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Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

According to his wife, author Fredric Brown (1906-1972) hated writing and procrastinated whenever he could. Considering the volume of Brown’s output over the years, he must have been a miserable guy.

In the 1930s, while working as a typesetter and proofreader, Brown began writing mystery stories. He sold his first science fiction story in 1941.

In 1944, he wrote his breakout sci-fi short story,”Arena,” which was an instant classic. When the best sci-fi short stories of all time are listed and ranked, which happens every decade or so, “Arena” is always somewhere in the top few dozen.

The story came to popular attention in 1967, when an episode of Star Trek used Brown’s “Arena” plot. In one of its best-known episodes, Captain Kirk engages in a fight to the death with an evil reptile alien.

The Star Trek scriptwriters claimed they were unaware of Brown’s story and came up with the plot independently. The producers, however, gave Brown full credit and compensation, thus avoiding a pesky lawsuit.

I’ve featured a bunch of Fredric Brown short stories on this blog. The most recent was this post in 2016. I’ve hesitated to post “Arena” because of its length.

Then I decided, what the heck.

———

Arena

By Fredrick Brown
Published in Astounding Science Fiction, June 1944

Carson opened his eyes, and found himself looking upwards into a flickering blue dimness.

It was hot, and he was lying on sand, and a rock embedded in the sand was hurting his back. He rolled over to his side, off the rock, and then pushed himself up to a sitting position.

“I’m crazy,” he thought. “Crazy — or dead — or something.” The sand was blue, bright blue. And there wasn’t any such thing as bright blue sand on Earth or any of the planets. Blue sand under a blue dome that wasn’t the sky nor yet a room, but a circumscribed area — somehow he knew it was circumscribed and finite even though he couldn’t see to the top of it.

He picked up some of the sand in his hand and let it run through his fingers. It trickled down on to his bare leg. Bare?

He was stark naked, and already his body was dripping perspiration from the enervating heat, coated blue with sand wherever sand had touched it. Elsewhere his body was white.

He thought: then this sand is really blue. If it seemed blue only because of the blue light, then I’d be blue also. But I’m white, so the sand is blue. Blue sand: there isn’t any blue sand. There isn’t any place like this place I’m in.

Sweat was running down in his eyes. It was hot, hotter than hell. Only hell — the hell of the ancients — was supposed to be red and not blue.

But if this place wasn’t hell, what was it? Only Mercury, among the planets, had heat like this and this wasn’t Mercury. And Mercury was some four billion miles from… From?

It came back to him then, where he’d been: in the little one-man scouter, outside the orbit of Pluto, scouting a scant million miles to one side of the Earth Armada drawn up in battle array there to intercept the Outsiders.

That sudden strident ringing of the alarm bell when the rival scouter –the Outsider ship — had come within range of his detectors!

No one knew who the Outsiders were, what they looked like, or from what far galaxy they came, other than that it was in the general direction of the Pleiades.

First, there had been sporadic raids on Earth colonies and outposts; isolated battles between Earth patrols and small groups of Outsider spaceships; battles sometimes won and sometimes lost, but never resulting in the capture of an alien vessel. Nor had any member of a raided colony ever survived to describe the Outsiders who had left the ships, if indeed they had left them.

Not too serious a menace, at first, for the raids had not been numerous or destructive. And individually, the ships had proved slightly inferior in armament to the best of Earth’s fighters, although somewhat superior in speed and maneuverability. A sufficient edge in speed, in fact, to give the Outsiders their choice of running or fighting, unless surrounded.

Nevertheless, Earth had prepared for serious trouble, building the mightiest armada of all time. It had been waiting now, that armada, for a long time. Now the showdown was coming.

Scouts twenty billion miles out had detected the approach of a mighty fleet of the Outsiders. Those scouts had never come back, but their radiotronic messages had. And now Earth’s armada, all ten thousand ships and half-million fighting spacemen, was out there, outside Pluto’s orbit, waiting to intercept and battle to the death.

And an even battle it was going to be, judging by the advance reports of the men of the far picket line who had given their lives to report –before they had died — on the size and strength of the alien fleet.

Anybody’s battle, with the mastery of the solar system hanging in the balance, on an even chance. A last and only chance, for Earth and all her colonies lay at the utter mercy of the Outsiders if they ran that gauntlet –Oh yes. Bob Carson remembered now. He remembered that strident bell and his leap for the control panel. His frenzied fumbling as he strapped himself into the seat. The dot in the visiplate that grew larger. The dryness of his mouth. The awful knowledge that this was it for him, at least, although the main fleets were still out of range of one another.

This, his first taste of battle! Within three seconds or less he’d be victorious, or a charred cinder. One hit completely took care of a lightly armed and armored one-man craft like a scouter.

Frantically — as his lips shaped the word “One” — he worked at the controls to keep that growing dot centered on the crossed spiderwebs of the visiplate. His hands doing that, while his right foot hovered over the pedal that would fire the bolt. The single bolt of concentrated hell that had to hit — or else. There wouldn’t be time for any second shot.

“Two.” He didn’t know he’d said that, either. The dot in the visiplate wasn’t a dot now. Only a few thousand miles away, it showed up in the magnification of the plate as though it were only a few hundred yards off. It was a fast little scouter, about the size of his.

An alien ship, all right!

“Thr –” His foot touched the bolt-release pedal.

And then the Outsider had swerved suddenly and was off the crosshairs. Carson punched keys frantically, to follow.

For a tenth of a second, it was out of the visiplate entirely, and then as the nose of his scouter swung after it, he saw it again, diving straight towards the ground.

The ground?

It was an optical illusion of some sort. It had to be: that planet — or whatever it was — that now covered the visiplate couldn’t be there. Couldn’t possibly! There wasn’t any planet nearer than Neptune three billion miles away — with Pluto on the opposite side of the distant pinpoint sun.

His detectors! They hadn’t shown any object of planetary dimensions, even of asteroid dimensions, and still didn’t.

It couldn’t be there, that whatever-it-was he was diving into, only a few hundred miles below him.

In his sudden anxiety to keep from crashing, he forgot the Outsider ship. He fired the front breaking rockets, and even as the sudden change of speed slammed him forward against the seat straps, fired full right for an emergency turn. Pushed them down and held them down, knowing that he needed everything the ship had to keep from crashing and that a turn that sudden would black him out for a moment.

It did black him out.

And that was all. Now he was sitting in hot blue sand, stark naked but otherwise unhurt. No sign of his spaceship and — for that matter — no sign of space. That curve overhead wasn’t a sky, whatever else it was.

He scrambled to his feet.

Gravity seemed a little more than Earth-normal. Not much more.

Flat sand stretching away, a few scrawny bushes in clumps here and there. The bushes were blue, too, but in varying shades, some lighter than the blue of the sand, some darker.

Out from under the nearest bush ran a little thing that was like a lizard, except that it had more than four legs. It was blue, too. Bright blue. It saw him and ran back again under the bush.

He looked up again, trying to decide what was overhead. It wasn’t exactly a roof, but it was dome-shaped. It flickered and was hard to look at. But definitely, it curved down to the ground, to the blue sand, all around him.

He wasn’t far from being under the center of the dome. At a guess, it was a hundred yards to the nearest wall, if it was a wall. It was as though a blue hemisphere of something about two hundred and fifty yards in circumference was inverted over the flat expanse of the sand.

And everything blue, except one object. Over near a far curving wall there was a red object. Roughly spherical, it seemed to be about a yard in diameter. Too far for him to see clearly through the flickering blueness.

But, unaccountably, he shuddered.

He wiped sweat from his forehead, or tried to, with the back of his hand.

Was this a dream, a nightmare? This heat, this sand, that vague feeling of horror he felt when he looked towards that red thing?

A dream? No, one didn’t go to sleep and dream in the midst of a battle in space.

Death? No, never. If there were immortality, it wouldn’t be a senseless thing like this, a thing of blue heat and blue sand and a red horror.

Then he heard the voice.

Inside his head he heard it, not with his ears. It came from nowhere or everywhere.

Through spaces and dimensions wandering,’ rang the words in his mind, ‘and in this space and this time, I find two peoples about to exterminate one and so weaken the other that it would retrogress and never fulfill its destiny, but decay and return to mindless dust whence it came. And I say this must not happen.’

Who… what are you?’ Carson didn’t say it aloud, but the question formed itself in his brain.

You would not understand completely. I am — ‘There was a pause as though the voice sought — in Carson’s brain — for a word that wasn’t there, a word he didn’t know. ‘I am the end of evolution of a race so old the time cannot be expressed in words that have meaning to your mind. A race fused into a single entity, eternal.

An entity such as your primitive race might become’ — again the groping for a word — ‘time from now. So might the race you call, in your mind, the Outsiders. So I intervene in the battle to come, the battle between fleets so evenly matched that destruction of both races will result. One must survive. One must progress and evolve.’

One?’ thought Carson. ‘Mine or —

It is in my power to stop the war, to send the Outsiders back to their galaxy. But they would return, or your race would sooner or later follow them there. Only by remaining in this space and time to intervene constantly could I prevent them from destroying one another, and I cannot remain.

So I shall intervene now. I shall destroy one fleet completely without loss to the other. One civilization shall thus survive.’

Nightmare. This had to be nightmare, Carson thought. But he knew it wasn’t.

It was too mad, too impossible, to be anything but real.

He didn’t dare ask the question — which? But his thoughts asked it for him.

The stronger shall survive,’ said the voice. ‘That I cannot — and would not –change. I merely intervene to make it a complete victory, not’ — groping again — ‘not Pyrrhic victory to a broken race.

From the outskirts of the not-yet battle I plucked two individuals, you and an Outsider. I see from your mind that, in your early history of nationalisms, battles between champions to decide issues between races were not unknown.

You and your opponent are here pitted against one another, naked and unarmed, under conditions equally unfamiliar to you both, equally unpleasant to you both. There is no time limit, for here there is no time. The survivor is the champion of his race. That race survives.’

But –‘ Carson’s protest was too inarticulate for expression, but the voice answered it.

It is fair. The conditions are such that the accident of physical strength will not completely decide the issue. There is a barrier. You will understand. Brain-power and courage will be more important than strength. Most especially courage, which is the will to survive.’

But while this goes on, the fleets will –’

No, you are in another space, another time. For as long as you are here, time stands still in the universe you know. I see you wonder whether this place is real. It is, and it is not. As I — to your limited understanding — am and am not real. My existence is mental and not physical. You saw me as a planet; it could have been as a dust-mote or a sun.

But to you this place is now real. What you suffer here will be real. And if you die here, your death will be real. If you die, your failure will be the end of your race. That is enough for you to know.’

And then the voice was gone.

Again he was alone, but not alone. For as Carson looked up, he saw that the red thing, the sphere of horror that he now knew was the Outsider, was rolling towards him.

Rolling.

It seemed to have no legs or arms that he could see, no features. It rolled across the sand with the fluid quickness of a drop of mercury. And before it, in some manner he could not understand, came a wave of nauseating hatred.

Carson looked about him frantically. A stone, lying in the sand a few feet away, was the nearest thing to a weapon. It wasn’t large, but it had sharp edges, like a slab of flint. It looked a bit like blue flint.

He picked it up, and crouched to receive the attack. It was coming fast, faster than he could run.

No time to think out how he was going to fight it; how anyway could he plan to battle a creature whose strength, whose characteristics, whose method of fighting he did not know? Rolling so fast, it looked more than ever like a perfect sphere.

Ten yards away. Five. And then it stopped.

Rather, it was stopped. Abruptly the near side of it flattened as though it had run up against an invisible wall. It bounced, actually bounced back.

Then it rolled forward again, but more cautiously. It stopped again, at the same place. it tried again, a few yards to one side.

Then it rolled forward again, but more cautiously. It stopped again, at the same place. It tried again, a few yards to one side.

There was a barrier there of some sort. It clicked, then, in Carson’s mind, that thought projected by the Entity who had brought them there:

— accident of physical strength will not completely decide the issue. There is a barrier.’

A force-field, of course. Not the Netzian Field, known to Earth science, for that glowed and emitted a crackling sound. This one was invisible, silent.

It was a wall that ran from side to side of the inverted hemisphere; Carson didn’t have to verify that himself. The Roller was doing that, rolling sideways along the barrier, seeking a break in it that wasn’t there.

Carson took half a dozen steps forward, his left hand groping out before him, and touched the barrier. It felt smooth, yielding, like a sheet of rubber rather than like glass, warm to his touch, but no warmer than the sand underfoot. And it was completely invisible, even at close range.

He dropped the stone and put both hands against it, pushing. It seemed to yield, just a trifle, but no farther than that trifle, even when he pushed with all his weight. It felt like a sheet of rubber backed up by steel. Limited resiliency, and then firm strength.

He stood on tiptoe and reached as high as he could and the barrier was still there.

He saw the Roller coming back, having reached one side of the arena. That feeling of nausea hit Carson again, and he stepped back from the barrier as it went by. It didn’t stop.

But did the barrier stop at ground-level? Carson knelt down and burrowed in the sand; it was soft, light, easy to dig in. And two feet down the barrier was still there.

The Roller was coming back again. Obviously, it couldn’t find a way through at either side.

There must be a way through, Carson thought, or else this duel is meaningless.

The Roller was back now, and it stopped just across the barrier, only six feet away. It seemed to be studying him although, for the life of him, Carson couldn’t find external evidence of sense organs on the thing. Nothing that looked like eyes or ears, or even a mouth. There was though, he observed, a series of grooves, perhaps a dozen of them altogether, and he saw two tentacles push out from two of the grooves and dip into the sand as though testing its consistency. These were about an inch in diameter and perhaps a foot and a half long.

The tentacles were retractable into the grooves and were kept there except when in use. They retracted when the thing rolled and seemed to have nothing to do with its method of locomotion; that, as far as Carson could judge, seemed to be accomplished by some shifting — just how he couldn’t imagine — of its center of gravity.

He shuddered as he looked at the thing. It was alien, horribly different from anything on Earth or any of the life forms found on the other solar planets. Instinctively, he knew its mind was as alien as its body.

If it could project that almost tangible wave of hatred, perhaps it could read his mind as well, sufficiently for his purpose.

Deliberately, Carson picked up the rock that had been his only weapon, then tossed it down again in a gesture of relinquishment and raised his empty hands, palms up, before him.

He spoke aloud, knowing that although the words would be meaningless to the creature before him, speaking them would focus his own thoughts more completely upon the message.

“Can we not have peace between us?” he said, his voice strange in the stillness. “The Entity who brought us here has told us what must happen if our races fight — extinction of one and weakening and retrogression of the other. The battle between them, said the Entity, depends upon what we do here. Why cannot we agree to an eternal peace — your race to its galaxy, we to ours?”

Carson blanked out his mind to receive a reply.

It came, and it staggered him back, physically. He recoiled several steps in sheer horror at the intensity of the lust-to-kill of the red images projected at him. For a moment that seemed eternity he had to struggle against the impact of that hatred, fighting to clear his mind of it and drive out the alien thoughts to which he had given admittance. He wanted to retch.

His mind cleared slowly. He was breathing hard and he felt weaker, but he could think.

He stood studying the Roller. It had been motionless during the mental duel it had so nearly won. Now it rolled a few feet to one side, to the nearest of the blue bushes. Three tentacles whipped out of their grooves and began to investigate the bush.

“O.K.,” Carson said, “so it’s war then.” He managed a grin. “If I got your answer straight, peace doesn’t appeal to you.” And, because he was, after all, a young man and couldn’t resist the impulse to be dramatic, he added, “To the death!”

But his voice, in that utter silence, sounded silly even to himself. It came to him, then, that this was to the death, not only his own death or that of the red spherical thing which he thought of as the Roller, but death to the entire race of one or the other of them: the end of the human race, if he failed.

It made him suddenly very humble and very afraid to think that. With a knowledge that was above even faith, he knew that the Entity who had arranged this duel had told the truth about its intentions and its powers. The future of humanity depended upon him. It was an awful thing to realize. He had to concentrate on the situation at hand.

There had to be some way of getting through the barrier, or of killing through the barrier.

Mentally? He hoped that wasn’t all, for the Roller obviously had stronger telepathic powers than the undeveloped ones of the human race. Or did it?

He had been able to drive the thoughts of the Roller out of his own mind; could it drive out his? If its ability to project were stronger, might not its receptivity mechanism be more vulnerable?

He stared at it and endeavored to concentrate and focus all his thought upon it.

Die,’ he thought. ‘You are going to die. You are dying. You are –’

He tried variations on it, and mental pictures. Sweat stood out on his forehead and he found himself trembling with the intensity of the effort. But the Roller went ahead with its investigation of the bush, as utterly unaffected as though Carson had been reciting the multiplication table.

So that was no good.

He felt dizzy from the heat and his strenuous effort at concentration. He sat down on the blue sand and gave his full attention to studying the Roller. By study, perhaps, he could judge its strength and detect its weaknesses, learn things that would be valuable to know when and if they should come to grips.

It was breaking off twigs. Carson watched carefully, trying to judge just how hard it worked to do that. Later, he thought, he could find a similar bush on his own side, break off twigs of equal thickness himself, and gain a comparison of physical strength between his own arms and hands and those tentacles.

The twigs broke off hard; the Roller was having to struggle with each one. Each tentacle, he saw, bifurcated at the tip into two fingers, each tipped by a nail or claw. The claws didn’t seem to be particularly long or dangerous, or no more so than his own fingernails, if they were left to grow a bit.

No, on the whole, it didn’t look too hard to handle physically. Unless, of course, that bush was made of pretty tough stuff. Carson looked round; within reach was another bush of identically the same type.

He snapped off a twig. It was brittle, easy to break. Of course, the Roller might have been faking deliberately but he didn’t think so. On the other hand, where was it vulnerable? How would he go about killing it if he got the chance? He went back to studying it. The outer hide looked pretty tough; he’d need a sharp weapon of some sort. He picked up the piece of rock again. It was about twelve inches long, narrow, and fairly sharp on one end. If it chipped like flint, he could make a serviceable knife out of it.

The Roller was continuing its investigations of the bushes. It rolled again, to the nearest one of another type. A little blue lizard, many-legged like the one Carson had seen on his side of the barrier, darted out from under the bush.

A tentacle of the Roller lashed out and caught it, picked it up. Another tentacle whipped over and began to pull legs off the lizard, as coldly as it had pulled twigs off the bush. The creature struggled frantically and emitted a shrill squealing that was the first sound Carson had heard here, other than the sound of his own voice.

Carson made himself continue to watch; anything he could learn about his opponent might prove valuable, even knowledge of its unnecessary cruelty — particularly, he thought with sudden emotion, knowledge of its unnecessary cruelty. It would make it a pleasure to kill the thing, if and when the chance came.

With half its legs gone, the lizard stopped squealing and lay limp in the Roller’s grasp.

It didn’t continue with the rest of the legs. Contemptuously it tossed the dead lizard away from it, in Carson’s direction. The lizard arced through the air between them and landed at his feet.

It had come through the barrier! The barrier wasn’t there any more! Carson was on his feet in a flash, the knife gripped tightly in his hand, leaping forward. He’d settle this thing here and now! With the barrier gone — but it wasn’t gone. He found that out the hard way, running head on into it and nearly knocking himself silly. He bounced back and fell.

As he sat up, shaking his head to clear it, he saw something coming through the air towards him, and threw himself flat again on the sand, to one side. He got his body out of the way, but there was a sudden sharp pain in the calf of his left leg.

He rolled backwards, ignoring the pain, and scrambled to his feet. It was a rock, he saw now, that had struck him. And the Roller was picking up another, swinging it back gripped between two tentacles, ready to throw again.

It sailed through the air towards him, but he was able to step out of its way. The Roller, apparently, could throw straight, but neither hard nor far. The first rock had struck him only because he had been sitting down and had not seen it coming until it was almost upon him.

Even as he stepped aside from that weak second throw Carson drew back his right arm and let fly with the rock that was still in his hand. If missiles, he thought with elation, can cross the barrier, then two can play at the game of throwing them.

He couldn’t miss a three-foot sphere at only four-yard range, and he didn’t miss. The rock whizzed straight, and with a speed several times that of the missiles the Roller had thrown. It hit dead center, but hit flat instead of point first. But it hit with a resounding thump, and obviously hurt. The Roller had been reaching for another rock, but changed its mind and got out of there instead. By the time Carson could pick up and throw another rock, the Roller was forty yards back from the barrier and going strong.

His second throw missed by feet, and his third throw was short. The Roller was out of range of any missile heavy enough to be damaging.

Carson grinned. That round had been his.

He stopped grinning as he bent over to examine the calf of his leg. A jagged edge of the stone had made a cut several inches long. It was bleeding pretty freely, but he didn’t think it had gone deep enough to hit an artery. If it stopped bleeding of its own accord, well and good. If not, he was in for trouble.

Finding out one thing, though, took precedence over that cut: the nature of the barrier.

He went forward to it again, this time groping with his hands before him. Holding one hand against it, he tossed a handful of sand at it with the other hand. The sand went right through; his hand didn’t.

Organic matter versus inorganic? No, because the dead lizard had gone through it, and a lizard, alive or dead, was certainly organic. Plant life? He broke off a twig and poked it at the barrier. The twig went through, with no resistance, but when his fingers gripping the twig came to the barrier, they were stopped.

He couldn’t get through it, nor could the Roller. But rocks and sand and a dead lizard… How about a live lizard?

He went hunting under bushes until he found one, and caught it. He tossed it against the barrier and it bounced back and scurried away across the blue sand.

That gave him the answer, so far as he could determine it now. The screen was a barrier to living things. Dead or inorganic matter could cross it.

With that off his mind, Carson looked at his injured leg again. The bleeding was lessening, which meant he wouldn’t need to worry about making a tourniquet. But he should find some water, if any was available, to clean the wound.

Water — the thought of it made him realize that he was getting awfully thirsty. He’d have to find water, in case this contest turned out to be a protracted one.

Limping slightly now, he started off to make a circuit of his half of the arena. Guiding himself with one hand along the barrier, he walked to his right until he came to the curving sidewall. It was visible, a dull blue-gray at close range, and the surface of it felt just like the central barrier.

He experimented by tossing a handful of sand at it, and the sand reached the wall and disappeared as it went through. The hemispherical shell was a force-field, too, but an opaque one, instead of transparent like the barrier.

He followed it round until he came back to the barrier, and walked back along the barrier to the point from which he’d started.

No sign of water.

Worried now, he started a series of zigzags back and forth between the barrier and the wall, covering the intervening space thoroughly.

No water. Blue sand, blue bushes, and intolerable heat. Nothing else.

It must be his imagination, he told himself that he was suffering that much from thirst. How long had he been there? Of course, no time at all, according to his own space-time frame. The Entity had told him time stood still out there, while he was here. But his body processes went on here, just the same. According to his body’s reckoning, how long had he been here? Three or four hours, perhaps. Certainly not long enough to be suffering from thirst.

Yet he was suffering from it; his throat was dry and parched. Probably the intense heat was the cause. It was hot, a hundred and thirty Fahrenheit, at a guess. A dry, still heat without the slightest movement of air.

He was limping rather badly and utterly fagged when he finished the futile exploration of his domain.

He stared across at the motionless Roller and hoped it was as miserable as he was. The Entity had said the conditions here were equally unfamiliar and uncomfortable for both of them. Maybe the Roller came from a planet where two-hundred-degree heat was the norm; maybe it was freezing while he was roasting. Maybe the air was as much too thick for it as it was too thin for him. For the exertion of his explorations had left him panting. The atmosphere here, he realized, was not much thicker than on Mars.

No water. That meant a deadline, for him at any rate. Unless he could find a way to cross that barrier or to kill his enemy from this side of it, thirst would kill him eventually.

It gave him a feeling of desperate urgency, but he made himself sit down a moment to rest, to think.

What was there to do? Nothing, and yet so many things. The several varieties of bushes, for example; they didn’t look promising, but he’d have to examine them for possibilities. And his leg — he’d have to do something about that, even without water to clean it; gather ammunition in the form of rocks; find a rock that would make a good knife.

His leg hurt rather badly now, and he decided that came first. One type of bush had leaves — or things rather similar to leaves. He pulled off a handful of them and decided, after examination, to take a chance on them. He used them to clean off the sand and dirt and caked blood, then made a pad of fresh leaves and tied it over the wound with tendrils from the same bush.

The tendrils proved unexpectedly tough and strong. They were slender and pliable, yet he couldn’t break them at all, and had to saw them off the bush with the sharp edge of blue flint. Some of the thicker ones were over a foot long, and he filed away in his memory, for future reference, the fact that a bunch of the thick ones, tied together, would make a pretty serviceable rope. Maybe he’d be able to think of a use for rope.

Next, he made himself a knife. The blue flint did chip. From a foot-long splinter of it, he fashioned himself a crude but lethal weapon. And of tendrils from the bush, he made himself a rope-belt through which he could thrust the flint knife, to keep it with him all the time and yet have his hands free.

He went back to studying the bushes. There were three other types. One was leafless, dry, brittle, rather like a dried tumbleweed. Another was of soft, crumbly wood, almost like punk. It looked and felt as though it would make excellent tinder for a fire. The third type was the most nearly woodlike. It had fragile leaves that wilted at the touch, but the stalks, although short, were straight and strong.

It was horribly, unbearably hot.

He limped up to the barrier, felt to make sure that it was still there. It was. He stood watching the Roller for a while; it was keeping a safe distance from the barrier, out of effective stone-throwing range. It was moving around back there, doing something. He couldn’t tell what it was doing.

Once it stopped moving, came a little closer, and seemed to concentrate its attention on him. Again Carson had to fight off a wave of nausea. He threw a stone at it; the Roller retreated and went back to whatever it had been doing before.

At least he could make it keep its distance. And, he thought bitterly, a lot of good that did him. Just the same, he spent the next hour or two gathering stones of suitable size for throwing, and making several piles of them near his side of the barrier.

His throat burned now. It was difficult for him to think about anything except water. But he had to think about other things: about getting through that barrier, under or over it, getting at that red sphere and killing it before this place of heat and thirst killed him.

The barrier went to the wall upon either side, but how high, and how far under the sand?

For a moment, Carson’s mind was too fuzzy to think out how he could find out either of those things. Idly, sitting there in the hot sand — and he didn’t remember sitting down — he watched a blue lizard crawl from the shelter of one bush to the shelter of another.

From under the second bush, it looked out at him.

Carson grinned at it, recalling the old story of the desert-colonists on Mars, taken from an older story of Earth — ‘Pretty soon you get so lonesome you find yourself talking to the lizards, and then not so long after that you find the lizards talking back to you….’

He should have been concentrating, of course, on how to kill the Roller, but instead he grinned at the lizard and said, “Hello, there.”

The lizard took a few steps towards him. “Hello,” it said.

Carson was stunned for a moment, and then he put back his head and roared with laughter. It didn’t hurt his throat to do so, either; he hadn’t been that thirsty.

Why not? Why should the Entity who thought up this nightmare of a place not have a sense of humor, along with the other powers he had? Talking lizards, equipped to talk back in my own language, if I talk to them — it’s a nice touch.

He grinned at the lizard and said, “Come on over.” But the lizard turned and ran away, scurrying from bush to bush until it was out of sight.

He had to get past the barrier. He couldn’t get through it, or over it, but was he certain he couldn’t get under it? And come to think of it, didn’t one sometimes find water by digging?

Painfully now, Carson limped up to the barrier and started digging, scooping up sand a double handful at a time. It was slow work because the sand ran in at the edges and the deeper he got the bigger in diameter the hole had to be. How many hours it took him, he didn’t know, but he hit bedrock four feet down: dry bedrock with no sign of water.

The force-field of the barrier went down clear to the bedrock.

He crawled out of the hole and lay there panting, then raised his head to look across and see what the Roller was doing.

It was making something out of wood from the bushes, tied together with tendrils, a queerly shaped framework about four feet high and roughly square. To see it better, Carson climbed on to the mound of sand he had excavated and stood there staring.

There were two long levers sticking out of the back of it, one with a cup-shaped affair on the end. Seemed to be some sort of a catapult, Carson thought.

Sure enough, the Roller was lifting a sizable rock into the cup-shape. One of his tentacles moved the other lever up and down for a while, and then he turned the machine slightly, aiming it, and the lever with the stone flew up and forward.

The stone curved several yards over Carson’s head, so far away that he didn’t have to duck, but he judged the distance it had traveled, and whistled softly. He couldn’t throw a rock that weight more than half that distance. And even retreating to the rear of his domain wouldn’t put him out of range of that machine if the Roller pushed it forward to the barrier.

Another rock whizzed over, not quite so far away this time.

Moving from side to side along the barrier, so the catapult couldn’t bracket him, he hurled a dozen rocks at it. But that wasn’t going to be any good, he saw. They had to be light rocks, or he couldn’t throw them that far. If they hit the framework, they bounced off harmlessly. The Roller had no difficulty, at that distance, in moving aside from those that came near it.

Besides, his arm was tiring badly. He ached all over.

He stumbled to the rear of the arena. Even that wasn’t any good; the rocks reached back there, too, only there were longer intervals between them, as though it took longer to wind up the mechanism, whatever it was, of the catapult.

Wearily he dragged himself back to the barrier again. Several times he fell and could barely rise to his feet to go on. He was, he knew, near the limit of his endurance. Yet he didn’t dare stop moving now, until and unless he could put that catapult out of action. If he fell asleep, he’d never wake up.

One of the stones from it gave him the glimmer of an idea. It hit one of the piles of stones he’d gathered near the barrier to use as ammunition and struck sparks.

Sparks! Fire! Primitive man had made fire by striking sparks, and with some of those dry crumbly bushes as tinder…

A bush of that type grew near him. He uprooted it, took it over to the pile of stones, then patiently hit one stone against another until a spark touched the punklike wood of the bush. It went up in flames so fast that it singed his eyebrows and was burned to an ash within seconds.

But he had the idea now, and within minutes had a little fire going in the lee of the mound of sand he’d made. The tinder bushes started it, and other bushes which burned more slowly kept it a steady flame.

The tough tendrils didn’t burn readily; that made the fire-bombs easy to rig and throw; a bundle of faggots tied about a small stone to give it weight and a loop of the tendril to swing it by.

He made half a dozen of them before he lighted and threw the first. It went wide, and the Roller started a quick retreat, pulling the catapult after him. But Carson had the others ready and threw them in rapid succession. The fourth wedged in the catapult’s framework and did the trick. The Roller tried desperately to put out the spreading blaze by throwing sand, but its clawed tentacles would take only a spoonful at a time and its efforts were ineffectual. The catapult burned.

The Roller moved safely away from the fire and seemed to concentrate its attention on Carson. Again he felt that wave of hatred and nausea –but more weakly; either the Roller itself was weakening or Carson had learned how to protect himself against the mental attack.

He thumbed his nose at it and then sent it scuttling back to safety with a stone. The Roller went to the back of its half of the arena and started pulling up bushes again. Probably it was going to make another catapult.

Carson verified that the barrier was still operating, and then found himself sitting in the sand beside it, suddenly too weak to stand up.

His leg throbbed steadily now and the pangs of thirst were severe. But those things paled beside the physical exhaustion that gripped his entire body.

Hell must be like this, he thought, the hell that the ancients had believed in. He fought to stay awake, and yet staying awake seemed futile, for there was nothing he could do while the barrier remained impregnable and the Roller stayed back out of range.

He tried to remember what he had read in books of archaeology about the methods of fighting used back in the days before metal and plastic. The stone missile had come first, he thought. Well, that he already had.

Bow and arrow? No; he’d tried archery once and knew his own ineptness even with a modern sportsman’s dura-steel weapon, made for accuracy. With only the crude, pieced-together outfit he could make here, he doubted if he could shoot as far as he could throw a rock.

Spear? Well, he could make that. It would be useless at any distance, but would be a handy thing at close range, if he ever got to close range. Making one would help keep his mind from wandering, as it was beginning to do.

He was still beside one of the piles of stones. He sorted through it until he found one shaped roughly like a spearhead. With a smaller stone he began to chip it into shape, fashioning sharp shoulders on the sides so that if it penetrated it would not pull out again like a harpoon. A harpoon was better than a spear, maybe, for this crazy contest. If he could once get it into the Roller, and had a rope on it, he could pull the Roller up against the barrier and the stone blade of his knife would reach through that barrier, even if his hands wouldn’t.

The shaft was harder to make than the head, but by splitting and joining the main stems of four of the bushes, and wrapping the joints with the tough but thin tendrils, he got a strong shaft about four feet long, and tied the stone head in a notch cut in one end. It was crude, but strong.

With the tendrils he made himself twenty feet of line. It was light and didn’t look strong, but he knew it would hold his weight and to spare. He tied one end of it to the shaft of the harpoon and the other end about his right wrist. At least, if he threw his harpoon across the barrier, he’d be able to pull it back if he missed.

He tried to stand up, to see what the Roller was doing, and found he couldn’t get to his feet. On the third try, he got as far as his knees and then fell flat again.

I’ve got to sleep,’ he thought. ‘If a showdown came now, I’d be helpless. He could come up here and kill me, if he knew. I’ve got to regain some strength.’

Slowly, painfully, he crawled back from the barrier.

The jar of something thudding against the sand near him wakened him from a confused and horrible dream to a more confused and horrible reality, and he opened his eyes again to blue radiance over blue sand.

How long had he slept? A minute? A day?

Another stone thudded nearer and threw sand on him. He got his arms under him and sat up. He turned round and saw the Roller twenty yards away, at the barrier.

It rolled off hastily as he sat up, not stopping until it was as far away as it could get.

He’d fallen asleep too soon, he realized, while he was still in range of the Roller’s throwing. Seeing him lying motionless, it had dared come up to the barrier. Luckily, it didn’t realize how weak he was, or it could have stayed there and kept on throwing stones.

He started crawling again, this time forcing himself to keep going until he was as far as he could go, until the opaque wall of the arena’s outer shell was only a yard away.

Then things slipped away again…

When he awoke, nothing about him was changed, but this time he knew that he had slept a long while. The first thing he became aware of was the inside of his mouth; it was dry, caked. His tongue was swollen.

Something was wrong, he knew, as he returned slowly to full awareness. He felt less tired, the stage of utter exhaustion had passed. But there was pain, agonizing pain. It wasn’t until he tried to move that he knew that it came from his leg.

He raised his head and looked down at it. It was swollen below the knee, and the swelling showed even half-way up his thigh. The plant tendrils he had tied round the protective pad of leaves now cut deeply into his flesh.

To get his knife under that embedded lashing would have been impossible.

Fortunately, the final knot was over the shin bone where the vine cut in less deeply than elsewhere. He was able, after an effort, to untie the knot.

A look under the pad of leaves showed him the worst: infection and blood poisoning. Without drugs, without even water, there wasn’t a thing he could do about it, except die when the poison spread through his system.

He knew it was hopeless, then, and that he’d lost, and with him, humanity. When he died here, out there in the universe he knew, all his friends, everybody, would die too. Earth and the colonized planets would become the home of the red, rolling, alien Outsiders.

It was that thought which gave him courage to start crawling, almost blindly, towards the barrier again, pulling himself along by his arms and hands.

There was a chance in a million that he’d have strength left when he got there to throw his harpoon-spear just once, and with deadly effect, if the Roller would come up to the barrier, or if the barrier was gone.

It took him years, it seemed, to get there. The barrier wasn’t gone. It was as impassable as when he’d first felt it.

The Roller wasn’t at the barrier. By raising himself up on his elbows, he could see it at the back of its part of the arena, working on a wooden framework that was a half-completed duplicate of the catapult he’d destroyed.

It was moving slowly now. Undoubtedly it had weakened, too.

Carson doubted that it would ever need that second catapult. He’d be dead, he thought, before it was finished.

His mind must have slipped for a moment, for he found himself beating his fists against the barrier in futile rage, and made himself stop. He closed his eyes, tried to make himself calm.

“Hello,” said a voice.

It was a small, thin voice. He opened his eyes and turned his head. It was a lizard.

“Go away,” Carson wanted to say. “Go away; you’re not really there, or you’re there but not really talking. I’m imagining things again.”

But he couldn’t talk; his throat and tongue were past all speech with the dryness. He closed his eyes again.

“Hurt,” said the voice. “Kill. Hurt — kill. Come.”

He opened his eyes again. The blue ten-legged lizard was still there. It ran a little way along the barrier, came back, started off again, and came back.

“Hurt,” it said. “Kill. Come.”

Again it started off, and came back. Obviously it wanted Carson to follow it along the barrier.

He closed his eyes again. The voice kept on. The same three meaningless words. Each time he opened his eyes, it ran off and came back.

“Hurt. Kill. Come.”

Carson groaned. Since there would be no peace unless he followed the thing, he crawled after it.

Another sound, a high-pitched, squealing, came to his ears. There was something lying in the sand, writhing, squealing. Something small, blue, that looked like a lizard.

He saw it was the lizard whose legs the Roller had pulled off, so long ago. It wasn’t dead; it had come back to life and was wriggling and screaming in agony.

“Hurt,” said the other lizard. “Hurt. Kill. Kill.”

Carson understood. He took the flint knife from his belt and killed the tortured creature. The live lizard scurried off.

Carson turned back to the barrier. He leaned his hands and head against it and watched the Roller, far back, working on the new catapult.

I could get that far,’ he thought, ‘if I could get through. If I could get through, I might win yet. It looks weak, too. I might –’

And then there was another reaction of hopelessness, when pain sapped his will and he wished that he were dead, envying the lizard he’d just killed. It didn’t have to live on and suffer.

He was pushing on the barrier with the flat of his hands when he noticed his arms, how thin and scrawny they were. He must really have been here a long time, for days, to get as thin as that.

For a while he was almost hysterical again, and then came a time of deep calm and thought.

The lizard he had just killed had crossed the barrier, still alive. It had come from the Roller’s side; the Roller had pulled off its legs and then tossed it contemptuously at him and it had come through the barrier.

It hadn’t been dead, merely unconscious. A live lizard couldn’t go through the barrier, but an unconscious one could. The barrier was not a barrier, then, to living flesh, but to conscious flesh. It was a mental protection, a mental hazard.

With that thought, Carson started crawling along the barrier to make his last desperate gamble, a hope so forlorn that only a dying man would have dared try it.

He moved along the barrier to the mound of sand, about four feet high, which he’d scooped out while trying — how many days ago? — to dig under the barrier or to reach water. That mound lay right at the barrier, its farther slope half on one side of the barrier, half on the other.

Taking with him a rock from the pile nearby, he climbed up to the top of the dune and lay there against the barrier, so that if the barrier were taken away he’d roll on down the short slope, into the enemy territory.

He checked to be sure that the knife was safely in his rope belt, that the harpoon was in the crook of his left arm and that the twenty-foot rope fastened to it and to his wrist. Then with his right hand he raised the rock with which he would hit himself on the head. Luck would have to be with him on that blow; it would have to be hard enough to knock him out, but not hard enough to knock him out for long.

He had a hunch that the Roller was watching him, and would see him roll down through the barrier, and come to investigate. It would believe he was dead, he hoped — he thought it had probably drawn the same deduction about the nature of the barrier that he had. But it would come cautiously; he would have a little time –He struck himself.

Pain brought him back to consciousness, a sudden, sharp pain in his hip that was different from the pain in his head and leg. He had, thinking things out before he had struck himself, anticipated that very pain, even hoped for it, and had steeled himself against awakening with a sudden movement.

He opened his eyes just a slit, and saw that he had guessed rightly. The Roller was coming closer. It was twenty feet away; the pain that had awakened him was the stone it had tossed to see whether he was alive or dead. He lay still. It came closer, fifteen feet away, and stopped again. Carson scarcely breathed.

As nearly as possible, he was keeping his mind a blank, lest its telepathic ability detect consciousness in him. And with his mind blanked out that way, the impact of its thoughts upon his mind was shattering.

He felt sheer horror at the alienness, the differentness of those thoughts, conveying things that he felt but could not understand or express, because no terrestrial language had words, no terrestrial brain had images to fit them. The mind of a spider, he thought, or the mind of a praying mantis or a Martian sand-serpent, raised to intelligence and put in telepathic rapport with human minds, would be a homely familiar thing, compared to this.

He understood now that the Entity had been right: Man or Roller, the universe was not a place that could hold them both.

Closer. Carson waited until it was only feet away, until its clawed tentacles reached out…

Oblivious to agony now, he sat up, raised and flung the harpoon with all the strength that remained to him. As the Roller, deeply stabbed by the harpoon, rolled away, Carson tried to get to his feet to run after it. He couldn’t do that; he fell, but kept crawling.

It reached the end of the rope, and he was jerked forward by the pull on his wrist. It dragged him a few feet and then stopped. Carson kept going, pulling himself towards it hand over hand along the rope. It stopped there, tentacles trying in vain to pull out the harpoon. It seemed to shudder and quiver, and then realized that it couldn’t get away, for it rolled back towards him, clawed tentacles reaching out.

Stone knife in hand, he met it. He stabbed, again and again, while those horrid claws ripped skin and flesh and muscle from his body.

He stabbed and slashed, and at last it was still.

A bell was ringing, and it took him a while after he’d opened his eyes to tell where he was and what it was. He was strapped into the seat of his scouter, and the visiplate before him showed only empty space. No Outsider ship and no impossible planet.

The bell was the communications plate signal; someone wanted him to switch power into the receiver. Purely reflex action enabled him to reach forward and throw the lever.

The face of Brander, captain of the Magellan, mother-ship of his group of scouters, flashed into the screen. His face was pale and his black eyes glowing with excitement.

“Magellan to Carson,” he snapped. “Come on in. The fight’s over. We’ve won!”

The screen went blank; Brander would be signaling the other scouters of his command.

Slowly, Carson set the controls for the return. Slowly, unbelievingly, he unstrapped himself from the seat and went back to get a drink at the cold-water tank. For some reason, he was unbelievably thirsty. He drank six glasses.

He leaned there against the wall, trying to think.

Had it happened? He was in good health, sound, uninjured. His thirst had been mental rather than physical; his throat hadn’t been dry.

He pulled up his trouser leg and looked at the calf. There was a long white scar there, but a perfectly healed scar; it hadn’t been there before. He zipped open the front of his shirt and saw that his chest and abdomen were criss-crossed with tiny, almost unnoticeable, perfectly healed scars.

It had happened!

The scouter, under automatic control, was already entering the hatch of the mothership. The grapples pulled it into its individual lock, and a moment later a buzzer indicated that the lock was airfilled. Carson opened the hatch and stepped outside, went through the double door of the lock.

He went right to Brander’s office, went in, and saluted.

Brander still looked dazed. “Hi, Carson,” he said. “What you missed; what a show!”

“What happened, sir?”

“Don’t know, exactly. We fired one salvo, and their whole fleet went up in dust! Whatever it was jumped from ship to ship in a flash, even the ones we hadn’t aimed at and that were out of range! The whole fleet disintegrated before our eyes, and we didn’t get the paint of a single ship scratched!

‘‘We can’t even claim credit for it. Must have been some unstable component in the metal they used, and our sighting shot just set it off. Man, too bad you missed all the excitement!”

Carson managed a sickly ghost of a grin, for it would be days before he’d be over the impact of his experience, but the captain wasn’t watching.

“Yes, sir,” he said. Common sense, more than modesty, told him he’d be branded as the worst liar in space if he ever said any more than that. “Yes, sir, too bad I missed all the excitement…”

arena 1973

An illustrated version of Brown’s story ran in Worlds Unknown in 1973.

arena 1977

A 1977 depiction of the combatants by Boris Vallejo for Starlog Magazine.

arena kirk

Kirk battles the Gorn. Clothed.

 

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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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