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Archive for the ‘Notable Prose and Poetry’ Category

When Amanda Gorman stepped to the podium to read “The Hill We Climb” at Biden’s inauguration, I had no idea who she was. I was impressed enough to find out.

She is 22, born in Los Angeles, has a twin sister. She was raised by a single mother, a sixth grade English teacher. Amanda attended private school K-12. She went to Harvard College on scholarship and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the academic honor society. She graduated cum laude in 2020 with a degree in sociology.

In kindergarten, Gorman was diagnosed with an auditory disorder in which the brain doesn’t properly interpret what is heard. She also has a condition that affects her pronunciation of certain words. With therapy and hard work, she was able to overcome both conditions.

Gorman began writing poetry in high school. In 2014, she was named the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. In 2015, she published her first book of poetry. In 2016, she founded a nonprofit to promote writing and leadership for young people.

In 2017, she was named the first National Youth Poet Laureate. In 2018, she was named one of Glamour Magazine’s College Women of the Year. In 2019, The Root Magazine named her one of the 25 best and brightest young African-Americans.

When the Bidens asked her to read a poem at the inauguration, “The Hill We Climb” was already written. Gorman amended it after the riots at the Capitol on January 6.

Last month, she signed with IMG Models, an international modeling agency. She plans to run for President in 2036.

The Hill We Climb” has a few rough spots, but it is powerful, positive, uplifting stuff nonetheless.

This lady is smart, talented, focused, and aimed in the right direction. President Gorman sounds good to me.

The text of her poem is below.

Mr. President, Dr. Biden, Madam Vice President, Mr. Emhoff, Americans, and the world…

When day comes, we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.

We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions
of what just is
isn’t always “justice.”

And yet, the dawn is ours
before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished.

We, the successors of a country and a time
where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one.

And yes, we are far from polished.
Far from pristine.
But that doesn’t mean we are striving
to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures,
colors, characters, and conditions of man.

And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.

We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
that even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat,
but because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time,
then victory won’t lie in the blade,
but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promised glade,
the hill we climb
if only we dare.

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into
and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith, we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.

This is the era of just redemption
we feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour,
but within it, we found the power
to author a new chapter.
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert,
how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

We will not march back to what was,
but move to what shall be.
A country that is bruised, but whole.
Benevolent, but bold,
fierce, and free.

We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain:
if we merge mercy with might
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country
better than one we were left with.
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west.
We will rise from the wind-swept northeast
where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked south.
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover.

In every known nook of our nation,
in every corner called our country,
our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge,
battered and beautiful.

When day comes, we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

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It seems that author Alfred Coppel had a fondness for surprise endings. He springs one in the story below, as he did in this Coppel story I posted in 2019.

Task to Luna” is a cold war tale written in the early years of the Cold War itself, when you couldn’t help but ponder nuclear annihilation. I get the feeling Coppel understood the lunacy (pun intended) of those times.

———

Task to Luna

By Alfred Coppel
Published in Planet Stories, January 1951

The rockets started almost simultaneously. From two widely separated points on the great curving surface of Earth they reached upward and outward — toward the Moon.

It wasn’t really so strange a coincidence. Space navigation is governed by mathematics and logic, not politics. The fact that man-carrying spaceships happened to be developed concurrently on two sides of an iron curtain meant little to the Universe. It happened, that’s all. And there is a proper time to launch such missiles. When that time came, they were launched.

In a manner of speaking it was a race. A race wherein the prizes were such things as: “gravity gauge” and “surveillance point” and “impregnable launching sites.” The contestants were earnest, capable men; each certain that the Moon must not fall into the hands of the opponent.

It made a stirring and patriotic picture, vivid with nationalistic fervor. It was thrilling with its taste of high adventure and self-sacrifice. For each rocket pilot it was a personal crusade against the thing he had been raised to regard as the enemy.…

But somehow under the steady, cold scrutiny of the eternal stars, they must have looked a little ridiculous… perhaps just a tiny bit tragic, too.

———

Harsh was the moon. There was black and there was white. Great jagged cliffs and razor-backed mountains slashed the pocked surface of the crater floor, humping themselves at the huge unwinking stars. The sun was a stark disc of fire, incredibly white, hung in the black sky. The shadows were bottomless pools. Within them there was nothing. In the sunlight, the pumice soil glared white.

The Russian rocket had crashed on landing. Randick could see the tiny, buckled shape of it high on the mountain. No doubt the pilot was dead, but he had to be sure. The risk were too great for any unsupported assumptions. He had to go up there and see for himself.

Ponderous in his pressure suit, Randick emerged from the open lock of the Anglo-American rocket. He slogged across the pumice of the crater floor toward the spot where the mountain’s sheer talus erupted skyward.

If there were no trouble from the Russki, he would return to his own ship and begin setting up the first cell of what would soon be the Anglo-American Moon Base. As soon as he signaled a safe landing and no opposition from the Russian, other rockets would come to add their cells, and presently there would be an atomic rocket pointed dead at the heart of every Russian population center. A rocket each for Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Vladivostok.…

Randick frowned. It would be a lot simpler if the crash had finished the Russian pilot. He knew the Russians had exactly the same plan for the Moon. Only the rockets would be aimed at Washington, London, Paris, San Francisco. The slight weight of the one-man bazooka on Randick’s back seemed suddenly very comforting.

Randick knew himself to be on the very edge of known territory. His map showed him that he was in the highest part of the Doerfel Mountains. Behind him lay the two great bowls of Bailly and Schickard, and far to the north he could see, as he climbed higher, the smooth surface of the Mare Humorum.

He looked up to the spinelike ridge beyond and slightly above the wreck of the Russian ship. There was a deep pass that slashed like a wound into the backbone of the range. He felt a slight thrill. Beyond that cleft lay… mystery. The other side of the Moon.

The sun’s rays beat down brutally. Even through the heavily insulated suit Randick could feel their searing touch. All around him stretched a jumbled nightmare of black and white. He was suddenly very glad that he could not see the Earth in the sky. The homesickness would be unbearable.

Randick found himself frowning. He had no time for such thoughts. He was a soldier. He reminded himself that up there in the tangled wreckage of the Russian spaceship there might be another soldier, ready to kill him. Two human beings on the Moon. Each eager to kill. Randick shook his head angrily. He had no right to let his mind dwell on such things…

He was within a hundred yards of the wreck when a streak of fire and a soundless blast drove him into the shadows. Pumice showered him from the star-shaped depression where the explosive missile had struck. Randick cursed heartily. The Russki was very much alive, and there wasn’t a thing wrong with his eyesight. The shot had been uncomfortably close.

Unslinging his bazooka, Randick began to work his way around behind the Russian rocket. A slight movement among the wreckage caught his trained eye and he launched a projectile at it. It flared wickedly, tearing fragments of metal loose and flinging them fantastic distances down the sheer slope of the ridge. There was no return fire.

Randick broke out of the shadow and ran for the cover of a large pumice stone boulder farther up the draw. A sun-bright flash of fire spattered the loose soil a dozen feet from him. He slid for the darkness on his belly. That one had been a near thing!

Behind the boulder lay a trench-like depression that sloped away up the draw toward the pass. Randick dropped into it and began to crawl laboriously upward. If he could flank the Russki he could finish this with one good shot. Another explosion rocked the boulder he had just left. Randick didn’t even look back.

He felt his breath rasping in his throat and his body felt hot and sticky inside the bulky pressure suit. Glancing down and to his right, he could see the proudly erect shape of his own rocket far below on the floor of the crater.

It took him almost thirty minutes to reach the edge of the shadow that spilled from the side of the mountain pass. To his left, not ten feet away, was the sudden white glare of the pumice floor. He was well above and almost behind the wreck of the Russian’s ship. His flanks were heaving with the exertion of the climb as he searched the buckled mass of the crash for his opponent.

There seemed to be a dark shape wedged in between two twisted bulkheads. It looked like a man. With pounding heart, Randick murmured a prayer and lifted his bazooka, aimed, and pressed the firing stud. The shadow vanished in silent white fire.

The return blast almost knocked him down. For a moment Randick was stunned, wondering foggily where the shot had come from. Then his brain cleared and he realized that the Russki too had climbed to the pass, leaving Randick to fire at shadows.

Randick cursed himself for his dangerous stupidity. The other must be among those shadowy rocks directly across the bright floor of the pass. He raised his bazooka carefully, searching the Stygian blackness for some sign of movement. His finger curled around the firing stud…

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the flare. The Russian rocket erupted in a gout of bluish flame and the whole mountain seemed to rock. Randick stared stupidly at the glowing crater where the ship had been. For just an instant he thought that perhaps a meteorite had struck it, but the explosion had been unquestionably… atomic.

The Russian must have been stunned, too. For he moved out into the light, empty-handed, his helmet turned woodenly toward the rapidly cooling lake of magma where his space ship had been.

They both saw the bright arc of fire that raced up from beyond the ridge and curved down gracefully toward the floor of the crater far below. Open-mouthed, Randick watched his ship vanish into flame and he felt the vague tremor of the ground under him as the shock rumbled across the face of the Moon.

The Russian rocket was gone. The Anglo-American rocket was gone. Moon Base was gone before it had ever been.

The weapon fell from Randick’s hand, and he stepped unsteadily into the light toward the Russian. Suddenly human companionship was very, very important. Panicky terror was plucking at his throat.

The two men stumbled toward each other across the pass cut deep into the jagged back of the Doerfel mountains. As one they turned and looked out across the vast expanse of the Moon’s hidden face.

They were soldiers. They knew an invasion base when they saw one.

As far as the eye could see, lines of sleek mammoth spaceships of unknown design stretched away into the distance. The face of the vast unnamed mare was covered with them.

Suddenly Randick felt himself beginning to giggle. He tried to stop, but the laughter welled up inside of him, echoing wildly within his confining helmet.

He could see that the Russian was laughing too, white teeth gleaming behind the plexiglass faceplate. They laughed until they gasped. Their sides hurt with laughter, tears rolled down their faces.

They were arm in arm and still laughing when the third rocket arced down on them from out of the black and star-flecked sky.


Original illustration from Planet Stories by Earl Mayan.

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When I was a kid, a few people of our acquaintance, maybe old friends of my parents or distant cousins, wrote annual Christmas letters to update us on events of the previous year. Nothing unusual about that. It’s a fairly common practice.

I remember those missives as being rambling, melodramatic, and bristling with exclamation marks! I also recall the greeting “Dear All” being used, so copies could go to both relatives and friends.

To my recollection, we didn’t hear from the letter-writers again until the next Christmas letter. And, in truth, I haven’t read a Christmas letter in years, since no close relatives wrote the things.

The letter-poem below is satirical, but some people think the author tempers his shots with a touch of fondness; he is more gentle than he could have been because, in general, we perceive the senders’ intentions as being innocent and mostly positive. Fair enough.

As for the origin of “The Christmas Letter,” I found no details, but it was published as early as 1977.

As for the author, it may or may not be John Nelson Morris, a professor of English Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, who died in 1997.

Anyway, to all y’all, Merry Christmas !!!!

———

The Christmas Letter

By John N. Morris

Wherever you are when you receive this letter
I write to say we are still ourselves
in the same place
and hope you are the same.

The dead have died as you know
and will never get better,
and the children are boys and girls
of their several ages and names.

So in closing I send you our love
and hope to hear from you soon.
There is never a time
like the present. It lasts forever
wherever you are. As ever I remain.

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Floyd L. Wallace ((1915-2004) was a mechanical engineer who took a hiatus during the 1950s to write science fiction. He did quite well, and his short stories appeared regularly in Galaxy Magazine, one of the top sci-fi publications.

In 1961, Wallace published one final novelette and then, for his own reasons, returned to engineering.

Second Landing” is about two aliens who visit earth during the Christmas season and make an effort to convince mankind not to self-destruct.

Probably more fantasy than science fiction.

———

Second Landing

By Floyd Wallace
Published in Amazing Science Fiction Stories, January 1960

Earth was so far away that it wasn’t visible. Even the sun was only a twinkle. But this vast distance did not mean that isolation could endure forever. Instruments within the ship intercepted radio broadcasts and, within the hour, early TV signals.

Machines compiled dictionaries and grammars and began translating the major languages. The history of the planet was tabulated as facts became available.

The course of the ship changed slightly; it was not much out of the way to swing nearer Earth. For days the two within the ship listened and watched with little comment. They had to decide soon.

“We’ve got to make or break,” said the first alien.

“You know what I’m in favor of,” said the second.

“I can guess,” said Ethaniel, who had spoken first. “The place is a complete mess. They’ve never done anything except fight each other — and invent better weapons.”

“It’s not what they’ve done,” said Bal, the second alien. “It’s what they’re going to do, with that big bomb.”

“The more reason for stopping,” said Ethaniel. “The big bomb can destroy them. Without our help they may do just that.”

“I may remind you that in two months twenty-nine days we’re due in Willafours,” said Bal. “Without looking at the charts I can tell you we still have more than a hundred light-years to go.”

“A week,” said Ethaniel. “We can spare a week and still get there on time.”

“A week?” said Bal. “To settle their problems? They’ve had two world wars in one generation and that the third and final one is coming up you can’t help feeling in everything they do.”

“It won’t take much,” said Ethaniel. “The wrong diplomatic move, or a trigger-happy soldier could set it off. And it wouldn’t have to be deliberate. A meteor shower could pass over and their clumsy instruments could interpret it as an all-out enemy attack.”

“Too bad,” said Bal. “We’ll just have to forget there ever was such a planet as Earth.”

“Could you? Forget so many people?”

“I’m doing it,” said Bal. “Just give them a little time and they won’t be here to remind me that I have a conscience.”

“My memory isn’t convenient,” said Ethaniel. “I ask you to look at them.”

Bal rustled, flicking the screen intently. “Very much like ourselves,” he said at last. “A bit shorter perhaps, and most certainly incomplete. Except for the one thing they lack, and that’s quite odd, they seem exactly like us. Is that what you wanted me to say?”

“It is. The fact that they are an incomplete version of ourselves touches me. They actually seem defenseless, though I suppose they’re not.”

“Tough,” said Bal. “Nothing we can do about it.”

“There is. We can give them a week.”

“In a week we can’t negate their entire history. We can’t begin to undo the effect of the big bomb.”

“You can’t tell,” said Ethaniel. “We can look things over.”

“And then what? How much authority do we have?”

“Very little,” conceded Ethaniel. “Two minor officials on the way to Willafours — and we run directly into a problem no one knew existed.”

“And when we get to Willafours we’ll be busy. It will be a long time before anyone comes this way again.”

“A very long time. There’s nothing in this region of space our people want,” said Ethaniel. “And how long can Earth last? Ten years? Even ten months? The tension is building by the hour.”

“What can I say?” said Bal. “I suppose we can stop and look them over. We’re not committing ourselves by looking.”

They went much closer to Earth, not intending to commit themselves. For a day they circled the planet, avoiding radar detection, which for them was not difficult, testing, and sampling.

Finally Ethaniel looked up from the monitor screen. “Any conclusions?”

“What’s there to think? It’s worse than I imagined.”

“In what way?”

“Well, we knew they had the big bomb. Atmospheric analysis showed that as far away as we were.”

“I know.”

“We also knew they could deliver the big bomb, presumably by some sort of aircraft.”

“That was almost a certainty. They’d have no use for the big bomb without aircraft.”

“What’s worse is that I now find they also have missiles, range one thousand miles and upward. They either have or are near a primitive form of space travel.”

“Bad,” said Ethaniel. “Sitting there, wondering when it’s going to hit them. Nervousness could set it off.”

“It could, and the missiles make it worse,” said Bal. “What did you find out at your end?”

“Nothing worthwhile. I was looking at the people while you were investigating their weapons.”

“You must think something.”

“I wish I knew what to think. There’s so little time,” Ethaniel said. “Language isn’t the difficulty. Our machines translate their languages easily and I’ve taken a cram course in two or three of them. But that’s not enough, looking at a few plays, listening to advertisements, music, and news bulletins. I should go down and live among them, read books, talk to scholars, work with them, play.”

“You could do that and you’d really get to know them. But that takes time — and we don’t have it.”

“I realize that.”

“A flat yes or no,” said Bal.

“No. We can’t help them,” said Ethaniel. “There is nothing we can do for them — but we have to try.”

“Sure, I knew it before we started,” said Bal. “It’s happened before. We take the trouble to find out what a people are like and when we can’t help them we feel bad. It’s going to be that way again.” He rose and stretched. “Well, give me an hour to think of some way of going at it.”

It was longer than that before they met again. In the meantime the ship moved much closer to Earth. They no longer needed instruments to see it. The planet revolved outside the visionports. The southern plains were green, coursed with rivers; the oceans were blue; and much of the northern hemisphere was glistening white. Ragged clouds covered the pole, and a dirty pall spread over the mid-regions of the north.

“I haven’t thought of anything brilliant,” said Ethaniel.

“Nor I,” said Bal. “We’re going to have to go down there cold. And it will be cold.”

“Yes. It’s their winter.”

“I did have an idea,” said Bal. “What about going down as supernatural beings?”

“Hardly,” said Ethaniel. “A hundred years ago it might have worked. Today they have satellites. They are not primitives.”

“I suppose you’re right,” said Bal. “I did think we ought to take advantage of our physical differences.”

“If we could I’d be all for it. But these people are rough and desperate. They wouldn’t be fooled by anything that crude.”

“Well, you’re calling it,” said Bal.

“All right,” said Ethaniel. “You take one side and I the other. We’ll tell them bluntly what they’ll have to do if they’re going to survive, how they can keep their planet in one piece so they can live on it.”

“That’ll go over big. Advice is always popular.”

“Can’t help it. That’s all we have time for.”

“Special instructions?”

“None. We leave the ship here and go down in separate landing craft. You can talk with me any time you want to through our communications, but don’t unless you have to.”

“They can’t intercept the beams we use.”

“They can’t, and even if they did they wouldn’t know what to do with our language. I want them to think that we don’t need to talk things over.”

“I get it. Makes us seem better than we are. They think we know exactly what we’re doing even though we don’t.”

“If we’re lucky they’ll think that.”

Bal looked out of the port at the planet below. “It’s going to be cold where I’m going. You too. Sure we don’t want to change our plans and land in the southern hemisphere? It’s summer there.”

“I’m afraid not. The great powers are in the north. They are the ones we have to reach to do the job.”

“Yeah, but I was thinking of that holiday you mentioned. We’ll be running straight into it. That won’t help us any.”

“I know, they don’t like their holidays interrupted. It can’t be helped. We can’t wait until it’s over.”

“I’m aware of that,” said Bal. “Fill me in on that holiday, anything I ought to know. Probably religious in origin. That so?”

“It was religious a long time ago,” said Ethaniel. “I didn’t learn anything exact from radio and TV. Now it seems to be chiefly a time for eating, office parties, and selling merchandise.”

“I see. It has become a business holiday.”

“That’s a good description. I didn’t get as much of it as I ought to have. I was busy studying the people, and they’re hard to pin down.”

“I see. I was thinking there might be some way we could tie ourselves in with this holiday. Make it work for us.”

“If there is I haven’t thought of it.”

“You ought to know. You’re running this one.” Bal looked down at the planet. Clouds were beginning to form at the twilight edge. “I hate to go down and leave the ship up here with no one in it.”

“They can’t touch it. No matter how they develop in the next hundred years they still won’t be able to get in or damage it in any way.”

“It’s myself I’m thinking about. Down there, alone.”

“I’ll be with you. On the other side of the Earth.”

“That’s not very close. I’d like it better if there were someone in the ship to bring it down in a hurry if things get rough. They don’t think much of each other. I don’t imagine they’ll like aliens any better.”

“They may be unfriendly,” Ethaniel acknowledged. Now he switched a monitor screen until he looked at the slope of a mountain. It was snowing and men were cutting small green trees in the snow. “I’ve thought of a trick.”

“If it saves my neck I’m for it.”

“I don’t guarantee anything,” said Ethaniel. “This is what I was thinking of: instead of hiding the ship against the sun where there’s little chance it will be seen, we’ll make sure that they do see it. Let’s take it around to the night side of the planet and light it up.”

“Say, pretty good,” said Bal.

“They can’t imagine that we’d light up an unmanned ship,” said Ethaniel. “Even if the thought should occur to them they’ll have no way of checking it. Also, they won’t be eager to harm us with our ship shining down on them.”

“That’s thinking,” said Bal, moving to the controls. “I’ll move the ship over where they can see it best and then I’ll light it up. I’ll really light it up.”

“Don’t spare power.”

“Don’t worry about that. They’ll see it. Everybody on Earth will see it.” Later, with the ship in position, glowing against the darkness of space, pulsating with light, Bal said: “You know, I feel better about this. We may pull it off. Lighting the ship may be just the help we need.”

“It’s not we who need help, but the people of Earth,” said Ethaniel. “See you in five days.” With that he entered a small landing craft, which left a faintly luminescent trail as it plunged toward Earth. As soon as it was safe to do so, Bal left in another craft, heading for the other side of the planet.

And the spaceship circled Earth, unmanned, blazing and pulsing with light. No star in the winter skies of the planet below could equal it in brilliancy. Once a man-made satellite came near but it was dim and was lost sight of by the people below.

During the day the ship was visible as a bright spot of light. At evening it seemed to burn through the sunset colors.

And the ship circled on, bright, shining, seeming to be a little piece clipped from the center of a star and brought near Earth to illuminate it. Never, or seldom, had Earth seen anything like it.

In five days the two small landing craft that had left it arched up from Earth and joined the orbit of the large ship. The two small craft slid inside the large one and doors closed behind them. In a short time the aliens met again.

“We did it,” said Bal exultantly as he came in. “I don’t know how we did it and I thought we were going to fail but at the last minute they came through.”

Ethaniel smiled. “I’m tired,” he said, rustling.

“Me too, but mostly I’m cold,” said Bal, shivering. “Snow. Nothing but snow wherever I went. Miserable climate. And yet you had me go out walking after that first day.”

“From my own experience it seemed to be a good idea,” said Ethaniel. “If I went out walking one day I noticed that the next day the officials were much more cooperative. If it worked for me I thought it might help you.”

“It did. I don’t know why, but it did,” said Bal. “Anyway, this agreement they made isn’t the best but I think it will keep them from destroying themselves.”

“It’s as much as we can expect,” said Ethaniel. “They may have small wars after this, but never the big one. In fifty or a hundred years we can come back and see how much they’ve learned.”

“I’m not sure I want to,” said Bal. “Say, what’s an angel?”

“Why?”

“When I went out walking people stopped to look. Some knelt in the snow and called me an angel.”

“Something like that happened to me,” said Ethaniel.

“I didn’t get it but I didn’t let it upset me,” said Bal. “I smiled at them and went about my business.” He shivered again. “It was always cold. I walked out, but sometimes I flew back. I hope that was all right.”

In the cabin Bal spread his great wings. Renaissance painters had never seen his like but knew exactly how he looked. In their paintings they had pictured him innumerable times.

“I don’t think it hurt us that you flew,” said Ethaniel. “I did so myself occasionally.”

“But you don’t know what an angel is?”

“No. I didn’t have time to find out. Some creature of their folklore I suppose. You know, except for our wings they’re very much like ourselves. Their legends are bound to resemble ours.”

“Sure,” said Bal. “Anyway, peace on Earth.”

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All the Answers

I ran across a number of online comments about the Robert Sheckley short story below, and the opinions differed starkly. Some people called it ironic, masterful, and funny. Others said it was irritating, redundant, and vague.

I have to admit, “Ask a Foolish Question” is not as buttoned-up and satisfying as most Sheckley stories. His “Beside Still Waters” and “Protection” are much better. Sheckley was so good, he set a high bar, even for his own work.

My opinion: the story is interesting, thoughtful, and worth your time.

———

Ask A Foolish Question

By Robert Sheckley
Published in Science Fiction Stories, Issue #1, 1953.

Answerer was built to last as long as was necessary — which was quite long, as some races judge time, and not long at all, according to others. But to Answerer, it was just long enough.

As to size, Answerer was large to some and small to others. He could be viewed as complex, although some believed that he was really very simple.

Answerer knew that he was as he should be. Above and beyond all else, he was The Answerer. He Knew.

Of the race that built him, the less said the better. They also Knew, and never said whether they found the knowledge pleasant.

They built Answerer as a service to less-sophisticated races, and departed in a unique manner. Where they went only Answerer knows.

Because Answerer knows everything.

Upon his planet, circling his sun, Answerer sat. Duration continued, long, as some judge duration, short as others judge it. But as it should be, to Answerer.

Within him were the Answers. He knew the nature of things, and why things are as they are, and what they are, and what it all means.

Answerer could answer anything, provided it was a legitimate question. And he wanted to! He was eager to!

How else should an Answerer be?

What else should an Answerer do?

So he waited for creatures to come and ask.

———

“How do you feel, sir?” Morran asked, floating gently over to the old man.

“Better,” Lingman said, trying to smile. No-weight was a vast relief. Even though Morran had expended an enormous amount of fuel, getting into space under minimum acceleration, Lingman’s feeble heart hadn’t liked it. Lingman’s heart had balked and sulked, pounded angrily against the brittle rib-case, hesitated and sped up. It seemed for a time as though Lingman’s heart was going to stop, out of sheer pique.

But no-weight was a vast relief, and the feeble heart was going again.

Morran had no such problems. His strong body was built for strain and stress. He wouldn’t experience them on this trip, not if he expected old Lingman to live.

“I’m going to live,” Lingman muttered, in answer to the unspoken question. “Long enough to find out.” Morran touched the controls, and the ship slipped into sub-space like an eel into oil.

“We’ll find out,” Morran murmured. He helped the old man unstrap himself. “We’re going to find the Answerer!”

Lingman nodded at his young partner. They had been reassuring themselves for years. Originally it had been Lingman’s project. Then Morran, graduating from Cal Tech, had joined him. Together they had traced the rumors across the solar system. The legends of an ancient humanoid race who had known the answer to all things, and who had built Answerer and departed.

“Think of it,” Morran said. “The answer to everything!” A physicist, Morran had many questions to ask Answerer. The expanding universe; the binding force of atomic nuclei; novae and supernovae; planetary formation; red shift, relativity and a thousand others.

“Yes,” Lingman said. He pulled himself to the vision plate and looked out on the bleak prairie of the illusory sub-space. He was a biologist and an old man. He had two questions.

What is life?

What is death?

———

After a particularly-long period of hunting purple, Lek and his friends gathered to talk. Purple always ran thin in the neighborhood of multiple-cluster stars — why, no one knew — so talk was definitely in order.

“Do you know,” Lek said, “I think I’ll hunt up this Answerer.” Lek spoke the Ollgrat language now, the language of imminent decision.

“Why?” Ilm asked him, in the Hvest tongue of light banter. “Why do you want to know things? Isn’t the job of gathering purple enough for you?”

“No,” Lek said, still speaking the language of imminent decision. “It is not.” The great job of Lek and his kind was the gathering of purple. They found purple embedded in many parts of the fabric of space, minute quantities of it. Slowly, they were building a huge mound of it. What the mound was for, no one knew.

“I suppose you’ll ask him what purple is?” Ilm asked, pushing a star out of his way and lying down.

“I will,” Lek said. “We have continued in ignorance too long. We must know the true nature of purple, and its meaning in the scheme of things. We must know why it governs our lives.” For this speech Lek switched to Ilgret, the language of incipient-knowledge.

Ilm and the others didn’t try to argue, even in the tongue of arguments. They knew that the knowledge was important. Ever since the dawn of time, Lek, Ilm and the others had gathered purple. Now it was time to know the ultimate answers to the universe — what purple was, and what the mound was for.

And of course, there was the Answerer to tell them. Everyone had heard of the Answerer, built by a race not unlike themselves, now long departed.

“Will you ask him anything else?” Ilm asked Lek.

“I don’t know,” Lek said. “Perhaps I’ll ask about the stars. There’s really nothing else important.” Since Lek and his brothers had lived since the dawn of time, they didn’t consider death. And since their numbers were always the same, they didn’t consider the question of life.

But purple? And the mound?

“I go!” Lek shouted, in the vernacular of decision-to-fact.

“Good fortune!” his brothers shouted back, in the jargon of greatest-friendship.

Lek strode off, leaping from star to star.

———

Alone on his little planet, Answerer sat, waiting for the Questioners. Occasionally he mumbled the answers to himself. This was his privilege. He Knew.

But he waited, and the time was neither too long nor too short, for any of the creatures of space to come and ask.

———

There were eighteen of them, gathered in one place.

“I invoke the rule of eighteen,” cried one. And another appeared, who had never before been, born by the rule of eighteen.

“We must go to the Answerer,” one cried. “Our lives are governed by the rule of eighteen. Where there are eighteen, there will be nineteen. Why is this so?”

No one could answer.

“Where am I?” asked the newborn nineteenth. One took him aside for instruction.

That left seventeen. A stable number.

“And we must find out,” cried another, “Why all places are different, although there is no distance.”

That was the problem. One is here. Then one is there. Just like that, no movement, no reason. And yet, without moving, one is in another place.

“The stars are cold,” one cried.

“Why?”

“We must go to the Answerer.”

For they had heard the legends, knew the tales. “Once there was a race, a good deal like us, and they Knew — and they told Answerer. Then they departed to where there is no place, but much distance.”

“How do we get there?” the newborn nineteenth cried, filled now with knowledge.

“We go.” And eighteen of them vanished. One was left. Moodily he stared at the tremendous spread of an icy star, then he too vanished.

———

“Those old legends are true,” Morran gasped. “There it is.”

They had come out of sub-space at the place the legends told of, and before them was a star unlike any other star. Morran invented a classification for it, but it didn’t matter. There was no other like it.

Swinging around the star was a planet, and this too was unlike any other planet. Morran invented reasons, but they didn’t matter. This planet was the only one.

“Strap yourself in, sir,” Morran said. “I’ll land as gently as I can.”

———

Lek came to Answerer, striding swiftly from star to star. He lifted Answerer in his hand and looked at him.

“So you are Answerer,” he said.

“Yes,” Answerer said.

“Then tell me,” Lek said, settling himself comfortably in a gap between the stars, “Tell me what I am.”

“A partiality,” Answerer said. “An indication.”

“Come now,” Lek muttered, his pride hurt. “You can do better than that. Now then. The purpose of my kind is to gather purple, and to build a mound of it. Can you tell me the real meaning of this?”

“Your question is without meaning,” Answerer said. He knew what purple actually was, and what the mound was for. But the explanation was concealed in a greater explanation. Without this, Lek’s question was inexplicable, and Lek had failed to ask the real question.

Lek asked other questions, and Answerer was unable to answer them. Lek viewed things through his specialized eyes, extracted a part of the truth and refused to see more. How to tell a blind man the sensation of green?

Answerer didn’t try. He wasn’t supposed to.

Finally, Lek emitted a scornful laugh. One of his little stepping-stones flared at the sound, then faded back to its usual intensity.

Lek departed, striding swiftly across the stars.

———

Answerer knew. But he had to be asked the proper questions first. He pondered this limitation, gazing at the stars which were neither large nor small, but exactly the right size.

The proper questions. The race which built Answerer should have taken that into account, Answerer thought. They should have made some allowance for semantic nonsense, allowed him to attempt an unraveling.

Answerer contented himself with muttering the answers to himself.

———

Eighteen creatures came to Answerer, neither walking nor flying, but simply appearing. Shivering in the cold glare of the stars, they gazed up at the massiveness of Answerer.

“If there is no distance,” one asked, “Then how can things be in other places?”

Answerer knew what distance was, and what places were. But he couldn’t answer the question. There was distance, but not as these creatures saw it. And there were places, but in a different fashion from that which the creatures expected.

“Rephrase the question,” Answerer said hopefully.

“Why are we short here,” one asked, “And long over there? Why are we fat over there, and short here? Why are the stars cold?”

Answerer knew all things. He knew why stars were cold, but he couldn’t explain it in terms of stars or coldness.

“Why,” another asked, “Is there a rule of eighteen? Why, when eighteen gather, is another produced?”

But of course the answer was part of another, greater question, which hadn’t been asked.

Another was produced by the rule of eighteen, and the nineteen creatures vanished.

Answerer mumbled the right questions to himself, and answered them.

———

“We made it,” Morran said. “Well, well.” He patted Lingman on the shoulder — lightly, because Lingman might fall apart.

The old biologist was tired. His face was sunken, yellow, lined. Already the mark of the skull was showing in his prominent yellow teeth, his small, flat nose, his exposed cheekbones. The matrix was showing through.

“Let’s get on,” Lingman said. He didn’t want to waste any time. He didn’t have any time to waste.

Helmeted, they walked along the little path.

“Not so fast,” Lingman murmured.

“Right,” Morran said. They walked together, along the dark path of the planet that was different from all other planets, soaring alone around a sun different from all other suns.

“Up here,” Morran said. The legends were explicit. A path, leading to stone steps. Stone steps to a courtyard. And then — the Answerer!

To them, Answerer looked like a white screen set in a wall. To their eyes, Answerer was very simple.

Lingman clasped his shaking hands together. This was the culmination of a lifetime’s work, financing, arguing, ferreting bits of legend, ending here, now.

“Remember,” he said to Morran, “We will be shocked. The truth will be like nothing we have imagined.”

“I’m ready,” Morran said, his eyes rapturous.

“Very well. Answerer,” Lingman said, in his thin little voice, “What is life?”

A voice spoke in their heads. “The question has no meaning. By ‘life,’ the Questioner is referring to a partial phenomenon, inexplicable except in terms of its whole.”

“Of what is life a part?” Lingman asked.

“This question, in its present form, admits of no answer. Questioner is still considering ‘life,’ from his personal, limited bias.”

“Answer it in your own terms, then,” Morran said.

“The Answerer can only answer questions.” Answerer thought again of the sad limitation imposed by his builders.

Silence.

“Is the universe expanding?” Morran asked confidently.

“‘Expansion’ is a term inapplicable to the situation. Universe, as the Questioner views it, is an illusory concept.”

“Can you tell us anything?” Morran asked.

“I can answer any valid question concerning the nature of things.”

The two men looked at each other.

“I think I know what he means,” Lingman said sadly. “Our basic assumptions are wrong. All of them.”

“They can’t be,” Morran said. “Physics, biology — “

“Partial truths,” Lingman said, with a great weariness in his voice. “At least we’ve determined that much. We’ve found out that our inferences concerning observed phenomena are wrong.”

“But the rule of the simplest hypothesis — “

“It’s only a theory,” Lingman said.

“But life — he certainly could answer what life is?”

“Look at it this way,” Lingman said. “Suppose you were to ask, ‘Why was I born under the constellation Scorpio, in conjunction with Saturn?’ I would be unable to answer your question in terms of the zodiac, because the zodiac has nothing to do with it.”

“I see,” Morran said slowly. “He can’t answer questions in terms of our assumptions.”

“That seems to be the case. And he can’t alter our assumptions. He is limited to valid questions — which imply, it would seem, a knowledge we just don’t have.”

“We can’t even ask a valid question?” Morran asked. “I don’t believe that. We must know some basics.” He turned to Answerer. “What is death?”

“I cannot explain an anthropomorphism.”

“Death an anthropomorphism!” Morran said, and Lingman turned quickly. “Now we’re getting somewhere!”

“Are anthropomorphisms unreal?” he asked.

“Anthropomorphisms may be classified, tentatively, as, A, false truths, or B, partial truths in terms of a partial situation.”

“Which is applicable here?”

“Both.”

That was the closest they got. Morran was unable to draw any more from Answerer. For hours the two men tried, but truth was slipping farther and farther away.

“It’s maddening,” Morran said, after a while. “This thing has the answer to the whole universe, and he can’t tell us unless we ask the right question. But how are we supposed to know the right question?”

Lingman sat down on the ground, leaning against a stone wall. He closed his eyes.

“Savages, that’s what we are,” Morran said, pacing up and down in front of Answerer. “Imagine a bushman walking up to a physicist and asking him why he can’t shoot his arrow into the sun. The scientist can explain it only in his own terms. What would happen?”

“The scientist wouldn’t even attempt it,” Lingman said, in a dim voice; “he would know the limitations of the questioner.”

“It’s fine,” Morran said angrily. “How do you explain the earth’s rotation to a bushman? Or better, how do you explain relativity to him — maintaining scientific rigor in your explanation at all times, of course.”

Lingman, eyes closed, didn’t answer.

“We’re bushmen. But the gap is much greater here. Worm and super-man, perhaps. The worm desires to know the nature of dirt, and why there’s so much of it. Oh, well.”

“Shall we go, sir?” Morran asked. Lingman’s eyes remained closed. His taloned fingers were clenched, his cheeks sunk further in. The skull was emerging.

“Sir! Sir!”

And Answerer knew that that was not the answer.

———

Alone on his planet, which is neither large nor small, but exactly the right size, Answerer waits. He cannot help the people who come to him, for even Answerer has restrictions.

He can answer only valid questions.

Universe? Life? Death? Purple? Eighteen?

Partial truths, half-truths, little bits of the great question.

But Answerer, alone, mumbles the questions to himself, the true questions, which no one can understand.

How could they understand the true answers?

The questions will never be asked, and Answerer remembers something his builders knew and forgot.

In order to ask a question you must already know most of the answer.

Original illustration from Science Fiction Stories by Alex Schomburg.

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

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

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

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

———

The Helpful Robots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is not right,” the robot repeated.

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

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

“Alright, alright, scram,” said Rankin.

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

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

“Hi, Barrows,” said Rankin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop right there!” he shouted.

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

“Stop!” shouted Rankin.

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

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

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

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

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

“What crime?” said Rankin.

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

“What law? What crime?”

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

Steampunk robot sculpture by Michael Boynton, Richland, Washington.

———

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

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

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

———

Time Fuze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commander Benedict wrote in the log:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benedict said nothing; he just waited expectantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How far away?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gordon Randall Phillip David Garrett.

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The New Dog

By Linda Pastan

Linda Olenick Pastan (B. 1932)

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

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

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

———

Daybreak

By John Donne

John Donne (1572-1631)

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

———

Dust If You Must

By Rose Milligan

Attributed to Mrs. Rose Milligan, Lancaster, England

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

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

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

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

———

Down By the Salley Gardens

By William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

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

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

* Obsolete term for willow.

———

News Item

By Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

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

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

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

———

Take Me to Your Leader

By George Henry Smith
Published in Microcosmic Tales, 1980

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You puttin’ me on, mister?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


———

Just Desserts

By Irving Fang
Published in Science Fiction Stories, July 1958

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you innocent also?”

Y-Yes, Your Highness,” Oseni stammered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proceed,” said the Oba.

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

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

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

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

The crowd jeered at the chief constable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many were there?”

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

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

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

The assembled villagers “Ohhhed” very loudly.

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

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

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

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

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

Oba of Benin

Ewuare II, the current Oba of Benin.

 

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