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In the decades after the Civil War, William Livingston Alden (1837-1908) was a celebrated American journalist, humorist, and diplomat. He’s virtually unknown today, but back then, Mark Twain called him “The funniest man on earth.”

In addition to writing a weekly column in the New York Times, Alden brought the sport of canoeing to the United States. He also served a term as Consul General to Rome. Quite the Renaissance man.

Alden’s humor and prose are dated — as ours will be someday — but, like Twain, he appreciated the humor of everyday life, and he related it with whimsy and panache.

Alden had a special appreciation for cats as a source of unintentional comedy. He delighted in writing about the sinister unpredictability of cats and how their very nature often leads to humorous conflicts with humans.

The short story below is a wonderful case in point.

——————

Van Wagener’s Flying Cat

By W. L. Alden
Published in The Idler, December 1896

“Sparrows,” said the Colonel, “may be very upright, respectably middle-class birds so long as they stay in England, but when they emigrate to America, they are no better than the average of our working classes.

“Some meddling idiot brought a lot of sparrows to the States ten or fifteen years ago, expecting they would kill all the worms on the fruit trees. They hadn’t been in the country above six months when they took the ground that they were as good as the best of our swell birds, and that they considered that killing worms was a degrading kind of labour fit only for blackbirds and crows.

“So they took to living on wheat, and strawberries, and cherries, and they multiplied so fast that they are the worst curse that the farmer and the fruit grower ever had, with the solitary exception of the McKinley tariff.

“That shows the folly of promoting emigration among birds, just as the exportation of rabbits to Australia showed the folly of supposing that man knows more about the proper distribution of animals than Nature knows.

“There are now about ten sparrows to every worm in the United States, and what we need more than anything else is some style of worm big enough to eat the sparrows.

“Professor Van Wagener and I were discussing the sparrow question one day, and I was complaining of the inefficiency of the American cat. Our cats are about as wide-awake as any monarchical cats that you can produce, but they can’t catch a single sparrow.

“I’ve known ambitious cats who set out to catch sparrows, and who wasted away to mere skeletons, and died of weakness, through watching from dawn to darkness, and never once getting within ten feet of one.

“As a general rule I don’t have much sympathy with cats, but the insulting language that sparrows use when they see a cat laying for them, and the aggravating way in which they will fly just over the cat’s head, or maybe hit the cat over the tail with their wings, is more than any cat can be expected to bear.

“‘The trouble is,’ said Van Wagener, ‘that the cat isn’t a flying animal and the sparrow is. The sparrow’s native element is the air, and you can’t expect a cat to catch a sparrow so long as the cat can’t fly.’

“That’s true enough,” said I, “but it doesn’t help us out of our difficulty. Cats weren’t made with wings, and neither you nor I can invent a new model of cat that will be able to fly, and to catch sparrows on the wing.

“‘Don’t you be too sure of that,’ said the Professor. ‘Science has improved everything that it has put its hand to, and I see no reason why science shouldn’t improve cats.

“A flying cat would supply a great public want, for she would kill off the sparrows as easily as she kills off the mice. I’ve half a mind to try the experiment of inventing a flying cat.’

“All right,” said I. “When you get your flying cat finished just notify me, and I’ll come and see her fly. Then, if you are going in for improving animals, perhaps you will invent a cat that can sing like a nightingale. The present style of singing among cats is disgraceful. They haven’t any more idea of music than a Chinaman.

“‘You only show your ignorance, Colonel,’ said Van Wagener, ‘when you ridicule science. Give me six weeks, and I promise to show you a flying cat. I don’t say positively that the flying cat will exterminate all the sparrows, for that would be a pretty large order; but I do say that she will fly, and that she will give the sparrows the worst scare that they have ever had.’

“Well, the Professor buckled down to business, and from his daily interview with his private cat, and the consequent scratches that diversified his good old scientific countenance, I judged that he was doing his best to make a cat that would fly.

“Before the six weeks were up he sent me a note, inviting me to come round to his house at two o’clock the next afternoon to see the first successful flying cat that had ever been invented.

“I needn’t say that I went. I had assisted at the birth of dozens of Van Wagner’s inventions, and I had generally found that the presence of a man with experience in the treatment of accidents was a handy thing, so far as the Professor was concerned.

“I found Van Wagener sitting in his library with the most discouraged looking cat that I had ever seen. As soon as he had shaken hands with me, he launched into a description of his new invention.

“‘You know, Colonel,’ said he, ‘my method as an inventor. I ask myself what is needed for some particular purpose, and then I proceed to supply that need. Most people think that an inventor has ideas come to him all of a sudden in a supernatural sort of way; but that is all nonsense. Inventing is a business, like any other, and any intelligent man can learn it.

“‘Now when I saw that the reason why cats don’t catch sparrows is that they can’t fly after the bird, I saw what was wanted was a flying cat, and I proceeded to invent one.

“‘Here I have a small balloon. This I fix to that cat of mine, and when it is inflated, it will just support the weight of the cat in the air.

“‘Then you see this pair of paddle-wheels. They are to be fixed one on each side of the cat, and are to be driven by a small electrical engine. The balloon floats the cat, and the paddle-wheels propel her. In order to steer the cat I fix a flat piece of tin to the extremity of her tail.

“‘When she sees a sparrow, her instinct will make her swish her tail from one side to the other, and her attention being fastened on catching the bird, she will unconsciously work her tail in such a way as to steer her directly towards it.

“‘All in all, I am justly proud of this invention. It is simple and effective; that is to say when the air is still, for of course my paddle-wheels will not propel the cat against the wind. I tried at first to fit the cat out with wings, but it was impossible to teach her to use them.

“‘Next to a woman, a cat cares less for science than any other animal, and it is impossible to teach her to take an interest in an invention that is designed solely to benefit her. However, the day will come when flying cats will be as common as the ordinary type, and when they get used to flying they will take to the sport as kindly as they now take to catching mice.

“‘Now, Colonel, if you are ready, we will rig up the cat for flying, and we will see what effect she produces on the sparrows in my backyard.’

“It wasn’t an easy job to rig up Van Wagener’s cat. She kicked and swore her level best, and got in several good scratches on the Professor’s hands. However, he stuck to his task, and after a while the cat was ready, and we adjourned to the backyard.

“There was a whole gang of sparrows in the middle of the yard, forming a sort of ring round two that were fighting, and from the way in which every sparrow was talking at the top of his voice, it was clear that some heavy betting on the fight was in progress.

“When they saw Van Wagener and his cat, they naturally flew up to the eaves of the house, where the fight was resumed. Van Wagener took his flying cat to the extremity of the yard, and after showing her the sparrows on the top of the house, and exhorting her to gather them in, he launched her into the air.

“The cat rose slowly, kicking and yelling, until she was just about level with the eaves. The sparrows were so occupied with the fight that they paid no attention to her, and when she saw that there were at least twenty of them gathered close together, her desire to get at them made her temporarily forget her balloon and her paddlewheels.

“She lashed her tail, as cats will do when bent on murder, and, just as the Professor  predicted, the effect was to steer her in the direction of the sparrows. Her paddle- wheels were working smoothly and regularly, and though they were not large enough to give her any great speed, they steadily carried her across the yard towards the sparrows.

“Van Wagener was in ecstasy. He challenged me to point out any defect in his flying cat, and when I candidly admitted that it did seem to be a complete success, he was the happiest man in New Berlinopolisville.

“The cat came through the air so slowly and noiselessly that she was within two yards of the sparrows before they saw her.

“When they did catch sight of this new and startling animal, they were the worst frightened lot of birds that were ever seen outside of one of those so-called Happy Families, where half a dozen birds, clean paralysed with fear, are shut in a cage with a cat that has been filled up with chloral, and the public is asked to regard the exhibition as a specimen of what will be the usual sort of thing when the millennium gets its work fairly in.

“Those sparrows left in a tremendous hurry. They had a sudden business call to some distant part of Illinois, and I don’t believe a single one of them stopped flying until they had put at least thirty miles between themselves and Van Wagener’s flying cat.

“‘Now, you see,” said the Professor, ‘how completely successful my invention is. My flying cat will either catch the sparrows and kill them, or she will frighten them out of the country. In either case, the great sparrow problem is solved.

“‘It makes no difference to me, as a patriotic American citizen, whether all the British sparrows in the country are killed, or whether they are driven over into Canada.

“‘Come to think of it, I should prefer the latter result, for the driving of monarchical European birds out of our beloved country will be an object lesson in the enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine, which will be of immense benefit to the nation.’

“The Professor, being a scientific crank, was naturally a political crank also, and he was more than two-thirds mad on the subject of the Monroe Doctrine, which by-the-bye is unanimously believed in and worshipped by every lunatic in the States.

“When the Professor once got fairly started on the subject of the Monroe Doctrine, he forgot everything else, and he had clean forgotten his flying cat when Mrs. Van Wagener leaned out of a second story window and advised him, in case he was going to make a political speech, to hire a hall.

“She was a mighty sarcastic woman, and her contempt for her husband’s political views was even greater than her contempt for his scientific achievements.

“She was on the point of continuing her remarks about the Professor’s political oration when she suddenly gave the awfullest screech that I ever heard from female lips, though I was once in a room full of strong-minded women when a mouse ran across the floor.

“Mrs. Van Wagener thought that her last hour had come, judging from her screams, but, as I had a full view of what was taking place, I knew it was only the cat who had come.

“Having missed the sparrows, the cat turned partly round to see what had become of them, and just then, Mrs. Van Wagener having unconsciously put her head within the animal’s reach, the cat judged that her opportunity for making a landing had arrived, and accordingly, she lit on the top of Mrs. Van Wagener’s head.

“Most any woman, not knowing that her husband had invented a flying cat, would have supposed that some monster with sharp claws, and a talent for using bad language, came flying through the air and lit on her head; that nothing less than the sea-serpent, or the flying dragons mentioned in Scripture, had attacked her.

“What with the cat’s desire to kick herself free from her flying apparatus, and her anxiety to get square with the human race, she did more with that poor woman’s hair in five minutes than any other cat would have done in a good half hour.

“The Professor tried to explain that it was only the cat and begged his wife not to injure the flying apparatus. It didn’t seem to occur to him that he ought to run to his wife’s assistance till I had taken him by the shoulders and started him upstairs.

“I don’t want you to think for a moment that he wasn’t anxious to help his wife, but he was so in the habit of looking at things from a scientific point of view, that he forgot that while he was explaining things, Mrs. Van Wagener might be clawed to such an extent that she would never be recognised by her nearest friend.

“When he had once grasped the idea that she needed his help, he fairly flew upstairs and succeeded in transferring the cat’s attentions to himself.

“Then I had to come to the rescue, for the Professor not having hair enough to interest the cat, she had devoted her efforts to beautifying his countenance, and if I hadn’t succeeded in pulling her off, and tossing her out of the window, she would have torn his eyes out, or at all events ruined his nose.

“Her balloon had burst during her interview with Mrs. Van Wagener, and consequently, when I threw her out of the window she struck the ground pretty heavily, and smashed up the paddle-wheels.

“We never saw her again, but every little while, there would appear in the newspapers stories of a strange animal with a glittering tail, that haunted the lower part of Illinois. You see, the cat couldn’t rid herself of her steering attachment, and she naturally wasn’t willing to show herself in what she considered a disgraceful dress.

“Mrs. Van Wagener made peace with her husband on condition of his making a solemn promise never to have anything more to do with flying cats. I consider that she was wrong in so doing, for Van Wagener’s invention was bound to be a success.

“If he had been allowed to carry it out, flying cats would have become as common as bats, and every sparrow in the States would have emigrated. If it wasn’t that I don’t believe in using other people’s inventions, I would go in for the manufacture of flying cats myself.

“And as it is, I believe that Edison will some day hear of Van Wagener’s experiment, and will immediately invent a flying cat, and spend the rest of his life in trying to make the invention work.”

Original illustration from

Original illustration from “The Idler” by Cosmo Rowe.

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Sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick usually isn’t associated with humor, puns, and silliness. For that reason, the short story below stands out — or, in some circles, is given a pass.

Some Philip K. Dick fans see “The Eyes Have It” as a delight. To them, all things PKD are works of art. Others consider the story a bit juvenile. A throwaway. One critic compared it to an essay from a high school creative writing class. Ouch.

Anyway, decide for yourself.

—————

The Eyes Have It

By Philip K. Dick
Published in Science Fiction Stories, Fall 1953

It was quite by accident I discovered this incredible invasion of Earth by lifeforms from another planet. As yet, I haven’t done anything about it; I can’t think of anything to do. I wrote to the Government, and they sent back a pamphlet on the repair and maintenance of frame houses. Anyhow, the whole thing is known; I’m not the first to discover it. Maybe it’s even under control.

I was sitting in my easy-chair, idly turning the pages of a paperbacked book someone had left on the bus, when I came across the reference that first put me on the trail. For a moment I didn’t respond. It took some time for the full import to sink in. After I’d comprehended, it seemed odd I hadn’t noticed it right away.

The reference was clearly to a nonhuman species of incredible properties, not indigenous to Earth. A species, I hasten to point out, customarily masquerading as ordinary human beings. Their disguise, however, became transparent in the face of the following observations by the author. It was at once obvious the author knew everything. Knew everything — and was taking it in his stride. The line (and I tremble remembering it even now) read:

… his eyes slowly roved about the room.

Vague chills assailed me. I tried to picture the eyes. Did they roll like dimes? The passage indicated not; they seemed to move through the air, not over the surface. Rather rapidly, apparently. No one in the story was surprised. That’s what tipped me off. No sign of amazement at such an outrageous thing. Later the matter was amplified.

… his eyes moved from person to person.

There it was in a nutshell. The eyes had clearly come apart from the rest of him and were on their own. My heart pounded and my breath choked in my windpipe. I had stumbled on an accidental mention  of a totally unfamiliar race. Obviously non-Terrestrial. Yet, to the characters in the book, it was perfectly natural — which suggested they belonged to the same species.

And the author? A slow suspicion burned in my mind. The author was taking it rather too easily in his stride. Evidently, he felt this was quite a usual thing. He made absolutely no attempt to conceal this knowledge. The story continued:

… presently his eyes fastened on Julia.

Julia, being a lady, had at least the breeding to feel indignant. She is described as blushing and knitting her brows angrily. At this, I sighed with relief. They weren’t all non-Terrestrials. The narrative continues:

… slowly, calmly, his eyes examined every inch of her.

Great Scott! But here the girl turned and stomped off and the matter ended. I lay back in my chair gasping with horror. My wife and family regarded me in wonder.

“What’s wrong, dear?” my wife asked.

I couldn’t tell her. Knowledge like this was too much for the ordinary run-of-the-mill person. I had to keep it to myself. “Nothing,” I gasped. I leaped up, snatched the book, and hurried out of the room.

In the garage, I continued reading. There was more. Trembling, I read the next revealing passage:

… he put his arm around Julia. Presently she asked him if he would remove his arm. He immediately did so, with a smile.

It’s not said what was done with the arm after the fellow had removed it. Maybe it was left standing upright in the corner. Maybe it was thrown away. I don’t care. In any case, the full meaning was there, staring me right in the face.

Here was a race of creatures capable of removing portions of their anatomy at will. Eyes, arms — and maybe more. Without batting an eyelash. My knowledge of biology came in handy, at this point. Obviously they were simple beings, uni-cellular, some sort of primitive single-celled things. Beings no more developed than starfish. Starfish can do the same thing, you know.

I read on. And came to this incredible revelation, tossed off coolly by the author without the faintest tremor:

… outside the movie theater we split up. Part of us went inside, part over to the cafe for dinner.

Binary fission, obviously. Splitting in half and forming two entities.  Probably each lower half went to the cafe, it being farther, and the upper halves to the movies. I read on, hands shaking. I had really stumbled onto something here. My mind reeled as I made out this passage:

… I’m afraid there’s no doubt about it. Poor Bibney has lost his head again.

Which was followed by:

… and Bob says he has utterly no guts.

Yet Bibney got around as well as the next person. The next person, however, was just as strange. He was soon described as:

… totally lacking in brains.

There was no doubt of the thing in the next passage. Julia, whom I had thought to be the one normal person, reveals herself as also being an alien life form, similar to the rest:

… quite deliberately, Julia had given her heart to the young man.

It didn’t relate what the final disposition of the organ was, but I didn’t really care. It was evident Julia had gone right on living in her usual manner, like all the others in the book. Without heart, arms, eyes, brains, viscera, dividing up in two when the occasion demanded. Without a qualm.

… thereupon she gave him her hand.

I sickened. The rascal now had her hand, as well as her heart. I shudder to think what he’s done with them, by this time.

… he took her arm.

Not content to wait, he had to start dismantling her on his own. Flushing crimson, I slammed the book shut and leaped to my feet. But not in time to escape one last reference to those carefree bits of anatomy whose travels had originally thrown me on the track:

… her eyes followed him all the way down the road and across the meadow.

I rushed from the garage and back inside the warm house, as if the accursed things were following me. My wife and children were playing Monopoly in the kitchen. I joined them and played with frantic fervor, brow feverish, teeth chattering.

I had had enough of the thing. I want to hear no more about it. Let them come on. Let them invade Earth. I don’t want to get mixed up in it.

I have absolutely no stomach for it.

Eyeballs

 

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“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

That complete short story in six words, often credited to Ernest Hemingway, is an early example of “flash fiction,” usually defined as a story notable for its brevity.

To be clear, Hemingway may have repeated the above story, but he didn’t write it; the sad concept of the unused baby shoes was around long before Hemingway’s time.

Understandably, the idea of telling a story in a few strategic words has always intrigued writers. Over time, getting it done in six words became a popular goal.

In 2006, Wired Magazine challenged a group of established writers, most in the fields of fantasy and science fiction, to submit their own short stories of exactly six words. Here is a selection of their entries.

—————

Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?

— Eileen Gunn

Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket.

— William Shatner

Vacuum collision. Orbits diverge. Farewell, love.

— David Brin

Automobile warranty expires. So does engine.

— Stan Lee

I win lottery. Sun goes nova.

— Steven Meretzky

Machine. Unexpectedly, I’d invented a time

— Alan Moore

Epitaph: Foolish humans, never escaped Earth.

— Vernor Vinge

Wasted day. Wasted life. Dessert, please.

— Steven Meretzky

It cost too much, staying human.

— Bruce Sterling

We kissed. She melted. Mop please!

— James Patrick Kelly

Bang postponed. Not Big enough. Reboot.

— David Brin

It’s behind you! Hurry before it

— Rockne S. O’Bannon

Lie detector eyeglasses perfected: Civilization collapses.

— Richard Powers

The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.

— Orson Scott Card

Rained, rained, rained, and never stopped.

— Howard Waldrop

Leia: “Baby’s yours.” Luke: “Bad news…”

— Steven Meretzky

“I couldn’t believe she’d shoot me.”

— Howard Chaykin

Don’t marry her. Buy a house.

— Stephen R. Donaldson

Broken heart, 45, WLTM disabled man.

— Mark Millar

He read his obituary with confusion.

— Steven Meretzky

TIME MACHINE REACHES FUTURE!!! … nobody there …

— Harry Harrison

Easy. Just touch the match to

— Ursula K. Le Guin

Epitaph: He shouldn’t have fed it.

— Brian Herbert

Batman Sues Batsignal: Demands Trademark Royalties.

— Cory Doctorow

Heaven falls. Details at eleven.

— Robert Jordan

whorl. Help! I’m caught in a time

— Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel

Dinosaurs return. Want their oil back.

— David Brin

Please, this is everything, I swear.

— Orson Scott Card

Will this do (lazy writer asked)?

— Ken MacLeod

Clones demand rights: second Emancipation Proclamation.

— Paul Di Filippo

Steve ignores editor’s word limit and

— Steven Meretzky

Baby shoes

 

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The writing team of Walt and Leigh Richmond wrote novels and short stories, mostly science fiction, during the 1960s and 70s. The Richmonds were journeyman writers; often entertaining, rarely profound, little known except to a handful of editors.

Some of their acquaintances suspected that Leigh, 11 years older than Walt, did all the writing. If she did, no one could explain why she shared the billing with him.

At any rate, when Walt died in 1977, that ended the collaborating, real or otherwise. Leigh retired from the writing business. She died in 1995.

The short story below (not a sci-fi tale, by the way) is simultaneously clever and silly, and it makes two valid points.

One is that four-year-old children actually are eager little scientists, working and experimenting with whatever is at hand, steadily amassing knowledge.

The other is that it’s quite possible to do the right thing, even if you don’t understand the situation.

—————————

Poppa Needs Shorts

By Walt and Leigh Richmond
Published in Analog Science Fact & Fiction, January 1964

Little Oley had wandered into forbidden territory again — Big Brother Sven’s ham shack. The glowing bottles here were an irresistible lure, and he liked to pretend that he knew all there was to know about the mysteries in this room.

Of course, Sven said that not even he knew all of the mysteries, though he admitted he was one of the best ham operators extant, with QSOs from eighteen countries and thirty-eight states to his credit.

At the moment, Sven was busily probing into an open chassis with a hot soldering iron.

“Short’s in here some place,” he muttered.

“What makes shorts, Sven?” Oley wasn’t so knowledgeable but what he would ask an occasional question.

Sven turned and glared down. “What are you doing in here? You know it’s a Federal Offense for anybody to come into this room without I say so?”

“Momma and Hilda come in all the time, and you don’t say so.” Oley stood firm on what he figured were legal grounds. “What makes shorts?”

Sven relented a little. This brother had been something of a surprise to him, coming along when Sven was a full ten years old. But, he reflected, after a few years maybe I should get used to the idea. Actually, he sort of liked the youngster.

“Shorts,” he said, speaking from the superior eminence of his fourteen years to the four-year-old, “is when electricity finds a way to get back where it came from without doing a lot of hard work getting there. But you see, electricity like to work; so, even when it has an easy way, it just works harder and uses itself up.”

This confused explanation of shorts was, of course, taken verbatim, despite the fact that Oley couldn’t define half the words and probably couldn’t even pronounce them.

“I don’t like shorts. I don’t like these pink shorts Momma put on me this morning. Is they electrics, Sven?”

Sven glanced around at the accidentally-dyed-in-the-laundry, formerly white shorts.

“Um-m-m. Yeah. You could call ’em electric.”

With this Oley let out whoop and dashed out of the room, trailing a small voice behind him. “Momma, Momma. Sven says my shorts is electric!”

“I’ll short Sven’s electrics for him, if he makes fun of your shorts!” Oley heard his mother’s comforting reply.

In the adult world days passed before Oley’s accidentally acquired pattern of nubilous information on the subject of shorts was enlarged. It was only days in the adult world, but in Oley’s world each day was a mountainous fraction of an entire lifetime, into which came tumbling and jumbling — or were pulled — bits, pieces, oddments, landslides and acquisitions of information on every subject that he ran into, or that ran into him.

Nobody had told Oley that acquiring information was his job at the moment; the acquisition was partly accidental, mostly instinctive, and spurred by an intense curiosity and an even more intense determination to master the world as he saw it.

There was the taste of the sick green flowers that Momma kept in the window box and, just for a side course, a little bit of the dirt, too. There were the patterns of the rain on the window, and the reactions of a cat to having its tail pulled. The fact that you touch a stove one time, and it’s cool and comfortable to lay your head against, and another time it hurts. Things like that.

And other things — towering adults who sometimes swoop down on you and throw you high into the air; and most times walk over you, around you, and ignore you completely. The jumble of assorted and unsorted information that is the heritage of every growing young inquiring brain.

In terms of time, it was only a couple of weeks, if you were looking at it as an adult, until the next “shorts” incident.

Oley was sitting peacefully at the breakfast table, doing his level best to control the manipulation of the huge knife-fork-and-spoon, plate-bowl-and-glass, from which he was expected to eat a meal. Things smelled good. Momma was cooking doste, and that to Oley smelled best of all.

The doster ticked quietly to itself, then gave a loud pop, and up came two golden-brown slices of doste. Dostes? Oley wasn’t sure. But he hadn’t really begun paying too much attention to whether one doste was the same as two doste or what, though he could quite proudly tell you the difference between one and two.

Out it came, and fresh butter was spread on it, and in went two shiny white beds, for some more doste.

Little Oley watched in fascination. And now he reached for the tremendous glass sitting on the table in front of him. But his fingers didn’t quite make it. Somehow, the glass was heavy and slippery, and it eluded him, rolled over on its side, and spilled the bright purple juicy contents out across the table in a huge swish.

Oley wasn’t dismayed, but watched with a researcher’s interest as the bright purple juice swept across the table towards the busily ticking doster. Momma, of course, wasn’t here, or she would have been gruff about it. She’d just gone into the other room.

The juice spread rapidly at first, and then more and more slowly, making a huge, circuitous river spreading across the table, first towards the doster and then away from it towards the frayed power-cord lying on the table. It touched and began to run along the cord. Not a very eventful recording so far, but Oley watched, charmed.

As he watched, a few bubbles began to appear near the frayed spot. A few wisps of steam. And then, suddenly, there was a loud, snarling splat — and Momma screamed from the doorway. “That juice is making a short!”

The information, of course, was duly recorded. Juice makes shorts.

It was a minor item of information, mixed into a jumble of others, and nothing else was added to this particular file for nearly another week.

Oley was playing happily on the living room floor that night. Here there was much to explore, though an adult might not have thought twice about it. Back in the corner behind Momma’s doing bachine a bright, slender piece of metal caught Oley’s attention. Bigger on one end than the other, but not really very big anywhere, the sewing machine needle proved fascinating.

As a first experiment, Oley determined that it worked like a tooth by biting himself with it. After that he went around the room, biting other things with it. Information, of course, is information, and to be obtained any way one can.

The brown, snaky lamp cord was the end of this experiment. Oley bit it, viciously, with his new tooth, and had only barely observed that it had penetrated completely through when there was a loud splat, and all the lights in the room went out.

In the darkness and confusion, of course, Oley moved away, seeking other new experiences. So the cause of the short that Momma and Poppa yakked so loudly about was never attributed to Oley’s actions, but only to “How could a needle have gotten from your sewing machine into this lamp cord, Alice?”

But the sum of information had increased. Neatles stuck into lamp cords had something to do with shorts.

More time passed. And this time the file on shorts was stimulated by Poppa. The big, rough, booming voice had always scared Oley a bit when it sounded mad, like now.

“Alice, I’ve just got to have some more shorts!”

Poppa was rummaging in a drawer far above Oley’s head, so he couldn’t see the object under discussion. But all he already knew about shorts — the information passed in review before him.

Shorts are useful. They help electrics to work harder.

Shorts you wear, and they are electrics.

Wires are electrics.

Shorts can be made by juice.

Shorts can be made by neatles, that bite like teeth.

Poppa needs more shorts.

But Oley wasn’t motivated to act at the moment. Just sorting out information and connecting it with other information files in the necessarily haphazard manner that might eventually result in something called intelligence, although he didn’t know that yet.

It was a week later in the kitchen, when Momma dropped a giant version of the neatle on the floor, that his information file in this area increased again.

“Is that a neatle?” Oley asked.

His mother laughed quietly and looked fondly at her son as she put the ice pick back on the table.

“I guess you could call it a needle, Oley,” she told him. “An ice needle.”

Oley instinctively waited until Momma’s back was turned before taking the nice neatle to try its biting powers; and instinctively took it out of the kitchen before starting his experiments.

As he passed the cellar door he heard a soft gurgling and promptly changed course. Pulling open the door with difficulty, he seated himself on the cellar stairs to watch a delightful new spectacle — frothing, gurgling water making its way across the floor towards the stairs. It looked wonderfully dirty and brown, and to Oley it was an absorbing phenomenon. It never occurred to him to tell Momma.

Suddenly above him the cellar door slammed open, and Poppa came charging down the stairs, narrowly missing the small figure, straight into the rising waters, intent, though Oley couldn’t know it, on reaching the drain pipe in the far corner of the cellar to plug it before water from the spring rains could back up farther and really flood the cellar out.

Halfway across the cellar, Poppa reached up and grasped the dangling overhead light to turn it on, in order to see his way to the drain — and suddenly came to frozen, rigid, gasping stop as his hand clamped firmly over the socket.

Little Oley watched. There was juice in the cellar. Poppa had hold of an electric. Was Poppa trying to make the shorts he needed?

Oley wasn’t sure. He thought it probable. And from the superior knowledge of his four years, Oley already knew a better way to make shorts. Neatles make good shorts. Juice don’t do so well.

Suddenly, Oley decided to prove his point: Nice neatles probably made even better shorts than other neatles — and there was a big electric running up the side of the stairs — an electric fat enough to make a real good shorts. Maybe lots of shorts.

Raising his nice neatle, Oley took careful aim and plunged it through the 220-volt stove feeder cable.

Oley woke up. The strange pretty lady in white was a new experience. Somebody he hadn’t seen before. And there seemed to be something wrong with his hand, but Oley hadn’t noticed it very much, yet.

“Well, my little Hero’s awake! And how are you this morning? Your Momma and Poppa will be in to see you in just a minute.”

The pretty lady in white went away, and Oley gazed around the white room with its funny shape, happily recorded the experience, and dozed off again.

Then suddenly he was awakened again. Momma was there; and Poppa. And Sven. But they all seemed different somehow this morning. Momma had been crying, even though she was smiling bravely now. And Poppa seemed to have a new softness that he’d seldom seen before. Sven was looking puzzled.

“I still say, Pop, that he’s a genius. He must have known what he was doing.”

“Oley,” Poppa’s voice was husky — gruff, but kinder and softer than usual. “I want you to answer me carefully. But understand that it’s all right either way. I just want you to tell me. Why did you put the ice pick through the stove cable? You saved my life, you know. But I’d like to know how you knew how.”

Little Oley grinned. His world was peaceful and wonderful now. And all the big adults were bending and leaning down and talking to him.

“Nice neatle,” he said. “Big electric. Poppa needed shorts.”

Original illustration from Analog Science Fact & Fiction by John Schoenherr.

Original illustration from Analog Science Fact & Fiction by John Schoenherr.

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Henry Slesar (1927-2002) was a writer whose talents make lesser wordsmiths — like, say, me — bemoan their inadequacy.

Slesar became an advertising copywriter at age 17 and went on to a long career as an author and playwright. Over the years, he wrote hundreds of short stories and TV screenplays in both the science fiction and mystery genres.

His stories appeared regularly in a range of pulp magazines as well as on Alfred Hitchcock’s TV shows and in Playboy. During the 1950s, he wrote an average of one story per week.

I featured a Slesar story on this blog back in 2009. Whereas that tale was dark and ominous, the story below is charming and light.

Some writers (sigh) can do it all.

——————

Reluctant Genius

By Henry Slesar, writing as O. H. Leslie
Published in Amazing Stories, January 1957

Buos was chastising Laloi as they sped through the ionosphere of the green planet. But like the airy creature she was, Laloi ignored the criticism and rippled zephyr-like through a clump of daffodils when they completed their descent.

“So pretty,” she sighed. She flung her incorporeal substance around each flower, absorbing their unified beauty of scent, sight, and feel. Buos shrilled himself into a column of wind to express his displeasure at her attitude.

“Stupid, silly, shallow thing!” he said. “If the others only knew how you behaved –”

“And you’ll be glad to tell them, of course,” she said, extending her fingers of air into the roots of the wind-bent grass. She rolled across the hill ecstatically, and Buos followed in grumbling billows of energy.

“I don’t carry tales,” he replied, somewhat mortified. “But we’re here as observers, and you insist upon making this world a plaything…”

“I love it,” she said happily. “It’s so warm and green.”

Buos whipped in front of her angrily. “This is an assignment,” he snapped, his emotion crackling the air about him. “We have a purpose here.”

“Purpose!” she groaned, settling over a patch of crowded clover. “How many centuries will this assignment last?”

“This world is young,” said Buos. “It will take time.”

“But how long?” she asked mournfully. “Our world will be shriveled and dead before these people have the knowledge to rescue us. Why can’t we spend our lives here…”

“And leave the others behind?” said Buos stiffly. “Selfish being,” he said sadly. “This world cannot support one-fourth our number.”

“Oh, I know, I know,” Laloi said. “I do not mean to say such things. I am twisted by my sorrow…” As if to express her self-abnegation, she corkscrewed out of the clover and into a thin spiral of near-nothingness.

“Settle down, foolish one,” said Buos, not unkindly. “I know your feelings. Do you think I am not tormented as well, by the slow pace of these Earth-things? Crude, barbaric beings, like children with the building blocks of science. They have such a long way to go…”

“And so few know,” said Laloi despairingly. “A handful of seeing minds, tens of millions of ignorant ones. Not even first principles — they’re stupid, stupid!”

“But they will learn,” Buos said stubbornly. “That is historical fact. Someday, they will know the true meanings of matter and light and energy. Slowly, yes, slowly. But in terms of their growth, it will seem like great speed to them…”

“And in terms of our world,” said Laloi, spinning sadly over the ground, “they may be far too late…”

“No!” In his excitement, Buos forgot himself and entwined with the flowing form of the she-creature, and the result was a rending of the air that cracked like heat lightning over the field.

“No,” he repeated again. “They must not be too late. They must learn. They must build from the very ground, and then they must fly. And then their eyes must be lifted to the stars, and desire must extend them to all the universe…”

“It seems so hopeless –”

“It cannot be! Our destiny is not extinction. They must come to us, in fleets of silver, and replant our soil, and send towers of green shooting into our sky, breathing out air.”

“Yes, yes!” Laloi cried pitifully. “It will be that way, Buos. It will be that way! That man-creature, we will begin with him…”

Buos floated earthward disconsolately. “He is a dreamer,” he said cheerlessly. “His mind is good; he thinks of tomorrow; he is one of the knowing ones. But he cannot be moved, Laloi. His thoughts may fester and die in the prison of his brain…”

“No, they will not! We have watched him. He understands much. He will help us!”

“I have seen his like before,” said Buos hopelessly. “He thinks and he works, and his conclusions will die stillborn, for lack of a moving force…”

“Then let us provide it, Buos. Let us move him!”

“With what?” said the other disdainfully. “Arms of nothing? Hands of vacuum? A breeze against his cheek? A rustle of leaves? A meaningless whistle in his ear?”

“Let us try. Let us try! This empty watchfulness is destroying us. Let us move him, Buos. Come!”

Faster than the sky-sweeping clouds they flew, over the gently swelling hills, over the yearning branches of the trees, over the calm blue waters of the lakes. Swifter than the flight of birds they came, searching for a thinking mind…

They found him at last.

“He knows, he knows,” said Laloi. “Only now to say ‘this is so because’ and ‘this must happen when’! Only to think — to understand –”

They hovered over his head, in a pandemonium of helplessness. They whirled, and tumbled, and shrilly circled. And then to Laloi the inspiration came.

The apple, caught by a sudden gust of wind, twisted from the tenuous hold of the tree and fell to the ground.

The man, startled, picked it up.

He gazed at it, deep in thought.

Original illustration from Amazing Stories, artist uncredited.

Original illustration from Amazing Stories, artist uncredited.

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Here is another excellent short story by 19th Century American author Kate Chopin, this one about a childless woman suddenly obliged to care for four energetic children. I doubt if a childless woman could have written it.

This tale, like the previous story about the unfortunate Louise Mallard, takes place in rural Louisiana in the late 1800s. The characters:

Mamzelle Aurélie — (“Mamzelle,” meaning “mademoiselle,” the French title for an unmarried woman)

Ponto — Aurélie’s dog

Odile — Aurélie’s neighbor

Elodie — Odile’s baby daughter

Ti Nomme — Odile’s young son (Translation: “petit homme,” French for “little fellow”)

Marcéline, Odile’s daughter

Marcélette, Odile’s daughter

Valsin, Odile’s manservant

Aunt Ruby, Aurélie’s cook

—————

Regret

By Kate Chopin
Published in 1894

Mamzelle Aurélie possessed a good strong figure, ruddy cheeks, hair that was changing from brown to gray, and a determined eye. She wore a man’s hat about the farm, and an old blue army overcoat when it was cold, and sometimes top-boots.

Mamzelle Aurélie had never thought of marrying. She had never been in love. At the age of twenty she had received a proposal, which she had promptly declined, and at the age of fifty she had not yet lived to regret it.

So she was quite alone in the world, except for her dog Ponto, and the negroes who lived in her cabins and worked her crops, and the fowls, a few cows, a couple of mules, her gun (with which she shot chicken-hawks), and her religion.

One morning Mamzelle Aurélie stood upon her gallery, contemplating, with arms akimbo, a small band of very small children who, to all intents and purposes, might have fallen from the clouds, so unexpected and bewildering was their coming, and so unwelcome. They were the children of her nearest neighbor, Odile, who was not such a near neighbor, after all.

The young woman had appeared but five minutes before, accompanied by these four children. In her arms she carried little Elodie; she dragged Ti Nomme by an unwilling hand; while Marcéline and Marcélette followed with irresolute steps.

Her face was red and disfigured from tears and excitement. She had been summoned to a neighboring parish by the dangerous illness of her mother; her husband was away in Texas — it seemed to her a million miles away; and Valsin was waiting with the mule-cart to drive her to the station.

“It’s no question, Mamzelle Aurélie ; you jus’ got to keep those youngsters fo’ me tell I come back. Dieu sait [Note1], I wouldn’ botha you with ’em if it was any otha way to do! Make ’em mine you, Mamzelle Aurélie ; don’ spare ’em.

“Me, there, I’m half crazy between the chil’ren, an’ Léon not home, an’ maybe not even to fine po’ maman alive encore!” — a harrowing possibility which drove Odile to take a final hasty and convulsive leave of her disconsolate family.

She left them crowded into the narrow strip of shade on the porch of the long, low house; the white sunlight was beating in on the white old boards; some chickens were scratching in the grass at the foot of the steps, and one had boldly mounted, and was stepping heavily, solemnly, and aimlessly across the gallery.

There was a pleasant odor of pinks in the air, and the sound of negroes’ laughter was coming across the flowering cotton-field.

Mamzelle Aurélie stood contemplating the children. She looked with a critical eye upon Marcéline, who had been left staggering beneath the weight of the chubby Elodie. She surveyed with the same calculating air Marcélette mingling her silent tears with the audible grief and rebellion of Ti Nomme.

During those few contemplative moments she was collecting herself, determining upon a line of action which should be identical with a line of duty. She began by feeding them.

If Mamzelle Aurélie’s responsibilities might have begun and ended there, they could easily have been dismissed; for her larder was amply provided against an emergency of this nature.

But little children are not little pigs: they require and demand attentions which were wholly unexpected by Mamzelle Aurélie, and which she was ill prepared to give.

She was, indeed, very inapt in her management of Odile’s children during the first few days. How could she know that Marcélette always wept when spoken to in a loud and commanding tone of voice? It was a peculiarity of Marcélette’s.

She became acquainted with Ti Nomme’s passion for flowers only when he had plucked all the choicest gardenias and pinks for the apparent purpose of critically studying their botanical construction.

“‘Tain’t enough to tell ‘im, Mamzelle Aurélie,” Marcéline instructed her; “you got to tie ‘im in a chair. It’s w’at maman all time do w’en he’s bad: she tie ‘im in a chair.”

The chair in which Mamzelle Aurélie tied Ti Nomme was roomy and comfortable, and he seized the opportunity to take a nap in it, the afternoon being warm.

At night, when she ordered them one and all to bed as she would have shooed the chickens into the hen-house, they stayed uncomprehending before her.

What about the little white nightgowns that had to be taken from the pillow-slip in which they were brought over, and shaken by some strong hand till they snapped like ox-whips?

What about the tub of water which had to be brought and set in the middle of the floor, in which the little tired, dusty, sun-browned feet had every one to be washed sweet and clean?

And it made Marcéline and Marcélette laugh merrily — the idea that Mamzelle Aurélie should for a moment have believed that Ti Nomme could fall asleep without being told the story of Croque-mitaine [Note 2] or Loup-garou [Note 3], or both; or that Elodie could fall asleep at all without being rocked and sung to.

“I tell you, Aunt Ruby,” Mamzelle Aurélie informed her cook in confidence; “me, I’d rather manage a dozen plantation’ than fo’ chil’ren. It’s terrassent! Bonté! [Note 4] Don’t talk to me about chil’ren!”

“Tain’ ispected sich as you would know airy thing ’bout ’em, Mamzelle Aurélie. I see dat plainly yistiddy w’en I spy dat li’le chile playin’ wid yo’ baskit o’ keys. You don’ know dat makes chillun grow up hard-headed, to play wid keys? Des like it make ’em teeth hard to look in a lookin’-glass. Them’s the things you got to know in the raisin’ an’ manigement o’ chillun.”

Mamzelle Aurélie certainly did not pretend or aspire to such subtle and far-reaching knowledge on the subject as Aunt Ruby possessed, who had “raised five an’ buried six” in her day. She was glad enough to learn a few little mother-tricks to serve the moment’s need.

Ti Nomme’s sticky fingers compelled her to unearth white aprons that she had not worn for years, and she had to accustom herself to his moist kisses — the expressions of an affectionate and exuberant nature.

She got down her sewing-basket, which she seldom used, from the top shelf of the armoire, and placed it within the ready and easy reach which torn slips and buttonless waists demanded.

It took her some days to become accustomed to the laughing, the crying, the chattering that echoed through the house and around it all day long. And it was not the first or the second night that she could sleep comfortably with little Elodie’s hot, plump body pressed close against her, and the little one’s warm breath beating her cheek like the fanning of a bird’s wing.

But at the end of two weeks Mamzelle Aurélie had grown quite used to these things, and she no longer complained.

It was also at the end of two weeks that Mamzelle Aurélie, one evening, looking away toward the crib where the cattle were being fed, saw Valsin’s blue cart turning the bend of the road. Odile sat beside the mulatto, upright and alert. As they drew near, the young woman’s beaming face indicated that her home-coming was a happy one.

But this coming, unannounced and unexpected, threw Mamzelle Aurélie into a flutter that was almost agitation. The children had to be gathered.

Where was Ti Nomme? Yonder in the shed, putting an edge on his knife at the grindstone. And Marcéline and Marcélette? Cutting and fashioning doll-rags in the corner of the gallery.

As for Elodie, she was safe enough in Mamzelle Aurélie’s arms; and she had screamed with delight at sight of the familiar blue cart which was bringing her mother back to her.

The excitement was all over, and they were gone. How still it was when they were gone!

Mamzelle Aurélie stood upon the gallery, looking and listening. She could no longer see the cart; the red sunset and the blue-gray twilight had together flung a purple mist across the fields and road that hid it from her view. She could no longer hear the wheezing and creaking of its wheels. But she could still faintly hear the shrill, glad voices of the children.

She turned into the house. There was much work awaiting her, for the children had left a sad disorder behind them; but she did not at once set about the task of righting it.

Mamzelle Aurélie seated herself beside the table. She gave one slow glance through the room, into which the evening shadows were creeping and deepening around her solitary figure. She let her head fall down upon her bended arm, and began to cry.

Oh, but she cried! Not softly, as women often do. She cried like a man, with sobs that seemed to tear her very soul. She did not notice Ponto licking her hand.

—————

Note 1 — (French) “God knows.”
Note 2 — (French) A boogeyman who deals with children who misbehave.
Note 3 — (French) A werewolf.
Note 4 — (French) “It’s overwhelming! Goodness!”

Author Chopin in 1877 with four of her five children.

Author Chopin in 1877 with four of her five children.

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In the late 1800s, American author Kate Chopin wrote short stories and novels, mostly about women in the South, that were honest, unorthodox, and thoughtful. Critics hailed her as “a new feminist voice.”

According to Chopin’s grandson, the author did not see herself as a feminist, but instead as “a woman who took women extremely seriously. She never doubted women’s ability to be strong.”

Chopin was born Katherine O’Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1850. She was the third of five children and the only one to live past age 25.

While growing up, Kate immersed herself in novels, poetry, and fairy tales, and she occasionally wrote stories for enjoyment.

Although she was clearly talented, nothing came of it. She married at age 20, and by 28, was the mother of six children.

Her husband, Oscar Chopin, was a cotton broker and owner of a general store in New Orleans. In 1882, Oscar died suddenly, leaving Kate with a houseful of children and substantial debts.

She tried to keep Oscar’s businesses open, but couldn’t. She and the children moved back to St. Louis to live with her mother. Within the year, her mother also died.

With her parents, siblings, and husband all deceased, Chopin fell into a deep depression.

Several friends, aware of Chopin’s literary nature, encouraged her to begin writing in earnest — as therapy, as an emotional outlet, and as a possible source of income.

No one expected her to become so successful. Within a few years, her short stories were appearing in magazines and newspapers across America. Novels followed.

In 1904, at the height of her success, while visiting the St. Louis World’s Fair, Chopin suffered a brain hemorrhage and died. She was 54.

In my next two posts, I will present Chopin short stories that examine, from different angles, the burden of being female in American society.

The first story concerns a young woman who faces, as Chopin did, the sudden death of her husband.

————–

The Story of an Hour

By Kate Chopin
Published in 1894

Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.

It was her sister Josephine who told her, in broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing. Her husband’s friend Richards was there, too, near her. It was he who had been in the newspaper office when intelligence of the railroad disaster was received, with Brently Mallard’s name leading the list of “killed.”

He had only taken the time to assure himself of its truth by a second telegram, and had hastened to forestall any less careful, less tender friend in bearing the sad message.

She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her.

There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.

She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which someone was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.

There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled one above the other in the west facing her window.

She sat with her head thrown back upon the cushion of the chair, quite motionless, except when a sob came up into her throat and shook her, as a child who has cried itself to sleep continues to sob in its dreams.

She was young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength. But now there was a dull stare in her eyes, whose gaze was fixed away off yonder on one of those patches of blue sky. It was not a glance of reflection, but rather indicated a suspension of intelligent thought.

There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.

Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will — as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been.

When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under the breath: “free, free, free!” The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes.

They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.

She did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her. A clear and exalted perception enabled her to dismiss the suggestion as trivial. She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead.

But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome.

There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.

A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.

And yet she had loved him — sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in the face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!

“Free! Body and soul, free!” she kept whispering.

Josephine was kneeling before the closed door with her lips to the keyhole, imploring for admission. “Louise, open the door! I beg; open the door — you will make yourself ill. What are you doing, Louise? For heaven’s sake open the door.”

“Go away. I am not making myself ill.” No; she was drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window.

Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.

She arose at length and opened the door to her sister’s importunities. There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory. She clasped her sister’s waist, and together they descended the stairs.

Richards stood waiting for them at the bottom.

Someone was opening the front door with a latchkey. It was Brently Mallard who entered, a little travel-stained, composedly carrying his grip-sack and umbrella. He had been far from the scene of the accident, and did not even know there had been one.

He stood amazed at Josephine’s piercing cry; at Richards’ quick motion to screen him from the view of his wife.

When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease — of the joy that kills.

The author in 1894.

The author in 1894.

 

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Katherine MacLean, born in 1925 and still percolating, has worked as a store detective, bookkeeper, office manager, nurse’s aide, lab technician, pollster, food analyst, book reviewer, publicist, photographer, editor, and college professor. Simultaneously, she has been the author of a solid body of science fiction novels and short stories.

Over the decades, MacLean has written frequently about the impact of technology, in good ways and bad, upon people and society. In the short story below, she goes a step beyond that and takes a sober look at the nature of the species.

——————

The Carnivore

By Katherine MacLean, writing as G. A. Morris
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1953

The beings stood around my bed in air suits like ski suits, with globes over their heads like upside-down fishbowls. It was all like a masquerade, with odd costumes and funny masks.

I know that the masks are their faces, but I argue with them and find I think as if I am arguing with humans behind the masks. They are people. I recognize people and whether I am going to like this person or that person by something in the way they move and how they get excited when they talk; and I know that I like these people in a motherly sort of way. You have to feel motherly toward them, I guess.

They all remind me of Ronny, a medical student I knew once. He was small and round and eager. You had to like him, but you couldn’t take him very seriously. He was a pacifist; he wrote poetry and pulled it out to read aloud at ill-timed moments; and he stuttered when he talked too fast.

They are like that, all fright and gentleness.

I am not the only survivor — they have explained that — but I am the first they found, and the least damaged, the one they have chosen to represent the human race to them. They stand around my bed and answer questions, and are nice to me when I argue with them.

All in a group they look half-way between a delegation of nations and an ark, one of each, big and small, thick and thin, four arms or wings, all shapes and colors in fur and skin and feathers.

I can picture them in their UN of the Universe, making speeches in their different languages, listening patiently without understanding each other’s different problems, boring each other and being too polite to yawn.

They are polite, so polite I almost feel they are afraid of me, and I want to reassure them.

But I talk as if I were angry. I can’t help it, because if things had only been a little different… “Why couldn’t you have come sooner? Why couldn’t you have tried to stop it before it happened, or at least come sooner, afterward…?”

If they had come sooner to where the workers of the Nevada power pile starved slowly behind their protecting walls of lead — if they had looked sooner for survivors of the dust with which the nations of the world had slain each other — George Craig would be alive. He died before they came. He was my co-worker, and I loved him.

We had gone down together, passing door by door the automatic safeguards of the plant, which were supposed to protect the people on the outside from the radioactive danger from the inside — but the danger of a failure of politics was far more real than the danger of failure in the science of the power pile, and that had not been calculated by the builders. We were far underground when the first radioactivity in the air outside had shut all the heavy, lead-shielded automatic doors between us and the outside.

We were safe. And we starved there.

“Why didn’t you come sooner?” I wonder if they know or guess how I feel. My questions are not questions, but I have to ask them. He is dead. I don’t mean to reproach them — they look well meaning and kindly — but I feel as if, somehow, knowing why it happened could make it stop, could let me turn the clock back and make it happen differently. If I could have signaled them, so they would have come just a little sooner.

They look at one another, turning their funny-face heads uneasily, moving back and forth, but no one will answer.

The world is dead… George is dead, that thin, pathetic creature with the bones showing through his skin that he was when we sat still at the last with our hands touching, thinking there were people outside who had forgotten us, hoping they would remember. We didn’t guess that the world was dead, blanketed in radiating dust outside. Politics had killed it.

These beings around me, they had been watching, seeing what was going to happen to our world, listening to our radios from their small settlements on the other planets of the Solar System. They had seen the doom of war coming. They represented stellar civilizations of great power and technology, and with populations that would have made ours seem a small village; they were stronger than we were, and yet they had done nothing.

“Why didn’t you stop us? You could have stopped us.”

A rabbity one who is closer than the others backs away, gesturing politely that he is giving room for someone else to speak, but he looks guilty and will not look at me with his big round eyes. I still feel weak and dizzy. It is hard to think, but I feel as if they are hiding a secret.

A doelike one hesitates and comes closer to my bed. “We discussed it… we voted…” It talks through a microphone in its helmet with a soft lisping accent that I think comes from the shape of its mouth. It has a muzzle and very soft, dainty, long nibbling lips like a deer that nibbles on twigs and buds.

“We were afraid,” adds one who looks like a bear.

“To us the future was very terrible,” says one who looks as if it might have descended from some sort of large bird like a penguin. “So much —  Your weapons were very terrible.”

Now they all talk at once, crowding about my bed, apologizing. “So much killing. It hurt to know about. But your people didn’t seem to mind.”

“We were afraid.”

“And in your fiction,” the doelike one lisped, “I saw plays from your amusement machines which said that the discovery of beings in space would save you from war, not because you would let us bring friendship and teach peace, but because the human race would unite in hatred of the outsiders. They would forget their hatred of each other only in a new and more terrible war with us.” Its voice breaks in a squeak and it turns its face away from me.

“You were about to come out into space. We were wondering how to hide!” That is a quick-talking one, as small as a child. He looks as if he might have descended from a bat — gray silken fur on his pointed face, big night-seeing eyes, and big sensitive ears, with a humped shape on the back of his air suit which might be folded wings.

“We were trying to conceal where we had built, so that humans would not guess we were near and look for us.”

They are ashamed of their fear, for because of it they broke all the kindly laws of their civilizations, restrained all the pity and gentleness I see in them, and let us destroy ourselves.

I am beginning to feel more awake and to see more clearly. And I am beginning to feel sorry for them, for I can see why they are afraid.

They are herbivores. I remember the meaning of shapes. In the paths of evolution there are grass eaters and berry eaters and root diggers. Each has its functional shape of face and neck — and its wide, startled-looking eyes to see and run away from the hunters. In all their racial history they have never killed to eat. They have been killed and eaten, or run away, and they evolved to intelligence by selection. Those lived who succeeded in running away from carnivores like lions, hawks, and men.

I look up, and they turn their eyes and heads in quick embarrassed motion, not meeting my eye. The rabbity one is nearest and I reach out to touch him, pleased because I am growing strong enough now to move my arms. He looks at me and I ask the question: “Are there any carnivores — flesh eaters — among you?”

He hesitates, moving his lips as if searching for tactful words. “We have never found any that were civilized. We have frequently found them in caves and tents fighting each other. Sometimes we find them fighting each other with the ruins of cities around them, but they are always savages.”

The bearlike one said heavily, “It might be that carnivores evolve more rapidly and tend toward intelligence more often, for we find radioactive planets without life, and places like the place you call your asteroid belt, where a planet should be — but there are only scattered fragments of planet, pieces that look as if a planet had been blown apart. We think that usually…” He looked at me uncertainly, beginning to fumble his words. “We think…”

“Yours is the only carnivorous race we have found that was — civilized, that had a science and was going to come out into space,” the doelike one interrupted softly. “We were afraid.”

They seem to be apologizing.

The rabbity one, who seems to be chosen as the leader in speaking to me, says, “We will give you anything you want. Anything we are able to give you.”

They mean it. We survivors will be privileged people, with a key to all the cities, everything free. Their sincerity is wonderful, but puzzling. Are they trying to atone for the thing they feel was a crime; that they allowed humanity to murder itself, and lost to the Galaxy the richness of a race? Is this why they are so generous?

Perhaps then they will help the race to get started again. The records are not lost. The few survivors can eventually repopulate Earth. Under the tutelage of these peaceable races, without the stress of division into nations, we will flower as a race. No children of mine to the furthest descendant will ever make war again. This much of a lesson we have learned.

These timid beings do not realize how much humanity has wanted peace. They do not know how reluctantly we were forced and trapped by old institutions and warped tangles of politics to which we could see no answer. We are not naturally savage. We are not savage when approached as individuals. Perhaps they know this, but are afraid anyhow, instinctive fear rising up from the blood of their hunted, frightened forebears.

The human race will be a good partner to these races. Even recovering from starvation as I am, I can feel in myself an energy they do not have. The savage in me and my race is a creative thing, for in those who have been educated as I was it is a controlled savagery which attacks and destroys only problems and obstacles, never people. Any human raised outside of the political traditions that the race inherited from its bloodstained childhood would be as friendly and ready for friendship as I am toward these beings. I could never hurt these pleasant, overgrown bunnies and squirrels.

“We will do everything we can to make up for… we will try to help,” says the bunny, stumbling over the English, but civilized and cordial and kind.

I sit up suddenly, reaching out impulsively to shake his hand. Suddenly frightened he leaps back. All of them step back, glancing behind them as though making sure of the avenue of escape. Their big luminous eyes widen and glance rapidly from me to the doors, frightened.

They must think I am about to leap out of bed and pounce on them and eat them. I am about to laugh and reassure them, about to say that all I want from them is friendship, when I feel a twinge in my abdomen from the sudden motion. I touch it with one hand under the bedclothes.

There is the scar of an incision there, almost healed. An operation. The weakness I am recovering from is more than the weakness of starvation.

For only half a second I do not understand; then I see why they looked ashamed.

They voted the murder of a race.

All the human survivors found have been made sterile. There will be no more humans after we die.

I am frozen, one hand still extended to grasp the hand of the rabbity one, my eyes still searching his expression, reassuring words still half formed.

There will be time for anger or grief later, for now, in this instant, I can understand. They are probably quite right.

We were carnivores.

I know, because, at this moment of hatred, I could kill them all.

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by Peter Burchard.

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by Peter Burchard.

 

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Joseph Louis “Joe L.” Hensley led a double life.

Born in 1926 in Bloomington, Indiana, Hensley was a journalist, lawyer, prosecutor, member of the Indiana General Assembly, and circuit court judge.

Simultaneously, he was a fiction writer — the author of 20 novels and over 100 short stories, mostly crime fiction and science fiction. He began writing in the 1950s; his last novel was published just after his death in 2007.

Hensley’s name is not in the top tier of sci-fi authors most familiar to the public. But as “The Pair” shows, good stories are not the province of the big names alone.

——————

The Pair

By Joe L. Hensley
Published in Fantastic Universe, July 1958

They tell the story differently in the history stereos and maybe they are right. But for me the way the great peace came about, the thing that started us on our way to understanding, was a small thing — a human thing — and also a Knau thing.

In the late days of the hundred year war that engulfed two galaxies we took a planet that lay on the fringe of the Knau empire. In the many years of the war this particular planet had passed into our hands twice before, had been colonized, and the colonies wiped out when the Knau empire retook the pot — as we, in turn, wiped out the colonies they had planted there — for it was a war of horror with no quarter asked, expected, or given.

The last attempt to negotiate a peace had been made 10 years after the war began and for the past 40 years, neither side had even bothered to take prisoners, except a few for the purposes of information. We were too far apart, too ideologically different, and yet we each wanted the same things, and we were each growing and spreading through the galaxies in the pattern of empire.

The name of this particular planet was Pasman and, as usual, disabled veterans had first choice of the land there. One of the men who was granted a patent to a large tract of land was Michael Dargan.

Dargan stood on a slight rise and looked with some small pride at the curved furrow lines in the dark earth. All of his tillable land had been plowed and made ready for the planting. The feeling of pride saw something he had not experienced for a long time and he savored it until it soured within him. Even then he continued to stare out over his land for a long time, for when he was standing motionless be could almost forget.

The mechanical legs worked very well. At first they had been tiring to use, but in the four years since his ship had been hit he had learned to use them adequately. The scars on his body had been cut away by the plastic surgeons and his face looked almost human now, if he could trust his mirror. But any disablement leaves deeper scars than the physical ones.

He sighed and began to move toward the house in his awkward yet powerful way. Martha would have lunch ready.

The house was in sight when it happened. Some sixth sense, acquired in battle, warned him that someone was following and he turned as quickly as possible and surveyed the land behind him. He caught the glint of sunlight on metal. He let himself fall to the earth as the air flamed red around him and for a long time he lay still. His clothes smoldered in a few spots and he beat the flames out with cautious hands.

Twice more, nearby, the ground flamed red and he lay crowded into the furrow which hid him.

Martha must have heard or seen what was happening from the house for she began shooting his heavy projectile “varmint” gun from one of the windows and, by raising his head, Dargan could see the projectiles picking at the top of a small rise a hundred yards or so from him. He hoped then that she would not kill the thing that had attacked, for if it was what he thought, he wanted the pleasure for himself.

There was silence for a little while and then Martha began to shoot again from the window. He raised his head again and caught a glimpse of his attacker as it scuttled up a hill. It was a Knau. He felt the blood begin to race in him, the wild hate.

“Martha!” he yelled. “Stop shooting.”

He got his mechanical legs underneath him and went on down to the house. She was standing in the doorway, crying.

“I thought it had gotten you.”

He smiled at her, feeling a small exhilaration. “I’m all right,” he said. “Give me the pro gun.” He took it from her and went to the small window, but it was too late. The Knau had vanished over the hill.

“Fix me some food,” he said to her. “I’m going after it.”

“It was a Knau, wasn’t it?” She closed her eyes and shuddered, not waiting for his answer. “I’ve never seen one before — only the pictures. It was horrible. I think I hit it.”

Dargan stared at her. “Fix me some food, I said. I’m going after it.”

She opened her eyes. “Not by yourself. I’ll call the village. They’ll send some men up.”

“By that time it will be long gone.” He watched her silently for a moment, knowing she was trying to read something in him. He kept his face impassive. “Fix me some food or I will go without it,” he said softly.

“You want to kill it for yourself, don’t you? You don’t anyone to help you. That’s why you yelled at me to stop shooting.”

“Yes,” he admitted. “I want to kill it myself. I don’t want you to call the village after I am gone.” He made his voice heavy with emphasis. “If you call the village I won’t come back to you, Martha.”

He closed his eyes and stood swaying softly as the tension built within him. “Those things killed my parents and they have killed me. This is the first chance I’ve ever had to get close to one.” He smiled without humor and looked down at his ruined legs. “It will be a long time dying.”

The trail was easy to follow at first. She had wounded it, but he doubted if the wounds were serious after he had trailed awhile. Occasionally on the bushes it had crashed through were droplets of bright, orange-red blood.

Away from the cleared area of the farm the land was heavily rolling, timbered with great trees that shut away the light of the distant, double blue suns. There was growth under the trees, plants that struggled for breathing room. The earth was soft and took tracks well.

Dargan followed slowly, with time for thought.

He remembered when his ship had been hit. He had been standing in a passageway and the space battle had flamed all around him. A young officer in his first engagement.

It was a small battle — known only by the coordinates where it had happened and worth only a line or two in the official reports of the day. But it would always be etched in Dargan’s brain. His ship had taken the first hit.

If he had been a little further out in the passageway he would surely have died. As it was he only half died.

He remembered catching at the bulkhead with his hands and falling sideways. There was a feeling of horrible burning and then there was nothing for a long time.

But now there was something.

He felt anticipation take hold of his mind and he breathed strongly of the warm air.

He came to a tree where it had rested, holding on with its arms. A few drops of bright blood had begun to dry on the tree and he estimated from their height on the tree that the Knau had been wounded in the shoulder.

The ground underneath the tree was wrong somehow. There should be four deep indentations where its legs had dug in, but there were only three, and one of the three was shaped wrong and shallower than the others.

Though he had followed for the better part of half the day, Dargan estimated that he was not far from his farm. The Knau seemed to be following some great curving path that bordered Dargan’s land.

It was beginning to grow dark enough to make the trail difficult to read. He would have to make cold camp, for to start a fire might draw the Knau back on him.

He ate the sandwiches that Martha had fixed for him and washed them down with warm, brackish water from his canteen. For a long time he was unable to go to sleep because of the excitement that still gripped him. But finally sleep came and with it — dreams…

He was back on the ship again and he relived the time of fire and terror. He heard the screams around him. His father and mother were there too and the flames burned them while he watched. Then a pair of cruel mechanical legs chased him through metal corridors, always only a step behind. He tore the mechanical legs to bits finally and threw them at Knau ships. The Knau ships fired back and there was flame again, burning, burning…

Then he was in the hospital and they were bringing the others in. And he cried unashamedly when they brought in another man whose legs were gone. And he felt a pity for the man, and a pity for himself.

He awoke and it was early morning. A light, misty rain had begun to fall and his face was damp and he was cold. He got up and began to move sluggishly down the trail that the Knau had left, fearing that the mist would wash it out. But it was still readable. After awhile he came to a stream and drank there and refilled his canteen.

For a time he lost the trail and had to search frantically until he found it again.

By mid-suns he had located the Knau’s cave hideaway and he lay below it, hidden in a clump of tall vegetation. The hideaway lay on the hill above him, a small black opening, which was shielded at all angles except directly in front. The cave in the hillside was less than a mile from Dargan’s home.

Several times he thought he could detect movement in the blackness that marked the cave opening. He knew that the Knau must be lying up there watching to see if it had been followed and he intended to give it ample time to think it had gotten away without pursuit or had thrown that pursuit off.

The heat of the day passed after a long, bitter time filled with itches that could not be scratched and non-existent insects that crawled all over Dargan’s motionless body. He consoled himself with thoughts of what he would do when he had the upper hand. He hoped, with all hope, that the Knau would not resist and he could take it unawares. That would make it even better.

He saw it for certain at the moment when dusk became night. It came out of the cave, partially hidden by the outcropping of rock that formed the shelf of the cave. Dargan lay, his body unmoving, his half-seeing eyes fascinated, while the Knau inspected the surrounding terrain for what seemed a very long time.

They’re not so ugly, he told himself. They told us in training that they were the ugliest things alive — but they have a kind of grace to them. I wonder what makes them move so stiffly?

He watched the Knau move about the ledge of the cave. A crude bandage bound its shoulder and two of the four arms hung limply.

Now. You think you’re safe.

He waited for a good hour after it had gone back inside the cave. Then he checked his projectile weapon and began the crawl up the hillside. He went slowly. Time had lost its meaning. After this is done you have lost the best thing.

He could see the light when he got around the first bend of the cave. It flickered on the rock walls of the cave. Dargan edged forward very carefully, clearing the way of tiny rocks, so that his progress would be noiseless. The mechanical legs dragged soundlessly behind him, muffled in the trousers that covered them.

There was a fire and the Knau lay next to it. Dargan could see its chest move up and down as it gulped for air, its face tightened with pain. Another Knau, a female, was tending the wound, and Dargan felt exultation.

Two!

He swung the gun on target and it made a small noise against the cave floor. Both of the Knau turned to face him and there was a moment of no movement as they stared at him and he stared back.

His hands were wet with perspiration. He knew, in that instant that they were not going to try to do anything — to fight. They were only waiting for him to pull the trigger.

The fire flickered and his eyes became more used to the light. For the first time he saw the male Knau’s legs and knew the reason for the strangeness of the tracks. The legs were twisted, and two of the four were missing. A steel aid was belted around the Knau’s body, to give it balance, making a tripod for walking. The two legs that were left were cross-hatched with the scars of imperfect plastic surgery.

Dargan pulled himself to his feet, still not taking the gun off the two by the fire. He saw the male glance at the metallic limbs he revealed beneath his pants cuff. And he saw the same look come into the Knau’s eyes that he knew was in his own.

Then carefully Dargan let the safety down on the pro gun and went to help the female in treating the male.

It should have ended there of course. For what does one single act, a single forgiveness by two, mean in a war of a hundred years?

And it would have ended if the Knau empire had not taken that particular small planet back again and if the particular Knau that Dargan had tracked and spared had not been one of the mighty ones — who make decisions, or at least influence them.

But that Knau was.

But before the Knau empire retook Pasman it meant something too. It meant a small offering of flowers on Dargan’s doorstep the morning following the tracking and, in the year before they came again, a friendship. It meant waking without hate in the mornings and it meant the light that came into Martha’s eyes.

And Dargan’s peace became our peace.

/S/Samuel Cardings,
Gen. (Ret.) TA
Ambassador to Knau Empire

 

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The year this story was published, it won the Hugo Award for best science fiction short story. It’s an intelligent, beautifully-constructed example of why Clarke, who died in 2008, was regarded so highly in the field.

————

The Nine Billion Names of God

By Arthur C. Clarke
Published in 1953

“This is a slightly unusual request,” said Dr. Wagner, with what he hoped was commendable restraint. “As far as I know, it’s the first time anyone’s been asked to supply a Tibetan monastery with an automatic sequence computer. I don’t wish to be inquisitive, but I should hardly thought that your — ah — establishment had much use for such a machine. Could you explain just what you intend to do with it?”

“Gladly,” replied the lama, readjusting his silk robe and carefully putting away the slide rule he had been using for currency conversions. “Your Mark V computer can carry out any routine mathematical operation involving up to ten digits. However, for our work we are interested in letters, not numbers. As we wish you to modify the output circuits, the machine will be printing words, not columns of figures.”

“I don’t understand…”

“This is a project on which we have been working for the last three centuries — since the lamasery was founded, in fact. It is somewhat alien to your way of thought, so I hope you will listen with an open mind while I explain it.”

“Naturally.”

“It is really quite simple. We have been compiling a list which shall contain all the possible names of God.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We have reason to believe,” continued the lama imperturbably, “that all such names can be written with not more than nine letters in an alphabet we have devised.”

“And you have been doing this for three centuries?”

“Yes. We expected it would take us about fifteen thousand years to complete the task.”

“Oh.” Dr. Wagner looked a little dazed. “Now I see why you wanted to hire one of our machines. But exactly what is the purpose of this project?”

The lama hesitated for a fraction of a second, and Wagner wondered if he had offended him. If so, there was no trace of annoyance in the reply.

“Call it ritual, if you like, but it’s a fundamental part of our belief. All the many names of the Supreme Being — God, Jehovah, Allah, and so on — they are only man-made labels. There is a philosophical problem of some difficulty here, which I do not propose to discuss, but somewhere among all the possible combinations of letters, which can occur, are what one may call the real names of God. By systematic permutation of letters, we have been trying to list them all.”

“I see. You’ve been starting at AAAAAAAAA… and working up to ZZZZZZZZZ…”

“Exactly — though we use a special alphabet of our own. Modifying the electromatic typewriters to deal with this is, of course, trivial. A rather more interesting problem is that of devising suitable circuits to eliminate ridiculous combinations. For example, no letter must occur more than three times in succession.”

“Three? Surely you mean two.”

“Three is correct. I am afraid it would take too long to explain why, even if you understood our language.”

“I’m sure it would,” said Wagner hastily. “Go on.”

“Luckily it will be a simple matter to adapt your automatic sequence computer for this work, since once it has been programmed properly it will permute each letter in turn and print the result. What would have taken us fifteen thousand years it will be able to do in a thousand days.”

Dr. Wagner was scarcely conscious of the faint sounds from the Manhattan streets far below. He was in a different world, a world of natural, not man-made, mountains. High up in their remote aeries these monks had been patiently at work, generation after generation, compiling their lists of meaningless words. Was there any limit to the follies of mankind? Still, he must give no hint of his inner thoughts. The customer was always right…

“There’s no doubt,” replied the doctor, “that we can modify the Mark V to print lists of this nature. I’m much more worried about the problem of installation and maintenance. Getting out to Tibet, in these days, is not going to be easy.”

“We can arrange that. The components are small enough to travel by air — that is one reason why we chose your machine. If you can get them to India, we will provide transport from there.”

“And you want to hire two of our engineers?”

“Yes, for the three months which the project should occupy.”

“I’ve no doubt that Personnel can manage that.” Dr. Wagner scribbled a note on his desk pad. “There are just two other points –”

Before he could finish the sentence, the lama had produced a small slip of paper.

“This is my certified credit balance at the Asiatic Bank.”

“Thank you. It appears to be — ah — adequate. The second matter is so trivial that I hesitate to mention it — but it’s surprising how often the obvious gets overlooked. What source of electrical energy have you?”

“A diesel generator providing 50 kilowatts at 110 volts. It was installed about five years ago and is quite reliable. It’s made life at the lamasery much more comfortable, but of course it was really installed to provide power for the motors driving the prayer wheels.”

“Of course,” echoed Dr. Wagner. “I should have thought of that.”

The view from the parapet was vertiginous, but in time one gets used to anything. After three months, George Hanley was not impressed by the two-thousand-foot swoop into the abyss or the remote checkerboard of fields in the valley below. He was leaning against the wind-smoothed stones and staring morosely at the distant mountains whose names he had never bothered to discover.

This, thought George, was the craziest thing that had ever happened to him. “Project Shangri-La,” some wit at the labs had christened it. For weeks now, Mark V had been churning out acres of sheets covered with gibberish. Patiently, inexorably, the computer had been rearranging letters in all their possible combinations, exhausting each class before going on to the next. As the sheets had emerged from the electromatic typewriters, the monks had carefully cut them up and pasted them into enormous books.

In another week, heaven be praised, they would have finished. Just what obscure calculations had convinced the monks that they needn’t bother to go on to words of 10, 20, or 100 letters, George didn’t know.

One of his recurring nightmares was that there would be some change of plan and that the High Lama (whom they’d naturally called Sam Jaffe, though he didn’t look a bit like him) would suddenly announce that the project would be extended to approximately 2060 A.D. They were quite capable of it.

George heard the heavy wooden door slam in the wind as Chuck came out onto the parapet beside him. As usual, Chuck was smoking one of the cigars that made him so popular with the monks — who, it seemed, were quite willing to embrace all the minor and most of the major pleasures of life. That was one thing in their favor: they might be crazy, but they weren’t bluenoses. Those frequent trips they took down to the village, for instance…”

“Listen, George,” said Chuck urgently. “I’ve learned something that means trouble.”

“What’s wrong? Isn’t the machine behaving?” That was the worst contingency George could imagine. It might delay his return, than which nothing could be more horrible. The way he felt now, even the sight of a TV commercial would seem like manna from heaven. At least it would be some link from home.

“No — it’s nothing like that.” Chuck settled himself on the parapet, which was unusual, because normally he was scared of the drop.

“I’ve just found out what all this is about.”

“What d’ya mean — I thought we knew.”

“Sure — we know what the monks are trying to do. But we didn’t know why. It’s the craziest thing –”

“Tell me something new,” growled George.

” — but old Sam’s just come clean with me. You know the way he drops in every afternoon to watch the sheets roll out. Well, this time he seemed rather excited, or at least as near as he’ll ever get to it. When I told him we were on the last cycle he asked me, in that cute English accent of his, if I’d ever wondered what they were trying to do. I said, ‘Sure’ — and he told me.”

“Go on, I’ll buy it.”

“Well, they believe that when they have listed all His names — and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them — God’s purpose will have been achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won’t be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy.”

“Then what do they expect us to do? Commit suicide?”

“There’s no need for that. When the list’s completed, God steps in and simply winds things up… bingo!”

“Oh, I get it. When we finish our job, it will be the end of the world.”

Chuck gave a nervous little laugh.

“That’s just what I said to Sam. And do you know what happened? He looked at me in a very queer way, like I’d been stupid in class, and said, ‘It’s nothing as trivial as that’.”

George thought this over for a moment.

“That’s what I call taking the Wide View,” he said presently.

“But what d’ya suppose we should do about it? I don’t see that it makes the slightest difference to us. After all, we already knew that they were crazy.”

“Yes — but don’t you see what may happen? When the list’s complete and the Last Trump doesn’t blow — or whatever it is that they expect — we may get the blame. It’s our machine they’ve been using. I don’t like the situation one little bit.”

“I see,” said George slowly. “You’ve got a point there. But this sort of thing’s happened here before, you know. When I was a kid down in Louisiana we had a crackpot preacher who said the world was going to end next Sunday. Hundreds of people believed him — even sold their homes. Yet nothing happened; they didn’t turn nasty, as you’d expect. They just decided that he’d made a mistake in his calculations and went right on believing. I guess some of them still do.”

“Well, this isn’t Louisiana, in case you  hadn’t noticed. There are just two of us and hundreds of these monks. I like them, and I’ll be sorry for old Sam when his lifework backfires on him. But all the same, I wish I was somewhere else.”

“I’ve been wishing that for weeks. But there’s nothing we can do until the contract’s finished and the transport arrives to fly us out.”

“Of course,” said Chuck thoughtfully, “we could always try a bit of sabotage.”

“Like hell we could! That would make things worse.”

“Not the way I meant. Look at it like this. The machine will finish its run four days from now, on the present twenty-hours-a-day basis. The transport calls in a week. O.K., then all we need to do is to find something that wants replacing during one of the overhaul periods — something that will hold up the works for a couple of days.

We’ll fix it, of course, but not too quickly. If we time matters properly, we can be down at the airfield when the last name pops out of the register. They won’t be able to catch us then.”

“I don’t like it,” said George. “It will be the first time I ever walked out on a job. Besides, it would make them suspicious. No, I’ll sit tight and take what comes.”

“I still don’t like it,” he said seven days later, as the tough little mountain ponies carried them down the winding road. “And don’t you think I’m running away because I’m afraid. I’m just sorry for those poor old guys up there, and I don’t want to be around when they find what suckers they’ve been. Wonder how Sam will take it?”

“It’s funny,” replied Chuck, “but when I said goodbye I got the idea he knew we were walking out on him — and that he didn’t care because he knew the machine was running smoothly and that the job would soon be finished. After that — well, of course, for him there just isn’t any After That…”

George turned in his saddle and stared back up the mountain road. This was the last place from which one could get a clear view of the lamasery. The squat, angular buildings were silhouetted against the afterglow of the sunset; here and there lights gleamed like portholes in the sides of an ocean liner. Electric lights, of course, sharing the same circuit as the Mark V.

How much longer would they share it? wondered George. Would the monks smash up the computer in their rage and disappointment? Or would they just sit down quietly and begin their calculations all over again?

He knew exactly what was happening up on the mountain at this very moment. The High Lama and his assistants would be sitting in their silk robes, inspecting the sheets as the junior monks carried them away from the typewriters and pasted them into the great volumes. No one would be saying anything. The only sound would be the incessant patter, the never-ending rainstorm, of the keys hitting the paper, for the Mark V itself was utterly silent as it flashed through its thousands of calculations a second. Three months of this, thought George, was enough to start anyone climbing up the wall.

“There she is!” called Chuck, pointing down into the valley. “Ain’t she beautiful!”

She certainly was, thought George. The battered old DC-3 lay at the end of the runway like a tiny silver cross. In two hours she would be bearing them away to freedom and sanity. It was a thought worth savoring like a fine liqueur. George let it roll around in his mind as the pony trudged patiently down the slope.

The swift night of the high Himalayas was now almost upon them. Fortunately the road was very good, as roads went in this region, and they were both carrying torches. There was not the slightest danger, only a certain discomfort from the bitter cold.

The sky overhead was perfectly clear and ablaze with the familiar, friendly stars. At least there would be no risk, thought George, of the pilot being unable to take off because of weather conditions. That had been his only remaining worry.

He began to sing but gave it up after a while. This vast arena of mountains, gleaming like whitely hooded ghosts on every side, did not encourage such ebullience. Presently George glanced at his watch.

“Should be there in an hour,” he called back over his shoulder to Chuck. Then he added, in an afterthought, “Wonder if the computer’s finished its run? It was due about now.”

Chuck didn’t reply, so George swung round in his saddle. He could just see Chuck’s face, a white oval turned toward the sky.

“Look,” whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.)

Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.

Diagram of some of the names of God in a translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

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