Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

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

———

Mr. Chipfellow’s Jackpot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mortality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And this is –?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Think of what?”

“My will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why, Mr. –”

“Shut up and have another drink.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A murmur went up from the crowd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel B. Chipfellow.

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

S. B. C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The vault had not opened.

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

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

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

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

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

And still no one opened Chipfellow’s vault.

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

A year passed. The vault remained locked.

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

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

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

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

And still the vault remained closed.

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

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

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

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

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

The guard frowned and snapped his stop watch.

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

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

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

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

Jackpot

Original illustration from Imagination Science Fiction, artist unknown.

 

Read Full Post »

This vintage sci-fi short story by a little-known author is, in so many ways, silly and unrealistic. On the other hand, it’s friendly, pleasant, and charming. I say that makes it a winner.

———

Say “Hello” for Me

By Frank W. Coggins
Published in If Worlds of Science Fiction, May 1953

This was to be the day, but of course Professor Pettibone had no way of knowing it. He arose, as he had been doing for the previous twenty years, donned the tattered remnants of his space suit, and went out into the open. He stood erect, bronzed, magnificent, faced distant Earth, and recited:

“Good morning, bright sunshine,
We’re glad you are here.
You make the world happy,
And bring us good cheer.”

It was something he had heard as a child and, isolated here on Mars, he had remembered it and used it to keep from losing his power of speech.

The ritual finished, he walked to the edge of the nearest canal, and gathered a bushel or so of dried Martian moss. He returned and began polishing the shiny exterior of the wrecked space ship. It had to really glitter if it was to be an effective beacon in guiding the rescue ship.

Professor Pettibone knew — had known for years — that a ship would come. It was just a matter of time, and as the years slipped by, his faith diminished not a whit.

With his task half completed, he glanced up at the sun and quickened the polishing. It was a long walk to the place the berry bushes grew, and if he arrived too late, the sun would have dried out the night’s crop of fragile berries and he would wait until the morrow for nourishment.

But on this day, he was fated to arrive at the bush area not at all, because an alien sound from above again drew the Professor’s eyes from his work, and he knew that the day had arrived.

The ship was three times as large as any he had ever visualized, and its futuristic design told him, sharply, how far he had fallen behind in his dreaming. He smiled and said, quite calmly, “I daresay I am about to be rescued.”

And he experienced a thrill as the great ship set down and two men emerged therefrom. A thrill tinged with a guilt-sense, because emotional experiences were rare in an isolated life and seemed somehow indecent.

The two men held weapons. They advanced upon Professor Pettibone, looked up into his face, reflected a certain wary hostility. That the hostility was tinged with instinctive respect, even awe, made it no less potent.

One of them asked, “Fella — man came in ship — sky boat — long time ago. Him dead? Where?” Appropriate gestures accompanied the words.

Professor Pettibone smiled down at the little men and bowed. “You are of course referring to me. I came in the ship. I am Professor Pettibone. It was nice of you to hunt me up.”

The eyes of the two Terran spacemen met and locked in startled inquiry. One of them voiced the reaction of both when he said, “What the hell –”

“You no doubt are curious as to the fate of the other members of the expedition. They were killed, all save Fletcher, who lasted a week.” Professor Pettibone waved a hand. “There — in the graveyard.”

But their eyes remained on the only survivor of that ill-fated first expedition. It was hard to accept him as the man they sought, but, faced with undeniable similarity between what they expected and what they had found, the two spacemen had no alternative.

“I hope your food supply is ample — and varied,” Professor Pettibone said.

This seemed to bring them out of their bemusement. “Of course, Professor. Would you care to come aboard?”

The other made a try at congenial levity. “You must be pretty hungry after twenty years.”

“Really — has it been that long? I tried to keep track at first…”

“We can blast off anytime you say. You’re probably pretty anxious to get back.”

“Indeed, I am. The changes, in twenty years — must be breathtaking. I wonder if they’ll remember me?”

A short time later, the Professor said, “It’s amazing. A ship of this size handled by only two men.” Then he sat down to a repast laid out by one of the awed spacemen.

But, after nibbling a bit of this, a forkful of that, he found that satisfaction lay in the anticipation more so than in the eating.

“We’ll look around and see what we can find in the way of clothing for you, Professor,” one of the spacemen said. Then the man’s bemusement returned. His eyes traveled over the magnificent physique before him. The perfect giant of a man; the great, Apollo-like head with the calm, clear eyes; the expression of complete contentment and serenity.

The space man said, “Professor — to what do you attribute the changes in your body. What is there about this planet –?”

“I really don’t know.” Professor Pettibone looked down his torso with an impersonal eye. “I think the greenish skin pigmentation is a result of mineral-heavy vapors that occur during certain seasons. The growth. As to my body — I really don’t know.”

But the two spacemen — though they didn’t refer to it — were not concerned with the body so much as the aura of completeness, the radiation of contentment which came from somewhere within.

And it was passing strange that nothing more was said about the Professor returning to Earth. No great revelation, suddenly arrived at, that he would not go. Rather, they discussed various things, that three gentlemen, meeting casually, would discuss.

Then Professor Pettibone arose from his chair and said, “It was kind of you to drop off and see me.”

And one of the spacemen replied, “A pleasure, sir. A real pleasure indeed.”

Then the Professor left the ship and watched it lift up on a tail of red fire and go away. He raised an arm and waved. “Say ‘hello’ for me,” he called. Then he turned away and, from force of habit, he began again to polish the hull, knowing that he would keep it shining, and be proud of it, for many years to come.

Almost beyond reach of the planet, one of the spacemen flipped a switch and put certain sensitive communication mechanisms to work. So sensitive, they could pick up etheric vibrations far away and make them audible.

But only faintly, came the pleasant voice of a contented man:

“Good morning, bright sunshine,
We’re glad you are here.
You make the world…”

Sunrise on Mars

 

Read Full Post »

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.”

 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »