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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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All the Answers

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

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

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

———

Ask A Foolish Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because Answerer knows everything.

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

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

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

How else should an Answerer be?

What else should an Answerer do?

So he waited for creatures to come and ask.

———

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is life?

What is death?

———

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But purple? And the mound?

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

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

Lek strode off, leaping from star to star.

———

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

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

———

There were eighteen of them, gathered in one place.

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

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

No one could answer.

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

That left seventeen. A stable number.

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

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

“The stars are cold,” one cried.

“Why?”

“We must go to the Answerer.”

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

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

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

———

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

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

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

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

———

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

“So you are Answerer,” he said.

“Yes,” Answerer said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lek departed, striding swiftly across the stars.

———

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

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

Answerer contented himself with muttering the answers to himself.

———

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

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

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

“Rephrase the question,” Answerer said hopefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

———

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

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

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

Helmeted, they walked along the little path.

“Not so fast,” Lingman murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

“Is the universe expanding?” Morran asked confidently.

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

“Can you tell us anything?” Morran asked.

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

The two men looked at each other.

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

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

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

“But the rule of the simplest hypothesis — “

“It’s only a theory,” Lingman said.

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

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

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

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

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

“I cannot explain an anthropomorphism.”

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

“Are anthropomorphisms unreal?” he asked.

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

“Which is applicable here?”

“Both.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lingman, eyes closed, didn’t answer.

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

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

“Sir! Sir!”

And Answerer knew that that was not the answer.

———

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

He can answer only valid questions.

Universe? Life? Death? Purple? Eighteen?

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

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

How could they understand the true answers?

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

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

Original illustration from Science Fiction Stories by Alex Schomburg.

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

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

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

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

———

The Helpful Robots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is not right,” the robot repeated.

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

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

“Alright, alright, scram,” said Rankin.

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

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

“Hi, Barrows,” said Rankin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop right there!” he shouted.

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

“Stop!” shouted Rankin.

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

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

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

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

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

“What crime?” said Rankin.

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

“What law? What crime?”

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

Steampunk robot sculpture by Michael Boynton, Richland, Washington.

———

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

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

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

———

Time Fuze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commander Benedict wrote in the log:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benedict said nothing; he just waited expectantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How far away?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gordon Randall Phillip David Garrett.

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