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A few months ago, I posted an old sci-fi short story by the elusive Albert Hernhuter, about whom, as I explained in the post, very little is found online.

Mr. Hernhuter also wrote the short story below, this time under the pseudonym Albert “Hernhunter.”

The two stories are similar in many ways. Both tales feature the same wry type of humor, and it appears that Mr. H. was a fan of snappy, pithy dialogue.

Well, hey, who isn’t?

———

The Smiler
By Albert Hernhunter

Published in If Worlds of Science Fiction, July 1952

“Your name?”

“Cole. Martin Cole.”

“Your profession?”

“A very important one. I am a literary agent specializing in science fiction. I sell the work of various authors to magazine and book publishers.”

The Coroner paused to study Cole; to ponder the thin, mirthless smile. The Coroner said, “Mr. Cole, this inquest has been called to look into the death of one Sanford Smith, who was found near your home with a gun in his hand and a bullet in his brain. The theory of suicide has been –“

“– rather hard to rationalize?”

The Coroner blinked. “You could put it that way.”

“I would put it even stronger. The theory is obviously ridiculous. It was a weak cover-up. The best I could do under the circumstances.”

“You are saying that you killed Sanford Smith?”

“Of course.”

The Coroner glanced at his six-man jury, at the two police officers, at the scattering of spectators. They all seemed stunned. Even the reporter sent to cover the hearing made no move toward the telephone. The Coroner could think of only the obvious question: “Why did you kill him?”

“He was dangerous to us.”

“Whom do you mean by us?”

“We Martians, who plan to take over your world.”

The Coroner was disappointed. A lunatic. But a lunatic can murder. Best to proceed, the Coroner thought. “I was not aware that we have Martians to contend with.”

“If I’d had the right weapon to use on Smith, you wouldn’t be aware of it now. We still exercise caution.”

The Coroner felt a certain pity. “Why did you kill Smith?”

“We Martians have found science-fiction writers to be our greatest danger. Through the medium of imaginative fiction, such writers have more than once revealed our plans. If the public suddenly realized that –“

The Coroner broke in. “You killed Smith because he revealed something in his writings?”

“Yes. He refused to take my word that it was unsalable. He threatened to submit it direct. It was vital material.”

“But there are many other such writers. You can’t control –“

“We control ninety percent of the output. We have concentrated on the field and all of the science-fiction agencies are in our hands. This control was imperative.”

“I see.” The Coroner spoke in the gentle tones one uses with the insane. “Any writing dangerous to your cause is deleted or changed by the agents.”

“Not exactly. The agent usually persuades the writer to make any such changes, as the agent is considered an authority on what will or will not sell.”

“The writers always agree?”

“Not always. If stubbornness is encountered, the agent merely shelves the manuscript and tells the writer it has been repeatedly rejected.”

The Coroner glanced at the two policemen. Both were obviously puzzled. They returned the Coroner’s look, apparently ready to move on his order.

The thin, mirthless smile was still on Cole’s lips. Maniacal violence could lie just behind it. Possibly Cole was armed. Better to play for time — try to quiet the madness within. The Coroner continued speaking. “You Martians have infiltrated other fields also?”

“Oh, yes. We are in government, industry, education. We are everywhere. We have, of course, concentrated mainly upon the ranks of labor and in the masses of ordinary, everyday people. It is from these sources that we will draw our shock troops when the time comes.”

“That time will be –?”

“Soon, very soon.”

The Coroner could not forebear a smile. “You find the science-fiction writers more dangerous than the true scientists?”

“Oh, yes. The scientific mind tends to reject anything science disproves.” There was now a mocking edge to Cole’s voice. “Science can easily prove we do not exist.”

“But the science-fiction writer?”

“The danger from the imaginative mind cannot be overestimated.”

The Coroner knew he must soon order the officers to lay hands upon this madman. He regretted his own lack of experience with such situations. He tried to put a soothing, confidential note into his voice. “You said a moment ago that if you’d had the right kind of weapon to use on Smith –“

Cole reached into his pocket and brought out what appeared to be a fountain pen. “This. It kills instantly and leaves no mark whatever. Heart failure is invariably stated as the cause of death.”

The Coroner felt better. Obviously, Cole was not armed. As the Coroner raised a hand to signal the officers, Cole said, “You understand, of course, that I can’t let you live.”

“Take this man into custody.”

The police officers did not move. The Coroner turned on them sharply. They were smiling. Cole pointed the fountain pen. The Coroner felt a sharp chill on his flesh. He looked at the jury, at the newspaperman, the spectators. They were all smiling cold, thin, terrible smiles….

A short time later, the newspaperman phoned in his story. The afternoon editions carried it:

CORONER BELL DIES OF HEART ATTACK

Shortly after this morning’s inquest, which resulted in a jury verdict of suicide in the case of Sanford Smith, Coroner James Bell dropped dead of heart failure in the hearing room of the County building. Mr. Bell leaves a wife and —

THE END

Smiler

 

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“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is one of the most highly regarded short stories in sci-fi history. A genuine classic for all the right reasons.

The author once observed that the story “has a long and happy career of being used by teachers to upset students and make them argue fiercely about morality.”

In effect, to make them walk away from Omelas.

———

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

By Ursula K. Le Guin
Published in New Dimensions 3, October 1973

With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The rigging of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved. Some were decorous: old people in long stiff robes of mauve and grey, grave master workmen, quiet, merry women carrying their babies and chatting as they walked. In other streets the music beat faster, a shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession was a dance.

Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows’ crossing flights, over the music and the singing. All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called the Green Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race. The horses wore no gear at all but a halter without bit. Their manes were braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green. They flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another; they were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own.

Far off to the north and west the mountains stood up half encircling Omelas on her bay. The air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky. There was just enough wind to make the banners that marked the racecourse snap and flutter now and then. In the silence of the broad green meadows one could hear the music winding through the city streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful faint sweetness of the air that from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out into the great joyous clanging of the bells.

Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?

They were not simple folk, you see, though they were happy. But we do not say the words of cheer much any more. All smiles have become archaic. Given a description such as this one tends to make certain assumptions. Given a description such as this one tends to look next for the King, mounted on a splendid stallion and surrounded by his noble knights, or perhaps in a golden litter borne by great-muscled slaves. But there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians. I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few.

As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb. Yet I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. They were not less complex than us.

The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.

How can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naive and happy children — though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you.

Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all. For instance, how about technology? I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category, however – that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc. — they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter.

As you like it. I incline to think that people from towns up and down the coast have been coming in to Omelas during the last days before the Festival on very fast little trains and double-decked trams, and that the train station of Omelas is actually the handsomest building in town, though plainer than the magnificent Farmers’ Market.

But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas — at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all.

One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else should there be? I thought at first there were no drugs, but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcane and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond all belief; and it is not habit-forming.

For more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial. A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer; this is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life. I really don’t think many of them need to take drooz.

Most of the processions have reached the Green Fields by now. A marvelous smell of cooking goes forth from the red and blue tents of the provisioners. The faces of small children are amiably sticky; in the benign grey beard of a man a couple of crumbs of rich pastry are entangled. The youths and girls have mounted their horses and are beginning to group around the starting line of the course. An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men, wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute. People pause to listen, and they smile, but they do not speak to him, for he never ceases playing and never sees them, his dark eyes wholly rapt in the sweet, thin magic of the tune.

He finishes, and slowly lowers his hands holding the wooden flute.

As if that little private silence were the signal, all at once a trumpet sounds from the pavilion near the starting line: imperious, melancholy, piercing. The horses rear on their slender legs, and some of them neigh in answer. Sober-faced, the young riders stroke the horses’ necks and soothe them, whispering, “Quiet, quiet, there my beauty, my hope…” They begin to form in rank along the starting line. The crowds along the racecourse are like a field of grass and flowers in the wind. The Festival of Summer has begun.

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room.

In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits haunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come.

The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes — the child has no understanding of time or interval — sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear.

The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are young people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations.

They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.

The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in.

Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.

Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible? But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl man or woman.

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Omelas

“Starving Child” by Anthony Peter Iannini.

 

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The sci-fi short story below packs a lot into 500 words: an apocalyptic wasteland in the distant future, submerged continents, explorers armed with bows and arrows, a strange discovery. So much food for thought.

The author of this interesting nugget from half a century ago, Therese Windser, is a mystery; I Googled her and came up empty. Even the Google has its limits.

Although “Longevity” seems to be the only work for which Ms. Windser is credited, using a pseudonym is a common practice. Maybe “Therese Windser” doesn’t exist.

A curious mystery, but not in the same league as the one in the story.

———

Longevity

By Therese Windser
Published in Amazing Science Fiction Stories, May 1960

A morality tale — 1960 style.

Legend had it, that many thousands of years ago, right after the Great Horror, the whole continent of the west had slowly sunk beneath the West Water, and that once every century it arose during a full moon. Still, Captain Hinrik clung to the hope that the legend would not be borne out by truth.

Perhaps the west continent still existed; perhaps, dare he hope, with civilization. The crew of the Semilunis thought him quite mad. After all, hadn’t the east and south continents been completely annihilated from the great sky fires; and wasn’t it said that they had suffered but a fraction of what the west continent had endured?

The Semilunis anchored at the mouth of a great river. The months of fear and doubt were at end. Here, at last, was the west continent. A small party of scouts was sent ashore with many cautions to be alert for luminescent areas which meant certain death for those who remained too long in its vicinity.

Armed with bow and arrow, the party made its way slowly up the great river. Nowhere was to be seen the color green, only dull browns and greys. And no sign of life, save for an occasional patch of lichen on a rock.

After several days of rowing, the food and water supply was almost half depleted and still no evidence of either past or present habitation. It was time to turn back, to travel all the weary months across the West Water, the journey all in vain. What a small reward for such an arduous trip… just proof of the existence of a barren land mass, ugly and useless.

On the second day of the return to the Semilunis, the scouting party decided to stop and investigate a huge opening in the rocky mountainside. How suspiciously regular and even it looked, particularly in comparison to the rest of the countryside which was jagged and chaotic.

They entered the cave apprehensively, torches aflare and weapons in hand. But all was darkness and quiet. Still, the regularity of the cave walls led them on. Some creature, man or otherwise, must have planned and built this… but to what end?

Now the cave divided into three forks. The torches gave only a hint of the immensity of the chambers that lay at the end of each. They selected the center chamber, approaching cautiously, breath caught in awe and excitement.

The torches reflected on a dull black surface which was divided into many, many little squares. The sameness of them stretched for uncountable yards in all directions. What were these ungodly looking edifices?

The black surface was cold and smooth to the touch and quite regular except for a strange little hole at the bottom of each square and a curious row of pictures along the top.

They would copy these strange pictures. Perhaps back home there would be a scholar who would understand the meaning behind these last remains of the people of the west continent.

The leader took out his slate and painstakingly copied:

Safeguard your valuables at
ALLEGHANY MOUNTAIN VAULTS
Box #454435678

Longevity

When I first read this story, the spelling of ALLEGHANY jumped out at me. I thought the correct spelling was ALLEGHENY, as in the Allegheny Mountains and the Allegheny River.

As it turns out, the spelling varies by location. Generally, the word is spelled ALLEGHENY in Pennsylvania, ALLEGANY in New York, and ALLEGHANY in Virginia and North Carolina.

Which implies that the wasteland where the story takes place is a future Virginia or North Carolina.

Ta-da.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take, for example, this list of duds:

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

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

With those possibilities in mind, consider these misfires:

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

Palpatine? Grand Moff? Dooku? Huh?

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

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

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

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

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

Tolkien gave us these excellent and emotive names:

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

Rowling matched him with these:

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

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

– The Shire
– Rivendell
– Fanghorn Forest
– Mordor
Lothlórien

Place names in the world of Harry Potter:

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

Meanwhile, in the Star Wars universe:

– Naboo
– Dagobah
– Mos Eisley
– Tatooine
– Hoth

The pattern is clear and painful.

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

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

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

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

But Jek Porkins? Seriously?

Jek Porkins

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

———

‘–All You Zombies–‘”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So?” I said doubtfully. “Sisters?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No distinction around here,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

“You don’t look any worse than I do.”

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

“Eh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stopped. I said, “And then?”

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

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

“Huh? What’s that got to do with it?”

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

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

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

“Pregnant?”

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

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

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

“‘Like a mummy.’

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

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

“‘Oh, no. Your baby’s fine.’

“Oh. Boy or girl?

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

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

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

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

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

“‘Why?’ I demanded.

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

“‘What’s that got to do with me?’

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

“I tried to sit up. ‘What?’

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

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

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

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

“‘No!’

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

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

“Eh?”

“She was snatched.”

“‘Snatched?'”

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

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

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

“Description?”

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

“What happened to you then?”

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

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

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

“So?”

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

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

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

“Takes getting used to, I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes lighted up — a feral gleam.

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

He chuckled nastily. “Try me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh… what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“If it’s a deal — right now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He turned around and said, “What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You!” He gasped and caught his breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I glanced at the ring on my finger.

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

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

So I crawled into bed and whistled out the light.

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

I miss you dreadfully!

Ouroborus

 

 

All You Zombies

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

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

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

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

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

———

Texas Week

By Albert Hernhuter
Published in Fantastic Universe, January 1954

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He said I must be crazy.”

“Were those his exact words?”

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

“Loco?”

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

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

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

Hanstark nodded.

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

“What was he doing?”

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Hanstark,” Mrs. Nest called.

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

“Please be careful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And if I could prove it?”

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

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

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

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

“Reckon so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bye-2

 

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

———

Mr. Chipfellow’s Jackpot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mortality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And this is –?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Think of what?”

“My will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why, Mr. –”

“Shut up and have another drink.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A murmur went up from the crowd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel B. Chipfellow.

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

S. B. C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The vault had not opened.

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

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

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

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

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

And still no one opened Chipfellow’s vault.

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

A year passed. The vault remained locked.

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

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

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

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

And still the vault remained closed.

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

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

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

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

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

The guard frowned and snapped his stop watch.

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

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

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

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

Jackpot

Original illustration from Imagination Science Fiction, artist unknown.

 

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