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I’ve never used a song to introduce a science fiction short story, but here goes.

“The Thing” was a popular novelty tune that came out in 1950. In it, comedian Phil Harris tells of finding a “thing” in a box — never identified — that horrifies everyone. Harris simply can’t get rid of it.

In 1954, author Edward G. Robles, Jr. published a short story that is based on the concept of the song — and further reveals the thing’s identity.

Here is the song, followed by the short story.

SEE?

By Edward G. Robles, Jr.
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1954.

Well, there was this song a few years back. You know the one. Phil Harris singing about a thing that you couldn’t get rid of, no matter what you did, a thing so repulsive it made you a social outcast. Never thought I’d see one, though. Dirty Pete found it.

Don’t rush me. I’ll tell you about it.

We’re hobos, understand? Now a hobo is a different breed of cat than you think. Oh, people are getting educated to the idea that a hobo will work and move on, whereas a tramp will mooch and move on, and a bum will mooch and hang around, but you still find folks who are ignorant enough to call us bums.

We’re aristocrats, yes sir. If it wasn’t for us, you wouldn’t enjoy half the little luxuries you do. Oh, don’t believe me — talk to your experts. They know that, without the migratory worker, most of the crops wouldn’t get harvested. And, if I talk highfalutin’ once in a while, don’t blame me. Associating with the Professor improves any man’s vocabulary, in spite of themselves.

There was the four of us, see? We’d been kicking around together for longer than I care to think about. There was the Professor and Dirty Pete and Sacks and Eddie. I’m Eddie. Nicknames are funny things. Take the Professor—he was a real professor once, until he began hitting the bottle. Well, he lost his job, his home, his family, and his rep.

One morning, he wakes up on Skid Row without a nickel in his jeans and the great-granddaddy of all hangovers. He comes to a decision. Either he could make a man out of hisself, or he could die. Right then, dying looked like the easiest thing to do, but it took more guts that he had to jump off a bridge, so he went on the Road instead.

After he got over his shakes — and he sure had ’em bad — he decided that, if he never took another drink, it’d be the best thing for him. So he didn’t. He had a kind of dignity, though, and he could really talk, so he and I teamed up during the wheat harvest in South Dakota. We made all the stops and, when we hit the peaches in California we picked up Sacks and Dirty Pete.

Sacks got his monicker because he never wore shoes. He claimed that gunny-sacks, wrapped around his feet and shins, gave as much protection and more freedom, and they were more comfortable, besides costing nix. Since we mostly bought our shoes at the dumps, at four bits a pair, you might say he was stretching a point, but that’s one of the laws of the Road. You don’t step on the other guy’s corns, and he don’t step on yours.

So guess why Dirty Pete was called that. Yeah. He hadn’t taken a bath since ‘forty-six, when he got out of the army, and he didn’t figure on ever takin’ another. He was a damn’ good worker, though, and nobody’d ever try anything with him around. He wasn’t any bigger than a Mack truck. Besides, he was quiet.

Oh, sure. You wanna know why I’m on the Road. Well, it happens I like whiskers. Trouble is, they’re not fashionable, unless you’re some kind of an artist, which I’m not. You know, social disapproval. I didn’t have the guts to face it, so I lit out. Nobody cares on the Road what you do, so I was okay with my belt-length beard.

A beard’s an enjoyable thing, too. There’s a certain kind of thrill you get from stroking it, and feeling its silkiness run through your fingers. And besides, combing it, and keeping it free of burrs, snarls and tangles, sort of keeps your spare moments so full that the devil don’t find any idle time to put your hands to work in. If you ask me, I think that the razor has been the downfall of society. And I’m willing to bet I have plenty of company with the same opinion.

Show me a man who doesn’t let his beard grow once in a while, even if it’s only for a day or so, and you’ve shown me a man who thinks more of social pressure than he does of his own comfort. And show me a man who says he likes to shave, and you’ve shown me a man who is either a liar or is asking for punishment.

That’s enough about us. Now to get on with the story. You know, if the Professor hadn’t been around, there would probably have been murder done over the Thing, or at least our little group would’ve split up, ’cause none of us had the brains to figure it out.

Pete’s an expert scrounger. His eyes are sharp, and he’s always on the lookout for a salable piece of goods, even if he can only get a nickel for it. One night, we’re sitting in a jungle near Sacramento, trying to figure out whether to go north for the grapes, or south for the grapes. They’re all over California, you know, and they pay pretty well.

Pete, as usual, is out looking, and pretty soon he comes back into camp with this thing in his hand. He handles it like it was hot, but he’s pleased he’s found it, because he hopes to merchandise it. So he walks up to me, and says, “Hey, Eddie. What’ll you gimme for this, huh?”

I say, “Get that to hell away from me! I’ll give you a swift kick in the pants if you don’t.”

He looks real surprised. He says, “Huh, I thought maybe you could use it.”

I get up on my feet. I say, real low and careful, because maybe he’s joking, “Look, Pete — you oughtta know by this time, I like my beard. Now will you go away?”

He mooches off, looking like I’d kicked him, and goes over to the Professor. I figure maybe the Professor could use it, so I listen. The Prof looks like he was being offered a live rattlesnake.

“No, thanks, really, Pete. I have resolved never to touch it again. I hope you don’t mind.”

Well, for some reason Pete don’t look pleased, and he’s real unhappy by this time, but he tries again.

“Hey, Sacks, what’ll you gimme for –”

He don’t get a chance to finish. I’m only listening with half an ear, but I’m so surprised I stand up like I been stuck with a pin. Sacks says, “Whatinell would I do with a left shoe? You know I don’t use ’em.”

Pete looks at the thing in his hand, and the Prof and I go over there.

The Professor looks at the thing real carefully and speaks up. “Say, Pete, look at that thing and tell me what it is.”

“Why, it’s a brand new bar of soap, of course. I don’t use it, but one of you might want to. What’s all the beef about?”

“Soap?” I say. “Why, you poor fish, something must have happened to your eyes. When you offered me that straight razor, I thought you’d gone off your nut. Now I know it.”

The Professor interrupts. He looks excited. “Wait a minute, Eddie. To me that item looks exactly like a full fifth of Old Harvester, 100 proof. Used to be my favorite, before I became an abstainer. To Pete, it looks like soap. To you, it looks like a straight razor while, to Sacks, it resembles a shoe. Does that give you any ideas?”

“Means we’re all having hallucinations,” I grunts.

“Exactly. Pete, was there anything else in the location where you found this thing?”

“Nothing but some scrap tin.”

“Show us.”

So, the four of us wanders across the field and, sure enough, there was this silly-looking object lying there. It was about eighteen or twenty feet across, and two feet thick, and I nearly made a fool of myself. I almost screamed when I saw six straight razors crawling out of a hole in its side.

The Professor whistled. “Grab them, boys. We want them.”

Well, Sacks sacrifices one of his sacks, and we rounded up fifteen of the useless things. We went back to the jungle, where the Prof explained it.

“Look, fellows, suppose you were a being from another planet that wanted to take over here. Suppose, further, that you were rather small and relatively defenseless. To finish the suppositions, suppose you were a positive telepath, with not only the ability to read minds, but also the ability to create visual and tactile hallucinations. How would you protect yourself?”

A light began to dawn, but I didn’t say a word about it.

The Professor continued. “If you could do all this, you’d make yourself look just as useless as possible. To Pete, you’d look like a bar of soap, because he never uses the stuff. To Sacks, you’d look like a shoe, because his dislike for shoes is evident in his mind. To Eddie, who is proud of his beard, you’d look like a razor, while to me, you’d look like a bottle of booze, because I dislike its effects intensely. In other words, you would assume an imposture that would assure you’d never be picked up, except by someone like Pete, who would see in you a salable item, even though not a usable one. It may be, Pete, that you have saved the world.”

So, that’s the story. We’re all still on the Road, of course, but now we are the “Commission for the Investigation of Extraterrestrial Invasion.” Congress named us as that, when we got the data to them.

Now, Mr. Mayor, you see our problem. Have your citizens seen anything around that they don’t want? If they have, we want to look at it.

ashman-illustration

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by William Ashman.

 

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A. E. van Vogt (1912-2000) was a familiar name during the Golden Age of science fiction. He was born in Canada, began writing science fiction in his mid-20s, and moved to Hollywood.

Van Vogt was known for intricate, complex stories with abrupt and sometimes illogical plot changes. Many critics and fellow writers admired his work, but others found it lacking in the “science” part of science fiction.

One reviewer of a 1957 van Vogt novel wrote, “If you can only throw your reasoning power out of gear — something many van Vogt fans find easy to do — you’ll enjoy this one.”

If his work had a dreamy and somewhat fuzzy quality, the reason seems pretty obvious: van Vogt said many of his story ideas came from dreams. Each night, he arranged to be awakened every 90 minutes so he could write down his dreams.

The short story below is one of van Vogt’s early efforts.

————

Dear Pen Pal

By A. E. van Vogt
Published in The Arkham Sampler, Winter 1949

Planet Aurigae II
DEAR PEN PAL:

When I first received your letter from the interstellar correspondence club, my impulse was to ignore it. The mood of one who has spent the last seventy planetary periods — years I suppose you would call them — in an Aurigaen prison, does not make for a pleasant exchange of letters. However, life is very boring, and so I finally settled myself to the task of writing you.

Your description of Earth sounds exciting. I would like to live there for a while, and I have a suggestion in this connection, but I won’t mention it till I have developed it further.

You will have noticed the material on which this letter is written. It is a highly sensitive metal, very thin, very flexible, and I have enclosed several sheets of it for your use. Tungsten dipped in any strong acid makes an excellent mark on it. It is important to me that you do write on it, as my fingers are too hot — literally — to hold your paper without damaging it.

I’ll say no more just now. It is possible you will not care to correspond with a convicted criminal, and therefore I shall leave the next move up to you. Thank you for your letter. Though you did not know its destination, it brought a moment of cheer into my drab life.

SKANDER.

###

Aurigae II
DEAR PEN PAL:

Your prompt reply to my letter made me happy. I am sorry your doctor thought it excited you too much, and sorry, also, if I have described my predicament in such a way as to make you feel badly. I welcome your many questions, and I shall try to answer them all.

You say the international correspondence club has no record of having sent any letters to Aurigae. That, according to them, the temperature on the second planet of the Aurigae sun is more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit. And that life is not known to exist there. Your club is right about the temperature and the letters. We have what your people would call a hot climate, but then we are not a hydrocarbon form of life, and find 500 degrees very pleasant.

I must apologize for deceiving you about the way your first letter was sent to me. I didn’t want to frighten you away by telling you too much at once. After all, I could not be expected to know that you would be enthusiastic to hear from me.

The truth is that I am a scientist, and, along with the other members of my race, I have known for some centuries that there were other inhabited systems in the galaxy. Since I am allowed to experiment in my spare hours, I amused myself in attempts at communication. I have developed several simple systems for breaking in on galactic communication operations, but it was not until I developed a sub-spacewave control that I was able to draw your letter (along with several others, which I did not answer) into a cold chamber.

I use the cold chamber as both sending and receiving center, and since you were kind enough to use the material which I sent you, it was easy for me to locate your second letter among the mass of mail that accumulated at the nearest headquarters of the interstellar correspondence club.

How did I learn your language? After all, it is a simple one, particularly the written language seems easy. I had no difficulty with it. If you are still interested in writing me, I shall be happy to continue the correspondence.

SKANDER.

###

Aurigae II
DEAR PEN PAL:

Your enthusiasm is refreshing. You say that I failed to answer your question about how I expected to visit Earth. I confess I deliberately ignored the question, as my experiment had not yet proceeded far enough. I want you to bear with me a short time longer, and then I will be able to give you the details.

You are right in saying that it would be difficult for a being who lives at a temperature of 500 degrees Fahrenheit to mingle freely with the people of Earth. This was never my intention, so please relieve your mind. However, let us drop that subject for the time being.

I appreciate the delicate way in which you approach the subject of my imprisonment. But it is quite unnecessary. I performed forbidden experiments upon my body in a way that was deemed to be dangerous to the public welfare.

For instance, among other things, I once lowered my surface temperature to 150 degrees Fahrenheit, and so shortened the radio-active cycle-time of my surroundings. This caused an unexpected break in the normal person-to-person energy flow in the city where I lived, and so charges were laid against me. I have thirty more years to serve. It would be pleasant to leave my body behind and tour the universe — but as I said I’ll discuss that later.

I wouldn’t say that we’re a superior race. We have certain qualities which apparently your people do not have. We live longer, not because of any discoveries we’ve made about ourselves, but because our bodies are built of a more enduring element — I don’t know your name for it, but the atomic weight is 52.9 ? ?.*

Our scientific discoveries are of the kind that would normally be made by a race with our kind of physical structure. The fact that we can work with temperatures of as high as — I don’t know just how to put that — has been very helpful in the development of the subspace energies which are extremely hot, and require delicate adjustments. In the later stages these adjustments can be made by machinery, but in the development the work must be done by ’hand’ — I put the word in quotes, because we have no hands in the same way that you have.

I am enclosing a photographic plate, properly cooled and chemicalized for your climate. I wonder if you would set it up and take a picture of yourself. All you have to do is arrange it properly on the basis of the laws of light — that is, light travels in straight lines, so stand in front of it — and when you are ready think ’Ready!’ The picture will be automatically taken.

Would you do this for me? If you are interested, I will also send you a picture of myself, though I must warn you. My appearance will probably shock you.

Sincerely,

SKANDER.

* A radioactive isotope of chromium. — Author’s Note.

###

Planet Aurigae II
DEAR PEN PAL:

Just a brief note in answer to your question. It is not necessary to put the plate into a camera. You describe this as a dark box. The plate will take the picture when you think, ’Ready!’ I assure you it will be flooded with light.

SKANDER.

###

Aurigae II
DEAR PEN PAL:

You say that while you were waiting for the answer to my last letter you showed the photographic plate to one of the doctors at the hospital — I cannot picture what you mean by doctor or hospital, but let that pass — and he took the problem up with government authorities. Problem? I don’t understand. I thought we were having a pleasant correspondence, private and personal.

I shall certainly appreciate your sending that picture of yourself.

SKANDER.

###

Aurigae II
DEAR PEN PAL:

I assure you I am not annoyed at your action. It merely puzzled me, and I am sorry the plate has not been returned to you. Knowing what governments are, I can imagine that it will not be returned to you for some time, so I am taking the liberty of enclosing another plate.

I cannot imagine why you should have been warned against continuing this correspondence. What do they expect me to do? — eat you up at long distance? I’m sorry but I don’t like hydrogen in my diet.

In any event, I would like your picture as a memento of our friendship, and I will send mine as soon as I have received yours. You may keep it or throw it away, or give it to your governmental authorities — but at least I will have the knowledge that I’ve given a fair exchange.

With all best wishes,

SKANDER.

###

Aurigae II
DEAR PEN PAL:

Your last letter was so slow in coming that I thought you had decided to break off the correspondence. I was sorry to notice that you failed to enclose the photograph, puzzled by your reference to having a relapse, and cheered by your statement that you would send it along as soon as you felt better — whatever that means. However, the important thing is that you did write, and I respect the philosophy of your club which asks its members not to write of pessimistic matters.

We all have our own problems which we regard as overshadowing the problems of others. Here I am in prison, doomed to spend the next 30 years tucked away from the main stream of life. Even the thought is hard on my restless spirit, though I know I have a long life ahead of me after my release.

In spite of your friendly letter, I won’t feel that you have completely re-established contact with me until you send the photograph.

Yours in expectation,

SKANDER

###

Aurigae II
DEAR PEN PAL:

The photograph arrived. As you suggest, your appearance startled me. From your description I thought I had mentally reconstructed your body. It just goes to show that words cannot really describe an object which has never been seen.

You’ll notice that I’ve enclosed a photograph of myself, as I promised I would. Chunky, Metallic-looking chap, am I not, very different, I’ll wager, than you expected? The various races with whom we have communicated become wary of us when they discover we are highly radio-active, and that literally we are a radio-active form of life, the only such (that we know of) in the universe. It’s been very trying to be so isolated and, as you know, I have occasionally mentioned that I had hopes of escaping not only the deadly imprisonment to which I am being subjected but also the body which cannot escape.

Perhaps you’ll be interested in hearing how far this idea has developed. The problem involved is one of exchange of personalities with someone else. Actually, it is not really an exchange in the accepted meaning of the word. It is necessary to get an impression of both individuals, of their mind and of their thoughts as well as their bodies. Since this phase is purely mechanical, it is simply a matter of taking complete photographs and of exchanging them.

By complete I mean of course every vibration must be registered. The next step is to make sure the two photographs are exchanged, that is, that each party has somewhere near him a complete photograph of the other. (It is already too late, Pen Pal. I have set in motion the subspace energy interflow between the two plates, so you might as well read on). As I have said it is not exactly an exchange of personalities. The original personality in each individual is suppressed, literally pushed back out of the consciousness, and the image personality from the ’photographic’ plate replaces it.

You will take with you a complete memory of your life on Earth, and I will take along memory of my life on Aurigae. Simultaneously, the memory of the receiving body will be blurrily at our disposal. A part of us will always be pushing up, striving to regain consciousness, but always lacking the strength to succeed.

As soon as I grow tired of Earth, I will exchange bodies in the same way with a member of some other race. Thirty years hence, I will be happy to reclaim my body, and you can then have whatever body I last happened to occupy.

This should be a very happy arrangement for us both. You, with your short life expectancy, will have outlived all your contemporaries and will have had an interesting experience. I admit I expect to have the better of the exchange — but now, enough of explanation. By the time you reach this part of the letter it will be me reading it, not you. But if any part of you is still aware, so long for now, Pen Pal. It’s been nice having all those letters from you. I shall write you from time to time to let you know how things are going with my tour.

SKANDER.

###

Aurigae II
DEAR PEN PAL:

Thanks a lot for forcing the issue. For a long time I hesitated about letting you play such a trick on yourself. You see, the government scientists analyzed the nature of that first photographic plate you sent me, and so the final decision was really up to me. I decided that anyone as eager as you were to put one over should be allowed to succeed.

Now I know I don’t have to feel sorry for you. Your plan to conquer Earth wouldn’t have got anywhere, but the fact that you had the idea ends the need for sympathy.
By this time you will have realized for yourself that a man who has been paralyzed since birth, and is subject to heart attacks, cannot expect a long life span.

I am happy to tell you that your once lonely pen pal is enjoying himself, and I am happy to sign myself with a name to which I expect to become accustomed.

With best wishes,

SKANDER.

dear-pen-pal

 

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Richard Matheson (1926-2013), the award-winning author and screenwriter, produced some of the best-known sci-fi, fantasy, and horror stories of our time.

Films based on his works include “I Am Legend,” “Stir of Echoes,” “Somewhere in Time,” “The Legend of Hell House,” “What Dreams May Come,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” and “Duel.” He wrote episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery.” He wrote dozens of short stories, including some westerns.

The short story below, written when Matheson was 22, was his first professional sale, and it made him famous.

Be warned, it’s a horror story and shocking to read, and you won’t forget it.

————

Born Of Man And Woman

By Richard Matheson
Published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Summer 1950

X — This day when it had light mother called me retch. You retch she said. I saw in her eyes the anger. I wonder what it is a retch.

This day it had water falling from upstairs. It fell all around. I saw that. The ground of the back I watched from the little window. The ground it sucked up the water like thirsty lips. It drank too much and it got sick and runny brown. I didnt like it.

Mother is a pretty I know. In my bed place with cold walls around I have a paper things that was behind the furnace. It says on it SCREENSTARS. I see in the pictures faces like of mother and father. Father says they are pretty. Once he said it.

And also mother he said. Mother so pretty and me decent enough. Look at you he said and didnt have the nice face. I touched his arm and said it is alright father. He shook and pulled away where I couldn’t reach.

Today mother let me off the chain a little so I could look out the little window. Thats how l saw the water falling from upstairs.

XX — This day it had goldness in the upstairs. As I know when I looked at it my eyes hurt. After I look at it the cellar is red.

I think this was church. They leave the upstairs. The big machine swallows them and rolls out past and is gone. In the back part is the little mother. She is much small than me. I am I can see out the little window all I like.

In this day when it got dark I had eat my food and some bugs. I hear laughs upstairs. I like to know why there are laughs for. I took the chain from the wall and wrapped it around me. I walked squish to the stairs. They creak when I walk on them. My legs slip on them because I dont walk on stairs. My feet stick to the wood.

I went up and opened a door. It was a white place. White as white jewels that come from upstairs sometime. I went in and stood quiet. I hear the laughing some more. I talk to the sound and look through to the people. More people than I thought was. I thought I should laugh with them.

Mother came out and pushed the door in. It hit me and hurt. I fell back on the smooth floor and the chain made noise. I cried. She made a hissing noise into her and put her hand on her mouth. Her eyes got big.

She looked at me. I heard father call. What fell he called. She said a iron board. Come help pick it up she said. He came and said now is that so heavy you need. He saw me and grew big. The anger came in his eyes. He hit me. I spilled some of the drip on the floor from one arm. It was not nice. It made ugly green on the floor.

Father told me to go to the cellar. I had to go. The light it hurt some now in my eyes. It is not so like that in the cellar.

Father tied my legs and arms up. He put me on my bed. Upstairs I heard laughing while I was quiet there looking on a black spider that was swinging down to me. I thought what father said. Ohgod he said. And only eight.

XXX — This day father hit in the chain again before it had light. I have to try pull it out again. He said I was bad to come upstairs. He said never do that again or he would beat me hard. That hurts.

I hurt. I slept the day and rested my head against the cold wall. I thought of the white place upstairs.

XXXX — I got the chain from the wall out. Mother was upstairs. I heard little laughs very high. I looked out the window. I saw all little people like the little mother and little fathers too. They are pretty.

They were making nice noise and jumping around the ground. Their legs was moving hard. They are like mother and father. Mother says all right people look like they do.

One of the little fathers saw me. He pointed at the window. I let go and slid down the wall in the dark. I curled up as they would not see. I heard their talks by the window and foots running. Upstairs there was a door hitting. I heard the little mother call upstairs. I heard heavy steps and I rushed in my bed place. I hit the chain in the wall and lay down on my front.

I heard mother come down. Have you been at the window she said. I heard the anger. Stay away from the window. You have pulled the chain out again.

She took the stick and hit me with it. I didnt cry. I cant do that. But the drip ran all over the bed. She saw it and twisted away and made a noise. Oh mygodmygod she said why have you done this to me? I heard the stick go bounce on the stone floor. She ran upstairs. I slept the day.

XXXXX — This day it had water again. When mother was upstairs I heard the little one come slow down the steps. I hidded myself in the coal bin for mother would have anger if the little mother saw me.

She had a little live thing with her. It walked on the arms and had pointy ears. She said things to it.

It was all right except the live thing smelled me. It ran up the coal and looked down at me. The hairs stood up. In the throat it made an angry noise. I hissed but it jumped on me.

I didnt want to hurt it. I got fear because it bit me harder than the rat does. I hurt and the little mother screamed. I grabbed the live thing tight. It made sounds I never heard. I pushed it all together. It was all lumpy and red on the black coal.

I hid there when mother called. I was afraid of the stick. She left. I crept over the coal with the thing. I hid it under my pillow and rested on it. I put the chain in the wall again.

X — This is another times. Father chained me tight. I hurt because he beat me. This time I hit the stick out of his hands and made noise. He went away and his face was white. He ran out of my bed place and locked the door.

I am not so glad. All day it is cold in here. The chain comes slow out of the wall. And I have a bad anger with mother and father. I will show them. I will do what I did that once.

I will screech and laugh loud. I will run on the walls. Last I will hang head down by all my legs and laugh and drip green all over until they are sorry they didn’t be nice to me.

If they try to beat me again Ill hurt them. I will.

chained

 

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Fantasy writer Karen Anderson is the widow of noted sci-fi author Poul Anderson (1926-2001). Both Andersons were prolific writers, and over the years, they collaborated on a variety of fantasy and historical novels.

Poul (pronounced Pole) held a B.A. in physics, and his work was noted for scientific detail and accuracy; Karen was more drawn to fantasy and myth, as the charming short story below reflects.

Join young Johnny as he tames a wild hippogriff and explores beyond the edge of the world.

—————

The Piebald Hippogriff

By Karen Anderson
Published in Fantastic Stories of Imagination, May 1962

The edge of the world is fenced off stoutly enough, but the fence isn’t made that will stop a boy. Johnny tossed his pack and coil of rope over it and started climbing. The top three strands were barbed wire. He caught his shirt as he went over, and had to stop for a moment to ease himself off. Then he dropped lightly to the grass on the other side.

The pack had landed in a clump of white clover. A cloud of disturbed bees hung above, and he snatched it away quickly lest they should notice the honeycomb inside.

For a minute he stood still, looking out over the edge. This was different from looking through the fence, and when he moved it was slowly. He eased himself to the ground where a corner of rock rose clear of the thick larkspur and lay on his belly, the stone hard and cool under his chin, and looked down.

The granite cliff curved away out of sight, and he couldn’t see if it had a foot. He saw only endless blue, beyond, below, and on both sides. Clouds passed slowly.

Directly beneath him there was a ledge covered with long grass where clusters of stars bloomed on tall, slender stalks.

He uncoiled his rope and found a stout beech tree not too close to the edge. Doubling the rope around the bole, he tied one end around his waist, slung the pack on his back, and belayed himself down the cliff. Pebbles clattered, saxifrage brushed his arms and tickled his ears; once he groped for a hold with his face in a patch of rustling ferns.

The climb was hard, but not too much. Less than half an hour later he was stretched out on the grass with stars nodding about him. They had a sharp, gingery smell. He lay in the cool shadow of the world’s edge for a while, eating apples and honeycomb from his pack. When he was finished he licked the honey off his fingers and threw the apple cores over, watching them fall into the blue.

Little islands floated along, rocking gently in air eddies. Sunlight flashed on glossy leaves of bushes growing there. When an island drifted into the shadow of the cliff, the blossoming stars shone out. Beyond the shadows, deep in the light-filled gulf, he saw the hippogriffs at play.

###

There were dozens of them, frisking and cavorting in the air. He gazed at them full of wonder. They pretended to fight, stooped at one another, soared off in long spirals to stoop and soar and stoop again. One flashed by him, a golden palomino that shone like polished wood. The wind whistled in its wings.

Away to the left, the cliff fell back in a wide crescent, and nearly opposite him a river tumbled over the edge. A pool on a ledge beneath caught most of the water, and there were hippogriffs drinking. One side of the broad pool was notched. The overflow fell sheer in a white plume blown sideways by the wind.

As the sun grew hotter, the hippogriffs began to settle and browse on the islands that floated past. Not far below, he noticed, a dozen or so stood drowsily on an island that was floating through the cliff’s shadow toward his ledge. It would pass directly below him.

With a sudden resolution, Johnny jerked his rope down from the tree above and tied the end to a projecting knob on the cliff. Slinging on his pack again, he slid over the edge and down the rope.

The island was already passing. The end of the rope trailed through the grass. He slithered down and cut a piece off his line.

It was barely long enough after he had tied a noose in the end. He looked around at the hippogriffs. They had shied away when he dropped onto the island, but now they stood still, watching him warily.

Johnny started to take an apple out of his pack, then changed his mind and took a piece of honeycomb. He broke off one corner and tossed it toward them. They fluttered their wings and backed off a few steps, then stood still again.

Johnny sat down to wait. They were mostly chestnuts and blacks, and some had white stockings. One was piebald. That was the one which, after a while, began edging closer to where the honeycomb had fallen. Johnny sat very still.

###

The piebald sniffed at the honeycomb, then jerked up its head to watch him suspiciously. He didn’t move. After a moment it took the honeycomb.

When he threw another bit, the piebald hippogriff wheeled away, but returned almost at once and ate it. Johnny tossed a third piece only a few yards from where he was sitting.

It was bigger than the others, and the hippogriff had to bite it in two. When the hippogriff bent its head to take the rest Johnny was on his feet instantly, swinging his lariat. He dropped the noose over the hippogriff’s head. For a moment the animal was too startled to do anything; then Johnny was on its back, clinging tight.

The piebald hippogriff leaped into the air, and Johnny clamped his legs about convulsed muscles. Pinions whipped against his knees and wind blasted his eyes. The world tilted; they were rushing downward. His knees pressed the sockets of the enormous wings.

The distant ramparts of the world swung madly, and he seemed to fall upward, away from the sun that suddenly glared under the hippogriff’s talons. He forced his knees under the roots of the beating wings and dug heels into prickling hair. A sob caught his breath and he clenched his teeth.

The universe righted itself about him for a moment and he pulled breath into his lungs. Then they plunged again. Wind searched under his shirt. Once he looked down. After that he kept his eyes on the flutter of the feather-mane.

###

A jolt sent him sliding backward. He clutched the rope with slippery fingers. The wings missed a beat and the hippogriff shook its head as the rope momentarily checked its breath. It tried to fly straight up, lost way, and fell stiff-winged. The long muscles stretched under him as it arched its back, then bunched when it kicked straight out behind. The violence loosened his knees and he trembled with fatigue, but he wound the rope around his wrists and pressed his forehead against whitened knuckles. Another kick, and another. Johnny dragged at the rope.

The tense wings flailed, caught air, and brought the hippogriff upright again. The rope slackened and he heard huge gasps. Sunlight was hot on him again and a drop of sweat crawled down his temple. It tickled. He loosened one hand to dab at the annoyance. A new twist sent him sliding and he grabbed the rope. The tickle continued until he nearly screamed. He no longer dared let go. Another tickle developed beside the first. He scrubbed his face against the coarse fibre of the rope; the relief was like a world conquered.

Then they glided in a steady spiral that carried them upward with scarcely a feather’s motion. When the next plunge came Johnny was ready for it and leaned back until the hippogriff arched its neck, trying to free itself from the pressure on its windpipe. Half choked, it glided again, and Johnny gave it breath.

They landed on one of the little islands. The hippogriff drooped its head and wings, trembling.

He took another piece of honeycomb from his pack and tossed it to the ground where the hippogriff could reach it easily. While it ate he stroked it and talked to it. When he dismounted the hippogriff took honeycomb from his hand. He stroked its neck, breathing the sweet warm feathery smell, and laughed aloud when it snuffled the back of his neck.

Tying the rope into a sort of hackamore, he mounted again and rode the hippogriff to the pool below the thunder and cold spray of the waterfall. He took care that it did not drink too much. When he ate some apples for his lunch, the hippogriff ate the cores.

Afterward he rode to one of the drifting islands and let his mount graze. For a while he kept by its side, making much of it. With his fingers, he combed out the soft flowing plumes of its mane, and examined its hoofs and the sickle-like talons of the forelegs. He saw how the smooth feathers on its forequarters became finer and finer until he could scarcely see where the hair on the hindquarters began. Delicate feathers covered its head.

The island glided further and further away from the cliffs, and he watched the waterfall dwindle away to a streak and disappear. After a while he fell asleep.

###

He woke with a start, suddenly cold: the setting sun was below his island. The feathery odor was still on his hands. He looked around for the hippogriff and saw it sniffing at his pack.

When it saw him move, it trotted up to him with an expectant air. He threw his arms about the great flat-muscled neck and pressed his face against the warm feathers, with a faint sense of embarrassment at feeling tears in his eyes.

“Good old Patch,” he said, and got his pack. He shared the last piece of honeycomb with his hippogriff and watched the sun sink still further. The clouds were turning red.

“Let’s go see those clouds,” Johnny said. He mounted the piebald hippogriff and they flew off, up through the golden air to the sunset clouds. There they stopped and Johnny dismounted on the highest cloud of all, stood there as it turned slowly gray, and looked into dimming depths. When he turned to look at the world, he saw only a wide smudge of darkness spread in the distance.

The cloud they were standing on turned silver. Johnny glanced up and saw the moon, a crescent shore far above.

He ate an apple and gave one to his hippogriff. While he chewed he gazed back at the world. When he finished his apple, he was about to toss the core to the hippogriff, but stopped himself and carefully took out the seeds first. With the seeds in his pocket, he mounted again.

He took a deep breath. “Come on, Patch,” he said. “Let’s homestead the moon.”

Piebald Hippogriff

Original illustration from Fantastic Stories of Imagination, artist unknown.

 

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The sci-fi short story below is the second I’ve posted by the late Robert F. Young. (The first, “Star Mother,” is a true gem.) Young was not a big-name author, but he was plenty talented. His stories are well crafted and enjoyable.

—————

Collector’s Item

By Robert F. Young
Published in Fantastic Universe, September 1956

The condensation of the histories of ten thousand races into a text concise enough to fit into a single volume had been a task of unprecedented proportions. There had been times when the Galactic Historian had doubted whether even his renowned abilities were up to the assignment that the Galactic Board of Education had so lightly tossed his way, times when he had thrown up his hands — all five of them — in despair. But at last the completed manuscript lay before him on his desk with nothing but the final reading remaining between it and publication.

The Galactic Historian repeatedly wiped his brows as he turned the pages. It was a warm night, even for Mixxx Seven. Now and then, a tired breeze struggled down from the hills and limped across the lowlands to the Galactic University buildings. It crept into the Galactic Historian’s study via the open door and out again via the open windows, fingering the manuscript each time it passed but doing nothing whatsoever about the temperature.

The manuscript was something more than a hammered-down history of galactic achievement. It was the ultimate document. The two and seventy thousand jarring texts that it summarized had been systematically destroyed, one by one, after the Galactic Historian had stripped them of their objective information. If an historical event was not included in the manuscript, it failed as an event. It ceased to have reality.

The responsibility was the Galactic Historian’s alone and he did not take it lightly. But he had a lot on his minds and, of late, he hadn’t been sleeping well. He was overworked and over-tired and over-anxious. He hadn’t seen his wives for two Mixxx months and he was worried about them — all fifty of them.

He never should have let them take the Hub cruise in the first place. But they’d been so enthusiastic and so eager that he simply hadn’t had the hearts to let them down. Now, despite his better judgments, he was beginning to wonder if they might not be on the make for another coordinator.

Wives trouble, on top of all his chronological trouble, was too much. The Galactic Historian could hardly be blamed for wanting to see the last of the manuscript, for wanting to transmit it to his publishers, potential hiatuses and all, and take the next warp for the Hub.

But he was an historian — the historian, in fact — and he persisted heroically in his task, rereading stale paragraphs and checking dreary dates, going over battles and conquests and invasions and interregnums. Despite his mood and despite the heat, the manuscript probably would have arrived at his publishers chronologically complete. So complete, in fact, that schoolteachers all over the galaxy would have gotten the textbook they had always wanted — a concise chronicle of everything that had ever happened since the explosion of the primeval atom, a history textbook that no other history textbook could contradict for the simple reason that there were no other history textbooks.

As it was, they got the textbook, but it did not contain everything that had ever happened. Not quite.

Two factors were responsible for the omission. The first was an oversight on the part of the Galactic Historian. With so much on his minds, he had forgotten to number the pages of the manuscript.

The second factor was the breeze.

The breeze was the ultimate archfiend and there can be no question as to its motivation. Nothing short of sheer malice could have caused it suddenly to remember its function after neglecting that function all evening.

All evening it had been tiptoeing down the hillsides and across the lowlands as though it was afraid of disturbing a single blade of grass or a single drooping leaf. And then, at the crucial moment, it huffed and puffed itself up into a little hurricane, charged down upon the Galactic University buildings and whooshed through the Galactic Historian’s study like a band of interstellar dervishes.

Unfortunately, the Galactic Historian had begun to wipe his brows at the very moment of the breeze’s entry. While the act was not a complicated one, it did consume time and monopolize attention. It is not surprising, therefore, that he failed to witness the theft. Neither is it surprising that he failed to notice afterwards that the page he had been checking was gone.

He was, as previously stated, overworked, over-tired, and over-anxious and, in such a state, even a Galactic Historian can skip a whole series of words and dates and never know the difference. A hiatus of twenty thousand years is hardly noticeable anyway. Galactically speaking, twenty thousand years is a mere wink in time.

The breeze didn’t carry the page very far. It simply whisked it through a convenient window, deposited it beneath a xixxix tree and then returned to the hills to rest. But the choice of a xixxix tree is highly significant and substantiates the malicious nature of the breeze’s act. If it had chosen a muu or a buxx tree instead, the Galactic Historian might have found the page in the morning when he took his constitutional through the university grounds.

However, since a xixxix tree was selected, no doubt whatever can remain as to the breeze’s basic motivation. Articles of a valuable nature just aren’t left beneath xixxix trees. Everybody knows that squixes live in xixxix trees and everybody knows that squixes are collectors. They collect all sorts of things, buttons and pins and twigs and pebbles — anything at all, in fact, that isn’t too big for them to pick up and carry into their xixxix tree houses.

They have been called less kind things than collectors. Thieves, for example, and scavengers. But collectors are what they really are. Collecting fulfills a basic need in their mammalian makeup; the possession of articles gives them a feeling of security. They love to surround their little furry bodies with all sorts of odds and ends, and their little arboreal houses are stuffed with everything you can think of.

And they simply adore paper. They adore it because it has a practical as well as a cultural value.
Specifically, they adore it because it is wonderful to make hammocks out of.

When the two squixes in the xixxix tree saw the page drift to the ground, they could hardly believe their eyes. They chittered excitedly as they skittered down the trunk. The page had hardly stopped fluttering before it was whisked aloft again, clenched in tiny squix fingers.

The squixes wasted no time. It had been a long while since the most cherished of all collector’s items had come their way and they needed a new hammock badly. First, they tore the page into strips, then they began to weave the strips together.

 — 1456, Gut. Bi. pr.; 1492, Am. dis.; 1945, at. b. ex. Almgdo.; 1971, mn. rchd., they wove.

 — 2004, Sir. rchd.; 2005-6, Sir. – E. wr.; 2042, Btlgs. rchd.; 2043-4, Btlgs. – E. wr.

They wove and wove and wove.

— 15,000, E. Emp. clpsd.; 15,038, E. dstryd.; Hist. E., end of.

It was a fine hammock, the best the two squixes had ever wove. But they didn’t sleep well that night. They twisted and turned and tossed, and they dreamed the most fantastic dreams —

Which isn’t particularly surprising, considering what they were sleeping on. Sleeping on the history of Earth would be enough to give anybody nightmares.

Even squixes.

Collector's Item

 

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“If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent Him.”

–Voltaire

————

In my last post, I featured “The Last Question,” a longish science fiction story by Isaac Asimov. It’s a tale of supercomputers, God, and the future of the universe.

The story below addresses the same subjects, but in the pithy style of the legendary Fredric Brown, master of the short-short story and the zinger ending.

Same plot, different story.

————

Answer

By Fredric Brown
Published in Angels and Spaceships, E.P. Dutton, 1954

Dwar Ev ceremoniously soldered the final connection with gold. The eyes of a dozen television cameras watched him and the subether bore throughout the universe a dozen pictures of what he was doing.

He straightened and nodded to Dwar Reyn, then moved to a position beside the switch that would complete the contact when he threw it. The switch that would connect, all at once, all of the monster computing machines of all the populated planets in the universe — ninety-six billion planets — into the supercircuit that would connect them all into one supercalculator, one cybernetics machine that would combine all the knowledge of all the galaxies.

Dwar Reyn spoke briefly to the watching and listening trillions. Then after a moment’s silence he said, “Now, Dwar Ev.”

Dwar Ev threw the switch. There was a mighty hum, the surge of power from ninety-six billion planets. Lights flashed and quieted along the miles-long panel.

Dwar Ev stepped back and drew a deep breath. “The honor of asking the first question is yours, Dwar Reyn.”

“Thank you,” said Dwar Reyn. “It shall be a question which no single cybernetics machine has been able to answer.”

He turned to face the machine. “Is there a God?”

The mighty voice answered without hesitation, without the clicking of a single relay.

“Yes, now there is a God.”

Sudden fear flashed on the face of Dwar Ev. He leaped to grab the switch.

A bolt of lightning from the cloudless sky struck him down and fused the switch shut.

Supercomputer

 

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When I post interesting short stories on this blog, I select them for brevity as well as quality; in this medium, a lengthy tale can get tedious.

The 1956 science fiction story “The Last Question” certainly isn’t brief, but I decided to feature it anyway. It’s original, thought-provoking, and well worth the time.

Later in his career, the author wrote this about “The Last Question”:

“This is by far my favorite story of all those I have written. After all, I undertook to tell several trillion years of human history in the space of a short story and I leave it to you as to how well I succeeded. I also undertook another task, but I won’t tell you what that was lest l spoil the story for you.

“It is a curious fact that innumerable readers have asked me if I wrote this story. They seem never to remember the title of the story or (for sure) the author, except for the vague thought it might be me. But, of course, they never forget the story itself, especially the ending. The idea seems to drown out everything — and I’m satisfied that it should.”

———

The Last Question

By Isaac Asimov
Published in Science Fiction Quarterly, November 1956

The last question was asked for the first time, half in jest, on May 21, 2061, at a time when humanity first stepped into the light. The question came about as a result of a five-dollar bet over highballs, and it happened this way:

Alexander Adell and Bertram Lupov were two of the faithful attendants of Multivac. As well as any human beings could, they knew what lay behind the cold, clicking, flashing face — miles and miles of face — of that giant computer. They had at least a vague notion of the general plan of relays and circuits that had long since grown past the point where any single human could possibly have a firm grasp of the whole.

Multivac was self-adjusting and self-correcting. It had to be, for nothing human could adjust and correct it quickly enough or even adequately enough. So Adell and Lupov attended the monstrous giant only lightly and superficially, yet as well as any men could. They fed it data, adjusted questions to its needs and translated the answers that were issued. Certainly they, and all others like them, were fully entitled to share in the glory that was Multivac’s.

For decades, Multivac had helped design the ships and plot the trajectories that enabled man to reach the Moon, Mars, and Venus, but past that, Earth’s poor resources could not support the ships. Too much energy was needed for the long trips. Earth exploited its coal and uranium with increasing efficiency, but there was only so much of both.

But slowly Multivac learned enough to answer deeper questions more fundamentally, and on May 14, 2061, what had been theory, became fact.

The energy of the sun was stored, converted, and utilized directly on a planet-wide scale. All Earth turned off its burning coal, its fissioning uranium, and flipped the switch that connected all of it to a small station, one mile in diameter, circling the Earth at half the distance of the Moon. All Earth ran by invisible beams of sunpower.

Seven days had not sufficed to dim the glory of it and Adell and Lupov finally managed to escape from the public functions, and to meet in quiet where no one would think of looking for them, in the deserted underground chambers, where portions of the mighty buried body of Multivac showed. Unattended, idling, sorting data with contented lazy clickings, Multivac, too, had earned its vacation and the boys appreciated that. They had no intention, originally, of disturbing it.

They had brought a bottle with them, and their only concern at the moment was to relax in the company of each other and the bottle.

“It’s amazing when you think of it,” said Adell. His broad face had lines of weariness in it, and he stirred his drink slowly with a glass rod, watching the cubes of ice slur clumsily about. “All the energy we can possibly ever use for free. Enough energy, if we wanted to draw on it, to melt all Earth into a big drop of impure liquid iron, and still never miss the energy so used. All the energy we could ever use, forever and forever and forever.”

Lupov cocked his head sideways. He had a trick of doing that when he wanted to be contrary, and he wanted to be contrary now, partly because he had had to carry the ice and glassware. “Not forever,” he said.

“Oh, hell, just about forever. Till the sun runs down, Bert.”

“That’s not forever.”

“All right, then. Billions and billions of years. Ten billion, maybe. Are you satisfied?”

Lupov put his fingers through his thinning hair as though to reassure himself that some
was still left and sipped gently at his own drink. “Ten billion years isn’t forever.”

“Well, it will last our time, won’t it?”

“So would the coal and uranium.”

“All right, but now we can hook up each individual spaceship to the Solar Station, and it
can go to Pluto and back a million times without ever worrying about fuel. You can’t do
that on coal and uranium. Ask Multivac, if you don’t believe me.”

“I don’t have to ask Multivac. I know that.”

“Then stop running down what Multivac’s done for us,” said Adell, blazing up, “It did all right.”

“Who says it didn’t? What I say is that a sun won’t last forever. That’s all I’m saying. We’re safe for ten billion years, but then what?” Lupov pointed a slightly shaky finger at the other. “And don’t say we’ll switch to another sun.”

There was silence for a while. Adell put his glass to his lips only occasionally, and Lupov’s eyes slowly closed. They rested.

Then Lupov’s eyes snapped open. “You’re thinking we’ll switch to another sun when ours is done, aren’t you?”

“I’m not thinking.”

“Sure you are. You’re weak on logic, that’s the trouble with you. You’re like the guy in the story who was caught in a sudden shower and who ran to a grove of trees and got under one. He wasn’t worried, you see, because he figured when one tree got wet through, he would just get under another one.”

“I get it,” said Adell. “Don’t shout. When the sun is done, the other stars will be gone, too.”

“Darn right they will,” muttered Lupov. “It all had a beginning in the original cosmic explosion, whatever that was, and it’ll all have an end when all the stars run down. Some run down faster than others. Hell, the giants won’t last a hundred million years. The sun will last ten billion years and maybe the dwarfs will last two hundred billion for all the good they are. But just give us a trillion years and everything will be dark. Entropy has to increase to maximum, that’s all.”

“I know all about entropy,” said Adell, standing on his dignity.

“The hell you do.”

“I know as much as you do.”

“Then you know everything’s got to run down someday.”

“All right. Who says they won’t?”

“You did, you poor sap. You said we had all the energy we needed, forever. You said ‘forever.’

It was Adell’s turn to be contrary. “Maybe we can build things up again someday,” he said.

“Never.”

“Why not? Someday.”

“Never.”

“Ask Multivac.”

“You ask Multivac. I dare you. Five dollars says it can’t be done.”

Adell was just drunk enough to try, just sober enough to be able to phrase the necessary symbols and operations into a question which, in words, might have corresponded to this: Will mankind one day without the net expenditure of energy be able to restore the sun to its full youthfulness even after it had died of old age?

Or maybe it could be put more simply like this: How can the net amount of entropy of the
universe be massively decreased?

Multivac fell dead and silent. The slow flashing of lights ceased, the distant sounds of clicking relays ended.

Then, just as the frightened technicians felt they could hold their breath no longer, there was a sudden springing to life of the teletype attached to that portion of Multivac. Five words were printed: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.

“No bet,” whispered Lupov. They left hurriedly.

By next morning, the two, plagued with throbbing head and cottony mouth, had forgotten the incident.

####

Jerrodd, Jerrodine, and Jerrodette I and II watched the starry picture in the visiplate change as the passage through hyperspace was completed in its non-time lapse. At once, the even powdering of stars gave way to the predominance of a single bright shining disk, the size of a marble, centered on the viewing-screen.

“That’s X-23,” said Jerrodd confidently. His thin hands clamped tightly behind his back and the knuckles whitened.

The little Jerrodettes, both girls, had experienced the hyperspace passage for the first time in their lives and were self-conscious over the momentary sensation of insideoutness. They buried their giggles and chased one another wildly about their mother, screaming,

“We’ve reached X-23 — we’ve reached X-23 — we’ve –”

“Quiet, children.” said Jerrodine sharply. “Are you sure, Jerrodd?”

“What is there to be but sure?” asked Jerrodd, glancing up at the bulge of featureless metal just under the ceiling. It ran the length of the room, disappearing through the wall at either end. It was as long as the ship.

Jerrodd scarcely knew a thing about the thick rod of metal except that it was called a Microvac, that one asked it questions if one wished; that if one did not it still had its task of guiding the ship to a preordered destination; of feeding on energies from the various Sub-galactic Power Stations;
of computing the equations for the hyperspatial jumps.

Jerrodd and his family had only to wait and live in the comfortable residence quarters of the ship. Someone had once told Jerrodd that the “ac” at the end of “Microvac” stood for ”automatic computer” in ancient English, but he was on the edge of forgetting even that.

Jerrodine’s eyes were moist as she watched the visiplate. “I can’t help it. I feel funny about leaving Earth.”

“Why, for Pete’s sake?” demanded Jerrodd. “We had nothing there. We’ll have everything on X-23. You won’t be alone. You won’t be a pioneer. There are over a million people on the planet already. Good Lord, our great-grandchildren will be looking for new worlds because X-23 will be overcrowded.”

Then, after a reflective pause, “I tell you, it’s a lucky thing the computers worked out interstellar travel the way the race is growing.”

“I know, I know,” said Jerrodine miserably.

“Jerrodette I said promptly, “Our Microvac is the best Microvac in the world.”

“I think so, too,” said Jerrodd, tousling her hair.

It was a nice feeling to have a Microvac of your own and Jerrodd was glad he was part of his generation and no other. In his father’s youth, the only computers had been tremendous machines taking up a hundred square miles of land. There was only one to a planet. Planetary ACs they were called. They had been growing in size steadily for a thousand years and then, all at once, came refinement. In place of transistors, had come molecular valves so that even the largest Planetary AC could be put into a space only half the volume of a spaceship.

Jerrodd felt uplifted, as he always did when he thought that his own personal Microvac was many times more complicated than the ancient and primitive Multivac that had first tamed the Sun, and almost as complicated as Earth’s Planetary AC (the largest) that had first solved the problem of hyperspatial travel and had made trips to the stars possible.

“So many stars, so many planets,” sighed Jerrodine, busy with her own thoughts. “I suppose families will be going out to new planets forever, the way we are now.”

“Not forever,” said Jerrodd, with a smile. “It will all stop someday, but not for billions of years. Many billions. Even the stars run down, you know. Entropy must increase.”

“What’s entropy, daddy?” shrilled Jerrodette II.

“Entropy, little sweet, is just a word which means the amount of running-down of the universe. Everything runs down, you know, like your little walkie-talkie robot, remember?”

“Can’t you just put in a new power-unit, like with my robot?”

“The stars are the power-units. dear. Once they’re gone, there are no more power-units.”

Jerrodette I at once set up a howl. “Don’t let them, daddy. Don’t let the stars run down.”

“Now look what you’ve done,” whispered Jerrodine, exasperated.

“How was I to know it would frighten them?” Jerrodd whispered back.

“Ask the Microvac,” wailed Jerrodette I. “Ask him how to turn the stars on again.”

“Go ahead,” said Jerrodine. “It will quiet them down.” (Jerrodette II was beginning to cry, also.)

Jerrodd shrugged. “Now, now, honeys. I’ll ask Microvac. Don’t worry, he’ll tell us.”

He asked the Microvac, adding quickly, “Print the answer.”

Jerrodd cupped the strip or thin cellufilm and said cheerfully, “See now, the Microvac
says it will take care of everything when the time comes so don’t worry.”

Jerrodine said, “And now, children, it’s time for bed. We’ll be in our new home soon.”

Jerrodd read the words on the cellufilm again before destroying it: INSUFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.

He shrugged and looked at the visiplate. X-23 was just ahead.

####

VJ-23X of Lameth stared into the black depths of the three-dimensional, small-scale map of the Galaxy and said, “Are we ridiculous, I wonder, in being so concerned about the matter?”

MQ-17J of Nicron shook his head. “I think not. You know the Galaxy will be filled in five years at the present rate of expansion.”

Both seemed in their early twenties, both were tall and perfectly formed.

“Still,” said VJ-23X, “I hesitate to submit a pessimistic report to the Galactic Council.”

“I wouldn’t consider any other kind of report. Stir them up a bit. We’ve got to stir them up.”

VJ-23X sighed. “Space is infinite. A hundred billion Galaxies are there for the taking. More.”

“A hundred billion is not infinite and it’s getting less infinite all the time. Consider! Twenty thousand years ago, mankind first solved the problem of utilizing stellar energy, and a few centuries later, interstellar travel became possible. It took mankind a million years to fill one small world and then only fifteen thousand years to fill the rest of the Galaxy. Now the population doubles every ten years — “

VJ-23X interrupted. “We can thank immortality for that.”

“Very well. Immortality exists and we have to take it into account. I admit it has its seamy side, this immortality. The Galactic AC has solved many problems for us, but in solving the problem of preventing old age and death, it has undone all its other solutions.”

“Yet you wouldn’t want to abandon life, I suppose.”

“Not at all,” snapped MQ-17J, softening it at once to, “Not yet. I’m by no means old enough. How old are you?”

“Two hundred twenty-three. And you?”

“I’m still under two hundred. –But to get back to my point. Population doubles every ten years. Once this Galaxy is filled, we’ll have filled another in ten years. Another ten years and we’ll have filled two more. Another decade, four more. In a hundred years, we’ll have filled a thousand Galaxies. In a thousand years, a million Galaxies. In ten thousand years,  the entire known universe. Then what?”

VJ-23X said, “As a side issue, there’s a problem of transportation. I wonder how many sunpower units it will take to move Galaxies of individuals from one Galaxy to the next.”

“A very good point. Already, mankind consumes two sunpower units per year.”

“Most of it’s wasted. After all, our own Galaxy alone pours out a thousand sunpower units a year and we only use two of those.”

“Granted, but even with a hundred per cent efficiency, we only stave off the end. Our energy requirements are going up in a geometric progression even faster than our population. We’ll run out of energy even sooner than we run out of Galaxies. A good point. A very good point.”

“We’ll just have to build new stars out of interstellar gas.”

“Or out of dissipated heat?” asked MQ-17J, sarcastically.

“There may be some way to reverse entropy. We ought to ask the Galactic AC.”

VJ-23X was not really serious, but MQ-17J pulled out his AC-contact from his pocket and placed it on the table before him.

“I’ve half a mind to,” he said. “It’s something the human race will have to face someday.”

He stared somberly at his small AC-contact. It was only two inches cubed and nothing in itself, but it was connected through hyperspace with the great Galactic AC that served all mankind. Hyperspace considered, it was an integral part of the Galactic AC.

MQ-17J paused to wonder if someday in his immortal life he would get to see the Galactic AC. It was on a little world of its own, a spider webbing of force-beams holding the matter within which surges of submesons took the place of the old clumsy molecular valves. Yet despite its sub-etheric workings, the Galactic AC was known to be a full thousand feet across.

MQ-17J asked suddenly of his AC-contact, “Can entropy ever be reversed?”

VJ-23X looked startled and said at once, “Oh, say, I didn’t really mean to have you ask that.”

“Why not?”

“We both know entropy can’t be reversed. You can’t turn smoke and ash back into a tree.”

“Do you have trees on your world?” asked MQ-17J.

The sound of the Galactic AC startled them into silence. Its voice came thin and beautiful out of the small AC-contact on the desk. It said: THERE IS INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.

VJ-23X said, “See!”

The two men thereupon returned to the question of the report they were to make to the Galactic Council.

####

Zee Prime’s mind spanned the new Galaxy with a faint interest in the countless twists of stars that powdered it. He had never seen this one before. Would he ever see them all? So many of them, each with its load of humanity. — But a load that was almost a dead weight. More and more, the real essence of men was to be found out here, in space.

Minds, not bodies! The immortal bodies remained back on the planets, in suspension over the eons. Sometimes they roused for material activity but that was growing rarer. Few new individuals were coming into existence to join the incredibly mighty throng, but what matter? There was little room in the Universe for new individuals.

Zee Prime was roused out of his reverie upon coming across the wispy tendrils of another mind.

“I am Zee Prime,” said Zee Prime. “And you?”

“I am Dee Sub Wun. Your Galaxy?”

“We call it only the Galaxy. And you?”

“We call ours the same. All men call their Galaxy their Galaxy and nothing more. Why not?”

“True. Since all Galaxies are the same.”

“Not all Galaxies. On one particular Galaxy the race of man must have originated. That makes it different.”

Zee Prime said, “On which one?”

“I cannot say. The Universal AC would know.”

“Shall we ask him? I am suddenly curious.”

Zee Prime’s perceptions broadened until the Galaxies themselves shrank and became a new, more diffuse powdering on a much larger background. So many hundreds of billions of them, all with their immortal beings, all carrying their load of intelligences with minds that drifted freely through space. And yet one of them was unique among them all in being the original Galaxy. One of them had, in its vague and distant past, a period when it was the only Galaxy populated by man.

Zee Prime was consumed with curiosity to see this Galaxy and he called out: “Universal AC! On which Galaxy did mankind originate?”

The Universal AC heard, for on every world and throughout space, it had its receptors ready, and each receptor led through hyperspace to some unknown point where the Universal AC kept itself aloof.

Zee Prime knew of only one man whose thoughts had penetrated within sensing distance of Universal AC, and he reported only a shining globe, two feet across, difficult to see.

“But how can that be all of Universal AC?” Zee Prime had asked.

“Most of it,” had been the answer, “is in hyperspace. In what form it is there I cannot imagine.”

Nor could anyone, for the day had long since passed, Zee Prime knew, when any man had any part of the making of a Universal AC. Each Universal AC designed and constructed its successor. Each, during its existence of a million years or more accumulated the necessary data to build a better and more intricate, more capable successor in which its own store of data and individuality would be submerged.

The Universal AC interrupted Zee Prime’s wandering thoughts, not with words, but with guidance. Zee Prime’s mentality was guided into the dim sea of Galaxies and one in particular enlarged into stars.

A thought came, infinitely distant, but infinitely clear. “THIS IS THE ORIGINAL GALAXY OF MAN.”

But it was the same after all, the same as any other, and Lee Prime stifled his disappointment.

Dee Sub Wun, whose mind had accompanied the other, said suddenly, “And is one of these stars the original star of Man?”

The Universal AC said, “MAN’S ORIGINAL STAR HAS GONE NOVA. IT IS A WHITE DWARF”

“Did the men upon it die?” asked Lee Prime, startled and without thinking.

The Universal AC said, “A NEW WORLD, AS IN SUCH CASES, WAS CONSTRUCTED FOR THEIR PHYSICAL BODIES IN TIME.”

“Yes, of course,” said Zee Prime, but a sense of loss overwhelmed him even so. His mind released its hold on the original Galaxy of Man, let it spring back and lose itself among the blurred pin points. He never wanted to see it again.

Dee Sub Wun said, “What is wrong?”

“The stars are dying. The original star is dead.”

“They must all die. Why not?”

“But when all energy is gone, our bodies will finally die, and you and I with them.”

“It will take billions of years.”

“I do not wish it to happen even after billions of years. Universal AC! How may stars be kept from dying?”

Dee Sub Wun said in amusement, “You’re asking how entropy might be reversed in direction.”

And the Universal AC answered: “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A
MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

Zee Prime’s thoughts fled back to his own Galaxy. He gave no further thought to Dee Sub Wun, whose body might be waiting on a Galaxy a trillion light-years away, or on the star next to Zee Prime’s own. It didn’t matter.

Unhappily, Zee Prime began collecting interstellar hydrogen out of which to build a small star of his own. If the stars must someday die, at least some could yet be built.

####

Man considered with himself, for in a way, Man, mentally, was one. He consisted of a trillion, trillion, trillion ageless bodies, each in its place, each resting quiet and incorruptible, each cared for by perfect automatons, equally incorruptible, while the minds of all the bodies freely melted one into the other, indistinguishable.

Man said, “The Universe is dying.”

Man looked about at the dimming Galaxies. The giant stars, spendthrifts, were gone long ago, back in the dimmest of the dim far past. Almost all stars were white dwarfs, fading to the end.

New stars had been built of the dust between the stars, some by natural processes, some by Man himself, and those were going, too. White dwarfs might yet be crashed together and of the mighty forces so released, new stars built, but only one star for every thousand white dwarfs destroyed, and those would come to an end, too.

Man said, “Carefully husbanded, as directed by the Cosmic AC, the energy that is even yet left in all the Universe will last for billions of years.”

“But even so,” said Man, “eventually it will all come to an end. However it may be husbanded, however stretched out, the energy once expended is gone and cannot be restored. Entropy must increase forever to the maximum.”

Man said, “Can entropy not be reversed? Let us ask the Cosmic AC.”

The Cosmic AC surrounded them but not in space. Not a fragment of it was in space. It was in hyperspace and made of something that was neither matter nor energy. The question of its size and nature no longer had meaning in any terms that Man could comprehend.

“Cosmic AC,” said Man, “how may entropy be reversed?”

The Cosmic AC said, “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

Man said, “Collect additional data.”

The Cosmic AC said, ‘I WILL DO SO. I HAVE BEEN DOING SO FOR A HUNDRED
BILLION YEARS. MY PREDECESSORS AND I HAVE BEEN ASKED THIS QUESTION MANY TIMES. ALL THE DATA I HAVE REMAINS INSUFFICIENT.”

“Will there come a time,” said Man, ‘when data will be sufficient or is the problem insoluble in all conceivable circumstances?”

The Cosmic AC said, “NO PROBLEM IS INSOLUBLE IN ALL CONCEIVABLE
CIRCUMSTANCES.”

Man said, “When will you have enough data to answer the question?”

The Cosmic AC said, “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

“Will you keep working on it?” asked Man.

The Cosmic AC said, “I WILL.”

Man said, “We shall wait.”

####

The stars and Galaxies died and snuffed out, and space grew black after ten trillion years of running down.

One by one Man fused with AC, each physical body losing its mental identity in a manner that was somehow not a loss but a gain.

Man’s last mind paused before fusion, looking over a space that included nothing but the dregs of one last dark star and nothing besides but incredibly thin matter, agitated randomly by the tag ends of heat wearing out, asymptotically, to the absolute zero.

Man said, “AC, is this the end? Can this chaos not be reversed into the Universe once more? Can that not be done?”

AC said, “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

Man’s last mind fused, and only AC existed — and that in hyperspace.

####

Matter and energy had ended and with it space and time. Even AC existed only for the sake of the one last question that it had never answered from the time a half-drunken computer technician ten trillion years before had asked the question of a computer that was to AC far less than was a man to Man.

All other questions had been answered, and until this last question was answered also, AC might not release his consciousness.

All collected data had come to a final end. Nothing was left to be collected.

But all collected data had yet to be completely correlated and put together in all possible relationships.

A timeless interval was spent in doing that.

And it came to pass that AC learned how to reverse the direction of entropy.

But there was now no man to whom AC might give the answer of the last question. No matter. The answer — by demonstration — would take care of that, too.

For another timeless interval, AC thought how best to do this. Carefully, AC organized the program.

The consciousness of AC encompassed all of what had once been a Universe and brooded over what was now Chaos. Step by step, it must be done.

And AC said, “LET THERE BE LIGHT!”

And there was light —

Insufficient data

 

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