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Archive for the ‘Notable Prose and Poetry’ Category

Miriam Allen deFord (1888-1975) was an author of mysteries and science fiction who won awards in both fields. She was a member of the Socialist Party of America and advocated for birth control and women’s suffrage.

She once wrote, “I am unalterably and actively opposed to fascism, Nazism, Hitlerism, Hirohitoism, or whatever name may be applied to the monster.”

After her second husband died when she was 46, deFord focused on her writing career. She died at age 86 in her longtime residence, the Ambassador Hotel in San Francisco.

———

The Margenes

By Miriam Allen deFord
Published in If Worlds of Science Fiction, February 1956

There is a small striped smelt called the grunion which has odd egg-laying habits. At high tide, on the second, third, and fourth nights after the full of the moon from March to June, thousands of female grunions ride in on the waves to a beach in southern California near San Diego, dig tail-first into the soft sand, deposit their eggs, then ride back on the wash of the next wave. The whole operation lasts about six seconds.

On the nights when the grunion are running, hordes of people used to come to the beach with baskets and other containers, and with torches to light the scene, and try to catch the elusive little fish in their hands.

They were doing that on an April night in 1960. In the midst of the excitement of the chase, only a few of them noticed that something else was riding the waves in with the grunions.

Among the few who stopped grunion-catching long enough to investigate were a girl named Marge Hickin and a boy named Gene Towanda. They were UCLA students, “going together,” who had come down on Saturday from Los Angeles for the fun.

“What on earth do you think these can be, Gene?” Marge asked, holding out on her palms three or four of the little circular, wriggling objects, looking like small-size doughnuts, pale straw in color.

“Never saw anything like them,” Gene admitted. “But then my major’s psychology, not zoology. They don’t seem to bite, anyway. Here let’s collect some of them instead of the fish. That dingus of yours will hold water. We can take them to the Marine Biology lab tomorrow and find out what they are.”

Marge Hickin and Gene Towanda had started a world-wide economic revolution.

None of the scientists at the university laboratory knew what the little live straw-colored circles were, either. In fact, after a preliminary study they wouldn’t say positively whether the creatures were animal or vegetable; they displayed voluntary movement, but they seemed to have no respiratory or digestive organs. They were completely anomalous.

The grunion ran again that night, and Gene and Marge stayed down to help the laboratory assistants gather several hundred of the strange new objects for further study. They were so numerous that they were swamping the fish, and the crowds at the beach began to grumble that their sport was being spoiled.

Next night the grunion stopped running — but the little doughnuts didn’t. They never stopped. They came in by hundreds of thousands every night, and those which nobody gathered wriggled their way over the land until some of them even turned up on the highways (where a lot of them were smashed by automobiles), on the streets and sidewalks of La Jolla, and as far north as Oceanside and as far south as downtown San Diego itself.

The things were becoming a pest. There were indignant letters to the papers, and editorials were written calling on the authorities to do something. Just what to do, nobody knew; the only way to kill the circular little objects from the sea seemed to be to crush them — and they were too abundant for that to be very effective.

Meanwhile, the laboratory kept studying them.

Marge and Gene were interested enough to come down again the next weekend to find out what, if anything, had been discovered. Not much had; but one of the biochemists at the laboratory casually mentioned that chemically, the straw-colored circles seemed to be almost pure protein, with some carbohydrates and fats, and that apparently they contained all the essential vitamins.

College student that he was, Gene Towanda immediately swallowed one of the wriggling things down whole, as a joke.

It tickled a little, but that wasn’t what caused the delighted amazement on his face.

“Gosh!” he exclaimed. “It’s delicious!”

He swallowed another handful.

That was the beginning of the great margene industry.

It was an astute reporter, getting a feature story on the sensational new food find, who gave the creatures their name, in honor of the boy and girl who had first brought the things to the attention of the scientists. He dubbed them margenes, and margenes they remained.

“Dr. O. Y. Willard, director of the laboratory,” his story said in part, “thinks the margenes may be the answer to the increasing and alarming problem of malnutrition, especially in undeveloped countries.

“‘For decades now,’ he said, ‘scientists have been worried by the growing gap between world population and world food facilities. Over-farming, climatic changes caused by erosion and deforestation, the encroachment of building areas on agricultural land, and above all the unrestricted growth of population, greatest in the very places where food is becoming scarcest and most expensive, have produced a situation where, if no remedy is found, starvation or semi-starvation may be the fate of half the Earth’s people. The ultimate result would be the slow degeneration and death of the entire human race.

“‘Many remedies have been suggested,’ Dr. Willard commented further. ‘They range from compulsory birth control to the production of synthetic food, hydroponics, and the harvesting of plankton from the oceans. Each of these presents almost insuperable difficulties.

“‘The one ideal solution would be the discovery of some universal food that would be nourishing, very cheap, plentiful, tasty, and that would not violate the taboos of any people anywhere in the world. In the margenes we may have discovered that food.’

“‘We don’t know where the margenes came from,’ the director went on to say, ‘and we don’t even know yet what they are, biologically speaking. What we do know is that they provide more energy per gram than any other edible product known to man, that everyone who has eaten them is enthusiastic about their taste, that they can be processed and distributed easily and cheaply, and that they are acceptable even to those who have religious or other objections to certain other foods, such as beef, among the Hindus or pork among the Jews and Mohammedans.

“‘Even vegetarians can eat them,’ Dr. Willard remarked, ‘since they are decidedly not animal in nature. Neither, I may add, are they vegetable. They are a hitherto utterly unknown synthesis of chemical elements in living form. Their origin remains undiscovered.'”

Naturally, there was no thought of feeding people on raw margenes. Only a few isolated places in either hemisphere would have found live food agreeable. Experiment showed that the most satisfactory way to prepare them was to boil them alive, like crabs or lobsters. They could then be ground and pressed into cakes, cut into convenient portions. One one-inch-square cube made a nourishing and delicious meal for a sedentary adult, two for a man engaged in hard physical labor.

And they kept coming in from the Pacific Ocean nightly, by the million.

By this time none of them had to be swept off streets or highways. The beach where for nearly a century throngs had gathered for the sport of catching grunion was off bounds now; it was the property of California Margene, Inc., a private corporation heavily subsidized by the Federal Government as an infant industry.

The grunions themselves had to find another place to lay their eggs, or die off — nobody cared which. The sand they had used for countless millennia as an incubator was hemmed in by factory buildings and trampled by margene-gatherers.

The whole beautiful shore for miles around was devastated; the university had to move its marine biological laboratory elsewhere; La Jolla, once a delightful suburb and tourist attraction, had become a dirty, noisy honkytonk town where processing and cannery workers lived and spent their off-hours; the unique Torrey Pines had been chopped down because they interfered with the erection of a freight airport.

But half the world’s people were living on margenes.

The sole possession of this wonderful foodstuff gave more power to the United States than had priority in the atomic bomb. Only behind the Iron Curtain did the product of California Margene, Inc. fail to penetrate. Pravda ran parallel articles on the same day, one claiming that margenes — brzdichnoya — had first appeared long ago on a beach of the Caspian Sea and had for years formed most of the Russian diet; the other warning the deluded nations receiving free supplies as part of American foreign aid that the margenes had been injected with drugs aimed at making them weak and submissive to the exploitation of the capitalist-imperialists.

There was a dangerous moment at the beginning when the sudden sharp decline in stocks of all other food products threatened another 1929. But with federal aid a financial crash was averted and now a new high level of prosperity had been established. Technological unemployment was brief, and most of the displaced workers were soon retained for jobs in one of the many ramifications of the new margene industry.

Agriculture, of course, underwent a short deep depression, not only in America but all over the world; but it came to an end as food other than margenes quickly became a luxury product. Farmers were able to cut their production to a small fraction of the former yield, and to get rich on the dizzying prices offered for bread, apples, or potatoes. And this increased the prosperity of the baking and other related industries as well.

In fact, ordinary food costs (which meant margene costs) were so low that a number of the larger unions voluntarily asked for wage decreases in their next contracts. California Margene, Inc. was able to process, pack, and distribute margene cakes at an infinitesimal retail price, by reason of the magnitude of the output.

An era of political good feeling fell upon the western world, reflected from the well-fed comfort of vast populations whose members never before in their lives had had quite enough to eat. The fear of famine seemed to be over forever, and with it the fear of the diseases and the social unrest that follow famine.

Even the U.S.S.R. and its satellites, in a conciliatory move in the United Nations Assembly, suggested that the long cold war ought to be amenable to a reasonable solution through a series of amicable discussions. The western nations, assenting, guessed shrewdly that the Iron Curtain countries “wanted in” on the margenes.

Marge Hickin and Gene Towanda, who had started it all, left college for copywriting jobs with the agency handling the enormous margene publicity; they were married a few months later.

And the margenes continued to come in from the sea in countless millions. They were being harvested now from the Pacific itself, near the shoreline, before they reached the beach. Still, no research could discover their original source.

Only a few scientists worried about what would happen if the margenes should disappear as suddenly as they had arrived. Attempts at breeding the creatures had failed completely. They did not undergo fission, they did not sporulate, they seemed to have no sex. No methods of reproduction known in the plant or animal kingdom seemed to apply to them.

Hundreds of them were kept alive for long periods — they lived with equal ease in either air or water, and they did not take nourishment, unless they absorbed it from their environment — but no sign of fertility ever appeared. Neither did they seem to die of natural causes. They just kept coming in…

On the night of May 7, 1969, not a single margene was visible in the ocean or on the beach.

They never came again.

What happened as a result is known to every student of history. The world-wide economic collapse, followed by the fall of the most stable governments, the huge riots that arose from the frantic attempts to get possession of the existing stocks of margene cakes or of the rare luxury items of other edibles, the announcement by the U.S.S.R. that it had known from the beginning the whole thing was a gigantic American hoax in the interests of the imperialistic bloodsuckers, the simultaneous atomic attacks by east and west, the Short War of 1970 that ruined most of what bombs had spared of the Earth, the slow struggle back of the remnant of civilization which is all of existence you and I have ever known — all these were a direct outgrowth of that first appearance of the margenes on the beach near San Diego on an April night in 1960.

Marge and Gene Towanda were divorced soon after they had both lost their jobs. She was killed in the hydrogen blast that wiped out San Diego; he fell in the War of 1970. “Margene” became a dirty word in every language on Earth. What small amount of money and ability can be spared is, as everyone knows, devoted today to a desperate international effort to reach and colonize another habitable planet of the Solar System, if such there be.

As for the margenes, themselves, out of the untold millions that had come, only a few thousand were lucky enough to survive and find their way back to their overcrowded starting-point.

In their strange way of communication — as incomprehensible to us as would be their means of nourishment and reproduction, or their constitution itself — they made known to their kin what had happened to them.

There is no possibility, in spite of the terrific over-population of their original home and of the others to which they are constantly migrating, that they will ever come here again.

There has been much speculation, particularly among writers of science fiction, on what would happen if aliens from other planets should invade Earth. Would they arrive as benefactors or as conquerors? Would we welcome them or would we overcome and capture them and put them in zoos and museums? Would we meet them in friendship or with hostility?

The margenes gave us the answer.

Beings from outer space came to Earth in 1960.

And we ate them.

The running of the grunions on the southern California coast.

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American author William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), better known as O. Henry, served time in prison for embezzlement.

In 1894, before he started writing, Porter was charged with embezzling $854.08 from a Texas bank. One day before his trial began, he fled to Honduras, which had no extradition treaty with the US. The plan was for his wife to join him, but she had suffered from tuberculosis for years and by then was too weak to travel.

In 1897, as she was near death, Porter returned to Texas to be with her, and he surrendered. A few months after she died, he was tried and sentenced to five years in prison. He was paroled after three for good behavior.

While incarcerated, Porter began writing as O. Henry. He and his publishers were careful not to disclose his situation and residence, and his career took off.

After his early death (cirrhosis, diabetes), the O. Henry Award was created to honor short stories of exceptional merit. It has been presented annually since 1919.

The story below was published shortly after Porter’s parole and — oh, my goodness — it involves a man being escorted to prison.

———

Hearts and Hands

By O. Henry
Published in Everybody’s Magazine, December 1902

At Denver there was an influx of passengers into the coaches on the eastbound B. & M. Express. In one coach there sat a very pretty young woman dressed in elegant taste and surrounded by all the luxurious comforts of an experienced traveler.

Among the newcomers were two young men, one of handsome presence with a bold, frank countenance and manner; the other a ruffled, glum-faced person, heavily built and roughly dressed. The two were handcuffed together.

As they passed down the aisle of the coach the only vacant seat offered was a reversed one facing the attractive young woman. Here the linked couple seated themselves.

The young woman’s glance fell upon them with a distant, swift disinterest; then with a lovely smile brightening her countenance and a tender pink tingeing her rounded cheeks, she held out a little gray-gloved hand. When she spoke her voice, full, sweet, and deliberate, proclaimed that its owner was accustomed to speak and be heard.

“Well, Mr. Easton, if you will make me speak first, I suppose I must. Don’t you ever recognize old friends when you meet them in the West?”

The younger man roused himself sharply at the sound of her voice, seemed to struggle with a slight embarrassment which he threw off instantly, and then clasped her fingers with his left hand.

“It’s Miss Fairchild,” he said, with a smile. “I’ll ask you to excuse the other hand; it’s otherwise engaged just at present.”

He slightly raised his right hand, bound at the wrist by the shining “bracelet” to the left one of his companion. The glad look in the girl’s eyes slowly changed to a bewildered horror. The glow faded from her cheeks. Her lips parted in a vague, relaxing distress.

Easton, with a little laugh, as if amused, was about to speak again when the other forestalled him. The glum-faced man had been watching the girl’s countenance with veiled glances from his keen, shrewd eyes.

“You’ll excuse me for speaking, miss, but, I see you’re acquainted with the marshal here. If you’ll ask him to speak a word for me when we get to the pen he’ll do it, and it’ll make things easier for me there. He’s taking me to Leavenworth prison. It’s seven years for counterfeiting.”

“Oh!” said the girl, with a deep breath and returning color. “So that is what you are doing out here? A marshal!”

“My dear Miss Fairchild,” said Easton, calmly, “I had to do something. Money has a way of taking wings unto itself, and you know it takes money to keep step with our crowd in Washington. I saw this opening in the West, and — well, a marshalship isn’t quite as high a position as that of ambassador, but —”

“The ambassador,” said the girl, warmly, “doesn’t call any more. He needn’t ever have done so. You ought to know that. And so now you are one of these dashing Western heroes, and you ride and shoot and go into all kinds of dangers. That’s different from the Washington life. You have been missed from the old crowd.”

The girl’s eyes, fascinated, went back, widening a little, to rest upon the glittering handcuffs.

“Don’t you worry about them, miss,” said the other man. “All marshals handcuff themselves to their prisoners to keep them from getting away. Mr. Easton knows his business.”

“Will we see you again soon in Washington?” asked the girl.

“Not soon, I think,” said Easton. “My butterfly days are over, I fear.”

“I love the West,” said the girl irrelevantly. Her eyes were shining softly. She looked away out the car window. She began to speak truly and simply without the gloss of style and manner: “Mamma and I spent the summer in Denver. She went home a week ago because father was slightly ill. I could live and be happy in the West. I think the air here agrees with me. Money isn’t everything. But people always misunderstand things and remain stupid —”

“Say, Mr. Marshal,” growled the glum-faced man. “This isn’t quite fair. I’m needing a drink, and haven’t had a smoke all day. Haven’t you talked long enough? Take me in the smoker now, won’t you? I’m half dead for a pipe.”

The bound travelers rose to their feet, Easton with the same slow smile on his face.

“I can’t deny a petition for tobacco,” he said, lightly. “It’s the one friend of the unfortunate. Good-bye, Miss Fairchild. Duty calls, you know.” He held out his hand for a farewell.

“It’s too bad you are not going East,” she said, reclothing herself with manner and style. “But you must go on to Leavenworth, I suppose?”

“Yes,” said Easton, “I must go on to Leavenworth.”

The two men sidled down the aisle into the smoker.

The two passengers in a seat nearby had heard most of the conversation. Said one of them: “That marshal’s a good sort of chap. Some of these Western fellows are all right.”

“Pretty young to hold an office like that, isn’t he?” asked the other.

“Young!” exclaimed the first speaker, “why — Oh! Didn’t you catch on? Say — did you ever know an officer to handcuff a prisoner to his right hand?”

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Put Something In

By Shel Silverstein

Sheldon Allan Silverstein (1930-1999)

Draw a crazy picture,
Write a nutty poem,
Sing a mumble-grumble song,
Whistle through your comb.
Do a loony-goony dance
‘Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain’t been there before.

———

Harriet Tubman

By Eloise Greenfield

Eloise Little Greenfield (1929-2021)

Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff
Wasn’t scared of nothing neither
Didn’t come in this world to be no slave
And wasn’t going to stay one either

“Farewell!” she sang to her friends one night
She was mighty sad to leave ’em
But she ran away that dark, hot night
Ran looking for her freedom
She ran to the woods and she ran through the woods
With the slave catchers right behind her
And she kept on going till she got to the North
Where those mean men couldn’t find her

Nineteen times she went back South
To get three hundred others
She ran for her freedom nineteen times
To save Black sisters and brothers
Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff
Wasn’t scared of nothing neither
Didn’t come in this world to be no slave
And didn’t stay one either

And didn’t stay one either

———

When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted

By Rudyard Kipling

Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

When Earth’s last picture is painted
and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded,
and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and faith, we shall need it —
lie down for an aeon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen
Shall put us to work anew.

And those that were good shall be happy:
they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas
with brushes of comet’s hair.
They shall find real saints to draw from —
Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting
and never be tired at all!

And only the Master shall praise us,
and only the Master shall blame;
And no one will work for the money,
and no one will work for the fame,
But each for the joy of the working,
and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It
for the God of Things as They are!

———

Remember

By Christina Rossetti

Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894)

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

———

Try Again

By W. E. Hickson

William Edward Hickson (1803-1870)

‘T is a lesson you should heed,
Try, try again;
If at first you don’t succeed,
Try, try again;
Then your courage should appear,
For, if you will persevere,
You will conquer, never fear;
Try, try again.

Once or twice though you should fail,
Try, try again;
If you would at last prevail,
Try, try again;
If we strive, ’tis no disgrace
Though we do not win the race;
What should you do in the case?
Try, try again.

If you find your task is hard,
Try, try again;
Time will bring you your reward,
Try, try again.
All that other folks can do,
Why, with patience, should not you?
Only keep this rule in view:
Try, try again.

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Kate Chopin (1850-1904) was a supremely gifted writer. A superb talent. I’ve featured three of her short stories on this blog, most recently this one. That post has information about her, plus links to the other stories.

Below is another Chopin gem. My hat is off in admiration.

———

Dr. Chevalier’s Lie

By Kate Chopin
Published in Vogue Magazine, October 1893

The quick report of a pistol rang through the quiet autumn night. It was no unusual sound in the unsavory quarter where Dr. Chevalier had his office. Screams commonly went with it. This time there had been none.

Midnight had already rung in the old cathedral tower. The doctor closed the book over which he had lingered so late, and awaited the summons that was almost sure to come.

As he entered the house to which he had been called he could not but note the ghastly sameness of detail that accompanied these oft-recurring events. The same scurrying; the same groups of tawdry, frightened women bending over banisters — hysterical, some of them; morbidly curious, others; and not a few shedding womanly tears; with a dead girl stretched somewhere, as this one was.

And yet it was not the same. Certainly she was dead: there was the hole in the temple where she had sent the bullet through. Yet it was different. Other such faces had been unfamiliar to him, except so far as they bore the common stamp of death. This one was not.

Like a flash he saw it again amid other surroundings. The time was little more than a year ago. The place, a homely cabin down in Arkansas, in which he and a friend had found shelter and hospitality during a hunting expedition.

There were others beside. A little sister or two; a father and mother — coarse, and bent with toil, but proud as archangels of their handsome girl, who was too clever to stay in an Arkansas cabin, and who was going away to seek her fortune in the big city.

“The girl is dead,” said Doctor Chevalier. “I knew her well, and charge myself with her remains and decent burial.”

The following day he wrote a letter. One, doubtless, to carry sorrow, but no shame to the cabin down there in the forest.

It told that the girl had sickened and died. A lock of hair was sent and other trifles with it. Tender last words were even invented.

Of course it was noised about that Doctor Chevalier had cared for the remains of a woman of doubtful repute.

Shoulders were shrugged. Society thought of cutting him. Society did not, for some reason or other, so the affair blew over.

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

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

———

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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

– I –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– II –

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

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

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

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

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

“About thirty miles.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

– III –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Decreasing in loudness.

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Time Does Not Bring Relief

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

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

———

Always Marry An April Girl

By Ogden Nash

Frederic Ogden Nash (1902-1971)

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

———

The Summer Day

By Mary Oliver

Mary Jane Oliver (1935-2019)

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

———

A Question

By Robert Frost

Robert Lee Frost (1874-1963)

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

———

If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking

By Emily Dickinson

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886)

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

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

———

Hall of Mirrors

By Fredric Brown
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1953

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why not? Because you are frightened.

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

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

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

You open your eyes and look again.

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

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

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

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

Suddenly you must know, and at once.

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

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

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

You turn back and start reading.

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

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

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

You cannot return.

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

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

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

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

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

You turn the page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You begin to understand. And you begin to sweat.

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

You invented the time machine.

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

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

You read on:

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

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

You force yourself to read again.

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

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

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

You will know the answer.

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

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

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

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

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

Think. You finish the letter and put it down.

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

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

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

Too valuable to destroy, too dangerous to give.

The other answer is painfully obvious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by René Vidmer.

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Obscurity, thy name is early science fiction.

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

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

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

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

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

—–

The Bell Tone

By Edmund H. Leftwich
Published in Comet, July 1941

To Whom It May Concern:

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

Evans Barclay, B.S. Fellow IRE.

***

Jan. 25.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Jan. 30.

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

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

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

I have no explanation for my actions.

***

Feb. 3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then a very powerful thought impression burst upon my brain.

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

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

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

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

I changed to receive, and the answer came back,

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

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

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

***

Feb. 9.

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

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

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

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

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

The bell tone continues to grow stronger.

***

Feb. 11

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

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

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

***

Feb. 14.

I have decided to stop my experiments with the ants.

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

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

***

Feb. 16.

It is too late!

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

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

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

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

***

(News Clipping: From Philadelphia Banner)


RADIO COMMUNICATIONS ENGINEER DEAD

Howard E. Edwards, Suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

———

Marty the Martian

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

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

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

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

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

I sat down.

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

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

“That’s correct.”

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

“I want something that no other circus has.”

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

“It isn’t exactly an animal I want.”

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

“What I want is out of this world.”

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

“I want a Martian.”

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

“Same answer as before.”

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

“I’ve heard of him,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“There is. I hired the greatest — “

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

“You capture a Martian and bring him back.”

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

“What do I pay you for?”

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

“Exactly.”

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

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

“I’d like that very much.”

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

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

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

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

We landed on Mars.

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

They were there, waiting for us.

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

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

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

After that it was all a blank.

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

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

“You — you speak English?”

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

“What are you going to do with me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———

Toy Shop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The thread broke,” Kaner said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And we have the patents…”

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

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

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

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

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