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Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

The concept in literature and the movies of a fictional universe, a fully-formed imaginary world, goes way back. Thomas More wrote Utopia in the 1500s. Conan the Barbarian appeared in the 1930s. The Lensman sci-fi novels came out between the 1930s and the 1960s.

We have the worlds of Middle Earth, Narnia, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones. Not to mention the endless parade of comic book superheros. (A tiresome fad that I wish would go away, but, alas, will not.)

This proliferation of alternate realities surely says something about society, the national psyche, and the mentality of the average Joe.

But I’m not here to address that. I want to gripe about something that has mystified me for years — specifically, since 1977, when the original Star Wars movie came out.

Why, I want to know, do the characters and places in the Star Wars movies have such dopey, feeble names? With very few exceptions, Star Wars names are turkeys. Gutterballs.

In most fictional universes, the creators take special pride in the names they choose. Names are an opportunity to make a statement. Names can be revealing, evocative, dramatic. At minimum, you want them to be appealing and memorable.

Not in the world of Star Wars. In Star Wars, the names elicit a “Whaaaa???”

Take, for example, this list of duds:

– Chewbacca
– Lando Calrissian
– Jar Jar Binks
– Qui-Gon Jinn
– Poe Dameron

Yes, I know, Star Wars is popular and beloved. Those names and others are now familiar, and people have become accustomed to them. But as character names, what were the writers thinking? Were the names generated at random? Did they just string a few syllables together and move on?

With those possibilities in mind, consider these misfires:

– Emperor Palpatine
– Grand Moff Tarkin
– Darth Vader
– Count Dooku
– Yoda

Palpatine? Grand Moff? Dooku? Huh?

My first suspicion was that Georgia Lucas simply has a creative blind spot for names. Indeed, that may be the case. But when Disney assimilated Lucasfilm in 2012, the names, if anything, got worse.

For example, here are the main characters in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story:

– Cassian Andor
– Jyn Erso
– Baze Malbus
– Chirrut Îmwe
– Bodhi Rook
– Saw Gerrera
– Mon Mothma

With a little effort, I was able to commit the first two names to memory. But the others? Ha!

In contrast, consider some of the character names created by J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling in their Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter novels.

Tolkien gave us these excellent and emotive names:

– Aragorn, son of Arathorn
– Thorin Oakenshield
– Smaug
– Arwen Evenstar
– Meriadoc Brandybuck

Rowling matched him with these:

– Hermione Granger
– Albus Dumbledore
– Severus Snape
– Nymphadora Tonks
– Draco Malfoy

As for place names, here are some destinations in Middle Earth:

– The Shire
– Rivendell
– Fanghorn Forest
– Mordor
Lothlórien

Place names in the world of Harry Potter:

– Hogwarts
– Little Whinging
– Slytherin House
– Ollivander’s, Makers of Fine Wands Since 382 BC
St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries

Meanwhile, in the Star Wars universe:

– Naboo
– Dagobah
– Mos Eisley
– Tatooine
– Hoth

The pattern is clear and painful.

Part of the explanation may be that, as a creative enterprise, Star Wars doesn’t come close to Tolkien or Rowling. Mind you, I’m as fond of Star Wars as the next guy. But viewing them as artistic works, if Tolkien is George Washington and Rowling is Abraham Lincoln, Star Wars is Donald Trump.

That aside, being a lesser form of art is no excuse for:

– Padmé Amidala
– Obi-Wan Kenobi
– Darth Maul
– Biggs Darklighter
– Jek Porkins

Remember, I brought up this subject because I find it curious and a little baffling. I didn’t say it was remotely significant or consequential.

But Jek Porkins? Seriously?

Jek Porkins

Jek “Piggy” Porkins, X-wing pilot for the Rebel Alliance, call sign Red Six, a casualty of the Battle of Yavin. (Yavin?)

 

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Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988), known as the “dean of science fiction writers,” was brilliant, influential, and, throughout his career, controversial.

Heinlein was a libertarian, a nudist, and a proponent of the free love social movement. He believed that only a world government, ruling all nations, can prevent nuclear annihilation. Many of his personal beliefs were openly reflected in his novels and short stories.

Naturally, his themes about sexuality brought criticism. Some of his stories dealt with pedophilia. Several times, he employed a special workaround to make adult-child relationships less offputting: he transformed the child into an adult through time travel.

In the short story below, Heinlein used time travel and multiple paradoxes to take the issues of gender and procreation (not pedophilia this time) to a head-spinning extreme. The fact that the story makes any logical sense is a tribute to Heinlein’s creativity and skill.

At the end of the story, I’ve included a graphic timeline that may be useful. Also, a good plot summary is here, but, hey — read the story first.

———

‘–All You Zombies–‘”

By Robert A. Heinlein
Published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1959

2217 Time Zone V (EST) 7 Nov. 1970 NYC — “Pop’s Place”: I was polishing a brandy snifter when the Unmarried Mother came in. I noted the time — 10:17 P. M. zone five, or eastern time, November 7th, 1970. Temporal agents always notice time and date; we must.

The Unmarried Mother was a man twenty-five years old, no taller than I am, childish features and a touchy temper. I didn’t like his looks — I never had — but he was a lad I was here to recruit, he was my boy. I gave him my best barkeep’s smile.

Maybe I’m too critical. He wasn’t swish; his nickname came from what he always said when some nosy type asked him his line: “I’m an unmarried mother.” If he felt less than murderous he would add: “at four cents a word. I write confession stories.”

If he felt nasty, he would wait for somebody to make something of it. He had a lethal style of infighting, like a female cop — reason I wanted him. Not the only one.

He had a load on, and his face showed that he despised people more than usual. Silently I poured a double shot of Old Underwear and left the bottle. He drank it, poured another.

I wiped the bar top. “How’s the ‘Unmarried Mother’ racket?”

His fingers tightened on the glass and he seemed about to throw it at me; I felt for the sap under the bar. In temporal manipulation you try to figure everything, but there are so many factors that you never take needless risks.

I saw him relax that tiny amount they teach you to watch for in the Bureau’s training school. “Sorry,” I said. “Just asking, ‘How’s business?’ Make it ‘How’s the weather?'”

He looked sour. “Business is okay. I write ’em, they print ’em, I eat.”

I poured myself one, leaned toward him. “Matter of fact,” I said, “you write a nice stick — I’ve sampled a few. You have an amazingly sure touch with the woman’s angle.”

It was a slip I had to risk; he never admitted what pen-names he used. But he was boiled enough to pick up only the last: “‘Woman’s angle!'” he repeated with a snort. “Yeah, I know the woman’s angle. I should.”

“So?” I said doubtfully. “Sisters?”

“No. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Now, now,” I answered mildly, “bartenders and psychiatrists learn that nothing is stranger than truth. Why, son, if you heard the stories I do — well, you’d make yourself rich. Incredible.”

“You don’t know what ‘incredible’ means!”

“So? Nothing astonishes me. I’ve always heard worse.” He snorted again. “Want to bet the rest of the bottle?”

“I’ll bet a full bottle.” I placed one on the bar.

“Well –” I signaled my other bartender to handle the trade. We were at the far end, a single-stool space that I kept private by loading the bar top by it with jars of pickled eggs and other clutter. A few were at the other end watching the fights and somebody was playing the juke box — private as a bed where we were.

“Okay,” he began, “to start with, I’m a bastard.”

“No distinction around here,” I said.

“I mean it,” he snapped. “My parents weren’t married.”

“Still no distinction,” I insisted. “Neither were mine.”

“When –” He stopped, gave me the first warm look I ever saw on him. “You mean that?”

“I do. A one-hundred-percent bastard. In fact,” I added, “no one in my family ever marries. All bastards.”

“Oh, that.” I showed it to him. “It just looks like a wedding ring; I wear it to keep women off.” It is an antique I bought in 1985 from a fellow operative — he had fetched it from pre-Christian Crete. “The Worm Ouroboros… the World Snake that eats its own tail, forever without end. A symbol of the Great Paradox.”

He barely glanced at it. “If you’re really a bastard, you know how it feels. When I was a little girl –”

“Wups!” I said. “Did I hear you correctly?”

“Who’s telling this story? When I was a little girl — Look, ever hear of Christine Jorgenson? Or Roberta Cowell?”

“Uh, sex-change cases? You’re trying to tell me –”

“Don’t interrupt or swelp me, I won’t talk. I was a foundling, left at an orphanage in Cleveland in 1945 when I was a month old. When I was a little girl, I envied kids with parents. Then, when I learned about sex — and, believe me, Pop, you learn fast in an orphanage –”

“I know.”

“– I made a solemn vow that any kid of mine would have both a pop and a mom. It kept me ‘pure,’ quite a feat in that vicinity — I had to learn to fight to manage it. Then I got older and realized I stood darn little chance of getting married — for the same reason I hadn’t been adopted.” He scowled. “I was horse-faced and buck-toothed, flat-chested and straight-haired.”

“You don’t look any worse than I do.”

“Who cares how a barkeep looks? Or a writer? But people wanting to adopt pick little blue-eyed golden-haired morons. Later on, the boys want bulging breasts, a cute face, and an Oh-you-wonderful-male manner.” He shrugged. “I couldn’t compete. So I decided to join the W.E.N.C.H.E.S.

“Eh?”

“Women’s Emergency National Corps, Hospitality & Entertainment Section, what they now call ‘Space Angels’ — Auxiliary Nursing Group, Extraterrestrial Legions.'”

I knew both terms, once I had them chronized. We use still a third name, it’s that elite military service corps: Women’s Hospitality Order Refortifying & Encouraging Spacemen. Vocabulary shift is the worst hurdle in time-jumps — did you know that a ‘service station’ once served oil fractions?

Once on an assignment in the Churchill Era, a woman said to me, ‘Meet me at the service station next door’ — which is not what it sounds; a ‘service station’ (then) wouldn’t have a bed in it.

He went on: “It was when they first admitted you can’t send men into space for months and years and not relieve the tension. You remember how the wowsers screamed? — that improved my chance, since volunteers were scarce. A gal had to be respectable, preferably virgin (they liked to train them from scratch), above average mentally, and stable emotionally. But most volunteers were old hookers, or neurotics who would crack up ten days off Earth.

So I didn’t need looks; if they accepted me, they would fix my buck teeth, put a wave in my hair, teach me to walk and dance and how to listen to a man pleasingly, and everything else — plus training for the prime duties. They would even use plastic surgery if it would help — nothing too good for our Boys.

“Best yet, they made sure you didn’t get pregnant during your enlistment — and you were almost certain to marry at the end of your hitch. Same way today, A.N.G.E.L.S. marry spacers — they talk the language.

“When I was eighteen I was placed as a ‘mother’s helper’. This family simply wanted a cheap servant, but I didn’t mind as I couldn’t enlist till I was twenty-one. I did housework and went to night school — pretending to continue my high school typing and shorthand but going to a charm class instead, to better my chances for enlistment.

“Then I met this city slicker with his hundred-dollar bills.” He scowled. “The no-good actually did have a wad of hundred-dollar bills. He showed me one night, told me to help myself.

“But I didn’t. I liked him. He was the first man I ever met who was nice to me without trying games with me. I quit night school to see him oftener. It was the happiest time of my life.

“Then one night in the park the games began.”

He stopped. I said, “And then?”

“And then nothing! I never saw him again. He walked me home and told me he loved me — and kissed me good-night and never came back.” He looked grim. “If I could find him, I’d kill him!”

“Well,” I sympathized, “I know how you feel. But killing him — just for doing what comes naturally — hmm… Did you struggle?”

“Huh? What’s that got to do with it?”

“Quite a bit. Maybe he deserves a couple of broken arms for running out on you, but –”

“He deserves worse than that! Wait till you hear. Somehow I kept anyone from suspecting and decided it was all for the best. I hadn’t really loved him and probably would never love anybody — and I was more eager to join the W.E.N.C.H.E.S. than ever. I wasn’t disqualified, they didn’t insist on virgins. I cheered up.

“It wasn’t until my skirts got tight that I realized.”

“Pregnant?”

“He had me higher ‘n a kite! Those skinflints I lived with ignored it as long as I could work — then kicked me out, and the orphanage wouldn’t take me back. I landed in a charity ward surrounded by other big bellies and trotted bedpans until my time came.

“One night I found myself on an operating table, with a nurse saying, ‘Relax. Now breathe deeply.’

“I woke up in bed, numb from the chest down. My surgeon came in. ‘How do you feel?’ he says cheerfully.

“‘Like a mummy.’

“‘Naturally. You’re wrapped like one and full of dope to keep you numb. You’ll get well — but a Cesarean isn’t a hangnail.’

“‘Cesarean’ I said. ‘Doc — did I lose the baby?’

“‘Oh, no. Your baby’s fine.’

“Oh. Boy or girl?

“‘A healthy little girl. Five pounds, three ounces.’

“I relaxed. It’s something, to have made a baby. I told myself I would go somewhere and tack ‘Mrs.’ on my name and let the kid think her papa was dead — no orphanage for my kid!

“But the surgeon was talking. ‘Tell me, uh –‘ He avoided my name. ‘did you ever think your glandular setup was odd?’

“I said, ‘Huh? Of course not. What are you driving at?’

“He hesitated. ‘I’ll give you this in one dose, then a hypo to let you sleep off your jitters. You’ll have ’em.’

“‘Why?’ I demanded.

“‘Ever hear of that Scottish physician who was female until she was thirty five? — then had surgery and became legally and medically a man? Got married. All okay.’

“‘What’s that got to do with me?’

“‘That’s what I’m saying. You’re a man.’

“I tried to sit up. ‘What?’

“‘Take it easy. When I opened you, I found a mess. I sent for the Chief of Surgery while I got the baby out, then we held a consultation with you on the table — and worked for hours to salvage what we could. You had two full sets of organs, both immature, but with the female set well enough developed for you to have a baby.

“’They could never be any use to you again, so we took them out and rearranged things so that you can develop properly as a man.’ He put a hand on me. ‘Don’t worry. You’re young, your bones will readjust, we’ll watch your glandular balance — and make a fine young man out of you.’

“I started to cry. ‘What about my baby?’

“‘Well, you can’t nurse her, you haven’t milk enough for a kitten. If I were you, I wouldn’t see her — put her up for adoption.’

“‘No!’

“He shrugged. ‘The choice is yours; you’re her mother — well, her parent. But don’t worry now; we’ll get you well first.’

“Next day they let me see the kid and I saw her daily — trying to get used to her. I had never seen a brand-new baby and had no idea how awful they look — my daughter looked like an orange monkey. My feelings changed to cold determination to do right by her. But four weeks later that didn’t mean anything.”

“Eh?”

“She was snatched.”

“‘Snatched?'”

The Unmarried Mother almost knocked over the bottle we had bet. “Kidnapped — stolen from the hospital nursery!” He breathed hard. “How’s that for taking the last a man’s got to live for?”

“A bad deal,” I agreed. “Let’s pour you another. No clues?”

“Nothing the police could trace. Somebody came to see her, claimed to be her uncle. While the nurse had her back turned, he walked out with her.”

“Description?”

“Just a man, with a face-shaped face, like yours or mine.” He frowned. “I think it was the baby’s father. The nurse swore it was an older man but he probably used makeup. Who else would swipe my baby? Childless women pull such stunts — but whoever heard of a man doing it?”

“What happened to you then?”

“Eleven more months of that grim place and three operations. In four months I started to grow a beard; before I was out I was shaving regularly… and no longer doubted that I was male.” He grinned wryly. “I was staring down nurses necklines.”

“Well,” I said, “seems to me you came through okay. Here you are, a normal man, making good money, no real troubles. And the life of a female is not an easy one.”

He glared at me. “A lot you know about it!”

“So?”

“Ever hear the expression ‘a ruined woman’?”

“Mmm, years ago. Doesn’t mean much today.”

“I was as ruined as a woman can be; that bum really ruined me — I was no longer a woman… and I didn’t know how to be a man.”

“Takes getting used to, I suppose.”

“You have no idea. I don’t mean learning how to dress, or not walking into the wrong rest room; I learned those in the hospital. But how could I live? What job could I get? Hell, I couldn’t even drive a car. I didn’t know a trade; I couldn’t do manual labor — too much scar tissue, too tender.

“I hated him for having ruined me for the W.E.N.C.H.E.S., too, but I didn’t know how much until I tried to join the Space Corps instead. One look at my belly and I was marked unfit for military service. The medical officer spent time on me just from curiosity; he had read about my case.

“So I changed my name and came to New York. I got by as a fry cook, then rented a typewriter and set myself up as a public stenographer — what a laugh! In four months I typed four letters and one manuscript. The manuscript was for Real Life Tales and a waste of paper, but the goof who wrote it sold it.

“Which gave me an idea; I bought a stack of confession magazines and studied them.” He looked cynical. “Now you know how I get the authentic woman’s angle on an unmarried-mother story… through the only version I haven’t sold — the true one. Do I win the bottle?”

I pushed it toward him. I was upset myself, but there was work to do. I said, “Son, you still want to lay hands on that so-and-so?”

His eyes lighted up — a feral gleam.

“Hold it!” I said. “You wouldn’t kill him?”

He chuckled nastily. “Try me.”

“Take it easy. I know more about it than you think I do. I can help you. I know where he is.”

He reached across the bar. “Where is he?”

I said softly, “Let go my shirt, sonny — or you’ll land in the alley and we’ll tell the cops you fainted.” I showed him the sap.

He let go. “Sorry. But where is he?” He looked at me. “And how do you know so much?”

“All in good time. There are records — hospital records, orphanage records, medical records. The matron of your orphanage was Mrs. Fetherage — right? She was followed by Mrs. Gruenstein — right? Your name, as a girl, was ‘Jane’ — right? And you didn’t tell me any of this — right?”

I had him baffled and a bit scared. “What’s this? You trying to make trouble for me?”

“No indeed. I’ve your welfare at heart. I can put this character in your lap. You do to him as you see fit — and I guarantee that you’ll get away with it. But I don’t think you’ll kill him. You’d be nuts to — and you aren’t nuts. Not quite.”

He brushed it aside. “Cut the noise. Where is he?” I poured him a short one; he was drunk, but anger was offsetting it. “Not so fast. I do something for you — you do something for me.”

“Uh… what?”

“You don’t like your work. What would you say to high pay, steady work, unlimited expense account, your own boss on the job, and lots of variety and adventure?”

He stared. “I’d say, ‘Get those goddam reindeer off my roof!’ Shove it, Pop — there’s no such job.”

“Okay, put it this way: I hand him to you, you settle with him, then try my job. If it’s not all I claim — well, I can’t hold you.”

He was wavering; the last drink did it. “When d’yuh d’liver ‘im?” he said thickly.

He shoved out his hand. “It’s a deal!”

“If it’s a deal — right now!”

I nodded to my assistant to watch both ends, noted the time — 2300 — started to duck through the gate under the bar — when the juke box blared out: “I’m My Own Grandpa!” The service man had orders to load it with Americana and classics because I couldn’t stomach the ‘music’ of 1970, but I hadn’t known that tape was in it.

I called out, “Shut that off! Give the customer his money back.” I added, “Storeroom, back in a moment,” and headed there with my Unmarried Mother following.

It was down the passage across from the johns, a steel door to which no one but my day manager and myself had a key; inside was a door to an inner room to which only I had a key. We went there.

He looked blearily around at windowless walls. “Where is he?”

“Right away.” I opened a case, the only thing in the room; it was a U. S. F. F. Coordinates Transformer Field Kit, series 1992, Mod. II — a beauty, no moving parts, weight twenty-three kilos fully charged, and shaped to pass as a suitcase. I had adjusted it precisely earlier that day; all I had to do was to shake out the metal net which limits the transformation field.

Which I did. “What’s that?” he demanded.

“Time machine,” I said and tossed the net over us.

“Hey!” he yelled and stepped back. There is a technique to this; the net has to be thrown so that the subject will instinctively step back onto the metal mesh, then you close the net with both of you inside completely — else you might leave shoe soles behind or a piece of foot, or scoop up a slice of floor. But that’s all the skill it takes. Some agents con a subject into the net; I tell the truth and use that instant of utter astonishment to flip the switch. Which I did.

1030 VI 3 April 1963Cleveland, Ohio Apex Bldg.: “Hey!” he repeated. “Take this damn thing off!”

“Sorry”, I apologized and did so, stuffed the net into the case, closed it. “You said you wanted to find him.”

“But — you said that was a time machine!”

I pointed out a window. “Does that look like November? Or New York?” While he was gawking at new buds and spring weather, I reopened the case, took out a packet of hundred-dollar bills, checked that the numbers and signatures were compatible with 1963. The Temporal Bureau doesn’t care how much you spend (it costs nothing) but they don’t like unnecessary anachronisms. Too many mistakes, and a general court-martial will exile you for a year in a nasty period, say 1974 with its strict rationing and forced labor. I never make such mistakes; the money was okay.

He turned around and said, “What happened?”

“He’s here. Go outside and take him. Here’s expense money.” I shoved it at him and added, “Settle him, then I’ll pick you up.”

Hundred-dollar bills have a hypnotic effect on a person not used to them. He was thumbing them unbelievingly as I eased him into the hall, locked him out. The next jump was easy, a small shift in era.

7100 VI 10 March 1964 Cleveland Apex Bldg.: There was a notice under the door saying that my lease expired next week; otherwise the room looked as it had a moment before. Outside, trees were bare and snow threatened; I hurried, stopping only for contemporary money and a coat, hat, and topcoat I had left there when I leased the room. I hired a car, went to the hospital. It took twenty minutes to bore the nursery attendant to the point where I could swipe the baby without being noticed. We went back to the Apex Building. This dial setting was more involved, as the building did not yet exist in 1945. But I had precalculated it.

0100 VI 20 Sept. 1945 Cleveland Skyview Motel: Field kit, baby, and I arrived in a motel outside town. Earlier I had registered as “Gregory Johnson, Warren, Ohio,” so we arrived in a room with curtains closed, windows locked, and doors bolted, and the floor cleared to allow for waver as the machine hunts. You can get a nasty bruise from a chair where it shouldn’t be — not the chair, of course, but backlash from the field.

No trouble. Jane was sleeping soundly; I carried her out, put her in a grocery box on the seat of a car I had provided earlier, drove to the orphanage, put her on the steps, drove two blocks to a ‘service station’ (the petroleum-products sort) and phoned the orphanage, drove back in time to see them taking the box inside, kept going and abandoned the car near the motel — walked to it and jumped forward to the Apex Building in 1963.

2200 VI 24 April 1963 Cleveland Apex Bldg.: I had cut the time rather fine — temporal accuracy depends on span, except on return to zero. If I had it right, Jane was discovering, out in the park this balmy spring night, that she wasn’t quite as nice a girl as she had thought. I grabbed a taxi to the home of those skinflints, had the hackie wait around a comer while I lurked in shadows.

Presently I spotted them down the street, arms around each other. He took her up on the porch and made a long job of kissing her good-night — longer than I thought. Then she went in and he came down the walk, turned away. I slid into step and hooked an arm in his. “That’s all, son,” I announced quietly. “I’m back to pick you up.”

“You!” He gasped and caught his breath.

“Me. Now you know who he is — and after you think it over you’ll know who you are… and if you think hard enough, you’ll figure out who the baby is… and who I am.”

He didn’t answer, he was badly shaken. It’s a shock to have it proved to you that you can’t resist seducing yourself. I took him to the Apex Building and we jumped again.

2300 VIII12 Aug. 1985 Sub Rockies Base: I woke the duty sergeant, showed my I. D., told the sergeant to bed my companion down with a happy pill and recruit him in the morning. The sergeant looked sour, but rank is rank, regardless of era; he did what I said — thinking, no doubt, that the next time we met he might be the colonel and I the sergeant. Which can happen in our corps. “What name?” he asked.

I wrote it out. He raised his eyebrows. “Like so, eh? Hmm –”

“You just do your job, Sergeant.” I turned to my companion.

“Son, your troubles are over. You’re about to start the best job a man ever held — and you’ll do well. I know.”

“That you will!” agreed the sergeant. “Look at me — born in 1917 — still around, still young, still enjoying life.” I went back to the jump room, set everything on preselected zero.

2301 V 7 Nov. 1970 NYC “Pop’s Place”: I came out of the storeroom carrying a fifth of Drambuie to account for the minute I had been gone. My assistant was arguing with the customer who had been playing “I’m My Own Grandpa!” I said, “Oh, let him play it, then unplug it.” I was very tired.

It’s rough, but somebody must do it, and it’s very hard to recruit anyone in the later years, since the Mistake of 1972. Can you think of a better source than to pick people all fouled up where they are and give them well-paid, interesting (even though dangerous) work in a necessary cause? Everybody knows now why the Fizzle War of 1963 fizzled. The bomb with New York’s number on it didn’t go off, a hundred other things didn’t go as planned — all arranged by the likes of me.

But not the Mistake of ’72; that one is not our fault — and can’t be undone; there’s no paradox to resolve. A thing either is, or it isn’t, now and forever amen. But there won’t be another like it; an order dated ‘1992’ takes precedence any year.

I closed five minutes early, leaving a letter in the cash register telling my day manager that I was accepting his offer to buy me out, to see my lawyer as I was leaving on a long vacation. The Bureau might or might not pick up his payments, but they want things left tidy. I went to the room in the back of the storeroom and forward to 1993.

2200 VII — 12 Jan 1993 Sub Rockies Annex HQ Temporal DOL: I checked in with the duty officer and went to my quarters, intending to sleep for a week. I had fetched the bottle we bet (after all, I won it) and took a drink before I wrote my report. It tasted foul, and I wondered why I had ever liked Old Underwear. But it was better than nothing; I don’t like to be cold sober, I think too much. But I don’t really hit the bottle either; other people have snakes — I have people.

I dictated my report; forty recruitments all okayed by the Psych Bureau — counting my own, which I knew would be okayed. I was here, wasn’t I? Then I taped a request for assignment to operations; I was sick of recruiting. I dropped both in the slot and headed for bed. My eye fell on ‘The By-Laws of Time,’ over my bed:

– Never Do Yesterday What Should Be Done Tomorrow.
If at Last You Do Succeed, Never Try Again.
– A Stitch in Time Saves Nine Billion.
– A Paradox May Be Paradoctored.
– It Is Earlier When You Think.
– Ancestors Are Just People.
Even Jove Nods.

They didn’t inspire me the way they had when I was a recruit; thirty subjective-years of time-jumping wears you down. I undressed, and when I got down to the hide I looked at my belly. A Cesarean leaves a big scar, but I’m so hairy now that I don’t notice it unless I look for it.

Then I glanced at the ring on my finger.

The Snake That Eats Its Own Tail, Forever and Ever. I know where I came from — but where did all you zombies come from?

I felt a headache coming on, but a headache powder is one thing I do not take. I did once — and you all went away.

So I crawled into bed and whistled out the light.

You aren’t really there at all. There isn’t anybody but me — Jane — here alone in the dark.

I miss you dreadfully!

Ouroborus

 

 

All You Zombies

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Considering the vast resources of the Internet, I thought Googling a name as distinctive as Albert Hernhuter would be fast and fruitful. I was wrong.

Albert Hernhuter is the author of a bunch of science fiction short stories from the 1950s. For reasons unexplained, he published them under five different names: Albert Hernhuter, Al Hernhuter, Albert Hemhuter, Albert Hernhunter, and Bert Ahearne.

Online, I found almost nothing about the guy. I learned that an Albert L. Hernhuter was born in Los Angeles in 1934; that an Albert Leopold Hernhuter published an “aviation weather study guide” in 1967; and that an Albert L. Hernhuter, age 84, now lives in Silver Springs, Maryland.

Is this our Albert Hernhuter? Is it three different Albert Hernhuters? It’s a puzzlement.

Anyway, with that meager introduction, here is one of the Hernhuter short stories, a quirky tale about the line between fantasy and reality, published under his apparent real name.

———

Texas Week

By Albert Hernhuter
Published in Fantastic Universe, January 1954

The slick black car sped along the wide and straight street. It came to a smooth stop in front of a clean white house. A man got out of the car and walked briskly to the door. Reaching out with a pink hand, he pressed the doorbell with one well-manicured finger.

The door was answered by a housewife. She was wearing a white blouse, a green skirt and a green apron trimmed with white. Her feet were tucked into orange slippers, her blonde hair was done up in a neat bun. She was dressed as the government had ordered for that week.

The man said, “You are Mrs. Christopher Nest?”

There was a trace of anxiety in her voice as she answered. “Yes. And you are…?”

“My name is Maxwell Hanstark. As you may already know, I am the official psychiatrist for this district. My appointment will last until the end of this year.”

Mrs. Nest invited him in. They stepped into a clean living-room. At one end was the television set, at the other end were several chairs. There was nothing between the set and the chairs except a large grey rug which stretched from wall to wall. They walked to the chairs and sat down.

“Now, just what is the matter with your husband, Mrs. Nest?”

Mrs. Nest reached into a large bowl and absently picked up a piece of stale popcorn. She daintily placed it in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully before she answered.

“I wish I knew. All he does all day long is sit in the backyard and stare at the grass. He insists that he is standing on top of a cliff.”

Hanstark took out a small pad and a short ball-point pen. He wrote something down before he spoke again. “Is he violent? Did he get angry when you told him there was no cliff?”

Mrs. Nest was silent for a moment. A second piece of popcorn joined the first. Hanstark’s pen was poised above the pad. “No. He didn’t get violent.”

Hanstark wrote as he asked the next question. “Just what was his reaction?”

“He said I must be crazy.”

“Were those his exact words?”

“No. He said that I was –” She thought for a moment — “loco. Yes, that was the word.”

“Loco?”

“Yes. He said it just like those cowboys on the television.”

Hanstark looked puzzled. “Perhaps you had better tell me more about this. When did he first start acting this way?”

Mrs. Nest glanced up at the television set, then back at Hanstark. “It was right after Texas Week. You remember — they showed all of those old cowboy pictures.”

Hanstark nodded.

“Well, he stayed up every night watching them. Some nights he didn’t even go to sleep. Even after the set was off, he sat in one of the chairs, just staring at the screen. This morning, when I got up, he wasn’t in the house. I looked all over but I couldn’t find him. I was just about ready to phone the police when I glanced out the window into the backyard. And I saw him.”

“What was he doing?”

“He was just sitting there in the middle of the yard, staring. I went out and tried to bring him into the house. He told me he had to watch for someone. When I asked him what he was talking about he told me that I was crazy. That was when I phoned you, Mr. Hanstark.”

“A very wise move, Mrs. Nest. And would you show me where your husband is right now?”

She nodded her head and they both got up from the chairs. They walked through the dining-room and kitchen. On the back porch Hanstark came to a halt.

“You’d better stay here, Mrs. Nest.” He walked to the door and opened it.

“Mr. Hanstark,” Mrs. Nest called.

Hanstark turned and saw her standing next to the automatic washing machine. “Yes?”

“Please be careful.”

Hanstark smiled. “I shall be, Mrs. Nest.”

He walked out the door and down three concrete steps. Looking a little to his right, he saw a man squatted on his heels. He walked up to the man. “You are Mr. Christopher Nest?”

The man looked up and stared for a moment at Hanstark. “Yep,” he answered. Then he turned and stared at the grass again.

“And may I ask you what you are doing?”

Nest answered without looking up. “Guardin’ the pass.”

Hanstark scribbled something in his notebook. “And why are you guarding the pass?”

Nest rose to his feet and stared down at Hanstark. “Just what are you askin’ all of these questions for, stranger?”

Hanstark saw Nest was bigger than he and decided to play along for a while. After all, strategy…

“I’m just interested in your welfare, Mr. Nest.”

Nest shrugged his shoulders. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a sack of tobacco and some paper. Holding a piece of paper in one hand, he carefully poured a little tobacco onto it. In one quick movement he rolled the paper and tobacco into a perfect cylinder.

He put the sack of tobacco and paper back into his pocket and took out a wooden kitchen match. He scraped it to life on the sole of his shoe and applied the flame to the tip of the cigarette. He puffed it into life and threw the match away. It burned for a few moments in the moist grass, then went out. A thin trail of smoke rose from it, and then was gone.

“Why are you guarding the pass?” Hanstark asked again.

Nest resumed his crouch on the grass. “News is around that Dirty Dan the cattle rustler is gonna try to steal some of my cattle.” He patted an imaginary holster at his side. “And I aim to stop him.”

Hanstark thought for a moment. Strategy — he must use strategy. “Mr. Nest.” He waited until Nest had turned to him. “Mr. Nest. What would you say if I told you that there was no pass down there?”

“Why shucks, pardner. I’d say you’d been chewin’ some loco weed.”

“And if I could prove it?”

Nest answered after a moment’s pause. “Why then, I guess I’d be loco.”

Hanstark thought it was going to be easy. “Mr. Nest, it is a well known fact that no one can walk in mid-air. Is that not true?”

Nest took a deep drag on his cigarette and blew the smoke out of his nostrils. “Shore.”

“Then if I were to walk out above your pass you’d have to admit there is no pass.”

“Reckon so.”

Hanstark began to walk in the direction of Nest’s “cliff.” Nest jumped to his feet and grabbed the official psychiatrist by the arm.

“What’re you tryin’ to do,” Nest said angrily, “kill yourself?”

Hanstark shook free of his grasp. “Mr. Nest, I am not going to kill myself. I am merely going to walk in that direction.” He pointed to where the cliff was supposed to be. “To you it will look as if I were walking in mid-air.”

Nest dropped his hands to his sides. “Shucks, I don’t care if you kill yourself. It’s just that it’s liable to make the cattle nervous.”

Hanstark gave him a cold glare and began to walk. He took three paces and stopped. “You see, Mr. Nest. There is no cliff.”

Nest looked at him and laughed. “You just take one more step and you’ll find there is a cliff!”

Hanstark took another step — a long one. His face bore a surprised look as he disappeared beneath the grass. His screams could be heard for a moment before he landed on the rocks below.

Nest walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down at the mangled body. He took off his hat in respect. “Little feller had a lotta guts.” Then he added, “Poor little feller.”

He put his hat back on and looked down at the entrance to the valley. A horse and rider appeared from behind several rocks.

“Dirty Dan!” Nest exclaimed. He reached down and picked up his rifle.

Bye-2

 

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This obscure short story by a little-known writer is a fantasy/allegory that makes a small point in an agreeable way, leaving you pleased to have discovered it.

———

Mr. Chipfellow’s Jackpot

By Dick Purcell
Published in Imagination Science Fiction, April 1956.

“I’m getting old,” Sam Chipfellow said, “and old men die.”

His words were an indirect answer to a question from Carter Hagen, his attorney. The two men were standing in an open glade, some distance from Sam Chipfellow’s mansion at Chipfellow’s Folly, this being the name Sam himself had attached to his huge estate.

Sam lived there quite alone except for visits from relatives and those who claimed to be relatives. He needed no servants nor help of any kind because the mansion was completely automatic. Sam did not live alone from choice, but he was highly perceptive and it made him uncomfortable to have relatives around with but one thought in their minds: When are you going to die and leave me some money?

Of course, the relatives could hardly be blamed for entertaining this thought. It came as naturally as breathing because Sam Chipfellow was one of those rare individuals — a scientist who had made money; all kinds of money; more money than almost anybody. And after all, his relatives were no different than those of any other rich man. They felt they had rights.

Sam was known as The Genius of the Space Age, an apt title because there might not have been any space without him. He had been extremely versatile during his long career, having been responsible for the so-called eternal metals — metal against which no temperature, corrosive, or combinations of corrosives would prevail. He was also the pioneer of telepower, the science of control over things mechanical through the electronic emanations of thought waves. Because of his investigations into this power, men were able to direct great ships by merely “thinking” them on their proper courses.

These were only two of his contributions to progress, there being many others. And now, Sam was facing the mystery neither he nor any other scientist had ever been able to solve.

Mortality.

There was a great deal of activity near the point at which the men stood. Drills and rock cutters had formed three sides of an enclosure in a ridge of solid rock, and now a giant crane was lowering thick slabs of metal to form the walls. Nearby, waiting to be placed, lay the slab which would obviously become the door to whatever Sam was building. Its surface was entirely smooth, but it bore great hinges and some sort of a locking device was built in along one edge.

Carter Hagen watched the activity and considered Sam’s reply to his question. “Then this is to be a mausoleum?”

Sam chuckled. “Only in a sense. Not a place to house my dead bones if that’s what you mean.”

Carter Hagen, understanding this lonely old man as he did, knew further questions would be useless. Sam was like that. If he wanted you to know something, he told you.

So Carter held his peace and they returned to the mansion where Sam gave him a drink after they concluded the business he had come on.

Sam also gave Carter something else — an envelope. “Put that in your safe, Carter. You’re comparatively young. I’m taking it for granted you will survive me.”

“And this is –?”

“My will. All old men should leave wills and I’m no exception to the rule. When I’m dead, open it and read what’s inside.”

Carter Hagen regarded the envelope with speculation. Sam smiled. “If you’re wondering how much I left you, Carter, I’ll say this: You might get it all.”

Hagen strove to appear nonchalant but his eyes widened regardless. Sam enjoyed this. He said, “Yes, you’ll have as much chance as anyone else.”

“You mean as much chance as any of your relatives?”

“I mean what I said — as much as anyone. I’ve given them no more consideration than anyone else.”

Carter Hagen stared, puzzled. “I’m afraid I don’t understand you.”

“I didn’t expect you to, but that will come later. I’ll tell you this much, though. No one will be barred. The winner will take all, and the winner may be anyone on this planet. My one regret is that I won’t be around to see who gets the jackpot.”

Carter Hagen dutifully pocketed the will and left. He returned on other business a week later. Sam Chipfellow’s first question was, “Well, what did you think of it?”

“Think of what?”

“My will.”

Carter Hagen straightened to an indignant five-foot-six. “Mr. Chipfellow, I don’t like having my integrity questioned. Your will was in a sealed envelope. You instructed me to read it after your death. If you think I’m the sort of man who would violate a trust –”

Sam put a drink into his attorney’s hand. “Here, take this. Calm down.”

Carter Hagen gulped the drink and allowed his feathers to smooth down. As he set down his glass, Sam leaned back and said, “Now that that’s over, let’s get on with it. Tell me — what did you think of my will?”

The attorney flushed. It was no use trying to fool Chipfellow. He was a master at that damned thought business. “I — I did look at it. I couldn’t resist the temptation. The envelope was so easily opened.”

Sam was regarding him keenly but without anger. “I know you’re a crook, Hagen, but no more so than most people. So don’t sit there cringing.”

“This will is — well, amazing, and getting an advance look didn’t help me a bit unless –” Hagen looked up hopefully. “unless you’re willing to give me a slight clue –”

“I’ll give you nothing. You take your chances along with the rest.”

Hagen sighed. “As to the will itself, all I can say is that it’s bound to cause a sensation.”

“I think so too,” Sam said, his eyes turning a trifle sad. “It’s too bad a man has to die just at the most interesting point of his life.”

“You’ll live for years, Mr. Chipfellow. You’re in fine condition.”

“Cut it out. You’re itching for me to shuffle off so you can get a crack at what I’m leaving behind.”

“Why, Mr. –”

“Shut up and have another drink.”

Carter Hagen did not have long to wait as life-times go. Eighteen months later, Sam Chipfellow dropped dead while walking in his garden. The news was broadcast immediately but the stir it caused was nothing to the worldwide reaction that came a few days later.

This was after all the relatives, all those who thought they had a faint chance of proving themselves relatives, and representatives of the press, radio, and video, gathered in the late Sam Chipfellow’s mansion to hear the reading of the will. Carter Hagen, seeking to control his excitement, stood before a microphone installed for the benefit of those who couldn’t get in.

He said, “This is the last will and testament of Samuel Chipfellow, deceased. As his lawyer, it becomes my duty to –”

An angry murmur went up from those assembled. Exclamations of impatience. “Come on! Get on with it. Quit making a speech and read the will, we can’t wait all day!”

“Quiet, please, and give me your closest attention. I will read slowly so all may hear. This is Mr. Chipfellow’s last testament:

I, Samuel B. Chipfellow, have made a great deal of money during my active years. The time now comes when I must decide what will become of it after my death. I have made my decision, but I remain in the peculiar position of still not knowing what will become of it. Frankly, I’m of the opinion that no one will ever benefit from itthat it will remain in the place I have secreted it until the end of time.

A murmur went up from the crowd.

“A treasure hunt!” someone cried. “I wonder if they’ll distribute maps!”

Carter Hagen raised his hand. “Please! Let’s have a little more order or the reading will not continue.”

The room quieted and Hagen’s droning voice was again raised:

This place consists of a vault I have had erected upon my grounds. This vault, I assure you, is burglar-proof, weather-proof, cyclone-proof, tornado-proof, bomb-proof. Time will have no effect upon its walls. It could conceivably be thrown free in some great volcanic upheaval but even then the contents would remain inaccessible.

There is only one way the vault can be opened. Its lock is sensitized to respond to a thought. That’s what I saida thought. I have selected a single, definite, clear-cut thought to which the combination will respond.

There is a stone bench in front of the vault door and I decree that any person who wishes, may sit down on this bench and direct his or her thought at the door. If it is the correct one, the door will open and the person causing this to happen shall then be the possessor of all my worldly wealth which lies inside.

Because of the number of persons who will no doubt wish to try their luck, I decree further that each shall be given thirty seconds in which to project their thought. A force of six men shall be hired to supervise the operation and handle the crowds in the neighborhood of the vault. A trust fund has been already set up to pay this group.

The balance of my wealth lies awaiting the lucky thinker in the vaultall save this estate itself, an item of trifling value in comparison to the rest, which I bequeath to the State with the stipulation that the other terms of the will are rigidly carried out.

And so, good luck to everyone in the world. May one of you succeed in opening my vaultalthough I doubt it.

Samuel B. Chipfellow.

P.S. The thought-throwing shall begin one week after the reading of the will. I add this as a precaution to keep everyone from rushing to the vault after this will is read. You might kill each other in the stampede.

S. B. C.

There was a rush regardless. Reporters knocked each other down getting to the battery of phones set up to carry the news around the world. And Sam Chipfellow’s will pushed all else off the video screens and the front pages.

During the following weeks, millions were made through the sale of Chipfellow’s thought to the gullible. Great commercial activity began in the area surrounding the estate as arrangements were made to accommodate the hundreds of thousands who were heading in that direction.

A line began forming immediately at the gate to Chipfellow’s Folly and a brisk market got under way in positions therein. The going figure of the first hundred positions was in the neighborhood of ten thousand dollars. A man three thousand thoughts away was offered a thousand dollars two days before the week was up, and on the last day, the woman at the head of the line sold her position for eighteen thousand dollars.

There were many learned roundtables and discussions as to the nature of Chipfellow’s thought. The majority leaned to the belief that it would be scientific in nature because Chipfellow was the world’s greatest scientist.

This appeared to give scientifically trained brains the edge and those fortunate in this respect spent long hours learning what they could of Chipfellow’s life, trying to divine his performance in the realm of thought.

So intense was the interest created that scarcely anyone paid attention to the activities of Chipfellow’s closer relatives. They sued to break the will but met with defeat. The verdict was rendered speedily, after which the judge who made the ruling declared a recess and bought the eleven thousandth position in line for five hundred dollars.

On the morning of the appointed day, the gates were opened and the line moved toward the vault. The first man took his seat on the bench. A stopwatch clicked. A great silence settled over the watchers. This lasted for thirty seconds after which the watch clicked again. The man got up from the bench eighteen thousand dollars poorer.

The vault had not opened.

Nor did it open the next day, the next, nor the next. A week passed, a month, six months. And at the end of that time it was estimated that more than twenty-five thousand people had tried their luck and failed.

Each failure was greeted with a public sigh of relief — relief from both those who were waiting for a turn and those who were getting rich from the commercial enterprises abutting upon the Chipfellow estate.

There was a motel, a hotel, a few night clubs, a lot of restaurants, a hastily constructed bus terminal, an airport and several turned into parking lots at a dollar a head.

The line was a permanent thing and it was soon necessary to build a cement walk because the ever-present hopeful were standing in a ditch a foot deep.

There also continued to be an active business in positions, a group of professional standers having sprung up, each with an assistant to bring food and coffee and keep track of the ever fluctuating market in positions.

And still no one opened Chipfellow’s vault.

It was conceded that the big endowment funds had the inside track because they had the money to hire the best brains in the world; men who were almost as able scientifically as had been Chipfellow himself but unfortunately hadn’t made as much money. The monied interests also had access to the robot calculators that turned out far more plausible thoughts than there were positions in the line.

A year passed. The vault remained locked.

By that time the number of those who had tried and failed, and were naturally disgruntled, was large enough to be heard, so a rumor got about that the whole thing was a vast hoax — a mean joke perpetrated upon the helpless public by a lousy old crook who hadn’t any money in the first place.

Vituperative editorials were written—by editors who had stood in line and thrown futile thoughts at the great door. These editorials were vigorously rebutted by editors and columnists who as yet had not had a chance to try for the jackpot.

One senator, who had tried and missed, introduced a law making it illegal to sit on a stone bench and hurl a thought at a door.

There were enough congressional failures to pass the law. It went to the Supreme Court, but was tossed out because they said you couldn’t pass a law prohibiting a man from thinking.

And still the vault remained closed.

Until Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, farm people impoverished by reverses, spent their last ten dollars for two thoughts and waited out the hours and the days in line. Their daughter Susan, aged nine, waited with them, passing the time by telling her doll fairy tales and wondering what the world looked like to a bird flying high up over a tree top. Susan was glad when her mother and father reached the bench because then they all could go home and see how her pet rabbit was doing.

Mr. Wilson hurled his thought and moved on with drooping shoulders. Mrs. Wilson threw hers and was told to leave the bench. The guard looked at Susan. “Your turn,” he said.

“But I haven’t got any thought,” Susan said. “I just want to go home.”

This made no sense to the guard. The line was being held up. People were grumbling. The guard said, “All right, but that was silly. You could have sold your position for good money. Run along with your mother and father.”

Susan started away. Then she looked at the vault which certainly resembled a mausoleum and said, “Wait — I have too got a little thought,” and she popped onto the bench.

The guard frowned and snapped his stop watch.

Susan screwed her eyes tight shut. She tried to see an angel with big white wings like she sometimes saw in her dreams and she also tried to visualize a white-haired, jolly-faced little man as she considered Mr. Chipfellow to be. Her lips moved soundlessly as she said,

Dear God and all the angels — please have pity on poor Mr. Chipfellow for dying and please make him happy in heaven.

Then Susan got off the bench quickly to run after her mother and father who had not waited.

There was the sound of metal grinding upon metal and the great door was swinging open.

Jackpot

Original illustration from Imagination Science Fiction, artist unknown.

 

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This vintage sci-fi short story by a little-known author is, in so many ways, silly and unrealistic. On the other hand, it’s friendly, pleasant, and charming. I say that makes it a winner.

———

Say “Hello” for Me

By Frank W. Coggins
Published in If Worlds of Science Fiction, May 1953

This was to be the day, but of course Professor Pettibone had no way of knowing it. He arose, as he had been doing for the previous twenty years, donned the tattered remnants of his space suit, and went out into the open. He stood erect, bronzed, magnificent, faced distant Earth, and recited:

“Good morning, bright sunshine,
We’re glad you are here.
You make the world happy,
And bring us good cheer.”

It was something he had heard as a child and, isolated here on Mars, he had remembered it and used it to keep from losing his power of speech.

The ritual finished, he walked to the edge of the nearest canal, and gathered a bushel or so of dried Martian moss. He returned and began polishing the shiny exterior of the wrecked space ship. It had to really glitter if it was to be an effective beacon in guiding the rescue ship.

Professor Pettibone knew — had known for years — that a ship would come. It was just a matter of time, and as the years slipped by, his faith diminished not a whit.

With his task half completed, he glanced up at the sun and quickened the polishing. It was a long walk to the place the berry bushes grew, and if he arrived too late, the sun would have dried out the night’s crop of fragile berries and he would wait until the morrow for nourishment.

But on this day, he was fated to arrive at the bush area not at all, because an alien sound from above again drew the Professor’s eyes from his work, and he knew that the day had arrived.

The ship was three times as large as any he had ever visualized, and its futuristic design told him, sharply, how far he had fallen behind in his dreaming. He smiled and said, quite calmly, “I daresay I am about to be rescued.”

And he experienced a thrill as the great ship set down and two men emerged therefrom. A thrill tinged with a guilt-sense, because emotional experiences were rare in an isolated life and seemed somehow indecent.

The two men held weapons. They advanced upon Professor Pettibone, looked up into his face, reflected a certain wary hostility. That the hostility was tinged with instinctive respect, even awe, made it no less potent.

One of them asked, “Fella — man came in ship — sky boat — long time ago. Him dead? Where?” Appropriate gestures accompanied the words.

Professor Pettibone smiled down at the little men and bowed. “You are of course referring to me. I came in the ship. I am Professor Pettibone. It was nice of you to hunt me up.”

The eyes of the two Terran spacemen met and locked in startled inquiry. One of them voiced the reaction of both when he said, “What the hell –”

“You no doubt are curious as to the fate of the other members of the expedition. They were killed, all save Fletcher, who lasted a week.” Professor Pettibone waved a hand. “There — in the graveyard.”

But their eyes remained on the only survivor of that ill-fated first expedition. It was hard to accept him as the man they sought, but, faced with undeniable similarity between what they expected and what they had found, the two spacemen had no alternative.

“I hope your food supply is ample — and varied,” Professor Pettibone said.

This seemed to bring them out of their bemusement. “Of course, Professor. Would you care to come aboard?”

The other made a try at congenial levity. “You must be pretty hungry after twenty years.”

“Really — has it been that long? I tried to keep track at first…”

“We can blast off anytime you say. You’re probably pretty anxious to get back.”

“Indeed, I am. The changes, in twenty years — must be breathtaking. I wonder if they’ll remember me?”

A short time later, the Professor said, “It’s amazing. A ship of this size handled by only two men.” Then he sat down to a repast laid out by one of the awed spacemen.

But, after nibbling a bit of this, a forkful of that, he found that satisfaction lay in the anticipation more so than in the eating.

“We’ll look around and see what we can find in the way of clothing for you, Professor,” one of the spacemen said. Then the man’s bemusement returned. His eyes traveled over the magnificent physique before him. The perfect giant of a man; the great, Apollo-like head with the calm, clear eyes; the expression of complete contentment and serenity.

The space man said, “Professor — to what do you attribute the changes in your body. What is there about this planet –?”

“I really don’t know.” Professor Pettibone looked down his torso with an impersonal eye. “I think the greenish skin pigmentation is a result of mineral-heavy vapors that occur during certain seasons. The growth. As to my body — I really don’t know.”

But the two spacemen — though they didn’t refer to it — were not concerned with the body so much as the aura of completeness, the radiation of contentment which came from somewhere within.

And it was passing strange that nothing more was said about the Professor returning to Earth. No great revelation, suddenly arrived at, that he would not go. Rather, they discussed various things, that three gentlemen, meeting casually, would discuss.

Then Professor Pettibone arose from his chair and said, “It was kind of you to drop off and see me.”

And one of the spacemen replied, “A pleasure, sir. A real pleasure indeed.”

Then the Professor left the ship and watched it lift up on a tail of red fire and go away. He raised an arm and waved. “Say ‘hello’ for me,” he called. Then he turned away and, from force of habit, he began again to polish the hull, knowing that he would keep it shining, and be proud of it, for many years to come.

Almost beyond reach of the planet, one of the spacemen flipped a switch and put certain sensitive communication mechanisms to work. So sensitive, they could pick up etheric vibrations far away and make them audible.

But only faintly, came the pleasant voice of a contented man:

“Good morning, bright sunshine,
We’re glad you are here.
You make the world…”

Sunrise on Mars

 

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Author Henry Slesar (1927-2002) was a gifted wordsmith and for years a creative powerhouse in Hollywood. In addition to writing science fiction, he had overlapping careers as a copywriter, scriptwriter, and screenwriter.

I’ve featured Slesar’s sci-fi stories twice before on this blog. You can read them here and here. The dude was quite a talent.

———

The Stuff

By Henry Slesar
Published in Galaxy Magazine, August 1961

“No more lies,” Paula said. “For God’s sake, Doctor, no more lies. I’ve been living with lies for the past year and I’m tired of them.”

Bernstein closed the white door before answering, mercifully obscuring the sheeted, motionless mound on the hospital bed. He took the young woman’s elbow and walked with her down the tiled corridor.

“He’s dying, of course,” he said conversationally. “We’ve never lied to you about that, Mrs. Hills; you know what we’ve told you all along. I hoped that by now you’d feel more resigned.”

“I was,” she said bitterly. They had stopped in front of Bernstein’s small office, and she drew her arm away. “But then you called me. About this drug of yours.”

“We had to call you. Senopoline can’t be administered without permission of the patient, and since your husband has been in coma for the last four days –”

He opened the door and nodded her inside. She hesitated, then walked in. He took his place behind the cluttered desk, his grave face distracted, and waited until she sat down in the facing chair. He picked up his telephone receiver, replaced it, shuffled papers, and then locked his hands on the desk blotter.

“Senopoline is a curious drug,” he said. “I’ve had little experience with it myself. You may have heard about the controversy surrounding it.”

“No,” she whispered. “I don’t know about it. I haven’t cared about anything since Andy’s illness.”

“At any rate, you’re the only person in the world that can decide whether your husband receives it. It’s strange stuff, as I said, but in the light of your husband’s present condition, I can tell you this — it can do him absolutely no harm.”

But it will do him good?”

“There,” Bernstein sighed, “is the crux of the controversy, Mrs. Hills.”

###

Row, row, row your boat, he sang in his mind, feeling the lapping tongues of the cool lake water against his fingers, drifting, drifting, under obeisant willows. Paula’s hands were resting gently on his eyes and he lifted them away. Then he kissed the soft palms and pressed them on his cheek. When he opened his eyes, he was surprised to find that the boat was a bed, the water only pelting rain against the window, and the willow trees long shadows on the walls. Only Paula’s hands were real, solid and real and comforting against his face.

He grinned at her. “Funniest damn thing,” he said. “For a minute there, I thought we were back at Finger Lake. Remember that night we sprang a leak? I’ll never forget the way you looked when you saw the hem of your dress.”

“Andy,” she said quietly. “Andy, do you know what’s happened?”

He scratched his head. “Seems to me Doc Bernstein was in here a while ago. Or was he? Didn’t they jab me again or something?”

“It was a drug, Andy. Don’t you remember? They have this new miracle drug, senopoline. Dr. Bernstein told you about it, said it was worth the try…”

“Oh, sure, I remember.”

He sat up in bed, casually, as if sitting up in bed were an everyday occurrence. He took a cigarette from the table beside him and lit one. He smoked reflectively for a moment, and then recalled that he hadn’t been anything but horizontal for almost eight months. Swiftly, he put his hand on his rib cage and touched the firm flesh.

“The girdle,” he said wonderingly. “Where the hell’s the girdle?”

“They took it off,” Paula said tearfully. “Oh, Andy, they took it off. You don’t need it any more. You’re healed, completely healed. It’s a miracle!”

“A miracle…”

She threw her arms about him; they hadn’t held each other since the accident a year ago, the accident that had snapped his spine in several places. He had been twenty-two when it happened.

###

They released him from the hospital three days later; after half a year in the hushed white world, the city outside seemed wildly clamorous and riotously colorful, like a town at the height of carnival. He had never felt so well in his life; he was eager to put the strong springs of his muscles back into play. Bernstein had made the usual speech about rest, but a week after his discharge Andy and Paula were at the courts in tennis clothes.

Andy had always been a dedicated player, but his stiff-armed forehand and poor net game had always prevented him from being anything more than a passable amateur. Now he was a demon on the court, no ball escaping his swift-moving racket. He astounded himself with the accuracy of his crashing serves, his incredible play at the net.

Paula, a junior champion during her college years, couldn’t begin to cope with him; laughingly, she gave up and watched him battle the club professional. He took the first set 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, and Andy knew that something more magical than medicinal had happened to him.

They talked it over, excited as schoolchildren, all the way home. Andy, who had taken a job in a stock-brokerage house after college, and who had been bored silly with the whole business until the accident, began wondering if he could make a career on the tennis court.

To make sure his superb playing wasn’t a fluke, they returned to the club the next day. This time, Andy found a former Davis Cup challenger to compete with. At the end of the afternoon, his heart pounding to the beat of victory, he knew it was true.

That night, with Paula in his lap, he stroked her long auburn hair and said: “No, Paula, it’s all wrong. I’d like to keep it up, maybe enter the Nationals, but that’s no life for me. It’s only a game, after all.”

“Only a game?” she said mockingly. “That’s a fine thing for the next top-seeded man to say.”

“No, I’m serious. Oh, I don’t mean I intend to stay in Wall Street; that’s not my ambition either. As a matter of fact, I was thinking of painting again.”

“Painting? You haven’t painted since your freshman year. You think you can make a living at it?”

“I was always pretty good, you know that. I’d like to try doing some commercial illustration; that’s for the bread and potatoes. Then, when we don’t have to worry about creditors, I’d like to do some things on my own.”

“Don’t pull a Gauguin on me, friend.” She kissed his cheek lightly. “Don’t desert your wife and family for some Tahitian idyll…”

“What family?”

She pulled away from him and got up to stir the ashes in the fireplace. When she returned, her face was glowing with the heat of the fire and warmth of her news.

Andrew Hills, Junior, was born in September. Two years later, little Denise took over the hand-me-down cradle. By that time, Andy Hills was signing his name to the magazine covers of America’s top-circulation weeklies, and they were happy to feature it. His added fame as America’s top-ranked amateur tennis champion made the signature all the more desirable.

When Andrew Junior was three, Andrew Senior made his most important advance in the field of art — not on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, but in the halls of the Modern Museum of Art. His first exhibit evoked such a torrent of superlatives that the New York Times found the reaction newsworthy enough for a box on the front page.

There was a celebration in the Hills household that night, attended by their closest friends: copies of slick magazines were ceremoniously burned and the ashes placed in a dime-store urn that Paula had bought for the occasion.

A month later, they were signing the documents that entitled them to a sprawling hilltop house in Westchester, with a north-light glassed-in studio the size of their former apartment.

He was thirty-five when the urge struck him to rectify a sordid political situation in their town. His fame as an artist and tennis-champion (even at thirty-five, he was top-seeded in the Nationals) gave him an easy entree into the political melee. At first, the idea of vote-seeking appalled him; but he couldn’t retreat once the movement started.

He won easily and was elected to the town council. The office was a minor one, but he was enough of a celebrity to attract country-wide attention. During the following year, he began to receive visits from important men in party circles; in the next state election, his name was on the ballot. By the time he was forty, Andrew Hills was a U.S. Senator.

That spring, he and Paula spent a month in Acapulco, in an enchanting home they had erected in the cool shadows of the steep mountains that faced the bay. It was there that Andy talked about his future.

“I know what the party’s planning,” he told his wife, “but I know they’re wrong. I’m not Presidential timber, Paula.”

But the decision wasn’t necessary; by summer, the Asiatic Alliance had tired of the incessant talks with the peacemakers and had launched their attack on the Alaskan frontier. Andy was commissioned at once as a major.

His gallantry in action, his brilliant recapture of Shaktolik, White Mountain, and eventual triumphant march into Nome guaranteed him a place in the High Command of the Allied Armies.

By the end of the first year of fighting, there were two silver stars on his shoulder and he was given the most critical assignment of all — to represent the Allies in the negotiations that were taking place in Fox Island in the Aleutians. Later, he denied that he was solely responsible for the successful culmination of the peace talks, but the American populace thought him hero enough to sweep him into the White House the following year in a landslide victory unparalleled in political history.

He was fifty by the time he left Washington, but his greatest triumphs were yet to come. In his second term, his interest in the World Organization had given him a major role in world politics. As First Secretary of the World Council, his ability to effect a working compromise between the ideological factions was directly responsible for the establishment of the World Government.

When he was sixty-four, Andrew Hills was elected World President, and he held the office until his voluntary retirement at seventy-five. Still active and vigorous, still capable of a commanding tennis game, of a painting that set art circles gasping, he and Paula moved permanently into the house in Acapulco.

He was ninety-six when the fatigue of living overtook him. Andrew Junior, with his four grandchildren, and Denise, with her charming twins, paid him one last visit before he took to his bed.

###

“But what is the stuff?” Paula said. “Does it cure or what? I have a right to know!”

Dr. Bernstein frowned. “It’s rather hard to describe. It has no curative powers. It’s more in the nature of a hypnotic drug, but it has a rather peculiar effect. It provokes a dream.”

“A dream?”

“Yes. An incredibly long and detailed dream, in which the patient lives an entire lifetime, and lives it just the way he would like it to be. You might say it’s an opiate, but the most humane one ever developed.”

Paula looked down at the still figure on the bed. His hand was moving slowly across the bed-sheet, the fingers groping toward her.

“Andy,” she breathed. “Andy darling…”

His hand fell across hers, the touch feeble and aged.

“Paula,” he whispered, “say good-by to the children for me.”

The Stuff

Original illustration from Galaxy Magazine by “Ritter.”

 

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The sci-fi short story below, a simple tale concerning the first manned Moon mission, is notable for two reasons: it was written before NASA’s manned spaceflight programs began; and not much about it is science-fictiony. It’s a people story, and a sad one, at that.

—————

Breakaway

By Stanley Gimble
Published in Astounding Science Fiction, December 1955

Phil Conover pulled the zipper of his flight suit up the front of his long, thin body and came into the living room. His face, usually serious and quietly handsome, had an alive, excited look. And the faint lines around his dark, deep-set eyes were accentuated when he smiled at his wife.

“All set, honey. How do I look in my monkey suit?”

His wife was sitting stiffly on the flowered couch that was still not theirs completely. In her fingers she held a cigarette burned down too far. She said, “You look fine, Phil. You look just right.” She managed a smile. Then she leaned forward and crushed the cigarette in the ash tray on the maple coffee table and took another from the pack.

He came to her and touched his hands to her soft blond hair, raising her face until she was looking into his eyes. “You’re the most beautiful girl I know. Did I ever tell you that?”

“Yes, I think so. Yes, I’m sure you did,” she said, finishing the ritual; but her voice broke, and she turned her head away. Phil sat beside her and put his arm around her small shoulders. He had stopped smiling.

“Honey, look at me,” he said. “It isn’t going to be bad. Honestly it isn’t. We know exactly how it will be. If anything could go wrong, they wouldn’t be sending me; you know that. I told you that we’ve sent five un-manned ships up and everyone came back without a hitch.”

She turned, facing him. There were tears starting in the corners of her wide, brown eyes, and she brushed them away with her hand.

“Phil, don’t go. Please don’t. They can send Sammy. Sammy doesn’t have a wife. Can’t he go? They’d understand, Phil. Please!” She was holding his arms tightly with her hands, and the color had drained from her cheeks.

“Mary, you know I can’t back out now. How could I? It’s been three years. You know how much I’ve wanted to be the first man to go. Nothing would ever be right with me again if I didn’t go. Please don’t make it hard.”

He stopped talking and held her to him and stroked the back of her head. He could feel her shoulders shaking with quiet sobs. He released her and stood up.

“I’ve got to get started, Mary. Will you come to the field with me?”

“Yes, I’ll come to say good-by.” She paused and dropped her eyes. “Phil, if you go, I won’t be here when you get back — if you get back. I won’t be here because I won’t be the wife of a space pilot for the rest of my life. It isn’t the kind of life I bargained for. No matter how much I love you, I just couldn’t take that, Phil. I’m sorry. I guess I’m not the noble sort of wife.”

She finished and took another cigarette from the pack on the coffee table and put it to her lips. Her hand was trembling as she touched the lighter to the end of the cigarette and drew deeply. Phil stood watching her, the excitement completely gone from his eyes.

“I wish you had told me this a long time ago, Mary,” Phil said. His voice was dry and low. “I didn’t know you felt this way about it.”

“Yes, you did. I told you how I felt. I told you I could never be the wife of a space pilot. But I don’t think I ever really believed it was possible — not until this morning when you said tonight was the take-off. It’s so stupid to jeopardize everything we’ve got for a ridiculous dream!”

He sat down on the edge of the couch and took her hands between his. “Mary, listen to me,” he said. “It isn’t a dream. It’s real. There’s nothing means anything more to me than you do — you know that. But no man ever had the chance to do what I’m going to do tonight — no man ever. If I backed out now for any reason, I’d never be able to look at the sky again. I’d be through.”

She looked at him without seeing him, and there was nothing at all in her eyes.

“Let’s go, if you’re still going,” she finally said.

They drove through the streets of the small town with its small bungalows, each alike. There were no trees and very little grass. It was a new town, a government built town, and it had no personality yet. It existed only because of the huge ship standing poised in the take-off zone five miles away in the desert. Its future as a town rested with the ship, and the town seemed to feel the uncertainty of its future, seemed ready to stop existing as a town and to give itself back to the desert, if such was its destiny.

Phil turned the car off the highway onto the rutted dirt road that led across the sand to the field where the ship waited. In the distance they could see the beams of the searchlights as they played across the take-off zone and swept along the top of the high wire fence stretching out of sight to right and left. At the gate they were stopped by the guard. He read Phil’s pass, shined his flashlight in their faces, and then saluted. “Good luck, colonel,” he said, and shook Phil’s hand.

“Thanks, sergeant. I’ll be seeing you next week,” Phil said, and smiled. They drove between the rows of wooden buildings that lined the field, and he parked near the low barbed fence ringing the take-off zone. He turned off the ignition, and sat quietly for a moment before lighting a cigarette.

Then he looked at his wife. She was staring through the windshield at the rocket two hundred yards away. Its smooth polished surface gleamed in the spotlight glare, and it sloped up and up until the eye lost the tip against the stars.

“She’s beautiful, Mary. You’ve never seen her before, have you?”

“No, I’ve never seen her before,” she said. “Hadn’t you better go?” Her voice was strained and she held her hands closed tightly in her lap. “Please go now, Phil,” she said.

He leaned toward her and touched her cheek. Then she was in his arms, her head buried against his shoulder.

“Good-by, darling,” she said.

“Wish me luck, Mary?” he asked.

“Yes, good luck, Phil,” she said. He opened the car door and got out. The noise of men and machines scurrying around the ship broke the spell of the rocket waiting silently for flight.

“Mary, I –” he began, and then turned and strode toward the administration building without looking back.

Inside the building it was like a locker room before the big game. The tension stood alone, and each man had the same happy, excited look that Phil had worn earlier. When he came into the room, the noise and bustle stopped. They turned as one man toward him, and General Small came up to him and took his hand.

“Hello, Phil. We were beginning to think you weren’t coming. You all set, son?”

“Yes, sir, I’m all set, I guess,” Phil said.

“I’d like you to meet the Secretary of Defense, Phil. He’s over here by the radar.”

As they crossed the room, familiar faces smiled, and each man shook his hand or touched his arm. He saw Sammy, alone, by the coffee urn. Sammy waved to him, but he didn’t smile. Phil wanted to talk to him, to say something; but there was nothing to be said now. Sammy’s turn would come later.

“Mr. Secretary,” the general said, “this is Colonel Conover. He’ll be the first man in history to see the other side of the Moon. Colonel — the Secretary of Defense.”

“How do you do, sir. I’m very proud to meet you,” Phil said.

“On the contrary, colonel. I’m very proud to meet you. I’ve been looking at that ship out there and wondering. I almost wish I were a young man again. I’d like to be going. It’s a thrilling thought — man’s first adventure into the universe. You’re lighting a new dawn of history, colonel. It’s a privilege few men have ever had; and those who have had it didn’t realize it at the time. Good luck, and God be with you.”

“Thank you, sir. I’m aware of all you say. It frightens me a little.”

The general took Phil’s arm and they walked to the briefing room. There were chairs set up for the scientists and Air Force officers directly connected with the take-off. They were seated now in a semicircle in front of a huge chart of the solar system.

Phil took his seat, and the last minute briefing began. It was a routine he knew by heart. He had gone over and over it a thousand times, and he only half listened now. He kept thinking of Mary outside, alone by the fence.

The voice of the briefing officer was a dull hum in his ears.

“… And orbit at 18,000-mph. You will then accelerate for the breakaway to 24,900-mph for five minutes and then free-coast for 116 hours until –”

Phil asked a few questions about weather and solar conditions. And then the session was done. They rose and looked at each other, the same unanswered questions on each man’s face. There were forced smiles and handshakes. They were ready now.

“Phil,” the general said, and took him aside.

“Sir?”

“Phil, you’re… you feel all right, don’t you, son?”

“Yes, sir. I feel fine. Why?”

“Phil, I’ve spent nearly every day with you for three years. I know you better than I know myself in many ways. And I’ve studied the psychologist’s reports on you carefully. Maybe it’s just nervousness, Phil, but I think there’s something wrong. Is there?”

“No, sir. There’s nothing wrong,” Phil said, but his voice didn’t carry conviction. He reached for a cigarette.

“Phil, if there is anything — anything at all — you know what it might mean. You’ve got to be in the best mental and physical condition of your life tonight. You know better than any man here what that means to our success. I think there is something more than just natural apprehension wrong with you. Want to tell me?”

Outside, the take-off zone crawled with men and machines at the base of the rocket. For ten hours, the final check-outs had been in progress; and now the men were checking again, on their own time. The thing they had worked toward for six years was ready to happen, and each one felt that he was sending just a little bit of himself into the sky.

Beyond the ring of lights and moving men, on the edge of the field, Mary stood. Her hands moved slowly over the top of the fence, twisting the barbs of wire. But her eyes were on the ship.

And then they were ready. A small group of excited men came out from the administration building and moved forward. The check-out crews climbed into their machines and drove back outside the take-off zone. And, alone, one man climbed the steel ladder up the side of the rocket — ninety feet into the air. At the top he waved to the men on the ground and then disappeared through a small port.

Mary waved to him. “Good-by,” she said to herself, but the words stuck tight in her throat.

The small group at the base of the ship turned and walked back to the fence. And for an eternity the great ship stood alone, waiting. Then, from deep inside, a rumble came, increasing in volume to a gigantic roar that shook the earth and tore at the ears. Slowly, the first manned rocket to the Moon lifted up and up to the sky.

For a long time after the rocket had become a tiny speck of light in the heavens, she stood holding her face in her hands and crying softly to herself. And then she felt the touch of a hand on her arm. She turned.

“Phil! Oh, Phil.” She held tightly to him and repeated his name over and over.

“They wouldn’t let me go, Mary,” he said finally. “The general would not let me go.”

She looked at him. His face was drawn tight, and there were tears on his cheeks. “Thank, God,” she said. “It doesn’t matter, darling. The only thing that matters is you didn’t go.”

“You’re right, Mary,” he said. His voice was low — so low she could hardly hear him. “It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters now.” He stood with his hands at his sides, watching her. And then turned away and walked toward the car.

Breakaway

Original illustration from Astounding Science Fiction by Kelly Freas.

 

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