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Archive for the ‘Notable Prose and Poetry’ Category

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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Them or Us

John Keith Laumer (1925-1993), a former diplomat in the Foreign Service, published hundreds of science fiction novels and stories starting in the late 1950s until a stroke left him incapacitated in 1971. He recovered after several years, but critics say his work was never the same, and his career did not rebound.

Laumer tended to create fictional universes and write a series of stories, sometimes 15 or more, within that universe. He was known for the “Bolo” series, about military tanks that become self-aware after centuries of upgrades, and the “Retief” stories, about a space-faring diplomat who cleans up messes his bosses leave behind.

Laumer had a reputation for writing either breathless adventure stories or over-the-top comedies. The short story below is, as you will see, in the latter category.

———

A Bad Day for Vermin

By Keith Laumer
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1964

Judge Carter Gates of the Third Circuit Court finished his chicken salad on whole wheat, thoughtfully crumpled the waxed paper bag and turned to drop it in the waste basket behind his chair — and sat transfixed.

Through his second-floor office window, he saw a forty-foot flower-petal shape of pale turquoise settling gently between the well-tended petunia beds on the courthouse lawn. On the upper, or stem end of the vessel, a translucent pink panel popped up and a slender, graceful form not unlike a large violet caterpillar undulated into view.

Judge Gates whirled to the telephone. Half an hour later, he put it to the officials gathered with him in a tight group on the lawn.

“Boys, this thing is intelligent; any fool can see that. It’s putting together what my boy assures me is some kind of talking machine, and any minute now it’s going to start communicating. It’s been twenty minutes since I notified Washington on this thing. It won’t be long before somebody back there decides this is top secret and slaps a freeze on us here that will make the Manhattan Project look like a publicity campaign.

“Now, I say this is the biggest thing that ever happened to Plum County — but if we don’t aim to be put right out of the picture, we’d better move fast.”

“What you got in mind, Jedge?”

“I propose we hold an open hearing right here in the courthouse, the minute that thing gets its gear to working. We’ll put it on the air — Tom Clembers from the radio station’s already stringing wires, I see.

“Too bad we’ve got no TV equipment, but Jody Hurd has a movie camera. We’ll put Willow Grove on the map bigger’n Cape Canaveral ever was.”

“We’re with you on that, Carter!”

Ten minutes after the melodious voice of the Fianna’s translator had requested escort to the village headman, the visitor was looking over the crowded courtroom with an expression reminiscent of a St. Bernard puppy hoping for a romp. The rustle of feet and throat-clearing subsided and the speaker began:

“People of the Green World, happy the cycle —”

Heads turned at the clump of feet coming down the side aisle; a heavy-torsoed man of middle age, bald, wearing a khaki shirt and trousers and rimless glasses and with a dark leather holster slapping his hip at each step, cleared the end of the front row of seats, planted himself, feet apart, yanked a heavy nickel-plated .44 revolver from the holster, took aim and fired five shots into the body of the Fianna at a range of ten feet.

The violet form whipped convulsively, writhed from the bench to the floor with a sound like a wet fire hose being dropped, uttered a gasping twitter, and lay still. The gunman turned, dropped the pistol, threw up his hands, and called:

“Sheriff Hoskins, I’m puttin’ myself in yer pertective custody.”

There was a moment of stunned silence; then a rush of spectators for the alien. The sheriff’s three-hundred-and-nine-pound bulk bellied through the shouting mob to take up a stand before the khaki-clad man.

“I always knew you was a mean one, Cecil Stump,” he said, unlimbering handcuffs, “ever since I seen you makin’ up them ground-glass baits for Joe Potter’s dog. But I never thought I’d see you turn to cold-blooded murder.”

He waved at the bystanders. “Clear a path through here; I’m takin’ my prisoner over to the jail.”

“Jest a dad-blamed minute, Sheriff.” Stump’s face was pale, his glasses were gone and one khaki shoulder strap dangled — but what was almost a grin twisted one meaty cheek. He hid his hands behind his back, leaned away from the cuffs. “I don’t like that word ‘prisoner.’ I ast you fer pertection. And better look out who you go throwin’ that word ‘murder’ off at, too. I ain’t murdered nobody.”

The sheriff blinked, turned to roar, “How’s the victim, Doc?”

A small gray head rose from bending over the limp form of the Fianna. “Deader’n a mackerel, Sheriff.”

“I guess that’s it. Let’s go, Cecil.”

“What’s the charge?”

“First degree murder.”

“Who’d I murder?”

“Why, you killed this here… this stranger.”

“That ain’t no stranger. That’s a varmint. Murder’s got to do with killin’ humerns, way I understand it. You goin’ to tell me that thing’s humern?”

Ten people shouted at once:

” — human as I am!”

” — intelligent being!”

” — tell me you can simply kill —”

” — must be some kind of law —”

The sheriff raised his hands, his jowls drawn down in a scowl. “What about it, Judge Gates? Any law against Cecil Stump killing the… uh…?”

The judge thrust out his lower lip. “Well, let’s see,” he began. “Technically —”

“Good Lord!” someone blurted. “You mean the laws on murder don’t define what constitutes — I mean, what —”

“What a humern is?” Stump snorted. “Whatever it says, it sure-bob don’t include no purple worms. That’s a varmint, pure and simple. Ain’t no different killin’ it than any other critter.”

“Then, by God, we’ll get him for malicious damage,” a man called. “Or hunting without a license — out of season!”

” — carrying concealed weapons!”

Stump went for his hip pocket, fumbled out a fat, shapeless wallet, extracted a thumbed rectangle of folded paper, offered it.

“I’m a licensed exterminator. Got a permit to carry the gun, too. I ain’t broken no law.” He grinned openly now. “Jest doin’ my job, Sheriff. And at no charge to the county.”

A smaller man with bristly red hair flared his nostrils at Stump. “You blood-thirsty idiot!” He raised a fist and shook it. “We’ll be a national disgrace — worse than Little Rock! Lynching’s too good for you!”

“Hold on there, Weinstein,” the sheriff cut in. “Let’s not go gettin’ no lynch talk started.”

“Lynch, is it!” Cecil Stump bellowed, his face suddenly red. “Why, I done a favor for every man here! Now you listen to me! What is that thing over there?” He jerked a blunt thumb toward the judicial bench.

“It’s some kind of critter from Mars or someplace — you know that as well as me! And what’s it here for? It ain’t for the good of the likes of you and me, I can tell you that. It’s them or us. And this time, by God, we got in the first lick!”

“Why you… you… hate-monger!”

“Now, hold on right there. I’m as liberal-minded as the next feller. Hell, I like a nigger — and I can’t hardly tell a Jew from a white man. But when it comes to takin’ in a damned purple worm and callin’ it humern — that’s where I draw the line.”

Sheriff Hoskins pushed between Stump and the surging front rank of the crowd. “Stay back there! I want you to disperse, peaceably, and let the law handle this.”

“I reckon I’ll push off now, Sheriff,” Stump hitched up his belt. “I figgered you might have to calm ’em down right at first, but now they’ve had a chance to think it over and see I ain’t broken no law, ain’t none of these law-abiding folks going to do anything illegal — like tryin’ to get rough with a licensed exterminator just doin’ his job.” He stooped, retrieved his gun.

“Here, I’ll take that,” Sheriff Hoskins said. “You can consider your gun license canceled — and your exterminatin’ license, too.”

Stump grinned again, handed the revolver over.

“Sure. I’m cooperative, Sheriff. Anything you say. Send it around to my place when you’re done with it.” He pushed his way through the crowd to the corridor door.

“The rest of you stay put!” a portly man with a head of bushy white hair pushed his way through to the bench. “I’m calling an emergency Town Meeting to order here and now!”

He banged the gavel on the scarred bench top, glanced down at the body of the dead alien, now covered by a flag.

“Gentlemen, we’ve got to take fast action. If the wire services get hold of this before we’ve gone on record, Willow Grove’ll be a blighted area.”

“Look here, Willard,” Judge Gates called, rising. “This — this mob isn’t competent to take legal action.”

“Never mind what’s legal, Judge. Sure, this calls for Federal legislation — maybe a Constitutional amendment — but in the meantime, we’re going to redefine what constitutes a person within the incorporated limits of Willow Grove!”

“That’s the least we can do,” a thin-faced woman snapped, glaring at Judge Gates. “Do you think we’re going to set here and condone this outrage?”

“Nonsense!” Gates shouted. “I don’t like what happened any better than you do — but a person — well, a person’s got two arms and two legs and —”

“Shape’s got nothing to do with it,” the chairman cut in. “Bears walk on two legs! Dave Zawocky lost his in the war. Monkeys have hands.”

“Any intelligent creature —” the woman started.

“Nope, that won’t do, either; my unfortunate cousin’s boy Melvin was born an imbecile, poor lad. Now, folks, there’s no time to waste. We’ll find it very difficult to formulate a satisfactory definition based on considerations such as these. However, I think we can resolve the question in terms that will form a basis for future legislation on the question.

“It’s going to make some big changes in things. Hunters aren’t going to like it — and the meat industry will be affected. But if, as it appears, we’re entering into an era of contact with… ah… creatures from other worlds, we’ve got to get our house in order.”

“You tell ’em, Senator!” someone yelled.

“We better leave this for Congress to figger out!” another voice insisted.

“We got to do something…”

The senator held up his hands. “Quiet, everybody. There’ll be reporters here in a matter of minutes. Maybe our ordinance won’t hold water. But it’ll start ’em thinking — and it’ll make a lots better copy for Willow Grove than the killing.”

“What you got in mind, Senator?”

“Just this:” the Senator said solemnly. “A person is… any harmless creature…”

Feet shuffled. Someone coughed.

“What about a man who commits a violent act, then?” Judge Gates demanded. “What’s he, eh?”

“That’s obvious, gentlemen,” the senator said flatly. “He’s vermin.”

On the courthouse steps Cecil Stump stood, hands in hip pockets, talking to a reporter from the big-town paper in Mattoon, surrounded by a crowd of late-comers who had missed the excitement inside. He described the accuracy of his five shots, the sound they had made hitting the big blue snake, and the ludicrous spectacle the latter had presented in its death agony. He winked at a foxy man in overalls picking his nose at the edge of the crowd.

“Guess it’ll be a while ‘fore any more damned reptiles move in here like they owned the place,” he concluded.

The courthouse doors banged wide; excited citizens poured forth, veering aside from Cecil Stump. The crowd around him thinned, broke up as its members collared those emerging with the hot news. The reporter picked a target.

“Perhaps you’d care to give me a few details of the action taken by the… ah… Special Committee, sir?”

Senator Custis pursed his lips. “A session of the Town Council was called,” he said. “We’ve defined what a person is in this town —”

Stump, standing ten feet away, snorted. “Can’t touch me with no ex post factory law.”

” — and also what can be classified as vermin,” Custis went on.

Stump closed his mouth with a snap.

“Here, that s’posed to be some kind of slam at me, Custis? By God, come election time…”

Above, the door opened again. A tall man in a leather jacket stepped out, stood looking down. The crowd pressed back. Senator Custis and the reporter moved aside. The newcomer came down the steps slowly. He carried Cecil Stump’s nickel-plated .44 in his hand.

Standing alone now, Stump watched him.

“Here,” he said. His voice carried a sudden note of strain. “Who’re you?”

The man reached the foot of the steps, raised the revolver and cocked it with a thumb.

“I’m the new exterminator,” he said.

Keith Laumer

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Melvin Sturgis (1921-1980) published half a dozen sci-fi short stories in the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes under the pseudonym Colin Sturgis, then dropped out of sight. One source said he was a mechanical engineer who wrote fiction as a side gig.

As often happens, you can find obscure published works online, but very little about the author. Everything I could dig up about Sturgis is contained in the previous paragraph.

The Gift” is realistically told and thoroughly depressing story. A powerful combination.

———

The Gift

By Melvin Sturgis
Published in Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy, November 1951

The tenseness in the tiny court room was a live thing that you could feel clear down to your insoles. The thick silence was broken as the judge said solemnly: “Your objection will be taken under advisement by the court, Counselor. In what manner will the childhood of the defendant be relevant to this case, Mr. Prosecutor?”

“It is my purpose to show, your Honor, that the defendant has been of unsound mind since birth, and therefore has long been a public menace, not merely a victim of circumstance as the defense would have us believe.” The prosecuting attorney nodded briefly in the direction of the table for the defense.

“Objection overruled,” the judge said. “You may call your witness.”

“Thank you, your Honor.” The prosecutor helped the flighty woman into the witness box.

“Will you please give the court your name?”

The woman simpered. “Ida Mae Holk. Mrs. Ida Mae Holk.”

The prosecutor cleared his throat and ruffled the papers in his hand.

“How long have you known the defendant, Mrs. Holk?”

“Why, ever since he was about two years old. Him and his Ma came to Elmwood right after his Pa was killed in that big Oak Ridge explosion. He was born right there on the government project, you know. Never could understand why Mrs. Sloan, that was his Ma, never did get married again, her being so pretty and all, and any number of nice widowers just —”

“Uh, yes, Mrs. Holk,” the prosecutor interrupted. “Was your acquaintance with the defendant continuous throughout his childhood?”

“Well, it was until he was ten years old. They sent him away to that crazy house then.”

“I object to the term ‘crazy house’, your Honor,” the public defender addressed the court.

“I am sure that the witness meant to say the Rochelle School for Retarded Children,” the prosecutor said mildly. “Didn’t you, Mrs. Holk?”

“Well, I guess that is what they call it,” she said grudgingly. “Anyway, they kept him there until he was eighteen. Then he came back to Elmwood and I’ve known him ever since.”

“As a child, was the defendant er, ah, strange; that is, different from the other children?”

“He certainly was.” The woman drew herself up primly. “Why, the first time that I ever laid eyes on that boy I said to my neighbor ‘did you ever see a child with such a big head and such brooding eyes’, why —”

The public defender started to rise.

“I don’t mean physical characteristics, Mrs. Holk,” the prosecutor hurriedly interjected. “The court is interested only in facts that will prove relevant to the case at hand.”

“Oh.” Mrs. Holk seemed disappointed. “Well, he never played much with the other children because they made so much fun of him. Not that they didn’t have a right to, the way he was always acting. Picking up stray dogs and cats, and every thing else under the sun, and telling everybody that would listen how he cured their sores. It was enough to make a person sick. He even claimed that he could cure himself, and that was the reason that he was never sick! Hmmfp.

“Of course, he wasn’t ever sick. No sir, not a day in his life. Never had the measles or the mumps like my Sally, and even when that terrible flu epidemic hit town he was just as chipper as you please. If you want incidents, I can tell you a dozen. There was one time when he was about five and I was over visiting with his ma. He came running into the house telling some big story about a bird with a busted wing that he had fixed up. Of course, his ma shut him up; she always was too easy on him. Another time —”

xxx

The man with the too big head and the serene features gazed softly at the witness stand. He remembered about the bird. He had been very young at the time and hadn’t known, yet, that everyone didn’t have The Gift.

He had found the little bird at the base of the old oak tree, scared and trembling from the dangers that threatened it out of its known element. He picked it up gently and felt the fluttering of its tiny heart in the palm of his hand. He saw that its wing was injured, and, with a feeling of pity and kindness, he located and repaired the injury. The little bird lay quietly in his hand, as if sensing a friend. Then it flew away into the blue sky.

He ran into the house to tell his mother about the bird that he had found helpless in the yard and how he had made it well so that it could fly again.

“Yes darling,” his mother smiled tolerantly. “I’m sure you were a good boy.”

He could see that she had a headache. He could see the pulse and flow of the waves of pain and he wondered why she didn’t fix it. He was never sick. It was so easy to be well…

With the directness of the very young he asked her, “Mother, why don’t you make your headache go away?”

His mother dropped to her knees in front of him.

“Why you sweet boy,” she said. “Always thinking of your mother. Here, kiss my head and the ache will go away.”

Gravely he looked at her. Grownups were a funny lot. He didn’t have to kiss her head to make the headache go away; but she was his mother and he loved her. If she wanted to pretend, why, then he would also. So he kissed her head and caused the ache and pain to recede and disappear. Laughing, his mother got to her feet, took two aspirin tablets, and shooed him out to play. Strange, that he couldn’t remember Mrs. Holk being there.…

xxx

“Thank you, Mrs. Holk,” the prosecutor said. “That will be all for now unless the defense wishes to cross examine.”

“No questions.” The public defender leaned toward his client. “Are you sure that you won’t testify in your own behalf?”

The man smiled and shook his head.

“May I call the next witness, your Honor?”

“Will you tell the court your name and position, please?”

“My name is Sylvia Johnson, and I am floor superintendent at the Rochelle School.”

“Were you superintendent during the eight years that Carl Sloan was in commitment at that institution?”

“I was.”

“Will you tell the court any pertinent facts concerning his behavior up to the time of his discharge?”

She smoothed the hem of her dress and looked thoughtful for a moment.

“At first Carl seemed to be the oddest of all of the children in the school. He seemed to think that he had some kind of miraculous healing powers and couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand why the rest of us weren’t similarly blessed.”

She waited for the small titter to subside and then continued.

“However our rather necessarily stern measures soon cured him of his delusions, or, at least, so we thought at the time. After that, he didn’t seem to be very much different from the others. A little more sullen, perhaps, and not quite as quick to learn the duties expected of him as some of the less handicapped children; but then, we can’t work miracles at the school.”

She paused and those nearest the quiet defendant turned and stared at him.

xxx

He didn’t even notice for he was once again ten years old and standing outside his cousin’s bedroom window. He wasn’t supposed to be there because Billy was sick with an odd virus and had been quarantined until the doctors had decided what ailed him.

“No,” Billy said, in answer to his question. “Don’t be silly. If I could get rid of this awful cough I would, wouldn’t I?”

“I can,” Carl replied, his youthful voice confident.

Of course Billy didn’t believe him but Carl saw what was to be done and did it. Billy’s dad, disturbed by the excited conversation, came and told Carl to go on home where he belonged; but Carl forgot his scooter and had to go back after it. He could hear Billy’s parents talking in the living room.

“Carl is a very strange boy,” said Billy’s mother.

“If you ask me, he’s half crazy. All of this wild talk about doctoring cats, and that dead frog that he said he brought back to life.”

(This was not quite true, Carl knew. The frog had not been dead, only sick. He had proudly told his uncle of the incident only a day or two before.)

“I think that we should have a little talk with Jane. Surely, she can see that he is not normal. He should be in that school for abnormal children over in the valley,” Billy’s father said emphatically.

The next day his aunt and uncle had talked to his mother and Carl listened at the window. He knew that he wasn’t supposed to eavesdrop but he was puzzled, and scared. At first, his mother answered the proposal with a flat “no”, but his uncle’s persuasions won out in the end. Tearfully, she finally agreed that a year or two in the school might be of some help in correcting his too obvious imagination. The news spread rapidly and the tongue-waggers worked overtime.

“Did you hear about the Sloan boy?” one would ask.

“Oh, yes,” another would answer. “Crazy as a loon, quite.”

“I always knew that there was something wrong with that boy, him never getting sick and all that. His head always was too big for the rest of him. I knew all along that he was crazy, all right.”

“They’re going to ship him off to school, I understand. Well, good riddance I say. Wouldn’t want my Henry associating with a goofy kid.”

He didn’t like to recall the school. It was dim and foreboding and the beds always seemed to be cold and dank. He learned quickly that none of the institutional authorities were interested in his Gift and after the first several rebuffs and their consequential punishments, he never again talked about it to anyone. He was, by force, a recluse; but he learned the lessons that they thought that he should learn, and, if they were much more simple than his intellect warranted, he didn’t blame the teachers.

xxx

As if he could feel the stares of the curious people, Carl raised his head. The prosecutor was still examining the superintendent.

“Then he was released as fit to be assimilated by society when he was eighteen?”

The witness leaned forward in the box.

“Yes,” she said intently. “The exact disposition of his case history was ‘Simple minded, but perfectly harmless’.”

xxx

Simple minded? Yes, if shyness and averseness to people constitute simple mindedness. He did odd jobs for the townspeople and they tolerated him. Gardening, fetching and carrying, sweeping out the library. He read. Avidly he read everything that he could find. He learned about Mendel and his peas, and he knew what he was. An ugly word, a Mutant. It made him different and gave him a Gift that no one believed that he had, or wanted him to exercise.

That crazy Sloan, or that half wit Sloan, the townspeople called him, but he didn’t care. He had never had any friends or companions and therefore felt no need for any. The small animals were his friends, and the children. He was never too busy to make a kite, or mend a toy or a skinned knee. He never mentioned his Gift but silently, unnoticed, as he went his shy way around the town, performed the small services that he was able to, unknown to the recipients. Some little aid, some little kindness every day. He was happy.

Then they brought Henry Jones, bitter and disillusioned, home from the hospital in the city. He had been kicked in the head by a horse while he was away at college, and would never see again. The doctors all agreed on that point. He was permanently blind. Carl was trimming the Jones’ hedge the first day that they pushed Henry out for his daily airing in the sun. He saw the blood clot that blocked the nerves to the brain center and his powerful mind worked smoothly, efficiently.

“Open your eyes,” Carl said simply. “You can see.”

“It was a miracle,” everyone said. “A true miracle.”

The newspapers scented a lucky circumstance and whipped up a human interest story that was more fantasy than fact; the wire services carried the story and people flocked to see the person who had performed a miracle. By twos and threes they came. Then by scores. They came to see because they were curious, or to be healed of some real or imagined ill.

By the hundreds, by the thousands, they came. The lame, the halt, and the blind. The doctors, lawyers, ministers, newspaper men, newsreel cameramen, zealots. Men, women and children; from near and afar. The religious, and the heretics.

He couldn’t begin to help all of those who came to him. Some, with missing organs or diseased in a manner impossible for him to aid, were turned away and added their cries to the pack who bitterly denounced him. For the most part his work was confined to the eyes of a few, but the numbers of those he helped without their knowledge he knew were legend.

The crowd expected to see miracles and they demanded to see them. His failure to perform according to their tastes set off disputes that swept across the country. Was he a healer or a charlatan? A wise man or a fool? A public benefactor or a fraud?

“He has never healed anyone,” learned doctors gave statements to the papers. “It’s all a matter of mass hypnosis. He tells the ignorant that they are cured and, for a short while they actually force themselves to believe that they are cured. A very simple matter, indeed.”

He went on ministering to the crowds that increased daily. He asked nothing for his work, and they gave nothing; but the popcorn vendors, the soda pop dispensers, the ice cream wagons, had a field day. It was a circus and they assigned extra policemen to control the frenzied crowds.

He remembered the day, finally, they brought a little girl, suffering from leukemia, from a distant city. The best doctors had given their best to save her, and they had failed. The distraught parents were grasping at the last straw.

He knew that it was much, much too late for him to do anything to aid her, but he tried. She looked at him with her large, beautiful eyes, set so deep in her pale face, and arose from the ambulance couch and walked a few steps toward him. Then she collapsed and died.

The eager crowd pushed forward to get a better view and some were trampled. Some were injured, and some, the weak and unlucky, were killed. The police, frightened and faced with an ugly situation for which they had no rules, arrested him and whisked him off to the county seat.

The crowd slowly dispersed and soon the only evidence that they had ever been there was the mass of empty cartons, the soda bottles, and the damaged shrubbery in the town square…

xxx

The judge leaned over from his tall bench.

“Mr. Sloan,” he said sonorously. “In view of the evidence presented by the people of this state this court has no recourse but to convict you for the deaths of seven people. The court finds you charged and adjudged guilty of five counts, four minor and one major. Perpetrator of an unlawful assembly, inciting a mob to violence —” The voice droned on and on until the sentence was pronounced.

The flash bulbs popped and the crowd mumbled and whispered as he was led back to his cell. He had known from the beginning of the trial that there could be but one ending. He hadn’t asked for the deaths of anyone but through him they had died and it was best that the sentence of the court be exacted and the Gift forever stilled. The world was not ready for a power such as this, he knew. Not now, not yet, perhaps not ever…

The wrought iron gates in the high stone wall clanged shut behind the official county car with a dismal finality. Later, he was taken to a small room and his clothes stripped from him, replaced with a simple two-pieced garment. This, then, was to be the end of life, of awareness. No more to feel the warmth of the summer sun or the caressing coolness of the light spring wind. Yet, he felt no bitterness, no regrets, rather only a sense of vast loneliness in the knowledge that he would not be able to fulfill the promise of his life.

Straps were placed around his ankles and secured so that the sudden shock wouldn’t tear them loose. A strap around each leg, just above the knee. More, biting into his wrists, his upper arms, and, finally, the two plates. They were placed carefully, one just behind and above each ear. A last quiet check to see that the bindings were in their proper places.

The plates held his head in a vise-like grip and he couldn’t turn it in any direction, but he knew the time was at hand…

There was a sharp pain, blinding and searing. Starting in his head, just behind his eyes, and then permeating throughout his muscles and body. He jerked spasmodically, but the strong bonds held him fast. For a long agonizing moment the pain persisted, and then the welcome blackness, nothing…

The young intern smiled at the officiating doctor.

“That was a very nice operation, sir. A wonderful discovery that electronically destroying a part of the brain will cure some forms of insanity. Of course, he won’t have much of his ego left, but he will be able to obey simple orders and do menial tasks, and, at least he will be sane.”

“Yes,” the doctor said cheerfully as he disconnected his apparatus, “at least he will be sane.”

Original illustration from Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy, artist unknown.

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When a story begins with big shots being served wine by a smiling servant, you might detect the presence of negative undertones. In this sci-fi short story by Charles Fontenay, you would be right.

This is the third short story I’ve featured by newspaperman and author Charles Fontenay (1917-2007). I posted the others here and here.

———

Disqualified

By Charles Louis Fontenay
Published in If Worlds of Science Fiction, September 1954

After the morning inspection tour, Tardo, the Solar Council’s Planetary Aid agent, and his companion, Peo, were taken to the castle which stood on a hill overlooking the area.

Tardo and Peo were entertained royally at luncheon by Saranta, their host, who appeared to be the wealthy overlord of this portion of the planet. The meal was delicious — tender, inch-thick steaks served with delicate wine sauce and half a dozen of the planet’s exotic vegetables, topped off by a cool fruit dessert.

“My recommendation will be of considerable importance to you,” said Tardo as they ate. “If it is favorable, there is certain technical aid aboard ship which will be made available to you at once. Of course, you will not receive advanced equipment from the Solar Council until there is a more thorough investigation.”

“I’m afraid our culture is too simple and agrarian to win your approval,” said Saranta modestly.

“That isn’t a major consideration. The Council understands the difficulties that have faced colonies in other star systems. There are certain fundamental requirements, of course: no abnormal religious practices, no slavery… well, you understand what I mean.”

“We really feel that we have done well since we… our ancestors, that is… colonized our world a thousand years ago,” said Saranta, toying with a wineglass. A smiling servant filled the glasses of Tardo and Peo. “You see, there was no fuel for the ship to explore other planets in the system, and the ship just rusted away. Since we are some distance from the solar system, yours is the first ship that has landed here since colonization.”

“You seem to have been lucky, though,” said Peo. He was navigator of the Council ship, and had asked to accompany Tardo on the brief inspection trip. “You could have landed on a barren planet.”

“Well, no, the colonizers knew it was livable, from the first exploration expedition,” said Saranta. “There were difficulties, of course. Luxuriant vegetation, but no animal life, so we had no animals to domesticate. Pulling a plow is hard work for a man.”

“But you were able to solve this situation in a humanitarian way?” asked Tardo, peering at him keenly. “That is to say, you didn’t resort to slavery?”

Saranta smiled and spread his hands slightly.

“Does this look like a slave society to you?” he countered. “The colonists were anxious to co-operate to make the planet livable. No one objected to work.”

“It’s true we’ve seen no slaves, that we know about,” said Tardo. “But two days is a short time for inspection. I must draw most of my conclusions from the attitudes of you and the others who are our hosts. How about the servants here?”

“They are paid,” answered Saranta, and added ruefully: “There are those of us who think they are paid too well. They have a union, you know.”

Tardo laughed.

“A carry-over from Earth, no doubt,” he commented. “An unusual one, too, for a culture without technology.”

When the meal was over, the two men from the ship were conducted on a tour of the area. It was a neat agricultural community, with broad fields, well-constructed buildings and, a short distance from Saranta’s castle-like home, a village in which artisans and craftsmen plied their peaceful trades.

Peo tried to notice what he thought Tardo would look for on such a short inspection. The Council agent, he knew, had had intensive training and many years of experience. It was hard for Peo to judge what factors Tardo would consider significant — probably very minor ones that the average man would not notice, he thought.

Tardo had seemed most intent on the question of slavery, and Peo looked for signs of it. He could see none. The people of the planet had had time to conceal some things, of course. But the people they saw in the village wore a proud air of independence no slave could assume.

Saranta apologized for their having to walk, explaining that there was no other means of transportation on the planet.

“And, without transportation, you can understand why we have not been able to develop a technology,” he added. “We hope transport will be included in the first assistance you will give us.”

Tardo asked about the fields.

“I see there is no one working them,” he said. “Is that done by the villagers?”

“Our labor supply is transient,” answered Saranta after a moment’s hesitation. “The laborers who will work our fields — for a wage, of course — are probably in the next town or the one beyond it now.”

Alpha Persei was sinking in the western sky when Tardo and Peo took their leave of Saranta and made their way down the road toward their planetary landing craft.

“It looks like a good world to me,” said Peo. “If tomorrow’s inspection is as satisfactory, I suppose you will recommend the beginning of technical aid?”

“There will be no inspection tour tomorrow, and I shall recommend against aid at this time,” replied Tardo. “I’ve seen enough.”

“Why?” asked Peo, surprised.

“There are two classes of people on this planet, and we’ve seen only one,” said Tardo. “Those we have seen are freemen. The others are no better than animals. We give no aid that helps men tighten their hold over their fellows.”

“If you haven’t seen them, how do you know there is another class?” demanded Peo. “There is no evidence of any such situation.”

“The evidence is well hidden. But if you think your stomach can take it now, I’ll tell you. If you remember your history, colonizing ships 1000 years ago had no space to carry animals along. They had to depend on native animal life of the planet, and this planet had none.”

“Saranta said that. But I don’t see…”

“Those were delicious steaks, weren’t they?” remarked Tardo quietly.

Original illustration from If Worlds of Science Fiction by Kelly Freas.

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“A Small Needful Fact

By Ross Gay

Ross Gay (B. 1974)

“A Small Needful Fact”
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

———

blessing the boats

By Lucille Clifton

Thelma Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)

(at St. Mary’s)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

———

A Dream Within a Dream

By Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849)

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

———

April is a Dog’s Dream

By Marilyn Singer

Marilyn Singer (B. 1948)

april is a dog’s dream
the soft grass is growing
the sweet breeze is blowing
the air all full of singing feels just right
so no excuses now
we’re going to the park
to chase and charge and chew
and I will make you see
what spring is all about

———

Ultimately

By Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Miller Hemingway (1899-1961)

He tried to spit out the truth;
Dry mouthed at first,
He drooled and slobbed in the end;
Truth dribbling his chin.

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Here’s another gem from Fredric Brown, the master of superb sci-fi short-short stories with zinger endings. Brown was without peer in that category. If that is, in fact, a category.

Over the years, I’ve posted half a dozen Fredric Brown stories on this blog, and all of them, in my humble opinion, are worth your time.

Just type “Fredric Brown” in the handy search box in the upper right corner of this page, and voila.

———

Earthmen Bearing Gifts

By Fredric Brown
Published in Galaxy Magazine, June 1960

Dhar Ry sat alone in his room, meditating. From outside the door he caught a thought wave equivalent to a knock, and, glancing at the door, he willed it to slide open.

It opened. “Enter, my friend,” he said. He could have projected the idea telepathically, but with only two persons present, speech was more polite.

Ejon Khee entered. “You are up late tonight, my leader,” he said.

“Yes, Khee. Within an hour the Earth rocket is due to land, and I wish to see it. Yes, I know, it will land a thousand miles away, if their calculations are correct. Beyond the horizon. But if it lands even twice that far the flash of the atomic explosion should be visible.

“And I have waited long for first contact. For even though no Earthman will be on that rocket, it will still be first contact — for them. Of course our telepath teams have been reading their thoughts for many centuries, but — this will be the first physical contact between Mars and Earth.”

Khee made himself comfortable on one of the low chairs. “True,” he said. “I have not followed recent reports too closely, though. Why are they using an atomic warhead? I know they suppose our planet is uninhabited, but still —”

“They will watch the flash through their lunar telescopes and get a — what do they call it? — a spectroscopic analysis. That will tell them more than they know now (or think they know; much of it is erroneous) about the atmosphere of our planet and the composition of its surface. It is — call it a sighting shot, Khee. They’ll be here in person within a few oppositions. And then —”

###

Mars was holding out, waiting for Earth to come. What was left of Mars, that is; this one small city of about nine hundred beings. The civilization of Mars was older than that of Earth, but it was a dying one. This was what remained of it: one city, nine hundred people. They were waiting for Earth to make contact, for a selfish reason and for an unselfish one.

Martian civilization had developed in a quite different direction from that of Earth. It had developed no important knowledge of the physical sciences, no technology. But it had developed social sciences to the point where there had not been a single crime, let alone a war, on Mars for fifty thousand years. And it had developed fully the para-psychological sciences of the mind, which Earth was just beginning to discover.

Mars could teach Earth much. How to avoid crime and war to begin with. Beyond those simple things lay telepathy, telekinesis, empathy…

And Earth would, Mars hoped, teach them something even more valuable to Mars: how, by science and technology — which it was too late for Mars to develop now, even if they had the type of minds which would enable them to develop these things — to restore and rehabilitate a dying planet, so that an otherwise dying race might live and multiply again.

Each planet would gain greatly, and neither would lose.

###

And tonight was the night when Earth would make its first sighting shot. Its next shot, a rocket containing Earthmen, or at least an Earthman, would be at the next opposition, two Earth years, or roughly four Martian years, hence.

The Martians knew this, because their teams of telepaths were able to catch at least some of the thoughts of Earthmen, enough to know their plans. Unfortunately, at that distance, the connection was one-way. Mars could not ask Earth to hurry its program. Or tell Earth scientists the facts about Mars’ composition and atmosphere which would have made this preliminary shot unnecessary.

Tonight Ry, the leader (as nearly as the Martian word can be translated), and Khee, his administrative assistant and closest friend, sat and meditated together until the time was near. Then they drank a toast to the future — in a beverage based on menthol, which had the same effect on Martians as alcohol on Earthmen — and climbed to the roof of the building in which they had been sitting.

They watched toward the north, where the rocket should land. The stars shone brilliantly and unwinkingly through the atmosphere.

###

In Observatory No. 1 on Earth’s moon, Rog Everett, his eye at the eyepiece of the spotter scope, said triumphantly, “Thar she blew, Willie. And now, as soon as the films are developed, we’ll know the score on that old planet Mars.”

He straightened up — there’d be no more to see now — and he and Willie Sanger shook hands solemnly. It was an historical occasion.

“Hope it didn’t kill anybody. Any Martians, that is. Rog, did it hit dead center in Syrtis Major?”

“Near as matters. I’d say it was maybe a thousand miles off, to the south. And that’s damn close on a fifty-million-mile shot. Willie, do you really think there are any Martians?”

Willie thought a second and then said, “No.”

He was right.

Original illustration from Galaxy Magazine by “Carter.”

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When this sci-fi story was published in 1962, six men had gone into space, two from the USSR and four from the US. All the flights were brief, however, and the subject of radiation exposure (as addressed in the story) remained a genuine question.

Based on what we knew at the time, the premise of this story technically was possible. Far-fetched, but possible.

Today, we still haven’t gone beyond the Moon. When we set out on extended voyages to Mars and elsewhere, you can bet factors will surface that we didn’t anticipate.

Does that mean the premise of this tale still could turn out to be true? Far-fetched, but possible.

———

A Bad Town for Spacemen

By Robert Scott
Published in Worlds of If Science Fiction, July 1962

I stepped back out of the gutter and watched the tight clot of men disappear around the corner. They hadn’t really been menacing, just had made it obvious they weren’t going to break up. And that I had better get out of their way. I got. We were well trained.

The neon of the bar across the street flickered redly on my uniform. I watched the slush trickle off my boots for a while, then made up my mind and headed into the bar. It was a mistake.

New York had always been considered safe for us. Of course there were many parts of the country that were absolutely forbidden “for your own good” and others that were “highly dangerous” or at least “doubtful.” But New York had always been a haven. The stares there had even been admiring sometimes, especially in the beginning.

But things had changed. I had realized that about half an hour after touchdown, when we were being herded through Health Check, Baggage Check, Security Check… you know the lot. Before, there had been friendly questions, genuine interest in the Mars colony, speculations about the second expedition to Venus, even a joke or two. This time the examiners’ only interest seemed to be in fouling us up as much as possible. And when we finally got through the rat race, New York was bleak.

I should have stayed with the rest, I guess, and of course a public bar was the last place any smart spaceboy would have gone to. But I had some nice memories of bars, memories from the early days.

The whole room went silent, as though a tube had blown, when I shoved through the door. I got over to an empty table as quickly as I could and inspected the list of drinks on the dispenser. This one had a lot of big nickel handles sticking up over the drink names and the whole job was shaped like one of those beer kegs you used to see pictures of. What I mean is, this was an authentic bar.

Phony as hell.

###

From the way this sounds, you can guess the kind of mood I’d gotten in. The noise had picked up again right after I sat down and some of the drunker drunks were knocking the usual words around, in loud whispers and with lots of glances at me.

One of the pro-girls (her hair was green and her blouse covered her breasts — another change while I was out) gave me a big wink and then jabbed the man next to her and squawked with laughter.

I fed a bill into the change machine at the table and then dribbled several coins (prices had gone up too) into the dispenser.

I guess I must have had several, because after a while I began to feel cheerful. The noise that was coming out of the box in the corner started to sound like music, and I got to tapping and rocking. And smiling, I guess. And that’s what triggered it.

People had been coming and going, but mainly coming. And the crowd at the bar had been getting louder, and one guy there had been getting louder than the rest. All of a sudden, he slammed down his glass and headed for my table. He orbited around it for a while, staring at me, and then settled jerkily down in the chair across from me.

“Why all the hilarity, spaceboy? Feeling proud of yourself?”

He looked pretty wobbly and pretty soft and pretty old. And very angry. But I was kind of wobbly myself by that time. And anyway there are strict rules about us and violence. Very strict. So I just tried to make the smile bigger and said, “I’m just feeling good. We had a good run and we brought in some nice stuff.”

“Nice stuff,” he said, kind of mincing. “Buddy, do you know what you can do with your sandgems and your windstones?”

“We brought back some other things too. There was a good bit of uranium and — “

“We don’t need it!” He was getting purple. “We don’t need anything from you.”

“And maybe we don’t need you.” I was getting sort of fired up myself. “Carversville is self-sufficient now. You can’t give us anything.”

“Well, why the hell don’t you stay there? Why don’t all of you stay off Earth? There’s no place for you here.”

I could have pointed out that we brought things that Earth really needed, that Mars and Venus had literally worlds of natural resources, while Earth had almost finished hers. But he began to quiet down then and I began to feel the loneliness again, the sense of loss. You can’t go home again… that phrase kept poking around in my skull.

Suddenly he sat up and looked straight at me, and his eyes really focused for the first time. “What lousy luck. What incredibly lousy luck. And how could anyone have known?”

It wasn’t hard to peg what he was talking about. “It was probably good luck that the first space crew was selected the way it was,” I said. “Otherwise you’d have had a dead ship full of dead men and no knowing why. But that one man brought the ship back.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know. And the scientists figured everything out. About radiation in space being lethal to almost all types of man. But there was one thing that made a man immune. One thing.”

“The scientists tried to find a protective covering that would be practicable. They tried to synthesize slaves that would protect you. It wasn’t our fault that they couldn’t.”

“No, not your fault.” His eyes had begun to dull again. “Just a matter of enough melanin in the skin. That’s all…” Then he straightened up and slammed his fist on the table. “Damn you, did you know I was a jet pilot a long time ago? Did you know I was going to be one of the space pioneers? Open up brave new worlds for Man…”

He sat there staring at me for a minute or so and the last thing he said was, “Don’t you come here again — nigger.”

I got up and left the table and walked out of the bar. I wasn’t provoked. As I said before, we were well trained.

###

The first time I realized where I was was when I bumped into the fence around the spacefield. I must have walked all the way over there from the bar. I had a memory of crumbling buildings and littered streets. Things had changed while I had been out there. They were letting the city run down.

As I started to walk along the fence to the gate, I saw the ship towering against the stars. The stars and the ship. And tomorrow there would be colonists getting aboard.

I stopped and looked till I knew where home was and who the real exiles were.

I stopped feeling sorry for myself. And started feeling sorry for them.

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This 1953 sci-fi short story is a fine example of irony — tragic irony, cosmic irony, situational irony, you name it.

Which probably is why the story was adapted in 1959 as an episode of The Twilight Zone; Rod Serling loved stories like this. It starred Burgess Meredith and stands as one of the most popular episodes The Twilight Zone ever aired.

Even decades later, the plot is so familiar in American culture that it surfaced as an internet meme.

Time Enough At Last

By Lyn Venable
Published in IF Worlds of Science Fiction, January 1953.

For a long time, Henry Bemis had had an ambition. To read a book. Not just the title or the preface, or a page somewhere in the middle. He wanted to read the whole thing, all the way through from beginning to end. A simple ambition perhaps, but in the cluttered life of Henry Bemis, an impossibility.

Henry had no time of his own. There was his wife, Agnes who owned that part of it that his employer, Mr. Carsville, did not buy. Henry was allowed enough to get to and from work — that in itself being quite a concession on Agnes’ part.

Also, nature had conspired against Henry by handing him with a pair of hopelessly myopic eyes. Poor Henry literally couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. For a while, when he was very young, his parents had thought him an idiot. When they realized it was his eyes, they got glasses for him. He was never quite able to catch up. There was never enough time. It looked as though Henry’s ambition would never be realized. Then something happened which changed all that.

Henry was down in the vault of the Eastside Bank & Trust when it happened. He had stolen a few moments from the duties of his teller’s cage to try to read a few pages of the magazine he had bought that morning. He’d made an excuse to Mr. Carsville about needing bills in large denominations for a certain customer, and then, safe inside the dim recesses of the vault he had pulled from inside his coat the pocket size magazine.

He had just started a picture article cheerfully entitled “The New Weapons and What They’ll Do To YOU”, when all the noise in the world crashed in upon his ear-drums. It seemed to be inside of him and outside of him all at once. Then the concrete floor was rising up at him and the ceiling came slanting down toward him, and for a fleeting second Henry thought of a story he had started to read once called “The Pit and The Pendulum”. He regretted in that insane moment that he had never had time to finish that story to see how it came out. Then all was darkness and quiet and unconsciousness.

When Henry came to, he knew that something was desperately wrong with the Eastside Bank & Trust. The heavy steel door of the vault was buckled and twisted and the floor tilted up at a dizzy angle, while the ceiling dipped crazily toward it. Henry gingerly got to his feet, moving arms and legs experimentally. Assured that nothing was broken, he tenderly raised a hand to his eyes. His precious glasses were intact, thank God! He would never have been able to find his way out of the shattered vault without them.

He made a mental note to write Dr. Torrance to have a spare pair made and mailed to him. Blasted nuisance not having his prescription on file locally, but Henry trusted no-one but Dr. Torrance to grind those thick lenses into his own complicated prescription.

Henry removed the heavy glasses from his face. Instantly the room dissolved into a neutral blur. Henry saw a pink splash that he knew was his hand, and a white blob come up to meet the pink as he withdrew his pocket handkerchief and carefully dusted the lenses. As he replaced the glasses, they slipped down on the bridge of his nose a little. He had been meaning to have them tightened for some time.

He suddenly realized, without the realization actually entering his conscious thoughts, that something momentous had happened, something worse than the boiler blowing up, something worse than a gas main exploding, something worse than anything that had ever happened before. He felt that way because it was so quiet. There was no whine of sirens, no shouting, no running, just an ominous and all pervading silence.

Henry walked across the slanting floor. Slipping and stumbling on the uneven surface, he made his way to the elevator. The car lay crumpled at the foot of the shaft like a discarded accordion. There was something inside of it that Henry could not look at, something that had once been a person, or perhaps several people, it was impossible to tell now.

Feeling sick, Henry staggered toward the stairway. The steps were still there, but so jumbled and piled back upon one another that it was more like climbing the side of a mountain than mounting a stairway. It was quiet in the huge chamber that had been the lobby of the bank.

It looked strangely cheerful with the sunlight shining through the girders where the ceiling had fallen. The dappled sunlight glinted across the silent lobby, and everywhere there were huddled lumps of unpleasantness that made Henry sick as he tried not to look at them.

“Mr. Carsville,” he called. It was very quiet. Something had to be done, of course. This was terrible, right in the middle of a Monday, too. Mr. Carsville would know what to do. He called again, more loudly, and his voice cracked hoarsely, “Mr. Carrrrsville!” And then he saw an arm and shoulder extending out from under a huge fallen block of marble ceiling. In the buttonhole was the white carnation Mr. Carsville had worn to work that morning, and on the third finger of that hand was a massive signet ring, also belonging to Mr. Carsville. Numbly, Henry realized that the rest of Mr. Carsville was under that block of marble.

Henry felt a pang of real sorrow. Mr. Carsville was gone, and so was the rest of the staff — Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Emory and Mr. Prithard, and the same with Pete and Ralph and Jenkins and Hunter and Pat the guard and Willie the doorman. There was no one to say what was to be done about the Eastside Bank & Trust except Henry Bemis, and Henry wasn’t worried about the bank, there was something he wanted to do.

He climbed carefully over piles of fallen masonry. Once he stepped down into something that crunched and squashed beneath his feet and he set his teeth on edge to keep from retching. The street was not much different from the inside, bright sunlight and so much concrete to crawl over, but the unpleasantness was much, much worse. Everywhere there were strange, motionless lumps that Henry could not look at.

Suddenly, he remembered Agnes. He should be trying to get to Agnes, shouldn’t he? He remembered a poster he had seen that said, “In event of emergency do not use the telephone, your loved ones are as safe as you.” He wondered about Agnes. He looked at the smashed automobiles, some with their four wheels pointing skyward like the stiffened legs of dead animals. He couldn’t get to Agnes now anyway, if she was safe, then, she was safe, otherwise… of course, Henry knew Agnes wasn’t safe.

He had a feeling that there wasn’t anyone safe for a long, long way, maybe not in the whole state or the whole country, or the whole world. No, that was a thought Henry didn’t want to think, he forced it from his mind and turned his thoughts back to Agnes.

She had been a pretty good wife, now that it was all said and done. It wasn’t exactly her fault if people didn’t have time to read nowadays. It was just that there was the house, and the bank, and the yard. There were the Jones’ for bridge and the Graysons for canasta and charades with the Bryants.

And the television, the television Agnes loved to watch, but would never watch alone. He never had time to read even a newspaper. He started thinking about last night, that business about the newspaper.

Henry had settled into his chair, quietly, afraid that a creaking spring might call to Agnes’ attention the fact that he was momentarily unoccupied. He had unfolded the newspaper slowly and carefully, the sharp crackle of the paper would have been a clarion call to Agnes. He had glanced at the headlines of the first page. “Collapse Of Conference Imminent.” He didn’t have time to read the article.

He turned to the second page. “Solon Predicts War Only Days Away.” He flipped through the pages faster, reading brief snatches here and there, afraid to spend too much time on any one item. On a back page was a brief article entitled, “Prehistoric Artifacts Unearthed In Yucatan.” Henry smiled to himself and carefully folded the sheet of paper into fourths. That would be interesting, he would read all of it.

Then it came, Agnes’ voice. “Henrrreee!” And then she was upon him. She lightly flicked the paper out of his hands and into the fireplace. He saw the flames lick up and curl possessively around the unread article. Agnes continued, “Henry, tonight is the Jones’ bridge night. They’ll be here in thirty minutes and I’m not dressed yet, and here you are… reading.”

She had emphasized the last word as though it were an unclean act. “Hurry and shave, you know how smooth Jasper Jones’ chin always looks, and then straighten up this room.” She glanced regretfully toward the fireplace. “Oh dear, that paper, the television schedule… oh well, after the Jones leave there won’t be time for anything but the late-late movie and… Don’t just sit there, Henry, hurrreeee!”

Henry was hurrying now, but hurrying too much. He cut his leg on a twisted piece of metal that had once been an automobile fender. He thought about things like lock-jaw and gangrene and his hand trembled as he tied his pocket-handkerchief around the wound.

In his mind, he saw the fire again, licking across the face of last night’s newspaper. He thought that now he would have time to read all the newspapers he wanted to, only now there wouldn’t be any more. That heap of rubble across the street had been the Gazette Building. It was terrible to think there would never be another up to date newspaper.

Agnes would have been very upset, no television schedule. But then, of course, no television. He wanted to laugh but he didn’t. That wouldn’t have been fitting, not at all.

He could see the building he was looking for now, but the silhouette was strangely changed. The great circular dome was now a ragged semi-circle, half of it gone, and one of the great wings of the building had fallen in upon itself.

A sudden panic gripped Henry Bemis. What if they were all ruined, destroyed, every one of them? What if there wasn’t a single one left? Tears of helplessness welled in his eyes as he painfully fought his way over and through the twisted fragments of the city.

He thought of the building when it had been whole. He remembered the many nights he had paused outside its wide and welcoming doors. He thought of the warm nights when the doors had been thrown open and he could see the people inside, see them sitting at the plain wooden tables with the stacks of books beside them. He used to think then, what a wonderful thing a public library was, a place where anybody, anybody at all could go in and read.

He had been tempted to enter many times. He had watched the people through the open doors, the man in greasy work clothes who sat near the door, night after night, laboriously studying, a technical journal perhaps, difficult for him, but promising a brighter future.

There had been an aged, scholarly gentleman who sat on the other side of the door, leisurely paging, moving his lips a little as he did so, a man having little time left, but rich in time because he could do with it as he chose.

Henry had never gone in. He had started up the steps once, got almost to the door, but then he remembered Agnes, her questions and shouting, and he had turned away.

He was going in now though, almost crawling, his breath coming in stabbing gasps, his hands torn and bleeding. His trouser leg was sticky red where the wound in his leg had soaked through the handkerchief. It was throbbing badly but Henry didn’t care. He had reached his destination.

Part of the inscription was still there, over the now doorless entrance. P-U-B—C L-I-B-R—-. The rest had been torn away. The place was in shambles. The shelves were overturned, broken, smashed, tilted, their precious contents spilled in disorder upon the floor.

A lot of the books, Henry noted gleefully, were still intact, still whole, still readable. He was literally knee deep in them, he wallowed in books. He picked one up. The title was “Collected Works of William Shakespeare.” Yes, he must read that, sometime. He laid it aside carefully. He picked up another. Spinoza. He tossed it away, seized another, and another, and still another. Which to read first… there were so many.

He had been conducting himself a little like a starving man in a delicatessen — grabbing a little of this and a little of that in a frenzy of enjoyment.

But now he steadied away. From the pile about him, he selected one volume, sat comfortably down on an overturned shelf, and opened the book.

Henry Bemis smiled.

There was the rumble of complaining stone. Minute in comparison which the epic complaints following the fall of the bomb. This one occurred under one corner of the shelf upon which Henry sat. The shelf moved; threw him off balance. The glasses slipped from his nose and fell with a tinkle.

He bent down, clawing blindly and found, finally, their smashed remains. A minor, indirect destruction stemming from the sudden, wholesale smashing of a city. But the only one that greatly interested Henry Bemis.

He stared down at the blurred page before him.

He began to cry.

Illustration by Jason Copland

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