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Author Henry Slesar (1927-2002) was a gifted wordsmith and for years a creative powerhouse in Hollywood. In addition to writing science fiction, he had overlapping careers as a copywriter, scriptwriter, and screenwriter.

I’ve featured Slesar’s sci-fi stories twice before on this blog. You can read them here and here. The dude was quite a talent.

———

The Stuff

By Henry Slesar
Published in Galaxy Magazine, August 1961

“No more lies,” Paula said. “For God’s sake, Doctor, no more lies. I’ve been living with lies for the past year and I’m tired of them.”

Bernstein closed the white door before answering, mercifully obscuring the sheeted, motionless mound on the hospital bed. He took the young woman’s elbow and walked with her down the tiled corridor.

“He’s dying, of course,” he said conversationally. “We’ve never lied to you about that, Mrs. Hills; you know what we’ve told you all along. I hoped that by now you’d feel more resigned.”

“I was,” she said bitterly. They had stopped in front of Bernstein’s small office, and she drew her arm away. “But then you called me. About this drug of yours.”

“We had to call you. Senopoline can’t be administered without permission of the patient, and since your husband has been in coma for the last four days –”

He opened the door and nodded her inside. She hesitated, then walked in. He took his place behind the cluttered desk, his grave face distracted, and waited until she sat down in the facing chair. He picked up his telephone receiver, replaced it, shuffled papers, and then locked his hands on the desk blotter.

“Senopoline is a curious drug,” he said. “I’ve had little experience with it myself. You may have heard about the controversy surrounding it.”

“No,” she whispered. “I don’t know about it. I haven’t cared about anything since Andy’s illness.”

“At any rate, you’re the only person in the world that can decide whether your husband receives it. It’s strange stuff, as I said, but in the light of your husband’s present condition, I can tell you this — it can do him absolutely no harm.”

But it will do him good?”

“There,” Bernstein sighed, “is the crux of the controversy, Mrs. Hills.”

###

Row, row, row your boat, he sang in his mind, feeling the lapping tongues of the cool lake water against his fingers, drifting, drifting, under obeisant willows. Paula’s hands were resting gently on his eyes and he lifted them away. Then he kissed the soft palms and pressed them on his cheek. When he opened his eyes, he was surprised to find that the boat was a bed, the water only pelting rain against the window, and the willow trees long shadows on the walls. Only Paula’s hands were real, solid and real and comforting against his face.

He grinned at her. “Funniest damn thing,” he said. “For a minute there, I thought we were back at Finger Lake. Remember that night we sprang a leak? I’ll never forget the way you looked when you saw the hem of your dress.”

“Andy,” she said quietly. “Andy, do you know what’s happened?”

He scratched his head. “Seems to me Doc Bernstein was in here a while ago. Or was he? Didn’t they jab me again or something?”

“It was a drug, Andy. Don’t you remember? They have this new miracle drug, senopoline. Dr. Bernstein told you about it, said it was worth the try…”

“Oh, sure, I remember.”

He sat up in bed, casually, as if sitting up in bed were an everyday occurrence. He took a cigarette from the table beside him and lit one. He smoked reflectively for a moment, and then recalled that he hadn’t been anything but horizontal for almost eight months. Swiftly, he put his hand on his rib cage and touched the firm flesh.

“The girdle,” he said wonderingly. “Where the hell’s the girdle?”

“They took it off,” Paula said tearfully. “Oh, Andy, they took it off. You don’t need it any more. You’re healed, completely healed. It’s a miracle!”

“A miracle…”

She threw her arms about him; they hadn’t held each other since the accident a year ago, the accident that had snapped his spine in several places. He had been twenty-two when it happened.

###

They released him from the hospital three days later; after half a year in the hushed white world, the city outside seemed wildly clamorous and riotously colorful, like a town at the height of carnival. He had never felt so well in his life; he was eager to put the strong springs of his muscles back into play. Bernstein had made the usual speech about rest, but a week after his discharge Andy and Paula were at the courts in tennis clothes.

Andy had always been a dedicated player, but his stiff-armed forehand and poor net game had always prevented him from being anything more than a passable amateur. Now he was a demon on the court, no ball escaping his swift-moving racket. He astounded himself with the accuracy of his crashing serves, his incredible play at the net.

Paula, a junior champion during her college years, couldn’t begin to cope with him; laughingly, she gave up and watched him battle the club professional. He took the first set 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, and Andy knew that something more magical than medicinal had happened to him.

They talked it over, excited as schoolchildren, all the way home. Andy, who had taken a job in a stock-brokerage house after college, and who had been bored silly with the whole business until the accident, began wondering if he could make a career on the tennis court.

To make sure his superb playing wasn’t a fluke, they returned to the club the next day. This time, Andy found a former Davis Cup challenger to compete with. At the end of the afternoon, his heart pounding to the beat of victory, he knew it was true.

That night, with Paula in his lap, he stroked her long auburn hair and said: “No, Paula, it’s all wrong. I’d like to keep it up, maybe enter the Nationals, but that’s no life for me. It’s only a game, after all.”

“Only a game?” she said mockingly. “That’s a fine thing for the next top-seeded man to say.”

“No, I’m serious. Oh, I don’t mean I intend to stay in Wall Street; that’s not my ambition either. As a matter of fact, I was thinking of painting again.”

“Painting? You haven’t painted since your freshman year. You think you can make a living at it?”

“I was always pretty good, you know that. I’d like to try doing some commercial illustration; that’s for the bread and potatoes. Then, when we don’t have to worry about creditors, I’d like to do some things on my own.”

“Don’t pull a Gauguin on me, friend.” She kissed his cheek lightly. “Don’t desert your wife and family for some Tahitian idyll…”

“What family?”

She pulled away from him and got up to stir the ashes in the fireplace. When she returned, her face was glowing with the heat of the fire and warmth of her news.

Andrew Hills, Junior, was born in September. Two years later, little Denise took over the hand-me-down cradle. By that time, Andy Hills was signing his name to the magazine covers of America’s top-circulation weeklies, and they were happy to feature it. His added fame as America’s top-ranked amateur tennis champion made the signature all the more desirable.

When Andrew Junior was three, Andrew Senior made his most important advance in the field of art — not on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, but in the halls of the Modern Museum of Art. His first exhibit evoked such a torrent of superlatives that the New York Times found the reaction newsworthy enough for a box on the front page.

There was a celebration in the Hills household that night, attended by their closest friends: copies of slick magazines were ceremoniously burned and the ashes placed in a dime-store urn that Paula had bought for the occasion.

A month later, they were signing the documents that entitled them to a sprawling hilltop house in Westchester, with a north-light glassed-in studio the size of their former apartment.

He was thirty-five when the urge struck him to rectify a sordid political situation in their town. His fame as an artist and tennis-champion (even at thirty-five, he was top-seeded in the Nationals) gave him an easy entree into the political melee. At first, the idea of vote-seeking appalled him; but he couldn’t retreat once the movement started.

He won easily and was elected to the town council. The office was a minor one, but he was enough of a celebrity to attract country-wide attention. During the following year, he began to receive visits from important men in party circles; in the next state election, his name was on the ballot. By the time he was forty, Andrew Hills was a U.S. Senator.

That spring, he and Paula spent a month in Acapulco, in an enchanting home they had erected in the cool shadows of the steep mountains that faced the bay. It was there that Andy talked about his future.

“I know what the party’s planning,” he told his wife, “but I know they’re wrong. I’m not Presidential timber, Paula.”

But the decision wasn’t necessary; by summer, the Asiatic Alliance had tired of the incessant talks with the peacemakers and had launched their attack on the Alaskan frontier. Andy was commissioned at once as a major.

His gallantry in action, his brilliant recapture of Shaktolik, White Mountain, and eventual triumphant march into Nome guaranteed him a place in the High Command of the Allied Armies.

By the end of the first year of fighting, there were two silver stars on his shoulder and he was given the most critical assignment of all — to represent the Allies in the negotiations that were taking place in Fox Island in the Aleutians. Later, he denied that he was solely responsible for the successful culmination of the peace talks, but the American populace thought him hero enough to sweep him into the White House the following year in a landslide victory unparalleled in political history.

He was fifty by the time he left Washington, but his greatest triumphs were yet to come. In his second term, his interest in the World Organization had given him a major role in world politics. As First Secretary of the World Council, his ability to effect a working compromise between the ideological factions was directly responsible for the establishment of the World Government.

When he was sixty-four, Andrew Hills was elected World President, and he held the office until his voluntary retirement at seventy-five. Still active and vigorous, still capable of a commanding tennis game, of a painting that set art circles gasping, he and Paula moved permanently into the house in Acapulco.

He was ninety-six when the fatigue of living overtook him. Andrew Junior, with his four grandchildren, and Denise, with her charming twins, paid him one last visit before he took to his bed.

###

“But what is the stuff?” Paula said. “Does it cure or what? I have a right to know!”

Dr. Bernstein frowned. “It’s rather hard to describe. It has no curative powers. It’s more in the nature of a hypnotic drug, but it has a rather peculiar effect. It provokes a dream.”

“A dream?”

“Yes. An incredibly long and detailed dream, in which the patient lives an entire lifetime, and lives it just the way he would like it to be. You might say it’s an opiate, but the most humane one ever developed.”

Paula looked down at the still figure on the bed. His hand was moving slowly across the bed-sheet, the fingers groping toward her.

“Andy,” she breathed. “Andy darling…”

His hand fell across hers, the touch feeble and aged.

“Paula,” he whispered, “say good-by to the children for me.”

The Stuff

Original illustration from Galaxy Magazine by “Ritter.”

 

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The sci-fi short story below, a simple tale concerning the first manned Moon mission, is notable for two reasons: it was written before NASA’s manned spaceflight programs began; and not much about it is science-fictiony. It’s a people story, and a sad one, at that.

—————

Breakaway

By Stanley Gimble
Published in Astounding Science Fiction, December 1955

Phil Conover pulled the zipper of his flight suit up the front of his long, thin body and came into the living room. His face, usually serious and quietly handsome, had an alive, excited look. And the faint lines around his dark, deep-set eyes were accentuated when he smiled at his wife.

“All set, honey. How do I look in my monkey suit?”

His wife was sitting stiffly on the flowered couch that was still not theirs completely. In her fingers she held a cigarette burned down too far. She said, “You look fine, Phil. You look just right.” She managed a smile. Then she leaned forward and crushed the cigarette in the ash tray on the maple coffee table and took another from the pack.

He came to her and touched his hands to her soft blond hair, raising her face until she was looking into his eyes. “You’re the most beautiful girl I know. Did I ever tell you that?”

“Yes, I think so. Yes, I’m sure you did,” she said, finishing the ritual; but her voice broke, and she turned her head away. Phil sat beside her and put his arm around her small shoulders. He had stopped smiling.

“Honey, look at me,” he said. “It isn’t going to be bad. Honestly it isn’t. We know exactly how it will be. If anything could go wrong, they wouldn’t be sending me; you know that. I told you that we’ve sent five un-manned ships up and everyone came back without a hitch.”

She turned, facing him. There were tears starting in the corners of her wide, brown eyes, and she brushed them away with her hand.

“Phil, don’t go. Please don’t. They can send Sammy. Sammy doesn’t have a wife. Can’t he go? They’d understand, Phil. Please!” She was holding his arms tightly with her hands, and the color had drained from her cheeks.

“Mary, you know I can’t back out now. How could I? It’s been three years. You know how much I’ve wanted to be the first man to go. Nothing would ever be right with me again if I didn’t go. Please don’t make it hard.”

He stopped talking and held her to him and stroked the back of her head. He could feel her shoulders shaking with quiet sobs. He released her and stood up.

“I’ve got to get started, Mary. Will you come to the field with me?”

“Yes, I’ll come to say good-by.” She paused and dropped her eyes. “Phil, if you go, I won’t be here when you get back — if you get back. I won’t be here because I won’t be the wife of a space pilot for the rest of my life. It isn’t the kind of life I bargained for. No matter how much I love you, I just couldn’t take that, Phil. I’m sorry. I guess I’m not the noble sort of wife.”

She finished and took another cigarette from the pack on the coffee table and put it to her lips. Her hand was trembling as she touched the lighter to the end of the cigarette and drew deeply. Phil stood watching her, the excitement completely gone from his eyes.

“I wish you had told me this a long time ago, Mary,” Phil said. His voice was dry and low. “I didn’t know you felt this way about it.”

“Yes, you did. I told you how I felt. I told you I could never be the wife of a space pilot. But I don’t think I ever really believed it was possible — not until this morning when you said tonight was the take-off. It’s so stupid to jeopardize everything we’ve got for a ridiculous dream!”

He sat down on the edge of the couch and took her hands between his. “Mary, listen to me,” he said. “It isn’t a dream. It’s real. There’s nothing means anything more to me than you do — you know that. But no man ever had the chance to do what I’m going to do tonight — no man ever. If I backed out now for any reason, I’d never be able to look at the sky again. I’d be through.”

She looked at him without seeing him, and there was nothing at all in her eyes.

“Let’s go, if you’re still going,” she finally said.

They drove through the streets of the small town with its small bungalows, each alike. There were no trees and very little grass. It was a new town, a government built town, and it had no personality yet. It existed only because of the huge ship standing poised in the take-off zone five miles away in the desert. Its future as a town rested with the ship, and the town seemed to feel the uncertainty of its future, seemed ready to stop existing as a town and to give itself back to the desert, if such was its destiny.

Phil turned the car off the highway onto the rutted dirt road that led across the sand to the field where the ship waited. In the distance they could see the beams of the searchlights as they played across the take-off zone and swept along the top of the high wire fence stretching out of sight to right and left. At the gate they were stopped by the guard. He read Phil’s pass, shined his flashlight in their faces, and then saluted. “Good luck, colonel,” he said, and shook Phil’s hand.

“Thanks, sergeant. I’ll be seeing you next week,” Phil said, and smiled. They drove between the rows of wooden buildings that lined the field, and he parked near the low barbed fence ringing the take-off zone. He turned off the ignition, and sat quietly for a moment before lighting a cigarette.

Then he looked at his wife. She was staring through the windshield at the rocket two hundred yards away. Its smooth polished surface gleamed in the spotlight glare, and it sloped up and up until the eye lost the tip against the stars.

“She’s beautiful, Mary. You’ve never seen her before, have you?”

“No, I’ve never seen her before,” she said. “Hadn’t you better go?” Her voice was strained and she held her hands closed tightly in her lap. “Please go now, Phil,” she said.

He leaned toward her and touched her cheek. Then she was in his arms, her head buried against his shoulder.

“Good-by, darling,” she said.

“Wish me luck, Mary?” he asked.

“Yes, good luck, Phil,” she said. He opened the car door and got out. The noise of men and machines scurrying around the ship broke the spell of the rocket waiting silently for flight.

“Mary, I –” he began, and then turned and strode toward the administration building without looking back.

Inside the building it was like a locker room before the big game. The tension stood alone, and each man had the same happy, excited look that Phil had worn earlier. When he came into the room, the noise and bustle stopped. They turned as one man toward him, and General Small came up to him and took his hand.

“Hello, Phil. We were beginning to think you weren’t coming. You all set, son?”

“Yes, sir, I’m all set, I guess,” Phil said.

“I’d like you to meet the Secretary of Defense, Phil. He’s over here by the radar.”

As they crossed the room, familiar faces smiled, and each man shook his hand or touched his arm. He saw Sammy, alone, by the coffee urn. Sammy waved to him, but he didn’t smile. Phil wanted to talk to him, to say something; but there was nothing to be said now. Sammy’s turn would come later.

“Mr. Secretary,” the general said, “this is Colonel Conover. He’ll be the first man in history to see the other side of the Moon. Colonel — the Secretary of Defense.”

“How do you do, sir. I’m very proud to meet you,” Phil said.

“On the contrary, colonel. I’m very proud to meet you. I’ve been looking at that ship out there and wondering. I almost wish I were a young man again. I’d like to be going. It’s a thrilling thought — man’s first adventure into the universe. You’re lighting a new dawn of history, colonel. It’s a privilege few men have ever had; and those who have had it didn’t realize it at the time. Good luck, and God be with you.”

“Thank you, sir. I’m aware of all you say. It frightens me a little.”

The general took Phil’s arm and they walked to the briefing room. There were chairs set up for the scientists and Air Force officers directly connected with the take-off. They were seated now in a semicircle in front of a huge chart of the solar system.

Phil took his seat, and the last minute briefing began. It was a routine he knew by heart. He had gone over and over it a thousand times, and he only half listened now. He kept thinking of Mary outside, alone by the fence.

The voice of the briefing officer was a dull hum in his ears.

“… And orbit at 18,000-mph. You will then accelerate for the breakaway to 24,900-mph for five minutes and then free-coast for 116 hours until –”

Phil asked a few questions about weather and solar conditions. And then the session was done. They rose and looked at each other, the same unanswered questions on each man’s face. There were forced smiles and handshakes. They were ready now.

“Phil,” the general said, and took him aside.

“Sir?”

“Phil, you’re… you feel all right, don’t you, son?”

“Yes, sir. I feel fine. Why?”

“Phil, I’ve spent nearly every day with you for three years. I know you better than I know myself in many ways. And I’ve studied the psychologist’s reports on you carefully. Maybe it’s just nervousness, Phil, but I think there’s something wrong. Is there?”

“No, sir. There’s nothing wrong,” Phil said, but his voice didn’t carry conviction. He reached for a cigarette.

“Phil, if there is anything — anything at all — you know what it might mean. You’ve got to be in the best mental and physical condition of your life tonight. You know better than any man here what that means to our success. I think there is something more than just natural apprehension wrong with you. Want to tell me?”

Outside, the take-off zone crawled with men and machines at the base of the rocket. For ten hours, the final check-outs had been in progress; and now the men were checking again, on their own time. The thing they had worked toward for six years was ready to happen, and each one felt that he was sending just a little bit of himself into the sky.

Beyond the ring of lights and moving men, on the edge of the field, Mary stood. Her hands moved slowly over the top of the fence, twisting the barbs of wire. But her eyes were on the ship.

And then they were ready. A small group of excited men came out from the administration building and moved forward. The check-out crews climbed into their machines and drove back outside the take-off zone. And, alone, one man climbed the steel ladder up the side of the rocket — ninety feet into the air. At the top he waved to the men on the ground and then disappeared through a small port.

Mary waved to him. “Good-by,” she said to herself, but the words stuck tight in her throat.

The small group at the base of the ship turned and walked back to the fence. And for an eternity the great ship stood alone, waiting. Then, from deep inside, a rumble came, increasing in volume to a gigantic roar that shook the earth and tore at the ears. Slowly, the first manned rocket to the Moon lifted up and up to the sky.

For a long time after the rocket had become a tiny speck of light in the heavens, she stood holding her face in her hands and crying softly to herself. And then she felt the touch of a hand on her arm. She turned.

“Phil! Oh, Phil.” She held tightly to him and repeated his name over and over.

“They wouldn’t let me go, Mary,” he said finally. “The general would not let me go.”

She looked at him. His face was drawn tight, and there were tears on his cheeks. “Thank, God,” she said. “It doesn’t matter, darling. The only thing that matters is you didn’t go.”

“You’re right, Mary,” he said. His voice was low — so low she could hardly hear him. “It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters now.” He stood with his hands at his sides, watching her. And then turned away and walked toward the car.

Breakaway

Original illustration from Astounding Science Fiction by Kelly Freas.

 

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Science fiction appeals to me for many reasons, but mostly because of the “what if” factor. No other genre allows a writer to speculate about anything at all, with no restrictions.

For example, a question once occurred to author Robert Shea: where, logically, could advances in medical science someday lead us? And he wrote the following story.

————

Resurrection

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

“You’re a fascinating person,” the girl said. “I’ve never met anyone like you before. Tell me your story again.”

The man was short and stocky, with Asiatic features and a long, stringy mustache. “The whole story?” he asked. “It would take a lifetime to tell you.” He stared out the window at the yellow sun and the red sun. He still hadn’t gotten used to seeing two suns. But that was minor, really, when there were so many other things he had to get used to.

A robot waiter, with long thin metal tubes for arms and legs, glided over. When he’d first seen one of those, he’d thought it was a demon. He’d tried to smash it. They’d had trouble with him at first.

“They had trouble with me at first,” he said.

“I can imagine,” said the girl. “How did they explain it to you?”

“It was hard. They had to give me the whole history of medicine. It was years before I got over the notion that I was up in the Everlasting Blue Sky, or under the earth, or something.” He grinned at the girl. She was the first person he’d met since they got him a job and gave him a home in a world uncountable light years from the one he’d been born on.

“When did you begin to understand?”

“They simply taught all of history to me. Including the part about myself. Then I began to get the picture. Funny. I wound up teaching them a lot of history.”

“I bet you know a lot.”

“I do,” the man with the Asiatic features said modestly. “Anyway, they finally got across to me that in the 22nd century — they had explained the calendar to me, too; I used a different one in my day — they had learned how to grow new limbs on people who had lost arms and legs.”

“That was the first real step,” said the girl.

“It was a long time till they got to the second step,” he said. “They learned how to stimulate life and new growth in people who had already died.”

“The next part is the thing I don’t understand,” the girl said.

“Well,” said the man, “as I get it, they found that any piece of matter that has been part of an organism, retains a physical ‘memory’ of the entire structure of the organism of which it was part. And that they could reconstruct that structure from a part of a person, if that was all there was left of him. From there it was just a matter of pushing the process back through time. They had to teach me a whole new language to explain that one.”

“Isn’t it wonderful that intergalactic travel gives us room to expand?” said the girl. “I mean now that every human being that ever lived has been brought back to life and will live forever?”

“Same problem I had, me and my people,” said the man. “We were cramped for space. This age has solved it a lot better than I did. But they had to give me a whole psychological overhauling before I understood that.”

“Tell me about your past life,” said the girl, staring dreamily at him.

“Well, six thousand years ago, I was born in the Gobi Desert, on Earth,” said Genghis Khan, sipping his drink.

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan (1162-1227), born in what is now Mongolia, founded the Mongol Empire. He has the distinction of being responsible for more deaths than anyone else in history; 40 million died during his reign.

 

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Richard Thieme, a former Episcopal priest, writes about how technology impacts people and society. His popular online column “Islands in the Clickstream” began in the 1990s.

Thieme also writes fiction on the subject. This short story from 1963 is an example.

————

Pleasant Journey

By Richard F. Thieme
Published in Analog Science Fact & Fiction, November 1963.

“What do you call it?” the buyer asked Jenkins.

“I named it ‘Journey Home’ but you can think up a better name for it if you want. I’ll guarantee that it sells, though. There’s nothing like it on any midway.”

“I’d like to try it out first, of course,” Allenby said. “Star-Time uses only the very best, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” Jenkins said. He had heard the line before, from almost every carnival buyer to whom he had sold. He did not do much business with the carnivals; there weren’t enough to keep him busy with large or worthwhile rides and features. The amusement parks of the big cities were usually the best markets.

Allenby warily eyed the entrance, a room fashioned from a side-show booth. A rough red curtain concealed the inside. Over the doorway, in crude dark blue paint, was lettered, “Journey Home.” Behind the doorway was a large barnlike structure, newly painted white, where Jenkins did his planning, his building, and his finishing. When he sold a new ride it was either transported from inside the building through the large, pull-away doors in back or taken apart piece by piece and shipped to the park or carny that bought it.

“Six thousand’s a lot of money,” the buyer said.

“Just try it,” Jenkins told him.

The buyer shrugged. “O.K.,” he said. “Let’s go in.” They walked through the red curtain. Inside the booth-entrance was a soft-cushioned easy-chair, also red, secured firmly in place. It was a piece of salvage from a two-engine commercial airplane. A helmet looking like a Flash Gordon accessory-hair drier combination was set over it. Jenkins flipped a switch and the room became bright with light. “I thought you said this wasn’t a thrill ride,” Allenby said, looking at the helmetlike structure ominously hanging over the chair.

“It isn’t,” Jenkins said, smiling. “Sit down.” He strapped the buyer into place in the chair.

“Hey, wait a minute,” Allenby protested. “Why the straps?”

“Leave everything to me and don’t worry,” Jenkins said, fitting the headgear into place over the buyer’s head. The back of it fitted easily over the entire rear of the skull, down to his neck. The front came just below the eyes. After turning the light off, Jenkins pulled the curtain closed. It was completely black inside.

“Have a nice trip,” Jenkins said, pulling a switch on the wall and pushing a button on the back of the chair at the same time.

Currents shifted and repatterned themselves inside the helmet and were fed into Allenby at the base of his skull, at the medulla. The currents of alternating ions mixed with the currents of his varied and random brain waves, and the impulses of one became the impulses of the other. Allenby jerked once with the initial shock and was then still, his mind and body fused with the pulsating currents of the chair.

Suddenly, Roger Allenby was almost blinded by bright, naked light. Allenby’s first impression was one of disappointment at the failure of the device. Jenkins was reliable, usually, and hadn’t come up with a fluke yet.

Allenby got out of the chair and called for Jenkins, holding on to the arm of the chair to keep his bearings. “Hey! Where are you? Jenkins!” He tried to look around him but the bright, intense light revealed nothing. He swore to himself, extending his arms in front of him for something to grasp.

As he groped for a solid, the light became more subdued and shifted from white into a light, pleasant blue.

Shapes and forms rearranged themselves in front of him and gradually became distinguishable. He was in a city, or on top of a city. A panoramic view was before him and he saw the creations of human beings, obviously, but a culture far removed from his. A slight path of white began at his feet and expanded as it fell slightly, ramplike, over and into the city. The buildings were whiter than the gate of false dreams that Penelope sung of and the streets and avenues were blue, not gray. The people wore white and milled about in the streets below him. They shouted as one; their voices were not cries but songs and they sang his name.

He started walking on the white strip. It was flexible and supported his weight easily. Then he was running, finding his breath coming in sharp gasps and he was among the crowds. They smiled at him as he passed by and held out their hands to him. Their faces shone with a brilliance of awareness and he knew that they loved him. Troubled, frightened, he kept running, blindly, and, abruptly, there were no people, no buildings.

He was walking now, at the left side of a modern super-highway, against the traffic. Autos sped by him, too quickly for him to determine the year of model. Across the divider the traffic was heavier, autos speeding crazily ahead in the direction he was walking; none stopped. He halted for a moment and looked around him. There was nothing on the sides of the road: no people, no fields, no farms, no cities, no blackness. There was nothing. But far ahead there was green etched around the horizon as the road dipped and the cars sped over it. He walked more quickly, catching his breath, and came closer and closer to the green.

Allenby stopped momentarily and turned around, looking at the highway that was behind him. It was gone. Only bleak, black and gray hills of rock and rubble were there, no cars, no life. He shuddered and continued on toward the end of the highway. The green blended in with the blue of the sky now. Closer he came, until just over the next rise in the road the green was bright. Not knowing or caring why, he was filled with expectation and he ran again and was in the meadow.

All around him were the greens of the grasses and leaves and the yellows and blues of the field flowers. It was warm, a spring day, with none of the discomfort of summer heat. Jubilant, Roger spun around in circles, inhaling the fragrance of the field, listening to the hum of insect life stirring back to awareness after a season of inactivity. Then he was running and tumbling, barefoot, his shirt open, feeling the soft grass give way underfoot and the soil was good and rich beneath him.

He saw a stream ahead, with clear water melodiously flowing by him. He went to it and drank, the cold, good water quenching all his thirst, clearing all the stickiness of his throat and mind. He dashed the water on his face and was happy and felt the coolness of it as the breeze picked up and swept his hair over his forehead. With a shake of his head he tossed it back in place and ran again, feeling the air rush into his lungs with coolness and vibrance unknown since adolescence. No nicotine spasms choked him and the air was refreshing.

Then up the hill he sped, pushing hard, as the marigolds and dandelions parted before him. At the top he stopped and looked and smiled ecstatically as he saw the green rolling land and the stream, curving around from behind the house, his house, the oaks forming a secret lair behind it, and he felt the youth of the world in his lungs and under his feet. He heard the voice calling from that house, his house, calling him to Saturday lunch.

“I’m coming!” he cried happily and was tumbling down the hill, rolling over and over, the hill and ground and sky blending blues and greens and nothing had perspective. The world was spinning and everything was black again. He shook his head to clear the dizziness.

“Well?” Jenkins said. “How was it?”

Allenby looked up at him as Jenkins swung the helmet back and unhooked the seatbelt. He squinted as Jenkins flipped the light switch and the brightness hit him.

His surroundings became distinguishable again very slowly and he knew he was back in the room. “Where was I?” he asked.

Jenkins shrugged. “I don’t know. It was all yours. You went wherever you wanted to go, wherever home is.” Jenkins smiled down at him. “Did you visit more than one place?” he asked. The buyer nodded. “I thought so. It seems that a person tries a few before finally deciding where to go.”

The buyer stood up and stretched. “Could I please see the barn?” he asked, meaning the huge workshop where Jenkins did the construction work.

“Sure,” Jenkins said and opened the door opposite the red curtain into the workshop. It was empty.

“You mean it was all up here? I didn’t move at all?” He tapped his cranium with his index finger.

“That’s right,” Jenkins said anxiously. “Do you want it or not?”

Allenby stood looking into the empty room. “Yes… yes, of course,” he said. “How long did the whole thing last?”

“About ten seconds,” Jenkins said, looking at his watch. “It seems much longer to the traveler. I’m not sure, but I think the imagined time varies with each person. It’s always around ten seconds of actual time, though, so you can make a lot of money on it, even if you only have one machine.”

“Money?” Allenby said. “Money, yes, of course.” He took a checkbook from his inside pocket and hurriedly wrote a check for six thousand dollars. “When can we have it delivered?” he asked.

“You want it shipped the usual way?”

“No,” Allenby said, staring at the red-cushioned chair. “Send it air freight. Then bill us for the expense.”

“Whatever you say,” Jenkins said, smiling, taking the check. “You’ll have it by the first of the week, probably. I’ll put a complete parts and assembly manual inside the crate.”

“Good, good. But maybe I should test it again, you know. Star-Time can’t really afford to make a mistake as expensive as this.”

“No,” Jenkins said quickly. Then, “I’ll guarantee it, of course. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll give you a full refund. But don’t try it again, today. Don’t let anyone have it more than once in one day. Stamp them on the hand or something when they take the trip.”

“Why?”

Jenkins looked troubled. “I’m not sure, but people might not want to come back. Too many times in a row and they might be able to stay there… in their minds of course.”

“Of course, of course. Well, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Jenkins. I hope to see you again soon.” They walked back to Allenby’s not-very-late model car and shook hands. Allenby drove away.

On the way back to the hotel, and as he lay for a long time in the bathtub, letting the warmness drift away from the water, the thought ran over and over in his mind. They might be able to stay there, Allenby said to himself. They might be able to stay there. He smiled warmly at a crack in the plaster as he thought of the first of the week and the fragrant meadow.

Pleasant Journey

Original illustration from Analog Science Fact & Fiction by George Schelling.

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Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote the sci-fi short story below in 1952, when Cold War paranoia was rampant and technology was beginning to emerge. It’s a not-so-subtle cautionary tale about illogical fears and nuclear destruction.

Today, with the sky filled with semi-autonomous drones, another Cold War underway, and a Bond villain in the White House, the story seems both relevant and spooky.

————

The Gun

By Philip K. Dick
Published in Planet Stories, September 1952

The Captain peered into the eyepiece of the telescope. He adjusted the focus quickly.

“It was an atomic fission we saw, all right,” he said presently. He sighed and pushed the eyepiece away. “Any of you who wants to look may do so. But it’s not a pretty sight.”

“Let me look,” Tance the archeologist said. He bent down to look, squinting. “Good Lord!” He leaped violently back, knocking against Dorle, the Chief Navigator.

“Why did we come all this way, then?” Dorle asked, looking around at the other men. “There’s no point even in landing. Let’s go back at once.”

“Perhaps he’s right,” the biologist murmured. “But I’d like to look for myself, if I may.” He pushed past Tance and peered into the sight.

He saw a vast expanse, an endless surface of gray, stretching to the edge of the planet. At first he thought it was water but after a moment he realized that it was slag, pitted, fused slag, broken only by hills of rock jutting up at intervals. Nothing moved or stirred. Everything was silent, dead.

“I see,” Fomar said, backing away from the eyepiece. “Well, I won’t find any legumes there.” He tried to smile, but his lips stayed unmoved. He stepped away and stood by himself, staring past the others.

“I wonder what the atmospheric sample will show,” Tance said.

“I think I can guess,” the Captain answered. “Most of the atmosphere is poisoned. But didn’t we expect all this? I don’t see why we’re so surprised. A fission visible as far away as our system must be a terrible thing.”

He strode off down the corridor, dignified and expressionless. They watched him disappear into the control room.

As the Captain closed the door the young woman turned. “What did the telescope show? Good or bad?”

“Bad. No life could possibly exist. Atmosphere poisoned, water vaporized, all the land fused.”

“Could they have gone underground?”

The Captain slid back the port window so that the surface of the planet under them was visible. The two of them stared down, silent and disturbed. Mile after mile of unbroken ruin stretched out, blackened slag, pitted and scarred, and occasional heaps of rock.

Suddenly Nasha jumped. “Look! Over there, at the edge. Do you see it?”

They stared. Something rose up, not rock, not an accidental formation. It was round, a circle of dots, white pellets on the dead skin of the planet. A city? Buildings of some kind?

“Please turn the ship,” Nasha said excitedly. She pushed her dark hair from her face.

“Turn the ship and let’s see what it is!”

The ship turned, changing its course. As they came over the white dots the Captain lowered the ship, dropping it down as much as he dared. “Piers,” he said. “Piers of some sort of stone. Perhaps poured artificial stone. The remains of a city.”

“Oh, dear,” Nasha murmured. “How awful.” She watched the ruins disappear behind them. In a half-circle the white squares jutted from the slag, chipped and cracked, like broken teeth.

“There’s nothing alive,” the Captain said at last. “I think we’ll go right back; I know most of the crew want to. Get the Government Receiving Station on the sender and tell them what we found, and that we –”

He staggered.

The first atomic shell had struck the ship, spinning it around. The Captain fell to the floor, crashing into the control table. Papers and instruments rained down on him. As he started to his feet the second shell struck. The ceiling cracked open, struts and girders twisted and bent. The ship shuddered, falling suddenly down, then righting itself as automatic controls took over.

The Captain lay on the floor by the smashed control board. In the corner Nasha struggled to free herself from the debris.

Outside the men were already sealing the gaping leaks in the side of the ship, through which the precious air was rushing, dissipating into the void beyond. “Help me!” Dorle was shouting. “Fire over here, wiring ignited.” Two men came running. Tance watched helplessly, his eyeglasses broken and bent.

“So there is life here, after all,” he said, half to himself. “But how could –”

“Give us a hand,” Fomar said, hurrying past. “Give us a hand, we’ve got to land the ship!”

It was night. A few stars glinted above them, winking through the drifting silt that blew across the surface of the planet.

Dorle peered out, frowning. “What a place to be stuck in.” He resumed his work, hammering the bent metal hull of the ship back into place. He was wearing a pressure suit; there were still many small leaks, and radioactive particles from the atmosphere had already found their way into the ship.

Nasha and Fomar were sitting at the table in the control room, pale and solemn, studying the inventory lists.

“Low on carbohydrates,” Fomar said. “We can break down the stored fats if we want to, but –”

“I wonder if we could find anything outside.” Nasha went to the window. “How uninviting it looks.” She paced back and forth, very slender and small, her face dark with fatigue. “What do you suppose an exploring party would find?”

Fomar shrugged. “Not much. Maybe a few weeds growing in cracks here and there. Nothing we could use. Anything that would adapt to this environment would be toxic, lethal.”

Nasha paused, rubbing her cheek. There was a deep scratch there, still red and swollen. “Then how do you explain –it? According to your theory the inhabitants must have died in their skins, fried like yams. But who fired on us? Somebody detected us, made a decision, aimed a gun.”

“And gauged distance,” the Captain said feebly from the cot in the corner. He turned toward them. “That’s the part that worries me. The first shell put us out of commission, the second almost destroyed us. They were well aimed, perfectly aimed. We’re not such an easy target.”

“True.” Fomar nodded. “Well, perhaps we’ll know the answer before we leave here. What a strange situation! All our reasoning tells us that no life could exist; the whole planet burned dry, the atmosphere itself gone, completely poisoned.”

“The gun that fired the projectiles survived,” Nasha said. “Why not people?”

“It’s not the same. Metal doesn’t need air to breathe. Metal doesn’t get leukemia from radioactive particles. Metal doesn’t need food and water.”

There was silence.

“A paradox,” Nasha said. “Anyhow, in the morning I think we should send out a search party. And meanwhile we should keep on trying to get the ship in condition for the trip back.”

“It’ll be days before we can take off,” Fomar said. “We should keep every man working here. We can’t afford to send out a party.”

Nasha smiled a little. “We’ll send you in the first party. Maybe you can discover — what was it you were so interested in?”

“Legumes. Edible legumes.”

“Maybe you can find some of them. Only –”

“Only what?”

“Only watch out. They fired on us once without even knowing who we were or what we came for. Do you suppose that they fought with each other? Perhaps they couldn’t imagine anyone being friendly, under any circumstances. What a strange evolutionary trait, inter-species warfare. Fighting within the race!”

“We’ll know in the morning,” Fomar said. “Let’s get some sleep.”

###

The sun came up chill and austere. The three people, two men and a woman, stepped through the port, dropping down on the hard ground below.

“What a day,” Dorle said grumpily. “I said how glad I’d be to walk on firm ground again, but –”

“Come on,” Nasha said. “Up beside me. I want to say something to you. Will you excuse us, Tance?”

Tance nodded gloomily. Dorle caught up with Nasha. They walked together, their metal shoes crunching the ground underfoot. Nasha glanced at him.

“Listen. The Captain is dying. No one knows except the two of us. By the end of the day-period of this planet he’ll be dead. The shock did something to his heart. He was almost sixty, you know.”

Dorle nodded. “That’s bad. I have a great deal of respect for him. You will be captain in his place, of course. Since you’re vice-captain now –”

“No. I prefer to see someone else lead, perhaps you or Fomar. I’ve been thinking over the situation and it seems to me that I should declare myself mated to one of you, whichever of you wants to be captain. Then I could devolve the responsibility.”

“Well, I don’t want to be captain. Let Fomar do it.”

Nasha studied him, tall and blond, striding along beside her in his pressure suit. “I’m rather partial to you,” she said. “We might try it for a time, at least. But do as you like. Look, we’re coming to something.”

They stopped walking, letting Tance catch up. In front of them was some sort of a ruined building. Dorle stared around thoughtfully.

“Do you see? This whole place is a natural bowl, a huge valley. See how the rock formations rise up on all sides, protecting the floor. Maybe some of the great blast was deflected here.”

They wandered around the ruins, picking up rocks and fragments. “I think this was a farm,” Tance said, examining a piece of wood. “This was part of a tower windmill.”

“Really?” Nasha took the stick and turned it over. “Interesting. But let’s go; we don’t have much time.”

“Look,” Dorle said suddenly. “Off there, a long way off. Isn’t that something?” He pointed.

Nasha sucked in her breath. “The white stones.”

“What?”

Nasha looked up at Dorle. “The white stones, the great broken teeth. We saw them, the Captain and I, from the control room.” She touched Dorle’s arm gently. “That’s where they fired from. I didn’t think we had landed so close.”

“What is it?” Tance said, coming up to them. “I’m almost blind without my glasses. What do you see?”

“The city. Where they fired from.”

“Oh.” All three of them stood together. “Well, let’s go,” Tance said. “There’s no telling what we’ll find there.” Dorle frowned at him.

“Wait. We don’t know what we would be getting into. They must have patrols. They probably have seen us already, for that matter.”

“They probably have seen the ship itself,” Tance said. “They probably know right now where they can find it, where they can blow it up. So what difference does it make whether we go closer or not?”

“That’s true,” Nasha said. “If they really want to get us we haven’t a chance. We have no armaments at all; you know that.”

“I have a hand weapon.” Dorle nodded. “Well, let’s go on, then. I suppose you’re right, Tance.”

“But let’s stay together,” Tance said nervously. “Nasha, you’re going too fast.”

Nasha looked back. She laughed. “If we expect to get there by nightfall we must go fast.”

###

They reached the outskirts of the city at about the middle of the afternoon. The sun, cold and yellow, hung above them in the colorless sky. Dorle stopped at the top of a ridge overlooking the city.

“Well, there it is. What’s left of it.”

There was not much left. The huge concrete piers which they had noticed were not piers at all, but the ruined foundations of buildings. They had been baked by the searing heat, baked and charred almost to the ground. Nothing else remained, only this irregular circle of white squares, perhaps four miles in diameter.

Dorle spat in disgust. “More wasted time. A dead skeleton of a city, that’s all.”

“But it was from here that the firing came,” Tance murmured. “Don’t forget that.”

“And by someone with a good eye and a great deal of experience,” Nasha added. “Let’s go.”

They walked into the city between the ruined buildings. No one spoke. They walked in silence, listening to the echo of their footsteps.

“It’s macabre,” Dorle muttered. “I’ve seen ruined cities before but they died of old age, old age and fatigue. This was killed, seared to death. This city didn’t die — it was murdered.”

“I wonder what the city was called,” Nasha said. She turned aside, going up the remains of a stairway from one of the foundations. “Do you think we might find a signpost? Some kind of plaque?”

She peered into the ruins.

“There’s nothing there,” Dorle said impatiently. “Come on.”

“Wait.” Nasha bent down, touching a concrete stone. “There’s something inscribed on this.”

“What is it?” Tance hurried up. He squatted in the dust, running his gloved fingers over the surface of the stone. “Letters, all right.” He took a writing stick from the pocket of his pressure suit and copied the inscription on a bit of paper. Dorle glanced over his shoulder. The inscription was:

FRANKLIN APARTMENTS

“That’s this city,” Nasha said softly. “That was its name.”

Tance put the paper in his pocket and they went on. After a time Dorle said, “Nasha, you know, I think we’re being watched. But don’t look around.”

The woman stiffened. “Oh? Why do you say that? Did you see something?”

“No. I can feel it, though. Don’t you?”

Nasha smiled a little. “I feel nothing, but perhaps I’m more used to being stared at.” She turned her head slightly. “Oh!”

Dorle reached for his hand weapon. “What is it? What do you see?” Tance had stopped dead in his tracks, his mouth half open.

“The gun,” Nasha said. “It’s the gun.”

“Look at the size of it. The size of the thing.” Dorle unfastened his hand weapon slowly. “That’s it, all right.”

The gun was huge. Stark and immense it pointed up at the sky, a mass of steel and glass, set in a huge slab of concrete. Even as they watched the gun moved on its swivel base, whirring underneath. A slim vane turned with the wind, a network of rods atop a high pole.

“It’s alive,” Nasha whispered. “It’s listening to us, watching us.”

The gun moved again, this time clockwise. It was mounted so that it could make a full circle. The barrel lowered a trifle, then resumed its original position.

“But who fires it?” Tance said.

Dorle laughed. “No one. No one fires it.”

They stared at him. “What do you mean?”

“It fires itself.”

They couldn’t believe him. Nasha came close to him, frowning, looking up at him. “I don’t understand. What do you mean, it fires itself?”

“Watch, I’ll show you. Don’t move.” Dorle picked up a rock from the ground. He hesitated a moment and then tossed the rock high in the air. The rock passed in front of the gun. Instantly the great barrel moved, the vanes contracted.

The rock fell to the ground. The gun paused, then resumed its calm swivel, its slow circling.

“You see,” Dorle said, “it noticed the rock, as soon as I threw it up in the air. It’s alert to anything that flies or moves above the ground level. Probably it detected us as soon as we entered the gravitational field of the planet. It probably had a bead on us from the start. We don’t have a chance. It knows all about the ship. It’s just waiting for us to take off again.”

“I understand about the rock,” Nasha said, nodding. “The gun noticed it, but not us, since we’re on the ground, not above. It’s only designed to combat objects in the sky. The ship is safe until it takes off again, then the end will come.”

“But what’s this gun for?” Tance put in. “There’s no one alive here. Everyone is dead.”

“It’s a machine,” Dorle said. “A machine that was made to do a job. And it’s doing the job. How it survived the blast I don’t know. On it goes, waiting for the enemy. Probably they came by air in some sort of projectiles.”

“The enemy,” Nasha said. “Their own race. It is hard to believe that they really bombed themselves, fired at themselves.”

“Well, it’s over with. Except right here, where we’re standing. This one gun, still alert, ready to kill. It’ll go on until it wears out.”

“And by that time we’ll be dead,” Nasha said bitterly.

“There must have been hundreds of guns like this,” Dorle murmured. “They must have been used to the sight, guns, weapons, uniforms. Probably they accepted it as a natural thing, part of their lives, like eating and sleeping. An institution, like the church and the state. Men trained to fight, to lead armies, a regular profession. Honored, respected.”

Tance was walking slowly toward the gun, peering nearsightedly up at it. “Quite complex, isn’t it? All those vanes and tubes. I suppose this is some sort of a telescopic sight.” His gloved hand touched the end of a long tube.

Instantly the gun shifted, the barrel retracting. It swung —

“Don’t move!” Dorle cried. The barrel swung past them as they stood, rigid and still. For one terrible moment it hesitated over their heads, clicking and whirring, settling into position. Then the sounds died out and the gun became silent.

Tance smiled foolishly inside his helmet. “I must have put my finger over the lens. I’ll be more careful.” He made his way up onto the circular slab, stepping gingerly behind the body of the gun. He disappeared from view.

“Where did he go?” Nasha said irritably. “He’ll get us all killed.”

“Tance, come back!” Dorle shouted. “What’s the matter with you?”

“In a minute.” There was a long silence. At last the archeologist appeared. “I think I’ve found something. Come up and I’ll show you.”

“What is it?”

“Dorle, you said the gun was here to keep the enemy off. I think I know why they wanted to keep the enemy off.”

They were puzzled.

“I think I’ve found what the gun is supposed to guard. Come and give me a hand.”

“All right,” Dorle said abruptly. “Let’s go.” He seized Nasha’s hand. “Come on. Let’s see what he’s found. I thought something like this might happen when I saw that the gun was –”

“Like what?” Nasha pulled her hand away. “What are you talking about? You act as if you knew what he’s found.”

“I do.” Dorle smiled down at her. “Do you remember the legend that all races have, the myth of the buried treasure, and the dragon, the serpent that watches it, guards it, keeping everyone away?”

She nodded. “Well?”

Dorle pointed up at the gun.

“That,” he said, “is the dragon. Come on.”

###

Between the three of them they managed to pull up the steel cover and lay it to one side. Dorle was wet with perspiration when they finished.

“It isn’t worth it,” he grunted. He stared into the dark yawning hole. “Or is it?”
Nasha clicked on her hand lamp, shining the beam down the stairs. The steps were thick with dust and rubble. At the bottom was a steel door.

“Come on,” Tance said excitedly. He started down the stairs. They watched him reach the door and pull hopefully on it without success. “Give a hand!”

“All right.” They came gingerly after him. Dorle examined the door. It was bolted shut, locked. There was an inscription on the door but he could not read it.

“Now what?” Nasha said.

Dorle took out his hand weapon. “Stand back. I can’t think of any other way.” He pressed the switch. The bottom of the door glowed red. Presently it began to crumble. Dorle clicked the weapon off. “I think we can get through. Let’s try.”

The door came apart easily. In a few minutes they had carried it away in pieces and stacked the pieces on the first step. Then they went on, flashing the light ahead of them.

They were in a vault. Dust lay everywhere, on everything, inches thick. Wood crates lined the walls, huge boxes and crates, packages and containers. Tance looked around curiously, his eyes bright.

“What exactly are all these?” he murmured. “Something valuable, I would think.” He picked up a round drum and opened it. A spool fell to the floor, unwinding a black ribbon. He examined it, holding it up to the light.

“Look at this!”

They came around him. “Pictures,” Nasha said. “Tiny pictures.”

“Records of some kind.” Tance closed the spool up in the drum again. “Look, hundreds of drums.” He flashed the light around. “And those crates. Let’s open one.”

Dorle was already prying at the wood. The wood had turned brittle and dry. He managed to pull a section away.

It was a picture. A boy in a blue garment, smiling pleasantly, staring ahead, young and handsome. He seemed almost alive, ready to move toward them in the light of the hand lamp. It was one of them, one of the ruined race, the race that had perished.

For a long time they stared at the picture. At last Dorle replaced the board.

“All these other crates,” Nasha said. “More pictures. And these drums. What are in the boxes?”

“This is their treasure,” Tance said, almost to himself. “Here are their pictures, their records. Probably all their literature is here, their stories, their myths, their ideas about the universe.”

“And their history,” Nasha said. “We’ll be able to trace their development and find out what it was that made them become what they were.”

Dorle was wandering around the vault. “Odd,” he murmured. “Even at the end, even after they had begun to fight they still knew, someplace down inside them, that their real treasure was this, their books and pictures, their myths. Even after their big cities and buildings and industries were destroyed they probably hoped to come back and find this. After everything else was gone.”

“When we get back home we can agitate for a mission to come here,” Tance said. “All this can be loaded up and taken back. We’ll be leaving about –”

He stopped.

“Yes,” Dorle said dryly. “We’ll be leaving about three day-periods from now. We’ll fix the ship, then take off. Soon we’ll be home, that is, if nothing happens. Like being shot down by that –”

“Oh, stop it!” Nasha said impatiently. “Leave him alone. He’s right: all this must be taken back home, sooner or later. We’ll have to solve the problem of the gun. We have no choice.”

Dorle nodded. “What’s your solution, then? As soon as we leave the ground we’ll be shot down.” His face twisted bitterly. “They’ve guarded their treasure too well. Instead of being preserved it will lie here until it rots. It serves them right.”

“How?”

“Don’t you see? This was the only way they knew, building a gun and setting it up to shoot anything that came along. They were so certain that everything was hostile, the enemy, coming to take their possessions away from them. Well, they can keep them.”

Nasha was deep in thought, her mind far away. Suddenly she gasped. “Dorle,” she said. “What’s the matter with us? We have no problem. The gun is no menace at all.”

The two men stared at her.

“No menace?” Dorle said. “It’s already shot us down once. And as soon as we take off again—”

“Don’t you see?” Nasha began to laugh. “The poor foolish gun, it’s completely harmless. Even I could deal with it alone.”

“You?”

Her eyes were flashing. “With a crowbar. With a hammer or a stick of wood. Let’s go back to the ship and load up. Of course we’re at its mercy in the air: that’s the way it was made. It can fire into the sky, shoot down anything that flies. But that’s all! Against something on the ground it has no defenses. Isn’t that right?”

Dorle nodded slowly. “The soft underbelly of the dragon. In the legend, the dragon’s armor doesn’t cover its stomach.” He began to laugh. “That’s right. That’s perfectly right.”

“Let’s go, then,” Nasha said. “Let’s get back to the ship. We have work to do here.”

###

It was early the next morning when they reached the ship. During the night the Captain had died, and the crew had ignited his body, according to custom. They had stood solemnly around it until the last ember died. As they were going back to their work the woman and the two men appeared, dirty and tired, still excited.

And presently, from the ship, a line of people came, each carrying something in his hands. The line marched across the gray slag, the eternal expanse of fused metal. When they reached the weapon they all fell on the gun at once, with crowbars, hammers, anything that was heavy and hard.

The telescopic sights shattered into bits. The wiring was pulled out, torn to shreds. The delicate gears were smashed, dented.

Finally the warheads themselves were carried off and the firing pins removed.

The gun was smashed, the great weapon destroyed. The people went down into the vault and examined the treasure. With its metal-armored guardian dead there was no danger any longer. They studied the pictures, the films, the crates of books, the jeweled crowns, the cups, the statues.

At last, as the sun was dipping into the gray mists that drifted across the planet they came back up the stairs again. For a moment they stood around the wrecked gun looking at the unmoving outline of it.

Then they started back to the ship. There was still much work to be done. The ship had been badly hurt, much had been damaged and lost. The important thing was to repair it as quickly as possible, to get it into the air.

With all of them working together it took just five more days to make it spaceworthy.

###

Nasha stood in the control room, watching the planet fall away behind them. She folded her arms, sitting down on the edge of the table.

“What are you thinking?” Dorle said.

“I? Nothing.”

“Are you sure?”

“I was thinking that there must have been a time when this planet was quite different, when there was life on it.”

“I suppose there was. It’s unfortunate that no ships from our system came this far, but then we had no reason to suspect intelligent life until we saw the fission glow in the sky.”

“And then it was too late.”

“Not quite too late. After all, their possessions, their music, books, their pictures, all of that will survive. We’ll take them home and study them, and they’ll change us. We won’t be the same afterwards. Their sculpturing, especially. Did you see the one of the great winged creature, without a head or arms? Broken off, I suppose. But those wings— It looked very old. It will change us a great deal.”

“When we come back we won’t find the gun waiting for us,” Nasha said. “Next time it won’t be there to shoot us down. We can land and take the treasure, as you call it.” She smiled up at Dorle. “You’ll lead us back there, as a good captain should.”

“Captain?” Dorle grinned. “Then you’ve decided.”

Nasha shrugged. “Fomar argues with me too much. I think, all in all, I really prefer you.”

“Then let’s go,” Dorle said. “Let’s go back home.”

The ship roared up, flying over the ruins of the city. It turned in a huge arc and then shot off beyond the horizon, heading into outer space.

###

Down below, in the center of the ruined city, a single half-broken detector vane moved slightly, catching the roar of the ship. The base of the great gun throbbed painfully, straining to turn. After a moment a red warning light flashed on down inside its destroyed works.

And a long way off, a hundred miles from the city, another warning light flashed on, far underground. Automatic relays flew into action. Gears turned, belts whined. On the ground above a section of metal slag slipped back. A ramp appeared.

A moment later a small cart rushed to the surface.

The cart turned toward the city. A second cart appeared behind it. It was loaded with wiring cables. Behind it a third cart came, loaded with telescopic tube sights. And behind came more carts, some with relays, some with firing controls, some with tools and parts, screws and bolts, pins and nuts. The final one contained atomic warheads.

The carts lined up behind the first one, the lead cart. The lead cart started off, across the frozen ground, bumping calmly along, followed by the others. Moving toward the city.

To the damaged gun.

The Gun

Original illustration from Planet Stories by Herman Vestal.

 

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Robert Sheckley (1928-2005) was a popular and prolific author of sci-fi novels and short stories and also quite a visionary.

In one of his 1953 stories, selected participants are pitted against each other in a televised fight to the death, a la “The Hunger Games.”

In a story in 1958, TV show contestants must evade assassins for one week to win cash. It was the first known prediction of reality TV.

And often, Sheckley was witty and whimsical, as the following tale illustrates.

————

Protection

By Robert Sheckley
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1956

There’ll be an airplane crash in Burma next week, but it shouldn’t affect me here in New York. And the feegs certainly can’t harm me. Not with all my closet doors closed.

No, the big problem is lesnerizing. I must not lesnerize. Absolutely not. As you can imagine, that hampers me.

And to top it all, I think I’m catching a really nasty cold.

The whole thing started on the evening of November seventh. I was walking down Broadway on my way to Baker’s Cafeteria. On my lips was a faint smile, due to having passed a tough physics exam earlier in the day. In my pocket, jingling faintly, were five coins, three keys, and a book of matches.

Just to complete the picture, let me add that the wind was from the northwest at five miles an hour, Venus was in the ascendancy and the moon was decidedly gibbous. You can draw your own conclusions from this.

I reached the corner of 98th Street and began to cross. As I stepped off the curb, someone yelled at me, “The truck! Watch the truck!”

I jumped back, looking around wildly. There was nothing in sight. Then, a full second later, a truck cut around the corner on two wheels, ran through the red light and roared up Broadway. Without the warning, I would have been hit.

###

You’ve heard stories like this, haven’t you? About the strange voice that warned Aunt Minnie to stay out of the elevator, which then crashed to the basement. Or maybe it told Uncle Joe not to sail on the Titanic. That’s where the story usually ends.

I wish mine ended there.

“Thanks, friend,” I said and looked around. There was no one there.

“Can you still hear me?” the voice asked.

“Sure I can.” I turned a complete circle and stared suspiciously at the closed apartment windows overhead. “But where in the blue blazes are you?”

“Gronish,” the voice answered. “Is that the referent? Refraction index. Creature of insubstantiality. The Shadow knows. Did I pick the right one?”

“You’re invisible?” I hazarded.

“That’s it!”

“But what are you?”

“A validusian derg.”

“A what?”

“I am — open your larynx a little wider please. Let me see now. I am the Spirit of Christmas Past. The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Bride of Frankenstein. The –”

“Hold on,” I said. “What are you trying to tell me — that you’re a ghost or a creature from another planet?”

“Same thing,” the derg replied. “Obviously.”

That made is all perfectly clear. Any fool could see that the voice belonged to someone from another planet. He was invisible on Earth, but his superior senses had spotted an approaching danger and warned me of it.

Just a plain, everyday supernormal incident.

I began to walk hurriedly down Broadway.

“What is the matter?” the invisible derg asked.

“Not a thing,” I answered, “except that I seem to be standing in the middle of the street talking to an invisible alien from the farthest reaches of outer space. I suppose only I can hear you?”

“Well, naturally.”

“Great! You know where this sort of thing will land me?”

“The concept you are sub-vocalizing is not entirely clear.”

“The loony bin. Nut house. Bug factory. Psychotic ward. That’s where they put people who talk to invisible aliens. Thanks for the warning, buddy. Good night.”

###

Feeling lightheaded, I turned east, hoping my invisible friend would continue down Broadway.

“Won’t you talk with me?” the derg asked.

I shook my head, a harmless gesture they can’t pick you up for, and kept on walking.

“But you must,” the derg said with a hint of desperation. “A real sub-vocal contact is very rare and astonishingly difficult. Sometimes I can get across a warning, just before a danger moment. But then the connection fades.”

So there was the explanation for Aunt Minnie’s premonition. But I still wasn’t having any.

“Conditions might not be right again for a hundred years!” the derg mourned.

What conditions? Five coins and three keys jingling together when Venus was ascendant? I suppose it’s worthy of investigation — but not by me. You never can prove that supernormal stuff. There are enough people knitting slipcovers for straitjackets without me swelling their ranks.

“Just leave me alone,” I said. A cop gave me a funny look for that one. I grinned boyishly and hurried on.

“I appreciate your social situation,” the derg urged, “but this contact is in your own best interests. I want to protect you from the myriad dangers of human existence.”

I didn’t answer him.

“Well,” the derg said, “I can’t force you. I’ll just have to offer my services elsewhere. Goodbye, friend.”

I nodded pleasantly.

“One last thing,” he said. “Stay off subways tomorrow between noon and one-fifteen P.M. Goodbye.”

“Huh? Why?”

“Someone will be killed at Columbus Circle, pushed in front of a train by shopping crowds. You, if you are there. Goodbye.”

“Someone will be killed there tomorrow?” I asked. “You’re sure?”

“Of course.”

“It’ll be in the newspapers?”

“I should imagine so.”

“And you know all sorts of stuff like that?”

“I can perceive all dangers radiating toward you and extending into time. My one desire is to protect you from them.”

I had stopped. Two girls were giggling at me talking to myself. Now I began walking again.

“Look,” I whispered, “can you wait until tomorrow evening?”

“You will let me be your protector?” the derg asked eagerly.

“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” I said. “After I read the late papers.”

###

The item was there, all right. I read it in my furnished room on 113th Street. Man pushed by the crowd, lost his balance, fell in front of an oncoming train. This gave me a lot to think about while waiting for my invisible protector to show up.

I didn’t know what to do. His desire to protect me seemed genuine enough. But I didn’t know if I wanted it. When, an hour later, the derg contacted me, I liked the whole idea even less, and told him so.

“Don’t you trust me?” he asked.

“I just want to lead a normal life.”

“If you lead any life at all,” he reminded me. “That truck last night –”

“That was a freak, a once-in-a-lifetime hazard.”

“It only takes once in a lifetime to die,” the derg said solemnly. “There was the subway, too.”

“That doesn’t count. I hadn’t planned on riding it today.”

“But you had no reason not to ride it. That’s the important thing. Just as you have no reason not to take a shower in the next hour.”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“A Miss Flynn,” the derg said, “who lives down the hall, has just completed her shower and has left a bar of melting pink soap on the pink tile in the bathroom on this floor. You would have slipped on it and suffered a sprained wrist.”

“Not fatal, huh?”

“No. Hardly in the same class with, let us say, a heavy flower-pot pushed from a rooftop by a certain unstable old gentleman.”

“When is that going to happen?” I asked.

“I thought you weren’t interested.”

“I’m very interested. When? Where?”

“Will you let me continue to protect you?” he asked.

“Just tell me one thing,” I said. “What’s in this for you?”

“Satisfaction!” he said. “For a validusian derg, the greatest thrill possible is to aid another creature evade danger.”

“But isn’t there something else you want out of it? Some trifle like my soul, or rulership of Earth?”

“Nothing! To accept payment for Protecting would ruin the emotional experience. All I want out of life — all any derg wants — is to protect someone from the dangers he cannot see, but which we can see all too well.” The derg paused, then added softly, “We don’t even expect gratitude.”

Well, that clinched it. How could I guess the consequences? How could I know that his aid would lead me into a situation in which I must not lesnerize?

“What about that flowerpot?” I asked.

“It will be dropped on the corner of Tenth Street and McAdams Boulevard at eight-thirty tomorrow morning.”

“Tenth and McAdams? Where’s that?”

“In Jersey City,” he answered promptly.

“But I’ve never been to Jersey City in my life! Why warn me about that?”

“I don’t know where you will or won’t go,” the derg said. “I merely perceive dangers to you wherever they may occur.”

“What should I do now?”

“Anything you wish,” he told me. “Just lead your normal life.”

Normal life. Hah!

###

It started out well enough. I attended classes at Columbia, did homework, saw movies, went on dates, played table tennis and chess, all as before. At no time did I let on that I was under the direct protection of a validusian derg.

Once or twice a day, the derg would come to me. He would say something like, “Loose grating on West End Avenue between 66th and 67th Streets. Don’t walk on it.”

And of course I wouldn’t. But someone else would. I often saw these items in the newspapers.

Once I got used to it, it gave me quite a feeling of security. An alien was scurrying around twenty-four hours a day and all he wanted out of life was to protect me. A supernormal bodyguard! The thought gave me a enormous amount of confidence.

My social life, during this period, couldn’t have been improved upon.

But the derg soon became overzealous in my behalf. He began finding more and more dangers, most of which had no real bearing on my life in New York — things I should avoid in Mexico City, Toronto, Omaha, Papeete.

I finally asked him if he was planning on reporting every potential danger on Earth.

“These are the few, the very few, that you are or may be affected by,” he told me.

“In Mexico City? And Papeete? Why not confine yourself to the local picture? Greater New York, say.”

“Locale means nothing to me,” the derg replied stubbornly. “My perceptions are temporal, not spatial. I must protect you from everything!”

It was rather touching, in a way, and there was nothing I could do about it. I simply had to discard from his reports the various dangers in Hoboken, Thailand, Kansas City, Angkor Wat (collapsing statue), Paris, and Sarasota. Then I would reach the local stuff. I would ignore, for the most part, the dangers awaiting me in Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, and Brooklyn, and concentrate on Manhattan.

These were often worth waiting for, however. The derg saved me from some pretty nasty experiences — a holdup on Cathedral Parkway, for example, a teen-age mugging, a fire.

###

But he kept stepping up the pace. It had started as a report or two a day. Within a month, he was warning me five or six times a day. And at last his warnings, local, national, and international, flowed in a continual stream.

I was facing too many dangers, beyond all reasonable probability.

On a typical day:

“Tainted food in Baker’s Cafeteria. Don’t eat there tonight.”

“Amsterdam Bus 312 has bad brakes. Don’t ride it.”

“Mellen’s Tailor Shop has a leaking gas line. Explosion due. Better have your clothes dry-cleaned elsewhere.”

“Rabid mongrel on the prowl between Riverside Drive and Central Park West. Take a taxi.”

Soon I was spending most of my time not doing things, and avoiding places. Danger seemed to be lurking behind every lamp post, waiting for me.

I suspected the derg of padding his report. It seemed the only possible explanation. After all, I had lived this long before meeting him, with no supernormal assistance whatsoever, and had gotten by nicely. Why should the risks increase now?

I asked him that one evening.

“All my reports are perfectly genuine,” he said, obviously a little hurt. “If you don’t believe me, try turning on the lights in your psychology class tomorrow.”

“Why?”

“Defective wiring.”

“I don’t doubt your warnings,” I assured him. “I just know that life was never this dangerous before you came along.”

“Of course it wasn’t. Surely you know that if you accept protection, you must accept the drawbacks of protection as well.”

“Drawbacks like what?”

The derg hesitated. “Protection begets the need of further protection. That is a universal constant.”

“Come again?” I asked in bewilderment.

“Before you met me, you were like everyone else and you ran such risks as your situation offered. But with my coming, your immediate environment has changed. And your position in it has changed, too.”

“Changed? Why?”

“Because it has me in it. To some extent now, you partake of my environment, just as I partake of yours. And, of course, it is well known that the avoidance of one danger opens the path to others.”

“Are you trying to tell me,” I said, very slowly, “that my risks have increased because of your help?”

“It was unavoidable,” he sighed.

###

I could have cheerfully strangled the derg at that moment, if he hadn’t been invisible and impalpable. I had the angry feeling that I had been conned, taken by an extraterrestrial trickster.

“All right,” I said, controlling myself. “Thanks for everything. See you on Mars or wherever you hang out.”

“You don’t want any further protection?”

“You guessed it. Don’t slam the door on your way out.”

“But what’s wrong?” The derg seemed genuinely puzzled. “There are increased risks in your life, true, but what of it? It is a glory and an honor to face danger and emerge victorious. The greater the peril, the greater the joy of evading it.”

For the first time, I saw how alien this alien was.

“Not for me,” I said. “Scram.”

“Your risks have increased,” the derg argued, “but my capacity for detection is more than ample to cope with it. I am happy to cope with it. So it still represents a net gain in protection for you.”

I shook my head. “I know what happens next. My risks just keep on increasing, don’t they?”

“Not at all. As far as accidents are concerned, you have reached the quantitative limit.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means there will be no further increase in the number of accidents you must avoid.”

“Good. Now will you please get the hell out of here?”

“But I just explained –”

“Sure, no further increase, just more of the same. Look, if you leave me alone, my original environment will return, won’t it? And, with it, my original risks?”

“Eventually,” the derg agreed. “If you survive.”

“I’ll take that chance.”

The derg was silent for a time. Finally he said, “You can’t afford to send me away. Tomorrow –”

“Don’t tell me. I’ll avoid the accidents on my own.”

“I wasn’t thinking of accidents.”

“What then?”

“I hardly know how to tell you.” He sounded embarrassed. “I said there would be no further quantitative change. But I didn’t mention a qualitative change.”

###

“What are you talking about?” I shouted at him.

“I’m trying to say,” the derg said, “that a gamper is after you.”

“A what? What kind of gag is this?”

“A gamper is a creature from my environment. I suppose he was attracted by your increased potentiality for avoiding risk, due to my protection.”

“To hell with the gamper and to hell with you.”

“If he comes, try driving him off with mistletoe. Iron is often effective, if bonded to copper. Also –”

I threw myself on the bed and buried my head under the pillow. The derg took the hint. In a moment, I could sense that he was gone.

What an idiot I had been! We denizens of Earth have a common vice: we take what we’re offered, whether we need it or not.

You can get into a lot of trouble that way.

But the derg was gone and the worst of my troubles were over. I’d sit tight for a while, give things a chance to work themselves out. In a few weeks, perhaps, I’d.…

There seemed to be a humming in the air.

I sat upright on the bed. One corner of the room was curiously dark and I could feel a cold breeze on my face. The hum grew louder — not really a hum, but laughter, low and monotonous.

At that point, no one had to draw me a diagram.

“Derg!” I screamed. “Get me out of this!”

He was there. “Mistletoe! Just wave it at the gamper.”

“Where in blazes would I get mistletoe?”

“Iron and copper then!”

I leaped to my desk, grabbed a copper paperweight and looked wildly for some iron to bond it to. The paperweight was pulled out of my hand. I caught it before it fell. Then I saw my fountain pen and brought the point against the paperweight.

The darkness vanished. The cold disappeared.

I guess I passed out.

###

The derg said triumphantly, an hour later, “You see? You need my protection.”

“I suppose I do,” I answered dully.

“You will need some things,” the derg said. “Wolfsbane, amaranth, garlic, graveyard mold –”

“But the gamper is gone.”

“Yes. However, the grailers remain. And you need safeguards against the leeps, the feegs, and the melgerizer.”

So I wrote down his list of herbs, essences, and specifics. I didn’t bother asking him about this link between supernatural and supernormal. My comprehension was now full and complete.

Ghosts and spirits? Or extraterrestrials? All the same, he said, and I saw what he meant. They leave us alone, for the most part. We are on different levels of perception, of existence, even. Until a human is foolish enough to attract attention to himself.

Now I was in their game. Some wanted to kill me, some to protect me, but none care for me, not even the derg. They were interested solely in my value to the game, if that’s what it was.

And the situation was my own fault. At the beginning, I had had the accumulated wisdom of the human race at my disposal, that tremendous racial hatred of witches and ghosts, the irrational fear of alien life. For my adventure has been played out a thousand times and the story is told again and again — how a man dabbles in strange arts and calls to himself a spirit. By so doing, he attracts attention to himself — the worst thing of all.

So I was welded inseparably to the derg and the derg to me. Until yesterday, that is. Now I am on my own again.

Things had been quiet for a few weeks. I had held off the feegs by the simple expedient of keeping my closet doors closed. The leeps were more menacing, but the eye of a toad seemed to stop them. And the melgerizer was dangerous only in the full of the Moon.

“You are in danger,” the derg said yesterday.

“Again?” I asked, yawning.

“It is the thrang who pursues us.”

“Us?”

“Yes, myself as well as you, for even a derg must run risk and danger.”

“Is this thrang particularly dangerous?”

“Very.”

“Well, what do I do? Snakeskin over the door? A pentagon?”

“None of those,” the derg said. “The thrang must be dealt with negatively, by the avoidance of certain actions.”

By now, there were so many restrictions on me, I didn’t think another would matter. “What shouldn’t I do?”

“You must not lesnerize,” the derg said.

“Lesnerize?” I frowned. “What’s that?”

“Surely you know. It is a simple, everyday human action.”

“I probably know it under a different name. Explain.”

“Very well. To lesnerize is to –” He stopped abruptly.

“What?”

“It is here! The thrang!”

I backed up against a wall. I thought I could detect a faint stirring of dust, but that might have been no more than overwrought nerves.

“Derg!” I shouted. “Where are you? What should I do?”

I heard a shriek and the unmistakable sound of jaws snapping.

The derg cried, “It has me!”

“What should I do?” I cried again.

There was a horrible noise of teeth grinding. Very faintly, I heard the derg say, “Don’t lesnerize!”

And then there was silence.

So I’m sitting tight now. There’ll be an airplane crash in Burma next week, but it shouldn’t affect me here in New York. And the feegs certainly can’t harm me. Not with all my closet doors closed.

No, the problem is lesnerizing. I must not lesnerize. Absolutely not. If I can keep from lesnerizing, everything will pass and the chase will move elsewhere. It must! All I have to do is wait them out.

The trouble is, I don’t have any idea what lesnerizing might be. A common human action, the derg had said. Well, for the time, I’m avoiding as many actions as possible.

I’ve caught up on some back sleep and nothing happened, so that’s not lesnerizing. I went out and bought food, paid for it, cooked it, ate it. That wasn’t lesnerizing. I wrote this report. That wasn’t lesnerizing.

I’ll come out of this yet.

I’m going to catch a nap. I think I have a cold coming on. Now I have to sneez

The End

Sneeze

 

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January 27, 2017.

Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) was a multi-talented dude. In addition to being an author of science fiction and fantasy, he was a chess champion, fencing expert, movie actor, and book editor.

Not only that, he studied psychology, philosophy, and theology for years at the University of Chicago without bothering to take degrees.

Writing, however, was his focus, and much of it was groundbreaking. Long before Harry Potter, Twilight, and similar stories, Leiber introduced the concept of magical worlds existing secretly around us. Further, many of the fast-action storylines in today’s computer games are borrowed from Leiber’s novels.

But now and then, maybe to clear his head, Leiber wrote something lighter and more frivolous. The following short story is an example.

————

What’s He Doing In There?

By Fritz Leiber
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1957

The Professor was congratulating Earth’s first visitor from another planet on his wisdom in getting in touch with a cultural anthropologist before contacting any other scientists (or governments, God forbid!), and in learning English from radio and TV before landing from his orbit-parked rocket, when the Martian stood up and said hesitantly, “Excuse me, please, but where is it?”

That baffled the Professor and the Martian seemed to grow anxious — at least his long mouth curved upward, and he had earlier explained that it curling downward was his smile — and he repeated, “Please, where is it?”

He was surprisingly humanoid in most respects, but his complexion was textured so like the rich dark armchair he’d just been occupying that the Professor’s pin-striped gray suit, which he had eagerly consented to wear, seemed an arbitrary interruption between him and the chair — a sort of Mother Hubbard dress on a phantom conjured from its leather.

The Professor’s Wife, always a perceptive hostess, came to her husband’s rescue by saying with equal rapidity, “Top of the stairs, end of the hall, last door.”

The Martian’s mouth curled happily downward and he said, “Thank you very much,” and was off.

Comprehension burst on the Professor. He caught up with his guest at the foot of the stairs.

“Here, I’ll show you the way,” he said.

“No, I can find it myself, thank you,” the Martian assured him.

Something rather final in the Martian’s tone made the Professor desist, and after watching his visitor sway up the stairs with an almost hypnotic softly jogging movement, he rejoined his wife in the study, saying wonderingly, “Who’d have thought it, by George! Function taboos as strict as our own!”

“I’m glad some of your professional visitors maintain ’em,” his wife said darkly.

“But this one’s from Mars, darling, and to find out he’s — well, similar in an aspect of his life is as thrilling as the discovery that water is burned hydrogen. When I think of the day not far distant when I’ll put his entries in the cross-cultural index…”

He was still rhapsodizing when the Professor’s Little Son raced in.

“Pop, the Martian’s gone to the bathroom!”

“Hush, dear. Manners.”

“Now it’s perfectly natural, darling, that the boy should notice and be excited. Yes, Son, the Martian’s not so very different from us.”

“Oh, certainly,” the Professor’s Wife said with a trace of bitterness. “I don’t imagine his turquoise complexion will cause any comment at all when you bring him to a faculty reception. They’ll just figure he’s had a hard night — and that he got that baby-elephant nose sniffing around for assistant professorships.”

“Really, darling! He probably thinks of our noses as disagreeably amputated and paralyzed.”

“Well, anyway, Pop, he’s in the bathroom. I followed him when he squiggled upstairs.”

“Now, Son, you shouldn’t have done that. He’s on a strange planet and it might make him nervous if he thought he was being spied on. We must show him every courtesy. By George, I can’t wait to discuss these things with Ackerly-Ramsbottom! When I think of how much more this encounter has to give the anthropologist than even the physicist or astronomer…”

He was still going strong on his second rhapsody when he was interrupted by another high-speed entrance. It was the Professor’s Coltish Daughter.

“Mom, Pop, the Martian’s –”

“Hush, dear. We know.”

The Professor’s Coltish Daughter regained her adolescent poise, which was considerable. “Well, he’s still in there,” she said. “I just tried the door and it was locked.”

“I’m glad it was!” the Professor said while his wife added, “Yes, you can’t be sure what –” and caught herself. “Really, dear, that was very bad manners.”

“I thought he’d come downstairs long ago,” her daughter explained. “He’s been in there an awfully long time. It must have been a half hour ago that I saw him gyre and gimbal upstairs in that real gone way he has, with Nosy here following him.” The Professor’s Coltish Daughter was currently soaking up both jive and Alice.

When the Professor checked his wristwatch, his expression grew troubled. “By George, he is taking his time! Though, of course, we don’t know how much time Martians… I wonder.”

“I listened for a while, Pop,” his son volunteered. “He was running the water a lot.”

“Running the water, eh? We know Mars is a water-starved planet. I suppose that in the presence of unlimited water, he might be seized by a kind of madness and… But he seemed so well adjusted.”

Then his wife spoke, voicing all their thoughts. Her outlook on life gave her a naturally sepulchral voice.

“What’s he doing in there?”

Twenty minutes and at least as many fantastic suggestions later, the Professor glanced again at his watch and nerved himself for action. Motioning his family aside, he mounted the stairs and tiptoed down the hall.

He paused only once to shake his head and mutter under his breath, “By George, I wish I had Fenchurch or von Gottschalk here. They’re a shade better than I am on intercultural contracts, especially taboo-breakings and affronts…”

His family followed him at a short distance.

The Professor stopped in front of the bathroom door. Everything was quiet as death.
He listened for a minute and then rapped measuredly, steadying his hand by clutching its wrist with the other. There was a faint splashing, but no other sound.

Another minute passed. The Professor rapped again. Now there was no response at all. He very gingerly tried the knob. The door was still locked.

When they had retreated to the stairs, it was the Professor’s Wife who once more voiced their thoughts. This time her voice carried overtones of supernatural horror.

“What’s he doing in there?”

“He may be dead or dying,” the Professor’s Coltish Daughter suggested briskly. “Maybe we ought to call the Fire Department, like they did for old Mrs. Frisbee.”

The Professor winced. “I’m afraid you haven’t visualized the complications, dear,” he said gently. “No one but ourselves knows that the Martian is on Earth, or has even the slightest inkling that interplanetary travel has been achieved. Whatever we do, it will have to be on our own. But to break in on a creature engaged in — well, we don’t know what primal private activity — is against all anthropological practice. Still –”

“Dying’s a primal activity,” his daughter said crisply.

“So’s ritual bathing before mass murder,” his wife added.

“Please! Still, as I was about to say, we do have the moral duty to succor him if, as you all too reasonably suggest, he has been incapacitated by a germ or virus or, more likely, by some simple environmental factor such as Earth’s greater gravity.”

“Tell you what, Pop — I can look in the bathroom window and see what he’s doing. All I have to do is crawl out my bedroom window and along the gutter a little ways. It’s safe as houses.”

The Professor’s question beginning with, “Son, how do you know –” died unuttered and he refused to notice the words his daughter was voicing silently at her brother. He glanced at his wife’s sardonically composed face, thought once more of the Fire Department and of other and larger and even more jealous — or would it be skeptical? — government agencies, and clutched at the straw offered him.

Ten minutes later, he was quite unnecessarily assisting his son back through the bedroom window.

“Gee, Pop, I couldn’t see a sign of him. That’s why I took so long. Hey, Pop, don’t look so scared. He’s in there, sure enough. It’s just that the bathtub’s under the window and you have to get real close up to see into it.”

“The Martian’s taking a bath?”

“Yep. Got it full up and just the end of his little old schnozzle sticking out. Your suit, Pop, was hanging on the door.”

The one word the Professor’s Wife spoke was like a death knell.

“Drowned!”

“No, Ma, I don’t think so. His schnozzle was opening and closing regular like.”

“Maybe he’s a shape-changer,” the Professor’s Coltish Daughter said in a burst of evil fantasy. “Maybe he softens in water and thins out after a while until he’s like an eel and then he’ll go exploring through the sewer pipes. Wouldn’t it be funny if he went under the street and knocked on the stopper from underneath and crawled into the bathtub with President Rexford, or Mrs. President Rexford, or maybe right into the middle of one of Janey Rexford’s Oh-I’m-so-sexy bubble baths?”

“Please!” The Professor put his hand to his eyebrows and kept it there, cuddling the elbow in his other hand.

“Well, have you thought of something?” the Professor’s Wife asked him after a bit. “What are you going to do?”

The Professor dropped his hand and blinked his eyes hard and took a deep breath.

“Telegraph Fenchurch and Ackerly-Ramsbottom and then break in,” he said in a resigned voice, into which, nevertheless, a note of hope seemed also to have come. “First, however, I’m going to wait until morning.”

And he sat down cross-legged in the hall a few yards from the bathroom door and folded his arms.

So the long vigil commenced.

The Professor’s family shared it and he offered no objection. Other and sterner men, he told himself, might claim to be able successfully to order their children to go to bed when there was a Martian locked in the bathroom, but he would like to see them faced with the situation.

Finally dawn began to seep from the bedrooms. When the bulb in the hall had grown quite dim, the Professor unfolded his arms.

Just then, there was a loud splashing in the bathroom. The Professor’s family looked toward the door. The splashing stopped and they heard the Martian moving around. Then the door opened and the Martian appeared in the Professor’s gray pin-stripe suit. His mouth curled sharply downward in a broad alien smile as he saw the Professor.

“Good morning!” the Martian said happily. “I never slept better in my life, even in my own little wet bed back on Mars.”

He looked around more closely and his mouth straightened. “But where did you all sleep?” he asked. “Don’t tell me you stayed dry all night! You didn’t give up your only bed to me?”

His mouth curled upward in misery. “Oh, dear,” he said, “I’m afraid I’ve made a mistake somehow. Yet I don’t understand how. Before I studied you, I didn’t know what your sleeping habits would be, but that question was answered for me — in fact, it looked so reassuringly homelike — when I saw those brief TV scenes of your females ready for sleep in their little tubs.

“Of course, on Mars, only the fortunate can always be sure of sleeping wet, but here, with your abundance of water, I thought there would be wet beds for all.”

He paused. “It’s true I had some doubts last night, wondering if I’d used the right words and all, but then when you rapped ‘Good night’ to me, I splashed the sentiment back at you and went to sleep in a wink. But I’m afraid that somewhere I’ve blundered and –”

“No, no, dear chap,” the Professor managed to say. He had been waving his hand in a gentle circle for some time in token that he wanted to interrupt.

“Everything is quite all right. It’s true we stayed up all night, but please consider that as a watch — an honor guard, by George! — which we kept to indicate our esteem.”

whats-he-doing

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by William Bowman.

 

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