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Archive for the ‘Notable Prose and Poetry’ Category

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

———

The Song of Wandering Aengus*

By William Butler Yeats

Yates-WB

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

* In Irish mythology, Aengus is the Love God. This poem tells the story of Aengus and the beautiful Caer, who appeared in his dreams, and for whom he searched for years thereafter. https://bardmythologies.com/aengus-og/

———

I Am

By Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Wilcox EW2

Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919)

I Know not whence I came,
I know not whither I go;
But the fact stands clear that I am here
In this world of pleasure and woe.
And out of the mist and murk
Another truth shines plain
It is my power each day and hour
To add to its joy or its pain.

I know that the earth exists,
It is none of my business why;
I cannot find out what it’s all about,
I would but waste time to try.
My life is a brief, brief thing,
I am here for a little space,
And while I stay I would like, if I may,
To brighten and better the place.

The trouble, I think, with us all
Is the lack of a high conceit.
If each man thought he was sent to this spot
To make it a bit more sweet,
How soon we could gladden the world,
How easily right all wrong,
If nobody shirked, and each one worked
To help his fellows along!

Cease wondering why you came
Stop looking for faults and flaws;
Rise up to-day in your pride and say,
‘I am part of the First Great Cause!
However full the world,
There is room for an earnest man.
It had need of me, or I would not be

I am here to strengthen the plan.’

———

The Peace Of Wild Things

By Wendell Berry

Berry-W

Wendell Erdman Berry (B. 1934)

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

———

I’m Nobody! Who Are You?

By Emily Dickinson

Dickenson-E

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886)

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! They’d advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!

———

Ode 1.11

By Horace

Horace

Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC – 8 BC)

Leucon, no one is allowed to know his fate.
Not you, not me. Don’t ask, don’t hunt for answers
In tea leaves or palms.

Be patient with whatever comes.
This could be the last winter,
Or the Tuscan Sea could be
Pounding these rocks for many more.

Be wise, tend your vines,
And forget about long-term hopes.
Time flies, even as we talk.
Seize the day, trusting tomorrow as little as possible.

 

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The celebrated American writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007) had the unsettling ability to create preposterous, madcap scenarios, usually a blend of satire and gallows humor, then insert elements of catastrophic horror and dread.

To wit, in “Cat’s Cradle,” his 1963 novel about religion and the arms race, the molecules of all the water on the planet simultaneously crystallize into a substance called ice-nine.

Further, “Slaughterhouse Five, his 1969 anti-war/time-travel novel, includes the terrible firebombing of Dresden during WWII. As you may know, Vonnegut was a prisoner there during the Allied bombing. He and other POWs survived by hiding in a meat locker at the slaughterhouse where they were imprisoned.

The short story below is similarly bleak and awful in tone. “2BR02B” (To Be or Naught to Be) tells of a future Earth where aging and death are optional, and strict population control is enforced; to make room for a newborn, someone must volunteer to die.

Vintage Vonnegut.

———

2BR02B

By Kurt Vonnegut
Published in Worlds of If Science Fiction, January 1962

Everything was perfectly swell.

There were no prisons, no slums, no insane asylums, no cripples, no poverty, no wars.

All diseases were conquered. So was old age.

Death, barring accidents, was an adventure for volunteers.

The population of the United States was stabilized at forty-million souls.

One bright morning in the Chicago Lying-in Hospital, a man named Edward K. Wehling, Jr., waited for his wife to give birth. He was the only man waiting. Not many people were born a day any more.

Wehling was fifty-six, a mere stripling in a population whose average age was one hundred and twenty-nine.

X-rays had revealed that his wife was going to have triplets. The children would be his first.

Young Wehling was hunched in his chair, his head in his hand. He was so rumpled, so still and colorless as to be virtually invisible. His camouflage was perfect, since the waiting room had a disorderly and demoralized air, too. Chairs and ashtrays had been moved away from the walls. The floor was paved with spattered dropcloths.

The room was being redecorated. It was being redecorated as a memorial to a man who had volunteered to die.

A sardonic old man, about two hundred years old, sat on a stepladder, painting a mural he did not like. Back in the days when people aged visibly, his age would have been guessed at thirty-five or so. Aging had touched him that much before the cure for aging was found.

The mural he was working on depicted a very neat garden. Men and women in white, doctors and nurses, turned the soil, planted seedlings, sprayed bugs, spread fertilizer.

Men and women in purple uniforms pulled up weeds, cut down plants that were old and sickly, raked leaves, carried refuse to trash-burners.

Never, never, never — not even in medieval Holland nor old Japan — had a garden been more formal, been better tended. Every plant had all the loam, light, water, air and nourishment it could use.

A hospital orderly came down the corridor, singing under his breath a popular song:

If you don’t like my kisses, honey,
Here’s what I will do:
I’ll go see a girl in purple,
Kiss this sad world toodle-oo.
If you don’t want my lovin’,
Why should I take up all this space?
I’ll get off this old planet,
Let some sweet baby have my place.

The orderly looked in at the mural and the muralist. “Looks so real,” he said, “I can practically imagine I’m standing in the middle of it.”

“What makes you think you’re not in it?” said the painter. He gave a satiric smile. “It’s called ‘The Happy Garden of Life,’ you know.”

“That’s good of Dr. Hitz,” said the orderly.

He was referring to one of the male figures in white, whose head was a portrait of Dr. Benjamin Hitz, the hospital’s Chief Obstetrician. Hitz was a blindingly handsome man.

“Lot of faces still to fill in,” said the orderly. He meant that the faces of many of the figures in the mural were still blank. All blanks were to be filled with portraits of important people on either the hospital staff or from the Chicago Office of the Federal Bureau of Termination.

“Must be nice to be able to make pictures that look like something,” said the orderly.

The painter’s face curdled with scorn. “You think I’m proud of this daub?” he said. “You think this is my idea of what life really looks like?”

“What’s your idea of what life looks like?” said the orderly.

The painter gestured at a foul dropcloth. “There’s a good picture of it,” he said. “Frame that, and you’ll have a picture a damn sight more honest than this one.”

“You’re a gloomy old duck, aren’t you?” said the orderly.

“Is that a crime?” said the painter.

The orderly shrugged. “If you don’t like it here, Grandpa –” he said, and he finished the thought with the trick telephone number that people who didn’t want to live any more were supposed to call. The zero in the telephone number he pronounced “naught.”

The number was: “2 B R 0 2 B.”

It was the telephone number of an institution whose fanciful sobriquets included: “Automat,” “Birdland,” “Cannery,” “Catbox,” “De-louser,” “Easy-go,” “Good-by, Mother,” “Happy Hooligan,” “Kiss-me-quick,” “Lucky Pierre,” “Sheepdip,” “Waring Blender,” “Weep-no-more” and “Why Worry?”

“To be or not to be” was the telephone number of the municipal gas chambers of the Federal Bureau of Termination.

The painter thumbed his nose at the orderly. “When I decide it’s time to go,” he said, “it won’t be at the Sheepdip.”

“A do-it-yourselfer, eh?” said the orderly. “Messy business, Grandpa. Why don’t you have a little consideration for the people who have to clean up after you?”

The painter expressed with an obscenity his lack of concern for the tribulations of his survivors. “The world could do with a good deal more mess, if you ask me,” he said.

The orderly laughed and moved on.

Wehling, the waiting father, mumbled something without raising his head. And then he fell silent again.

A coarse, formidable woman strode into the waiting room on spike heels. Her shoes, stockings, trench coat, bag and overseas cap were all purple, the purple the painter called “the color of grapes on Judgment Day.”

The medallion on her purple musette bag was the seal of the Service Division of the Federal Bureau of Termination, an eagle perched on a turnstile.

The woman had a lot of facial hair — an unmistakable mustache, in fact. A curious thing about gas-chamber hostesses was that, no matter how lovely and feminine they were when recruited, they all sprouted mustaches within five years or so.

“Is this where I’m supposed to come?” she said to the painter.

“A lot would depend on what your business was,” he said. “You aren’t about to have a baby, are you?”

“They told me I was supposed to pose for some picture,” she said. “My name’s Leora Duncan.” She waited.

“And you dunk people,” he said.

“What?” she said.

“Skip it,” he said.

“That sure is a beautiful picture,” she said. “Looks just like heaven or something.”

“Or something,” said the painter. He took a list of names from his smock pocket. “Duncan, Duncan, Duncan,” he said, scanning the list. “Yes — here you are. You’re entitled to be immortalized. See any faceless body here you’d like me to stick your head on? We’ve got a few choice ones left.”

She studied the mural bleakly. “Gee,” she said, “they’re all the same to me. I don’t know anything about art.”

“A body’s a body, eh?” he said. “All righty. As a master of fine art, I recommend this body here.” He indicated a faceless figure of a woman who was carrying dried stalks to a trash-burner.

“Well,” said Leora Duncan, “that’s more the disposal people, isn’t it? I mean, I’m in service. I don’t do any disposing.”

The painter clapped his hands in mock delight. “You say you don’t know anything about art, and then you prove in the next breath that you know more about it than I do! Of course the sheave-carrier is wrong for a hostess! A snipper, a pruner — that’s more your line.” He pointed to a figure in purple who was sawing a dead branch from an apple tree. “How about her?” he said. “You like her at all?”

“Gosh –” she said, and she blushed and became humble — “that — that puts me right next to Dr. Hitz.”

“That upsets you?” he said.

“Good gravy, no!” she said. “It’s — it’s just such an honor.”

“Ah, You… you admire him, eh?” he said.

“Who doesn’t admire him?” she said, worshiping the portrait of Hitz. It was the portrait of a tanned, white-haired, omnipotent Zeus, two hundred and forty years old. “Who doesn’t admire him?” she said again. “He was responsible for setting up the very first gas chamber in Chicago.”

“Nothing would please me more,” said the painter, “than to put you next to him for all time. Sawing off a limb—that strikes you as appropriate?”

“That is kind of like what I do,” she said. She was demure about what she did. What she did was make people comfortable while she killed them.

And, while Leora Duncan was posing for her portrait, into the waiting-room bounded Dr. Hitz himself. He was seven feet tall, and he boomed with importance, accomplishments, and the joy of living.

“Well, Miss Duncan! Miss Duncan!” he said, and he made a joke. “What are you doing here?” he said. “This isn’t where the people leave. This is where they come in!”

“We’re going to be in the same picture together,” she said shyly.

“Good!” said Dr. Hitz heartily. “And, say, isn’t that some picture?”

“I sure am honored to be in it with you,” she said.

“Let me tell you,” he said, “I’m honored to be in it with you. Without women like you, this wonderful world we’ve got wouldn’t be possible.”

He saluted her and moved toward the door that led to the delivery rooms. “Guess what was just born,” he said.

“I can’t,” she said.

“Triplets!” he said.

“Triplets!” she said. She was exclaiming over the legal implications of triplets.

The law said that no newborn child could survive unless the parents of the child could find someone who would volunteer to die. Triplets, if they were all to live, called for three volunteers.

“Do the parents have three volunteers?” said Leora Duncan.

“Last I heard,” said Dr. Hitz, “they had one, and were trying to scrape another two up.”

“I don’t think they made it,” she said. “Nobody made three appointments with us. Nothing but singles going through today, unless somebody called in after I left. What’s the name?”

“Wehling,” said the waiting father, sitting up, red-eyed and frowzy. “Edward K. Wehling, Jr., is the name of the happy father-to-be.”

He raised his right hand, looked at a spot on the wall, gave a hoarsely wretched chuckle. “Present,” he said.

“Oh, Mr. Wehling,” said Dr. Hitz, “I didn’t see you.”

“The invisible man,” said Wehling.

“They just phoned me that your triplets have been born,” said Dr. Hitz. “They’re all fine, and so is the mother. I’m on my way in to see them now.”

“Hooray,” said Wehling emptily.

“You don’t sound very happy,” said Dr. Hitz.

“What man in my shoes wouldn’t be happy?” said Wehling. He gestured with his hands to symbolize care-free simplicity. “All I have to do is pick out which one of the triplets is going to live, then deliver my maternal grandfather to the Happy Hooligan, and come back here with a receipt.”

Dr. Hitz became rather severe with Wehling, towered over him. “You don’t believe in population control, Mr. Wehling?” he said.

“I think it’s perfectly keen,” said Wehling tautly.

“Would you like to go back to the good old days, when the population of the Earth was twenty billion — about to become forty billion, then eighty billion, then one hundred and sixty billion? Do you know what a drupelet is, Mr. Wehling?” said Hitz.

“Nope,” said Wehling sulkily.

“A drupelet, Mr. Wehling, is one of the little knobs, one of the little pulpy grains of a blackberry,” said Dr. Hitz. “Without population control, human beings would now be packed on this surface of this old planet like drupelets on a blackberry! Think of it!”

Wehling continued to stare at the same spot on the wall.

“In the year 2000,” said Dr. Hitz, “before scientists stepped in and laid down the law, there wasn’t even enough drinking water to go around, and nothing to eat but sea-weed — and still people insisted on their right to reproduce like jackrabbits. And their right, if possible, to live forever.”

“I want those kids,” said Wehling quietly. “I want all three of them.”

“Of course you do,” said Dr. Hitz. “That’s only human.”

“I don’t want my grandfather to die, either,” said Wehling.

“Nobody’s really happy about taking a close relative to the Catbox,” said Dr. Hitz gently, sympathetically.

“I wish people wouldn’t call it that,” said Leora Duncan.

“What?” said Dr. Hitz.

“I wish people wouldn’t call it ‘the Catbox,’ and things like that,” she said. “It gives people the wrong impression.”

“You’re absolutely right,” said Dr. Hitz. “Forgive me.” He corrected himself, gave the municipal gas chambers their official title, a title no one ever used in conversation. “I should have said, ‘Ethical Suicide Studios,'” he said.

“That sounds so much better,” said Leora Duncan.

“This child of yours — whichever one you decide to keep, Mr. Wehling,” said Dr. Hitz. “He or she is going to live on a happy, roomy, clean, rich planet, thanks to population control. In a garden like that mural there.” He shook his head. “Two centuries ago, when I was a young man, it was a hell that nobody thought could last another twenty years. Now centuries of peace and plenty stretch before us as far as the imagination cares to travel.”

He smiled luminously.

The smile faded as he saw that Wehling had just drawn a revolver.

Wehling shot Dr. Hitz dead. “There’s room for one — a great big one,” he said.

And then he shot Leora Duncan. “It’s only death,” he said to her as she fell. “There! Room for two.”

And then he shot himself, making room for all three of his children.

Nobody came running. Nobody, seemingly, heard the shots.

The painter sat on the top of his stepladder, looking down reflectively on the sorry scene.

The painter pondered the mournful puzzle of life demanding to be born and, once born, demanding to be fruitful… to multiply and to live as long as possible — to do all that on a very small planet that would have to last forever.

All the answers that the painter could think of were grim. Even grimmer, surely, than a Catbox, a Happy Hooligan, an Easy Go. He thought of war. He thought of plague. He thought of starvation.

He knew that he would never paint again. He let his paintbrush fall to the drop-cloths below. And then he decided he had had about enough of life in the Happy Garden of Life, too, and he came slowly down from the ladder.

He took Wehling’s pistol, really intending to shoot himself.

But he didn’t have the nerve.

And then he saw the telephone booth in the corner of the room. He went to it, dialed the well-remembered number: “2 B R 0 2 B.”

“Federal Bureau of Termination,” said the very warm voice of a hostess.

“How soon could I get an appointment?” he asked, speaking very carefully.

“We could probably fit you in late this afternoon, sir,” she said. “It might even be earlier, if we get a cancellation.”

“All right,” said the painter, “fit me in, if you please.” And he gave her his name, spelling it out.

“Thank you, sir,” said the hostess. “Your city thanks you; your country thanks you; your planet thanks you. But the deepest thanks of all is from future generations.”

Triplets

 

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Science fiction writer Dallas McCord “Mack Reynolds (1917-1983) was an avowed socialist. (His father Verne twice ran for President as the candidate of the Socialist Labor Party.) Reynolds was who he was, and his political views often showed up in his fiction.

Few of his fellow writers agreed with his politics, but they either kept quiet or kept their distance. The publishers, however, were not so discreet. Reynolds struggled to find willing publishers, especially in the top publications.

Nevertheless, he was talented and popular with the public, and he succeeded in spite of the bias. You have to admire a guy who stays true to his beliefs.

———

I’m a Stranger Here Myself

By Mack Reynolds
Published in Amazing Stories, December 1960

The Place de France is the town’s hub. It marks the end of Boulevard Pasteur, the main drag of the westernized part of the city, and the beginning of Rue de la Liberté, which leads down to the Grand Socco and the medina. In a three-minute walk from the Place de France you can go from an ultra-modern, California-like resort to the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid.

It’s quite a town, Tangier.

King-size sidewalk cafes occupy three of the strategic corners on the Place de France. The Cafe de Paris serves the best draft beer in town, gets all the better custom, and has three shoeshine boys attached to the establishment. You can sit of a sunny morning and read the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune while getting your shoes done up like mirrors for thirty Moroccan francs which comes to about five cents at current exchange.

You can sit there, after the paper’s read, sip your espresso and watch the people go by.

Tangier is possibly the most cosmopolitan city in the world. In native costume you’ll see Berber and Rif, Arab and Blue Man, and occasionally a Senegalese from further south. In European dress you’ll see Japs and Chinese, Hindus and Turks, Levantines and Filipinos, North Americans and South Americans, and, of course, even Europeans — from both sides of the Curtain.

In Tangier you’ll find some of the world’s poorest and some of the richest. The poorest will try to sell you anything from a shoeshine to their not very lily-white bodies, and the richest will avoid your eyes, afraid you might try to sell them something.

In spite of recent changes, the town still has its unique qualities. As a result of them the permanent population includes smugglers and black-marketeers, fugitives from justice and international con men, espionage and counter-espionage agents, homosexuals, nymphomaniacs, alcoholics, drug addicts, displaced persons, ex-royalty, and subversives of every flavor. Local law limits the activities of few of these.

Like I said, it’s quite a town.

I looked up from my Herald Tribune and said, “Hello, Paul. Anything new cooking?”

He sank into the chair opposite me and looked around for the waiter. The tables were all crowded and since mine was a face he recognized, he assumed he was welcome to intrude. It was more or less standard procedure at the Cafe de Paris. It wasn’t a place to go if you wanted to be alone.

Paul said, “How are you, Rupert? Haven’t seen you for donkey’s years.”

The waiter came along and Paul ordered a glass of beer. Paul was an easy-going, sallow-faced little man. I vaguely remembered somebody saying he was from Liverpool and in exports.

“What’s in the newspaper?” he said, disinterestedly.

“Pogo and Albert are going to fight a duel,” I told him, “and Lil Abner is becoming a rock’n’roll singer.”

He grunted.

“Oh,” I said, “the intellectual type.” I scanned the front page. “The Russkies have put up another manned satellite.”

“They have, eh? How big?”

“Several times bigger than anything we Americans have.”

The beer came and looked good, so I ordered a glass too.

Paul said, “What ever happened to those poxy flying saucers?”

“What flying saucers?”

A French girl went by with a poodle so finely clipped as to look as though it’d been shaven. The girl was in the latest from Paris. Every pore in place. We both looked after her.

“You know, what everybody was seeing a few years ago. It’s too bad one of these bloody manned satellites wasn’t up then. Maybe they would’ve seen one.”

“That’s an idea,” I said.

We didn’t say anything else for a while and I began to wonder if I could go back to my paper without rubbing him the wrong way. I didn’t know Paul very well, but, for that matter, it’s comparatively seldom you ever get to know anybody very well in Tangier. Largely, cards are played close to the chest.

My beer came and a plate of tapas for us both. Tapas at the Cafe de Paris are apt to be potato salad, a few anchovies, olives, and possibly some cheese. Free lunch, they used to call it in the States.

Just to say something, I said, “Where do you think they came from?” And when he looked blank, I added, “The Flying Saucers.”

He grinned. “From Mars or Venus, or someplace.”

“Ummmm,” I said. “Too bad none of them ever crashed, or landed on the Yale football field and said Take me to your cheerleader, or something.”

Paul yawned and said, “That was always the trouble with those crackpot blokes’ explanations of them. If they were aliens from space, then why not show themselves?”

I ate one of the potato chips. It’d been cooked in rancid olive oil.

I said, “Oh, there are various answers to that one. We could probably sit around here and think of two or three that made sense.”

Paul was mildly interested. “Like what?”

“Well, hell, suppose for instance there’s this big Galactic League of civilized planets. But it’s restricted, see. You’re not eligible for membership until you, well, say until you’ve developed space flight. Then you’re invited into the club. Meanwhile, they send secret missions down from time to time to keep an eye on your progress.”

Paul grinned at me. “I see you read the same poxy stuff I do.”

A Moorish girl went by dressed in a neatly tailored gray djellaba, European style high-heeled shoes, and a pinkish silk veil so transparent that you could see she wore lipstick. Very provocative, dark eyes can be over a veil. We both looked after her.

I said, “Or, here’s another one. Suppose you have a very advanced civilization on, say, Mars.”

“Not Mars. No air, and too bloody dry to support life.”

“Don’t interrupt, please,” I said with mock severity. “This is a very old civilization and as the planet began to lose its water and air, it withdrew underground. Uses hydroponics and so forth, husbands its water and air. Isn’t that what we’d do, in a few million years, if Earth lost its water and air?”

“I suppose so,” he said. “Anyway, what about them?”

“Well, they observe how man is going through a scientific boom, an industrial boom, a population boom. A boom, period. Any day now he’s going to have practical space ships. Meanwhile, he’s also got the H-Bomb and the way he beats the drums on both sides of the Curtain, he’s not against using it, if he could get away with it.”

Paul said, “I got it. So they’re scared and are keeping an eye on us. That’s an old one. I’ve read that a dozen times, dished up different.”

I shifted my shoulders. “Well, it’s one possibility.”

“I got a better one. How’s this. There’s this alien life form that’s way ahead of us. Their civilization is so old that they don’t have any records of when it began and how it was in the early days. They’ve gone beyond things like wars and depressions and revolutions, and greed for power or any of these things giving us a bad time here on Earth. They’re all like scholars, get it? And some of them are pretty jolly well taken by Earth, especially the way we are right now, with all the problems, get it? Things developing so fast we don’t know where we’re going or how we’re going to get there.”

I finished my beer and clapped my hands for Mouley. “How do you mean, where we’re going?”

“Well, take half the countries in the world today. They’re trying to industrialize, modernize, catch up with the advanced countries. Look at Egypt, and Israel, and India and China, and Yugoslavia and Brazil, and all the rest. Trying to drag themselves up to the level of the advanced countries, and all using different methods of doing it. But look at the so-called advanced countries. Up to their bottoms in problems. Juvenile delinquents, climbing crime and suicide rates, the loony-bins full of the balmy, unemployed, threat of war, spending all their money on armaments instead of things like schools. All the bloody mess of it. Why, a man from Mars would be fascinated, like.”

Mouley came shuffling up in his babouche slippers and we both ordered another schooner of beer.

Paul said seriously, “You know, there’s only one big snag in this sort of talk. I’ve sorted the whole thing out before, and you always come up against this brick wall. Where are they, these observers, or scholars, or spies or whatever they are? Sooner or later we’d nab one of them. You know, Scotland Yard, or the F.B.I., or Russia’s secret police, or the French Sûreté, or Interpol. This world is so deep in police, counter-espionage outfits and security agents that an alien would slip up in time, no matter how much he’d been trained. Sooner or later, he’d slip up, and they’d nab him.”

I shook my head. “Not necessarily. The first time I ever considered this possibility, it seemed to me that such an alien would base himself in London or New York. Somewhere where he could use the libraries for research, get the daily newspapers and the magazines. Be right in the center of things. But now I don’t think so. I think he’d be right here in Tangier.”

“Why Tangier?”

“It’s the one town in the world where anything goes. Nobody gives a damn about you or your affairs. For instance, I’ve known you a year or more now, and I haven’t the slightest idea of how you make your living.”

“That’s right,” Paul admitted. “In this town you seldom even ask a man where’s he’s from. He can be British, a White Russian, a Basque or a Sikh and nobody could care less. Where are you from, Rupert?”

“California,” I told him.

“No, you’re not,” he grinned.

I was taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“I felt your mind probe back a few minutes ago when I was talking about Scotland Yard or the F.B.I. possibly flushing an alien. Telepathy is a sense not trained by the humanoids. If they had it, your job — and mine — would be considerably more difficult. Let’s face it, in spite of these human bodies we’re disguised in, neither of us is humanoid. Where are you really from, Rupert?”

“Aldebaran,” I said. “How about you?”

“Deneb,” he told me, shaking.

We had a laugh and ordered another beer.

“What’re you doing here on Earth?” I asked him.

“Researching for one of our meat trusts. We’re protein eaters. Humanoid flesh is considered quite a delicacy. How about you?”

“Scouting the place for thrill tourists. My job is to go around to these backward cultures and help stir up inter-tribal, or international, conflict — all according to how advanced they are. Then our tourists come in — well shielded, of course — and get their kicks watching it.”

Paul frowned. “That sort of practice could spoil an awful lot of good meat.”

Tangier

It’s quite a town.

 

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Author Michael Shaara (1928-1988) is best known for his novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, “The Killer Angels,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. But Shaara also wrote science fiction.

His father was an immigrant from Italy named “Sciarra,” which a bonehead clerk at Ellis Island recorded phonetically.

A graduate of Rutgers, Shaara was at various times a paratrooper, merchant seaman, police officer, and amateur boxer — who ended up teaching literature at Florida State and writing a lot of memorable stuff.

———

Man of Distinction

By Michael Shaara
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1956

The remarkable distinction of Thatcher Blitt did not come to the attention of a bemused world until late in the year 2180. Although Thatcher Blitt was, by the standards of his time, an extremely successful man financially, this was not considered real distinction. Unfortunately for Blitt, it never has been.

The history books do not record the names of the most successful merchants of the past unless they happened by chance to have been connected with famous men of the time. Thus Croesus is remembered largely for his contributions to famous Romans and successful armies. And Haym Solomon, a similarly wealthy man, would have been long forgotten had he not also been a financial mainstay of the American Revolution and consorted with famous, if impoverished, statesmen.

So if Thatcher Blitt was distinct among men, the distinction was not immediately apparent. He was a small, gaunt, fragile man who had the kind of face and bearing that are perfect for movie crowd scenes. Absolutely forgettable. Yet Thatcher Blitt was one of the foremost businessmen of his time. For he was president and founder of that noble institution, Genealogy, Inc.

Thatcher Blitt was not yet 25 when he made the discovery which was to make him among the richest men of his time. His discovery was, like all great ones, obvious yet profound. He observed that every person had a father.

Carrying on with this thought, it followed inevitably that every father had a father, and so on. In fact, thought Blitt, when you considered the matter rightly, everyone alive was the direct descendant of untold numbers of fathers, down through the ages, all descending, one after another, father to son. And so backward, unquestionably, into the unrecognizable and perhaps simian fathers of the past.

This thought, on the face of it not particularly profound, struck young Blitt like a blow. He saw that since each man had a father, and so on and so on, it ought to be possible to construct the genealogy of every person now alive. In short, it should be possible to trace your family back, father by father, to the beginning of time.

And of course it was. For that was the era of the time scanner. And with a time scanner, it would be possible to document your family tree with perfect accuracy. You could find out exactly from whom you had sprung.

And so Thatcher Blitt made his fortune. He saw clearly at the beginning what most of us see only now, and he patented it. He was aware not only of the deep-rooted sense of snobbishness that exists in many people, but also of the simple yet profound force of curiosity.

Who exactly, one says to oneself, was my forty-times-great-great-grandfather? A Roman Legionary? A Viking? A pyramid builder? One of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand? Or was he, perhaps (for it is always possible), Alexander the Great?

Thatcher Blitt had a product to sell. And sell he did, for other reasons that he alone had noted at the beginning. The races of mankind have twisted and turned with incredible complexity over the years; the numbers of people have been enormous.

With thirty thousand years in which to work, it was impossible that there was not, somewhere along the line, a famous ancestor for everybody. A minor king would often suffice, or even a general in some forgotten army. And if these direct ancestors were not enough, it was fairly simple to establish close blood kinship with famous men. The blood lines of Man, you see, begin with a very few people. In all of ancient Greece, in the time of Pericles, there were only a few thousand families.

Seeing all this, Thatcher Blitt became a busy man. It was necessary not only to patent his idea, but to produce the enormous capital needed to found a large organization. The cost of the time scanner was at first prohibitive, but gradually that obstacle was overcome, only for Thatcher to find that the government for many years prevented him from using it. Yet Blitt was indomitable. And eventually, after years of heart-rending waiting, Genealogy, Inc. began operations.

It was a tremendous success. Within months, the very name of the company and its taut slogan, “An Ancestor for Everybody,” became household words. There was but one immediate drawback. It soon became apparent that, without going back very far into the past, it was sometimes impossible to tell who was really the next father in line. The mothers were certain, but the fathers were something else again. This was a ponderable point.

But Blitt refused to be discouraged. He set various electronic engineers to work on the impasse and a solution was found. An ingenious device which tested blood electronically through the scanner — based on the different sine waves of the blood groups — saved the day.

That invention was the last push Genealogy, Inc. was ever to need. It rolled on to become one of the richest and, for a long while, most exclusive corporations in the world.

Yet it was still many years before Thatcher Blitt himself had time to rest. There were patent infringements to be fought, new developments in the labs to be watched, new ways to be found to make the long and arduous task of father-tracing easier and more economical. Hence he was well past sixty when he at last had time to begin considering himself.

He had become by this time a moderately offensive man. Surrounded as he had been all these years by pomp and luxury, by impressive names and extraordinary family trees, he had succumbed at last. He became unbearably name-conscious.

He began by regrouping his friends according to their ancestries. His infrequent parties were characterized by his almost Parliamentarian system of seating. No doubt, all this had been in Thatcher Blitt to begin with — it may well be, in perhaps varying quantities, in all of us — but it grew with him, prospered with him. Yet in all those years he never once inspected his own forebears.

You may well ask, was he afraid? One answers, one does not know. But at any rate, the fact remains that Thatcher Blitt, at the age of 67, was one of the few rich men in the world who did not know who exactly their ancestors had been.

And so, at last, we come to the day when Thatcher Blitt was sitting alone in his office, one languid hand draped vacantly over his brow, listening with deep satisfaction to the hum and click of the enormous operations which were going on in the building around him.

What moved him that day remains uncertain. Perhaps it was that, from where he was sitting, he could see row upon row of action pictures of famous men which had been taken from his time scanners. Or perhaps it was simply that this profound question had been gnawing at him all these years, deeper and deeper, and on this day broke out into the light.

But whatever the reason, at 11:02 that morning, he leaped vitally from his chair. He summoned Cathcart, his chief assistant, and gave him the immortal command.

“Cathcart!” he grated, stung to the core of his being. “Who am I?”

Cathcart rushed off to find out.

There followed some of the most taut and fateful days in the brilliant history of Genealogy, Inc. Father-tracing is, of course, a painstaking business. But it was not long before word had begun to filter out to interested people.

The first interesting discovery made was a man called Blott, in eighteenth century England. (No explanation was ever given for the name’s alteration from Blott to Blitt. Certain snide individuals took this to mean that the name had been changed as a means to avoid prosecution, or some such, and immediately began making light remarks about the Blotts on old Blitt’s escutcheon.) This Blott had the distinction of having been a wineseller of considerable funds.

This reputedly did not sit well with Thatcher Blitt. Merchants, he snapped, however successful, are not worthy of note. He wanted empire builders. He wanted, at the very least, a name he had heard about. A name that appeared in the histories.

His workers furiously scanned back into the past.

Months went by before the next name appeared. In 9th century England, there was a wandering minstrel named John (last name unprintable) who achieved considerable notoriety as a ballad singer, before dying an unnatural death in the boudoir of a lady of high fashion.

Although the details of this man’s life were of extreme interest, they did not impress the old man. He was, on the contrary, rather shaken. A minstrel. And a rogue to boot.

There were shakeups in Genealogy, Inc. Cathcart was replaced by a man named Jukes, a highly competent man despite his interesting family name. Jukes forged ahead full steam past the birth of Christ (no relation). But he was well into ancient Egypt before the search began to take on the nature of a crisis.

Up until then, there was simply nobody. Or to be more precise, nobody but nobodies. It was incredible, all the laws of chance were against it, but there was, actually, not a single ancestor of note. And no way of faking one, for Thatcher Blitt couldn’t be fooled by his own methods.

What there was was simply an unending line of peasants, serfs, an occasional foot soldier or leather worker. Past John the ballad-singer, there was no one at all worth reporting to the old man.

This situation would not continue, of course. There were so few families for men to spring from. The entire Gallic nation, for example, a great section of present-day France, sprang from the family of one lone man in the north of France in the days before Christ. Every native Frenchman, therefore, was at least the son of a king. It was impossible for Thatcher Blitt to be less.

So the hunt went on from day to day, past ancient Greece, past Jarmo, past the wheel and metals and farming and on even past all civilization, outward and backward into the cold primordial wastes of northern Germany.

And still there was nothing. Though Jukes lived in daily fear of losing his job, there was nothing to do but press on. In Germany, he reduced Blitt’s ancestor to a slovenly little man who was one of only three men in the entire tribe, or family, one of three in an area which now contains millions. But Blitt’s ancestor, true to form, was simply a member of the tribe. As was his father before him.

Yet onward it went. Westward back into the French caves, southward into Spain and across the unrecognizable Mediterranean into a verdant North Africa, backward in time past even the Cro-Magnons, and yet ever backward, 30,000 years, 35,000, with old Blitt reduced now practically to gibbering and still never an exceptional forebear.

There came a time when Jukes had at last, inevitably, to face the old man. He had scanned back as far as he could. The latest ancestor he had unearthed for Blitt was a hairy creature who did not walk erect. And yet, even here, Blitt refused to concede.

“It may be,” he howled, “it must be that my ancestor was the first man to walk erect or light a fire — to do something.”

It was not until Jukes pointed out that all those things had been already examined and found hopeless that Blitt finally gave in. Blitt was a relative, of course, of the first man to stand erect, the man with the first human brain. But so was everybody else on the face of the Earth. There was truly nowhere else to explore. What would be found now would be only the common history of mankind.

Blitt retired to his chambers and refused to be seen.

The story went the rounds, as such stories will. And it was then at last, after 40,000 years of insignificance, that the name of Blitt found everlasting distinction. The story was picked up, fully documented, by psychologists and geneticists of the time, and inserted into textbooks as a profound commentary on the forces of heredity.

The name of Thatcher Blitt in particular has become famous, has persisted until this day. For he is the only man yet discovered, or ever likely to be discovered, with this particular distinction.

In 40,000 years of scanner-recorded history, the blood line of Blitt (or Blott) never once produced an exceptional man.

That record is unsurpassed.

Man of Distinction

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by Dick Francis.

 

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Ray Bradbury is one of the best-known and most celebrated authors of science fiction, but it wasn’t always thus. Early in his career, many readers, editors, and critics considered him a marginal talent.

Bradbury published his first short story in 1938. He sold stories sporadically over the next decade, but success came slowly. He wrote the story below in 1951, a year after “The Martian Chronicles” prompted the industry to give him a second look and finally a seal of approval.

———

A Little Journey

By Ray Bradbury
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, August 1951

There were two important things — one, that she was very old; two, that Mr. Thirkell was taking her to God. For hadn’t he patted her hand and said: “Mrs. Bellowes, we’ll take off into space in my rocket, and go to find Him together.”

And that was how it was going to be. Oh, this wasn’t like any other group Mrs. Bellowes had ever joined. In her fervor to light a path for her delicate, tottering feet, she had struck matches down dark alleys, and found her way to Hindu mystics who floated their flickering, starry eyelashes over crystal balls. She had walked on the meadow paths with ascetic Indian philosophers imported by daughters-in-spirit of Madame Blavatsky.

She had made pilgrimages to California’s stucco jungles to hunt the astrological seer in his natural habitat. She had even consented to signing away the rights to one of her homes in order to be taken into the shouting order of a temple of amazing evangelists who had promised her golden smoke, crystal fire, and the great soft hand of God coming to bear her home.

None of these people had ever shaken Mrs. Bellowes’ faith, even when she saw them sirened away in a black wagon in the night, or discovered their pictures, bleak and unromantic, in the morning tabloids. The world had roughed them up and locked them away because they knew too much, that was all.

And then, two weeks ago, she had seen Mr. Thirkell’s advertisement in New York City:

COME TO MARS!

Stay at the Thirkell Restorium for one week. And then,
on into space on the greatest adventure life can offer!

Send for Free Pamphlet: “Nearer My God To Thee.”

Excursion rates. Round trip slightly lower.

“Round trip,” Mrs. Bellowes had thought. “But who would come back after seeing Him?”

And so she had bought a ticket and flown off to Mars and spent seven mild days at Mr. Thirkell’s Restorium, the building with the sign on it which flashed: THIRKELL’S ROCKET TO HEAVEN! She had spent the week bathing in limpid waters and erasing the care from her tiny bones, and now she was fidgeting, ready to be loaded into Mr. Thirkell’s own special private rocket, like a bullet, to be fired on out into space beyond Jupiter and Saturn and Pluto. And thus — who could deny it? — you would be getting nearer and nearer to the Lord. How wonderful! Couldn’t you just feel Him drawing near? Couldn’t you just sense His breath, His scrutiny, His Presence?

“Here I am,” said Mrs. Bellowes, “an ancient rickety elevator, ready to go up the shaft. God need only press the button.”

Now, on the seventh day, as she minced up the steps of the Restorium, a number of small doubts assailed her.

“For one thing,” she said aloud to no one, “it isn’t quite the land of milk and honey here on Mars that they said it would be. My room is like a cell, the swimming pool is really quite inadequate, and, besides, how many widows who look like mushrooms or skeletons want to swim? And, finally, the whole Restorium smells of boiled cabbage and tennis shoes!”

She opened the front door and let it slam, somewhat irritably.

She was amazed at the other women in the auditorium. It was like wandering in a carnival mirror-maze, coming again and again upon yourself — the same floury face, the same chicken hands, and jingling bracelets. One after another of the images of herself floated before her. She put out her hand, but it wasn’t a mirror; it was another lady shaking her fingers and saying:

“We’re waiting for Mr. Thirkell. Sh!

“Ah,” whispered everyone.

The velvet curtains parted.

Mr. Thirkell appeared, fantastically serene, his Egyptian eyes upon everyone. But there was something, nevertheless, in his appearance which made one expect him to call “Hi!” while fuzzy dogs jumped over his legs, through his hooped arms, and over his back. Then, dogs and all, he should dance with a dazzling piano-keyboard smile off into the wings.

Mrs. Bellowes, with a secret part of her mind which she constantly had to grip tightly, expected to hear a cheap Chinese gong sound when Mr. Thirkell entered. His large liquid dark eyes were so improbable that one of the old ladies had facetiously claimed she saw a mosquito cloud hovering over them as they did around summer rain-barrels. And Mrs. Bellowes sometimes caught the scent of the theatrical mothball and the smell of calliope steam on his sharply pressed suit.

But with the same savage rationalization that had greeted all other disappointments in her rickety life, she bit at the suspicion and whispered, “This time it’s real. This time it’ll work. Haven’t we got a rocket?”

Mr. Thirkell bowed. He smiled a sudden Comedy Mask smile. The old ladies looked in at his epiglottis and sensed chaos there.

Before he even began to speak, Mrs. Bellowes saw him picking up each of his words, oiling it, making sure it ran smooth on its rails. Her heart squeezed in like a tiny fist, and she gritted her porcelain teeth.

“Friends,” said Mr. Thirkell, and you could hear the frost snap in the hearts of the entire assemblage.

“No!” said Mrs. Bellowes ahead of time. She could hear the bad news rushing at her, and herself tied to the track while the immense black wheels threatened and the whistle screamed, helpless.

“There will be a slight delay,” said Mr. Thirkell.

In the next instant, Mr. Thirkell might have cried, or been tempted to cry, “Ladies, be seated!” in minstrel-fashion, for the ladies had come up at him from their chairs, protesting and trembling.

“Not a very long delay.” Mr. Thirkell put up his hands to pat the air.

“How long?”

“Only a week.”

“A week!”

“Yes. You can stay here at the Restorium for seven more days, can’t you? A little delay won’t matter, will it, in the end? You’ve waited a lifetime. Only a few more days.”

At twenty dollars a day, thought Mrs. Bellowes, coldly.

“What’s the trouble?” a woman cried.

“A legal difficulty,” said Mr. Thirkell.

“We’ve a rocket, haven’t we?”

“Well, ye-ess.”

“But I’ve been here a whole month, waiting,” said one old lady. “Delays, delays!”

“That’s right,” said everyone.

“Ladies, ladies,” murmured Mr. Thirkell, smiling serenely.

“We want to see the rocket!” It was Mrs. Bellowes forging ahead, alone, brandishing her fist like a toy hammer.

Mr. Thirkell looked into the old ladies’ eyes, a missionary among albino cannibals.

“Well, now,” he said.

“Yes, now!” cried Mrs. Bellowes.

“I’m afraid –” he began.

“So am I!” she said. “That’s why we want to see the ship!”

“No, no, now, Mrs. –” He snapped his fingers for her name.

“Bellowes!” she cried. She was a small container, but now all the seething pressures that had been built up over long years came steaming through the delicate vents of her body. Her cheeks became incandescent. With a wail that was like a melancholy factory whistle, Mrs. Bellowes ran forward and hung to him, almost by her teeth, like a summer-maddened Spitz.

She would not and never could let go, until he died, and the other women followed, jumping and yapping like a pound let loose on its trainer, the same one who had petted them and to whom they had squirmed and whined joyfully an hour before, now milling about him, creasing his sleeves and frightening the Egyptian serenity from his gaze.

“This way!” cried Mrs. Bellowes, feeling like Madame Lafarge. “Through the back! We’ve waited long enough to see the ship. Every day he’s put us off, every day we’ve waited, now let’s see.”

“No, no, ladies!” cried Mr. Thirkell, leaping about.

They burst through the back of the stage and out a door, like a flood, bearing the poor man with them into a shed, and then out, quite suddenly, into an abandoned gymnasium.

“There it is!” said someone. “The rocket.”

And then a silence fell that was terrible to entertain.

There was the rocket.

Mrs. Bellowes looked at it and her hands sagged away from Mr. Thirkell’s collar.

The rocket was something like a battered copper pot. There were a thousand bulges and rents and rusty pipes and dirty vents on and in it. The ports were clouded over with dust, resembling the eyes of a blind hog.

Everyone wailed a little sighing wail.

“Is that the rocket ship Glory Be to the Highest?” cried Mrs. Bellowes, appalled.

Mr. Thirkell nodded and looked at his feet.

“For which we paid out our one thousand dollars apiece and came all the way to Mars to get on board with you and go off to find Him?” asked Mrs. Bellowes.

“Why, that isn’t worth a sack of dried peas,” said Mrs. Bellowes.

“It’s nothing but junk!”

Junk, whispered everyone, getting hysterical.

“Don’t let him get away!”

Mr. Thirkell tried to break and run, but a thousand possum traps closed on him from every side. He withered.

Everybody walked around in circles like blind mice. There was a confusion and a weeping that lasted for five minutes as they went over and touched the Rocket, the Dented Kettle, the Rusty Container for God’s Children.

“Well,” said Mrs. Bellowes. She stepped up into the askew doorway of the rocket and faced everyone. “It looks as if a terrible thing has been done to us,” she said. “I haven’t any money to go back home to Earth and I’ve too much pride to go to the Government and tell them a common man like this has fooled us out of our life’s savings.

“I don’t know how you feel about it, all of you, but the reason all of us came is because I’m eighty-five, and you’re eighty-nine, and you’re seventy-eight, and all of us are nudging on toward a hundred, and there’s nothing on Earth for us, and it doesn’t appear there’s anything on Mars either. We all expected not to breathe much more air or crochet many more doilies or we’d never have come here. So what I have to propose is a simple thing — to take a chance.”

She reached out and touched the rusted hulk of the rocket.

“This is our rocket. We paid for our trip. And we’re going to take our trip!”

Everyone rustled and stood on tiptoes and opened an astonished mouth.

Mr. Thirkell began to cry. He did it quite easily and very effectively.

“We’re going to get in this ship,” said Mrs. Bellowes, ignoring him. “And we’re going to take off to where we were going.”

Mr. Thirkell stopped crying long enough to say, “But it was all a fake. I don’t know anything about space. He’s not out there, anyway. I lied. I don’t know where He is, and I couldn’t find Him if I wanted to. And you were fools to ever take my word on it.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Bellowes, “we were fools. I’ll go along on that. But you can’t blame us, for we’re old, and it was a lovely, good and fine idea, one of the loveliest ideas in the world. Oh, we didn’t really fool ourselves that we could get nearer to Him physically. It was the gentle, mad dream of old people, the kind of thing you hold onto for a few minutes a day, even though you know it’s not true. So, all of you who want to go, you follow me in the ship.”

“But you can’t go!” said Mr. Thirkell. “You haven’t got a navigator. And that ship’s a ruin!”

“You,” said Mrs. Bellowes, “will be the navigator.”

She stepped into the ship, and after a moment, the other old ladies pressed forward. Mr. Thirkell, windmilling his arms frantically, was nevertheless pressed through the port, and in a minute the door slammed shut. Mr. Thirkell was strapped into the navigator’s seat, with everyone talking at once and holding him down. The special helmets were issued to be fitted over every gray or white head to supply extra oxygen in case of a leakage in the ship’s hull, and at long last the hour had come and Mrs. Bellowes stood behind Mr. Thirkell and said, “We’re ready, sir.”

He said nothing. He pleaded with them silently, using his great, dark, wet eyes, but Mrs. Bellowes shook her head and pointed to the control.

“Takeoff,” agreed Mr. Thirkell morosely, and pulled a switch.

Everybody fell. The rocket went up from the planet Mars in a great fiery glide, with the noise of an entire kitchen thrown down an elevator shaft, with a sound of pots and pans and kettles and fires boiling and stews bubbling, with a smell of burned incense and rubber and sulphur, with a color of yellow fire, and a ribbon of red stretching below them, and all the old women singing and holding to each other, and Mrs. Bellowes crawling upright in the sighing, straining, trembling ship.

“Head for space, Mr. Thirkell.”

“It can’t last,” said Mr. Thirkell, sadly. “This ship can’t last. It will –”

It did.

The rocket exploded.

Mrs. Bellowes felt herself lifted and thrown about dizzily, like a doll. She heard the great screamings and saw the flashes of bodies sailing by her in fragments of metal and powdery light.

“Help, help!” cried Mr. Thirkell, far away, on a small radio beam.

The ship disintegrated into a million parts, and the old ladies, all one hundred of them, were flung straight on ahead with the same velocity as the ship.

As for Mr. Thirkell, for some reason of trajectory, perhaps, he had been blown out the other side of the ship. Mrs. Bellowes saw him falling separate and away from them, screaming, screaming.

There goes Mr. Thirkell, thought Mrs. Bellowes.

And she knew where he was going. He was going to be burned and roasted and broiled good, but very good.

Mr. Thirkell was falling down into the Sun.

And here we are, thought Mrs. Bellowes. Here we are, going on out, and out, and out.

There was hardly a sense of motion at all, but she knew that she was traveling at fifty thousand miles an hour and would continue to travel at that speed for an eternity, until…

She saw the other women swinging all about her in their own trajectories, a few minutes of oxygen left to each of them in their helmets, and each was looking up to where they were going.

Of course, thought Mrs. Bellowes. Out into space. Out and out, and the darkness like a great church, and the stars like candles, and in spite of everything, Mr. Thirkell, the rocket, and the dishonesty, we are going toward the Lord.

And there, yes, there, as she fell on and on, coming toward her, she could almost discern the outline now, coming toward her was His mighty golden hand, reaching down to hold her and comfort her like a frightened sparrow…

“I’m Mrs. Amelia Bellowes,” she said quietly, in her best company voice. “I’m from the planet Earth.”

A Little Journey

 

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No Man is an Island
By John Donne

Donne-J

John Donne (1572-1631)

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

———

There Will Come Soft Rain

By Sara Teasdale

Teasdale S

Sara Trevor Teasdale Filsinger (1884-1933)

There will come soft rain and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

———

Dreams

By Langston Hughes

Hughes-L

James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

———

Warning

By Jenny Joseph

Joseph-J

Jenny Joseph (1932-2018)

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

———

A Smile to Remember

By Charles Bukowski

Bukowski-C

Henry Charles Bokowski (1920-1994)

we had goldfish and they circled around and around
in the bowl on the table near the heavy drapes
covering the picture window and
my mother, always smiling, wanting us all
to be happy, told me, ‘be happy Henry!’
and she was right: it’s better to be happy if you
can
but my father continued to beat her and me several times a week while
raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn’t
understand what was attacking him from within.

my mother, poor fish,
wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a
week, telling me to be happy: ‘Henry, smile!
why don’t you ever smile?’

and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the
saddest smile I ever saw

one day the goldfish died, all five of them,
they floated on the water, on their sides, their
eyes still open,
and when my father got home he threw them to the cat
there on the kitchen floor and we watched as my mother
smiled

 

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New Jersey native Joseph Samachson (1906-1980) followed an unusual path into the writing profession.

At age 23, Samachson earned a PhD in chemistry from Yale and began teaching at a medical college. He drifted into technical writing, then drifted further and began writing science fiction in his spare time. Eventually, he hung up his lab coat to write sci-fi full time.

Between 1938 and 1953, under the pen name William Morrison, Samachson wrote prolifically for various trade magazines, and he contributed numerous Batman, Superman, and other stories for DC Comics.

He also wrote scripts for television’s first science fiction series, “Captain Video and His Video Rangers,” which began in 1949.

In 1953, after 15 years in the writing business, Samachson returned to his roots. He served as a professor of biochemistry at Loyola University until his retirement in 1973.

Samachson’s fiction is said to be noted for cynicism, irony, and tongue-in-cheek humor… little of which I detect in the short story below.

———

Picture Bride

By William Morrison
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1955

My brother, Perry, always was a bit cracked. As a kid, he almost blew up our house doing experiments. When he was eighteen, he wrote poetry, but fortunately that didn’t last long and he went back to science.

Now, when he showed me this picture, I figured he’d had a relapse of some kind. “This is the girl I’m in love with,” he said.

She wasn’t bad. Not bad at all, even if her clothes were crazy. She wasn’t my type — too brainy-looking — although I could see how some guys would go for her. “I thought you liked blondes.”

“I wouldn’t give you two cents for all the blondes in Hollywood,” he answered. “This is the only girl for me.”

“You sound as if you’ve got it bad,” I said. “You going to marry her?”

His face dropped about a mile. “I can’t.”

“You mean she’s married already?” I was surprised. This wasn’t like Perry at all.

He sort of hesitated, as if he was afraid of saying too much. “No, she isn’t married. I asked her about that. But I can’t marry her because — well, I’ve never met her. All I’ve seen of her is this picture and a few more. She doesn’t live here.”

“You mean she’s in Europe?” I’ve heard of these love affairs by mail, and they never made much sense to me. I said to Perry, “Why can’t she come to this country?”

“Oh, there are a lot of things in the way.”

It sounded worse and worse. I said, “Look, Perry, this smells like a racket to me. It’s the kind of thing a couple of shrewd operators cook up to take some hick for a ride. I’m surprised at you falling for it. How do you know there really is a dame like that in Europe? Anybody can send pictures –”

“You’ve got it all wrong,” he said. “I’ve spoken to her.”

“By phone? How do you know who’s on the other end? You hear a dame’s voice you never heard before. What makes you think it’s hers?”

Again he didn’t seem to want to talk, as if he had some secret to hide. But I guess he felt like getting things off his chest, too, or he wouldn’t have opened up in the first place. And he had already told me enough so that if he didn’t tell me more he’d sound like a dope.

So after hesitating even longer than before, he said, “Let’s get this straight, George. This is no racket. I’ve seen and talked to her at the same time. And the things she talked about, no con man would know.”

“You’ve seen and talked to her at the same time? You mean by TV? I don’t believe it. They can’t send TV to Europe.”

“I didn’t say it was TV. And I didn’t say she lived in Europe.”

“That’s exactly what you did say. Or maybe you meant she lived on Mars?”

“No. She’s an American.”

“This makes less and less sense to me. Where did you meet her?”

He turned red, and squirmed all over the place. Finally he said, “Right here in my own laboratory.”

“In your own laboratory! But you said you never met her in the flesh!”

“I didn’t. Not really by TV either. The fact is — she isn’t born yet.”

I backed away from him. When he was a kid and blew up our kitchen, I didn’t like it. When he wrote poetry, I was kind of ashamed and didn’t want my pals to know he was my brother. Now, I was really scared. Everything he had been saying in the last ten minutes began to make sense, but a screwy kind of sense.

He saw how I felt. “Don’t worry, George, I haven’t gone crazy. Her time is 2973, more than a thousand years from now. The only way I’ve seen and talked to her is on a time-contact machine.”

“Come again?”

“A kind of time machine. It can’t send material objects back and forth across time, as far as I know, but it can send certain waves, especially the kind we use to transmit signals. That’s how she and I could talk to each other and see each other.”

“Perry, I think you ought to see a good doctor.”

“It’s a remarkable device,” he said, paying no attention to how I was trying to help him. “She’s the one who first constructed it and contacted me. It’s based on an extension of Einstein’s equations –”

“You think you can explain so much,” I said. “Okay, then, explain this. This dame isn’t going to be born for a thousand years. And yet you tell me you’re in love with her. What’s the difference between you and somebody that’s nuts?” I asked, as if anybody knew the answer.

He certainly didn’t. In fact, he went ahead and proved to me that they were the same thing. Because for the next couple of weeks, the only thing he’d talk about, outside of equations I couldn’t understand, was this dame. How smart she was, and how beautiful she was, and how wonderful she was in every way that a dame can be wonderful, and how she loved him. For a time he had me convinced that she actually existed.

“Compared with you,” I said, “Romeo had a mild case.”

“There are some quantities so great that you can’t measure them,” he said. “That will give you some idea of our love for each other.”

There it went, the old poetry, cropping out in him just like before. And all the time I’d been thinking it was like measles, something that you get once and it builds up your resistance so you don’t get it again, at least not bad. It just goes to show how wrong I could be.

“What preacher are you going to get to marry you?” I asked. “A guy born five hundred years from now?”

“I don’t think that’s funny,” he said.

“You’re telling me. Look, Perry, you’re smart enough to know what I’m thinking –”

“You still think I’m crazy.”

“I got an open mind on the subject. Now, if you won’t see a doctor — then how about letting me take a look at this dame, so I can convince myself?”

“No,” he said. “I’ve considered doing that, and decided against it. Her voice and image come through for only about five minutes a day, sometimes less. And those minutes are very precious to us. We don’t want anyone else present, anyone at all.”

“Not even to convince me she actually exists?”

“You wouldn’t be convinced anyway,” he said very shrewdly. “No matter what I showed you, you’d still find a reason to call it a fraud.”

He was right at that. It would take a lot of convincing to make me believe that a babe who wasn’t going to get born for a thousand years was in love with him.

By this time, though, I was sure of one thing — there was something screwy going on in that laboratory of his. For five minutes a day he was watching some dame’s picture, listening to her voice. If I had an idea what she was like, I might figure out where to go from there.

I began keeping an eye on Perry, dropping in at the laboratory to pay him visits. There was what looked like a ten-inch TV tube in one corner of his place, not housed in a cabinet, but lying on the table among dozens of other tubes and rheostats and meters and other things I didn’t know about. Along the wall that led from this corner was a lot of stuff which Perry said was high voltage, and warned me not to touch.

I kept away. I wasn’t trying to figure out how to get myself killed. All I wanted to know was when he saw this girl.

Finally I managed to pin the time down to between three and four in the afternoon. For five minutes every day, during that hour, he locked the door and didn’t answer phone calls. I figured that if I dropped in then I might get a glimpse of her.

And that’s what I did.

At first, when I knocked on the door, there was no answer. In a minute, though, I heard Perry’s voice, but he wasn’t talking to me. He was saying, “Darling,” and he sounded kind of sick, which I figured was due to love.

Come to think of it, he might have been scared a little. I heard him say, “Don’t be afraid,” and it was quiet for about fifteen seconds.

Then I heard a terrific crash, like lightning striking. The door shook, and I smelled something sharp, and the first thing I wanted to do was get out of that place. But I couldn’t leave my brother in there.

I put my shoulder to the door and had no trouble at all. The explosion, or whatever it was, must have weakened the hinges. As the door crashed in, I looked for Perry.

There was no sign of him. But I could see his shoes, on the floor in front of that TV tube, where he must have been standing. No feet in them, though, just his socks.

All the high-voltage stuff was smoking. The TV screen was all lit up, and on it I could see a girl’s face, the same girl whose picture Perry had shown me. She was wearing one of those funny costumes, and she looked scared. It was a clear picture, and I could even see the way she gulped.

Then she broke out into a happy smile and, for about half a second, before the second explosion, I could see Perry on the screen.

After that second explosioneven though it wasn’t near as big as the firstthat TV set was nothing but a mess of twisted junk, and there was no screen left to see anything on.

Perry liked to have everything just so, and he’d never think of going anyplace without his tie being knotted just right, and his socks matching, and so on. And here he’d traveled a thousand years into the future in bare feet. I felt kind of embarrassed for him.

Anyway, they were engaged, and now they must be married, so I guess she had slippers waiting for him. I’m just sorry I missed the wedding.

Picture Bride

Original illustration from Galaxy Magazine by Ed Emshwiller.

 

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Ad Astra

One of the stalwart writers who kept science fiction booming in the 1950s and 1960s was California native Alfredo Jose de Arana-Marini Coppel (1921–2004), who wrote as Alfred Coppel. A fighter pilot during World War II, he published his first sci-fi story in 1947. Over the decades, he wrote almost 30 novels and twice that many short stories.

“Turnover Point” is set in a future Wild West period of planetary exploration, when uncelebrated spacemen make a living hauling freight from Mars to the moons of Jupiter and beyond. They’re like long-haul truckers, forever on the road. Coppel’s description probably is how life in space will be someday.

The story is bleak, but in the end, satisfying in its own way.

———

Turnover Point

By Alfred Coppel
Published in Amazing Stories, April-May 1953

Pop Ganlon was no herohe was only a spaceman. A spaceman and a father. In fact, Pop was rather no-account, even in a profession that abounded with drifters. He had made a meager living prospecting asteroids and hauling light freight and an occasional passenger out in the Belt Region. Coffee and cakes, nothing more.

Not many people knew Pop had a son in the Patrol, and even fewer knew it when the boy was blasted to a cinder in a back alley in Lower Marsport.

Pop went on eating and breathing, but his life was over after that. He hit the bottle a little harder and his ship, The Luck, grew rustier and tackier, and those were the only outward signs that Pop Ganlon was a living dead man. He kept on grubbing among the cold rocks and pushing The Luck from Marsport to Callisto and back with whatever low-mass payloads he could pick up.

He might have lived out his string of years like that, obscure and alone, if it hadn’t been for John Kane. Kane was Pop Ganlon’s ticket to a sort of personal immortality — if there is such a thing for an old spaceman.

It was in Yakki, down-canal from Marsport, that Kane found Pop. There is a small spaceport there — a boneyard, really — for buckets whose skippers can’t pay the heavy tariff imposed by the big ramp.

All the wrecks nest there while waiting hopefully for a payload or a grubstake. They have all of Solis Lacus for a landing field, and if they spill it doesn’t matter much. The drifting red sands soon cover up the scattered shards of dural and the slow, lonely life of Yakki goes on like before.

The Patrol was on Kane’s trail and the blaster in his hand was still warm when he shoved it up against Pop Ganlon’s ribs and made his proposition.

He wanted to get off Mars — out to Callisto. To Blackwater, to Ley’s Landing, it didn’t matter too much. Just off Mars, and quickly. His eyes had a metallic glitter and his hand was rock-steady. Pop knew he meant what he said when he told him life was cheap. Someone else’s life, not Kane’s.

That’s how it happened that The Luck lifted that night from Yakki, outward bound for Ley’s Landing, with Pop and Kane aboard her alone.

Sitting at the battered console of The Luck, Pop watched his passenger. He knew Kane, of course. Or rather, he knew of him. A killer. The kind that thrives and grows fat on the frontiers. The bulky frame, the cropped black hair, the predatory eyes that looked like two blaster muzzles. They were all familiar to Pop.

Kane was all steel and meanness. The kind of carrion bird that took what others had worked for. Not big time, you understand. In another age he’d have been a torpedo — a hireling killer. But out among the stars he was working for himself. And doing well.

Pop didn’t care. His loyalty to the Patrol had stopped quite suddenly not long before — in a dark alley in Lower Marsport. This was only a job, he told himself now. A job for coffee and cakes, and maybe a grubstake to work a few more lonely rocks. Life had become a habit for Pop, even if living had ended.

“What are you staring at, Pop?” Kane’s voice was like the rest of him. Harsh and cold as space itself.

“At you, I guess,” Pop said, “I was wondering what you’d done — and where — and to whom.”

“You’re a nosey old man,” Kane said. “Just get me to Ley’s Landing. That’s what I’m paying for, not a thing more.”

Pop nodded slowly and turned back to the control board. They were above the Belt by now, and a few short hours from turnover point. The cranky drives of The Luck needed all his attention.

Presently he said, “We’ll be turning over soon. Want to get some rest?”

Kane laughed. “No thanks, old man. I’ll stay here and watch you.”

Pop eyed the ready blaster and nodded again. He wondered vaguely how it would feel to die under the blast of such a weapon. It couldn’t be very painful. He hoped it wasn’t painful. Perhaps the boy hadn’t suffered. It would be nice to be sure, he thought.

There wasn’t much for Pop to remember about the boy. He’d never been one for writing many letters. But the District Patrolman had come down to Yakki and looked Pop up — afterward. He’d said the boy was a good officer. A good cop. Died doing his job, and all that sort of thing. Pop swallowed hard. His job. What had ‘his job’ been that night in Lower Marsport, he wondered. Had someone else finished it for him?

He remembered about that time hearing on the Mars Radio that a Triangle Post Office had been knocked over by a gunman. That might have been it. The Patrol would be after anyone knocking over EMV Triangle property. The Earth-Mars-Venus Government supported the Patrol for things like that.

Pop guided The Luck skillfully above the Belt, avoiding with practiced ease the few errant chunks of rock that hurtled up out of the swarms. He talked to Kane because he was starved for talk — certainly not because he was trying to play Sherlock. Pop had long ago realized that he was no mental giant. Besides, he owed the Patrol nothing. Not a damned thing.

“Made this trip often?” Pop tried to strike up a conversation with Kane. His long loneliness seemed sharper, somehow, more poignant, when he actually had someone to talk to.

“Not often. I’m no space pig.” It was said with scorn.

“There’s a lot to spacing, you know,” Pop urged.

Kane shrugged. “I know easier ways to make a buck, old timer.”

“Like how?”

“A nosey old man, like I said,” Kane smiled. Somehow, the smile wasn’t friendly. “Okay, Pop, since you ask. Like knocking off wacky old prospectors for their dust. Or sticking up sandcar caravans out in Syrtis. Who’s the wiser? The red dust takes care of the leftovers.”

Pop shook his head. “Not for me. There’s the Patrol to think of.”

Kane laughed. “Punks. Bell-boys. They’d better learn to shoot before they leave their school-books.”

Pop Ganlon frowned slightly. “You talk big, mister.”

Kane’s eyes took on that metallic glitter again. He leaned forward and threw a canvas packet on the console. It spilled crisp new EMV certificates. Large ones. “I take big, too,” he said.

Pop stared. Not at the money. It was more than he had ever seen in one pile before, but it wasn’t that that shook him. It was the canvas packet. It was marked: Postal Service, EMV. Pop suddenly felt cold, as though an icy wind had touched him.

“You… you killed a Patrolman for this,” he said slowly.

“That’s right, Pop,” grinned Kane easily. “Burned him down in an alley in Lower Marsport. It was like taking candy from a baby…”

Pop Ganlon swallowed hard. “Like taking candy from a… baby. As easy as that…”

“As easy as that, old man,” Kane said.

Pop knew he was going to die then. He knew Kane would blast him right after turnover point, and he knew fear. He felt something else, too. Something that was new to him. Hate. An icy hate that left him shaken and weak.

So the boy’s job hadn’t been finished. It was still to do.

There was no use in dreaming of killing Kane. Pop was old. Kane was young — and a killer. Pop was alone and without weapons — save The Luck

Time passed slowly. Outside, the night of deep space keened soundlessly. The stars burned bright, alien and strange. It was time, thought Pop bleakly. Time to turn The Luck.

“Turnover point,” he said softly.

Kane motioned with his blaster. “Get at it.”

Pop began winding the flywheel. It made a whirring sound in the confined space of the tiny control room. Outside, the night began to pivot slowly.

“We have to turn end-for-end,” Pop said. “That way we can decelerate on the drop into Callisto. But, of course, you know all about that, Mr. Kane.”

“I told you I’m no space pig,” Kane said brusquely. “I can handle a landing and maybe a takeoff, but the rest of it I leave for the boatmen. Like you, Pop.”

Pop spun the flywheel in silence, listening to the soft whir. Presently, he let the wheel slow and then stop. He straightened and looked up at Kane. The blaster muzzle was six inches from his belly. He swallowed against the dryness in his throat.

“You… you’re going to kill me,” Pop said. It wasn’t a question. Kane smiled, showing white teeth.

“I… I know you are,” Pop said unsteadily. “But first, I want to say something to you.”

“Talk, old timer,” Kane said. “But not too much.”

“That boy — that boy you killed in Marsport. He was my son,” Pop said.

Kane’s face did not change expression. “Okay. So what?”

Pop’s lips twitched. “I just wanted to hear you say it.” He looked at the impassive face of the killer. “You made a mistake, Mr. Kane. You shouldn’t have done that to my boy.”

“Is that all?”

Pop nodded slowly. “I guess that’s all.”

Kane grinned. “Afraid, old man?”

“I’m a space pig,” Pop said. “Space takes care of its own.”

“You’re in a bad way, old timer,” Kane said, “and you haven’t much sense. I’m doing you a favor.”

Pop lifted his hands in an instinctive gesture of futile protection as the blaster erupted flame.

There was a smell in the control room like burnt meat as Kane holstered his weapon and turned the old man over with a foot. Pop was a blackened mass. Kane dragged him to the valve and jettisoned the body into space.

Alone among the stars, The Luck moved across the velvet night. The steady beat of flame from her tubes was a tiny spark of man-made vengeance on the face of the deeps.

From her turnover point, she drove outward toward the spinning Jovian moons. For a short while she could be seen from the EMV Observatory on Callisto, but very soon she faded into the outer darkness.

Much later, the Observatory at Land’s End on Triton watched her heading past the gibbous mass of Pluto — out into the interstellar fastnesses.

The thrumming of the jets was still at last. A wild-eyed thing that may once have been a man stared in horror at the fading light of the yellow star far astern.

It had taken Kane time to understand what had happened to him, and now it was too late. Space had taken care of its own. The air in The Luck was growing foul and the food was gone. Death hung in the fetid atmosphere of the tiny control room.

The old man — the boy — the money. They all seemed to spin in a narrowing circle. Kane wanted suddenly to shriek with laughter. A circle. The turnover circle. The full circle that the old man had made instead of the proper half-turn of a turnover.

Three hundred sixty degrees instead of one hundred eighty. Three hundred sixty degrees to leave the nose of The Luck pointing outward toward the stars, instead of properly toward the Sun.

A full circle to pile G on G until the Jovian moons were missed, and the Uranian moons and Triton, too. Ad Astra per Ardua….

With the last fragment of his failing sanity, Kane thought of how Pop Ganlon and the boy must be laughing. He was still thinking that as the long night closed in around him.

Turnover Point

Original illustration from Amazing Stories by Ed Emshwiller.

———

Coppel ended the story with the Latin phrase “Ad Astra per Ardua,” which means “To the stars through adversity.”

Usually, the phrase is stated the other way around: “Per Ardua ad Astra.” In that form, it is the motto of both the British Royal Air Force and the Mulvany clan of Ireland.

Why Coppel reversed the phrase, I don’t know. But as the story ends, the evil Kane certainly is on his way to the stars.

 

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

———

November

By Thomas Hood

Hood-t

Thomas Hood (1799-1845)

No sun -- no moon! 
No morn -- no noon -- 
No dawn -- no dusk -- no proper time of day.
 
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease, 
No comfortable feel in any member -- 
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees, 
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! -- 
November!

———

Who Has Seen the Wind?

By Christina Rossetti

Rossetti C

Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894)

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

———

Justice

By Langston Hughes

Hughes-L

James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

--------

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

By Emily Dickinson

Dickinson E

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886)

“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —

And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —

I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet — never — in extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.

———

The Ploughman’s Life

By Robert Burns

Burns R

Robert Burns (1759-1796)

As I was a-wand’ring ae morning in spring,
I heard a young ploughman sae sweetly to sing;
And as he was singin’, thir words he did say, –
There’s nae life like the ploughman’s in the month o’ sweet May.

The lav’rock* in the morning she’ll rise frae her nest,
And mount i’ the air wi’ the dew on her breast,
And wi’ the merry ploughman she’ll whistle and sing,
And at night she’ll return to her nest back again.

*Skylark.

 

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I’m a fan of science fiction because the genre places no boundaries on the imagination of the writer. Virtually any scenario, from the mundane to the improbable to the bizarre, can be explored. The short story below nicely illustrates the point.

I won’t say more because this particular story is best read without the clutter of an introduction. Well, a short one is okay.

———

Cully

By Jack Egan
Published in Amazing Stories, January 1963

Above him eighty feet of torpid, black water hung like a shroud of Death, and still he heard his ragged breathing. And something else. Cully concentrated on that sound, and the rhythmic pulsing of his heart. Somehow he had to retain a hold on his sanity… or his soul.

After an hour of careful breathing and exploring of body sensations, Cully realized he could move. He flexed an arm; a mote of gold sand sifted upward in the dark water. It had a pleasant color, in contrast with the ominous shades of the sea.

In a few moments, he had struggled to a sitting position, delighting in the curtain of glittering metal grains whirling around him as he moved.

And the other sound. A humming in his mind; a distant burble of tiny voices of other minds. Words swirling in giddy patterns he couldn’t understand.

Shortly thereafter, Cully discovered why he still lived, breathed: a suit. A yellow, plastic, water-tight suit, with an orange-on-black shield on the left breast pocket, and a clear bubble-helmet. He felt weight on his back and examined it: two air tanks and their regulator, a radio, and… the box.

Suit, tanks, regulator; radio, black water, box; sand, sea, stillness.

Cully considered his world. It was small; it was conceivable; it was incomplete.

Where is it?

“Where is what?” He knew he had a voice — a means of communication between others of his kind, using low-frequency heat waves caused by agitation of air molecules. Why couldn’t he make it work?

Words. Thousands of them, at his beck and call. What were they? What did they mean? He shifted uncomfortably in the tight yellow suit, searching the near horizon for…

Where is it?

A vague calling came from beyond the black sea curtain. Objectively, because he could do nothing to stop them, he watched his feet pick up, move forward, put down; pick up, move forward, put down.

Funny. He had the feeling, the concept, that this action held meaning. It was supposed to cause some reaction, accomplish an act.

He wondered at the regular movement of his legs. One of them hurt. A hurt is a sensation of pain, caused by over-loading sensory-units in the body; a hurt is bad, because it indicates something is wrong.

Something certainly was wrong. Something stirred in Cully’s mind. He stopped and sat down on the sandy sea bottom, gracefully, like a ballet dancer. He examined his foot. There was a tiny hole in the yellow plastic fabric, and a thin string of red-black was oozing out. Blood. He knew.

He was bleeding. He could do nothing about it. He got up and resumed walking.

Where is it?

Cully lifted his head in annoyance at the sharp thought.

“Go away,” he said in a low, pleading voice. The sound made him feel better. He began muttering to himself.

“Water, black, s-sand, hurt. Pain. Radio tanks…”

It didn’t sound right. After a few minutes, he was quiet. The manythoughts were calling him. He must go to the manythoughts.

If his foot was bleeding, then something had happened; if something had happened, then his foot was bleeding.

“No!”

If something had happened, then maybe other things had happened — before that. But how could something happen in a world of flat gold sand and flaccid sea? Surely there was something wrong.

Wrong: the state of being not-right; something had happened that was not-right. Cully stared at the edges of the unmoving curtain before him.

Where is it?

It was a driving, promise-filled concept. No words; just the sense that something wonderful lay just beyond reach. But this voice was different from the manythoughts. It was directing his body; his mind was along for the ride.

The sameness of the sea and sand became unbearable. It was too-right, somehow. Cully felt anger, and kicked up eddies of dust. It changed the sameness a little. He kicked more up, until it swirled around him in a thick gold haze, blotting out the terrible emptiness of the sea.

He felt another weight at his side. He found a holster and gun. He recognized neither. Again he watched objectively as his hand pulled the black object out and handled it. His body was evidently familiar with it, though it was strange to his eyes.

His finger slipped automatically into the trigger sheaf. His legs were still working under two drives: the manythoughts’ urging, and something else, buried in him. A longing. Up-and-down, back-and-forth.

Where is it?

Anger, frustration flared in him. His hand shot out, gun at ready. He turned around slowly. Through the settling trail of suspended sand, nothing was visible.

Again he was moving. Something made his legs move. He walked on through the shrouds of Death until he felt a taut singing in his nerves. An irrational fear sprang out in him, cascading down his spine, and Cully shuddered. Ahead there was something. Two motives: get there because it (they?) calls; get there because you must.

Where is it?

The mind-voice was excited, demanding. Something was out there, besides the sameness. Cully walked on, trailing gold. The death-curtain parted…

An undulating garden of blue-and-gold streamers suddenly drifted toward him on an unfelt current. Cully was held, entranced. They flowed before him, their colors dazzling, hypnotic.

Come closer, Earthling, the manythoughts spoke inside his head, soothingly.

Here it is! Cully’s mind shouted.

Cully’s mind was held, hypnotized, but his body moved of its own volition.

He moved again. His mind and the manythoughts’ spoke: fulfillment — almost. There was one action left that must be completed.

Cully’s arms moved. They detached the small black box from his pack. He moved on into the midst of the weaving, gold-laced plants.

Little spicules licked out from their flexing stalks and jabbed, unsensed, into Cully’s body to draw nourishment. From the manythoughts came the sense of complete fulfillment.

From Cully’s mind came further orders.

Lie down. It was a collective concept. Lie still. We are friends.

He could not understand. They were speaking words; words were beyond him. His head shook in despair. The voices were implanting an emotion of horror at what his hands were doing, but he had no control over his body. It was as if it were not his.

The black box was now lying in the sand among the streaming plants. Cully’s fingers reached out and caressed a small panel. A soundless ‘click’ ran through the murkiness.

The strangely beautiful, gold-laced blue plants began a writhing dance. Their spicules withdrew and jabbed, withdrew and jabbed. A rending, silent scream tore the quiet waters.

NO! they cried. It was a negative command, mixed in with the terrible screaming. Turn it off!

“Stop it, stop it!” Cully tried to say, but there were no words. He tried to cover his ears within the helmet, but the cries went on. Emotions roiled the water: pain, hurt, reproach. Cully sobbed.

Something was wrong here; something was killing the plants — the beautiful blue things! The plants were withering, dying. He looked up at them, stupefied, not understanding, tears streaming down his face. What did they want from him? What had he done…

Where is it?

A different direction materialized; a new concept of desire.

Cully’s body turned and crawled away from the wonderful, dying garden, oblivious to the pleadings floating, now weakly, in the torpid water. He scuffed up little motes of golden sand, leaving a low-lying scud along the bottom, back to the little black box in the garden. The plants, the box, all were forgotten by now.

Cully crawled on, not knowing why. A rise appeared; surprise caught Cully unaware. A change in the sameness!

Where is it?

Again the voice was insistent. His desire was close ahead; he did not look back at the black churning on the sea bottom. His legs worked, his chest heaved, words swirled in his mind. He topped the rise.

Below him, in the center of a shallow golden bowl, floated a long, shiny cylinder. Even from here he knew it was huge. He knew other things about it: how heavy it was; how it was; that it carried others of his kind. He had been in it before. And they were waiting for him. He lurched on.

“Captain! Here comes Cully!” the midshipman shouted from the airlock. “Look what they’ve done to him!”

The old man’s grey eyes took in the spectacle without visible emotion. He watched the pathetic, bleeding yellow plastic sack crawl up to the ship and look up. His hands reached down and lifted Cully up into the lock.

They took his suit off and stared with loathing at what had once been a man. A white scar zig-zagged across his forehead. The Captain bent close, in range of the dim blue eyes.

“It was a brave thing you did, Cully. The whole system will be grateful. Venus could never be colonized as long as those cannibals were there to eat men, and drive men mad.”

Cully fingered the scar on his forehead, and looked unseeing into the old man’s compassionate eyes.

“I’m sorry Cully. We all are. But there was no other way. Prefrontal lobotomy, destruction of your speech center… it was the only way you could get past the telepaths and destroy them. I’m sorry, Cully. The race of Man shall long honor your name.”

Cully smiled at the old man, the words churning in his brain; but he did not understand.

Where is it?

The emptiness was still there.

Cully

Original illustration from Amazing Stories by George Schelling.

———

“Cully” is a solid story, skillfully presented and wrapped up nicely at the end. But frankly, I am disturbed — no, appalled — by the idea that we would move in and wipe out a population to make way for our colonists. The thought is horrifying.

Oh, wait. That’s how the Americas got here.

 

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