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New Jersey native Joseph Samachson (1906-1980) followed an unusual path into the writing profession.

At age 23, Samachson earned a PhD in chemistry from Yale and began teaching at a medical college. He drifted into technical writing, then drifted further and began writing science fiction in his spare time. Eventually, he hung up his lab coat to write sci-fi full time.

Between 1938 and 1953, under the pen name William Morrison, Samachson wrote prolifically for various trade magazines, and he contributed numerous Batman, Superman, and other stories for DC Comics.

He also wrote scripts for television’s first science fiction series, “Captain Video and His Video Rangers,” which began in 1949.

In 1953, after 15 years in the writing business, Samachson returned to his roots. He served as a professor of biochemistry at Loyola University until his retirement in 1973.

Samachson’s fiction is said to be noted for cynicism, irony, and tongue-in-cheek humor… little of which I detect in the short story below.

———

Picture Bride

By William Morrison
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1955

My brother, Perry, always was a bit cracked. As a kid, he almost blew up our house doing experiments. When he was eighteen, he wrote poetry, but fortunately that didn’t last long and he went back to science.

Now, when he showed me this picture, I figured he’d had a relapse of some kind. “This is the girl I’m in love with,” he said.

She wasn’t bad. Not bad at all, even if her clothes were crazy. She wasn’t my type — too brainy-looking — although I could see how some guys would go for her. “I thought you liked blondes.”

“I wouldn’t give you two cents for all the blondes in Hollywood,” he answered. “This is the only girl for me.”

“You sound as if you’ve got it bad,” I said. “You going to marry her?”

His face dropped about a mile. “I can’t.”

“You mean she’s married already?” I was surprised. This wasn’t like Perry at all.

He sort of hesitated, as if he was afraid of saying too much. “No, she isn’t married. I asked her about that. But I can’t marry her because — well, I’ve never met her. All I’ve seen of her is this picture and a few more. She doesn’t live here.”

“You mean she’s in Europe?” I’ve heard of these love affairs by mail, and they never made much sense to me. I said to Perry, “Why can’t she come to this country?”

“Oh, there are a lot of things in the way.”

It sounded worse and worse. I said, “Look, Perry, this smells like a racket to me. It’s the kind of thing a couple of shrewd operators cook up to take some hick for a ride. I’m surprised at you falling for it. How do you know there really is a dame like that in Europe? Anybody can send pictures –”

“You’ve got it all wrong,” he said. “I’ve spoken to her.”

“By phone? How do you know who’s on the other end? You hear a dame’s voice you never heard before. What makes you think it’s hers?”

Again he didn’t seem to want to talk, as if he had some secret to hide. But I guess he felt like getting things off his chest, too, or he wouldn’t have opened up in the first place. And he had already told me enough so that if he didn’t tell me more he’d sound like a dope.

So after hesitating even longer than before, he said, “Let’s get this straight, George. This is no racket. I’ve seen and talked to her at the same time. And the things she talked about, no con man would know.”

“You’ve seen and talked to her at the same time? You mean by TV? I don’t believe it. They can’t send TV to Europe.”

“I didn’t say it was TV. And I didn’t say she lived in Europe.”

“That’s exactly what you did say. Or maybe you meant she lived on Mars?”

“No. She’s an American.”

“This makes less and less sense to me. Where did you meet her?”

He turned red, and squirmed all over the place. Finally he said, “Right here in my own laboratory.”

“In your own laboratory! But you said you never met her in the flesh!”

“I didn’t. Not really by TV either. The fact is — she isn’t born yet.”

I backed away from him. When he was a kid and blew up our kitchen, I didn’t like it. When he wrote poetry, I was kind of ashamed and didn’t want my pals to know he was my brother. Now, I was really scared. Everything he had been saying in the last ten minutes began to make sense, but a screwy kind of sense.

He saw how I felt. “Don’t worry, George, I haven’t gone crazy. Her time is 2973, more than a thousand years from now. The only way I’ve seen and talked to her is on a time-contact machine.”

“Come again?”

“A kind of time machine. It can’t send material objects back and forth across time, as far as I know, but it can send certain waves, especially the kind we use to transmit signals. That’s how she and I could talk to each other and see each other.”

“Perry, I think you ought to see a good doctor.”

“It’s a remarkable device,” he said, paying no attention to how I was trying to help him. “She’s the one who first constructed it and contacted me. It’s based on an extension of Einstein’s equations –”

“You think you can explain so much,” I said. “Okay, then, explain this. This dame isn’t going to be born for a thousand years. And yet you tell me you’re in love with her. What’s the difference between you and somebody that’s nuts?” I asked, as if anybody knew the answer.

He certainly didn’t. In fact, he went ahead and proved to me that they were the same thing. Because for the next couple of weeks, the only thing he’d talk about, outside of equations I couldn’t understand, was this dame. How smart she was, and how beautiful she was, and how wonderful she was in every way that a dame can be wonderful, and how she loved him. For a time he had me convinced that she actually existed.

“Compared with you,” I said, “Romeo had a mild case.”

“There are some quantities so great that you can’t measure them,” he said. “That will give you some idea of our love for each other.”

There it went, the old poetry, cropping out in him just like before. And all the time I’d been thinking it was like measles, something that you get once and it builds up your resistance so you don’t get it again, at least not bad. It just goes to show how wrong I could be.

“What preacher are you going to get to marry you?” I asked. “A guy born five hundred years from now?”

“I don’t think that’s funny,” he said.

“You’re telling me. Look, Perry, you’re smart enough to know what I’m thinking –”

“You still think I’m crazy.”

“I got an open mind on the subject. Now, if you won’t see a doctor — then how about letting me take a look at this dame, so I can convince myself?”

“No,” he said. “I’ve considered doing that, and decided against it. Her voice and image come through for only about five minutes a day, sometimes less. And those minutes are very precious to us. We don’t want anyone else present, anyone at all.”

“Not even to convince me she actually exists?”

“You wouldn’t be convinced anyway,” he said very shrewdly. “No matter what I showed you, you’d still find a reason to call it a fraud.”

He was right at that. It would take a lot of convincing to make me believe that a babe who wasn’t going to get born for a thousand years was in love with him.

By this time, though, I was sure of one thing — there was something screwy going on in that laboratory of his. For five minutes a day he was watching some dame’s picture, listening to her voice. If I had an idea what she was like, I might figure out where to go from there.

I began keeping an eye on Perry, dropping in at the laboratory to pay him visits. There was what looked like a ten-inch TV tube in one corner of his place, not housed in a cabinet, but lying on the table among dozens of other tubes and rheostats and meters and other things I didn’t know about. Along the wall that led from this corner was a lot of stuff which Perry said was high voltage, and warned me not to touch.

I kept away. I wasn’t trying to figure out how to get myself killed. All I wanted to know was when he saw this girl.

Finally I managed to pin the time down to between three and four in the afternoon. For five minutes every day, during that hour, he locked the door and didn’t answer phone calls. I figured that if I dropped in then I might get a glimpse of her.

And that’s what I did.

At first, when I knocked on the door, there was no answer. In a minute, though, I heard Perry’s voice, but he wasn’t talking to me. He was saying, “Darling,” and he sounded kind of sick, which I figured was due to love.

Come to think of it, he might have been scared a little. I heard him say, “Don’t be afraid,” and it was quiet for about fifteen seconds.

Then I heard a terrific crash, like lightning striking. The door shook, and I smelled something sharp, and the first thing I wanted to do was get out of that place. But I couldn’t leave my brother in there.

I put my shoulder to the door and had no trouble at all. The explosion, or whatever it was, must have weakened the hinges. As the door crashed in, I looked for Perry.

There was no sign of him. But I could see his shoes, on the floor in front of that TV tube, where he must have been standing. No feet in them, though, just his socks.

All the high-voltage stuff was smoking. The TV screen was all lit up, and on it I could see a girl’s face, the same girl whose picture Perry had shown me. She was wearing one of those funny costumes, and she looked scared. It was a clear picture, and I could even see the way she gulped.

Then she broke out into a happy smile and, for about half a second, before the second explosion, I could see Perry on the screen.

After that second explosioneven though it wasn’t near as big as the firstthat TV set was nothing but a mess of twisted junk, and there was no screen left to see anything on.

Perry liked to have everything just so, and he’d never think of going anyplace without his tie being knotted just right, and his socks matching, and so on. And here he’d traveled a thousand years into the future in bare feet. I felt kind of embarrassed for him.

Anyway, they were engaged, and now they must be married, so I guess she had slippers waiting for him. I’m just sorry I missed the wedding.

Picture Bride

Original illustration from Galaxy Magazine by Ed Emshwiller.

 

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Ad Astra

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

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

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

———

Turnover Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like how?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Turnover point,” he said softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that all?”

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

Kane grinned. “Afraid, old man?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turnover Point

Original illustration from Amazing Stories by Ed Emshwiller.

———

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

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

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

 

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

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

———

Cully

By Jack Egan
Published in Amazing Stories, January 1963

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is it?

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

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

Where is it?

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

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

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

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

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

Where is it?

Cully lifted his head in annoyance at the sharp thought.

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

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

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

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

“No!”

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

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

Where is it?

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

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

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

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

Where is it?

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

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

Where is it?

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

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

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

Here it is! Cully’s mind shouted.

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

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

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

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

From Cully’s mind came further orders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is it?

A different direction materialized; a new concept of desire.

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

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

Where is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is it?

The emptiness was still there.

Cully

Original illustration from Amazing Stories by George Schelling.

———

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

——–

Helen O’Loy

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

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

Lord, isn’t she a beauty?”

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

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

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

Helen O’Loy she is, Phil.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phil! Hey, snap out of it!”

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

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

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

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

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

Huh?”

And she said okay, if you hurried.”

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks. That makes it all clear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, why not?”

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

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

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

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

Well, what is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gave up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of all the

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

Dear Phil,

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

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

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

With love and thanks from

Helen

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

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

Helen O'Loy

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

 

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

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

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

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

Talent will out.

———

Evil Robot Monkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn.

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

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

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

Sly shook his head emphatically and pointed at the window.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sly nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clay.

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

Sly sat down at his wheel and began to turn.

Evil Robot Monkey

Original illustration by the author.

 

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

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

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

———

Moment of Truth

By Basil Wells
Published in Fantastic Universe, December 1957

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing had changed…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blast your room and your dreams!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mars colony

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

 

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

Fiction of the humorous and quirky variety, I assume.

———

Professor Panini

By Matthew Grigg
Published online circa 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

‘Would you like some toast?’

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Panini

Original illustration for the story by Christine McMullen.

 

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