Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

Ad Astra

One of the stalwart writers who kept science fiction booming in the 1950s and 1960s was California native Alfredo Jose de Arana-Marini Coppel (1921–2004), who wrote as Alfred Coppel. A fighter pilot during World War II, he published his first sci-fi story in 1947. Over the decades, he wrote almost 30 novels and twice that many short stories.

“Turnover Point” is set in a future Wild West period of planetary exploration, when uncelebrated spacemen make a living hauling freight from Mars to the moons of Jupiter and beyond. They’re like long-haul truckers, forever on the road. Coppel’s description probably is how life in space will be someday.

The story is bleak, but in the end, satisfying in its own way.

———

Turnover Point

By Alfred Coppel
Published in Amazing Stories, April-May 1953

Pop Ganlon was no herohe was only a spaceman. A spaceman and a father. In fact, Pop was rather no-account, even in a profession that abounded with drifters. He had made a meager living prospecting asteroids and hauling light freight and an occasional passenger out in the Belt Region. Coffee and cakes, nothing more.

Not many people knew Pop had a son in the Patrol, and even fewer knew it when the boy was blasted to a cinder in a back alley in Lower Marsport.

Pop went on eating and breathing, but his life was over after that. He hit the bottle a little harder and his ship, The Luck, grew rustier and tackier, and those were the only outward signs that Pop Ganlon was a living dead man. He kept on grubbing among the cold rocks and pushing The Luck from Marsport to Callisto and back with whatever low-mass payloads he could pick up.

He might have lived out his string of years like that, obscure and alone, if it hadn’t been for John Kane. Kane was Pop Ganlon’s ticket to a sort of personal immortality — if there is such a thing for an old spaceman.

It was in Yakki, down-canal from Marsport, that Kane found Pop. There is a small spaceport there — a boneyard, really — for buckets whose skippers can’t pay the heavy tariff imposed by the big ramp.

All the wrecks nest there while waiting hopefully for a payload or a grubstake. They have all of Solis Lacus for a landing field, and if they spill it doesn’t matter much. The drifting red sands soon cover up the scattered shards of dural and the slow, lonely life of Yakki goes on like before.

The Patrol was on Kane’s trail and the blaster in his hand was still warm when he shoved it up against Pop Ganlon’s ribs and made his proposition.

He wanted to get off Mars — out to Callisto. To Blackwater, to Ley’s Landing, it didn’t matter too much. Just off Mars, and quickly. His eyes had a metallic glitter and his hand was rock-steady. Pop knew he meant what he said when he told him life was cheap. Someone else’s life, not Kane’s.

That’s how it happened that The Luck lifted that night from Yakki, outward bound for Ley’s Landing, with Pop and Kane aboard her alone.

Sitting at the battered console of The Luck, Pop watched his passenger. He knew Kane, of course. Or rather, he knew of him. A killer. The kind that thrives and grows fat on the frontiers. The bulky frame, the cropped black hair, the predatory eyes that looked like two blaster muzzles. They were all familiar to Pop.

Kane was all steel and meanness. The kind of carrion bird that took what others had worked for. Not big time, you understand. In another age he’d have been a torpedo — a hireling killer. But out among the stars he was working for himself. And doing well.

Pop didn’t care. His loyalty to the Patrol had stopped quite suddenly not long before — in a dark alley in Lower Marsport. This was only a job, he told himself now. A job for coffee and cakes, and maybe a grubstake to work a few more lonely rocks. Life had become a habit for Pop, even if living had ended.

“What are you staring at, Pop?” Kane’s voice was like the rest of him. Harsh and cold as space itself.

“At you, I guess,” Pop said, “I was wondering what you’d done — and where — and to whom.”

“You’re a nosey old man,” Kane said. “Just get me to Ley’s Landing. That’s what I’m paying for, not a thing more.”

Pop nodded slowly and turned back to the control board. They were above the Belt by now, and a few short hours from turnover point. The cranky drives of The Luck needed all his attention.

Presently he said, “We’ll be turning over soon. Want to get some rest?”

Kane laughed. “No thanks, old man. I’ll stay here and watch you.”

Pop eyed the ready blaster and nodded again. He wondered vaguely how it would feel to die under the blast of such a weapon. It couldn’t be very painful. He hoped it wasn’t painful. Perhaps the boy hadn’t suffered. It would be nice to be sure, he thought.

There wasn’t much for Pop to remember about the boy. He’d never been one for writing many letters. But the District Patrolman had come down to Yakki and looked Pop up — afterward. He’d said the boy was a good officer. A good cop. Died doing his job, and all that sort of thing. Pop swallowed hard. His job. What had ‘his job’ been that night in Lower Marsport, he wondered. Had someone else finished it for him?

He remembered about that time hearing on the Mars Radio that a Triangle Post Office had been knocked over by a gunman. That might have been it. The Patrol would be after anyone knocking over EMV Triangle property. The Earth-Mars-Venus Government supported the Patrol for things like that.

Pop guided The Luck skillfully above the Belt, avoiding with practiced ease the few errant chunks of rock that hurtled up out of the swarms. He talked to Kane because he was starved for talk — certainly not because he was trying to play Sherlock. Pop had long ago realized that he was no mental giant. Besides, he owed the Patrol nothing. Not a damned thing.

“Made this trip often?” Pop tried to strike up a conversation with Kane. His long loneliness seemed sharper, somehow, more poignant, when he actually had someone to talk to.

“Not often. I’m no space pig.” It was said with scorn.

“There’s a lot to spacing, you know,” Pop urged.

Kane shrugged. “I know easier ways to make a buck, old timer.”

“Like how?”

“A nosey old man, like I said,” Kane smiled. Somehow, the smile wasn’t friendly. “Okay, Pop, since you ask. Like knocking off wacky old prospectors for their dust. Or sticking up sandcar caravans out in Syrtis. Who’s the wiser? The red dust takes care of the leftovers.”

Pop shook his head. “Not for me. There’s the Patrol to think of.”

Kane laughed. “Punks. Bell-boys. They’d better learn to shoot before they leave their school-books.”

Pop Ganlon frowned slightly. “You talk big, mister.”

Kane’s eyes took on that metallic glitter again. He leaned forward and threw a canvas packet on the console. It spilled crisp new EMV certificates. Large ones. “I take big, too,” he said.

Pop stared. Not at the money. It was more than he had ever seen in one pile before, but it wasn’t that that shook him. It was the canvas packet. It was marked: Postal Service, EMV. Pop suddenly felt cold, as though an icy wind had touched him.

“You… you killed a Patrolman for this,” he said slowly.

“That’s right, Pop,” grinned Kane easily. “Burned him down in an alley in Lower Marsport. It was like taking candy from a baby…”

Pop Ganlon swallowed hard. “Like taking candy from a… baby. As easy as that…”

“As easy as that, old man,” Kane said.

Pop knew he was going to die then. He knew Kane would blast him right after turnover point, and he knew fear. He felt something else, too. Something that was new to him. Hate. An icy hate that left him shaken and weak.

So the boy’s job hadn’t been finished. It was still to do.

There was no use in dreaming of killing Kane. Pop was old. Kane was young — and a killer. Pop was alone and without weapons — save The Luck

Time passed slowly. Outside, the night of deep space keened soundlessly. The stars burned bright, alien and strange. It was time, thought Pop bleakly. Time to turn The Luck.

“Turnover point,” he said softly.

Kane motioned with his blaster. “Get at it.”

Pop began winding the flywheel. It made a whirring sound in the confined space of the tiny control room. Outside, the night began to pivot slowly.

“We have to turn end-for-end,” Pop said. “That way we can decelerate on the drop into Callisto. But, of course, you know all about that, Mr. Kane.”

“I told you I’m no space pig,” Kane said brusquely. “I can handle a landing and maybe a takeoff, but the rest of it I leave for the boatmen. Like you, Pop.”

Pop spun the flywheel in silence, listening to the soft whir. Presently, he let the wheel slow and then stop. He straightened and looked up at Kane. The blaster muzzle was six inches from his belly. He swallowed against the dryness in his throat.

“You… you’re going to kill me,” Pop said. It wasn’t a question. Kane smiled, showing white teeth.

“I… I know you are,” Pop said unsteadily. “But first, I want to say something to you.”

“Talk, old timer,” Kane said. “But not too much.”

“That boy — that boy you killed in Marsport. He was my son,” Pop said.

Kane’s face did not change expression. “Okay. So what?”

Pop’s lips twitched. “I just wanted to hear you say it.” He looked at the impassive face of the killer. “You made a mistake, Mr. Kane. You shouldn’t have done that to my boy.”

“Is that all?”

Pop nodded slowly. “I guess that’s all.”

Kane grinned. “Afraid, old man?”

“I’m a space pig,” Pop said. “Space takes care of its own.”

“You’re in a bad way, old timer,” Kane said, “and you haven’t much sense. I’m doing you a favor.”

Pop lifted his hands in an instinctive gesture of futile protection as the blaster erupted flame.

There was a smell in the control room like burnt meat as Kane holstered his weapon and turned the old man over with a foot. Pop was a blackened mass. Kane dragged him to the valve and jettisoned the body into space.

Alone among the stars, The Luck moved across the velvet night. The steady beat of flame from her tubes was a tiny spark of man-made vengeance on the face of the deeps.

From her turnover point, she drove outward toward the spinning Jovian moons. For a short while she could be seen from the EMV Observatory on Callisto, but very soon she faded into the outer darkness.

Much later, the Observatory at Land’s End on Triton watched her heading past the gibbous mass of Pluto — out into the interstellar fastnesses.

The thrumming of the jets was still at last. A wild-eyed thing that may once have been a man stared in horror at the fading light of the yellow star far astern.

It had taken Kane time to understand what had happened to him, and now it was too late. Space had taken care of its own. The air in The Luck was growing foul and the food was gone. Death hung in the fetid atmosphere of the tiny control room.

The old man — the boy — the money. They all seemed to spin in a narrowing circle. Kane wanted suddenly to shriek with laughter. A circle. The turnover circle. The full circle that the old man had made instead of the proper half-turn of a turnover.

Three hundred sixty degrees instead of one hundred eighty. Three hundred sixty degrees to leave the nose of The Luck pointing outward toward the stars, instead of properly toward the Sun.

A full circle to pile G on G until the Jovian moons were missed, and the Uranian moons and Triton, too. Ad Astra per Ardua….

With the last fragment of his failing sanity, Kane thought of how Pop Ganlon and the boy must be laughing. He was still thinking that as the long night closed in around him.

Turnover Point

Original illustration from Amazing Stories by Ed Emshwiller.

———

Coppel ended the story with the Latin phrase “Ad Astra per Ardua,” which means “To the stars through adversity.”

Usually, the phrase is stated the other way around: “Per Ardua ad Astra.” In that form, it is the motto of both the British Royal Air Force and the Mulvany clan of Ireland.

Why Coppel reversed the phrase, I don’t know. But as the story ends, the evil Kane certainly is on his way to the stars.

 

Read Full Post »

I’m a fan of science fiction because the genre places no boundaries on the imagination of the writer. Virtually any scenario, from the mundane to the improbable to the bizarre, can be explored. The short story below nicely illustrates the point.

I won’t say more because this particular story is best read without the clutter of an introduction. Well, a short one is okay.

———

Cully

By Jack Egan
Published in Amazing Stories, January 1963

Above him eighty feet of torpid, black water hung like a shroud of Death, and still he heard his ragged breathing. And something else. Cully concentrated on that sound, and the rhythmic pulsing of his heart. Somehow he had to retain a hold on his sanity… or his soul.

After an hour of careful breathing and exploring of body sensations, Cully realized he could move. He flexed an arm; a mote of gold sand sifted upward in the dark water. It had a pleasant color, in contrast with the ominous shades of the sea.

In a few moments, he had struggled to a sitting position, delighting in the curtain of glittering metal grains whirling around him as he moved.

And the other sound. A humming in his mind; a distant burble of tiny voices of other minds. Words swirling in giddy patterns he couldn’t understand.

Shortly thereafter, Cully discovered why he still lived, breathed: a suit. A yellow, plastic, water-tight suit, with an orange-on-black shield on the left breast pocket, and a clear bubble-helmet. He felt weight on his back and examined it: two air tanks and their regulator, a radio, and… the box.

Suit, tanks, regulator; radio, black water, box; sand, sea, stillness.

Cully considered his world. It was small; it was conceivable; it was incomplete.

Where is it?

“Where is what?” He knew he had a voice — a means of communication between others of his kind, using low-frequency heat waves caused by agitation of air molecules. Why couldn’t he make it work?

Words. Thousands of them, at his beck and call. What were they? What did they mean? He shifted uncomfortably in the tight yellow suit, searching the near horizon for…

Where is it?

A vague calling came from beyond the black sea curtain. Objectively, because he could do nothing to stop them, he watched his feet pick up, move forward, put down; pick up, move forward, put down.

Funny. He had the feeling, the concept, that this action held meaning. It was supposed to cause some reaction, accomplish an act.

He wondered at the regular movement of his legs. One of them hurt. A hurt is a sensation of pain, caused by over-loading sensory-units in the body; a hurt is bad, because it indicates something is wrong.

Something certainly was wrong. Something stirred in Cully’s mind. He stopped and sat down on the sandy sea bottom, gracefully, like a ballet dancer. He examined his foot. There was a tiny hole in the yellow plastic fabric, and a thin string of red-black was oozing out. Blood. He knew.

He was bleeding. He could do nothing about it. He got up and resumed walking.

Where is it?

Cully lifted his head in annoyance at the sharp thought.

“Go away,” he said in a low, pleading voice. The sound made him feel better. He began muttering to himself.

“Water, black, s-sand, hurt. Pain. Radio tanks…”

It didn’t sound right. After a few minutes, he was quiet. The manythoughts were calling him. He must go to the manythoughts.

If his foot was bleeding, then something had happened; if something had happened, then his foot was bleeding.

“No!”

If something had happened, then maybe other things had happened — before that. But how could something happen in a world of flat gold sand and flaccid sea? Surely there was something wrong.

Wrong: the state of being not-right; something had happened that was not-right. Cully stared at the edges of the unmoving curtain before him.

Where is it?

It was a driving, promise-filled concept. No words; just the sense that something wonderful lay just beyond reach. But this voice was different from the manythoughts. It was directing his body; his mind was along for the ride.

The sameness of the sea and sand became unbearable. It was too-right, somehow. Cully felt anger, and kicked up eddies of dust. It changed the sameness a little. He kicked more up, until it swirled around him in a thick gold haze, blotting out the terrible emptiness of the sea.

He felt another weight at his side. He found a holster and gun. He recognized neither. Again he watched objectively as his hand pulled the black object out and handled it. His body was evidently familiar with it, though it was strange to his eyes.

His finger slipped automatically into the trigger sheaf. His legs were still working under two drives: the manythoughts’ urging, and something else, buried in him. A longing. Up-and-down, back-and-forth.

Where is it?

Anger, frustration flared in him. His hand shot out, gun at ready. He turned around slowly. Through the settling trail of suspended sand, nothing was visible.

Again he was moving. Something made his legs move. He walked on through the shrouds of Death until he felt a taut singing in his nerves. An irrational fear sprang out in him, cascading down his spine, and Cully shuddered. Ahead there was something. Two motives: get there because it (they?) calls; get there because you must.

Where is it?

The mind-voice was excited, demanding. Something was out there, besides the sameness. Cully walked on, trailing gold. The death-curtain parted…

An undulating garden of blue-and-gold streamers suddenly drifted toward him on an unfelt current. Cully was held, entranced. They flowed before him, their colors dazzling, hypnotic.

Come closer, Earthling, the manythoughts spoke inside his head, soothingly.

Here it is! Cully’s mind shouted.

Cully’s mind was held, hypnotized, but his body moved of its own volition.

He moved again. His mind and the manythoughts’ spoke: fulfillment — almost. There was one action left that must be completed.

Cully’s arms moved. They detached the small black box from his pack. He moved on into the midst of the weaving, gold-laced plants.

Little spicules licked out from their flexing stalks and jabbed, unsensed, into Cully’s body to draw nourishment. From the manythoughts came the sense of complete fulfillment.

From Cully’s mind came further orders.

Lie down. It was a collective concept. Lie still. We are friends.

He could not understand. They were speaking words; words were beyond him. His head shook in despair. The voices were implanting an emotion of horror at what his hands were doing, but he had no control over his body. It was as if it were not his.

The black box was now lying in the sand among the streaming plants. Cully’s fingers reached out and caressed a small panel. A soundless ‘click’ ran through the murkiness.

The strangely beautiful, gold-laced blue plants began a writhing dance. Their spicules withdrew and jabbed, withdrew and jabbed. A rending, silent scream tore the quiet waters.

NO! they cried. It was a negative command, mixed in with the terrible screaming. Turn it off!

“Stop it, stop it!” Cully tried to say, but there were no words. He tried to cover his ears within the helmet, but the cries went on. Emotions roiled the water: pain, hurt, reproach. Cully sobbed.

Something was wrong here; something was killing the plants — the beautiful blue things! The plants were withering, dying. He looked up at them, stupefied, not understanding, tears streaming down his face. What did they want from him? What had he done…

Where is it?

A different direction materialized; a new concept of desire.

Cully’s body turned and crawled away from the wonderful, dying garden, oblivious to the pleadings floating, now weakly, in the torpid water. He scuffed up little motes of golden sand, leaving a low-lying scud along the bottom, back to the little black box in the garden. The plants, the box, all were forgotten by now.

Cully crawled on, not knowing why. A rise appeared; surprise caught Cully unaware. A change in the sameness!

Where is it?

Again the voice was insistent. His desire was close ahead; he did not look back at the black churning on the sea bottom. His legs worked, his chest heaved, words swirled in his mind. He topped the rise.

Below him, in the center of a shallow golden bowl, floated a long, shiny cylinder. Even from here he knew it was huge. He knew other things about it: how heavy it was; how it was; that it carried others of his kind. He had been in it before. And they were waiting for him. He lurched on.

“Captain! Here comes Cully!” the midshipman shouted from the airlock. “Look what they’ve done to him!”

The old man’s grey eyes took in the spectacle without visible emotion. He watched the pathetic, bleeding yellow plastic sack crawl up to the ship and look up. His hands reached down and lifted Cully up into the lock.

They took his suit off and stared with loathing at what had once been a man. A white scar zig-zagged across his forehead. The Captain bent close, in range of the dim blue eyes.

“It was a brave thing you did, Cully. The whole system will be grateful. Venus could never be colonized as long as those cannibals were there to eat men, and drive men mad.”

Cully fingered the scar on his forehead, and looked unseeing into the old man’s compassionate eyes.

“I’m sorry Cully. We all are. But there was no other way. Prefrontal lobotomy, destruction of your speech center… it was the only way you could get past the telepaths and destroy them. I’m sorry, Cully. The race of Man shall long honor your name.”

Cully smiled at the old man, the words churning in his brain; but he did not understand.

Where is it?

The emptiness was still there.

Cully

Original illustration from Amazing Stories by George Schelling.

———

“Cully” is a solid story, skillfully presented and wrapped up nicely at the end. But frankly, I am disturbed — no, appalled — by the idea that we would move in and wipe out a population to make way for our colonists. The thought is horrifying.

Oh, wait. That’s how the Americas got here.

 

Read Full Post »

The classic sci-fi short story below is a source of minor, but lingering controversy.

The title character is an android, upgraded until she becomes, in effect, a sentient non-human person. Because she is the project of two somewhat immature men, many say the story is sexist, chauvinistic, and offensive. According to another line of thought, the story is satirical and explores what constitutes self-awareness and personhood.

I say give the author some slack. The story was written 80 years ago and shouldn’t be judged by contemporary standards. I also say that the idea of lifelike, self-aware androids needs to be addressed.

According to the law, only a natural person (okay, or a corporation) has legal rights and protections. But the time will come when androids will be able to mimic human appearance and behavior very precisely, à la Helen O’Loy and the replicants in “Blade Runner.” What legal rights will such beings have?

Frankly, if the time comes when humans can’t tell the difference between plastic and protoplasm, we have to decide to what degree the difference matters. If it matters at all.

——–

Helen O’Loy

By Lester del Rey
Published in Astounding Science Fiction, December 1938.

I am an old man now, but I can still see Helen as Dave unpacked her, and still hear him gasp as he looked her over.

Lord, isn’t she a beauty?”

She was beautiful, a dream in spun plastics and metals, something Keats might have seen dimly when he wrote sonnets. If Helen of Troy had looked like that the Greeks must have been pikers when they launched only a thousand ships; at least, that’s what I told Dave.

Helen of Troy, eh?” He looked at her tag. “At least it beats this thingK2W88. Helen… Mmmm… Helen of Alloy.”

Not much swing to that, Dave. Too many unstressed syllables in the middle. How about Helen O’Loy?”

Helen O’Loy she is, Phil.”

And that’s how it beganone part beauty, one part dream, one part science; add a stereo broadcast, stir mechanically, and the result is chaos. Dave and I hadn’t gone to college together, but when I came to Messina to practice medicine, I found him downstairs in a little robot repair shop. After that, we began to pal around, and when I started going with one twin, he found the other equally attractive, so we made it a foursome.

When our business grew better, we rented a house out near the rocket fieldnoisy but cheap, and the rockets discouraged apartment building. We liked room enough to stretch ourselves. I suppose, if we hadn’t quarreled with them, we’d have married the twins in time. But Dave wanted to look over the latest Venus-rocket attempt when his twin wanted to see a display stereo starring Larry Ainslee, and they were both stubborn. From then on, we forgot the twins and spent our evenings at home.

But it wasn’t until “Lenny” put vanilla on our steak instead of salt that we got off on the subject of emotions and robots. While Dave was dissecting Lenny to find the trouble, we naturally mulled over the future of the mechs. He was sure that the robots would beat humans some day, and I couldn’t see it.

Look here, Dave,” I argued. “You know Lenny doesn’t thinknot really. When those wires crossed, she could have corrected herself. But she didn’t bother; she followed the mechanical impulse. A woman might have reached for the vanilla, but when she saw it in her hand, she’d have stopped. Lenny has sense enough, but she has no emotions, no consciousness of self.”

All right, that’s the big trouble with the mechs now. But we’ll get around it, put in some mechanical emotions, or something.” He screwed Lenny’s head back on, turned on her juice. “Go back to work, Lenny, it’s nineteen o’clock.”

Now I specialized in endocrinology and related subjects. I wasn’t exactly a psychologist, but I did understand the glands, secretions, hormones, and miscellanies that are the physical causes of emotions. It took medical science three hundred years to find out how and why they worked, and I couldn’t see people duplicating them mechanically in much less time.

I brought home books and papers to prove it, and Dave quoted the invention of memory coils and veritoid eyes. During that year we swapped knowledge until Dave knew the whole theory of endocrinology, and I could have made Lenny from memory. The more we talked, the less sure I grew about the impossibility of Homo mechanensis as the perfect type.

Poor Lenny. Her cuproberyl body spent half its time in scattered pieces. Our first attempts were successful only in getting her to serve fried brushes for breakfast and wash the dishes in oleo oil. Then one day she cooked a perfect dinner with six wires crossed, and Dave was in ecstasy.

He worked all night on her wiring, put in a new coil, and taught her a fresh set of words. And the next day she flew into a tantrum and swore vigorously at us when we told her she wasn’t doing her work right.

Dave refused to turn her on. “Wait until we’ve slept and rested,” he advised. “I’m as eager to try her as you are, but we can’t do much studying with our minds half-dead. Turn in, and we’ll leave Helen until later.”

Even though we were both reluctant to follow it, we knew the idea was sound. We turned in, and sleep hit us before the air conditioner could cut down to sleeping temperature. And then Dave was pounding on my shoulder.

Phil! Hey, snap out of it!”

I groaned, turned over, and faced him. “Well…? Uh! What is it? Did Helen

No, it’s old Mrs. van Styler. She ’visored to say her son has an infatuation for a servant, and she wants you to come out and give counterhormones. They’re at the summer camp in Maine.”

Rich Mrs. van Styler! I couldn’t afford to let that account down, now that Helen had used up the last of my funds. But it wasn’t a job I cared for.

Counterhormones! That’ll take two weeks’ full time. Anyway, I’m no society doctor, messing with glands to keep fools happy. My job’s taking care of serious trouble.”

And you want to watch Helen.” Dave was grinning, but he was serious, too. “I told her it’d cost her fifty thousand!”

Huh?”

And she said okay, if you hurried.”

Of course, there was only one thing to do, though I could have wrung fat Mrs. van Styler’s neck cheerfully. It wouldn’t have happened if she’d used robots like everyone elsebut she had to be different.

###

Consequently, while Dave was back home puttering with Helen, I was racking my brain to trick Archy van Styler into getting the counterhormones, and giving the servant the same. Oh, I wasn’t supposed to, but the poor kid was crazy about Archy. Dave might have written, I thought, but never a word did I get.

It was three weeks later instead of two when I reported that Archy was “cured,” and collected on the line. With that money in my pocket, I hired a personal rocket and was back in Messina in half an hour. I didn’t waste time in reaching the house.

As I stepped into the alcove, I heard a light patter of feet, and an eager voice called out, “Dave, dear?” For a minute I couldn’t answer, and the voice came again, pleading, “Dave?”

I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect Helen to meet me that way, stopping and staring at me, obvious disappointment on her face, little hands fluttering up against her chest.

Oh,” she cried. “I thought it was Dave. He hardly comes home to eat now, but I’ve had supper waiting hours.” She dropped her hands and managed a smile. “You’re Phil, aren’t you? Dave told me about you when… at first. I’m so glad to see you home, Phil.”

Glad to see you doing so well, Helen.” Now what does one say for light conversation with a robot? “You said something about supper?”

It’s a lie,” she yelled, shaking a suction brush. “You’re all liars. If you so-and-so’s would leave me whole long enough, I might get something done around the place.”

When we calmed her temper and got her back to work, Dave ushered me into the study. “Not taking any chances with Lenny,” he explained. “We’ll have to cut out that adrenal pack and restore her to normality. But we’ve got to get a better robot. A housemaid mech isn’t complex enough.”

How about Dillard’s new utility models? They seem to combine everything in one.”

Exactly. Even so, we’ll need a special one built to order, with a full range of memory coils. And out of respect to old Lenny, let’s get a female case for its works.”

The result, of course, was Helen. The Dillard people had performed a miracle and put all the works in a girl-modeled case. Even the plastic and rubberite face was designed for flexibility to express emotions, and she was complete with tear glands and taste buds, ready to simulate every human action, from breathing to pulling hair, the bill they sent with her was another miracle, but Dave and I scraped it together; we had to turn Lenny over to an exchange to complete it, though, and thereafter we ate out.

I’d performed plenty of delicate operations on living tissues, and some of them had been tricky, but I still felt like a premed student as we opened the front plate of her torso and began to sever the leads of her “nerves.” Dave’s mechanical glands were all prepared, complex little bundles of pansistors and wires that heterodyned on the electrical thought impulses and distorted them as adrenaline distorts the reaction of human minds.

Instead of sleeping that night, we pored over the schematic diagrams of her structures, tracing the complex thought mazes of her wiring, severing the leaders, implanting the heterones, as Dave called them. And while we worked, a mechanical tape fed carefully prepared thoughts of consciousness and awareness of life and feeling into an auxiliary memory coil. Dave believed in leaving nothing to chance.

It was growing light as we finished, exhausted and exultant. All that remained was the starting of her electrical power; like all the Dillard mechs, she was equipped with a tiny atomotor instead of batteries, and once started would need no further attention.

Oh, yes. I guess Dave ate downtown again, so we might as well go in. It’ll be nice having someone to talk to around the house, Phil. You don’t mind if I call you Phil, do you? You know, you’re sort of a godfather to me.”

We ate. I hadn’t counted on such behavior, but apparently she considered eating as normal as walking.

She didn’t do much eating, at that; most of the time she spent staring at the front door.

Dave came in as we were finishing, a frown a yard wide on his face. Helen started to rise, but he ducked toward the stairs, throwing words over his shoulder. “Hi, Phil. See you up here later.” There was something radically wrong with him. For a moment, I’d thought his eyes were haunted, and as I turned to Helen, hers were filling with tears. She gulped, choked them back, and fell to viciously on her food.

What’s the matter with him… and you?” I asked.

He’s sick of me.” She pushed her plate away and got up hastily. “You’d better see her while I clean up. And there’s nothing wrong with me. And it’s not my fault anyway.” She grabbed the dishes and ducked into the kitchen; I could have sworn she was crying.

Maybe all thought is a series of conditioned reflexes—but she certainly had picked up a lot of conditioning while I was gone. Lenny in her heyday had been nothing like this. I went up to see if Dave could make any sense out of the hodge-podge.

He was squirting soda into a large glass of apple brandy, and I saw that the bottle was nearly empty. “Join me?” he asked.

It seemed like a good idea. The roaring blast of an ion rocket overhead was the only familiar thing left in the house. From the look around Dave’s eyes, it wasn’t the first bottle he’d emptied while I was gone, and there were more left. He dug out a new bottle for his own drink.

Of course, it’s none of my business, Dave, but that stuff won’t steady your nerves any. What’s gotten into you and Helen? Been seeing ghosts?”

Helen was wrong; he hadn’t been eating downtown—nor anywhere else. His muscles collapsed into a chair in a way that spoke of fatigue and nerves, but mostly of hunger. “You noticed it, eh?”

Noticed it? The two of you jammed it down my throat.”

Uhmmm.” He swatted at a nonexistent fly, and slumped further down in the pneumatic. “Guess maybe I should have waited with Helen until you got back. But if that stereo cast hadn’t changed… anyway, it did. And those mushy books of yours finished the job.”

Thanks. That makes it all clear.”

You know, Phil, I’ve got a place up in the country… fruit ranch. My dad left it to me. Think I’ll look it over.”

And that’s the way it went. But finally, by much liquor and more perspiration, I got some of the story out of him before I gave him an Amytal and put him to bed. Then I hunted up Helen and dug the rest of the story from her, until it made sense.

Apparently as soon as I was gone, Dave had turned her on and made preliminary tests, which were entirely satisfactory. She had reacted beautifully—so well that he decided to leave her and go down to work as usual.

Naturally, with all her untried emotions, she was filled with curiosity, and wanted him to stay. Then he had an inspiration. After showing her what her duties about the house would be, he set her down in front of the stereovisor, tuned in a travelogue, and left her to occupy her time with that.

The travelogue held her attention until it was finished, and the station switched over to a current serial with Larry Ainslee, the same cute emoter who’d given us all the trouble with the twins. Incidentally, he looked something like Dave.

Helen took to the serial like a seal to water. This play-acting was a perfect outlet for her newly excited emotions. When that particular episode finished, she found a love story on another station, and added still more to her education. The afternoon programs were mostly news and music, but by then she’d found my books; and I do have rather adolescent taste in literature.

Dave came home in the best of spirits. The front alcove was neatly swept, and there was the odor of food in the air that he’d missed around the house for weeks. He had visions of Helen as the super-efficient housekeeper.

So it was a shock to him to feel two strong arms around his neck from behind and hear a voice all aquiver coo into his ears, “Oh, Dave, darling. I’ve missed you so, and I’m so thrilled that you’re back.” Helen’s technique may have lacked polish, but it had enthusiasm, as he found when he tried to stop her from kissing him. She had learned fast and furiously—also, Helen was powered by an atomotor.

###

Dave wasn’t a prude, but he remembered that she was only a robot, after all. The fact that she felt, acted, and looked like a young goddess in his arms didn’t mean much. With some effort, he untangled her and dragged her off to supper, where he made her eat with him to divert her attention.

After her evening work, he called her into the study and gave her a thorough lecture on the folly of her ways. It must have been good, for it lasted three solid hours, and covered her station in life, the idiocy of stereos, and various other miscellanies. When he finished, Helen looked up with dewy eyes and said wistfully, “I know, Dave, but I still love you.”

That’s when Dave started drinking. It grew worse each day. If he stayed downtown, she was crying when he came home. If he returned on time, she fussed over him and threw herself at him. In his room, with the door locked, he could hear her downstairs pacing up and down and muttering; and when he went down, she stared at him reproachfully until he had to go back up.

I sent Helen out on a fake errand in the morning and got Dave up. With Helen gone, I made Dave eat a decent breakfast and gave him a tonic for his nerves. He was still listless and moody.

Look here, Dave,” I broke in on his brooding. “Helen isn’t human, after all. Why not cut off her power and change a few memory coils? Then we can convince her that she never was in love and couldn’t get that way.”

You try it. I had that idea, but she put up a wail that would wake Homer. She says it would be murderand the hell of it is that I can’t help feeling the same about it. Maybe she isn’t human, but you wouldn’t guess it when she puts on that martyred look and tells you to go ahead and kill her.”

We never put in substitutes for some of the secretions present in human during the love period.”

I don’t know what we put in. Maybe the heterones backfired or something. Anyway, she’s made this idea so much a part of her thoughts that we’d have to put in a whole new set of coils.”

Well, why not?”

Go ahead. You’re the surgeon of this family. I’m not used to fussing with emotions. Matter of fact, since she’s been acting this way, I’m beginning to hate work on any robot. My business is going to blazes.”

He saw Helen coming up the walk and ducked out the back door for the monorail express. I’d intended to put him back in bed, but let him go. Maybe he’d be better off at his shop than at home.

Dave’s gone?” Helen did have that martyred look now. “Yeah. I got him to eat, and he’s gone to work.”

I’m glad he ate.” She slumped down in a chair as if she were worn out, though how a mech could be tired beat me. “Phil?”

Well, what is it?”

Do you think I’m bad for him? I mean, do you think he’d be happier if I weren’t here?”

He’ll go crazy if you keep acting this way around him.”

She winced. Those little hands were twisting about pleadingly, and I felt like an inhuman brute. But I’d started, and I went ahead. “Even if I cut out your power and changed your coils, he’d probably still be haunted by you.”

I know. But I can’t help it. And I’d make him a good wife, really I would, Phil.”

I gulped; this was getting a little too far. “And give him strapping sons to boot, I suppose. A man wants flesh and blood, not rubber and metal.”

Don’t, please! I can’t think of myself that way; to me, I’m a woman. And you know how perfectly I’m made to imitate a real woman… in all ways. I couldn’t give him children, but in every other way… I’d try so hard, I know I’d make him a good wife.”

I gave up.

Dave didn’t come home that night, nor the next day. Helen was fussing and fuming, wanting me to call the hospitals and the police, but I knew nothing had happened to him. He always carried identification. Still, when he didn’t come on the third day, I began to worry. And when Helen started out for his shop, I agreed to go with her.

Dave was there, with another man I didn’t know. I parked Helen where he couldn’t see her, but where she could hear, and went in as soon as the other fellow left.

Dave looked a little better and seemed glad to see me. “Hi, Philjust closing up. Let’s go eat.”

Helen couldn’t hold back any longer, but came trooping in. “Come on home, Dave. I’ve got roast duck with spice stuffing, and you know you love that.”

Scat!” said Dave. She shrank back, turned to go. “Oh, all right, stay. You might as well hear it, too. I’ve sold the shop. The fellow you saw just bought it, and I’m going up to the old fruit ranch I told you about, Phil. I can’t stand the mechs any more.”

You’ll starve to death at that,” I told him.

No, there’s a growing demand for old-fashioned fruit, raised out of doors. People are tired of this water-culture stuff. Dad always made a living out of it. I’m leaving as soon as I can get home and pack.”

Helen clung to her idea. “I’ll pack, Dave, while you eat. I’ve got apple cobbler for dessert.” The world was toppling under her feet, but she still remembered how crazy he was for apple cobbler.

Helen was a good cook; in fact she was a genius, with all the good points of a woman and a mech combined. Dave ate well enough, after he got started. By the time supper was over, he’d thawed out enough to admit he liked the duck and cobbler, and to thank her for packing. In fact, he even let her kiss him good-bye, though he firmly refused to let her go to the rocket field with him.

Helen was trying to be brave when I got back, and we carried on a stumbling conversation about Mrs. van Styler’s servants for a while. But the talk began to lull, and she sat staring out of the window at nothing most of the time. Even the stereo comedy lacked interest for her, and I was glad enough to have her go off to her room. She could cut her power down to simulate sleep when she chose.

As the days slipped by, I began to realize why she couldn’t believe herself a robot. I got to thinking of her as a girl and companion myself. Except for odd intervals when she went off by herself to brood, or when she kept going to the telescript for a letter that never came, she was as good a companion as a man could ask. There was something homey about the place that Lenny had never put there.

I took Helen on a shopping trip to Hudson and she laughed and purred over the wisps of silk and glassheen that were the fashion, tried on endless hats, and conducted herself as any normal girl might. We went trout fishing for a day, where she proved to be as good a sport and sensibly silent. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and thought she was forgetting Dave. That was before I came home unexpectedly and found her doubled up on the couch, threshing her legs up and down and crying to the high heavens.

It was then I called Dave. They seemed to have trouble in reaching him, and Helen came over beside me while I waited. She was tense and fidgety as an old maid trying to propose. But finally they located Dave.

What’s up, Phil?” he asked as his face came on the viewplate. “I was just getting my things together to

I broke him off. “Things can’t go on the way they are, Dave. I’ve made up my mind. I’m yanking Helen’s coils tonight. It won’t be worse than what she’s going through now.”

Helen reached up and touched my shoulder. “Maybe that’s best, Phil. I don’t blame you.”

Dave’s voice cut in. “Phil, you don’t know what you’re doing!”

Of course, I do. It’ll all be over by the time you can get here. As you heard, she’s agreeing.”

There was a black cloud sweeping over Dave’s face. “I won’t have it, Phil. She’s half mine and I forbid it!”

Of all the

Go ahead, call me anything you want. I’ve changed my mind. I was packing to come home when you called.”

Helen jerked around me, her eyes glued to the panel. “Dave, do you… are you

I’m just waking up to what a fool I’ve been, Helen. Phil, I’ll be home in a couple of hours, so if there’s anything

He didn’t have to chase me out. But I heard Helen cooing something about loving to be a rancher’s wife before I could shut the door.

Well, I wasn’t as surprised as they thought. I think I knew when I called Dave what would happen. No man acts the way Dave had been acting because he hates a girl; only because he thinks he doesand thinks wrong.

###

No woman ever made a lovelier bride or a sweeter wife. Helen never lost her flair for cooking and making a home. With her gone, the old house seemed empty, and I began to drop out to the ranch once or twice a week. I suppose they had trouble at times, but I never saw it, and I know the neighbors never suspected they were anything but a normal couple.

Dave grew older, and Helen didn’t, of course. But between us, we put lines in her face and grayed her hair without letting Dave know that she wasn’t growing old with him; he’d forgotten that she wasn’t human, I guess.

I practically forgot, myself. It wasn’t until a letter came from Helen this morning that I woke up to reality. There, in her beautiful script, just a trifle shaky in places, was the inevitable that neither Dave nor I had seen.

Dear Phil,

As you know, Dave has had heart trouble for several years now. We expected him to live on just the same, but it seems that wasn’t to be. He died in my arms just before sunrise. He sent you his greetings and farewell.

I’ve one last favor to ask of you, Phil. There is only one thing for me to do when this is finished. Acid will burn out metal as well as flesh, and I’ll be dead with Dave. Please see that we are buried together, and that the morticians do not find my secret. Dave wanted it that way, too.

Poor, dear Phil. I know you loved Dave as a brother, and how you felt about me. Please don’t grieve too much for us, for we have had a happy life together, and both feel that we should cross this last bridge side by side.

With love and thanks from

Helen

It had to come sooner or later, I suppose, and the first shock has worn off now. I’ll be leaving in a few minutes to carry out Helen’s last instructions.

Dave was a lucky man, and the best friend I ever had. And Helenwell, as I said, I’m an old man now, and can view things more sanely, I should have married and raised a family, I suppose. But… there was only one Helen O’Loy.

Helen O'Loy

Original illustration by Ed Emschwiller for “Robots Repaired While You Wait,” Galaxy Magazine, September 1954.

 

Read Full Post »

Having grown up on a diet of science fiction from the Golden Age, I usually don’t pay much attention to sci-fi written after, say, the 1980s. The classic stuff is all I need, thank you.

But once in a while, I stumble onto a contemporary story that measures up, such as the short story below.

“Evil Robot Monkey” was nominated for the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. It didn’t win, but the author snagged a Hugo in 2011 for another story.

Her accolades also include the 2008 Campbell Award for Best New Writer. And her debut novel was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel. And she won a Hugo in 2014 for Best Novelette.

Talent will out.

———

Evil Robot Monkey

By Mary Robinette Kowal
Published in the Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume 2

Sliding his hands over the clay, Sly relished the moisture oozing around his fingers. The clay matted down the hair on the back of his hands making them look almost human. He turned the potter’s wheel with his prehensile feet as he shaped the vase. Pinching the clay between his fingers he lifted the wall of the vase, spinning it higher.

Someone banged on the window of his pen. Sly jumped and then screamed as the vase collapsed under its own weight. He spun and hurled it at the picture window like feces. The clay spattered against the Plexiglas, sliding down the window.

In the courtyard beyond the glass, a group of school kids leapt back, laughing. One of them swung his arms aping Sly crudely. Sly bared his teeth, knowing these people would take it as a grin, but he meant it as a threat. Swinging down from his stool, he crossed his room in three long strides and pressed his dirty hand against the window. Still grinning, he wrote SSA. Outside, the letters would be reversed.

The student’s teacher flushed as red as a female in heat and called the children away from the window. She looked back once as she led them out of the courtyard, so Sly grabbed himself and showed her what he would do if she came into his pen.

Her naked face turned brighter red and she hurried away. When they were gone, Sly rested his head against the glass. The metal in his skull thunked against the window. It wouldn’t be long now, before a handler came to talk to him.

Damn.

He just wanted to make pottery. He loped back to the wheel and sat down again with his back to the window. Kicking the wheel into movement, Sly dropped a new ball of clay in the center and tried to lose himself.

In the corner of his vision, the door to his room snicked open. Sly let the wheel spin to a halt, crumpling the latest vase.

Vern poked his head through. He signed, “You okay?”

Sly shook his head emphatically and pointed at the window.

Sorry.” Vern’s hands danced. “We should have warned you that they were coming.”

You should have told them that I was not an animal.”

Vern looked down in submission. “I did. They’re kids.”

And I’m a chimp. I know.” Sly buried his fingers in the clay to silence his thoughts.

It was Delilah. She thought you wouldn’t mind because the other chimps didn’t.”

Sly scowled and yanked his hands free. “I’m not like the other chimps.” He pointed to the implant in his head. “Maybe Delilah should have one of these. Seems like she needs help thinking.”

I’m sorry.” Vern knelt in front of Sly, closer than anyone else would come when he wasn’t sedated. It would be so easy to reach out and snap his neck. “It was a lousy thing to do.”

Sly pushed the clay around on the wheel. Vern was better than the others. He seemed to understand the hellish limbo where Sly lived — too smart to be with other chimps, but too much of an animal to be with humans. Vern was the one who had brought Sly the potter’s wheel which, by the Earth and Trees, Sly loved. Sly looked up and raised his eyebrows. “So what did they think of my show?”

Vern covered his mouth, masking his smile. The man had manners. “The teacher was upset about the ‘evil robot monkey.’”

Sly threw his head back and hooted. Served her right.

But Delilah thinks you should be disciplined.” Vern, still so close that Sly could reach out and break him, stayed very still. “She wants me to take the clay away since you used it for an anger display.”

Sly’s lips drew back in a grimace built of anger and fear. Rage threatened to blind him, but he held on, clutching the wheel. If he lost it with Vern — rational thought danced out of his reach. Panting, he spun the wheel trying to push his anger into the clay.

The wheel spun. Clay slid between his fingers. Soft. Firm and smooth. The smell of earth lived in his nostrils. He held the world in his hands. Turning, turning, the walls rose around a kernel of anger, subsuming it.

His heart slowed with the wheel and Sly blinked, becoming aware again as if he were slipping out of sleep. The vase on the wheel still seemed to dance with life. Its walls held the shape of the world within them. He passed a finger across the rim.

Vern’s eyes were moist. “Do you want me to put that in the kiln for you?”

Sly nodded.

I have to take the clay. You understand that, don’t you.”

Sly nodded again staring at his vase. It was beautiful.

Vern scowled. “The woman makes me want to hurl feces.”

Sly snorted at the image, then sobered. “How long before I get it back?”

Vern picked up the bucket of clay next to the wheel. “I don’t know.” He stopped at the door and looked past Sly to the window. “I’m not cleaning your mess. Do you understand me?”

For a moment, rage crawled on his spine, but Vern did not meet his eyes and kept staring at the window. Sly turned.

The vase he had thrown lay on the floor in a pile of clay.

Clay.

I understand.” He waited until the door closed, then loped over and scooped the clay up. It was not much, but it was enough for now.

Sly sat down at his wheel and began to turn.

Evil Robot Monkey

Original illustration by the author.

 

Read Full Post »

Author Basil Wells (1912-2003) began writing fiction in 1940 and continued well into the 1990s. He published 88 short stories, mostly sci-fi and fantasy, but also occasional westerns and mysteries.

Wells was from northwestern Pennsylvania, and he once helped his mother research a book she wrote about frontier life in the region.

The short story below is about frontier life, too — on Mars. You have to wonder if the research prompted the story. Or maybe vice versa.

———

Moment of Truth

By Basil Wells
Published in Fantastic Universe, December 1957

She had been asleep. Now she stretched luxuriously beneath the crisp white sheet that the vapid August heat decreed. From memory to memory her dream-fogged mind drifted, and to the yet-to-be. It was good to remember, and to imagine, and to see and feel and hear…

She smiled. She was Ruth Halsey, fourteen, brunette, and pretty. Earl, and Harry, and Buhl had told her she was pretty. Especially Buhl. Buhl was her favorite date now.

The room closed around her with its familiar colors and furnishings. Sometimes she would dream that she was elsewhere, unfamiliar, ugly places, but then she would awaken to the four long windows with their coarse beige drapes of monk’s cloth and the fantasies were forever dispelled.

Her eyes loved the two paintings, the dark curls of the pink-and-white doll sitting prissily atop the dresser, and the full-length mirror on the open closet door.

The pictured design of the wallpaper, its background merging with the pastel blue of the slanted ceiling… Almost as they had blended together that first day when she was twelve. Yet not the same, she corrected her thoughts, frowning. Sometimes, as today, the design seemed faded and changed. The gay little bridges and the flowered, impossibly blue trees seemed to change and threaten to vanish.

She laughed over at the demurely sitting doll. Essie had been her favorite doll when she was younger. Of course now that she was fourteen she did not play with dolls any more. But it was permissible that she keep her old friend neatly dressed and ever at hand as a confidant. She smiled at the thought. Essie never tattled.

“It must be from that polio,” she told Essie, knowing all the time that she was almost well now and needed plenty of rest and careful doses of exercise. “It makes my eyes — funny.”

Essie smiled back glassily and Ruth laughed. It was good to awaken and see the thick black arms of the maple tree outside the windows. It was good to have the cool green leaves waving at her, and see the filtered dapplings of sunshine cross and recross them.

She loved that old tree. She had played among its long horizontal branches from childhood. Her brother, Alex, who had been killed in the Normandy Landing during World War Three, had loved the tree too. He had built the railed, shingled-roofed little nest high up in the tree’s crotched heart where Ruth kept some of her extra-special notes and jewelry and a book of poems.

One of the two paintings on the bedroom walls was of the old tree. The tree dominated the old story-and-a-half white house with the green shutters that was the Halseys’ home. Her home. Alex had painted that picture as well as the other showing the graceful loop of the river and the roofs of the village of Thayer in the distance. Ruth had been with him as he painted that second picture from the jutting rock ledge five hundred feet above the river.

“I was just ten then, Essie,” she chirped gaily. “I remember how afraid I was of the height and how Alex scolded.”

But Alex was dead now and all she had to remember of him was the paintings and the photographs that Mother kept in a battered brown leather folder. For a moment the bright sunlight in her beloved maple tree’s leaves seemed to dim and the room wavered about her. She wondered about that. She must tell her father or her mother.

Perhaps the polio, light touch of it or not, had hurt her eyesight. Glasses! She shuddered at the thought.

The room shimmered and blurred — and suddenly broke apart to reform into something… She squinched her eyes shut to the hideous vision. And then opened them the merest slit.

Nothing had changed…

“MOTHER!” she cried. “Daddy!” she cried. “What has happened?”

She heard the door to — to this hideous travesty of a room opening. Her eyes darted around the shrunken metal-walled shell, even the ceiling curved overhead, and she saw two grotesque daubs taped to the walls that parodied the paintings of her dead brother Alex.

The coloring was ugly and the proportions out of line. And it was not canvas but curling sheets of paper taped and painted to resemble frames!

A big man, sandy-haired and with vertical wrinkles deep between piercing blue eyes, came into the room. She shrank into the bed, seeing that the sheet she tugged taut across her breast was ragged and blue.

“Ruth,” he said, a slow smile making his face almost handsome, “you’re better. You haven’t spoken in weeks.”

Ruth wanted to giggle. As though they could keep her quiet. Daddy was always shushing her… But who was this big man in his dusty drab coveralls and dropped dust mask dangling upon his chest?

“Don’t you know me, Dear? It’s Buhl, your husband.”

Buhl was fifteen and only a couple of inches taller than Ruth. Of course he had sandy hair like this man. But this man was old enough to be Buhl’s father. This was crazy — like one of the dreams that always made her unhappy.

So? So it was a dream. She felt warmth and release. Why not see what this dream had to offer that might be amusing to remember and tell Buhl sometime soon. Wouldn’t he laugh when he heard she had dreamed about him? And been married to him.

She saw the strip of shiny metal that masqueraded as her mirror, and where her four long windows, with their thick, loose-woven drapes, had been there were only four taped strips of paper with crude pictures of draped windows daubed on them. There were even green dabs of paint and black splashes to stimulate her beloved maple tree.

“Ruth! Do you feel better now? Please don’t smile at me like that. I know you loved the baby, but this Martian atmosphere is tough even for men. It wasn’t your fault.”

“Go ahead and talk,” Ruth laughed gaily. “This is just another bad dream and I know it. I’ll wake up in a little while and be back in my cool old room.”

“Blast your room and your dreams!”

The man went across the room in a swift rush and tore down one of the false windows, the painted strip of paper. And beyond, through a dusty oval glass window, Ruth could see a reddish brown wasteland, where dust clouds spun and shifted slowly, and a dusty huddle of what looked like Quonset huts or storage sheds of metal.

“That is reality, Ruth. You must face it. This pretense, this sleazy imitation of your old room is wrong. You’re strong enough, and I love you — you can accept truth.”

His face changed, all expression sponged from it in an instant as he looked into her eyes, and then it seemed to dissolve into something ugly and yet childish. She saw tears burst through and furrow the dust on his cheeks.

“Dear Lord,” he cried, almost reverently, “must this go on forever? Will she ever come back to me?”

His voice choked off and he stumbled across the room and out the door. She heard it shut behind him, and she was hunting for Essie, already having forgotten the ill-mannered intruder.

There was no Essie, only a mannikin of cloth-stuffed white nylon and lipstick, with black nylon for hair.

And then the room shimmered and broke apart and reformed and she was back in her bed with the sun on the slowly dancing green leaves outside the four long windows. Essie was smiling down at her from the dresser, and the paintings were as always, soft colors and perfectly drafted.

Had she thought there were four windows? How silly of her. The second from the right was a small oval of glass, or rather, a glass-covered picture of desert scene. Odd that she had forgotten about that picture. Oh well, what did it matter.

In a few days she would be well enough again to climb out on the giant limbs and into the tree nest that her brother, Alex, had built. And the boys would come to see her and take her to the drugstore for sodas and sundaes.

Yes, she was sure now. She did like Buhl Austin best…

Mars colony

Depiction of a Mars colony comprised of modular structures from the 2016 TV series “Mars.”

 

Read Full Post »

Here is a delightfully eccentric science fiction story that, as far as I can determine, first appeared online about a decade ago. The author is from Yorkshire, England, attended Cambridge University, and aspires to write fiction professionally.

Fiction of the humorous and quirky variety, I assume.

———

Professor Panini

By Matthew Grigg
Published online circa 2010

Before my many years’ service in a restaurant, I attended a top science university. The year was 2023 and I was finishing the project that would win me my professorship. In the end, it resulted in my becoming a kitchen employee.

My forty-second birthday had made a lonely visit the week before, and I was once again by myself in the flat. Like countless other mornings, I ordered a bagel from the toaster.

‘Yes, sir!’ it replied with robotic relish, and I began the day’s work on the project. It was a magnificent machine, the thing I was making — capable of transferring the minds of any two beings into each other’s bodies.

As the toaster began serving my bagel on to a plate, I realised the project was in fact ready for testing. I retrieved the duck and the cat — which I had bought for this purpose — from their containers, and set about calibrating the machine in their direction. Once ready, I leant against the table, holding the bagel I was too excited to eat, and initiated the transfer sequence. As expected, the machine whirred and hummed into action, my nerves tingling at its synthetic sounds.

The machine hushed, extraction and injection nozzles poised, scrutinizing its targets. The cat, though, was suddenly gripped by terrible alarm. The brute leapt into the air, flinging itself onto the machine. I watched in horror as the nozzles swung towards me; and, with a terrible, psychedelic whirl of colours, I felt my mind wrenched from its sockets.

When I awoke, moments later, I noticed first that I was two feet shorter. Then, I realised the lack of my limbs, and finally it occurred to me that I was a toaster. I saw immediately the solution to the situation — the machine could easily reverse the transfer — but was then struck by my utter inability to carry this out.

After some consideration, using what I supposed must be the toaster’s onboard computer, I devised a strategy for rescue. I began to familiarise myself with my new body: the grill, the bread bin, the speaker and the spring mechanism.

Through the device’s rudimentary eye — with which it served its creations — I could see the internal telephone on the wall. Aiming carefully, I began propelling slices of bread at it. The toaster was fed by a large stock of the stuff, yet as more and more bounced lamely off the phone, I began to fear its exhaustion.

Toasting the bread before launch proved a wiser tactic. A slice of crusty wholemeal knocked the receiver off its cradle, and the immovable voice of the reception clerk answered. Resisting the urge to exclaim my unlikely predicament, I called from the table: ‘I’m having a bit of trouble up here, Room 91. Could you lend a hand?’

‘Certainly, sir. There’s a burst water pipe on the floor above, I suppose I’ll kill two birds with one stone and sort you out on the way.’

The clerk arrived promptly, leaving his ‘caution, wet floor’ sign in the corridor. He came in, surveying the room in his usual dry, disapproving fashion. I spoke immediately, saying I was on the intercom, and requested that he simply press the large button on the machine before him. ‘This one, sir?’ he asked, and before I could correct him, the room was filled with a terrible, whirling light, and he fell to the ground.

A minute later he stood up again, uncertainly, and began moving in a manner that can only be described as a waddle. The duck, meanwhile, was scrutinising the flat with an air of wearied distaste. I gazed at the scene with dismay.

Suddenly an idea struck the clerk, and with avian glee he tottered towards the window. I spluttered a horrified warning to no avail. He leapt triumphantly from the balcony, spread his ‘wings’ and disappeared. I would have wept, but managed only to eject a few crumbs.

***

Hours of melancholy calculation and terrible guilt gave no progress, and left me with a woeful regret for the day’s events. Determined not to give up hope, I began to burn clumsy messages into slices of bread, and slung these desperate distress calls through the window. I sought not only my own salvation, but also to account for the bizarre demise of the clerk, who must no doubt have been discovered on the street below. I soon found my bread bin to be empty, and sank again into a morose meditation.

A large movement shocked me from my morbid contemplation. Before me, having clambered up from the floor, stood my own body. It regarded me with dim cheer.

‘I have been upgraded,’ it announced in monotone. The room was silent as I struggled to cope with this information. Then:

‘Would you like some toast?’

The truth dawned on me, and I wasted no time in seeing the utility of this revelation. I informed the toaster, which was now in control of my body, that I wished it to fetch help. It regarded me warily, then asked if I would like that buttered. Maintaining patience, I explained the instruction more thoroughly. I watched with surreal anticipation as my body of forty-two years jerked its way out of the flat. It rounded the corner, and there was a hope-dashing crash. It had tripped up on the ‘caution: wet floor’ sign. To my joyous relief, however, I heard the thing continue on its way down the corridor.

Minutes passed, then hours. I entertained myself flicking wheat-based projectiles at the cat. On the dawn of the third day, I concluded that the toaster had failed in its piloting of my body, and that help was not on its way. Gripped by the despair of one who must solve the puzzle of toaster suicide, I resigned myself to my fate.

Pushed on by a grim fervour, I began igniting the entire stock of bread. As the smoke poured from my casing, and the first hints of deadly flame flickered in my mechanisms, I began the solemn disclosure of my own eulogy.

Suddenly the fire alarm leapt into action, hurling thick jets of water across the flat, desperate to save its occupants. A piercing wail erupted from all sides, and a squabbling mixture of annoyance, relief and curiosity filtered into my mind.

***

Once the firemen had visited and deactivated the alarm, I was identified as the fault, unplugged and hauled away to a repair shop. The staff there, finding nothing to remove but a faulty speech chip, apparently put me up for sale. I only know this because, on being reconnected to the mains, I found myself in a shiny, spacious kitchen.

Missing my electronic voice, I could only listen to the conversation of the staff, discussing the odd conduct of their new cook. The end of their hurried discussion heralded his arrival. I gazed at the door in silent surrender, as my body stepped proudly onto the premises, displaying its newly designed menu. At the top of the list I could discern ‘Buttered bagel.’

Panini

Original illustration for the story by Christine McMullen.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »