coils the interior of the model was empty. The coils were wired together and other wires ran out through the hole in the bottom of the control box. Biff Hawton turned a very quizzical eye on the gadget and upon the demonstrator who completely ignored this sign of disbelief.

“Inside the control box is the battery,” the young man said, snapping it open and pointing to an ordinary flashlight battery. “The current goes through the Power Switch and Power Light to the Wave Generator…”

“What you mean to say,” Biff broke in, “is that the juice from this fifteen cent battery goes through this cheap rheostat to those meaningless coils in the model and absolutely nothing happens. Now tell me what really flies the thing. If I’m going to drop eighteen bucks for six-bits worth of tin, I want to know what I’m getting.”

The demonstrator flushed. “I’m sorry, sir,” he stammered. “I wasn’t trying to hide anything. Like any magic trick this one can’t be really demonstrated until it has been purchased.” He leaned forward and whispered confidentially. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do though. This thing is way overpriced and hasn’t been moving at all. The manager said I could let them go at three dollars if I could find any takers. If you want to buy it for that price…”

“Sold, my boy!” the colonel said, slamming three bills down on the table. “I’ll give that much for it no matter how it works. The boys in the shop will get a kick out of it,” he tapped the winged rocket on his chest. “Now really — what holds it up?”

The demonstrator looked around carefully, then pointed. “Strings!” he said. “Or rather a black thread. It runs from the top of the model, through a tiny loop in the ceiling, and back down to my hand — tied to this ring on my finger. When I back up — the model rises. It’s as simple as that.”

“All good illusions are simple,” the colonel grunted, tracing the black thread with his eye. “As long as there is plenty of flimflam to distract the viewer.”

“If you don’t have a black table, a black cloth will do,” the young man said. “And the arch of a doorway is a good site, just see that the room in back is dark.”

“Wrap it up, my boy, I wasn’t born yesterday. I’m an old hand at this kind of thing.”

Biff Hawton sprang it at the next Thursday-night poker party. The gang were all missile men and they cheered and jeered as he hammed up the introduction.

“Let me copy the diagram, Biff, I could use some of those magnetic waves in the new bird!”

“Those flashlight batteries are cheaper than lox, this is the thing of the future!”

Only Teddy Kaner caught wise as the flight began. He was an amateur magician and spotted the gimmick at once. He kept silent with professional courtesy, and smiled ironically as the rest of the bunch grew silent one by one. The colonel was a good showman and he had set the scene well. He almost had them believing in the Space Wave Tapper before he was through. When the model had landed and he had switched it off he couldn’t stop them from crowding around the table.

“A thread!” one of the engineers shouted, almost with relief, and they all laughed along with him.

“Too bad,” the head project physicist said, “I was hoping that a little Space Wave Tapping could help us out. Let me try a flight with it.”

“Teddy Kaner first,” Biff announced. “He spotted it while you were all watching the flashing lights, only he didn’t say anything.”

Kaner slipped the ring with the black thread over his finger and started to step back.

“You have to turn the switch on first,” Biff said.

“I know,” Kaner smiled. “But that’s part of illusion — the spiel and the misdirection. I’m going to try this cold first, so I can get it moving up and down smoothly, then go through it with the whole works.”

He moved his hand back smoothly, in a professional manner that drew no attention to it. The model lifted from the table — then crashed back down.

“The thread broke,” Kaner said.

“You jerked it, instead of pulling smoothly,” Biff said and knotted the broken thread. “Here let me show you how to do it.”

The thread broke again when Biff tried it, which got a good laugh that made his collar a little warm. Someone mentioned the poker game.

This was the only time that poker was mentioned or even remembered that night. Because very soon after this they found that the thread would lift the model only when the switch was on and two and a half volts flowing through the joke coils. With the current turned off the model was too heavy to lift. The thread broke every time.

“I still think it’s a screwy idea,” the young man said. “One week getting fallen arches, demonstrating those toy ships for every brat within a thousand miles. Then selling the things for three bucks when they must have cost at least a hundred dollars apiece to make.”

“But you did sell the ten of them to people who would be interested?” the older man asked.

“I think so, I caught a few Air Force officers and a colonel in missiles one day. Then there was one official I remembered from the Bureau of Standards. Luckily he didn’t recognize me. Then those two professors you spotted from the university.”

“Then the problem is out of our hands and into theirs. All we have to do now is sit back and wait for results.”

“What results?! These people weren’t interested when we were hammering on their doors with the proof. We’ve patented the coils and can prove to anyone that there is a reduction in weight around them when they are operating…”

“But a small reduction. And we don’t know what is causing it. No one can be interested in a thing like that — a fractional weight decrease in a clumsy model, certainly not enough to lift the weight of the generator. No one wrapped up in massive fuel consumption, tons of lift and such is going to have time to worry about a crackpot who thinks he has found a minor slip in Newton’s laws.”

“You think they will now?” the young man asked, cracking his knuckles impatiently.

“I know they will. The tensile strength of that thread is correctly adjusted to the weight of the model. The thread will break if you try to lift the model with it. Yet you can lift the model — after a small increment of its weight has been removed by the coils. This is going to bug these men. Nobody is going to ask them to solve the problem or concern themselves with it. But it will nag at them because they know this effect can’t possibly exist. They’ll see at once that the magnetic-wave theory is nonsense. Or perhaps true? We don’t know. But they will all be thinking about it and worrying about it. Someone is going to experiment in his basement — just as a hobby of course — to find the cause of the error. And he or someone else is going to find out what makes those coils work, or maybe a way to improve them!”

“And we have the patents…”

“Correct. They will be doing the research that will take them out of the massive-lift-propulsion business and into the field of pure space flight.”

“And in doing so they will be making us rich — whenever the time comes to manufacture,” the young man said cynically.

“We’ll all be rich, son,” the older man said, patting him on the shoulder. “Believe me, you’re not going to recognize this old world ten years from now.”

Original illustration from Analog Science Fiction & Fact by Charles Brey.

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Alan E. Nourse (1928-1992) wrote science fiction to help pay for medical school, practiced medicine for a few years, and returned to writing full time. At one point, he had a regular “Family Doctor” column in Good Housekeeping Magazine.

The following story qualifies as science fiction, but really is a grim little horror story. It’s as if Stephen King rewrote Calvin and Hobbes and got rid of the warmth and humor. What’s left is bleak, but memorable.

———

My Friend Bobby

By Alan E. Nourse
Published in “The Counterfeit Man: More Science Fiction Stories,” 1963

My name is Jimmy and I am five years old, and my friend Bobby is five years old too but he says he thinks he’s really more than five years old because he’s already grown up and I’m just a little boy. We live out in the country because that’s where mommy and daddy live, and every morning daddy takes the car out of the barn and rides into the city to work, and every night he comes back to eat supper and to see mommy and Bobby and me.

One time I asked daddy why we don’t live in the city like some people do and he laughed and said you wouldn’t really want to live in the city would you? After all he said you couldn’t have Bobby in the city, so I guess it’s better to live in the country after all.

Anyway daddy says that the city is no place to raise kids these days. I asked Bobby if I am a kid and he said he guessed so but I don’t think he really knows because Bobby isn’t very smart. But Bobby is my friend even if he doesn’t know much and I like him more than anybody else.

Mommy doesn’t like Bobby very much and when I am bad she makes Bobby go outdoors even when it’s cold outside. Mommy says I shouldn’t play with Bobby so much because after all Bobby is only a dog but I like Bobby. Everyone else is so big, and when mommy and daddy are home all I can see is their legs unless I look way up high, and when I do something bad I’m scared because they’re so big and strong.

Bobby is strong too but he isn’t any bigger than I am, and he is always nice to me. He has a long shaggy brown coat and a long pointed nose, and a nice collar of white fur and people sometimes say to daddy what a nice collie that is and daddy says yes isn’t he and he takes to the boy so. I don’t know what a collie is but I have fun with Bobby all the time. Sometimes he lets me ride on his back and we talk to each other and have secrets even though I don’t think he is very smart. I don’t know why mommy and daddy don’t understand me when I talk to them the way I talk to Bobby but maybe they just pretend they can’t hear me talk that way.

I am always sorry when daddy goes to work in the morning. Daddy is nice to me most times and takes me and Bobby for walks. But mommy never takes me for walks and when we are alone she is busy and she isn’t nice to me. Sometimes she says I am a bad boy and makes me stay in my room even when I haven’t done anything bad and sometimes she thinks things in her head that she doesn’t say to me.

I don’t know why mommy doesn’t like me and Bobby doesn’t know either, but we like it best when mommy lets us go outdoors to play in the barn or down by the creek. If I get my feet wet mommy says I am very bad so I stay on the bank and let Bobby go in, but one day when Bobby went into the water just before we went home for supper mommy scolded me and told me I was bad for letting Bobby go into the water and when I told her she hadn’t told me not to let Bobby go in she was angry and I could tell that she didn’t like me at all that day.

Almost every day I do something that mommy says is bad even when I try specially to be good. Sometimes right after daddy goes away in the morning I know that mommy is angry and is going to spank me sooner or later that day because she is already thinking how she will spank me, but she never says so out loud. Sometimes she pretends that she’s not angry and takes me up on her lap and says I’m her nice little boy but all the time I can hear her thinking that she doesn’t really like me even when she tries and she doesn’t even want to touch me if she can help it.

I can hear her wondering why my hair doesn’t grow nice like the Bennet twins that live up the road. I don’t see how mommy can be saying one thing out loud and something else inside her head at the same time but when I look at her she puts me down and says she’s busy and will I get out from underfoot, and then pretty soon I do something that makes her angry and she makes me go to my room or she spanks me. Bobby doesn’t like this. Once when she spanked me he growled at mommy, and mommy chased him outdoors with a broom before she sent me to bed. I cried all day that day because it was cold outdoors and I wanted to have Bobby with me.

I wonder why mommy doesn’t like me?

One day I was a bad boy and let Bobby come into the house before mommy told me I could. Bobby hadn’t done anything bad but mommy hit him on the back with the broom and hurt him and chased him back outdoors and then she told me I was a very bad boy. I could tell that she was going to spank me and I knew she would hurt me because she was so big, and I ran upstairs and hid in my room.

Then mommy stamped her foot hard and said Jimmy you come down here this minute. I didn’t answer and then she said if I have to come upstairs and get you I’ll whip you until you can’t sit down, and I still didn’t answer because mommy hurts me when she gets angry like that. Then I heard her coming up the stairs and into my room and she opened the closet door and found me. I said please don’t hurt me mommy but she reached down and caught my ear and dragged me out of the closet.

I was so scared I bit her hand and she screamed and let go and I ran and locked myself in the bathroom because I knew she would hurt me bad if I didn’t. I stayed there all day long and I could hear mommy running the sweeper downstairs and I couldn’t see why she wanted to hurt me so much just because I let Bobby come in before she told me I could. But somehow it seemed that mommy was afraid of me even though she was so big and strong. I don’t see why anybody as big as mommy should be afraid of me but she was.

When daddy came home that night I heard him talking to mommy, and then he came up to the bathroom and said open the door Jimmy I want to talk to you. I said I want Bobby first so he went down and called Bobby and then I opened the door and came out of the bathroom. Daddy reached down and lifted me high up on his shoulder and took me into my bedroom and just sat there for a long time patting Bobby’s head and I couldn’t hear what he was thinking very well.

Finally he said out loud Jimmy you’ve got to be good to your mommy and do what she says and not lock yourself up in rooms any more. I said but mommy was going to hurt me and daddy said when you’re a bad boy your mommy has to punish you so you’ll remember to be good, but she doesn’t like to spank you. She only does it because she loves you.

I knew that wasn’t true because mommy likes to punish me but I didn’t dare say that to daddy. Daddy isn’t afraid of me the way mommy is and he is nice to me most times, so I said all right if you say so. Daddy said fine, will you promise to be nice to mommy from now on? I said yes if mommy won’t hit Bobby any more with the broom. And daddy said well after all Bobby can be a bad dog just the way you can be a bad boy, can’t he?

I knew Bobby was never a bad dog on purpose but I said yes I guessed so. Then I wanted to ask daddy why mommy was afraid of me but I didn’t dare because I knew daddy liked mommy more than anybody and maybe he would be angry at me for saying things like that about her.

That night I heard mommy and daddy talking down in the living room and I sat on the top step so I could hear them. Bobby sat there too, but I knew he didn’t know what they were saying because Bobby isn’t very smart and can’t understand word-talk like I can. He can only understand think-talk, and he doesn’t understand that very well. But now even I couldn’t understand what mommy was saying. She was crying and saying Ben I tell you there’s something wrong with the child, he knows what I’m thinking, I can tell it by the way he looks at me.

And daddy said darling, that’s ridiculous, how could he possibly know what you’re thinking? Mommy said I don’t know but he does! Ever since he was a little boy he’s known — oh, Ben, it’s horrible, I can’t do anything with him because he knows what I’m going to do before I do it. Then daddy said Carol, you’re upset about today and you’re making things up. The child is just a little smarter than most kids, there’s nothing wrong with that.

And mommy said no, there’s more to it than that and I can’t stand it any longer. We’ve got to take him to a doctor, I don’t even like to look at him. Daddy said you’re tired, you’re just letting little things get on your nerves. So maybe the boy does look a little strange, you know the doctor said it was just that the fontanelles hadn’t closed as soon as they should have and lots of children don’t have a good growth of hair before they’re six or seven. After all he said he isn’t a bad looking boy.

Then mommy said that isn’t true, he’s horrible! I can’t bear it, Ben, please do something, and daddy said what can I do? I talked to the boy and he was sorry and promised he’d behave himself. And mommy said then there’s that dog — it follows him around wherever he goes, and he’s simply wicked if the dog isn’t around, and daddy said isn’t it perfectly normal for a boy to love his dog? Mommy said no, not like this, talking to him all the time, and the dog acting exactly as if he understands—there’s something wrong with the child, something horribly wrong.

Then daddy was quiet for a while, and then he said all right, if it will make you feel any better we can have Doctor Grant take another look at him. Maybe he can convince you that there’s nothing wrong with the boy, and mommy said please, Ben, anything, I can’t stand much more of this.

When I went back to bed and Bobby curled up on the floor, I asked him what were fontanelles, and Bobby just yawned and said he didn’t know but he thought I was nice, and he would always take care of me, so I didn’t worry any more and went to sleep.

I have a panda out in the barn and the panda’s name is Bobby too and at first Bobby the dog was jealous of Bobby the panda until I told him that the panda was only a make-believe Bobby and he was a real Bobby. Then Bobby liked the panda, and the three of us played out in the barn all day. We decided not to tell mommy and daddy about the panda, and kept it for our own secret. It was a big panda, as big as mommy and daddy, and sometimes I thought maybe I would make the panda hurt mommy but then I knew daddy would be sorry so I didn’t.

Bobby and I were playing with Bobby the panda the day the doctor came and mommy called me in and made Bobby stay outside. I didn’t like the doctor because he smelled like a dirty old cigar and he had a big red nose with three black hairs coming out of it and he wheezed when he bent down to look at me. Daddy and mommy sat on the couch and the doctor said let me have a look at you young fellow and I said but I’m not sick and the doctor said ha ha, of course you aren’t, you’re a fine looking boy but just let me listen to your chest for a minute.

So he put a cold thing on my chest and stuck some tubes in his ears and listened, and then he looked in my eyes with a bright light and looked into my ears, and then he felt my head all over. He had big hairy hands and I didn’t like him touching me but I knew mommy would be angry if I didn’t hold still so I let him finish. Then he told daddy some big words that I couldn’t understand, but in think-talk he was saying that my head still hadn’t closed up right and I didn’t have as much hair as you’d expect but otherwise I seemed to be all right. He said I was a good stout looking boy but if they wanted a specialist in to look at me he would arrange it.

Daddy asked if that would cost very much and the doctor said yes it probably would and he didn’t see any real need for it because my bones were just a little slow in developing, and mommy said have you seen other children like that? The doctor said no but if the boy seems to be normal and intelligent why should she be worrying so? Then mommy told me to go upstairs, and I went but I stopped on the top stair and listened.

When I was gone the doctor said now Carol what is it that’s really bothering you? Then mommy told him what she had told daddy, how she thought I knew what she was thinking, and the doctor said to daddy, Ben, have you ever felt any such thing about the boy? Daddy said of course not, sometimes he gives you the feeling that he’s smarter than you think he is but all parents have that feeling about their children sometimes.

And then mother broke down and her voice got loud and she said he’s a monster, I know it, there’s something wrong and he’s different from us, him and that horrible dog. The doctor said but it’s a beautiful collie, and mommy said but he talks to it and it understands him, and the doctor said now, Carol, let’s be reasonable. Mommy said I’ve been reasonable too long, you men just can’t see it at all, don’t you think I’d know a normal child if I saw one?

And then she cried and cried, and finally she said all right, I know I’m making a fool of myself, maybe I’m just overtired, and the doctor said I’m sure that’s the trouble, try to get some rest, and sleep longer at night, and mommy said I can’t sleep at night, I just lie there and think.

The doctor said well we’ll fix that, enough of this nonsense now, you need your sleep and if you’re not sleeping well it’s you that should be seeing the doctor. He gave her some pills from his bag and then he went away, and pretty soon daddy let Bobby in, and Bobby came upstairs and jumped up and licked my face as if he’d been away for a hundred million years.

Later mommy called me down for supper, and she wasn’t crying any more, and she and daddy didn’t say anything about what they had said to the doctor. Mommy made me a special surprise for dessert, some ice cream with chocolate syrup on top, and after supper we all went for a walk, even though it was cold outside and snowing again. Then daddy said well, I think things will be all right, and mommy said I hope so, but I could tell that she didn’t really think so, and she was more afraid of me than ever.

For a while I thought mommy was really going to be nice to me and Bobby then. She was especially nice when daddy was home but when daddy was away at work sometimes mommy jumped when she saw me looking at her and then sent me outdoors to play and told me not to come in until lunch. I liked that because I knew if I weren’t near mommy everything would be all right. When I was with mommy I tried hard not to look at her and I tried not to hear what she was thinking, but lots of times I would see her looking first at me and then at Bobby, and those times I couldn’t help hearing what she was thinking because it seemed so loud inside my head that it made my eyes hurt. But I knew mommy would be angry so I pretended I couldn’t hear what she was thinking at all.

One day when we were out in the barn playing with Bobby the panda we saw mommy coming down through the snow from the kitchen and Bobby said look out Jimmy mommy is coming and I quick told Bobby the panda to go hide under the hay so mommy couldn’t see him. But the panda was so big his whole top and his little pink nose stuck out of the hay. Mommy came in and looked around the barn and said you’ve been out here for a long time, what have you been doing? I said nothing, and Bobby said nothing too, only in think-talk. And mommy said you are too, you’ve been doing something naughty, and I said no mommy we haven’t done anything, and then the panda sneezed and I looked at him and he looked so funny with his nose sticking out of the hay that I laughed out loud.

Mommy looked angry and said well what’s so funny, what are you laughing at? I said nothing, because I knew mommy couldn’t see the panda, but I couldn’t stop laughing because he looked so funny sticking out of the hay. Then mommy got mad and grabbed my ear and shook me until it hurt and said you naughty boy, don’t you lie to me, what have you been doing out here?

She hurt me so much I started to cry and then Bobby snarled at mommy loud and low and curled his lips back over his teeth and snarled some more. And mommy got real white in the face and let go of me and she said get out of here you nasty dog and Bobby snarled louder and then snapped at her. She screamed and she said Jimmy you come in the house this minute and leave that nasty dog outdoors and I said I won’t come, I hate you.

Then mommy said Jimmy! You wicked, ugly little monster, and I said I don’t care, when I get big I’m going to hurt you and throw you in the wood shed and lock you in until you die and make you eat coconut pudding and Bobby hates you too. And mommy looked terrible and I could feel how much she was afraid of me and I said you just wait, I’ll hurt you bad when I get big, and then she turned and ran back to the house.

And Bobby wagged his tail and said don’t worry, I won’t let her hurt you any more and I said Bobby you shouldn’t have snapped at her because daddy won’t like me when he comes home but Bobby said I like you and I won’t let anything ever hurt you. I’ll always take care of you no matter what. And I said promise? No matter what? And Bobby said I promise. And then we told Bobby the panda to come out but it wasn’t much fun playing any more.

After a little while mommy called me and said lunch was ready. She was still white and I said can Bobby come too and she said of course Bobby can come, Bobby’s a nice dog, so we went in to eat lunch. Mommy was talking real fast about what fun it was to play in the barn and was I sure I wasn’t too cold because it was below zero outside and the radio said a snowstorm was coming, but she didn’t say anything about Bobby and me being out in the barn.

She was talking so fast I couldn’t hear what she was thinking except for little bits while she set my lunch on the table and then she set a bowl of food on the floor for Bobby even though it wasn’t Bobby’s time to eat and said nice Bobby here’s your dinner. Bobby came over and sniffed the bowl and then he looked up at me and said it smells funny and mommy said nice Bobby, it’s good hamburger just the way you like it—

And then for just a second I saw what she was thinking and it was terrible because she was thinking that Bobby would soon be dead, and I remembered daddy saying a long time ago that somebody fed bad things to the Bennet’s dog and the dog died and I said don’t eat it, Bobby, and Bobby snarled at the dish. And then mommy said you tell the dog to eat it and I said no you’re bad and you want to hurt Bobby, and then I picked up the dish and threw it at mommy. It missed and smashed on the wall and she screamed and turned and ran out into the other room.

She was screaming for daddy and saying I can’t stand it, he’s a monster, a murderous little monster and we’ve got to get out of here before he kills us all, he knows what we’re thinking, he’s horrible, and then she was on the telephone, and she couldn’t make the words come out right when she tried to talk.

I was scared and I said come on Bobby let’s lock ourselves up in my room and we ran upstairs and locked the door. Mommy was banging things and laughing and crying downstairs and screaming we’ve got to get out, he’ll kill us if we don’t, and a while later I heard the car coming up the road fast, and saw daddy run into the house just as it started to snow. Then mommy was screaming please, Ben, we’ve got to get out of here, he tried to kill me, and the dog is vicious, he bit me when I tried to make him stop.

The next minute daddy was running up the stairs two at a time and I could feel him inside my head for the first time and I knew he was angry. He’d never been this angry before and he rattled the knob and said open this door Jimmy in a loud voice. I said no I won’t and he said open the door or I’ll break your neck when I get in there and then he kicked the door and kicked it again. The third time the lock broke and the door flew open and daddy stood there panting. His eyes looked terrible and he had a leather belt doubled up in his hand and he said now come out here and his voice was so loud it hurt my ears.

Down below mommy was crying please Ben, take me away, he’ll kill us both, he’s a monster! I said don’t hurt me daddy it was mommy, she was bad to me, and he said I said come out here even louder. I was scared then and I said please daddy I’ll be good I promise. Then he started for me with the belt and I screamed out Bobby! Don’t let him hurt me, Bobby, and Bobby snarled like a wild animal and jumped at daddy and bit his wrist so bad the blood spurted out.

Daddy shouted and dropped the belt and kicked at Bobby but Bobby was too quick. He jumped for daddy again and I saw his white teeth flash and heard him snap close to daddy’s throat and then Bobby was snarling and snapping and I was excited and I shouted hurt him, Bobby, he’s been bad to me too and he wants to hurt me and you’ve got to stop him.

Then I saw daddy’s eyes open wide, and felt something jump in his mind, something that I’d never felt there before and I knew he was understanding my think-talk. I said I want Bobby to hurt you and mommy because you’re not nice to me, only Bobby and my panda are nice to me. Go ahead, Bobby, hurt him, bite him again and make him bleed. And then daddy caught Bobby by the neck and threw him across the room and slammed the door shut and dragged something heavy up to block it.

In a minute he was running downstairs shouting Carol, I heard it! you were right all along — I felt him, I felt what he was thinking! And mommy cried please, Ben, take me away, let’s leave them and never come back, never, and daddy said it’s horrible, he told that dog to kill me and it went right for my throat, the boy is evil and monstrous.

Even from downstairs I could feel daddy’s fear pounding into my head and then I heard the door banging and looked out the window and saw daddy carrying suitcases out through the snow to the car and then mommy came out running and the car started down the hill and they were gone. Everything downstairs was very quiet. I looked out the window and I couldn’t see anything but the big falling snowflakes and the sun going down over the hill.

Now Bobby and I and the panda are all together and I’m glad mommy and daddy are gone. I went to sleep for a little while because my head hurt so but now I’m awake and Bobby is lying across the room licking his feet and I hope mommy and daddy never come back because Bobby will take care of me. Bobby is my friend and he said he’d always take care of me no matter what and he understands my think-talk even if he isn’t very smart.

It’s beginning to get cold in the house now because nobody has gone down to fix the fire but I don’t care about that. Pretty soon I will tell Bobby to push open the door and go down and fix the fire and then I will tell him to get supper for me and then I will stay up all night because mommy and daddy aren’t here to make me go to bed. There’s just me and Bobby and the panda, and Bobby promised he’d take care of me because he’s my friend.

It’s getting very cold now, and I’m getting hungry.

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Arnold Marmor (1927-1988) was a British writer of spy thrillers, crime stories, and science fiction. In the late 1950s, when the pulp market began to slow down, Marmor switched to writing lurid stories of the soft porn variety.

Marmor still wrote spy and crime stories, but he added enough spice to please his new audience. His books were marketed with salacious covers and suggestive titles, such as “Boudoir Treachery,” “Love Addiction,” “Ruthless Fraternity,” “Sweet Smell of Lust,” and “Spies Die Hard!” I’m just passing along what I learned, people.

The short story below, I assure you, is from Marmor’s pre-porn period. It’s an ordinary mixture of straight-up science fiction and black humor.

———

Fish Fry

By Arnold Marmor
Published in IMAGINATION — Stories of Science and Fantasy, December 1954

Off Key West in the Florida Strait, with the bucking of the motor launch under the seat of my pants, and a rod and reel in my hands, I could relax. I mean really relax. Sometimes a cool current from the Gulf of Mexico would engulf me and it would be like something a man dreams about. Alone, under a blue sky, with one’s thoughts. And then the thoughts would vanish as that familiar tug on the line meant a struggle was coming up. A battle between man and fish.

I love deep sea fishing. I was on a vacation with nothing to do but relax. Oh, there were women, all right. But one gets tired of women. But not fishing.

So here I was, this bright sunny afternoon, in my motor launch, when that tug on my line made me sit erect, and my brain became alert. You have to think clearly. You have to know when to let out line and when to pull in line. When the fish got tired you could tell. It all comes through experience.

From the pull of the line I thought I’d hooked a sailfish.

I reeled in fast, then started letting out line. But the line didn’t get taut. It was loose. At first I thought I’d lost it.

And then it climbed into the launch.

I got up fast and made ready to dive overboard.

“Hold on, fella,” it said. “Don’t get into a panic.”

I stared at it. It was about four feet tall, with scales and two thick stubs that was supposed to be tails. It stood on its tails and blinked enormous eyes at me.

“The creature from the black lagoon,” I said.

“To you I’m a creature,” he said. “To me you’re a creature.”

“What kind of a fish are you?”

“I’m not a fish. I’m a Grenarian.”

“You mean you eat vegetables?”

“I’m from the planet Grenaria.”

“Look,” I said. “You want this boat? Keep it. I’m off for Tampa. It’s about time I took up drinking.”

“You hate me.”

“No, I don’t. Honest. I’m just not used to these things.”

“It happens all the time. What you don’t understand you hate.”

“But I don’t. Honest. And where did you learn to talk?”

“I learned English from a professor. He understood my plight and tried to help. He was fishing the same as you when I caught hold of his line and we met.”

“What happened to him?”

“He went back to tell his colleagues. I never saw him again.”

“He’s probably in the booby hatch,” I said.

“What’s that?”

“Where I’ll be if I ever tell anyone this.”

“This is a cruel world,” he said. “By the way my name is Hrodes.”

“And mine is Carol Engelholtz. Now that the formalities are over, what the hell are you doing here?”

“My orders were to make contact with this solar system. My ship is at the bottom of the sea. I have to be near water or die. And every time I try to make contact I’m left alone on a craft of this sort.”

“You mean they jump overboard?”

“That’s exactly what I mean.”

“You’re from another galaxy?”

“Yes. My planet is covered with water. Your planet is the best one in this system which has water on it. That’s why I’m here.”

“But you’re not in water now.”

“My gills can still absorb it. As long as I’m near it.”

“Well, what do you want me to do?”

“I want to meet someone with responsibility.”

“I wouldn’t be able to get anyone to come out here with a story like that. They wouldn’t believe me. I’d end up with the professor.”

“Then take me with you.”

“But you wouldn’t be near water. Wait a minute. I can leave you in the tub.”

“Anything. I just want to get this mission over with.”

“I can wrap you up in wet towels. I can drive you to my place and go bring someone back with me.”

“Anything. Anything. Just let’s get on with it.”

“Why, I might be making history. I may become famous.”

“Will you please start this craft back to land?”

“Sure thing. Just a second,” I started the motor and headed for land.

Me. Carol Engelholtz. A liaison between two planets. I never felt so excited in my life. Why, it was more exciting than hooking a sailfish.

“There’s my lodge,” I shouted, pointing at the bluff just over a rise.

“You stay there alone?” Hrodes asked.

“I have a cook and a housekeeper. But they won’t bother you. You’ll stay in the tub in my bathroom while I go fetch somebody. But who do I go fetch?”

“Anyone with responsibility. I want to get this over with.”

“Yes, yes, I know. Your mission.” I docked the launch, soaked towels, wrapped them around Hrodes, carried him — or she — to my car, and in fifteen minutes I was home.

I left Hrodes in the tub and went back to the car. Miami was too far off. There was a small town called Chesterville a few miles away. It seemed the only place to go.

“There ain’t no F.B.I. branch here,” a deputy behind a battered desk said. He was about sixty, with a skinny neck that was covered with half dollar size blotches. “Better try Miami. Why? What’s the matter? Find some subversives? A lot of subversives in Florida.”

“No, no, nothing like that. Look, there must be a school or some kind of place for learning here.”

“Shore thing. We gotta school.”

“Isn’t there a professor teaching there, maybe?”

“Nope. But we got old Mrs. Henshaw. Husband died about six years ago. Old bag. I think she’s been running around lately with some tourist from Iowa. Now if you’re just lookin’ for any old professor, then —”

“That’s right,” I said, grasping at a straw. “Any old professor. Is there one in town?”

“Professor Klugelmeyer. Used to teach at some eastern college. Kind of dopey, though, I think. Funny old gaffer. Believes in flyin’ saucers. Can you imagine?”

“Where do I reach him?”

“He’s stayin’ at Mrs. Kirpatrick’s roomin’ house. Poor Mrs. Kirpatrick. Got a bad case of food poisoning. She ate—”

I ran out of the building and inquired for the rooming house. I found it and Professor Klugelmeyer.

“What? What? Hard to believe — Hard to believe. Once heard the same story from Professor Dickson. The poor fellow was put away. You must be mistaken, old man. You must be. Take my advice. Give up drinking. Bad for the liver, too, you know.”

“That old deputy told me you believe in flying saucers,” I said.

“I do. I really do. From Mars, probably. But they certainly won’t turn out to be fish. Fish talking? Come now.”

“I didn’t believe it at first myself. Listen, Professor, come with me. See and hear for yourself.”

“Well, I don’t know.”

It took me an hour before I had him half convinced. I almost dragged him to my car.

“This had better not turn out to be a practical joke,” he said. The professor was somewhere between sixty and seventy. He was kind of thin and he sported a long white mustache.

It was getting toward evening when we got to the lodge.

I ushered him in to my room. “There,” I said, flinging open the bathroom door.

“Where?” he said.

“There.”

“Where?”

I looked. I blinked. I looked again. The tub was empty.

I raced through the house.

In the front room I saw Mrs. O’Brien, my housekeeper.

“Where’s Hrodes?” I asked her.

“Who?”

“He was in the tub. I left him there.”

“You mean that big fish?”

“Yes, yes. Where is he?”

“He’s in the kitchen. We’re having him for dinner.”

“What!”

“Sure. Yat has it in the oven now.”

“You murderer!”

“What are you talking about? It’s only a fish. Didn’t you catch him so we’d have fish for dinner?”

“No. Didn’t he tell you who he was?”

“Are you crazy? He didn’t tell me nothin’. Besides, I didn’t see it till Sun Yat had it all cut up and laid out for cookin’.”

Sun Yat, my Chinese cook. Hrodes had met someone who couldn’t understand his plight or be scared out of his wits. Sun Yat was a deaf mute!

The professor was clucking sadly at me as he stomped out of the house.

Me? There was nothing to do but eat my dinner…

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John Michael Sharkey (1931-1992) was an author and playwright who published his first sci-fi short story in 1959. Over the next five years, he published 50 more.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Sharkey turned to writing plays and wrote more than 40, most of them screwball comedies and musicals. His sense of humor is on display in the short story below.

———

The Business, As Usual

By Jack Sharkey
Published in Galaxy Magazine, August 1960

In 1962, the United States Air Force found itself possessed of a formidable tool of battle, a radar resistant airplane. While this was the occasion for much rejoicing among the Defense Department members who were cleared for Top Secret, this national-defense solution merely posed a greater problem: What should we do with it?

“There must,” said the Secretary of Defense, “be some utilization of this new device to demonstrate to ‘Certain Powers’ that the world can be made safe for Freedom and Democracy!”

“‘Certain Powers,’ my foot,” said the President. “Why don’t we ever come out and just say it?”

“Policy,” the Secretary said. “We’ve always walked softly in our Foreign Policy; especially softly in cases where we didn’t have the ‘big stick’ to carry.”

“Well,” grumbled the President, “we’ve got the big stick now. What do we do with it?”

“We just want to shake it a bit,” said the Secretary. “No contusions intended, of course. We just have to let them know we have it, but are too kind-hearted to use it. Unless provoked, naturally.”

“I can see,” said the President, “that this new plane is burning a hole in your pocket. Suppose we do send it flying over Rus —”

“Mister President!” said the Secretary of Defense.

The President sighed. “All right, all right. Flying over ‘Certain Areas,’ then. Let’s say we get it there. Fine. What do we do with it? Drop leaflets?”

“No. That comes under the proselytizing clause in the Geneva Conference of ’59.”

“I don’t suppose a small — well, you know.”

“Aggression,” said the Secretary. “We’d lose face in the Middle East.”

“So?” demanded the President, spreading his hands. “They don’t like us anyhow, do they? Or the competition — or each other, for that matter.”

“That’s not the point. We have to feel as though our dollars are buying friends, whether or not it’s true.”

“Well, then, what can we do?” said the President. “No leaflets, no aggression. We couldn’t maybe seed their clouds and make it rain on them?”

“And get sued by other countries for artificially creating low-pressure conditions that, they could claim, robbed them of their rightful rainfall? We’ve had it happen right here between our own states.”

“Maybe we should just forget about it, then?”

“Never! It must be demonstrated to the world that —”

“We could take a full-page ad in the New York Times.”

“It just isn’t done that way,” the Secretary protested.

“Why not? It’d save money, wouldn’t it? A simple ad like, ‘Hey, there, Certain Powers! Lookie what we got!’ What’d be wrong with that?”

“They’d accuse us of Capitalistic Propaganda, that’s what! And to get the egg off our face, we’d have to demonstrate the plane and —”

“And be right back where we are now,” the President realized aloud, nodding gloomily. “Okay, so what do we do?”

The Secretary looked to left and right, although they were alone together in a soundproofed, heavily guarded room, before replying.

“We drop an agent!” he whispered.

The President blinked twice before responding. “Have you gone mad? What man in his right mind would volunteer for such a thing? ‘Drop an agent,’ indeed! Ten minutes after landing, he’d be up against a wall and shot. Wouldn’t that be lovely for Freedom and Democracy?

“We’d have the R— the Certain Powers gloating over the air waves for weeks about nipping a Capitalist Assassination Plot in the bud, not to mention the Mothers of America beating down the White House door because one of Our Boys was sacrificed.

“You know how our country reacts: If an entire division is wiped out, we bite the bullet and erect statues and make speeches and then forget it. But let a single man get in dutch and the whole populace goes crazy until something is ‘done’ about it. No, it won’t work.”

“May I finish?” said the Secretary patiently.

The President shrugged. “Why not?”

“This agent would be something special, sir. One that would not only demonstrate our new aircraft, but which would positively leave the R— damn, you’ve got me doing it! — Certain Powers tied in knots. In point of fact, our military psychologists think that this agent might be the wedge to split Communism apart in hopeless panic!”

“Really?” the President said, with more enthusiasm than he had shown throughout the entire meeting. “I’d like to meet this agent.”

The Secretary pressed a black button upon the conference table. An instant later, the door opened and the Secretary’s personal aide stepped in. “Yes, sir?”

“Jenkins, have the corridor cleared and Secret Service men posted at all entrances and exits. When it’s safe, bring in Agent X-45.” He paused. “And Professor Blake, too.”

“At once, sir.” Jenkins hurried out.

“X-45?” said the President. “Has he no name?”

The Secretary smiled inscrutably. “Teddy, sir.”

“Why that smirk?”

“You’ll see, sir.”

They sat in fidgety silence for another minute, and then a buzzer sounded, twice.

“Ah, that’s Jenkins,” said the Secretary, and pressed the button once more.

Jenkins came in, followed by a tall gray-haired man who carried a large black suitcase. The President arose, and, as Jenkins left the room again, shook hands with the man. “Agent X-45?” he asked.

“Professor Charles Blake,” the man corrected him calmly. “Agent X-45 is in here.”

The President stared. “In the suitcase? What are we sending? A dwarf?”

“Hardly,” said the Secretary, snapping up the hasps on the suitcase and opening it upon the table. “This,” he said, lifting something from under tissue-paper padding, “is Agent X-45.”

The President’s gaze was returned by two shiny black eyes, set on either side of a little brown muzzle with a gentle, stitched-on smile. Agent X-45 was clad in flight helmet, miniature jacket and tiny boots, with a baggy pair of brown canvas trousers belted at the waist with a bandolier holding a dozen small wooden bullets, and dangling a patent-leather holster containing a plastic water pistol. And he wore a small parachute and harness.

“But that’s a teddy bear!” cried the President.

“Precisely,” Professor Blake said.

“I think I’ll sit down,” said the President, and did so, visibly looking like a man who believes he is surrounded by lunatics.

“And look here!” said the Secretary, slipping his hand within Teddy’s jacket and withdrawing a small oilskin pouch. “It’s rather rudimentary, but the Cyrillic lettering is genuine, and our ambassador assures us the layout is correct.”

The President took the pouch, unfolded it and drew out a small sheet of paper, covered with the inscrutable letterings, and numerous rectangles and curving red lines.

“I give up,” he said. “What is it?”

“A map of the Kremlin,” said the Secretary, his eyes dancing. “That big red ‘X’ is the location of the Politburo Council Chamber.”

“Perhaps,” the President said weakly, “you could explain…?”

“Mister President,” said Professor Blake, “I am the new Chief of Propaganda for the government.”

The President nodded, poured himself a glass of water from a pitcher and drained it. “Yes, yes?” he said.

“Naturally, I have spent my career studying the psychology of a Certain Power…”

The President groaned. “Please, gentlemen, let’s name names! It need never go outside this room. My lips are sealed!”

The professor and the Secretary exchanged a look, a raising of eyebrows, then a shrug of surrender.

“Very well,” said Blake. “Russia —”

“There,” said the President. “That’s more like it.”

Blake cleared his throat and went on.

“We know the weak spot in the Russian armor is the mentality of the average Communist official,” he explained, while the Secretary, who had heard this all before, fiddled with the straps of Teddy’s parachute and hummed softly to himself. “They have a distrust complex. Everything and everybody is under 24-hour-a-day suspicion.”

“Yes, so I hear,” said the President.

“What do you suppose would happen to an agent that was caught by the Russians?” asked Blake.

“I’d rather not even think about that.”

“Not the sadistic details, sir. I mean the general train of events, from the time of capture onward.”

The President pondered this. “After his capture,” he said thoughtfully, “he would be questioned. Through various methods — hopelessly at variance with the regulations of the Geneva Convention — they would discover his mission, and then he would be shot, I guess, or imprisoned.”

Blake nodded grimly. “And what if an agent landed there that could not divulge his mission?”

The Secretary stopped fiddling with the harness and watched the President’s face. On the worn features he read first puzzlement, then incredulity, then a flash of sheer amazement.

“Good heavens!” said the President. “They’d — they’d have to admit a defeat, I suppose…”

“But can they?” Blake leaned forward and slammed his fist upon the tabletop. “Can the Communist mentality ever admit that it’s been bested?”

“I — I guess not. At least, they never do,” said the President. “But this —” he wagged a forefinger at the stuffed thing on the table — “this certainly won’t upset them. I mean, after all…” He looked from one to the other for agreement and found none. “But, gentlemen, it’s nothing but a stuffed bear!”

“It won’t upset them?” queried Blake slowly. “Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. They’ll find the bear, wherever it lands, and they’ll — well, they’ll know it’s a gag and just laugh at us.”

“How will they know?” Blake persisted.

“Well, they’ll be pretty well certain!” the President said scathingly: “I mean a stuffed toy —”

“Would they give up on something of which they were ‘pretty well’ certain?”

“They’d have to. Teddy, here, certainly couldn’t tell them anything. They’d say it was a joke and forget it…” His voice barely sounded the last few words. He no longer believed them. A smile flickered upon his face. “Gentlemen, you don’t think they’d —”

“The Russians,” said Blake, without emotion, “would go off their rockers, sir. To be unable to explain a thing like this would devastate their morale. The Communist is a man who must hold all the aces. He’ll shuffle and reshuffle until he gets them, too. Well, we’re giving him a cold deck, sir. There are no aces for him to find.”

“Hmmm,” said the President. “As long as there’s any doubt in their minds, they’ll have to keep plugging at it, won’t they! And since there’s no solution —” His smile grew calculating. “Yes, yes I begin to see. It’s a small thing, to be sure, but I find I must leap at the opportunity to stick a few ants in their pants for a change.”

“It won’t wipe them out,” began the Secretary.

“But it’ll wear them down a little,” Blake finished.

“Done!” said the President. “How soon can we get Operation Frustration under way?”

“The plane is ready to leave right now,” said the Secretary, with a small blush. “I — I rather thought you’d see this thing our way.”

The President frowned at this, then shrugged. “Good enough. Let’s get this bear into the air.”

“You sure this plane will work?” asked the President, averting his face from the spray of leaves caught up in the shrieking jet stream of the waiting plane.

“It’s too simple not to,” said Blake, clutching the suitcase — on whose side a large red “Top Secret” had been stenciled — to his chest, and shouting over the scream of the plane. “The radar-resistant device is nothing more than a radio-receiver that blankets the structure, making the entire plane a receiver. If it receives the radar impulses, they can’t bounce back and make a blip on the enemy radar screens.”

The President sighed. “You make it sound almost too easy. Very well.” He shook the man’s hand. “Good luck.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Blake, patting the suitcase. “I’ll take good care of Teddy.”

The President nodded and moved away. Blake boarded the jet, and, minutes later, the President was watching a last fading streamer of the twin exhausts dwindling upon the eastern horizon.

“I shan’t sleep till he’s back,” said the Secretary.

“Nor I,” said the President. “I have the weirdest damned apprehension…”

“About what, sir?” asked the Secretary, as they made their way from the field.

“About the —” the President looked around, then lowered his voice to a whisper — “the Russians. There’s something in their makeup we may have overlooked.”

“Impossible, sir,” said the Secretary of Defense. “Blake is our top psychologist.”

“I hope you’re right. If this fails, I’d hate for it to be traced to us.”

“It can’t be. The jacket was made in Japan, the boots in Mexico, the parachute in —”

“I know, I know,” said the President. “But if they should trace it to us, we’ll be a laughing-stock.”

“They won’t,” the Secretary assured him.

Two days later, Blake was back, his manner jovial when he met in secret session once more with the two executives.

“Couldn’t have gone more perfectly, gentlemen,” he said, rubbing his hands together and bouncing on his toes. “We passed directly over Moscow, at a height of ten miles, on the stroke of midnight. The night was overcast and starless. Teddy was dropped through the bomb bay. I saw his parachute open myself. He’s down there now, and we’re sure to see signs any day now of the little cracks in the Iron Curtain.”

“You had no trouble with the enemy?” the President asked, though the answer — since Blake was back alive — was obvious.

“None,” Blake said. “The radar shield performed exactly as specified, sir. Not a blink of a searchlight nor a single ground-to-air rocket did we see. Perhaps, on hearing us pass by, they sent up an investigating plane or two, but we were long gone by then. That’s the advantage of moving faster than the sound you make,” he added pontifically.

“I still feel we’ve overlooked something,” said the President. “In the back of my mind, a small voice keeps trying to remind me of something about the Russians, something that should have made me veto this whole scheme at the start.”

Blake looked puzzled. “What about them, sir? If it’s in regard to their psychology, I can assure you —”

“I don’t mean their psychology at all,” said the President. “No, wait — yes, I do, in a minor way. They must pursue this thing, no matter what, but —”

A light glimmered, then burned brightly in the President’s eyes, and he stood up and smacked his fist into his open palm. “Of course!” he said. “Their methods!”

“Methods?” asked Blake, a little nervously.

The President’s reply was interrupted by a knock at the door. The three men exchanged a look; then the Secretary jabbed the button, and Jenkins came in.

“This just came for you, sir,” he said, handing the Secretary a small envelope, and making his exit silently.

The President waited impatiently as the envelope was torn open and its contents read. Then the Secretary’s hands opened limply and the message fell upon the table.

“Diplomatic note — Russian — Teddy,” he whispered.

“What!” yelped the President. He snatched the paper from the table and read it, then sank into his chair once more, his face grim and eyes suspiciously moist. “The dirty, lowdown, rotten…”

Blake, hovering at tableside, hesitated a moment, then asked, “What about Teddy? What’s happened?”

“What we might have expected,” said the Secretary dolefully.

“You don’t mean —” Blake mumbled, horrified. He couldn’t continue, just waited for the worst.

The President nodded miserably.

“He’s confessed.”

Original illustration from Galaxy Magazine by Josef Trattner.

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Some of the short stories I post on this blog are well-known, some are not. Some are written by famous authors, some are not.

Online information about obscure authors is, of course, skimpy. I may uncover a few brief facts, but only a few.

For the author below, however, I struck out completely; all I found online about Wilson Parks Griffith is that this story was published in the January 1955 issue of Worlds of IF. I even found a PDF of the IF issue in question. Not a word about Griffith.

The author remains a mystery, but I like his story.

———

Double Take

By Wilson Parks Griffith
Published in Worlds of IF Science Fiction, January 1955

When the Travelers from Outer Space dug into the pile of moldering rock, they found the metal capsule their senses had told them was there. Battered and corroded though it was, the shadow vibrations showed that it had once been smooth and shiny. As smooth, shiny and impervious to wear as Twentieth Century Earth technology could make it.

At the time the Mayor of Chicago had ceremoniously tossed a handful of lake sand into the hole, had his picture taken smiling against the skyline, and had moved away to let the workmen fill the hole with cement and place the marker, the Time Capsule had been bright with the hopes of civilization sending its proud present into the uncertain future.

Time passed…

The tiny radio transmitter in the capsule began throwing out its wide signal at the exact instant planned for it many centuries before. No one heard. Eventually, the tiny powerful batteries gave out. The signal died.

Time passed…

When the Travelers from Outer Space took the capsule back to their ship and opened it, they found the contents in perfect order. Even the reel of magnetic tape had not succumbed to the centuries.

In due course, the Travelers examined the tape, divined its purpose, and constructed a machine that would play back the recording.

Out of a million evolutionary possibilities in a Universe of planets, the chances of two intelligent races being even roughly similar are astronomically remote.

A being develops sense organs for no other reason than to make it aware of its environment. The simplest primitive being’s awareness of its environment centers around food, its means of survival. It develops organs and appendages that will enable it to ferret out, obtain and ingest its food. As the food differs, so, then, does the eater.

The Travelers had no ears or eyes, as such. They had other organs for other purposes, but the net result was that they “saw” and “heard” quite as well — even better — than Earthmen.

Perhaps that explains why the Travelers gleaned so much more from the tape recording in the Twentieth Century capsule than its originators had planned or intended.

Not just any radio show could be placed in the Time Capsule. What picture of contemporary 1960 mankind would the men of the future derive from a soap opera? A news analysis? Or top comedy show? Certainly not a flattering one, and so, reasoned the brass in charge of the project, not a true one.

No, the only answer was to produce a special documentary program, painting on a broad canvas the glories that were the common man’s birthright in an enlightened democracy. As July 4th was only a month away, the idea was a natural. The program would be carried simultaneously on four networks, then placed in the Time Capsule so that historians of the future would have something solid on which to base their conclusions.

A famous poet-radio writer was hired to write the script. Hollywood’s greatest young male star donated his services (with much attendant publicity) as narrator. A self-acknowledged genius who directed radio shows for a living condescended to lend his talents to the production. Numerous other actors, musicians, technicians and assistants were hired… none well-known, but all quite competent.

July 4th, the big day, arrived. The cast went into rehearsal early in the morning. By the second complete run-through, just before the break for lunch, the show was hanging together nicely. After four hours of polishing in the afternoon, it was ready to go on the air. Everyone’s nerves were raw, but the show sounded great.

Naturally, when a room full of creative people have been rubbing against one another for a full day, a lot of emotions are generated. The listening audience never knew about it, but it took the actors, directors, musicians and technicians several days to get the session out of their systems.

During rehearsals, the young Hollywood star developed a consuming lust for one of the minor actresses. One of the minor actors developed a consuming lust for the young Hollywood star.

Everyone immediately hated the director, and he, lofty and all-wise, contemptuously hated them in return. By eight o’clock that night, show time, the splendid documentary on the splendid American people was not the only thing that was at peak pitch.

It was the only thing, however, that the radio audience heard. It was magnificent. Future students hearing the tape could not but conclude that here was the Golden Age. Man, at least American man, circa 1960, noble, humble and sincere, was carrying in his bosom the seeds of greatness.

Difficulties still existed, of course, but they were not insurmountable. A few deluded people seemed to be working against the common good, but the program left no doubt that this would be cleaned up in short order. The millennium was at hand!

When the Travelers from Outer Space, who were a team of historians doing research on the history of life throughout the Universe, listened to the tape recording, their “ears” heard none of the program as it had been originally broadcast.

They were no less fascinated, however, for what they heard was the thought patterns of the people who had been connected with the program. These thoughts, in the form of electrical impulses, were also recorded on the magnetic surface of the tape, and were the only sounds audible to the Travelers.

What a pity these future historians didn’t get mankind’s version of the life of mankind in 1960, after the producers had gone to so much trouble to tie it up in a package for them. Their conception of Earth culture was based on the thought impulses they “heard” and their History of Earth was written accordingly. The ending is worth noting:

“In the main, it is quite fortunate for life in the Universe that these primitive people destroyed themselves before they learned how to leave their planet. Lustful, murderous and guilt-ridden, they are perhaps the worst examples of intelligent life that we have ever discovered.

And yet, paradox supreme, they had one quality that we ourselves would do well to emulate. That quality we can only surmise, for nothing on the recording spoke of it, yet it is obvious, for if they hadn’t had this quality, there would have been no recording left for us at all.

“How strange that these tortured people should practise an unparalleled example of Life’s highest achievement… complete honesty with themselves and others.”

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