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Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

Some of the short stories I post on this blog are well-known, some are not. Some are written by famous authors, some are not.

Online information about obscure authors is, of course, skimpy. I may uncover a few brief facts, but only a few.

For the author below, however, I struck out completely; all I found online about Wilson Parks Griffith is that this story was published in the January 1955 issue of Worlds of IF. I even found a PDF of the IF issue in question. Not a word about Griffith.

The author remains a mystery, but I like his story.

———

Double Take

By Wilson Parks Griffith
Published in Worlds of IF Science Fiction, January 1955

When the Travelers from Outer Space dug into the pile of moldering rock, they found the metal capsule their senses had told them was there. Battered and corroded though it was, the shadow vibrations showed that it had once been smooth and shiny. As smooth, shiny and impervious to wear as Twentieth Century Earth technology could make it.

At the time the Mayor of Chicago had ceremoniously tossed a handful of lake sand into the hole, had his picture taken smiling against the skyline, and had moved away to let the workmen fill the hole with cement and place the marker, the Time Capsule had been bright with the hopes of civilization sending its proud present into the uncertain future.

Time passed…

The tiny radio transmitter in the capsule began throwing out its wide signal at the exact instant planned for it many centuries before. No one heard. Eventually, the tiny powerful batteries gave out. The signal died.

Time passed…

When the Travelers from Outer Space took the capsule back to their ship and opened it, they found the contents in perfect order. Even the reel of magnetic tape had not succumbed to the centuries.

In due course, the Travelers examined the tape, divined its purpose, and constructed a machine that would play back the recording.

Out of a million evolutionary possibilities in a Universe of planets, the chances of two intelligent races being even roughly similar are astronomically remote.

A being develops sense organs for no other reason than to make it aware of its environment. The simplest primitive being’s awareness of its environment centers around food, its means of survival. It develops organs and appendages that will enable it to ferret out, obtain and ingest its food. As the food differs, so, then, does the eater.

The Travelers had no ears or eyes, as such. They had other organs for other purposes, but the net result was that they “saw” and “heard” quite as well — even better — than Earthmen.

Perhaps that explains why the Travelers gleaned so much more from the tape recording in the Twentieth Century capsule than its originators had planned or intended.

Not just any radio show could be placed in the Time Capsule. What picture of contemporary 1960 mankind would the men of the future derive from a soap opera? A news analysis? Or top comedy show? Certainly not a flattering one, and so, reasoned the brass in charge of the project, not a true one.

No, the only answer was to produce a special documentary program, painting on a broad canvas the glories that were the common man’s birthright in an enlightened democracy. As July 4th was only a month away, the idea was a natural. The program would be carried simultaneously on four networks, then placed in the Time Capsule so that historians of the future would have something solid on which to base their conclusions.

A famous poet-radio writer was hired to write the script. Hollywood’s greatest young male star donated his services (with much attendant publicity) as narrator. A self-acknowledged genius who directed radio shows for a living condescended to lend his talents to the production. Numerous other actors, musicians, technicians and assistants were hired… none well-known, but all quite competent.

July 4th, the big day, arrived. The cast went into rehearsal early in the morning. By the second complete run-through, just before the break for lunch, the show was hanging together nicely. After four hours of polishing in the afternoon, it was ready to go on the air. Everyone’s nerves were raw, but the show sounded great.

Naturally, when a room full of creative people have been rubbing against one another for a full day, a lot of emotions are generated. The listening audience never knew about it, but it took the actors, directors, musicians and technicians several days to get the session out of their systems.

During rehearsals, the young Hollywood star developed a consuming lust for one of the minor actresses. One of the minor actors developed a consuming lust for the young Hollywood star.

Everyone immediately hated the director, and he, lofty and all-wise, contemptuously hated them in return. By eight o’clock that night, show time, the splendid documentary on the splendid American people was not the only thing that was at peak pitch.

It was the only thing, however, that the radio audience heard. It was magnificent. Future students hearing the tape could not but conclude that here was the Golden Age. Man, at least American man, circa 1960, noble, humble and sincere, was carrying in his bosom the seeds of greatness.

Difficulties still existed, of course, but they were not insurmountable. A few deluded people seemed to be working against the common good, but the program left no doubt that this would be cleaned up in short order. The millennium was at hand!

When the Travelers from Outer Space, who were a team of historians doing research on the history of life throughout the Universe, listened to the tape recording, their “ears” heard none of the program as it had been originally broadcast.

They were no less fascinated, however, for what they heard was the thought patterns of the people who had been connected with the program. These thoughts, in the form of electrical impulses, were also recorded on the magnetic surface of the tape, and were the only sounds audible to the Travelers.

What a pity these future historians didn’t get mankind’s version of the life of mankind in 1960, after the producers had gone to so much trouble to tie it up in a package for them. Their conception of Earth culture was based on the thought impulses they “heard” and their History of Earth was written accordingly. The ending is worth noting:

“In the main, it is quite fortunate for life in the Universe that these primitive people destroyed themselves before they learned how to leave their planet. Lustful, murderous and guilt-ridden, they are perhaps the worst examples of intelligent life that we have ever discovered.

And yet, paradox supreme, they had one quality that we ourselves would do well to emulate. That quality we can only surmise, for nothing on the recording spoke of it, yet it is obvious, for if they hadn’t had this quality, there would have been no recording left for us at all.

“How strange that these tortured people should practise an unparalleled example of Life’s highest achievement… complete honesty with themselves and others.”

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Them or Us

John Keith Laumer (1925-1993), a former diplomat in the Foreign Service, published hundreds of science fiction novels and stories starting in the late 1950s until a stroke left him incapacitated in 1971. He recovered after several years, but critics say his work was never the same, and his career did not rebound.

Laumer tended to create fictional universes and write a series of stories, sometimes 15 or more, within that universe. He was known for the “Bolo” series, about military tanks that become self-aware after centuries of upgrades, and the “Retief” stories, about a space-faring diplomat who cleans up messes his bosses leave behind.

Laumer had a reputation for writing either breathless adventure stories or over-the-top comedies. The short story below is, as you will see, in the latter category.

———

A Bad Day for Vermin

By Keith Laumer
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1964

Judge Carter Gates of the Third Circuit Court finished his chicken salad on whole wheat, thoughtfully crumpled the waxed paper bag and turned to drop it in the waste basket behind his chair — and sat transfixed.

Through his second-floor office window, he saw a forty-foot flower-petal shape of pale turquoise settling gently between the well-tended petunia beds on the courthouse lawn. On the upper, or stem end of the vessel, a translucent pink panel popped up and a slender, graceful form not unlike a large violet caterpillar undulated into view.

Judge Gates whirled to the telephone. Half an hour later, he put it to the officials gathered with him in a tight group on the lawn.

“Boys, this thing is intelligent; any fool can see that. It’s putting together what my boy assures me is some kind of talking machine, and any minute now it’s going to start communicating. It’s been twenty minutes since I notified Washington on this thing. It won’t be long before somebody back there decides this is top secret and slaps a freeze on us here that will make the Manhattan Project look like a publicity campaign.

“Now, I say this is the biggest thing that ever happened to Plum County — but if we don’t aim to be put right out of the picture, we’d better move fast.”

“What you got in mind, Jedge?”

“I propose we hold an open hearing right here in the courthouse, the minute that thing gets its gear to working. We’ll put it on the air — Tom Clembers from the radio station’s already stringing wires, I see.

“Too bad we’ve got no TV equipment, but Jody Hurd has a movie camera. We’ll put Willow Grove on the map bigger’n Cape Canaveral ever was.”

“We’re with you on that, Carter!”

Ten minutes after the melodious voice of the Fianna’s translator had requested escort to the village headman, the visitor was looking over the crowded courtroom with an expression reminiscent of a St. Bernard puppy hoping for a romp. The rustle of feet and throat-clearing subsided and the speaker began:

“People of the Green World, happy the cycle —”

Heads turned at the clump of feet coming down the side aisle; a heavy-torsoed man of middle age, bald, wearing a khaki shirt and trousers and rimless glasses and with a dark leather holster slapping his hip at each step, cleared the end of the front row of seats, planted himself, feet apart, yanked a heavy nickel-plated .44 revolver from the holster, took aim and fired five shots into the body of the Fianna at a range of ten feet.

The violet form whipped convulsively, writhed from the bench to the floor with a sound like a wet fire hose being dropped, uttered a gasping twitter, and lay still. The gunman turned, dropped the pistol, threw up his hands, and called:

“Sheriff Hoskins, I’m puttin’ myself in yer pertective custody.”

There was a moment of stunned silence; then a rush of spectators for the alien. The sheriff’s three-hundred-and-nine-pound bulk bellied through the shouting mob to take up a stand before the khaki-clad man.

“I always knew you was a mean one, Cecil Stump,” he said, unlimbering handcuffs, “ever since I seen you makin’ up them ground-glass baits for Joe Potter’s dog. But I never thought I’d see you turn to cold-blooded murder.”

He waved at the bystanders. “Clear a path through here; I’m takin’ my prisoner over to the jail.”

“Jest a dad-blamed minute, Sheriff.” Stump’s face was pale, his glasses were gone and one khaki shoulder strap dangled — but what was almost a grin twisted one meaty cheek. He hid his hands behind his back, leaned away from the cuffs. “I don’t like that word ‘prisoner.’ I ast you fer pertection. And better look out who you go throwin’ that word ‘murder’ off at, too. I ain’t murdered nobody.”

The sheriff blinked, turned to roar, “How’s the victim, Doc?”

A small gray head rose from bending over the limp form of the Fianna. “Deader’n a mackerel, Sheriff.”

“I guess that’s it. Let’s go, Cecil.”

“What’s the charge?”

“First degree murder.”

“Who’d I murder?”

“Why, you killed this here… this stranger.”

“That ain’t no stranger. That’s a varmint. Murder’s got to do with killin’ humerns, way I understand it. You goin’ to tell me that thing’s humern?”

Ten people shouted at once:

” — human as I am!”

” — intelligent being!”

” — tell me you can simply kill —”

” — must be some kind of law —”

The sheriff raised his hands, his jowls drawn down in a scowl. “What about it, Judge Gates? Any law against Cecil Stump killing the… uh…?”

The judge thrust out his lower lip. “Well, let’s see,” he began. “Technically —”

“Good Lord!” someone blurted. “You mean the laws on murder don’t define what constitutes — I mean, what —”

“What a humern is?” Stump snorted. “Whatever it says, it sure-bob don’t include no purple worms. That’s a varmint, pure and simple. Ain’t no different killin’ it than any other critter.”

“Then, by God, we’ll get him for malicious damage,” a man called. “Or hunting without a license — out of season!”

” — carrying concealed weapons!”

Stump went for his hip pocket, fumbled out a fat, shapeless wallet, extracted a thumbed rectangle of folded paper, offered it.

“I’m a licensed exterminator. Got a permit to carry the gun, too. I ain’t broken no law.” He grinned openly now. “Jest doin’ my job, Sheriff. And at no charge to the county.”

A smaller man with bristly red hair flared his nostrils at Stump. “You blood-thirsty idiot!” He raised a fist and shook it. “We’ll be a national disgrace — worse than Little Rock! Lynching’s too good for you!”

“Hold on there, Weinstein,” the sheriff cut in. “Let’s not go gettin’ no lynch talk started.”

“Lynch, is it!” Cecil Stump bellowed, his face suddenly red. “Why, I done a favor for every man here! Now you listen to me! What is that thing over there?” He jerked a blunt thumb toward the judicial bench.

“It’s some kind of critter from Mars or someplace — you know that as well as me! And what’s it here for? It ain’t for the good of the likes of you and me, I can tell you that. It’s them or us. And this time, by God, we got in the first lick!”

“Why you… you… hate-monger!”

“Now, hold on right there. I’m as liberal-minded as the next feller. Hell, I like a nigger — and I can’t hardly tell a Jew from a white man. But when it comes to takin’ in a damned purple worm and callin’ it humern — that’s where I draw the line.”

Sheriff Hoskins pushed between Stump and the surging front rank of the crowd. “Stay back there! I want you to disperse, peaceably, and let the law handle this.”

“I reckon I’ll push off now, Sheriff,” Stump hitched up his belt. “I figgered you might have to calm ’em down right at first, but now they’ve had a chance to think it over and see I ain’t broken no law, ain’t none of these law-abiding folks going to do anything illegal — like tryin’ to get rough with a licensed exterminator just doin’ his job.” He stooped, retrieved his gun.

“Here, I’ll take that,” Sheriff Hoskins said. “You can consider your gun license canceled — and your exterminatin’ license, too.”

Stump grinned again, handed the revolver over.

“Sure. I’m cooperative, Sheriff. Anything you say. Send it around to my place when you’re done with it.” He pushed his way through the crowd to the corridor door.

“The rest of you stay put!” a portly man with a head of bushy white hair pushed his way through to the bench. “I’m calling an emergency Town Meeting to order here and now!”

He banged the gavel on the scarred bench top, glanced down at the body of the dead alien, now covered by a flag.

“Gentlemen, we’ve got to take fast action. If the wire services get hold of this before we’ve gone on record, Willow Grove’ll be a blighted area.”

“Look here, Willard,” Judge Gates called, rising. “This — this mob isn’t competent to take legal action.”

“Never mind what’s legal, Judge. Sure, this calls for Federal legislation — maybe a Constitutional amendment — but in the meantime, we’re going to redefine what constitutes a person within the incorporated limits of Willow Grove!”

“That’s the least we can do,” a thin-faced woman snapped, glaring at Judge Gates. “Do you think we’re going to set here and condone this outrage?”

“Nonsense!” Gates shouted. “I don’t like what happened any better than you do — but a person — well, a person’s got two arms and two legs and —”

“Shape’s got nothing to do with it,” the chairman cut in. “Bears walk on two legs! Dave Zawocky lost his in the war. Monkeys have hands.”

“Any intelligent creature —” the woman started.

“Nope, that won’t do, either; my unfortunate cousin’s boy Melvin was born an imbecile, poor lad. Now, folks, there’s no time to waste. We’ll find it very difficult to formulate a satisfactory definition based on considerations such as these. However, I think we can resolve the question in terms that will form a basis for future legislation on the question.

“It’s going to make some big changes in things. Hunters aren’t going to like it — and the meat industry will be affected. But if, as it appears, we’re entering into an era of contact with… ah… creatures from other worlds, we’ve got to get our house in order.”

“You tell ’em, Senator!” someone yelled.

“We better leave this for Congress to figger out!” another voice insisted.

“We got to do something…”

The senator held up his hands. “Quiet, everybody. There’ll be reporters here in a matter of minutes. Maybe our ordinance won’t hold water. But it’ll start ’em thinking — and it’ll make a lots better copy for Willow Grove than the killing.”

“What you got in mind, Senator?”

“Just this:” the Senator said solemnly. “A person is… any harmless creature…”

Feet shuffled. Someone coughed.

“What about a man who commits a violent act, then?” Judge Gates demanded. “What’s he, eh?”

“That’s obvious, gentlemen,” the senator said flatly. “He’s vermin.”

On the courthouse steps Cecil Stump stood, hands in hip pockets, talking to a reporter from the big-town paper in Mattoon, surrounded by a crowd of late-comers who had missed the excitement inside. He described the accuracy of his five shots, the sound they had made hitting the big blue snake, and the ludicrous spectacle the latter had presented in its death agony. He winked at a foxy man in overalls picking his nose at the edge of the crowd.

“Guess it’ll be a while ‘fore any more damned reptiles move in here like they owned the place,” he concluded.

The courthouse doors banged wide; excited citizens poured forth, veering aside from Cecil Stump. The crowd around him thinned, broke up as its members collared those emerging with the hot news. The reporter picked a target.

“Perhaps you’d care to give me a few details of the action taken by the… ah… Special Committee, sir?”

Senator Custis pursed his lips. “A session of the Town Council was called,” he said. “We’ve defined what a person is in this town —”

Stump, standing ten feet away, snorted. “Can’t touch me with no ex post factory law.”

” — and also what can be classified as vermin,” Custis went on.

Stump closed his mouth with a snap.

“Here, that s’posed to be some kind of slam at me, Custis? By God, come election time…”

Above, the door opened again. A tall man in a leather jacket stepped out, stood looking down. The crowd pressed back. Senator Custis and the reporter moved aside. The newcomer came down the steps slowly. He carried Cecil Stump’s nickel-plated .44 in his hand.

Standing alone now, Stump watched him.

“Here,” he said. His voice carried a sudden note of strain. “Who’re you?”

The man reached the foot of the steps, raised the revolver and cocked it with a thumb.

“I’m the new exterminator,” he said.

Keith Laumer

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Melvin Sturgis (1921-1980) published half a dozen sci-fi short stories in the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes under the pseudonym Colin Sturgis, then dropped out of sight. One source said he was a mechanical engineer who wrote fiction as a side gig.

As often happens, you can find obscure published works online, but very little about the author. Everything I could dig up about Sturgis is contained in the previous paragraph.

The Gift” is realistically told and thoroughly depressing story. A powerful combination.

———

The Gift

By Melvin Sturgis
Published in Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy, November 1951

The tenseness in the tiny court room was a live thing that you could feel clear down to your insoles. The thick silence was broken as the judge said solemnly: “Your objection will be taken under advisement by the court, Counselor. In what manner will the childhood of the defendant be relevant to this case, Mr. Prosecutor?”

“It is my purpose to show, your Honor, that the defendant has been of unsound mind since birth, and therefore has long been a public menace, not merely a victim of circumstance as the defense would have us believe.” The prosecuting attorney nodded briefly in the direction of the table for the defense.

“Objection overruled,” the judge said. “You may call your witness.”

“Thank you, your Honor.” The prosecutor helped the flighty woman into the witness box.

“Will you please give the court your name?”

The woman simpered. “Ida Mae Holk. Mrs. Ida Mae Holk.”

The prosecutor cleared his throat and ruffled the papers in his hand.

“How long have you known the defendant, Mrs. Holk?”

“Why, ever since he was about two years old. Him and his Ma came to Elmwood right after his Pa was killed in that big Oak Ridge explosion. He was born right there on the government project, you know. Never could understand why Mrs. Sloan, that was his Ma, never did get married again, her being so pretty and all, and any number of nice widowers just —”

“Uh, yes, Mrs. Holk,” the prosecutor interrupted. “Was your acquaintance with the defendant continuous throughout his childhood?”

“Well, it was until he was ten years old. They sent him away to that crazy house then.”

“I object to the term ‘crazy house’, your Honor,” the public defender addressed the court.

“I am sure that the witness meant to say the Rochelle School for Retarded Children,” the prosecutor said mildly. “Didn’t you, Mrs. Holk?”

“Well, I guess that is what they call it,” she said grudgingly. “Anyway, they kept him there until he was eighteen. Then he came back to Elmwood and I’ve known him ever since.”

“As a child, was the defendant er, ah, strange; that is, different from the other children?”

“He certainly was.” The woman drew herself up primly. “Why, the first time that I ever laid eyes on that boy I said to my neighbor ‘did you ever see a child with such a big head and such brooding eyes’, why —”

The public defender started to rise.

“I don’t mean physical characteristics, Mrs. Holk,” the prosecutor hurriedly interjected. “The court is interested only in facts that will prove relevant to the case at hand.”

“Oh.” Mrs. Holk seemed disappointed. “Well, he never played much with the other children because they made so much fun of him. Not that they didn’t have a right to, the way he was always acting. Picking up stray dogs and cats, and every thing else under the sun, and telling everybody that would listen how he cured their sores. It was enough to make a person sick. He even claimed that he could cure himself, and that was the reason that he was never sick! Hmmfp.

“Of course, he wasn’t ever sick. No sir, not a day in his life. Never had the measles or the mumps like my Sally, and even when that terrible flu epidemic hit town he was just as chipper as you please. If you want incidents, I can tell you a dozen. There was one time when he was about five and I was over visiting with his ma. He came running into the house telling some big story about a bird with a busted wing that he had fixed up. Of course, his ma shut him up; she always was too easy on him. Another time —”

xxx

The man with the too big head and the serene features gazed softly at the witness stand. He remembered about the bird. He had been very young at the time and hadn’t known, yet, that everyone didn’t have The Gift.

He had found the little bird at the base of the old oak tree, scared and trembling from the dangers that threatened it out of its known element. He picked it up gently and felt the fluttering of its tiny heart in the palm of his hand. He saw that its wing was injured, and, with a feeling of pity and kindness, he located and repaired the injury. The little bird lay quietly in his hand, as if sensing a friend. Then it flew away into the blue sky.

He ran into the house to tell his mother about the bird that he had found helpless in the yard and how he had made it well so that it could fly again.

“Yes darling,” his mother smiled tolerantly. “I’m sure you were a good boy.”

He could see that she had a headache. He could see the pulse and flow of the waves of pain and he wondered why she didn’t fix it. He was never sick. It was so easy to be well…

With the directness of the very young he asked her, “Mother, why don’t you make your headache go away?”

His mother dropped to her knees in front of him.

“Why you sweet boy,” she said. “Always thinking of your mother. Here, kiss my head and the ache will go away.”

Gravely he looked at her. Grownups were a funny lot. He didn’t have to kiss her head to make the headache go away; but she was his mother and he loved her. If she wanted to pretend, why, then he would also. So he kissed her head and caused the ache and pain to recede and disappear. Laughing, his mother got to her feet, took two aspirin tablets, and shooed him out to play. Strange, that he couldn’t remember Mrs. Holk being there.…

xxx

“Thank you, Mrs. Holk,” the prosecutor said. “That will be all for now unless the defense wishes to cross examine.”

“No questions.” The public defender leaned toward his client. “Are you sure that you won’t testify in your own behalf?”

The man smiled and shook his head.

“May I call the next witness, your Honor?”

“Will you tell the court your name and position, please?”

“My name is Sylvia Johnson, and I am floor superintendent at the Rochelle School.”

“Were you superintendent during the eight years that Carl Sloan was in commitment at that institution?”

“I was.”

“Will you tell the court any pertinent facts concerning his behavior up to the time of his discharge?”

She smoothed the hem of her dress and looked thoughtful for a moment.

“At first Carl seemed to be the oddest of all of the children in the school. He seemed to think that he had some kind of miraculous healing powers and couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand why the rest of us weren’t similarly blessed.”

She waited for the small titter to subside and then continued.

“However our rather necessarily stern measures soon cured him of his delusions, or, at least, so we thought at the time. After that, he didn’t seem to be very much different from the others. A little more sullen, perhaps, and not quite as quick to learn the duties expected of him as some of the less handicapped children; but then, we can’t work miracles at the school.”

She paused and those nearest the quiet defendant turned and stared at him.

xxx

He didn’t even notice for he was once again ten years old and standing outside his cousin’s bedroom window. He wasn’t supposed to be there because Billy was sick with an odd virus and had been quarantined until the doctors had decided what ailed him.

“No,” Billy said, in answer to his question. “Don’t be silly. If I could get rid of this awful cough I would, wouldn’t I?”

“I can,” Carl replied, his youthful voice confident.

Of course Billy didn’t believe him but Carl saw what was to be done and did it. Billy’s dad, disturbed by the excited conversation, came and told Carl to go on home where he belonged; but Carl forgot his scooter and had to go back after it. He could hear Billy’s parents talking in the living room.

“Carl is a very strange boy,” said Billy’s mother.

“If you ask me, he’s half crazy. All of this wild talk about doctoring cats, and that dead frog that he said he brought back to life.”

(This was not quite true, Carl knew. The frog had not been dead, only sick. He had proudly told his uncle of the incident only a day or two before.)

“I think that we should have a little talk with Jane. Surely, she can see that he is not normal. He should be in that school for abnormal children over in the valley,” Billy’s father said emphatically.

The next day his aunt and uncle had talked to his mother and Carl listened at the window. He knew that he wasn’t supposed to eavesdrop but he was puzzled, and scared. At first, his mother answered the proposal with a flat “no”, but his uncle’s persuasions won out in the end. Tearfully, she finally agreed that a year or two in the school might be of some help in correcting his too obvious imagination. The news spread rapidly and the tongue-waggers worked overtime.

“Did you hear about the Sloan boy?” one would ask.

“Oh, yes,” another would answer. “Crazy as a loon, quite.”

“I always knew that there was something wrong with that boy, him never getting sick and all that. His head always was too big for the rest of him. I knew all along that he was crazy, all right.”

“They’re going to ship him off to school, I understand. Well, good riddance I say. Wouldn’t want my Henry associating with a goofy kid.”

He didn’t like to recall the school. It was dim and foreboding and the beds always seemed to be cold and dank. He learned quickly that none of the institutional authorities were interested in his Gift and after the first several rebuffs and their consequential punishments, he never again talked about it to anyone. He was, by force, a recluse; but he learned the lessons that they thought that he should learn, and, if they were much more simple than his intellect warranted, he didn’t blame the teachers.

xxx

As if he could feel the stares of the curious people, Carl raised his head. The prosecutor was still examining the superintendent.

“Then he was released as fit to be assimilated by society when he was eighteen?”

The witness leaned forward in the box.

“Yes,” she said intently. “The exact disposition of his case history was ‘Simple minded, but perfectly harmless’.”

xxx

Simple minded? Yes, if shyness and averseness to people constitute simple mindedness. He did odd jobs for the townspeople and they tolerated him. Gardening, fetching and carrying, sweeping out the library. He read. Avidly he read everything that he could find. He learned about Mendel and his peas, and he knew what he was. An ugly word, a Mutant. It made him different and gave him a Gift that no one believed that he had, or wanted him to exercise.

That crazy Sloan, or that half wit Sloan, the townspeople called him, but he didn’t care. He had never had any friends or companions and therefore felt no need for any. The small animals were his friends, and the children. He was never too busy to make a kite, or mend a toy or a skinned knee. He never mentioned his Gift but silently, unnoticed, as he went his shy way around the town, performed the small services that he was able to, unknown to the recipients. Some little aid, some little kindness every day. He was happy.

Then they brought Henry Jones, bitter and disillusioned, home from the hospital in the city. He had been kicked in the head by a horse while he was away at college, and would never see again. The doctors all agreed on that point. He was permanently blind. Carl was trimming the Jones’ hedge the first day that they pushed Henry out for his daily airing in the sun. He saw the blood clot that blocked the nerves to the brain center and his powerful mind worked smoothly, efficiently.

“Open your eyes,” Carl said simply. “You can see.”

“It was a miracle,” everyone said. “A true miracle.”

The newspapers scented a lucky circumstance and whipped up a human interest story that was more fantasy than fact; the wire services carried the story and people flocked to see the person who had performed a miracle. By twos and threes they came. Then by scores. They came to see because they were curious, or to be healed of some real or imagined ill.

By the hundreds, by the thousands, they came. The lame, the halt, and the blind. The doctors, lawyers, ministers, newspaper men, newsreel cameramen, zealots. Men, women and children; from near and afar. The religious, and the heretics.

He couldn’t begin to help all of those who came to him. Some, with missing organs or diseased in a manner impossible for him to aid, were turned away and added their cries to the pack who bitterly denounced him. For the most part his work was confined to the eyes of a few, but the numbers of those he helped without their knowledge he knew were legend.

The crowd expected to see miracles and they demanded to see them. His failure to perform according to their tastes set off disputes that swept across the country. Was he a healer or a charlatan? A wise man or a fool? A public benefactor or a fraud?

“He has never healed anyone,” learned doctors gave statements to the papers. “It’s all a matter of mass hypnosis. He tells the ignorant that they are cured and, for a short while they actually force themselves to believe that they are cured. A very simple matter, indeed.”

He went on ministering to the crowds that increased daily. He asked nothing for his work, and they gave nothing; but the popcorn vendors, the soda pop dispensers, the ice cream wagons, had a field day. It was a circus and they assigned extra policemen to control the frenzied crowds.

He remembered the day, finally, they brought a little girl, suffering from leukemia, from a distant city. The best doctors had given their best to save her, and they had failed. The distraught parents were grasping at the last straw.

He knew that it was much, much too late for him to do anything to aid her, but he tried. She looked at him with her large, beautiful eyes, set so deep in her pale face, and arose from the ambulance couch and walked a few steps toward him. Then she collapsed and died.

The eager crowd pushed forward to get a better view and some were trampled. Some were injured, and some, the weak and unlucky, were killed. The police, frightened and faced with an ugly situation for which they had no rules, arrested him and whisked him off to the county seat.

The crowd slowly dispersed and soon the only evidence that they had ever been there was the mass of empty cartons, the soda bottles, and the damaged shrubbery in the town square…

xxx

The judge leaned over from his tall bench.

“Mr. Sloan,” he said sonorously. “In view of the evidence presented by the people of this state this court has no recourse but to convict you for the deaths of seven people. The court finds you charged and adjudged guilty of five counts, four minor and one major. Perpetrator of an unlawful assembly, inciting a mob to violence —” The voice droned on and on until the sentence was pronounced.

The flash bulbs popped and the crowd mumbled and whispered as he was led back to his cell. He had known from the beginning of the trial that there could be but one ending. He hadn’t asked for the deaths of anyone but through him they had died and it was best that the sentence of the court be exacted and the Gift forever stilled. The world was not ready for a power such as this, he knew. Not now, not yet, perhaps not ever…

The wrought iron gates in the high stone wall clanged shut behind the official county car with a dismal finality. Later, he was taken to a small room and his clothes stripped from him, replaced with a simple two-pieced garment. This, then, was to be the end of life, of awareness. No more to feel the warmth of the summer sun or the caressing coolness of the light spring wind. Yet, he felt no bitterness, no regrets, rather only a sense of vast loneliness in the knowledge that he would not be able to fulfill the promise of his life.

Straps were placed around his ankles and secured so that the sudden shock wouldn’t tear them loose. A strap around each leg, just above the knee. More, biting into his wrists, his upper arms, and, finally, the two plates. They were placed carefully, one just behind and above each ear. A last quiet check to see that the bindings were in their proper places.

The plates held his head in a vise-like grip and he couldn’t turn it in any direction, but he knew the time was at hand…

There was a sharp pain, blinding and searing. Starting in his head, just behind his eyes, and then permeating throughout his muscles and body. He jerked spasmodically, but the strong bonds held him fast. For a long agonizing moment the pain persisted, and then the welcome blackness, nothing…

The young intern smiled at the officiating doctor.

“That was a very nice operation, sir. A wonderful discovery that electronically destroying a part of the brain will cure some forms of insanity. Of course, he won’t have much of his ego left, but he will be able to obey simple orders and do menial tasks, and, at least he will be sane.”

“Yes,” the doctor said cheerfully as he disconnected his apparatus, “at least he will be sane.”

Original illustration from Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy, artist unknown.

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When a story begins with big shots being served wine by a smiling servant, you might detect the presence of negative undertones. In this sci-fi short story by Charles Fontenay, you would be right.

This is the third short story I’ve featured by newspaperman and author Charles Fontenay (1917-2007). I posted the others here and here.

———

Disqualified

By Charles Louis Fontenay
Published in If Worlds of Science Fiction, September 1954

After the morning inspection tour, Tardo, the Solar Council’s Planetary Aid agent, and his companion, Peo, were taken to the castle which stood on a hill overlooking the area.

Tardo and Peo were entertained royally at luncheon by Saranta, their host, who appeared to be the wealthy overlord of this portion of the planet. The meal was delicious — tender, inch-thick steaks served with delicate wine sauce and half a dozen of the planet’s exotic vegetables, topped off by a cool fruit dessert.

“My recommendation will be of considerable importance to you,” said Tardo as they ate. “If it is favorable, there is certain technical aid aboard ship which will be made available to you at once. Of course, you will not receive advanced equipment from the Solar Council until there is a more thorough investigation.”

“I’m afraid our culture is too simple and agrarian to win your approval,” said Saranta modestly.

“That isn’t a major consideration. The Council understands the difficulties that have faced colonies in other star systems. There are certain fundamental requirements, of course: no abnormal religious practices, no slavery… well, you understand what I mean.”

“We really feel that we have done well since we… our ancestors, that is… colonized our world a thousand years ago,” said Saranta, toying with a wineglass. A smiling servant filled the glasses of Tardo and Peo. “You see, there was no fuel for the ship to explore other planets in the system, and the ship just rusted away. Since we are some distance from the solar system, yours is the first ship that has landed here since colonization.”

“You seem to have been lucky, though,” said Peo. He was navigator of the Council ship, and had asked to accompany Tardo on the brief inspection trip. “You could have landed on a barren planet.”

“Well, no, the colonizers knew it was livable, from the first exploration expedition,” said Saranta. “There were difficulties, of course. Luxuriant vegetation, but no animal life, so we had no animals to domesticate. Pulling a plow is hard work for a man.”

“But you were able to solve this situation in a humanitarian way?” asked Tardo, peering at him keenly. “That is to say, you didn’t resort to slavery?”

Saranta smiled and spread his hands slightly.

“Does this look like a slave society to you?” he countered. “The colonists were anxious to co-operate to make the planet livable. No one objected to work.”

“It’s true we’ve seen no slaves, that we know about,” said Tardo. “But two days is a short time for inspection. I must draw most of my conclusions from the attitudes of you and the others who are our hosts. How about the servants here?”

“They are paid,” answered Saranta, and added ruefully: “There are those of us who think they are paid too well. They have a union, you know.”

Tardo laughed.

“A carry-over from Earth, no doubt,” he commented. “An unusual one, too, for a culture without technology.”

When the meal was over, the two men from the ship were conducted on a tour of the area. It was a neat agricultural community, with broad fields, well-constructed buildings and, a short distance from Saranta’s castle-like home, a village in which artisans and craftsmen plied their peaceful trades.

Peo tried to notice what he thought Tardo would look for on such a short inspection. The Council agent, he knew, had had intensive training and many years of experience. It was hard for Peo to judge what factors Tardo would consider significant — probably very minor ones that the average man would not notice, he thought.

Tardo had seemed most intent on the question of slavery, and Peo looked for signs of it. He could see none. The people of the planet had had time to conceal some things, of course. But the people they saw in the village wore a proud air of independence no slave could assume.

Saranta apologized for their having to walk, explaining that there was no other means of transportation on the planet.

“And, without transportation, you can understand why we have not been able to develop a technology,” he added. “We hope transport will be included in the first assistance you will give us.”

Tardo asked about the fields.

“I see there is no one working them,” he said. “Is that done by the villagers?”

“Our labor supply is transient,” answered Saranta after a moment’s hesitation. “The laborers who will work our fields — for a wage, of course — are probably in the next town or the one beyond it now.”

Alpha Persei was sinking in the western sky when Tardo and Peo took their leave of Saranta and made their way down the road toward their planetary landing craft.

“It looks like a good world to me,” said Peo. “If tomorrow’s inspection is as satisfactory, I suppose you will recommend the beginning of technical aid?”

“There will be no inspection tour tomorrow, and I shall recommend against aid at this time,” replied Tardo. “I’ve seen enough.”

“Why?” asked Peo, surprised.

“There are two classes of people on this planet, and we’ve seen only one,” said Tardo. “Those we have seen are freemen. The others are no better than animals. We give no aid that helps men tighten their hold over their fellows.”

“If you haven’t seen them, how do you know there is another class?” demanded Peo. “There is no evidence of any such situation.”

“The evidence is well hidden. But if you think your stomach can take it now, I’ll tell you. If you remember your history, colonizing ships 1000 years ago had no space to carry animals along. They had to depend on native animal life of the planet, and this planet had none.”

“Saranta said that. But I don’t see…”

“Those were delicious steaks, weren’t they?” remarked Tardo quietly.

Original illustration from If Worlds of Science Fiction by Kelly Freas.

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Here’s another gem from Fredric Brown, the master of superb sci-fi short-short stories with zinger endings. Brown was without peer in that category. If that is, in fact, a category.

Over the years, I’ve posted half a dozen Fredric Brown stories on this blog, and all of them, in my humble opinion, are worth your time.

Just type “Fredric Brown” in the handy search box in the upper right corner of this page, and voila.

———

Earthmen Bearing Gifts

By Fredric Brown
Published in Galaxy Magazine, June 1960

Dhar Ry sat alone in his room, meditating. From outside the door he caught a thought wave equivalent to a knock, and, glancing at the door, he willed it to slide open.

It opened. “Enter, my friend,” he said. He could have projected the idea telepathically, but with only two persons present, speech was more polite.

Ejon Khee entered. “You are up late tonight, my leader,” he said.

“Yes, Khee. Within an hour the Earth rocket is due to land, and I wish to see it. Yes, I know, it will land a thousand miles away, if their calculations are correct. Beyond the horizon. But if it lands even twice that far the flash of the atomic explosion should be visible.

“And I have waited long for first contact. For even though no Earthman will be on that rocket, it will still be first contact — for them. Of course our telepath teams have been reading their thoughts for many centuries, but — this will be the first physical contact between Mars and Earth.”

Khee made himself comfortable on one of the low chairs. “True,” he said. “I have not followed recent reports too closely, though. Why are they using an atomic warhead? I know they suppose our planet is uninhabited, but still —”

“They will watch the flash through their lunar telescopes and get a — what do they call it? — a spectroscopic analysis. That will tell them more than they know now (or think they know; much of it is erroneous) about the atmosphere of our planet and the composition of its surface. It is — call it a sighting shot, Khee. They’ll be here in person within a few oppositions. And then —”

###

Mars was holding out, waiting for Earth to come. What was left of Mars, that is; this one small city of about nine hundred beings. The civilization of Mars was older than that of Earth, but it was a dying one. This was what remained of it: one city, nine hundred people. They were waiting for Earth to make contact, for a selfish reason and for an unselfish one.

Martian civilization had developed in a quite different direction from that of Earth. It had developed no important knowledge of the physical sciences, no technology. But it had developed social sciences to the point where there had not been a single crime, let alone a war, on Mars for fifty thousand years. And it had developed fully the para-psychological sciences of the mind, which Earth was just beginning to discover.

Mars could teach Earth much. How to avoid crime and war to begin with. Beyond those simple things lay telepathy, telekinesis, empathy…

And Earth would, Mars hoped, teach them something even more valuable to Mars: how, by science and technology — which it was too late for Mars to develop now, even if they had the type of minds which would enable them to develop these things — to restore and rehabilitate a dying planet, so that an otherwise dying race might live and multiply again.

Each planet would gain greatly, and neither would lose.

###

And tonight was the night when Earth would make its first sighting shot. Its next shot, a rocket containing Earthmen, or at least an Earthman, would be at the next opposition, two Earth years, or roughly four Martian years, hence.

The Martians knew this, because their teams of telepaths were able to catch at least some of the thoughts of Earthmen, enough to know their plans. Unfortunately, at that distance, the connection was one-way. Mars could not ask Earth to hurry its program. Or tell Earth scientists the facts about Mars’ composition and atmosphere which would have made this preliminary shot unnecessary.

Tonight Ry, the leader (as nearly as the Martian word can be translated), and Khee, his administrative assistant and closest friend, sat and meditated together until the time was near. Then they drank a toast to the future — in a beverage based on menthol, which had the same effect on Martians as alcohol on Earthmen — and climbed to the roof of the building in which they had been sitting.

They watched toward the north, where the rocket should land. The stars shone brilliantly and unwinkingly through the atmosphere.

###

In Observatory No. 1 on Earth’s moon, Rog Everett, his eye at the eyepiece of the spotter scope, said triumphantly, “Thar she blew, Willie. And now, as soon as the films are developed, we’ll know the score on that old planet Mars.”

He straightened up — there’d be no more to see now — and he and Willie Sanger shook hands solemnly. It was an historical occasion.

“Hope it didn’t kill anybody. Any Martians, that is. Rog, did it hit dead center in Syrtis Major?”

“Near as matters. I’d say it was maybe a thousand miles off, to the south. And that’s damn close on a fifty-million-mile shot. Willie, do you really think there are any Martians?”

Willie thought a second and then said, “No.”

He was right.

Original illustration from Galaxy Magazine by “Carter.”

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When this sci-fi story was published in 1962, six men had gone into space, two from the USSR and four from the US. All the flights were brief, however, and the subject of radiation exposure (as addressed in the story) remained a genuine question.

Based on what we knew at the time, the premise of this story technically was possible. Far-fetched, but possible.

Today, we still haven’t gone beyond the Moon. When we set out on extended voyages to Mars and elsewhere, you can bet factors will surface that we didn’t anticipate.

Does that mean the premise of this tale still could turn out to be true? Far-fetched, but possible.

———

A Bad Town for Spacemen

By Robert Scott
Published in Worlds of If Science Fiction, July 1962

I stepped back out of the gutter and watched the tight clot of men disappear around the corner. They hadn’t really been menacing, just had made it obvious they weren’t going to break up. And that I had better get out of their way. I got. We were well trained.

The neon of the bar across the street flickered redly on my uniform. I watched the slush trickle off my boots for a while, then made up my mind and headed into the bar. It was a mistake.

New York had always been considered safe for us. Of course there were many parts of the country that were absolutely forbidden “for your own good” and others that were “highly dangerous” or at least “doubtful.” But New York had always been a haven. The stares there had even been admiring sometimes, especially in the beginning.

But things had changed. I had realized that about half an hour after touchdown, when we were being herded through Health Check, Baggage Check, Security Check… you know the lot. Before, there had been friendly questions, genuine interest in the Mars colony, speculations about the second expedition to Venus, even a joke or two. This time the examiners’ only interest seemed to be in fouling us up as much as possible. And when we finally got through the rat race, New York was bleak.

I should have stayed with the rest, I guess, and of course a public bar was the last place any smart spaceboy would have gone to. But I had some nice memories of bars, memories from the early days.

The whole room went silent, as though a tube had blown, when I shoved through the door. I got over to an empty table as quickly as I could and inspected the list of drinks on the dispenser. This one had a lot of big nickel handles sticking up over the drink names and the whole job was shaped like one of those beer kegs you used to see pictures of. What I mean is, this was an authentic bar.

Phony as hell.

###

From the way this sounds, you can guess the kind of mood I’d gotten in. The noise had picked up again right after I sat down and some of the drunker drunks were knocking the usual words around, in loud whispers and with lots of glances at me.

One of the pro-girls (her hair was green and her blouse covered her breasts — another change while I was out) gave me a big wink and then jabbed the man next to her and squawked with laughter.

I fed a bill into the change machine at the table and then dribbled several coins (prices had gone up too) into the dispenser.

I guess I must have had several, because after a while I began to feel cheerful. The noise that was coming out of the box in the corner started to sound like music, and I got to tapping and rocking. And smiling, I guess. And that’s what triggered it.

People had been coming and going, but mainly coming. And the crowd at the bar had been getting louder, and one guy there had been getting louder than the rest. All of a sudden, he slammed down his glass and headed for my table. He orbited around it for a while, staring at me, and then settled jerkily down in the chair across from me.

“Why all the hilarity, spaceboy? Feeling proud of yourself?”

He looked pretty wobbly and pretty soft and pretty old. And very angry. But I was kind of wobbly myself by that time. And anyway there are strict rules about us and violence. Very strict. So I just tried to make the smile bigger and said, “I’m just feeling good. We had a good run and we brought in some nice stuff.”

“Nice stuff,” he said, kind of mincing. “Buddy, do you know what you can do with your sandgems and your windstones?”

“We brought back some other things too. There was a good bit of uranium and — “

“We don’t need it!” He was getting purple. “We don’t need anything from you.”

“And maybe we don’t need you.” I was getting sort of fired up myself. “Carversville is self-sufficient now. You can’t give us anything.”

“Well, why the hell don’t you stay there? Why don’t all of you stay off Earth? There’s no place for you here.”

I could have pointed out that we brought things that Earth really needed, that Mars and Venus had literally worlds of natural resources, while Earth had almost finished hers. But he began to quiet down then and I began to feel the loneliness again, the sense of loss. You can’t go home again… that phrase kept poking around in my skull.

Suddenly he sat up and looked straight at me, and his eyes really focused for the first time. “What lousy luck. What incredibly lousy luck. And how could anyone have known?”

It wasn’t hard to peg what he was talking about. “It was probably good luck that the first space crew was selected the way it was,” I said. “Otherwise you’d have had a dead ship full of dead men and no knowing why. But that one man brought the ship back.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know. And the scientists figured everything out. About radiation in space being lethal to almost all types of man. But there was one thing that made a man immune. One thing.”

“The scientists tried to find a protective covering that would be practicable. They tried to synthesize slaves that would protect you. It wasn’t our fault that they couldn’t.”

“No, not your fault.” His eyes had begun to dull again. “Just a matter of enough melanin in the skin. That’s all…” Then he straightened up and slammed his fist on the table. “Damn you, did you know I was a jet pilot a long time ago? Did you know I was going to be one of the space pioneers? Open up brave new worlds for Man…”

He sat there staring at me for a minute or so and the last thing he said was, “Don’t you come here again — nigger.”

I got up and left the table and walked out of the bar. I wasn’t provoked. As I said before, we were well trained.

###

The first time I realized where I was was when I bumped into the fence around the spacefield. I must have walked all the way over there from the bar. I had a memory of crumbling buildings and littered streets. Things had changed while I had been out there. They were letting the city run down.

As I started to walk along the fence to the gate, I saw the ship towering against the stars. The stars and the ship. And tomorrow there would be colonists getting aboard.

I stopped and looked till I knew where home was and who the real exiles were.

I stopped feeling sorry for myself. And started feeling sorry for them.

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This 1953 sci-fi short story is a fine example of irony — tragic irony, cosmic irony, situational irony, you name it.

Which probably is why the story was adapted in 1959 as an episode of The Twilight Zone; Rod Serling loved stories like this. It starred Burgess Meredith and stands as one of the most popular episodes The Twilight Zone ever aired.

Even decades later, the plot is so familiar in American culture that it surfaced as an internet meme.

Time Enough At Last

By Lyn Venable
Published in IF Worlds of Science Fiction, January 1953.

For a long time, Henry Bemis had had an ambition. To read a book. Not just the title or the preface, or a page somewhere in the middle. He wanted to read the whole thing, all the way through from beginning to end. A simple ambition perhaps, but in the cluttered life of Henry Bemis, an impossibility.

Henry had no time of his own. There was his wife, Agnes who owned that part of it that his employer, Mr. Carsville, did not buy. Henry was allowed enough to get to and from work — that in itself being quite a concession on Agnes’ part.

Also, nature had conspired against Henry by handing him with a pair of hopelessly myopic eyes. Poor Henry literally couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. For a while, when he was very young, his parents had thought him an idiot. When they realized it was his eyes, they got glasses for him. He was never quite able to catch up. There was never enough time. It looked as though Henry’s ambition would never be realized. Then something happened which changed all that.

Henry was down in the vault of the Eastside Bank & Trust when it happened. He had stolen a few moments from the duties of his teller’s cage to try to read a few pages of the magazine he had bought that morning. He’d made an excuse to Mr. Carsville about needing bills in large denominations for a certain customer, and then, safe inside the dim recesses of the vault he had pulled from inside his coat the pocket size magazine.

He had just started a picture article cheerfully entitled “The New Weapons and What They’ll Do To YOU”, when all the noise in the world crashed in upon his ear-drums. It seemed to be inside of him and outside of him all at once. Then the concrete floor was rising up at him and the ceiling came slanting down toward him, and for a fleeting second Henry thought of a story he had started to read once called “The Pit and The Pendulum”. He regretted in that insane moment that he had never had time to finish that story to see how it came out. Then all was darkness and quiet and unconsciousness.

When Henry came to, he knew that something was desperately wrong with the Eastside Bank & Trust. The heavy steel door of the vault was buckled and twisted and the floor tilted up at a dizzy angle, while the ceiling dipped crazily toward it. Henry gingerly got to his feet, moving arms and legs experimentally. Assured that nothing was broken, he tenderly raised a hand to his eyes. His precious glasses were intact, thank God! He would never have been able to find his way out of the shattered vault without them.

He made a mental note to write Dr. Torrance to have a spare pair made and mailed to him. Blasted nuisance not having his prescription on file locally, but Henry trusted no-one but Dr. Torrance to grind those thick lenses into his own complicated prescription.

Henry removed the heavy glasses from his face. Instantly the room dissolved into a neutral blur. Henry saw a pink splash that he knew was his hand, and a white blob come up to meet the pink as he withdrew his pocket handkerchief and carefully dusted the lenses. As he replaced the glasses, they slipped down on the bridge of his nose a little. He had been meaning to have them tightened for some time.

He suddenly realized, without the realization actually entering his conscious thoughts, that something momentous had happened, something worse than the boiler blowing up, something worse than a gas main exploding, something worse than anything that had ever happened before. He felt that way because it was so quiet. There was no whine of sirens, no shouting, no running, just an ominous and all pervading silence.

Henry walked across the slanting floor. Slipping and stumbling on the uneven surface, he made his way to the elevator. The car lay crumpled at the foot of the shaft like a discarded accordion. There was something inside of it that Henry could not look at, something that had once been a person, or perhaps several people, it was impossible to tell now.

Feeling sick, Henry staggered toward the stairway. The steps were still there, but so jumbled and piled back upon one another that it was more like climbing the side of a mountain than mounting a stairway. It was quiet in the huge chamber that had been the lobby of the bank.

It looked strangely cheerful with the sunlight shining through the girders where the ceiling had fallen. The dappled sunlight glinted across the silent lobby, and everywhere there were huddled lumps of unpleasantness that made Henry sick as he tried not to look at them.

“Mr. Carsville,” he called. It was very quiet. Something had to be done, of course. This was terrible, right in the middle of a Monday, too. Mr. Carsville would know what to do. He called again, more loudly, and his voice cracked hoarsely, “Mr. Carrrrsville!” And then he saw an arm and shoulder extending out from under a huge fallen block of marble ceiling. In the buttonhole was the white carnation Mr. Carsville had worn to work that morning, and on the third finger of that hand was a massive signet ring, also belonging to Mr. Carsville. Numbly, Henry realized that the rest of Mr. Carsville was under that block of marble.

Henry felt a pang of real sorrow. Mr. Carsville was gone, and so was the rest of the staff — Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Emory and Mr. Prithard, and the same with Pete and Ralph and Jenkins and Hunter and Pat the guard and Willie the doorman. There was no one to say what was to be done about the Eastside Bank & Trust except Henry Bemis, and Henry wasn’t worried about the bank, there was something he wanted to do.

He climbed carefully over piles of fallen masonry. Once he stepped down into something that crunched and squashed beneath his feet and he set his teeth on edge to keep from retching. The street was not much different from the inside, bright sunlight and so much concrete to crawl over, but the unpleasantness was much, much worse. Everywhere there were strange, motionless lumps that Henry could not look at.

Suddenly, he remembered Agnes. He should be trying to get to Agnes, shouldn’t he? He remembered a poster he had seen that said, “In event of emergency do not use the telephone, your loved ones are as safe as you.” He wondered about Agnes. He looked at the smashed automobiles, some with their four wheels pointing skyward like the stiffened legs of dead animals. He couldn’t get to Agnes now anyway, if she was safe, then, she was safe, otherwise… of course, Henry knew Agnes wasn’t safe.

He had a feeling that there wasn’t anyone safe for a long, long way, maybe not in the whole state or the whole country, or the whole world. No, that was a thought Henry didn’t want to think, he forced it from his mind and turned his thoughts back to Agnes.

She had been a pretty good wife, now that it was all said and done. It wasn’t exactly her fault if people didn’t have time to read nowadays. It was just that there was the house, and the bank, and the yard. There were the Jones’ for bridge and the Graysons for canasta and charades with the Bryants.

And the television, the television Agnes loved to watch, but would never watch alone. He never had time to read even a newspaper. He started thinking about last night, that business about the newspaper.

Henry had settled into his chair, quietly, afraid that a creaking spring might call to Agnes’ attention the fact that he was momentarily unoccupied. He had unfolded the newspaper slowly and carefully, the sharp crackle of the paper would have been a clarion call to Agnes. He had glanced at the headlines of the first page. “Collapse Of Conference Imminent.” He didn’t have time to read the article.

He turned to the second page. “Solon Predicts War Only Days Away.” He flipped through the pages faster, reading brief snatches here and there, afraid to spend too much time on any one item. On a back page was a brief article entitled, “Prehistoric Artifacts Unearthed In Yucatan.” Henry smiled to himself and carefully folded the sheet of paper into fourths. That would be interesting, he would read all of it.

Then it came, Agnes’ voice. “Henrrreee!” And then she was upon him. She lightly flicked the paper out of his hands and into the fireplace. He saw the flames lick up and curl possessively around the unread article. Agnes continued, “Henry, tonight is the Jones’ bridge night. They’ll be here in thirty minutes and I’m not dressed yet, and here you are… reading.”

She had emphasized the last word as though it were an unclean act. “Hurry and shave, you know how smooth Jasper Jones’ chin always looks, and then straighten up this room.” She glanced regretfully toward the fireplace. “Oh dear, that paper, the television schedule… oh well, after the Jones leave there won’t be time for anything but the late-late movie and… Don’t just sit there, Henry, hurrreeee!”

Henry was hurrying now, but hurrying too much. He cut his leg on a twisted piece of metal that had once been an automobile fender. He thought about things like lock-jaw and gangrene and his hand trembled as he tied his pocket-handkerchief around the wound.

In his mind, he saw the fire again, licking across the face of last night’s newspaper. He thought that now he would have time to read all the newspapers he wanted to, only now there wouldn’t be any more. That heap of rubble across the street had been the Gazette Building. It was terrible to think there would never be another up to date newspaper.

Agnes would have been very upset, no television schedule. But then, of course, no television. He wanted to laugh but he didn’t. That wouldn’t have been fitting, not at all.

He could see the building he was looking for now, but the silhouette was strangely changed. The great circular dome was now a ragged semi-circle, half of it gone, and one of the great wings of the building had fallen in upon itself.

A sudden panic gripped Henry Bemis. What if they were all ruined, destroyed, every one of them? What if there wasn’t a single one left? Tears of helplessness welled in his eyes as he painfully fought his way over and through the twisted fragments of the city.

He thought of the building when it had been whole. He remembered the many nights he had paused outside its wide and welcoming doors. He thought of the warm nights when the doors had been thrown open and he could see the people inside, see them sitting at the plain wooden tables with the stacks of books beside them. He used to think then, what a wonderful thing a public library was, a place where anybody, anybody at all could go in and read.

He had been tempted to enter many times. He had watched the people through the open doors, the man in greasy work clothes who sat near the door, night after night, laboriously studying, a technical journal perhaps, difficult for him, but promising a brighter future.

There had been an aged, scholarly gentleman who sat on the other side of the door, leisurely paging, moving his lips a little as he did so, a man having little time left, but rich in time because he could do with it as he chose.

Henry had never gone in. He had started up the steps once, got almost to the door, but then he remembered Agnes, her questions and shouting, and he had turned away.

He was going in now though, almost crawling, his breath coming in stabbing gasps, his hands torn and bleeding. His trouser leg was sticky red where the wound in his leg had soaked through the handkerchief. It was throbbing badly but Henry didn’t care. He had reached his destination.

Part of the inscription was still there, over the now doorless entrance. P-U-B—C L-I-B-R—-. The rest had been torn away. The place was in shambles. The shelves were overturned, broken, smashed, tilted, their precious contents spilled in disorder upon the floor.

A lot of the books, Henry noted gleefully, were still intact, still whole, still readable. He was literally knee deep in them, he wallowed in books. He picked one up. The title was “Collected Works of William Shakespeare.” Yes, he must read that, sometime. He laid it aside carefully. He picked up another. Spinoza. He tossed it away, seized another, and another, and still another. Which to read first… there were so many.

He had been conducting himself a little like a starving man in a delicatessen — grabbing a little of this and a little of that in a frenzy of enjoyment.

But now he steadied away. From the pile about him, he selected one volume, sat comfortably down on an overturned shelf, and opened the book.

Henry Bemis smiled.

There was the rumble of complaining stone. Minute in comparison which the epic complaints following the fall of the bomb. This one occurred under one corner of the shelf upon which Henry sat. The shelf moved; threw him off balance. The glasses slipped from his nose and fell with a tinkle.

He bent down, clawing blindly and found, finally, their smashed remains. A minor, indirect destruction stemming from the sudden, wholesale smashing of a city. But the only one that greatly interested Henry Bemis.

He stared down at the blurred page before him.

He began to cry.

Illustration by Jason Copland

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Going Home

The sci-fi short story below is a bit of an oddity. When it was written, spaceships usually were depicted as sleek, gleaming, and spotless, as later shown inStar Trek” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

But author Henry Guth presented the passenger ship Stardust as cramped, dirty, and claustrophobic, a concept that became the norm — à la the Nostromo in “Alien.”

Guth, by the way, is a mystery man — another writer from the old days about whom The Google knows practically nothing. He is listed as the author of a few sci-fi stories, but no bio or other information seems to be out there.

I’m always surprised when The Google comes up empty.

———

Signal Red

By Henry Guth
Published in Planet Stories, Fall 1949

Mercurian night settled black and thick over the Q City Spaceport. Tentative fingers of light flicked and probed the sky, and winked out.

“Here she comes,” somebody in the line ahead said.

Shano coughed, his whole skeletal body jerking. Arthritic joints sent flashes of pain along his limbs. Here she comes, he thought, feeling neither glad nor sad.

He coughed and slipped polarized goggles over his eyes.

The spaceport emerged bathed in infra red. Hangars, cradles, freighter catapults and long runways stood out in sharp, diamond-clear detail. High up, beyond the cone of illumination, a detached triple row of bright specks — portholes of the liner Stardust — sank slowly down.

There was no eagerness in him. Only a tiredness. A relief. Relief from a lifetime of beating around the planets. A life of digging, lifting, lugging and pounding. Like a work-worn Martian camel, he was going home to die.

As though on oiled pistons the ship sank into the light, its long shark-like hull glowing soft and silvery, and settled with a feathery snuggle into the cradle’s ribs.

The passenger line quivered as a loud-speaker boomed:

Stardust, now arrived at Cradle Six! Stardust, Cradle Six! All passengers for Venus and Earth prepare to board in ten minutes.

Shano coughed, and wiped phlegm from his thin lips, his hand following around the bony contours of his face, feeling the hollows and the beard stubble and loose skin of his neck. He coughed and thought of the vanium mines of Pluto, and his gum-clogged lungs. A vague, pressing desire for home overwhelmed him. It had been so long.

Attention! Attention, Stardust passengers! The signal is red. The signal is red. Refunds now being made. Refunds now. Take-off in five minutes.

The man ahead swore and flicked up an arm. “Red,” he groaned. “By the infinite galaxies, this is the last straw!” He charged away, knocking Shano aside as he passed.

Red signal. In bewildered anxiety Shano lifted the goggles from his eyes and stared into the sudden blackness. The red signal. Danger out there. Passengers advised to ground themselves, or travel at their own risk.

He felt the passengers bump and fumble past him, grumbling vexatiously.

A hot dread assailed him, and he coughed, plucking at his chest. Plucking at an urgency there.

Dropping the goggles to his rheumy eyes, he saw that the passenger line had dissolved. He moved, shuffling, to the gate, thrust his ticket into the scanner slot, and pushed through the turnstile when it clicked.

Flight twenty-one, now arriving from Venus,” the loud-speaker said monotonously. Shano glanced briefly upward and saw the gleaming belly of twenty-one sinking into the spaceport cone of light.

He clawed his way up the gangway and thrust out his ticket to the lieutenant standing alone at the air lock. The lieutenant, a sullen, chunky man with a queer nick in his jawbone, refused the ticket. “Haven’t you heard, mister? Red signal. Go on back.”

Shano coughed, and peered through the lenses of his goggles. “Please,” he said. “Want to go home. I’ve a right.” The nicked jaw stirred faint memories within his glazed mind.

The lieutenant punched his ticket. “It’s your funeral, old man.”

The loud-speaker blared. “Stardust, taking off in thirty seconds. The signal is red. Stardust, taking —

With the words dinning in his ears, Shano stepped into the air lock. The officer followed, spun wheels, and the lock closed. The outside was shut off.

Lifting goggles they entered the hull, through a series of two more locks, closing each behind them.

“We’re afloat,” the officer said. “We’ve taken off.” A fleck of light danced far back in his eye. Shano felt the pressure of acceleration gradually increasing, increasing, and hurried in.

———

Captain Menthlo, a silver-mustached Jupiterian, broad, huge, yet crushable as a beetle, talked while his hands manipulated a panel of studs in the control room. The pilot, his back encased in leather, sat in a bucket seat before him, listening into earphones.

“Surprised to learn of a passenger aboard,” the captain said, glancing briefly sideways. “You’re entitled to know of the danger ahead.” He flicked a final stud, spoke to the pilot and at last turned a serious, squared face to Shano.

“Old man,” he said. “There’s a Uranian fleet out there. We don’t know how many ships in this sector. Flight twenty-one, which just landed, had a skirmish with one, and got away. We may not be so lucky. You know how these Uranian devils are.”

Shano coughed, and wiped his mouth. “Dirty devils,” he said. “I was driv’ off the planet once, before this war started. I know things about them Uranian devils. Heard them in the mines around. Hears things, a laborer does.”

The captain seemed for the first time to realize the social status of his lone passenger, and he became a little gruff.

“Want you to sign this waiver, saying you’re traveling at your own risk. We’ll expect you to keep to your cabin as much as possible. When the trouble comes we can’t bother with a passenger. In a few hours we’ll shut down the ship entirely, and every mechanical device aboard, to try to avoid detection.”

His mustaches rose like two spears from each side of his squared nose as his face changed to an alert watchfulness. “Going home, eh?” he said. “You’ve knocked around some, by the looks of you. Pluto, from the sound of that cough.”

Shano scrawled his signature on the waiver. “Yeah,” he said. “Pluto. Where a man’s lungs fights gas.”

He blinked watery eyes. “Captain, what’s a notched jaw mean to you?”

“Well, old man,” the captain grasped Shano’s shoulder and turned him around. “It means somebody cut himself, shaving. You stick tight to your cabin.” He nodded curtly and indicated the door.

Descending the companionway to the next deck Shano observed the nick-jawed lieutenant staring out the viewport, apparently idling. The man turned and gripped Shano’s thin arm.

“A light?” he said, tapping a cigarette. Shano produced a lighter disk and the chunky man puffed. He was an Earthman and his jaw seemed cut with a knife, notched like a piece of wood. Across the breast of his tunic was a purple band, with the name Rourke.

“Why are you so anxious to get aboard, old man?” He searched Shano’s face. “There’s trouble ahead, you know.”

Shano coughed, wracking his body, as forgotten memories stirred sluggishly in his mind. “Yup,” he said, and jerked free and stumbled down the steel deck.

In his cabin he lay on the bunk, lighted a cigarette and smoked, coughing and staring at the rivet-studded bulkhead. The slow movement of his mind resolved into a struggle, one idea groping for the other.

What were the things he’d heard about nicked jaws? And where had he heard them? Digging ore on Pluto; talk in the pits? Secretive suspicions voiced in smoke-laden saloons of Mars? In the labor gangs of Uranus? Where?

Shano smoked and didn’t know. But he knew there was a rumor, and that it was the talk of ignorant men. The captain had evaded it. Shano smoked and coughed and stared at the steel bulkhead and waited.

———

The ship’s alarm clanged. Shano jerked from his bunk like a broken watch spring. He crouched, trembling, on arthritic joints, as a loud-speaker blared throughout the ship.

All hands! We now maintain dead silence. Close down and stop all machinery. Power off and lights out. An enemy fleet is out there, listening and watching for mechanical and electronic disturbance. Atmosphere will be maintained from emergency oxygen cylinders. Stop pumps.

Shano crouched and listened as the ship’s steady drone ceased and the vibrations ceased. The pumps stopped, the lights went out.

Pressing the cold steel bulkhead, Shano heard oxygen hiss through the pipes. Hiss and hiss and then flow soundlessly, filling the cabin and his lungs. He choked.

The cabin was like a mine shaft, dark and cold. Feet pounded on the deck outside.

Shano clawed open the door. He peered out anxiously.

Cold blobs of light, phosphorescent bulbs held in the fists of men, glimmered by. Phosphorescent bulbs, because the power was off. Shano blinked. He saw officers and men, their faces tight and pinched, hurrying in all directions. Hurrying to shut down the ship.

He acted impulsively. A young ensign strode by, drawn blaster in hand. Shano followed him; followed the bluish glow of his bulb, through labyrinthine passages and down a companionway, coughing and leering against the pain in his joints. The blue light winked out in the distance and Shano stopped.

He was suddenly alarmed. The captain had warned him to stay in his cabin. He looked back and forth, wondering how to return.

A bell clanged.

Shano saw a cold bulb glowing down the passageway, and he shuffled hopefully toward it. The bulb moved away. He saw an indistinct figure disappear through a door marked, ENGINE ROOM.

Shano paused uncertainly at the end of the passageway. A thick cluster of vertical pipes filled the corner. He peered at the pipes and saw a gray box snuggled behind them. It had two toggle switches and a radium dial that quivered delicately.

Shano scratched his scalp as boots pounded on the decks, above and below. He listened attentively to the ship’s familiar noises diminishing one by one. And finally even the pounding of feet died out; everything became still. The silence shrieked in his ears.

———

The ship coasted. Shano could sense it coasting. He couldn’t feel it or hear it, but he knew it was sliding ghost-like through space like a submarine dead under water, slipping quietly past a listening enemy.

The ship’s speaker rasped softly. “Emergency. Battle posts.

The captain’s voice. Calm, brief. It sent a tremor through Shano’s body. He heard a quick scuffle of feet again, running feet, directly overhead, and the captain’s voice, more urgently, “Power on. They’ve heard us.”

The words carried no accusation, but Shano realized what they meant. A slip-up. Something left running. Vibrations picked up quickly by detectors of the Uranian space fleet.

Shano coughed and heard the ship come to life around him. He pulled himself out of the spasm, cursing Pluto. Cursing his diseased, gum-clogged lungs. Cursing the Uranian fleet that was trying to prevent his going home — even to die.

This was a strange battle. Strange indeed. It was mostly silence.

Occasionally, as though from another world, came a brief, curt order. “Port guns alert.” Then hush and tension.

The deck lurched and the ship swung this way and that. Maybe dodging, maybe maneuvering—Shano didn’t know. He felt the deck lurch, that was all.

“Fire number seven.”

He heard the weird scream of a ray gun, and felt the constricting terror that seemed to belt the ship like an iron band.

This was a battle in space, and out there were Uranian cruisers trying to blast the Stardust out of the sky. Trying and trying, while the captain dodged and fired back — pitted his skill and knowledge against an enemy Shano couldn’t see.

He wanted desperately to help the captain break through, and get to Earth. But he could only cling to the plastic pipes and cough.

The ship jounced and slid beneath his feet, and was filled with sound. It rocked and rolled. Shano caromed off the bulkhead.

“Hold fire.”

He crawled to his knees on the slippery deck, grabbed the pipes and pulled himself erect, hand over hand. His eyes came level with the gray metal box behind the pipes. He squinted, fascinated, at the quivering dial needle. “Hey!” he said.

“Stand by.”

Shano puzzled it out, his mind groping. He wasn’t used to thinking. Only working with his hands.

This box. This needle that had quivered when the ship was closed down…

“It’s over. Chased them off. Ready guns before laying to. Third watch on duty.”

Shano sighed at the sudden release of tension throughout the space liner Stardust.

Smoke spewed from his nostrils. His forehead wrinkled with concentration. Those rumors: “Man sells out to Uranus, gets a nick cut in his jaw. Ever see a man with a nick in his jaw? Watch him, he’s up to something.” The talk of ignorant men. Shano remembered.

He poked behind the pipes and angrily slapped the toggle switches on the box. The captain would only scoff. He’d never believe there was a traitor aboard who had planted an electronic signal box, giving away the ship’s position. He’d never believe the babblings of an old man.

He straightened up, glaring angrily. He knew. And the knowledge made him cold and furious. He watched the engine room emergency exit as it opened cautiously.

A chunky man backed out, holstering a flat blaster. He turned and saw Shano, standing smoking. He walked over and nudged Shano, his face dark. Shano blew smoke into the dark face.

“Old man,” said Rourke. “What’re you doing down here?”

Shano blinked.

Rourke fingered the nick in his jaw, eyes glinting. “You’re supposed to be in your cabin,” he said. “Didn’t I warn you we’d run into trouble?”

Shano smoked and contemplated the chunky man. Estimated his strength and youth and felt the anger and frustration mount in him. “Devil,” he said.

He lunged then, clawing. He dug the cigarette into Rourke’s flushed face, and clung to his body. Rourke howled. He fell backward to the deck, slapping at his blistered face. He thrashed around and Shano clung to him, battered, pressing the cigarette relentlessly, coughing, cursing the pain in his joints.

Shano grasped Rourke’s neck with his hands. He twisted the neck with his gnarled hands. Strong hands that had worked.

He got up when Rourke stopped thrashing. The face was purple and he was dead. Shano shivered. He crouched in the passageway shivering and coughing.

———

A tremendous grinding sounded amid-ships. Loud rending noises of protesting metal. The ship bucked like a hooked fish. Then it was still. An empty clank echoed through the hull. The captain’s voice came, almost yelling. “Emergency! Emergency! Back to your posts. Engine room — report! Engine room —”

Shano picked himself off the deck, his mind muddled. He coughed and put a cigarette to his lips, flicking a lighter disk jerkily from his pocket. He blew smoke from his nostrils and heard the renewed pounding of feet. What was going on now?

“Engine room! Your screen is dead! Switch onto loud-speaker system. Engine room!”

Giddily, Shano heard clicks and rasps and then a thick voice, atom motors whirring in the background.

“Selector’s gone, sir. Direct hit. Heat ray through the deck plates. We’ve sealed the tear. Might repair selector in five hours.”

Shano coughed and sent a burst of smoke from his mouth.

“Captain!” A rasping, grating sound ensued from a grill above Shano’s head, then a disconnected voice. “Get the men out of there. It’s useless. Hurry it up!” A series of clicks and the heavy voice of the chief engineer. “Captain! Somebody’s smashed the selector chamber. Engine room’s full of toxia gas!”

Shano jumped. He prodded the body on the deck with his toe.

The Stardust’s mechanical voice bellowed: “Engine room!” It reproduced the captain’s heavy breathing and his tired voice. “We’re about midway to Venus,” it said. “There were two ships and we drove them off. But there may be others. They’ll be coming back. They know we’ve been hit. We have to get away fast!”

Shano could see the captain in his mind, worried, squared face slick with moisture. Shouting into a control room mike. Trying to find out what the matter was with his space ship.

The engineer’s answer came from the grill. “Impossible, sir. Engine room full of toxia gas. Not a suit aboard prepared to withstand it. And we have to keep it in there. Selector filaments won’t function without the gas. Our only chance was to put a man in the engine room to repair the broken selector valve rods or keep them running by hand.”

“Blast it!” roared the captain. “No way of getting in there? Can’t you by-pass the selector?”

“No. It’s the heart of the new cosmic drive, sir. The fuels must pass through selector valves before entering the tube chambers. Filaments will operate so long as toxia gas is there to burn, and will keep trying to open the valves and compensate for fluctuating engine temperature.

“But the rod pins have melted down, sir — they’re common tungsten steel — and when the rods pull a valve open, they slip off and drop down, useless. It’s a mess. If we could only get a man in there he might lift up the dropped end of a rod and slip it into place each time it fell, and keep the valves working and feeding fuel.”

The speaker spluttered and Shano smoked thoughtfully, listening to the talk back and forth, between the captain and the engineer. He didn’t understand it, but knew that everything was ended. They were broken down in space and would never make Earth. Those Uranian devils would come streaking back. Catch them floating, helpless, and blast them to bits. And he would never get home to die.

Shano coughed, and cursed his lungs. Time was when these gum-clogged lungs had saved his life. In the Plutonian mines. Gas explosions in the tunnels. Toxia gas, seeping in, burning the men’s insides. But with gum-clogged lungs he’d been able to work himself clear. Just getting sick where other men had died, their insides burned out.

Shano smoked and thought.

———

They wouldn’t even know, he told himself, squirming through the emergency exit into the engine room, and sealing it after him. And they wouldn’t understand if they did. Pink mist swirled about him. Toxia gas. Shano coughed.

He squinted around at the massive, incomprehensible machinery. The guts of the space ship.

Then he saw the shattered, gold-gleaming cylinder, gas hissing from a fine nozzle, and filaments glowing bluish inside it, still working away. He saw five heavy Carrsteel rods hanging useless, on melted-down pins, and the slots their pronged ends hooked into. He looked at his hands, and shook his head.

“One try,” he said to himself. “One try, Shano. One important thing in your life. Here’s your opportunity. The toxia gas will get you. It’ll kill you at this concentration. But you’ll last for maybe twelve hours. Another man wouldn’t last a minute. Another man’s lungs aren’t clogged with Juno gum.”

He grasped a rod and lifted it, sweating under the weight, and slipped the forked end into its slot. Going home to die, he thought. Well, maybe not going home. Couldn’t remember what Earth looked like anyway.

What was that again? Oh yeah — just lift them up, and when they drop off, lift them up again.

Shano coughed, and lifted the heavy rods into position. One jerked back suddenly and smoothly, and something went, “Pop, pop,” behind him and machinery whirred. He lifted the rod and slipped it back on. Another jerked, pulled open a large valve, and dropped off. Shano bent, and lifted, coughing and coughing. He forgot what he was doing, mind blank the way it went when he worked. Just rhythmically fell into the job, the way a laborer does.

He waited for a rod to slip and fall, then lifted it up and slipped it in place, skin sweating, joints shooting pain along his limbs. He heard the machinery working. He heard the high, howling whine of cosmic jets. He, Shano, was making the machinery go. He was running the cosmic drive.

A bell clanged somewhere. “Engine room! Engine room! We’re under way! What happened?”

Silence, while Shano coughed and made the machinery go, thinking about the Earth he hadn’t seen for many years.

“Captain!” the speaker bawled. “There’s a man in there! Working the valve rods! Somebody is in the engine room and the gas isn’t…”

Shano grinned, feeling good. Feeling happy. Lifting the heavy steel rods, driving the ship. Keeping the jets screaming and hurtling the liner Stardust toward Venus. He wondered if they’d found Rourke yet. If he could keep going for twelve hours they would get to Venus. After that…

“Home,” he coughed. “Hell! Who wants to go home?”

He plucked at his agitated chest, thinking of a whole damn Uranian fleet swooping down on a spot in space, expecting to find a crippled ship there with a spy inside it. And finding nothing. Because of Shano. A useless old man.

Coughing came out all mixed up with laughing.

Original illustration from Planet Stories by Herman Vestal.

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

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

———

Task to Luna

By Alfred Coppel
Published in Planet Stories, January 1951

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

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

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

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

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

———

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original illustration from Planet Stories by Earl Mayan.

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

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

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

Probably more fantasy than science fiction.

———

Second Landing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Could you? Forget so many people?”

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

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

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

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

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

“There is. We can give them a week.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In what way?”

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You must think something.”

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

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

“I realize that.”

“A flat yes or no,” said Bal.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. It’s their winter.”

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

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

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

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

“Well, you’re calling it,” said Bal.

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

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

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

“Special instructions?”

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

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

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

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

“If we’re lucky they’ll think that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If it saves my neck I’m for it.”

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

“Say, pretty good,” said Bal.

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

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

“Don’t spare power.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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