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Planet Stories

Ray Bradbury

1950

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Title: Planet Stories (published 1940s-50s)

Author: Ray Bradbury (died 2012)

Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright (or any other copyright) on these publications were renewed.

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The Creatures That Time Forgot

Published Fall 1946, Planet Stories

Magazine cover

Mad, impossible world! Sun-blasted by day,
cold-wracked by night—and life condensed by
radiation into eight days! Sim eyed the
Ship—if he only dared reach it and
escape! ... but it was more than half an
hour distant—the limit of life itself!


I

During the night, Sim was born. He lay wailing upon the cold cave stones. His blood beat through him a thousand pulses each minute. He grew, steadily.

Into his mouth his mother with feverish hands put the food. The nightmare of living was begun. Almost instantly at birth his eyes grew alert, and then, without half understanding why, filled with bright, insistent terror. He gagged upon the food, choked and wailed. He looked about, blindly.

There was a thick fog. It cleared. The outlines of the cave appeared. And a man loomed up, insane and wild and terrible. A man with a dying face. Old, withered by winds, baked like adobe in the heat. The man was crouched in a far corner of the cave, his eyes whitening to one side of his face, listening to the far wind trumpeting up above on the frozen night planet.

Sim’s mother, trembling, now and again, staring at the man, fed Sim pebble-fruits, valley-grasses and ice-nipples broken from the cavern entrances, and eating, eliminating, eating again, he grew larger, larger.

The man in the corner of the cave was his father! The man’s eyes were all that was alive in his face. He held a crude stone dagger in his withered hands and his jaw hung loose and senseless.

Then, with a widening focus, Sim saw the old people sitting in the tunnel beyond this living quarter. And as he watched, they began to die.

Their agonies filled the cave. They melted like waxen images, their faces collapsed inward on their sharp bones, their teeth protruded. One minute their faces were mature, fairly smooth, alive, electric. The next minute a desiccation and burning away of their flesh occurred.

Sim thrashed in his mother’s grasp. She held him. “No, no,” she soothed him, quietly, earnestly, looking to see if this, too, would cause her husband to rise again.

With a soft swift padding of naked feet, Sim’s father ran across the cave. Sim’s mother screamed. Sim felt himself torn loose from her grasp. He fell upon the stones, rolling, shrieking with his new, moist lungs!

Image

With a soft padding of naked feet Sim’s father ran across the cave.

The webbed face of his father jerked over him, the knife was poised. It was like one of those prenatal nightmares he’d had while still in his mother’s flesh. In the next few blazing, impossible instants questions flicked through his brain. The knife was high, suspended, ready to destroy him. But the whole question of life in this cave, the dying people, the withering and the insanity, surged through Sim’s new, small head. How was it that he understood? A newborn child? Can a newborn child think, see, understand, interpret? No. It was wrong! It was impossible. Yet it was happening! To him. He had been alive an hour now. And in the next instant perhaps dead!

His mother flung herself upon the back of his father, and beat down the weapon. Sim caught the terrific backwash of emotion from both their conflicting minds. “Let me kill him!” shouted the father, breathing harshly, sobbingly. “What has he to live for?”

“No, no!” insisted the mother, and her body, frail and old as it was, stretched across the huge body of the father, tearing at his weapon. “He must live! There may be a future for him! He may live longer than us, and be young!”

The father fell back against a stone crib. Lying there, staring, eyes glittering, Sim saw another figure inside that stone crib. A girl-child, quietly feeding itself, moving its delicate hands to procure food. His sister.

The mother wrenched the dagger from her husband’s grasp, stood up, weeping and pushing back her cloud of stiffening gray hair. Her mouth trembled and jerked. “I’ll kill you!” she said, glaring down at her husband. “Leave my children alone.”

The old man spat tiredly, bitterly, and looked vacantly into the stone crib, at the little girl. “One-eighth of her life’s over, already,” he gasped. “And she doesn’t know it. What’s the use?”

As Sim watched, his own mother seemed to shift and take a tortured, smoke-like form. The thin bony face broke out into a maze of wrinkles. She was shaken with pain and had to sit by him, shuddering and cuddling the knife to her shriveled breasts. She, like the old people in the tunnel, was aging, dying.

Sim cried steadily. Everywhere he looked was horror. A mind came to meet his own. Instinctively he glanced toward the stone crib. Dark, his sister, returned his glance. Their minds brushed like straying fingers. He relaxed somewhat. He began to learn.

The father sighed, shut his lids down over his green eyes. “Feed the child,” he said, exhaustedly. “Hurry. It is almost dawn and it is our last day of living, woman. Feed him. Make him grow.”

Sim quieted, and images, out of the terror, floated to him.

This was a planet next to the sun. The nights burned with cold, the days were like torches of fire. It was a violent, impossible world. The people lived in the cliffs to escape the incredible ice and the day of flame. Only at dawn and sunset was the air breath-sweet, flower-strong, and then the cave peoples brought their children out into a stony, barren valley. At dawn the ice thawed into creeks and rivers, at sunset the day-fires died and cooled. In the intervals of even, livable temperature the people lived, ran, played, loved, free of the caverns; all life on the planet jumped, burst into life. Plants grew instantly, birds were flung like pellets across the sky. Smaller, legged animal life rushed frantically through the rocks; everything tried to get its living down in the brief hour of respite.

It was an unbearable planet. Sim understood this, a matter of hours after birth. Racial memory bloomed in him. He would live his entire life in the caves, with two hours a day outside. Here, in stone channels of air he would talk, talk incessantly with his people, sleep never, think, think and lie upon his back, dreaming; but never sleeping.

And he would live exactly eight days.


The violence of this thought evacuated his bowels. Eight days. Eight short days. It was wrong, impossible, but a fact. Even while in his mother’s flesh some racial knowledge had told him he was being formed rapidly, shaped and propelled out swiftly.

Birth was quick as a knife. Childhood was over in a flash. Adolescence was a sheet of lightning. Manhood was a dream, maturity a myth, old age an inescapably quick reality, death a swift certainty.

Eight days from now he’d stand half-blind, withering, dying, as his father now stood, staring uselessly at his own wife and child.

This day was an eighth part of his total life! He must enjoy every second of it. He must search his parents’ thoughts for knowledge.

Because in a few hours they’d be dead.

This was so impossibly unfair. Was this all of life? In his prenatal state hadn’t he dreamed of long lives, valleys not of blasted stone but green foliage and temperate clime? Yes! And if he’d dreamed then there must be truth in the visions. How could he seek and find the long life? Where? And how could he accomplish a life mission that huge and depressing in eight short, vanishing days?

How had his people gotten into such a condition?

As if at a button pressed, he saw an image. Metal seeds, blown across space from a distant green world, fighting with long flames, crashing on this bleak planet. From their shattered hulls tumble men and women.

When? Long ago. Ten thousand days. The crash victims hid in the cliffs from the sun. Fire, ice and floods washed away the wreckage of the huge metal seeds. The victims were shaped and beaten like iron upon a forge. Solar radiations drenched them. Their pulses quickened, two hundred, five hundred, a thousand beats a minute. Their skins thickened, their blood changed. Old age came rushing. Children were born in the caves. Swifter, swifter, swifter the process. Like all this world’s wild life, the men and women from the crash lived and died in a week, leaving children to do likewise.

So this is life, thought Sim. It was not spoken in his mind, for he knew no words, he knew only images, old memory, an awareness, a telepathy that could penetrate flesh, rock, metal. So I’m the five thousandth in a long line of futile sons? What can I do to save myself from dying eight days from now? Is there escape?

His eyes widened, another image came to focus.

Beyond this valley of cliffs, on a low mountain lay a perfect, unscarred metal seed. A metal ship, not rusted or touched by the avalanches. The ship was deserted, whole, intact. It was the only ship of all these that had crashed that was still a unit, still usable. But it was so far away. There was no one in it to help. This ship, then, on the far mountain, was the destiny toward which he would grow. There was his only hope of escape.

His mind flexed.

In this cliff, deep down in a confinement of solitude, worked a handful of scientists. To these men, when he was old enough and wise enough, he must go. They, too, dreamed of escape, of long life, of green valleys and temperate weathers. They, too, stared longingly at that distant ship upon its high mountain, its metal so perfect it did not rust or age.

The cliff groaned.

Sim’s father lifted his eroded, lifeless face.

“Dawn’s coming,” he said.


II

Morning relaxed the mighty granite cliff muscles. It was the time of the Avalanche.

The tunnels echoed to running bare feet. Adults, children pushed with eager, hungry eyes toward the outside dawn. From far out, Sim heard a rumble of rock, a scream, a silence. Avalanches fell into valley. Stones that had been biding their time, not quite ready to fall, for a million years let go their bulks, and where they had begun their journey as single boulders they smashed upon the valley floor in a thousand shrapnels and friction-heated nuggets.

Every morning at least one person was caught in the downpour.

The cliff people dared the avalanches. It added one more excitement to their lives, already too short, too headlong, too dangerous.

Sim felt himself seized up by his father. He was carried brusquely down the tunnel for a thousand yards, to where the daylight appeared. There was a shining insane light in his father’s eyes. Sim could not move. He sensed what was going to happen. Behind his father, his mother hurried, bringing with her the little sister, Dark. “Wait! Be careful!” she cried to her husband.

Sim felt his father crouch, listening.

High in the cliff was a tremor, a shivering.

“Now!” bellowed his father, and leaped out.

An avalanche fell down at them!

Sim had accelerated impressions of plunging walls, dust, confusion. His mother screamed! There was a jolting, a plunging.

With one last step, Sim’s father hurried him forward into the day. The avalanche thundered behind him. The mouth of the cave, where mother and Dark stood back out of the way, was choked with rubble and two boulders that weighed a hundred pounds each.

The storm thunder of the avalanche passed away to a trickle of sand. Sim’s father burst out into laughter. “Made it! By the Gods! Made it alive!” And he looked scornfully at the cliff and spat. “Pagh!”

Mother and sister Dark struggled through the rubble. She cursed her husband. “Fool! You might have killed Sim!”

“I may yet,” retorted the father.

Sim was not listening. He was fascinated with the remains of an avalanche afront of the next tunnel. A blood stain trickled out from under a rise of boulders, soaking into the ground. There was nothing else to be seen. Someone else had lost the game.

Dark ran ahead on lithe, supple feet, naked and certain.

The valley air was like a wine filtered between mountains. The heaven was a restive blue; not the pale scorched atmosphere of full day, nor the bloated, bruised black-purple of night, a-riot with sickly shining stars.

This was a tide pool. A place where waves of varying and violent temperatures struck, receded. Now the tide pool was quiet, cool, and its life moved abroad.

Laughter! Far away, Sim heard it. Why laughter? How could any of his people find time for laughing? Perhaps later he would discover why.

The valley suddenly blushed with impulsive color. Plant-life, thawing in the precipitant dawn, shoved out from most unexpected sources. It flowered as you watched. Pale green tendrils appeared on scoured rocks. Seconds later, ripe globes of fruit twitched upon the blade-tips. Father gave Sim over to mother and harvested the momentary, volatile crop, thrust scarlet, blue, yellow fruits into a fur sack which hung at his waist. Mother tugged at the moist new grasses, laid them on Sim’s tongue.

His senses were being honed to a fine edge. He stored knowledge thirstily. He understood love, marriage, customs, anger, pity, rage, selfishness, shadings and subtleties, realities and reflections. One thing suggested another. The sight of green plant life whirled his mind like a gyroscope, seeking balance in a world where lack of time for explanations made a mind seek and interpret on its own. The soft burden of food gave him knowledge of his system, of energy, of movement. Like a bird newly cracking its way from a shell, he was almost a unit, complete, all-knowing. Heredity had done all this for him. He grew excited with his ability.


They walked, mother, father and the two children, smelling the smells, watching the birds bounce from wall to wall of the valley like scurrying pebbles and suddenly the father said a strange thing:

“Remember?”

Remember what? Sim lay cradled. Was it any effort for them to remember when they’d lived only seven days!

The husband and wife looked at each other.

“Was it only three days ago?” said the woman, her body shaking, her eyes closing to think. “I can’t believe it. It is so unfair.” She sobbed, then drew her hand across her face and bit her parched lips. The wind played at her gray hair. “Now is my turn to cry. An hour ago it was you!”

“An hour is half a life.”

“Come,” she took her husband’s arm. “Let us look at everything, because it will be our last looking.”

“The sun’ll be up in a few minutes,” said the old man. “We must turn back now.”

“Just one more moment,” pleaded the woman.

“The sun will catch us.”

“Let it catch me then!”

“You don’t mean that.”

“I mean nothing, nothing at all,” cried the woman.

The sun was coming fast. The green in the valley burnt away. Searing wind blasted from over the cliffs. Far away where sun bolts hammered battlements of cliff, the huge stone faces shook their contents; those avalanches not already powdered down, were now released and fell like mantles.

“Dark!” shouted the father. The girl sprang over the warm floor of the valley, answering, her hair a black flag behind her. Hands full of green fruits, she joined them.

The sun rimmed the horizon with flame, the air convulsed dangerously with it, and whistled.

The cave people bolted, shouting, picking up their fallen children, bearing vast loads of fruit and grass with them back to their deep hideouts. In moments the valley was bare. Except for one small child someone had forgotten. He was running far out on the flatness, but he was not strong enough, and the engulfing heat was drifting down from the cliffs even as he was half across the valley.

Flowers were burnt into effigies, grasses sucked back into rocks like singed snakes, flower seeds whirled and fell in the sudden furnace blast of wind, sown far into gullies and crannies, ready to blossom at sunset tonight, and then go to seed and die again.

Sim’s father watched that child running, alone, out on the floor of the valley. He and his wife and Dark and Sim were safe in the mouth of their tunnel.

“He’ll never make it,” said father. “Do not watch him, woman. It’s not a good thing to watch.”

They turned away. All except Sim, whose eyes had caught a glint of metal far away. His heart hammered in him, and his eyes blurred. Far away, atop a low mountain, one of those metal seeds from space reflected a dazzling ripple of light! It was like one of his intra-embryo dreams fulfilled! A metal space seed, intact, undamaged, lying on a mountain! There was his future! There was his hope for survival! There was where he would go in a few days, when he was—strange thought—a grown man!

The sun plunged into the valley like molten lava.

The little running child screamed, the sun burned, and the screaming stopped.

Sim’s mother walked painfully, with sudden age, down the tunnel, paused, reached up, broke off two last icicles that had formed during the night. She handed one to her husband, kept the other. “We will drink one last toast. To you, to the children.”

“To you,” he nodded to her. “To the children.” They lifted the icicles. The warmth melted the ice down into their thirsty mouths.


All day the sun seemed to blaze and erupt into the valley. Sim could not see it, but the vivid pictorials in his parents’ minds were sufficient evidence of the nature of the day fire. The light ran like mercury, sizzling and roasting the caves, poking inward, but never penetrating deeply enough. It lighted the caves. It made the hollows of the cliff comfortably warm.

Sim fought to keep his parents young. But no matter how hard he fought with mind and image, they became like mummies before him. His father seemed to dissolve from one stage of oldness to another. This is what will happen to me soon, though Sim in terror.

Sim grew upon himself. He felt the digestive-eliminatory movements of his body. He was fed every minute, he was continually swallowing, feeding. He began to fit words to images and processes. Such a word was love. It was not an abstraction, but a process, a stir of breath, a smell of morning air, a flutter of heart, the curve of arm holding him, the look in the suspended face of his mother. He saw the processes, then searched behind her suspended face and there was the word, in her brain, ready to use. His throat prepared to speak. Life was pushing him, rushing him along toward oblivion.

He sensed the expansion of his fingernails, the adjustments of his cells, the profusion of his hair, the multiplication of his bones and sinew, the grooving of the soft pale wax of his brain. His brain at birth as clear as a circle of ice, innocent, unmarked, was, an instant later, as if hit with a thrown rock, cracked and marked and patterned in a million crevices of thought and discovery.

His sister, Dark, ran in and out with other little hothouse children, forever eating. His mother trembled over him, not eating, she had no appetite, her eyes were webbed shut.

“Sunset,” said his father, at last.

The day was over. The light faded, a wind sounded.

His mother arose. “I want to see the outside world once more ... just once more....” She stared blindly, shivering.

His father’s eyes were shut, he lay against the wall.

“I cannot rise,” he whispered faintly. “I cannot.”

“Dark!” The mother croaked, the girl came running. “Here,” and Sim was handed to the girl. “Hold to Sim, Dark, feed him, care for him.” She gave Sim one last fondling touch.

Dark said not a word, holding Sim, her great green eyes shining wetly.

“Go now,” said the mother. “Take him out into the sunset time. Enjoy yourselves. Pick foods, eat. Play.”

Dark walked away without looking back. Sim twisted in her grasp, looking over her shoulder with unbelieving, tragic eyes. He cried out and somehow summoned from his lips the first word of his existence.

“Why...?”

He saw his mother stiffen. “The child spoke!”

“Aye,” said his father. “Did you hear what he said?”

“I heard,” said the mother quietly.

The last thing Sim saw of his living parents was his mother weakly, swayingly, slowly moving across the floor to lie beside her silent husband. That was the last time he ever saw them move.


IV

The night came and passed and then started the second day.

The bodies of all those who had died during the night were carried in a funeral procession to the top of a small hill. The procession was long, the bodies numerous.

Dark walked in the procession, holding the newly walking Sim by one hand. Only an hour before dawn Sim had learned to walk.

At the top of the hill, Sim saw once again the far off metal seed. Nobody ever looked at it, or spoke of it. Why? Was there some reason? Was it a mirage? Why did they not run toward it? Worship it? Try to get to it and fly away into space?

The funeral words were spoken. The bodies were placed upon the ground where the sun, in a few minutes, would cremate them.

The procession then turned and ran down the hill, eager to have their few minutes of free time running and playing and laughing in the sweet air.

Dark and Sim, chattering like birds, feeding among the rocks, exchanged what they knew of life. He was in his second day, she in her third. They were driven, as always, by the mercurial speed of their lives.

Another piece of his life opened wide.

Fifty young men ran down from the cliffs, holding sharp stones and rock daggers in their thick hands. Shouting, they ran off toward distant black, low lines of small rock cliffs.

“War!”

The thought stood in Sim’s brain. It shocked and beat at him. These men were running to fight, to kill, over there in those small black cliffs where other people lived.

But why? Wasn’t life short enough without fighting, killing?

From a great distance he heard the sound of conflict, and it made his stomach cold. “Why, Dark, why?”

Dark didn’t know. Perhaps they would understand tomorrow. Now, there was the business of eating to sustain and support their lives. Watching Dark was like seeing a lizard forever flickering its pink tongue, forever hungry.

Pale children ran on all sides of them. One beetle-like boy scuttled up the rocks, knocking Sim aside, to take from him a particularly luscious red berry he had found growing under an outcrop.

The child ate hastily of the fruit before Sim could gain his feet. Then Sim hurled himself unsteadily, the two of them fell in a ridiculous jumble, rolling, until Dark pried them, squalling, apart.

Sim bled. A part of him stood off, like a god, and said, “This should not be. Children should not be this way. It is wrong!”

Dark slapped the little intruding boy away. “Get on!” she cried. “What’s your name, bad one?”

“Chion!” laughed the boy. “Chion, Chion, Chion!”

Sim glared at him with all the ferocity in his small, unskilled features. He choked. This was his enemy. It was as if he’d waited for an enemy of person as well as scene. He had already understood the avalanches, the heat, the cold, the shortness of life, but these were things of places, of scene—mute, extravagant manifestations of unthinking nature, not motivated save by gravity and radiation. Here, now, in this stridulent Chion he recognized a thinking enemy!

Chion darted off, turned at a distance, tauntingly crying:

“Tomorrow I will be big enough to kill you!”

And he vanished around a rock.

More children ran, giggling, by Sim. Which of them would be friends, enemies? How could friends and enemies come about in this impossible, quick life time? There was no time to make either, was there?

Dark, as if knowing his thoughts, drew him away. As they searched for desired foods, she whispered fiercely in his ear. “Enemies are made over things like stolen foods; gifts of long grasses make friends. Enemies come, too, from opinions and thoughts. In five seconds you’ve made an enemy for life. Life’s so short enemies must be made quickly.” And she laughed with an irony strange for one so young, who was growing older before her rightful time. “You must fight to protect yourself. Others, superstitious ones, will try killing you. There is a belief, a ridiculous belief, that if one kills another, the murderer partakes of the life energy of the slain, and therefore will live an extra day. You see? As long as that is believed, you’re in danger.”

But Sim was not listening. Bursting from a flock of delicate girls who tomorrow would be tall, quieter, and who day after that would gain breasts and the next day take husbands, Sim caught sight of one small girl whose hair was a violet blue flame.

She ran past, brushed Sim, their bodies touched. Her eyes, white as silver coins, shone at him. He knew then that he’d found a friend, a love, a wife, one who’d a week from now lie with him atop the funeral pyre as sunlight undressed their flesh from bone.

Only the glance, but it held them in mid-motion, one instant.

“Your name?” he shouted after her.

“Lyte!” she called laughingly back.

“I’m Sim,” he answered, confused and bewildered.

“Sim!” she repeated it, flashing on. “I’ll remember!”

Dark nudged his ribs. “Here, eat,” she said to the distracted boy. “Eat or you’ll never get big enough to catch her.”

From nowhere, Chion appeared, running by. “Lyte!” he mocked, dancing malevolently along and away. “Lyte! I’ll remember Lyte, too!”

Dark stood tall and reed slender, shaking her dark ebony clouds of hair, sadly. “I see your life before you, little Sim. You’ll need weapons soon to fight for this Lyte one. Now, hurry—the sun’s coming!”

They ran back to the caves.


One-fourth of his life was over! Babyhood was gone. He was now a young boy! Wild rains lashed the valley at nightfall. He watched new river channels cut in the valley, out past the mountain of the metal seed. He stored the knowledge for later use. Each night there was a new river, a bed newly cut.

“What’s beyond the valley?” wondered Sim.

“No one’s ever been beyond it,” explained Dark. “All who tried to reach the plain were frozen to death or burnt. The only land we know’s within half an hour’s run. Half an hour out and half an hour back.”

“No one has ever reached the metal seed, then?”

Dark scoffed. “The Scientists, they try. Silly fools. They don’t know enough to stop. It’s no use. It’s too far.”

The Scientists. The word stirred him. He had almost forgotten the vision he had short hours after birth. His voice was eager. “Where are the Scientists?” he demanded.

Dark looked away from him, “I wouldn’t tell you if I knew. They’d kill you, experimenting! I don’t want you joining them! Live your life, don’t cut it in half trying to reach that silly metal thing on the mountain.”

“I’ll find out where they are from someone else, then!”

“No one’ll tell you! They hate the Scientists. You’ll have to find them on your own. And then what? Will you save us? Yes, save us, little boy!” Her face was sullen; already half her life was gone, her breasts were beginning to shape. Tomorrow she must divine how best to live her youth, her love, and she knew no way to fully plumb the depths of passion in so short a space.

“We can’t sit and talk and eat,” he protested. “And nothing else.”

“There’s always love,” she retorted acidly. “It helps one forget. Gods, yes,” she spat it out. “Love!”


Sim ran through the tunnels, seeking. Sometimes he half imagined where the Scientists were. But then a flood of angry thought from those around him, when he asked the direction to the Scientists’ cave, washed over him in confusion and resentment. After all, it was the Scientists’ fault that they had been placed upon this terrible world! Sim flinched under the bombardment of oaths and curses.

Quietly he took his seat in a central chamber with the children to listen to the grown men talk. This was the time of education, the Time of Talking. No matter how he chafed at delay, or how great his impatience, even though life slipped fast from him and death approached like a black meteor, he knew his mind needed knowledge. Tonight, then, was the night of school. But he sat uneasily. Only five more days of life.

Chion sat across from Sim, his thin-mouthed face arrogant.

Lyte appeared between the two. The last few hours had made her firmer footed, gentler, taller. Her hair shone brighter. She smiled as she sat beside Sim, ignoring Chion. And Chion became rigid at this and ceased eating.

The dialogue crackled, filled the room. Swift as heart beats, one thousand, two thousand words a minute. Sim learned, his head filled. He did not shut his eyes, but lapsed into a kind of dreaming that was almost intra-embryonic in lassitude and drowsy vividness. In the faint background the words were spoken, and they wove a tapestry of knowledge in his head.


He dreamed of green meadows free of stones, all grass, round and rolling and rushing easily toward a dawn with no taint of freezing, merciless cold or smell of boiled rock or scorched monument. He walked across the green meadow. Overhead the metal seeds flew by in a heaven that was a steady, even temperature. Things were slow, slow, slow.

Birds lingered upon gigantic trees that took a hundred, two hundred, five thousand days to grow. Everything remained in its place, the birds did not flicker nervously at a hint of sun, nor did the trees suck back frightenedly when a ray of sunlight poured over them.

In this dream people strolled, they rarely ran, the heart rhythm of them was evenly languid, not jerking and insane. Their kisses were long and lingering, not the parched mouthings and twitchings of lovers who had eight days to live. The grass remained, and did not burn away in torches. The dream people talked always of tomorrow and living and not tomorrow and dying. It all seemed so familiar that when Sim felt someone take his hand he thought it simply another part of the dream.

Lyte’s hand lay inside his own. “Dreaming?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Things are balanced. Our minds, to even things, to balance the unfairness of our living, go back in on ourselves, to find what there is that is good to see.”

He beat his hand against the stone floor again and again. “It does not make things fair! I hate it! It reminds me that there is something better, something I have missed! Why can’t we be ignorant! Why can’t we live and die without knowing that this is an abnormal living?” And his breath rushed harshly from his half-open, constricted mouth.

“There is purpose in everything,” said Lyte. “This gives us purpose, makes us work, plan, try to find a way.”

His eyes were hot emeralds in his face. “I walked up a hill of grass, very slowly,” he said.

“The same hill of grass I walked an hour ago?” asked Lyte.

“Perhaps. Close enough to it. The dream is better than the reality.” He flexed his eyes, narrowed them. “I watched people and they did not eat.”

“Or talk?”

“Or talk, either. And we always are eating, always talking. Sometimes those people in the dream sprawled with their eyes shut, not moving a muscle.”

As Lyte stared down into his face a terrible thing happened. He imagined her face blackening, wrinkling, twisting into knots of agedness. The hair blew out like snow about her ears, the eyes were like discolored coins caught in a web of lashes. Her teeth sank away from her lips, the delicate fingers hung like charred twigs from her atrophied wrists. Her beauty was consumed and wasted even as he watched, and when he seized her, in terror, he cried out, for he imagined his own hand corroded, and he choked back a cry.

“Sim, what’s wrong?”

The saliva in his mouth dried at the taste of the words.

“Five more days....”

“The Scientists.”

Sim started. Who’d spoken? In the dim light a tall man talked. “The Scientists crashed us on this world, and now have wasted thousands of lives and time. It’s no use. It’s no use. Tolerate them but give them none of your time. You only live once, remember.”

Where were these hated Scientists? Now, after the Learning, the Time of Talking, he was ready to find them. Now, at least, he knew enough to begin his fight for freedom, for the ship!

“Sim, where’re you going?”

But Sim was gone. The echo of his running feet died away down a shaft of polished stone.


It seemed that half the night was wasted. He blundered into a dozen dead ends. Many times he was attacked by the insane young men who wanted his life energy. Their superstitious ravings echoed after him. The gashes of their hungry fingernails covered his body.

He found what he looked for.

A half dozen men gathered in a small basalt cave deep down in the cliff lode. On a table before them lay objects which, though unfamiliar, struck harmonious chords in Sim.

The Scientists worked in sets, old men doing important work, young men learning, asking questions; and at their feet were three small children. They were a process. Every eight days there was an entirely new set of scientists working on any one problem. The amount of work done was terribly inadequate. They grew old, fell dead just when they were beginning their creative period. The creative time of any one individual was perhaps a matter of twelve hours out of his entire span. Three-quarters of one’s life was spent learning, a brief interval of creative power, then senility, insanity, death.

The men turned as Sim entered.

“Don’t tell me we have a recruit?” said the eldest of them.

“I don’t believe it,” said another, younger one. “Chase him away. He’s probably one of those war-mongers.”

“No, no,” objected the elder one, moving with little shuffles of his bare feet toward Sim. “Come in, come in, boy.” He had friendly eyes, slow eyes, unlike those of the swift inhabitants of the upper caves. Grey and quiet. “What do you want?”

Sim hesitated, lowered his head, unable to meet the quiet, gentle gaze. “I want to live,” he whispered.

The old man laughed quietly. He touched Sim’s shoulder. “Are you a new breed? Are you sick?” he queried of Sim, half-seriously. “Why aren’t you playing? Why aren’t you readying yourself for the time of love and marriage and children? Don’t you know that tomorrow night you’ll be an adolescent? Don’t you realize that if you are not careful you’ll miss all of life?” He stopped.

Sim moved his eyes back and forth with each query. He blinked at the instruments on the table top. “Shouldn’t I be here?” he asked, naively.

“Certainly,” roared the old man, sternly. “But it’s a miracle you are. We’ve had no volunteers from the rank and file for a thousand days! We’ve had to breed our own scientists, a closed unit! Count us! Six! Six men! And three children! Are we not overwhelming?” The old man spat upon the stone floor. “We ask for volunteers and the people shout back at us, ‘Get someone else!’ or ‘We have no time!’ And you know why they say that?”

“No.” Sim flinched.

“Because they’re selfish. They’d like to live longer, yes, but they know that anything they do cannot possibly insure their own lives any extra time. It might guarantee longer life to some future offspring of theirs. But they won’t give up their love, their brief youth, give up one interval of sunset or sunrise!”

Sim leaned against the table, earnestly. “I understand.”

“You do?” The old man stared at him blindly. He sighed and slapped the child’s thigh, gently. “Yes, of course, you do. It’s too much to expect anyone to understand, any more. You’re rare.”

The others moved in around Sim and the old man.

“I am Dienc. Tomorrow night Cort here will be in my place. I’ll be dead by then. And the night after that someone else will be in Cort’s place, and then you, if you work and believe—but first, I give you a chance. Return to your playmates if you want. There is someone you love? Return to her. Life is short. Why should you care for the unborn to come? You have a right to youth. Go now, if you want. Because if you stay you’ll have no time for anything but working and growing old and dying at your work. But it is good work. Well?”

Sim looked at the tunnel. From a distance the wind roared and blew, the smells of cooking and the patter of naked feet sounded, and the laughter of lovers was an increasingly good thing to hear. He shook his head, impatiently, and his eyes were wet.

“I will stay,” he said.


VI

The third night and third day passed. It was the fourth night. Sim was drawn into their living. He learned about that metal seed upon the top of the far mountain. He heard of the original seeds—things called “ships” that crashed and how the survivors hid and dug in the cliffs, grew old swiftly and in their scrabbling to barely survive, forgot all science. Knowledge of mechanical things had no chance of survival in such a volcanic civilization. There was only NOW for each human.

Yesterday didn’t matter, tomorrow stared them vividly in their very faces. But somehow the radiations that had forced their aging had also induced a kind of telepathic communication whereby philosophies and impressions were absorbed by the new born. Racial memory, growing instinctively, preserved memories of another time.

“Why don’t we go to that ship on the mountain?” asked Sim.

“It is too far. We would need protection from the sun,” explained Dienc.

“Have you tried to make protection?”

“Salves and ointments, suits of stone and bird-wing and, recently, crude metals. None of which worked. In ten thousand more life times perhaps we’ll have made a metal in which will flow cool water to protect us on the march to the ship. But we work so slowly, so blindly. This morning, mature, I took up my instruments. Tomorrow, dying, I lay them down. What can one man do in one day? If we had ten thousand men, the problem would be solved....”

“I will go to the ship,” said Sim.

“Then you will die,” said the old man. A silence had fallen on the room at Sim’s words. Then the men stared at Sim. “You are a very selfish boy.”

“Selfish!” cried Sim, resentfully.

The old man patted the air. “Selfish in a way I like. You want to live longer, you’ll do anything for that. You will try for the ship. But I tell you it is useless. Yet, if you want to, I cannot stop you. At least you will not be like those among us who go to war for an extra few days of life.”

“War?” asked Sim. “How can there be war here?”

And a shudder ran through him. He did not understand.

“Tomorrow will be time enough for that,” said Dienc. “Listen to me, now.”

The night passed.


VII

It was morning. Lyte came shouting and sobbing down a corridor, and ran full into his arms. She had changed again. She was older, again, more beautiful. She was shaking and she held to him. “Sim, they’re coming after you!”

Bare feet marched down the corridor, surged inward at the opening. Chion stood grinning there, taller, too, a sharp rock in either of his hands. “Oh, there you are, Sim!”

“Go away!” cried Lyte savagely whirling on him.

“Not until we take Sim with us,” Chion assured her. Then, smiling at Sim. “If that is, he is with us in the fight.”

Dienc shuffled forward, his eye weakly fluttering, his bird-like hands fumbling in the air. “Leave!” he shrilled angrily. “This boy is a Scientist now. He works with us.”

Chion ceased smiling. “There is better work to be done. We go now to fight the people in the farthest cliffs.” His eyes glittered anxiously. “Of course, you will come with us, Sim?”

“No, no!” Lyte clutched at his arm.

Sim patted her shoulder, then turned to Chion. “Why are you attacking these people?”

“There are three extra days for those who go with us to fight.”

“Three extra days! Of living?”

Chion nodded firmly. “If we win, we live eleven days instead of eight. The cliffs they live in, something about the mineral in it! Think of it, Sim, three long, good days of life. Will you join us?”

Dienc interrupted. “Get along without him. Sim is my pupil!”

Chion snorted. “Go die, old man. By sunset tonight you’ll be charred bone. Who are you to order us? We are young, we want to live longer.”

Eleven days. The words were unbelievable to Sim. Eleven days. Now he understood why there was war. Who wouldn’t fight to have his life lengthened by almost half its total. So many more days of youth and love and seeing and living! Yes. Why not, indeed!

“Three extra days,” called Dienc, stridently, “if you live to enjoy them. If you’re not killed in battle. If. If! You have never won yet. You have always lost!”

“But this time,” Chion declared sharply, “We’ll win!”

Sim was bewildered. “But we are all of the same ancestors. Why don’t we all share the best cliffs?”

Chion laughed and adjusted a sharp stone in his hand. “Those who live in the best cliffs think they are better than us. That is always man’s attitude when he has power. The cliffs there, besides, are smaller, there’s room for only three hundred people in them.”

Three extra days.

“I’ll go with you,” Sim said to Chion.

“Fine!” Chion was very glad, much too glad at the decision.

Dienc gasped.

Sim turned to Dienc and Lyte. “If I fight, and win, I will be half a mile closer to the Ship. And I’ll have three extra days in which to strive to reach the Ship. That seems the only thing for me to do.”

Dienc nodded, sadly. “It is the only thing. I believe you. Go along now.”

“Good-bye,” said Sim.

The old man looked surprised, then he laughed as at a little joke on himself. “That’s right—I won’t see you again, will I? Good-bye, then.” And they shook hands.

They went out, Chion, Sim, and Lyte, together, followed by the others, all children growing swiftly into fighting men. And the light in Chion’s eyes was not a good thing to see.


Lyte went with him. She chose his rocks for him and carried them. She would not go back, no matter how he pleaded. The sun was just beyond the horizon and they marched across the valley.

“Please, Lyte, go back!”

“And wait for Chion to return?” she said. “He plans that when you die I will be his mate.” She shook out her unbelievable blue-white curls of hair defiantly. “But I’ll be with you. If you fall, I fall.”

Sim’s face hardened. He was tall. The world had shrunk during the night. Children packs screamed by hilarious in their food-searching and he looked at them with alien wonder: could it be only four days ago he’d been like these? Strange. There was a sense of many days in his mind, as if he’d really lived a thousand days. There was a dimension of incident and thought so thick, so multi-colored, so richly diverse in his head that it was not to be believed so much could happen in so short a time.

The fighting men ran in clusters of two or three. Sim looked ahead at the rising line of small ebon cliffs. This, then, he said to himself, is my fourth day. And still I am no closer to the Ship, or to anything, not even—he heard the light tread of Lyte beside him—not even to her who bears my weapons and picks me ripe berries.

One-half of his life was gone. Or a third of it—IF he won this battle. If.

He ran easily, lifting, letting fall his legs. This is the day of my physical awareness, as I run I feed, as I feed I grow and as I grow I turn eyes to Lyte with a kind of dizzying vertigo. And she looks upon me with the same gentleness of thought. This is the day of our youth. Are we wasting it? Are we losing it on a dream, a folly?

Distantly he heard laughter. As a child he’d questioned it. Now he understood laughter. This particular laughter was made of climbing high rocks and plucking the greenest blades and drinking the headiest vintage from the morning ices and eating of the rock-fruits and tasting of young lips in new appetite.

They neared the cliffs of the enemy.

He saw the slender erectness of Lyte. The new surprise of her white breasts; the neck where if you touched you could time her pulse; the fingers which cupped in your own were animate and supple and never still; the....

Lyte snapped her head to one side. “Look ahead!” she cried. “See what is to come—look only ahead.”

He felt that they were racing by part of their lives, leaving their youth on the pathside, without so much as a glance.

“I am blind with looking at stones,” he said, running.

“Find new stones, then!”

“I see stones—” His voice grew gentle as the palm of her hand. The landscape floated under him. Everything was like a fine wind, blowing dreamily. “I see stones that make a ravine that lies in a cool shadow where the stone-berries are thick as tears. You touch a boulder and the berries fall in silent red avalanches, and the grass is very tender....”

“I do not see it!” She increased her pace, turning her head away.

He saw the floss upon her neck, like the small moss that grows silvery and light on the cool side of pebbles, that stirs if you breathe the lightest breath upon it. He looked upon himself, his hands clenched as he heaved himself forward toward death. Already his hands were veined and youth-swollen.

They were the hands of a young boy whose fingers are made for touching, which are suddenly sensitive and with more surface, and are nervous, and seem not a part of him because they are so big for the slender lengths of his arms. His neck, through which the blood ached and pumped, was building out with age, too, with tiny blue tendrils of veins imbedded and flaring in it.

Lyte handed him food to eat.

“I am not hungry,” he said.

“Eat, keep your mouth full,” she commanded sharply. “So you will not talk to me this way!”

“If I could only kiss you,” he pleaded. “Just one time.”

“After the battle there may be time.”

“Gods!” He roared, anguished. “Who cares for battles!”

Ahead of them, rocks hailed down, thudding. A man fell with his skull split wide. The war was begun.

Lyte passed the weapons to him. They ran without another word until they entered the killing ground. Then he spoke, not looking at her, his cheeks coloring. “Thank you,” he said.

She ducked as a slung stone shot by her head. “It was not an easy thing for me,” she admitted. “Sim! Be careful!”

The boulders began to roll in a synthetic avalanche from the battlements of the enemy!


Only one thought was in his mind now. To kill, to lessen the life of someone else so he could live, to gain a foothold here and live long enough to make a stab at the ship. He ducked, he weaved, he clutched stones and hurled them up. His left hand held a flat stone shield with which he diverted the swiftly plummeting rocks. There was a spatting sound everywhere. Lyte ran with him, encouraging him. Two men dropped before him, slain, their breasts cleaved to the bone, their blood springing out in unbelievable founts.

It was a useless conflict. Sim realized instantly how insane the venture was. They could never storm the cliff. A solid wall of rocks rained down. A dozen men dropped with shards of ebony in their brains, a half dozen more showed drooping, broken arms. One screamed and the upthrust white joint of his knee was exposed as the flesh was pulled away by two successive blows of well-aimed granite. Men stumbled over one another.

The muscles in his cheeks pulled tight and he began to wonder why he had ever come. But his raised eyes, as he danced from side to side, weaving and bobbing, sought always the cliffs. He wanted to live there so intensely, to have his chance. He would have to stick it out. But the heart was gone from him.

Lyte screamed piercingly. Sim, his heart panicking, twisted and saw that her hand was loose at the wrist, with an ugly wound bleeding profusely on the back of the knuckles. She clamped it under her armpit to soothe the pain. The anger rose in him and exploded. In his fury he raced forward, throwing his missiles with deadly accuracy. He saw a man topple and flail down, falling from one level to another of the caves, a victim of his shot. He must have been screaming, for his lungs were bursting open and closed and his throat was raw, and the ground spun madly under his racing feet.

The stone that clipped his head sent him reeling and plunging back. He ate sand. The universe dissolved into purple whorls. He could not get up. He lay and knew that this was his last day, his last time. The battle raged around him, dimly he felt Lyte over him. Her hands cooled his head, she tried to drag him out of range, but he lay gasping and telling her to leave him.

“Stop!” shouted a voice. The whole war seemed to give pause. “Retreat!” commanded the voice swiftly. And as Sim watched, lying upon his side, his comrades turned and fled back toward home.

“The sun is coming, our time is up!” He saw their muscled backs, their moving, tensing, flickering legs go up and down. The dead were left upon the field. The wounded cried for help. But there was no time for the wounded. There was only time for swift men to run the gauntlet home and, their lungs aching and raw with heated air, burst into their tunnels before the sun burnt and killed them.

The sun!

Sim saw another figure racing toward him. It was Chion! Lyte was helping Sim to his feet, whispering helpfully to him. “Can you walk?” she asked. And he groaned and said, “I think so.” “Walk then,” she said. “Walk slowly, and then faster and faster. We’ll make it. Walk slowly, start carefully. We’ll make it, I know we will.”

Sim got to his feet, stood swaying. Chion raced up, a strange expression cutting lines in his cheeks, his eyes shining with battle. Pushing Lyte abruptly aside he seized upon a rock and dealt Sim a jolting blow upon his ankle that laid wide the flesh. All of this was done quite silently.

Now he stood back, still not speaking, grinning like an animal from the night mountains, his chest panting in and out, looking from the thing he had done, to Lyte, and back. He got his breath. “He’ll never make it,” he nodded at Sim. “We’ll have to leave him here. Come along, Lyte.”

Lyte, like a cat-animal, sprang upon Chion, searching for his eyes, shrieking through her exposed, hard-pressed teeth. Her fingers stroked great bloody furrows down Chion’s arms and again, instantly, down his neck. Chion, with an oath, sprang away from her. She hurled a rock at him. Grunting, he let it miss him, then ran off a few yards. “Fool!” he cried, turning to scorn her. “Come along with me. Sim will be dead in a few minutes. Come along!”

Lyte turned her back on him. “I will go if you carry me.”

Chion’s face changed. His eyes lost their gleaming. “There is no time. We would both die if I carried you.”

Lyte looked through and beyond him. “Carry me, then, for that’s how I wish it to be.”

Without another word, glancing fearfully at the sun, Chion fled. His footsteps sped away and vanished from hearing. “May he fall and break his neck,” whispered Lyte, savagely glaring at his form as it skirted a ravine. She returned to Sim. “Can you walk?”


Agonies of pain shot up his leg from the wounded ankle. He nodded ironically. “We could make it to the cave in two hours, walking. I have an idea, Lyte. Carry me.” And he smiled with the grim joke.

She took his arm. “Nevertheless we’ll walk. Come.”

“No,” he said. “We’re staying here.”

“But why?”

“We came to seek a home here. If we walk we will die. I would rather die here. How much time have we?”

Together they measured the sun. “A few minutes,” she said, her voice flat and dull. She held close to him.

He looked at her. Lyte, he thought. Tomorrow I would have been a man. My body would have been strong and full and there would have been time with you, a kissing and a touching. Damn, but what kind of life is this where every last instant is drenched with fear and alert with death? Am I to be denied even some bit of real life?

The black rocks of the cliff were paling into deep purples and browns as the sun began to flood the world.

What a fool he was! He should have stayed and worked with Dienc, and thought and dreamed, and at least one time cupped Lyte’s mouth with his own.

With the sinews of his neck standing out defiantly he bellowed upward at the cliff holes.

“Send me down one man to do battle!”

Silence. His voice echoed from the cliff. The air was warm.

“It’s no use,” said Lyte, “They’ll pay no attention.”

He shouted again. “Hear me!” He stood with his weight on his good foot, his injured left leg throbbing and pulsating with pain. He shook a fist. “Send down a warrior who is no coward! I will not turn and run home! I have come to fight a fair fight! Send a man who will fight for the right to his cave! Him I will surely kill!”

More silence. A wave of heat passed over the land, receded.

“Oh, surely,” mocked Sim, hands on naked hips, head back, mouth wide, “surely there’s one among you not afraid to fight a cripple!” Silence. “No?” Silence.

“Then I have miscalculated you. I’m wrong. I’ll stand here, then, until the sun shucks the flesh off my bone in black scraps, and call you the filthy names you deserve.”

He got an answer.

“I do not like being called names,” replied a man’s voice.

Sim leaned forward, forgetting his crippled foot.

A huge man appeared in a cave mouth on the third level.

“Come down,” urged Sim. “Come down, fat one, and kill me.”

The man scowled seriously at his opponent a moment, then lumbered slowly down the path, his hands empty of any weapons. Immediately every cave above clustered with heads. An audience for this drama.

The man approached Sim. “We will fight by the rules, if you know them.”

“I’ll learn as we go,” replied Sim.

This pleased the man and he looked at Sim warily, but not unkindly. “This much I will tell you,” offered the man generously. “If you die, I will give your mate shelter and she will live, as she pleases, because she is the wife of a good man.”

Sim nodded swiftly. “I am ready,” he said.

“The rules are simple. We do not touch each other, save with stones. The stones and the sun will do either of us in. Now is the time—”


VIII

A tip of the sun showed on the horizon. “My name is Nhoj,” said Sim’s enemy, casually fingering up a handful of pebbles and stones, weighing them. Sim did likewise. He was hungry. He had not eaten for many minutes. Hunger was the curse of this planet’s peoples—a perpetual demanding of empty stomachs for more, more food. His blood flushed weakly, shot tinglingly through veins in jolting throbs of heat and pressure, his ribcase shoved out, went in, shoved out again, impatiently.

“Now!” roared the three hundred watchers from the cliffs. “Now!” they clamored, the men and women and children balanced, in turmoil on the ledges. “Now! Begin!”

As if at a cue, the sun leaped high. It smote them a blow as with a flat, sizzling stone. The two men staggered under the molten impact, sweat broke from their naked thighs and loins, under their arms and on their faces was a glaze like fine glass.

Nhoj shifted his huge weight and looked at the sun as if in no hurry to fight. Then, silently, with no warning, he kanurcked out a pebble with a startling trigger-flick of thumb and forefinger. It caught Sim flat on the cheek, staggered him back, so that a rocket of unbearable pain climbed up his crippled foot and burst into nervous explosion at the pit of his stomach. He tasted blood from his bleeding cheek.

Nhoj moved serenely. Three more flickers of his magical hands and three tiny, seemingly harmless bits of stone flew like whistling birds. Each of them found a target, slammed it. The nerve centers of Sim’s body! One hit his stomach so that ten hours’ eating almost slid up his throat. A second got his forehead, a third his neck. He collapsed to the boiling sand. His knee made a wrenching sound on the hard earth. His face was colorless and his eyes, squeezed tight, were pushing tears out from the hot, quivering lids. But even as he had fallen he had let loose, with wild force, his handful of stones!

The stones purred in the air. One of them, and only one, struck Nhoj. Upon the left eyeball. Nhoj moaned and laid his hands in the next instant to his shattered eye.

Sim choked out a bitter, sighing laugh. This much triumph he had. The eye of his opponent. It would give him ... Time. Oh, gods, he thought, his stomach retching sickly, fighting for breath, this is a world of time. Give me a little more, just a trifle!

Nhoj, one-eyed, weaving with pain, pelted the writhing body of Sim, but his aim was off now, the stones flew to one side or if they struck at all they were weak and spent and lifeless.

Sim forced himself half erect. From the corners of his eyes he saw Lyte, waiting, staring at him, her lips breathing words of encouragement and hope. He was bathed in sweat, as if a rain spray had showered him down.


The sun was now fully over the horizon. You could smell it. Stones glinted like mirrors, the sand began to roil and bubble. Illusions sprang up everywhere in the valley. Instead of one warrior Nhoj he was confronted by a dozen, each in an upright position, preparing to launch another missile. A dozen irregular warriors who shimmered in the golden menace of day, like bronze gongs smitten, quivered in one vision!

Sim was breathing desperately. His nostrils flared and sucked and his mouth drank thirstily of flame instead of oxygen. His lungs took fire like silk torches and his body was consumed. The sweat spilled from his pores to be instantly evaporated. He felt himself shriveling, shriveling in on himself, he imagined himself looking like his father, old, sunken, slight, withered! Where was the sand? Could he move? Yes. The world wriggled under him, but now he was on his feet.

There would be no more fighting.

A murmur from the cliff told this. The sunburnt faces of the high audience gaped and jeered and shouted encouragement to their warrior. “Stand straight, Nhoj, save your strength now! Stand tall and perspire!” they urged him. And Nhoj stood, swaying lightly, swaying slowly, a pendulum in an incandescent fiery breath from the skyline. “Don’t move, Nhoj, save your heart, save your power!”

“The Test, The Test!” said the people on the heights. “The test of the sun.”

And this was the worst part of the fight. Sim squinted painfully at the distorted illusion of cliff. He thought he saw his parents; father with his defeated face, his green eyes burning, mother with her hair blowing like a cloud of grey smoke in the fire wind. He must get up to them, live for and with them!

Behind him, Sim heard Lyte whimper softly. There was a whisper of flesh against sand. She had fallen. He did not dare turn. The strength of turning would bring him thundering down in pain and darkness.

His knees bent. If I fall, he thought, I’ll lie here and become ashes. Where was Nhoj? Nhoj was there, a few yards from him, standing bent, slick with perspiration, looking as if he were being hit over the spine with great hammers of destruction.

“Fall, Nhoj! Fall!” screamed Sim, mentally. “Fall, fall! Fall and die so I can take your place!”

But Nhoj did not fall. One by one the pebbles in his half-loose left hand plummeted to the broiling sands and Nhoj’s lips peeled back, the saliva burned away from his lips and his eyes glazed. But he did not fall. The will to live was strong in him. He hung as if by a wire.

Sim fell to one knee!

“Ahh!” wailed the knowing voices from the cliff. They were watching death. Sim jerked his head up, smiling mechanically, foolishly as if caught in the act of doing something silly. “No, no,” he insisted drowsily, and got back up again. There was so much pain he was all one ringing numbness. A whirring, buzzing, frying sound filled the land. High up, an avalanche came down like a curtain on a drama, making no noise. Everything was quiet except for a steady humming. He saw fifty images of Nhoj now, dressed in armours of sweat, eyes puffed with torture, cheeks sunken, lips peeled back like the rind of a drying fruit. But the wire still held him.

“Now,” muttered Sim, sluggishly, with a thick, baked tongue between his blazing teeth. “Now I’ll fall and lie and dream.” He said it with slow, thoughtful pleasure. He planned it. He knew how it must be done. He would do it accurately. He lifted his head to see if the audience was watching.

They were gone!

The sun had driven them back in. All save one or two brave ones. Sim laughed drunkenly and watched the sweat gather on his dead hands, hesitate, drop off, plunge down toward sand and turn to steam half way there.

Nhoj fell.

The wire was cut. Nhoj fell flat upon his stomach, a gout of blood kicked from his mouth. His eyes rolled back into a white, senseless insanity.

Nhoj fell. So did his fifty duplicate illusions.

All across the valley the winds sang and moaned and Sim saw a blue lake with a blue river feeding it and low white houses near the river with people going and coming in the houses and among the tall green trees. Trees taller than seven men, beside the river mirage.

“Now,” explained Sim to himself at last, “Now I can fall. Right—into—that—lake.”

He fell forward.

He was shocked when he felt the hands eagerly stop him in mid-plunge, lift him, hurry him off, high in the hungry air, like a torch held and waved, ablaze.

“How strange is death,” he thought, and blackness took him.


He wakened to the flow of cool water on his cheeks.

He opened his eyes fearfully. Lyte held his head upon her lap, her fingers were moving food to his mouth. He was tremendously hungry and tired, but fear squeezed both of these things away. He struggled upward, seeing the strange cave contours overhead.

“What time is it?” he demanded.

“The same day as the contest. Be quiet,” she said.

“The same day!”

She nodded amusedly. “You’ve lost nothing of your life. This is Nhoj’s cave. We are inside the black cliff. We will live three extra days. Satisfied? Lie down.”

“Nhoj is dead?” He fell back, panting, his heart slamming his ribs. He relaxed slowly. “I won. Gods, I won,” he breathed.

“Nhoj is dead. So were we, almost. They carried us in from outside only in time.”

He ate ravenously. “We have no time to waste. We must get strong. My leg—” He looked at it, tested it. There was a swathe of long yellow grasses around it and the ache had died away. Even as he watched the terrific pulsings of his body went to work and cured away the impurities under the bandages. It has to be strong by sunset, he thought. It has to be.

He got up and limped around the cave like a captured animal. He felt Lyte’s eyes upon him. He could not meet her gaze. Finally, helplessly, he turned.

She interrupted him. “You want to go on to the ship?” she asked, softly. “Tonight? When the sun goes down?”

He took a breath, exhaled it. “Yes.”

“You couldn’t possibly wait until morning?”

“No.”

“Then I’ll go with you.”

“No!”

“If I lag behind, let me. There’s nothing here for me.”

They stared at each other a long while. He shrugged wearily.

“All right,” he said, at last. “I couldn’t stop you, I know that. We’ll go together.”


IX

They waited in the mouth of their new cave. The sun set. The stones cooled so that one could walk on them. It was almost time for the leaping out and the running toward the distant, glittering metal seed that lay on the far mountain.

Soon would come the rains. And Sim thought back over all the times he had watched the rains thicken into creeks, into rivers that cut new beds each night. One night there would be a river running north, the next a river running north-east, the third night a river running due west. The valley was continually cut and scarred by the torrents. Earthquakes and avalanches filled the old beds. New ones were the order of the day. It was this idea of the river and the directions of the river that he had turned over in his head for many hours. It might possibly—Well, he would wait and see.

He noticed how living in this new cliff had slowed his pulse, slowed everything. A mineral result, protection against the solar radiations. Life was still swift, but not as swift as before.

“Now, Sim!” cried Lyte, testing the valley air.

They ran. Between the hot death and the cold one. Together, away from the cliffs, out toward the distant, beckoning ship.

Never had they run this way in their lives. The sound of their feet running was a hard, insistent clatter over vast oblongs of rock, down into ravines, up the sides, and on again. They raked the air in and out their lungs. Behind them the cliffs faded away into things they could never turn back to now.

They did not eat as they ran. They had eaten to the bursting point in the cave, to save time. Now it was only running, a lifting of legs, a balancing of bent elbows, a convulsion of muscles, a slaking in of air that had been fiery and was now cooling.

“Are they watching us?”

Lyte’s breathless voice snatched at his ears, above the pound of his heart.

Who? But he knew the answer. The cliff peoples, of course. How long had it been since a race like this one? A thousand days? Ten thousand? How long since someone had taken the chance and sprinted with an entire civilization’s eyes upon their backs, into gullies, across cooling plain. Were there lovers pausing in their laughter back there, gazing at the two tiny dots that were a man and woman running toward destiny? Were children eating of new fruits and stopping in their play to see the two people racing against time? Was Dienc still living, narrowing hairy eyebrows down over fading eyes, shouting them on in a feeble, rasping voice, shaking a twisted hand? Were there jeers? Were they being called fools, idiots? And in the midst of the name calling, were people praying them on, hoping they would reach the ship? Yes, under all the cynicism and pessimism, some of them, all of them, must be praying.

Sim took a quick glance at the sky, which was beginning to bruise with the coming night. Out of nowhere clouds materialized and a light shower trailed across a gully two hundred yards ahead of them. Lightning beat upon distant mountains and there was a strong scent of ozone on the disturbed air.

“The halfway mark,” panted Sim, and he saw Lyte’s face half turn, longingly looking back at the life she was leaving. “Now’s the time, if we want to turn back, we still have time. Another minute—”


Thunder snarled in the mountains. An avalanche started out small and ended up huge and monstrous in a deep fissure. Light rain dotted Lyte’s smooth white skin. In a minute her hair was glistening and soggy with rain.

“Too late now,” she shouted over the patting rhythm of her own naked feet. “We’ve got to go ahead!”

And it was too late. Sim knew, judging the distances, that there was no turning back now.

His leg began to pain him a little. He favored it, slowing. A wind came up swiftly. A cold wind that bit into the skin. But it came from the cliffs behind them, helped rather than hindered them. An omen? he wondered. No.

For as the minutes went by it grew upon him how poorly he had estimated the distance. Their time was dwindling out, but they were still an impossible distance from the ship. He said nothing, but the impotent anger at the slow muscles in his legs welled up into bitterly hot tears in his eyes.

He knew that Lyte was thinking the same as himself. But she flew along like a white bird, seeming hardly to touch ground. He heard her breath go out and in her throat, like a clean, sharp knife in its sheathe.

Half the sky was dark. The first stars were peering through lengths of black cloud. Lightning jiggled a path along a rim just ahead of them. A full thunderstorm of violent rain and exploding electricity fell upon them.

They slipped and skidded on moss-smooth pebbles. Lyte fell, scrambled up again with a burning oath. Her body was scarred and dirty. The rain washed over her.

The rain came down and cried on Sim. It filled his eyes and ran in rivers down his spine and he wanted to cry with it.

Lyte fell and did not rise, sucking her breath, her breasts quivering.

He picked her up and held her. “Run, Lyte, please, run!”

“Leave me, Sim. Go ahead!” The rain filled her mouth. There was water everywhere. “It’s no use. Go on without me.”

He stood there, cold and powerless, his thoughts sagging, the flame of hope blinking out. All the world was blackness, cold falling sheathes of water, and despair.

“We’ll walk, then,” he said. “And keep walking, and resting.”

They walked for fifty yards, easily, slowly, like children out for a stroll. The gully ahead of them filled with water that went sliding away with a swift wet sound, toward the horizon.

Sim cried out. Tugging at Lyte he raced forward. “A new channel,” he said, pointing. “Each day the rain cuts a new channel. Here, Lyte!” He leaned over the flood waters.

He dived in, taking her with him.

The flood swept them like bits of wood. They fought to stay upright, the water got into their mouths, their noses. The land swept by on both sides of them. Clutching Lyte’s fingers with insane strength, Sim felt himself hurled end over end, saw flicks of lightning on high, and a new fierce hope was born in him. They could no longer run, well, then they would let the water do the running for them.

With a speed that dashed them against rocks, split open their shoulders, abraded their legs, the new, brief river carried them. “This way!” Sim shouted over a salvo of thunder and steered frantically toward the opposite side of the gully. The mountain where the ship lay was just ahead. They must not pass it by. They fought in the transporting liquid and were slammed against the far side. Sim leaped up, caught at an overhanging rock, locked Lyte in his legs, and drew himself hand over hand upward.

As quickly as it had come, the storm was gone. The lightning faded. The rain ceased. The clouds melted and fell away over the sky. The wind whispered into silence.

“The ship!” Lyte lay upon the ground. “The ship, Sim. This is the mountain of the ship!”

Now the cold came. The killing cold.

They forced themselves drunkenly up the mountain. The cold slid along their limbs, got into their arteries like a chemical and slowed them.

Ahead of them, with a fresh-washed sheen, lay the ship. It was a dream. Sim could not believe that they were actually so near it. Two hundred yards. One hundred and seventy yards. Gods, but it was cold.

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Ahead of them lay the ship. Sim could not believe they were so near.

The ground became covered with ice. They slipped and fell again and again. Behind them the river was frozen into a blue-white snake of cold solidity. A few last drops of rain from somewhere came down as hard pellets.

Sim fell against the bulk of the ship. He was actually touching it. Touching it! He heard Lyte whimpering in her constricted throat. This was the metal, the ship. How many others had touched it in the long days? He and Lyte had made it!

He touched it lovingly. Then, as cold as the air, his veins were chilled.

Where was the entrance?

You run, you swim, you almost drown, you curse, you sweat, you work, you reach a mountain, you go up it, you hammer on metal, you shout with relief, you reach the ship, and then—you can’t find the entrance.


He fought to keep himself from breaking down. Slowly, he told himself, but not too slowly, go around the ship. The metal slid under his searching hands, so cold that his hands, sweating, almost froze to it. Now, far around to the side. Lyte moved with him. The cold held them like a fist. It began to squeeze.

The entrance.

Metal. Cold, immutable metal. A thin line of opening at the sealing point. Throwing all caution aside, he beat at it. He felt his stomach seething with cold. His fingers were numb, his eyes were half frozen in their sockets. He began to beat and search and scream against the metal door. “Open up! Open up!” He staggered.

The air-lock sighed. With a whispering of metal on rubber beddings, the door swung softly sidewise and vanished back.

He saw Lyte run forward, clutch at her throat, and drop inside a small shiny chamber. He shuffled after her, blankly.

The air-lock door sealed shut behind him.

He could not breathe. His heart began to slow, to stop.

They were trapped inside the ship now, and something was happening. He sank down to his knees and choked for air.

The ship he had come to for salvation was now slowing his pulse, darkening his brain, poisoning him. With a starved, faint kind of expiring terror, he realized that he was dying.

Blackness.


He had a dim sense of time passing, of thinking, struggling, to make his heart go quick, quick.... To make his eyes focus. But the fluid in his body lagged quietly through his settling veins and he heard his temple pulses thud, pause, thud, pause and thud again with lulling intermissions.

He could not move, not a hand or leg or finger. It was an effort to lift the tonnage of his eyelashes. He could not shift his face even, to see Lyte lying beside him.

From a distance came her irregular breathing. It was like the sound a wounded bird makes with his dry, unraveled pinions. She was so close he could almost feel the heat of her; yet she seemed a long way removed.

I’m getting cold! he thought. Is this death? This slowing of blood, of my heart, this cooling of my body, this drowsy thinking of thoughts?

Staring at the ship’s ceiling he traced its intricate system of tubes and machines. The knowledge, the purpose of the ship, its actions, seeped into him. He began to understand in a kind of revealing lassitude just what these things were his eyes rested upon. Slow. Slow.

There was an instrument with a gleaming white dial.

Its purpose?

He drudged away at the problem, like a man underwater.

People had used the dial. Touched it. People had repaired it. Installed it. People had dreamed of it before the building, before the installing, before the repairing and touching and using. The dial contained memory of use and manufacture, its very shape was a dream-memory telling Sim why and for what it had been built. Given time, looking at anything, he could draw from it the knowledge he desired. Some dim part of him reached out, dissected the contents of things, analyzed them.

This dial measured time!

Millions of days of time!

But how could that be? Sim’s eyes dilated, hot and glittering. Where were humans who needed such an instrument?

Blood thrummed and beat behind his eyes. He closed them.

Panic came to him. The day was passing. I am lying here, he thought, and my life slips away. I cannot move. My youth is passing. How long before I can move?

Through a kind of porthole he saw the night pass, the day come, the day pass, and again another night. Stars danced frostily.

I will lie here for four or five days, wrinkling and withering, he thought. This ship will not let me move. How much better if I had stayed in my home cliff, lived, enjoyed this short life. What good has it done to come here? I’m missing all the twilights and dawns. I’ll never touch Lyte, though she’s here at my side.

Delirium. His mind floated up. His thoughts whirled through the metal ship. He smelled the razor sharp smell of joined metal. He heard the hull contract with night, relax with day.

Dawn.

Already—another dawn!

Today I would have been mature. His jaw clenched. I must get up. I must move. I must enjoy my time of maturity.

But he didn’t move. He felt his blood pump sleepily from chamber to red chamber in his heart, on down and around through his dead body, to be purified by his folding and unfolding lungs. Then the circuit once more.

The ship grew warm. From somewhere a machine clicked. Automatically the temperature cooled. A controlled gust of air flushed the room.

Night again. And then another day.

He lay and saw four days of his life pass.

He did not try to fight. It was no use. His life was over.

He didn’t want to turn his head now. He didn’t want to see Lyte with her face like his tortured mother’s—eyelids like gray ash flakes, eyes like beaten, sanded metal, cheeks like eroded stones. He didn’t want to see a throat like parched thongs of yellow grass, hands the pattern of smoke risen from a fire, breasts like desiccated rinds and hair stubbly and unshorn as moist gray weeds!

And himself? How did he look? Was his jaw sunken, the flesh of his eyes pitted, his brow lined and age-scarred?


His strength began to return. He felt his heart beating so slow that it was amazing. One hundred beats a minute. Impossible. He felt so cool, so thoughtful, so easy.

His head fell over to one side. He stared at Lyte. He shouted in surprise.

She was young and fair.

She was looking at him, too weak to say anything. Her eyes were like tiny silver medals, her throat curved like the arm of a child. Her hair was blue fire eating at her scalp, fed by the slender life of her body.

Four days had passed and still she was young ... no, younger than when they had entered the ship. She was still adolescent.

He could not believe it.

Her first words were, “How long will this last?”

He replied, carefully. “I don’t know.”

“We are still young.”

“The ship. Its metal is around us. It cuts away the sun and the things that came from the sun to age us.”

Her eyes shifted thoughtfully. “Then, if we stay here—”

“We’ll remain young.”

“Six more days? Fourteen more? Twenty?”

“More than that, maybe.”

She lay there, silently. After a long time she said, “Sim?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s stay here. Let’s not go back. If we go back now, you know what’ll happen to us...?”

“I’m not certain.”

“We’ll start getting old again, won’t we?”

He looked away. He stared at the ceiling and the clock with the moving finger. “Yes. We’ll grow old.”

“What if we grow old—instantly. When we step from the ship won’t the shock be too much?”

“Maybe.”

Another silence. He began to move his limbs, testing them. He was very hungry. “The others are waiting,” he said.

Her next words made him gasp. “The others are dead,” she said. “Or will be in a few hours. All those we knew back there are old and worn.”

He tried to picture them old. Dark, his sister, bent and senile with time. He shook his head, wiping the picture away. “They may die,” he said. “But there are others who’ve been born.”

“People we don’t even know,” said Lyte, flatly.

“But, nevertheless, our people,” he replied. “People who’ll live only eight days, or eleven days unless we help them.”

“But we’re young, Sim! We’re young! We can stay young!”

He didn’t want to listen. It was too tempting a thing to listen to. To stay here. To live. “We’ve already had more time than the others,” he said. “I need workers. Men to heal this ship. We’ll get on our feet now, you and I, and find food, eat, and see if the ship is movable. I’m afraid to try to move it myself. It’s so big. I’ll need help.”

“But that means running back all that distance!”

“I know.” He lifted himself weakly. “But I’ll do it.”

“How will you get the men back here?”

“We’ll use the river.”

If it’s there. It may be somewhere else.”

“We’ll wait until there is one, then. I’ve got to go back, Lyte. The son of Dienc is waiting for me, my sister, your brother, are old people, ready to die, and waiting for some word from us—”

After a long while he heard her move, dragging herself tiredly to him. She put her head upon his chest, her eyes closed, stroking his arm. “I’m sorry. Forgive me. You have to go back. I’m a selfish fool.”

He touched her cheek, clumsily. “You’re human. I understand you. There’s nothing to forgive.”


They found food. They walked through the ship. It was empty. Only in the control room did they find the remains of a man who must have been the chief pilot. The others had evidently bailed out into space in emergency lifeboats. This pilot, sitting at his controls, alone, had landed the ship on a mountain within sight of other fallen and smashed crafts. Its location on high ground had saved it from the floods. The pilot himself had died, probably of heart failure, soon after landing. The ship had remained here, almost within reach of the other survivors, perfect as an egg, but silent, for—how many thousand days? If the pilot had lived, what a different thing life might have been for the ancestors of Sim and Lyte. Sim, thinking of this—felt the distant, ominous vibration of war. How had the war between worlds come out? Who had won? Or had both planets lost and never bothered trying to pick up survivors? Who had been right? Who was the enemy? Were Sim’s people of the guilty or innocent side? They might never know.

He checked the ship hurriedly. He knew nothing of its workings, yet as he walked its corridors, patted its machines, he learned from it. It needed only a crew. One man couldn’t possibly set the whole thing running again. He laid his hand upon one round, snout-like machine. He jerked his hand away, as if burnt.

“Lyte!”

“What is it?”

He touched the machine again, caressed it, his hand trembled violently, his eyes welled with tears, his mouth opened and closed, he looked at the machine, loving it, then looked at Lyte.

“With this machine—” he stammered, softly, incredulously. “With—with this machine I can—”

“What, Sim?”

He inserted his hand into a cup-like contraption with a lever inside. Out of porthole in front of him he could see the distant line of cliffs. “We were afraid there might never be another river running by this mountain, weren’t we?” he asked, exultantly.

“Yes, Sim, but—”

“There will be a river. And I will come back, tonight! And I’ll bring men with me. Five hundred men! Because with this machine I can blast a river bottom all the way to the cliffs, down which the waters will rush, giving myself and the men a swift, sure way of traveling back!” He rubbed the machine’s barrel-like body. “When I touched it, the life and method of it shot into me! Watch!” He depressed the lever.

A beam of incandescent fire lanced out from the ship, screaming.

Steadily, accurately, Sim began to cut away a river bed for the storm waters to flow in. The night was turned to day by its hungry eating.


The return to the cliffs was to be carried out by Sim alone. Lyte was to remain in the ship, in case of any mishap. The trip back seemed, at first glance, to be impossible. There would be no river rushing to cut his time, to sweep him along toward his destination. He would have to run the entire distance in the dawn, and the sun would get him, catch him before he’d reached safety.

“The only way to do it is to start before sunrise.”

“But you’d be frozen, Sim.”

“Here.” He made adjustments on the machine that had just finished cutting the river bed in the rock floor of the valley. He lifted the smooth snout of the gun, pressed the lever, left it down. A gout of fire shot toward the cliffs. He fingered the range control, focused the flame end three miles from its source. Done. He turned to Lyte. “But I don’t understand,” she said.

He opened the air-lock door. “It’s bitter cold out, and half an hour yet till dawn. If I run parallel to the flame from the machine, close enough to it, there’ll not be much heat but enough to sustain life, anyway.”

“It doesn’t sound safe,” Lyte protested.

Nothing does, on this world.” He moved forward. “I’ll have a half hour start. That should be enough to reach the cliffs.”

“But if the machine should fail while you’re still running near its beam?”

“Let’s not think of that,” he said.

A moment later he was outside. He staggered as if kicked in the stomach. His heart almost exploded in him. The environment of his world forced him into swift living again. He felt his pulse rise, kicking through his veins.

The night was cold as death. The heat ray from the ship sliced across the valley, humming, solid and warm. He moved next to it, very close. One misstep in his running and—

“I’ll be back,” he called to Lyte.

He and the ray of light went together.


In the early morning the peoples in the caves saw the long finger of orange incandescence and the weird whitish apparition floating, running along beside it. There was muttering and superstition.

So when Sim finally reached the cliffs of his childhood he saw alien peoples swarming there. There were no familiar faces. Then he realized how foolish it was to expect familiar faces. One of the older men glared down at him. “Who’re you?” he shouted. “Are you from the enemy cliff? What’s your name?”

“I am Sim, the son of Sim!”

“Sim!”

An old woman shrieked from the cliff above him. She came hobbling down the stone pathway. “Sim, Sim, it is you!”

He looked at her, frankly bewildered. “But I don’t know you,” he murmured.

“Sim, don’t you recognize me? Oh, Sim, it’s me! Dark!”

“Dark!”

He felt sick at his stomach. She fell into his arms. This old, trembling woman with the half-blind eyes, his sister.

Another face appeared above. That of an old man. A cruel, bitter face. It looked down at Sim and snarled. “Drive him away!” cried the old man. “He comes from the cliff of the enemy. He’s lived there! He’s still young! Those who go there can never come back among us. Disloyal beast!” And a rock hurtled down.

Sim leaped aside, pulling the old woman with him.

A roar came from the people. They ran toward Sim, shaking their fists. “Kill him, kill him!” raved the old man, and Sim did not know who he was.

“Stop!” Sim held out his hands. “I come from the ship!”

“The ship?” The people slowed. Dark clung to him, looking up into his young face, puzzling over its smoothness.

“Kill him, kill him, kill him!” croaked the old man, and picked up another rock.

“I offer you ten days, twenty days, thirty more days of life!”

The people stopped. Their mouths hung open. Their eyes were incredulous.

“Thirty days?” It was repeated again and again. “How?”

“Come back to the ship with me. Inside it, one can live forever!”

The old man lifted high a rock, then, choking, fell forward in an apoplectic fit, and tumbled down the rocks to lie at Sim’s feet.

Sim bent to peer at the ancient one, at the bleary, dead eyes, the loose, sneering lips, the crumpled, quiet body.

“Chion!”

“Yes,” said Dark behind him, in a croaking, strange voice. “Your enemy. Chion.”


That night a thousand warriors started for the ship as if going to war. The water ran in the new channel. Five hundred of them were drowned or lost behind in the cold. The others, with Sim, got through to the ship.

Lyte awaited them, and threw wide the metal door.

The weeks passed. Generations lived and died in the cliffs, while the five hundred workers labored over the ship, learning its functions and its parts.

On the last day they disbanded. Each ran to his station. Now there was a destiny of travel who still remained behind.

Sim touched the control plates under his fingers.

Lyte, rubbing her eyes, came and sat on the floor next to him, resting her head against his knee, drowsily. “I had a dream,” she said, looking off at something far away. “I dreamed I lived in caves in a cliff on a cold-hot planet where people grew old and died in eight days and were burnt.”

“What an impossible dream,” said Sim. “People couldn’t possibly live in such a nightmare. Forget it. You’re awake now.”

He touched the plates gently. The ship rose and moved into space. Sim was right. The nightmare was over at last.

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Zero Hour

Published Fall 1947, Planet Stories

Magazine cover

Oh, it was to be so jolly! What a game! Such excitement they hadn’t known in years. The children catapulted this way and that across the green lawns, shouting at each other, holding hands, flying in circles, climbing trees, laughing.... Overhead, the rockets flew and beetle-cars whispered by on the streets, but the children played on. Such fun, such tremulous joy, such tumbling and hearty screaming.

Mink ran into the house, all dirt and sweat. For her seven years she was loud and strong and definite. Her mother, Mrs. Morris, hardly saw her as she yanked out drawers and rattled pans and tools into a large sack.

“Heavens, Mink, what’s going on?”

“The most exciting game ever!” gasped Mink, pink-faced.

“Stop and get your breath,” said the mother.

“No, I’m all right,” gasped Mink. “Okay I take these things, Mom?”

“But don’t dent them,” said Mrs. Morris.

“Thank you, thank you!” cried Mink and boom! she was gone, like a rocket.

Mrs. Morris surveyed the fleeing tot. “What’s the name of the game?”

“Invasion!” said Mink. The door slammed.

In every yard on the street children brought out knives and forks and pokers and old stove pipes and can-openers.

It was an interesting fact that this fury and bustle occurred only among the younger children. The older ones, those ten years and more disdained the affair and marched scornfully off on hikes or played a more dignified version of hide-and-seek on their own.

Meanwhile, parents came and went in chromium beetles. Repair men came to repair the vacuum elevators in houses, to fix fluttering television sets or hammer upon stubborn food-delivery tubes. The adult civilization passed and repassed the busy youngsters, jealous of the fierce energy of the wild tots, tolerantly amused at their flourishings, longing to join in themselves.

“This and this and this,” said Mink, instructing the others with their assorted spoons and wrenches. “Do that, and bring that over here. No! Here, ninnie! Right. Now, get back while I fix this—” Tongue in teeth, face wrinkled in thought. “Like that. See?”

“Yayyyy!” shouted the kids.

Twelve-year-old Joseph Connors ran up.

“Go away,” said Mink straight at him.

“I wanna play,” said Joseph.

“Can’t!” said Mink.

“Why not?”

“You’d just make fun of us.”

“Honest, I wouldn’t.”

“No. We know you. Go away or we’ll kick you.”

Another twelve-year-old boy whirred by on little motor-skates. “Aye, Joe! Come on! Let them sissies play!”

Joseph showed reluctance and a certain wistfulness. “I want to play,” he said.

“You’re old,” said Mink, firmly.

“Not that old,” said Joe sensibly.

“You’d only laugh and spoil the Invasion.”

The boy on the motor-skates made a rude lip noise. “Come on, Joe! Them and their fairies! Nuts!”

Joseph walked off slowly. He kept looking back, all down the block.

Mink was already busy again. She made a kind of apparatus with her gathered equipment. She had appointed another little girl with a pad and pencil to take down notes in painful slow scribbles. Their voices rose and fell in the warm sunlight.

All around them the city hummed. The streets were lined with good green and peaceful trees. Only the wind made a conflict across the city, across the country, across the continent. In a thousand other cities there were trees and children and avenues, business men in their quiet offices taping their voices, or watching televisors. Rockets hovered like darning needles in the blue sky. There was the universal, quiet conceit and easiness of men accustomed to peace, quite certain there would never be trouble again. Arm in arm, men all over earth were a united front. The perfect weapons were held in equal trust by all nations. A situation of incredibly beautiful balance had been brought about. There were no traitors among men, no unhappy ones, no disgruntled ones; therefore the world was based upon a stable ground. Sunlight illumined half the world and the trees drowsed in a tide of warm air.

Mink’s mother, from her upstairs window, gazed down.

The children.

She looked upon them and shook her head. Well, they’d eat well, sleep well, and be in school on Monday. Bless their vigorous little bodies. She listened.

Mink talked earnestly to someone near the rose-bush—though there was no one there.

These odd children. And the little girl, what was her name? Anna? Anna took notes on a pad. First, Mink asked the rose-bush a question, then called the answer to Anna.

“Triangle,” said Mink.

“What’s a tri,” said Anna with difficulty, “angle?”

“Never mind,” said Mink.

“How you spell it?” asked Anna.

“T-R-I—” spelled Mink, slowly, then snapped, “Oh, spell it yourself!” She went on to other words. “Beam,” she said.

“I haven’t got tri,” said Anna, “angle down yet!”

“Well, hurry, hurry!” cried Mink.

Mink’s mother leaned out the upstairs window. “A-N-G-L-E,” she spelled down at Anna.

“Oh, thanks, Mrs. Morris,” said Anna.

“Certainly,” said Mink’s mother and withdrew, laughing, to dust the hall with an electro-duster-magnet.

The voices wavered on the shimmery air. “Beam,” said Anna. Fading.

“Four-nine-seven-A-and-B-and-X,” said Mink, far away, seriously. “And a fork and a string and a—hex-hex-agony ... hexagonal!”


At lunch, Mink gulped milk at one toss and was at the door. Her mother slapped the table.

“You sit right back down,” commanded Mrs. Morris. “Hot soup in a minute.” She poked a red button on the kitchen butler and ten seconds later something landed with a bump in the rubber receiver. Mrs. Morris opened it, took out a can with a pair of aluminum holders, unsealed it with a flick and poured hot soup into a bowl.

During all this, Mink fidgeted. “Hurry, Mom! This is a matter of life and death! Aw—!”

“I was the same way at your age. Always life and death. I know.”

Mink banged away at the soup.

“Slow down,” said Mom.

“Can’t,” said Mink. “Drill’s waiting for me.”

“Who’s Drill? What a peculiar name,” said Mom.

“You don’t know him,” said Mink.

“A new boy in the neighborhood?” asked Mom.

“He’s new all right,” said Mink. She started on her second bowl.

“Which one is Drill?” asked Mom.

“He’s around,” said Mink, evasively. “You’ll make fun. Everybody pokes fun. Gee, darn.”

“Is Drill shy?”

“Yes. No. In a way. Gosh, Mom, I got to run if we want to have the Invasion!”

“Who’s invading what?”

“Martians invading Earth—well, not exactly Martians. They’re—I don’t know. From up.” She pointed with her spoon.

“And inside,” said Mom, touching Mink’s feverish brow.

Mink rebelled. “You’re laughing! You’ll kill Drill and everybody.”

“I didn’t mean to,” said Mom. “Drill’s a Martian?”

“No. He’s—well—maybe from Jupiter or Saturn or Venus. Anyway, he’s had a hard time.”

“I imagine.” Mrs. Morris hid her mouth behind her hand.

“They couldn’t figure a way to attack earth.”

“We’re impregnable,” said Mom, in mock-seriousness.

“That’s the word Drill used! Impreg—That was the word, Mom.”

“My, my. Drill’s a brilliant little boy. Two-bit words.”

“They couldn’t figure a way to attack, Mom. Drill says—he says in order to make a good fight you got to have a new way of surprising people. That way you win. And he says also you got to have help from your enemy.”

“A fifth column,” said Mom.

“Yeah. That’s what Drill said. And they couldn’t figure a way to surprise Earth or get help.”

“No wonder. We’re pretty darn strong,” laughed Mom, cleaning up. Mink sat there, staring at the table, seeing what she was talking about.

“Until, one day,” whispered Mink, melodramatically, “they thought of children!”

Well!“ said Mrs. Morris brightly.

“And they thought of how grown-ups are so busy they never look under rose-bushes or on lawns!”

“Only for snails and fungus.”

“And then there’s something about dim-dims.”

“Dim-dims?”

“Dimens-shuns.”

“Dimensions?”

“Four of ‘em! And there’s something about kids under nine and imagination. It’s real funny to hear Drill talk.”

Mrs. Morris was tired. “Well, it must be funny. You’re keeping Drill waiting now. It’s getting late in the day and, if you want to have your Invasion before your supper bath, you’d better jump.”

“Do I have to take a bath?” growled Mink.

“You do. Why is it children hate water? No matter what age you live in children hate water behind the ears!”

“Drill says I won’t have to take baths,” said Mink.

“Oh, he does, does he?”

“He told all the kids that. No more baths. And we can stay up till ten o’clock and go to two televisor shows on Saturday ‘stead of one!”

“Well, Mr. Drill better mind his p’s and q’s. I’ll call up his mother and—”

Mink went to the door. “We’re having trouble with guys like Pete Britz and Dale Jerrick. They’re growing up. They make fun. They’re worse than parents. They just won’t believe in Drill. They’re so snooty, cause they’re growing up. You’d think they’d know better. They were little only a coupla years ago. I hate them worst. We’ll kill them first.”

“Your father and I, last?”

“Drill says you’re dangerous. Know why? Cause you don’t believe in Martians! They’re going to let us run the world. Well, not just us, but the kids over in the next block, too. I might be queen.” She opened the door. “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“What’s—lodge ... ick?”

“Logic? Why, dear, logic is knowing what things are true and not true.”

“He mentioned that,” said Mink. “And what’s im—pres—sion—able?” It took her a minute to say it.

“Why, it means—” Her mother looked at the floor, laughing gently. “It means—to be a child, dear.”

“Thanks for lunch!” Mink ran out, then stuck her head back in. “Mom, I’ll be sure you won’t be hurt, much, really!”

“Well, thanks,” said Mom.

Slam went the door.


At four o’clock the audio-visor buzzed. Mrs. Morris flipped the tab. “Hello, Helen!” she said, in welcome.

“Hello, Mary. How are things in New York?”

“Fine, how are things in Scranton? You look tired.”

“So do you. The children. Underfoot,” said Helen.

Mrs. Morris sighed, “My Mink, too. The super Invasion.”

Helen laughed. “Are your kids playing that game, too?”

“Lord, yes. Tomorrow it’ll be geometrical jacks and motorized hopscotch. Were we this bad when we were kids in ‘48?”

“Worse. Japs and Nazis. Don’t know how my parents put up with me. Tomboy.”

“Parents learn to shut their ears.”

A silence.

“What’s wrong, Mary?” asked Helen.

Mrs. Morris’ eyes were half-closed; her tongue slid slowly, thoughtfully over her lower lip. “Eh,” She jerked. “Oh, nothing. Just thought about that. Shutting ears and such. Never mind. Where were we?”

“My boy Tim’s got a crush on some guy named—Drill, I think it was.”

“Must be a new password. Mink likes him, too.”

“Didn’t know it got as far as New York. Word of mouth, I imagine. Looks like a scrap drive. I talked to Josephine and she said her kids—that’s in Boston—are wild on this new game. It’s sweeping the country.”

At this moment, Mink trotted into the kitchen to gulp a glass of water. Mrs. Morris turned. “How’re things going?”

“Almost finished,” said Mink.

“Swell,” said Mrs. Morris. “What’s that?”

“A yo-yo,” said Mink. “Watch.”

She flung the yo-yo down its string. Reaching the end it—

It vanished.

“See?” said Mink. “Ope!” Dibbling her finger she made the yo-yo reappear and zip up the string.

“Do that again,” said her mother.

“Can’t. Zero hour’s five o’clock! ‘Bye.”

Mink exited, zipping her yo-yo.

On the audio-visor, Helen laughed. “Tim brought one of those yo-yo’s in this morning, but when I got curious he said he wouldn’t show it to me, and when I tried to work it, finally, it wouldn’t work.”

“You’re not impressionable,” said Mrs. Morris.

“What?”

“Never mind. Something I thought of. Can I help you, Helen?”

“I wanted to get that black-and-white cake recipe—”


The hour drowsed by. The day waned. The sun lowered in the peaceful blue sky. Shadows lengthened on the green lawns. The laughter and excitement continued. One little girl ran away, crying.

Mrs. Morris came out the front door.

“Mink, was that Peggy Ann crying?”

Mink was bent over in the yard, near the rose-bush. “Yeah. She’s a scarebaby. We won’t let her play, now. She’s getting too old to play. I guess she grew up all of a sudden.”

“Is that why she cried? Nonsense. Give me a civil answer, young lady, or inside you come!”

Mink whirled in consternation, mixed with irritation. “I can’t quit now. It’s almost time. I’ll be good. I’m sorry.”

“Did you hit Peggy Ann?”

“No, honest. You ask her. It was something—well, she’s just a scaredy-pants.”

The ring of children drew in around Mink where she scowled at her work with spoons and a kind of square shaped arrangement of hammers and pipes. “There and there,” murmured Mink.

“What’s wrong?” said Mrs. Morris.

“Drill’s stuck. Half way. If we could only get him all the way through, it’ll be easier. Then all the others could come through after him.”

“Can I help?”

“No’m, thanks. I’ll fix it.”

“All right. I’ll call you for your bath in half an hour. I’m tired of watching you.”

She went in and sat in the electric-relaxing chair, sipping a little beer from a half-empty glass. The chair massaged her back. Children, children. Children and love and hate, side by side. Sometimes children loved you, hated you, all in half a second. Strange children, did they ever forget or forgive the whippings and the harsh, strict words of command? She wondered. How can you ever forget or forgive those over and above you, those tall and silly dictators?

Time passed. A curious, waiting silence came upon the street, deepening.

Five o’clock. A clock sang softly somewhere in the house, in a quiet, musical voice, “Five o’clock ... five o’clock. Time’s a wasting. Five o’clock,” and purred away into silence.

Zero hour.

Mrs. Morris chuckled in her throat. Zero hour.

A beetle-car hummed into the driveway. Mr. Morris. Mrs. Morris smiled. Mr. Morris got out of the beetle, locked it and called hello to Mink at her work. Mink ignored him. He laughed and stood for a moment watching the children in their business. Then he walked up the front steps.

“Hello, darling.”

“Hello, Henry.”

She strained forward on the edge of the chair, listening. The children were silent. Too silent.

He emptied his pipe, refilled it. “Swell day. Makes you glad to be alive.”

Buzz.

“What’s that?” asked Henry.

“I don’t know.” She got up, suddenly, her eyes widening. She was going to say something. She stopped it. Ridiculous. Her nerves jumped. “Those children haven’t anything dangerous out there, have they?” she said.

“Nothing but pipes and hammers. Why?”

“Nothing electrical?”

“Heck, no,” said Henry. “I looked.”

She walked to the kitchen. The buzzing continued. “Just the same you’d better go tell them to quit. It’s after five. Tell them—” Her eyes widened and narrowed. “Tell them to put off their Invasion until tomorrow.” She laughed, nervously.

The buzzing grew louder.

“What are they up to? I’d better go look, all right.”

The explosion!


The house shook with dull sound. There were other explosions in other yards on other streets.

Involuntarily, Mrs. Morris screamed. “Up this way!” she cried, senselessly, knowing no sense, no reason. Perhaps she saw something from the corners of her eyes, perhaps she smelled a new odor or heard a new noise. There was no time to argue with Henry to convince him. Let him think her insane. Yes, insane! Shrieking, she ran upstairs. He ran after her to see what she was up to. “In the attic!” she screamed. “That’s where it is!” It was only a poor excuse to get him in the attic in time—oh God, in time!

Another explosion outside. The children screamed with delight, as if at a great fireworks display.

“It’s not in the attic!” cried Henry. “It’s outside!”

“No, no!” Wheezing, gasping, she fumbled at the attic door. “I’ll show you. Hurry! I’ll show you!”

They tumbled into the attic. She slammed the door, locked it, took the key, threw it into a far, cluttered corner.

She was babbling wild stuff now. It came out of her. All the subconscious suspicion and fear that had gathered secretly all afternoon and fermented like a wine in her. All the little revelations and knowledges and sense that had bothered her all day and which she had logically and carefully and sensibly rejected and censored. Now it exploded in her and shook her to bits.

“There, there,” she said, sobbing against the door. “We’re safe until tonight. Maybe we can sneak out, maybe we can escape!”

Henry blew up, too, but for another reason. “Are you crazy? Why’d you throw that key away! Damn it, honey!”

“Yes, yes, I’m crazy, if it helps, but stay here with me!”

“I don’t know how in hell I can get out!”

“Quiet. They’ll hear us. Oh, God, they’ll find us soon enough—”

Below them, Mink’s voice. The husband stopped. There was a great universal humming and sizzling, a screaming and giggling. Downstairs, the audio-televisor buzzed and buzzed insistently, alarmingly, violently. Is that Helen calling? thought Mrs. Morris. And is she calling about what I think she’s calling about?

Footsteps came into the house. Heavy footsteps.

“Who’s coming in my house?” demanded Henry, angrily. “Who’s tramping around down there?”

Heavy feet. Twenty, thirty, forty, fifty of them. Fifty persons crowding into the house. The humming. The giggling of the children. “This way!” cried Mink, below.

“Who’s downstairs?” roared Henry. “Who’s there!”

“Hush, oh, nonononono!” said his wife, weakly, holding him. “Please, be quiet. They might go away.”

“Mom?” called Mink, “Dad?” A pause. “Where are you?”

Heavy footsteps, heavy, heavy, very HEAVY footsteps came up the stairs. Mink leading them.

“Mom?” A hesitation. “Dad?” A waiting, a silence.

Humming. Footsteps toward the attic. Mink’s first.

They trembled together in silence in the attic, Mr. and Mrs. Morris. For some reason the electric humming, the queer cold light suddenly visible under the door crack, the strange odor and the alien sound of eagerness in Mink’s voice, finally got through to Henry Morris, too. He stood, shivering, in the dark silence, his wife beside him.

“Mom! Dad!”

Footsteps. A little humming sound. The attic lock melted. The door opened. Mink peered inside, tall blue shadows behind her.

“Peek-a-boo,” said Mink.

Image


Pillar of Fire

Published Summer 1948, Planet Stories

Magazine cover

We cannot tell you what kind of a story this is.
We simply cannot present it as we present
other stories. It is too tremendous for that.
We are very glad—and proud—to share it with you.



I

He came out of the earth, hating. Hate was his father; hate was his mother.

It was good to walk again. It was good to leap up out of the earth, off of your back, and stretch your cramped arms violently and try to take a deep breath!

He tried. He cried out.

He couldn’t breathe. He flung his arms over his face and tried to breathe. It was impossible. He walked on the earth, he came out of the earth. But he was dead. He couldn’t breathe. He could take air into his mouth and force it half down his throat, with withered moves of long-dormant muscles, wildly, wildly! And with this little air he could shout and cry! He wanted to have tears, but he couldn’t make them come, either. All he knew was that he was standing upright, he was dead, he shouldn’t be walking! He couldn’t breathe and yet he stood.

The smells of the world were all about him. Frustratedly, he tried to smell the smells of autumn. Autumn was burning the land down into ruin. All across the country the ruins of summer lay; vast forests bloomed with flame, tumbled down timber on empty, unleafed timber. The smoke of the burning was rich, blue, and invisible.

He stood in the graveyard, hating. He walked through the world and yet could not taste nor smell of it. He heard, yes. The wind roared on his newly opened ears. But he was dead. Even though he walked he knew he was dead and should expect not too much of himself or this hateful living world.

He touched the tombstone over his own empty grave. He knew his own name again. It was a good job of carving.

WILLIAM LANTRY

That’s what the grave stone said.

His fingers trembled on the cool stone surface.

BORN 1898—DIED 1933

Born again...?

What year? He glared at the sky and the midnight autumnal stars moving in slow illuminations across the windy black. He read the tiltings of centuries in those stars. Orion thus and so, Aurega here! and where Taurus? There!

His eyes narrowed. His lips spelled out the year:

“2349.”

An odd number. Like a school sum. They used to say a man couldn’t encompass any number over a hundred. After that it was all so damned abstract there was no use counting. This was the year 2349! A numeral, a sum. And here he was, a man who had lain in his hateful dark coffin, hating to be buried, hating the living people above who lived and lived and lived, hating them for all the centuries, until today, now, born out of hatred, he stood by his own freshly excavated grave, the smell of raw earth in the air, perhaps, but he could not smell it!

“I,” he said, addressing a poplar tree that was shaken by the wind, “am an anachronism.” He smiled faintly.


He looked at the graveyard. It was cold and empty. All of the stones had been ripped up and piled like so many flat bricks, one atop another, in the far corner by the wrought iron fence. This had been going on for two endless weeks. In his deep secret coffin he had heard the heartless, wild stirring as the men jabbed the earth with cold spades and tore out the coffins and carried away the withered ancient bodies to be burned. Twisting with fear in his coffin, he had waited for them to come to him.

Today they had arrived at his coffin. But—late. They had dug down to within an inch of the lid. Five o’clock bell, time for quitting. Home to supper. The workers had gone off. Tomorrow they would finish the job, they said, shrugging into their coats.

Silence had come to the emptied tombyard.

Carefully, quietly, with a soft rattling of sod, the coffin lid had lifted.

William Lantry stood trembling now, in the last cemetery on Earth.

“Remember?” he asked himself, looking at the raw earth. “Remember those stories of the last man on earth? Those stories of men wandering in ruins, alone? Well, you, William Lantry, are a switch on the old story. Do you know that? You are the last dead man in the whole damned world!”

There were no more dead people. Nowhere in any land was there a dead person. Impossible? Lantry did not smile at this. No, not impossible at all in this foolish sterile, unimaginative, antiseptic age of cleansings and scientific methods! People died, oh my god, yes. But—dead people? Corpses? They didn’t exist!

What happened to dead people?

The graveyard was on a hill. William Lantry walked through the dark burning night until he reached the edge of the graveyard and looked down upon the new town of Salem. It was all illumination, all color. Rocket ships cut fire above it, crossing the sky to all the far ports of earth.

In his grave the new violence of this future world had driven down and seeped into William Lantry. He had been bathed in it for years. He knew all about it, with a hating dead man’s knowledge of such things.

Most important of all, he knew what these fools did with dead men.

He lifted his eyes. In the center of the town a massive stone finger pointed at the stars. It was three hundred feet high and fifty feet across. There was a wide entrance and a drive in front of it.

In the town, theoretically, thought William Lantry, say you have a dying man. In a moment he will be dead. What happens? No sooner is his pulse cold when a certificate is flourished, made out, his relatives pack him into a car-beetle and drive him swiftly to—

The Incinerator!

That functional finger, that Pillar of Fire pointing at the stars. Incinerator. A functional, terrible name. But truth is truth in this future world.

Like a stick of kindling your Mr. Dead Man is shot into the furnace.

Flume!

William Lantry looked at the top of the gigantic pistol shoving at the stars. A small pennant of smoke issued from the top.

There’s where your dead people go.

“Take care of yourself, William Lantry,” he murmured. “You’re the last one, the rare item, the last dead man. All the other graveyards of earth have been blasted up. This is the last graveyard and you’re the last dead man from the centuries. These people don’t believe in having dead people about, much less walking dead people. Everything that can’t be used goes up like a matchstick. Superstitions right along with it!”

He looked at the town. All right, he thought, quietly. I hate you. You hate me, or you would if you knew I existed. You don’t believe in such things as vampires or ghosts. Labels without referents, you cry! You snort. All right, snort! Frankly, I don’t believe in you, either! I don’t like you! You and your Incinerators.

He trembled. How very close it had been. Day after day they had hauled out the other dead ones, burned them like so much kindling. An edict had been broadcast around the world. He had heard the digging men talk as they worked!

“I guess it’s a good idea, this cleaning up the graveyards,” said one of the men.

“Guess so,” said another. “Grisly custom. Can you imagine? Being buried, I mean! Unhealthy! All them germs!”

“Sort of a shame. Romantic, kind of. I mean, leaving just this one graveyard untouched all these centuries. The other graveyards were cleaned out, what year was it, Jim?”

“About 2260, I think. Yeah, that was it, 2260, almost a hundred years ago. But some Salem Committee they got on their high horse and they said, ‘Look here, let’s have just ONE graveyard left, to remind us of the customs of the barbarians.’ And the gover’ment scratched its head, thunk it over, and said, ‘Okay. Salem it is. But all other graveyards go, you understand, all!’”

“And away they went,” said Jim.

“Sure, they sucked out ‘em with fire and steam shovels and rocket-cleaners. If they knew a man was buried in a cow-pasture, they fixed him! Evacuated them, they did. Sort of cruel, I say.”

“I hate to sound old-fashioned, but still there were a lot of tourists came here every year, just to see what a real graveyard was like.”

“Right. We had nearly a million people in the last three years visiting. A good revenue. But—a government order is an order. The government says no more morbidity, so flush her out we do! Here we go. Hand me that spade, Bill.”


William Lantry stood in the autumn wind, on the hill. It was good to walk again, to feel the wind and to hear the leaves scuttling like mice on the road ahead of him. It was good to see the bitter cold stars almost blown away by the wind.

It was even good to know fear again.

For fear rose in him now, and he could not put it away. The very fact that he was walking made him an enemy. And there was not another friend, another dead man, in all of the world, to whom one could turn for help or consolation. It was the whole melodramatic living world against one William Lantry. It was the whole vampire-disbelieving, body-burning, graveyard-annihilating world against a man in a dark suit on a dark autumn hill. He put out his pale cold hands into the city illumination. You have pulled the tombstones, like teeth, from the yard, he thought. Now I will find some way to push your damnable Incinerators down into rubble. I will make dead people again, and I will make friends in so doing. I cannot be alone and lonely. I must start manufacturing friends very soon. Tonight.

“War is declared,” he said, and laughed. It was pretty silly, one man declaring war on an entire world.

The world did not answer back. A rocket crossed the sky on a rush of flame, like an Incinerator taking wing.

Footsteps. Lantry hastened to the edge of the cemetery. The diggers, coming back to finish up their work? No. Just someone, a man, walking by.

As the man came abreast the cemetery gate, Lantry stepped swiftly out. “Good evening,” said the man, smiling.

Lantry struck the man in the face. The man fell. Lantry bent quietly down and hit the man a killing blow across the neck with the side of his hand.

Dragging the body back into shadow, he stripped it, changed clothes with it. It wouldn’t do for a fellow to go wandering about this future world with ancient clothing on. He found a small pocket knife in the man’s coat; not much of a knife, but enough if you knew how to handle it properly. He knew how.

He rolled the body down into one of the already opened and exhumed graves. In a minute he had shoveled dirt down upon it, just enough to hide it. There was little chance of it being found. They wouldn’t dig the same grave twice.

He adjusted himself in his new loose-fitting metallic suit. Fine, fine.

Hating, William Lantry walked down into town, to do battle with the Earth.


II

The incinerator was open. It never closed. There was a wide entrance, all lighted up with hidden illumination, there was a helicopter landing table and a beetle drive. The town itself was dying down after another day of the dynamo. The lights were going dim, and the only quiet, lighted spot in the town now was the Incinerator. God, what a practical name, what an unromantic name.

William Lantry entered the wide, well-lighted door. It was an entrance, really; there were no doors to open or shut. People could go in and out, summer or winter, the inside was always warm. Warm from the fire that rushed whispering up the high round flue to where the whirlers, the propellors, the air-jets pushed the leafy grey ashes on away for a ten mile ride down the sky.

There was the warmth of the bakery here. The halls were floored with rubber parquet. You couldn’t make a noise if you wanted to. Music played in hidden throats somewhere. Not music of death at all, but music of life and the way the sun lived inside the Incinerator; or the sun’s brother, anyway. You could hear the flame floating inside the heavy brick wall.

William Lantry descended a ramp. Behind him he heard a whisper and turned in time to see a beetle stop before the entrance way. A bell rang. The music, as if at a signal, rose to ecstatic heights. There was joy in it.

From the beetle, which opened from the rear, some attendants stepped carrying a golden box. It was six feet long and there were sun symbols on it. From another beetle the relatives of the man in the box stepped and followed as the attendants took the golden box down a ramp to a kind of altar. On the side of the altar were the words, “WE THAT WERE BORN OF THE SUN RETURN TO THE SUN”. The golden box was deposited upon the altar, the music leaped upward, the Guardian of this place spoke only a few words, then the attendants picked up the golden box, walked to a transparent wall, a safety lock, also transparent, and opened it. The box was shoved into the glass slot. A moment later an inner lock opened, the box was injected into the interior of the Flue and vanished instantly in quick flame.

The attendants walked away. The relatives without a word turned and walked out. The music played.

William Lantry approached the glass fire lock. He peered through the wall at the vast, glowing, never-ceasing heart of the Incinerator. It burned steadily, without a flicker, singing to itself peacefully. It was so solid it was like a golden river flowing up out of the earth toward the sky. Anything you put into the river was borne upward, vanished.

Lantry felt again his unreasoning hatred of this thing, this monster, cleansing fire.

A man stood at his elbow. “May I help you, sir?”

“What?” Lantry turned abruptly. “What did you say?”

“May I be of service?”

“I—that is—” Lantry looked quickly at the ramp and the door. His hands trembled at his sides. “I’ve never been in here before.”

“Never?” The Attendant was surprised.

That had been the wrong thing to say, Lantry realized. But it was said, nevertheless. “I mean,” he said. “Not really. I mean, when you’re a child, somehow, you don’t pay attention. I suddenly realized tonight that I didn’t really know the Incinerator.”

The Attendant smiled. “We never know anything, do we, really? I’ll be glad to show you around.”

“Oh, no. Never mind. It—it’s a wonderful place.”

“Yes, it is.” The Attendant took pride in it. “One of the finest in the world, I think.”

“I—” Lantry felt he must explain further. “I haven’t had many relatives die on me since I was a child. In fact, none. So, you see I haven’t been here for many years.”

“I see.” The Attendant’s face seemed to darken somewhat.

What’ve I said now, thought Lantry. What in God’s name is wrong? What’ve I done? If I’m not careful I’ll get myself shoved right into that damnable fire-trap. What’s wrong with this fellow’s face? He seems to be giving me more than the usual going over.

“You wouldn’t be one of the men who’ve just returned from Mars, would you?” asked the Attendant.

“No. Why do you ask?”

“No matter.” The Attendant began to walk off. “If you want to know anything, just ask me.”

“Just one thing,” said Lantry.

“What’s that?”

“This.”

Lantry dealt him a stunning blow across the neck.

He had watched the fire-trap operator with expert eyes. Now, with the sagging body in his arms, he touched the button that opened the warm outer lock, placed the body in, heard the music rise, and saw the inner lock open. The body shot out into the river of fire. The music softened.

“Well done, Lantry, well done.”


Barely an instant later another Attendant entered the room. Lantry was caught with an expression of pleased excitement on his face. The Attendant looked around as if expecting to find someone, then he walked toward Lantry. “May I help you?”

“Just looking,” said Lantry.

“Rather late at night,” said the Attendant.

“I couldn’t sleep.”

That was the wrong answer, too. Everybody slept in this world. Nobody had insomnia. If you did you simply turned on a hypno-ray, and, sixty seconds later, you were snoring. Oh, he was just full of wrong answers. First he had made the fatal error of saying he had never been in the Incinerator before, when he knew damned well that all children were brought here on tours, every year, from the time they were four, to instill the idea of the clean fire death and the Incinerator in their minds. Death was a bright fire, death was warmth and the sun. It was not a dark, shadowed thing. That was important in their education. And he, pale thoughtless fool, had immediately gabbled out his ignorance.

And another thing, this paleness of his. He looked at his hands and realized with growing terror that a pale man also was non-existent in this world. They would suspect his paleness. That was why the first attendant had asked, “Are you one of those men newly returned from Mars?” Here, now, this new Attendant was clean and bright as a copper penny, his cheeks red with health and energy. Lantry hid his pale hands in his pockets. But he was fully aware of the searching the Attendant did on his face.

“I mean to say,” said Lantry. “I didn’t want to sleep. I wanted to think.”

“Was there a service held here a moment ago?” asked the Attendant, looking about.

“I don’t know, I just came in.”

“I thought I heard the fire lock open and shut.”

“I don’t know,” said Lantry.

The man pressed a wall button. “Anderson?”

A voice replied. “Yes.”

“Locate Saul for me, will you?”

“I’ll ring the corridors.” A pause. “Can’t find him.”

“Thanks.” The Attendant was puzzled. He was beginning to make little sniffing motions with his nose. “Do you—smell anything?”

Lantry sniffed. “No. Why?”

“I smell something.”

Lantry took hold of the knife in his pocket. He waited.

“I remember once when I was a kid,” said the man. “And we found a cow lying dead in the field. It had been there two days in the hot sun. That’s what this smell is. I wonder what it’s from?”

“Oh, I know what it is,” said Lantry quietly. He held out his hand. “Here.”

“What?”

“Me, of course.”

“You?”

“Dead several hundred years.”

“You’re an odd joker.” The Attendant was puzzled.

“Very.” Lantry took out the knife. “Do you know what this is?”

“A knife.”

“Do you ever use knives on people any more?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean—killing them, with knives or guns or poison?”

“You are an odd joker!” The man giggled awkwardly.

“I’m going to kill you,” said Lantry.

“Nobody kills anybody,” said the man.

“Not any more they don’t. But they used to, in the old days.”

“I know they did.”

“This will be the first murder in three hundred years. I just killed your friend. I just shoved him into the fire lock.”

That remark had the desired effect. It numbed the man so completely, it shocked him so thoroughly with its illogical aspects that Lantry had time to walk forward. He put the knife against the man’s chest. “I’m going to kill you.”

“That’s silly,” said the man, numbly. “People don’t do that.”

“Like this,” said Lantry. “You see?”

The knife slid into the chest. The man stared at it for a moment. Lantry caught the falling body.


III

The Salem flue exploded at six that morning. The great fire chimney shattered into ten thousand parts and flung itself into the earth and into the sky and into the houses of the sleeping people. There was fire and sound, more fire than autumn made burning in the hills.

William Lantry was five miles away at the time of the explosion. He saw the town ignited by the great spreading cremation of it. And he shook his head and laughed a little bit and clapped his hands smartly together.

Relatively simple. You walked around killing people who didn’t believe in murder, had only heard of it indirectly as some dim gone custom of the old barbarian races. You walked into the control room of the Incinerator and said, “How do you work this Incinerator?” and the control man told you, because everybody told the truth in this world of the future, nobody lied, there was no reason to lie, there was no danger to lie against. There was only one criminal in the world, and nobody knew HE existed yet.

Oh, it was an incredibly beautiful set-up. The Control Man had told him just how the Incinerator worked, what pressure gauges controlled the flood of fire gasses going up the flue, what levers were adjusted or readjusted. He and Lantry had had quite a talk. It was an easy free world. People trusted people. A moment later Lantry had shoved a knife in the Control Man also and set the pressure gauges for an overload to occur half an hour later, and walked out of the Incinerator halls, whistling.

Now even the sky was palled with the vast black cloud of the explosion.

“This is only the first,” said Lantry, looking at the sky. “I’ll tear all the others down before they even suspect there’s an unethical man loose in their society. They can’t account for a variable like me. I’m beyond their understanding. I’m incomprehensible, impossible, therefore I do not exist. My God, I can kill hundreds of thousands of them before they even realize murder is out in the world again. I can make it look like an accident each time. Why, the idea is so huge, it’s unbelievable!”

The fire burned the town. He sat under a tree for a long time, until morning. Then, he found a cave in the hills, and went in, to sleep.


He awoke at sunset with a sudden dream of fire. He saw himself pushed into the flue, cut into sections by flame, burned away to nothing. He sat up on the cave floor, laughing at himself. He had an idea.

He walked down into the town and stepped into an audio booth. He dialed OPERATOR. “Give me the Police Department,” he said.

“I beg your pardon?” said the operator.

He tried again. “The Law Force,” he said.

“I will connect you with the Peace Control,” she said, at last.

A little fear began ticking inside him like a tiny watch. Suppose the operator recognized the term Police Department as an anachronism, took his audio number, and sent someone out to investigate? No, she wouldn’t do that. Why should she suspect? Paranoids were non-existent in this civilization.

“Yes, the Peace Control,” he said.

A buzz. A man’s voice answered. “Peace Control. Stephens speaking.”

“Give me the Homicide Detail,” said Lantry, smiling.

“The what?”

“Who investigates murders?”

“I beg your pardon, what are you talking about?”

“Wrong number.” Lantry hung up, chuckling. Ye gods, there was no such a thing as a Homicide Detail. There were no murders, therefore they needed no detectives. Perfect, perfect!

The audio rang back. Lantry hesitated, then answered.

“Say,” said the voice on the phone. “Who are you?”

“The man just left who called,” said Lantry, and hung up again.

He ran. They would recognize his voice and perhaps send someone out to check. People didn’t lie. He had just lied. They knew his voice. He had lied. Anybody who lied needed a psychiatrist. They would come to pick him up to see why he was lying. For no other reason. They suspected him of nothing else. Therefore—he must run.

Oh, how very carefully he must act from now on. He knew nothing of this world, this odd straight truthful ethical world. Simply by looking pale you were suspect. Simply by not sleeping nights you were suspect. Simply by not bathing, by smelling like a—dead cow?—you were suspect. Anything.

He must go to a library. But that was dangerous, too. What were libraries like today? Did they have books or did they have film spools which projected books on a screen? Or did people have libraries at home, thus eliminating the necessity of keeping large main libraries?

He decided to chance it. His use of archaic terms might well make him suspect again, but now it was very important he learn all that could be learned of this foul world into which he had come again. He stopped a man on the street. “Which way to the library?”

The man was not surprised. “Two blocks east, one block north.”

“Thank you.”

Simple as that.

He walked into the library a few minutes later.

“May I help you?”

He looked at the librarian. May I help you, may I help you. What a world of helpful people! “I’d like to ‘have’ Edgar Allan Poe.” His verb was carefully chosen. He didn’t say ‘read’. He was too afraid that books were passé, that printing itself was a lost art. Maybe all ‘books’ today were in the form of fully delineated three-dimensional motion pictures. How in hell could you make a motion picture out of Socrates, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Freud?

“What was that name again?”

“Edgar Allan Poe.”

“There is no such author listed in our files.”

“Will you please check?”

She checked. “Oh, yes. There’s a red mark on the file card. He was one of the authors in the Great Burning of 2265.”

“How ignorant of me.”

“That’s all right,” she said. “Have you heard much of him?”

“He had some interesting barbarian ideas on death,” said Lantry.

“Horrible ones,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Ghastly.”

“Yes. Ghastly. Abominable, in fact. Good thing he was burned. Unclean. By the way, do you have any of Lovecraft?”

“Is that a sex book?”

Lantry exploded with laughter. “No, no. It’s a man.”

She riffled the file. “He was burned, too. Along with Poe.”

“I suppose that applies to Machen and a man named Derleth and one named Ambrose Bierce, also?”

“Yes.” She shut the file cabinet. “All burned. And good riddance.” She gave him an odd warm look of interest. “I bet you’ve just come back from Mars.”

“Why do you say that?”

“There was another explorer in here yesterday. He’d just made the Mars hop and return. He was interested in supernatural literature, also. It seems there are actually ‘tombs’ on Mars.”

“What are ‘tombs’?” Lantry was learning to keep his mouth closed.

“You know, those things they once buried people in.”

“Barbarian custom. Ghastly!”

Isn’t it? Well, seeing the Martian tombs made this young explorer curious. He came and asked if we had any of those authors you mentioned. Of course we haven’t even a smitch of their stuff.” She looked at his pale face. “You are one of the Martian rocket men, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” he said. “Got back on the ship the other day.”

“The other young man’s name was Burke.”

“Of course. Burke! Good friend of mine!”

“Sorry I can’t help you. You’d best get yourself some vitamin shots and some sun-lamp. You look terrible, Mr. ——?”

“Lantry. I’ll be good. Thanks ever so much. See you next Hallows’ Eve!”

“Aren’t you the clever one.” She laughed. “If there were a Hallows’ Eve, I’d make it a date.”

“But they burned that, too,” he said.

“Oh, they burned everything,” she said. “Good night.”

“Good night.” And he went on out.


Oh, how carefully he was balanced in this world! Like some kind of dark gyroscope, whirling with never a murmur, a very silent man. As he walked along the eight o’clock evening street he noticed with particular interest that there was not an unusual amount of lights about. There were the usual street lights at each corner, but the blocks themselves were only faintly illuminated. Could it be that these remarkable people were not afraid of the dark? Incredible nonsense! Every one was afraid of the dark. Even he himself had been afraid, as a child. It was as natural as eating.

A little boy ran by on pelting feet, followed by six others. They yelled and shouted and rolled on the dark cool October lawn, in the leaves. Lantry looked on for several minutes before addressing himself to one of the small boys who was for a moment taking a respite, gathering his breath into his small lungs, as a boy might blow to refill a punctured paper bag.

“Here, now,” said Lantry. “You’ll wear yourself out.”

“Sure,” said the boy.

“Could you tell me,” said the man, “why there are no street lights in the middle of the blocks?”

“Why?” asked the boy.

“I’m a teacher, I thought I’d test your knowledge,” said Lantry.

“Well,” said the boy, “you don’t need lights in the middle of the block, that’s why.”

“But it gets rather dark,” said Lantry.

“So?” said the boy.

“Aren’t you afraid?” asked Lantry.

“Of what?” asked the boy.

“The dark,” said Lantry.

“Ho ho,” said the boy. “Why should I be?”

“Well,” said Lantry. “It’s black, it’s dark. And after all, street lights were invented to take away the dark and take away fear.”

“That’s silly. Street lights were made so you could see where you were walking. Outside of that there’s nothing.”

“You miss the whole point—” said Lantry. “Do you mean to say you would sit in the middle of an empty lot all night and not be afraid?”

“Of what?”

“Of what, of what, of what, you little ninny! Of the dark!”

“Ho ho.”

“Would you go out in the hills and stay all night in the dark?”

“Sure.”

“Would you stay in a deserted house alone?”

“Sure.”

“And not be afraid?”

“Sure.”

“You’re a liar!”

“Don’t you call me nasty names!” shouted the boy. Liar was the improper noun, indeed. It seemed to be the worst thing you could call a person.

Lantry was completely furious with the little monster. “Look,” he insisted. “Look into my eyes....”

The boy looked.

Lantry bared his teeth slightly. He put out his hands, making a clawlike gesture. He leered and gesticulated and wrinkled his face into a terrible mask of horror.

“Ho ho,” said the boy. “You’re funny.”

What did you say?”

“You’re funny. Do it again. Hey, gang, c’mere! This man does funny things!”

“Never mind.”

“Do it again, sir.”

“Never mind, never mind. Good night!” Lantry ran off.

“Good night, sir. And mind the dark, sir!” called the little boy.


Of all the stupidity, of all the rank, gross, crawling, jelly-mouthed stupidity! He had never seen the like of it in his life! Bringing the children up without so much as an ounce of imagination! Where was the fun in being children if you didn’t imagine things?

He stopped running. He slowed and for the first time began to appraise himself. He ran his hand over his face and bit his finger and found that he himself was standing midway in the block and he felt uncomfortable. He moved up to the street corner where there was a glowing lantern. “That’s better,” he said, holding his hands out like a man to an open warm fire.

He listened. There was not a sound except the night breathing of the crickets. Faintly there was a fire-hush as a rocket swept the sky. It was the sound a torch might make brandished gently on the dark air.

He listened to himself and for the first time he realized what there was so peculiar to himself. There was not a sound in him. The little nostril and lung noises were absent. His lungs did not take nor give oxygen or carbon-dioxide; they did not move. The hairs in his nostrils did not quiver with warm combing air. That faint purring whisper of breathing did not sound in his nose. Strange. Funny. A noise you never heard when you were alive, the breath that fed your body, and yet, once dead, oh how you missed it!

The only other time you ever heard it was on deep dreamless awake nights when you wakened and listened and heard first your nose taking and gently poking out the air, and then the dull deep dim red thunder of the blood in your temples, in your eardrums, in your throat, in your aching wrists, in your warm loins, in your chest. All of those little rhythms, gone. The wrist beat gone, the throat pulse gone, the chest vibration gone. The sound of the blood coming up down around and through, up down around and through. Now it was like listening to a statue.

And yet he lived. Or, rather, moved about. And how was this done, over and above scientific explanations, theories, doubts?

By one thing, and one thing alone.

Hatred.

Hatred was a blood in him, it went up down around and through, up down around and through. It was a heart in him, not beating, true, but warm. He was—what? Resentment. Envy. They said he could not lie any longer in his coffin in the cemetery. He had wanted to. He had never had any particular desire to get up and walk around. It had been enough, all these centuries, to lie in the deep box and feel but not feel the ticking of the million insect watches in the earth around, the moves of worms like so many deep thoughts in the soil.

But then they had come and said, “Out you go and into the furnace!” And that is the worst thing you can say to any man. You cannot tell him what to do. If you say you are dead, he will want not to be dead. If you say there are no such things as vampires, by God, that man will try to be one just for spite. If you say a dead man cannot walk, he will test his limbs. If you say murder is no longer occurring, he will make it occur. He was, in toto, all the impossible things. They had given birth to him with their damnable practices and ignorances. Oh, how wrong they were. They needed to be shown. He would show them! Sun is good, so is night, there is nothing wrong with dark, they said.

Dark is horror, he shouted, silently, facing the little houses. It is meant for contrast. You must fear, you hear! That has always been the way of this world. You destroyers of Edgar Allan Poe and fine big-worded Lovecraft, you burner of Hallowe’en masks and destroyer of pumpkin jack-o-lanterns! I will make night what it once was, the thing against which man built all his lanterned cities and his many children!

As if in answer to this, a rocket, flying low, trailing a long rakish feather of flame. It made Lantry flinch and draw back.


IV

It was but ten miles to the little town of Science Port. He made it by dawn, walking. But even this was not good. At four in the morning a silver beetle pulled up on the road beside him.

“Hello,” called the man inside.

“Hello,” said Lantry, wearily.

“Why are you walking?” asked the man.

“I’m going to Science Port.”

“Why don’t you ride?”

“I like to walk.”

Nobody likes to walk. Are you sick? May I give you a ride?”

“Thanks, but I like to walk.”

The man hesitated, then closed the beetle door. “Good night.”

When the beetle was gone over the hill, Lantry retreated into a nearby forest. A world full of bungling helping people. By God, you couldn’t even walk without being accused of sickness. That meant only one thing. He must not walk any longer, he had to ride. He should have accepted that fellow’s offer.

The rest of the night he walked far enough off the highway so that if a beetle rushed by he had time to vanish in the underbrush. At dawn he crept into an empty dry water-drain and closed his eyes.


The dream was as perfect as a rimed snowflake.

He saw the graveyard where he had lain deep and ripe over the centuries. He heard the early morning footsteps of the laborers returning to finish their work.

“Would you mind passing me the shovel, Jim?”

“Here you go.”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute!”

“What’s up?”

“Look here. We didn’t finish last night, did we?”

“No.”

“There was one more coffin, wasn’t there?”

“Yes.”

“Well, here it is, and open!”

“You’ve got the wrong hole.”

“What’s the name say on the gravestone?”

“Lantry. William Lantry.”

“That’s him, that’s the one! Gone!”

“What could have happened to it?”

“How do I know. The body was here last night.”

“We can’t be sure, we didn’t look.”

“God, man, people don’t bury empty coffins. He was in his box. Now he isn’t.”

“Maybe this box was empty.”

“Nonsense. Smell that smell? He was here all right.”

A pause.

“Nobody would have taken the body, would they?”

“What for?”

“A curiosity, perhaps.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. People just don’t steal. Nobody steals.”

“Well, then, there’s only one solution.”

“And?”

“He got up and walked away.”

A pause. In the dark dream, Lantry expected to hear laughter. There was none. Instead, the voice of the gravedigger, after a thoughtful pause, said, “Yes. That’s it, indeed. He got up and walked away.”

“That’s interesting to think about,” said the other.

“Isn’t it, though?”

Silence.


Lantry awoke. It had all been a dream, but God, how realistic. How strangely the two men had carried on. But not unnaturally, oh, no. That was exactly how you expected men of the future to talk. Men of the future. Lantry grinned wryly. That was an anachronism for you. This was the future. This was happening now. It wasn’t 300 years from now, it was now, not then, or any other time. This wasn’t the Twentieth Century. Oh, how calmly those two men in the dream had said, “He got up and walked away.” “—interesting to think about.” “Isn’t it, though?” With never a quaver in their voices. With not so much as a glance over their shoulders or a tremble of spade in hand. But, of course, with their perfectly honest, logical minds, there was but one explanation; certainly nobody had stolen the corpse. “Nobody steals.” The corpse had simply got up and walked off. The corpse was the only one who could have possibly moved the corpse. By the few casual slow words of the gravediggers Lantry knew what they were thinking. Here was a man that had lain in suspended animation, not really dead, for hundreds of years. The jarring about, the activity, had brought him back.

Everyone had heard of those little green toads that are sealed for centuries inside mud rocks or in ice patties, alive, alive oh! And how when scientists chipped them out and warmed them like marbles in their hands the little toads leapt about and frisked and blinked. Then it was only logical that the gravediggers think of William Lantry in like fashion.

But what if the various parts were fitted together in the next day or so? If the vanished body and the shattered, exploded incinerator were connected? What if this fellow named Burke, who had returned pale from Mars, went to the library again and said to the young woman he wanted some books and she said, “Oh, your friend Lantry was in the other day.” And he’d say, “Lantry who? Don’t know anyone by that name.” And she’d say, “Oh, he lied.” And people in this time didn’t lie. So it would all form and coalesce, item by item, bit by bit. A pale man who was pale and shouldn’t be pale had lied and people don’t lie, and a walking man on a lonely country road had walked and people don’t walk anymore, and a body was missing from a cemetery, and the Incinerator had blown up and and and—

They would come after him. They would find him. He would be easy to find. He walked. He lied. He was pale. They would find him and take him and stick him through the open fire lock of the nearest Burner and that would be your Mr. William Lantry, like a fourth of July set-piece!

Image

They would come after him. They would find him.

There was only one thing to be done efficiently and completely. He arose in violent moves. His lips were wide and his dark eyes were flared and there was a trembling and burning all through him. He must kill and kill and kill and kill and kill. He must make his enemies into friends, into people like himself who walked but shouldn’t walk, who were pale in a land of pinks. He must kill and then kill and then kill again. He must make bodies and dead people and corpses. He must destroy Incinerator after Flue after Burner after Incinerator. Explosion on explosion. Death on death. Then, when the Incinerators were all in thrown ruin, and the hastily established morgues were jammed with the bodies of people shattered by the explosion, then he would begin his making of friends, his enrollment of the dead in his own cause.

Before they traced and found and killed him, they must be killed themselves. So far he was safe. He could kill and they would not kill back. People simply do not go around killing. That was his safety margin. He climbed out of the abandoned drain, stood in the road.

He took the knife from his pocket and hailed the next beetle.


It was like the Fourth of July! The biggest damned firecracker of them all. The Science Port Incinerator split down the middle and flew apart. It made a thousand small explosions that ended with a greater one. It fell upon the town and crushed houses and burned trees. It woke people from sleep and then put them to sleep again, forever, an instant later.

William Lantry, sitting in a beetle that was not his own, tuned idly to a station on the audio dial. The collapse of the Incinerator had killed some four hundred people. Many had been caught in flattened houses, others struck by flying metal. A temporary morgue was being set up at—

An address was given.

Lantry noted it with a pad and pencil.

He could go on this way, he thought, from town to town, from country to country, destroying the Burners, the Pillars of Fire, until the whole clean magnificent framework of flame and cauterization was tumbled. He made a fair estimate—each explosion averaged five hundred dead. You could work that up to a hundred thousand in no time.

He pressed the floor stud of the beetle. Smiling, he drove off through the dark streets of the city.


The city coroner had requisitioned an old warehouse. From midnight until four in the morning the grey beetles hissed down the rain-shiny streets, turned in, and the bodies were laid out on the cold concrete floors, with white sheets over them. It was a continuous flow until about four-thirty, then it stopped. There were about two hundred bodies there, white and cold.

The bodies were left alone; nobody stayed behind to tend them. There was no use tending the dead; it was a useless procedure; the dead could take care of themselves.

About five o’clock, with a touch of dawn in the east, the first trickle of relatives arrived to identify their sons or their fathers or their mothers or their uncles. The people moved quickly into the warehouse, made the identification, moved quickly out again. By six o’clock, with the sky still lighter in the east, this trickle had passed on, also.

William Lantry walked across the wide wet street and entered the warehouse.

He held a piece of blue chalk in one hand.

He walked by the coroner who stood in the entranceway talking to two others. “... drive the bodies to the Incinerator in Mellin Town, tomorrow....” The voices faded.

Lantry moved, his feet echoing faintly on the cool concrete. A wave of sourceless relief came to him as he walked among the shrouded figures. He was among his own. And—better than that, by God! he had created these! He had made them dead! He had procured for himself a vast number of recumbent friends!

Was the coroner watching? Lantry turned his head. No. The warehouse was calm and quiet and shadowed in the dark morning. The coroner was walking away now, across the street, with his two attendants; a beetle had drawn up on the other side of the street, and the coroner was going over to talk with whoever was in the beetle.

William Lantry stood and made a blue chalk pentagram on the floor by each of the bodies. He moved swiftly, swiftly, without a sound, without blinking. In a few minutes, glancing up now and then to see if the coroner was still busy, he had chalked the floor by a hundred bodies. He straightened up and put the chalk in his pocket.

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party, now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party, now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party, now is the time....

Lying in the earth, over the centuries, the processes and thoughts of passing peoples and passing times had seeped down to him, slowly, as into a deep-buried sponge. From some death-memory in him now, ironically, repeatedly, a black typewriter clacked out black even lines of pertinent words:

Now is the time for all good men, for all good men, to come to the aid of—

William Lantry.

Other words

Arise my love, and come away—

The quick brown fox jumped over.... Paraphrase it. The quick risen body jumped over the tumbled Incinerator....

Lazarus, come forth from the tomb....

He knew the right words. He need only speak them as they had been spoken over the centuries. He need only gesture with his hands and speak the words, the dark words that would cause these bodies to quiver, rise and walk!

And when they had risen he would take them through the town, they would kill others and the others would rise and walk. By the end of the day there would be thousands of good friends walking with him. And what of the naive, living people of this year, this day, this hour? They would be completely unprepared for it. They would go down to defeat because they would not be expecting war of any sort. They wouldn’t believe it possible, it would all be over before they could convince themselves that such an illogical thing could happen.

He lifted his hands. His lips moved. He said the words. He began in a chanting whisper and then raised his voice, louder. He said the words again and again. His eyes were closed tightly. His body swayed. He spoke faster and faster. He began to move forward among the bodies. The dark words flowed from his mouth. He was enchanted with his own formulae. He stooped and made further blue symbols on the concrete, in the fashion of long-dead sorcerers, smiling, confident. Any moment now the first tremor of the still bodies, any moment now the rising, the leaping up of the cold ones!

His hands lifted in the air. His head nodded. He spoke, he spoke, he spoke. He gestured. He talked loudly over the bodies, his eyes flaring, his body tensed. “Now!” he cried, violently. “Rise, all of you!”

Nothing happened.

“Rise!” he screamed, with a terrible torment in his voice.

The sheets lay in white blue-shadow folds over the silent bodies.

“Hear me, and act!” he shouted.

Far away, on the street, a beetle hissed along.

Again, again, again he shouted, pleaded. He got down by each body and asked of it his particular violent favor. No reply. He strode wildly between the even white rows, flinging his arms up, stooping again and again to make blue symbols!

Lantry was very pale. He licked his lips. “Come on, get up,” he said. “They have, they always have, for a thousand years. When you make a mark—so! and speak a word—so! they always rise! Why not you now, why not you! Come on, come on, before they come back!”

The warehouse went up into shadow. There were steel beams across and down. In it, under the roof, there was not a sound, except the raving of a lonely man.

Lantry stopped.

Through the wide doors of the warehouse he caught a glimpse of the last cold stars of morning.

This was the year 2349.

His eyes grew cold and his hands fell to his sides. He did not move.


Once upon a time people shuddered when they heard the wind about the house, once people raised crucifixes and wolfbane, and believed in walking dead and bats and loping white wolves. And as long as they believed, then so long did the dead, the bats, the loping wolves exist. The mind gave birth and reality to them.

But....

He looked at the white sheeted bodies.

These people did not believe.

They had never believed. They would never believe. They had never imagined that the dead might walk. The dead went up flues in flame. They had never heard superstition, never trembled or shuddered or doubted in the dark. Walking dead people could not exist, they were illogical. This was the year 2349, man, after all!

Therefore, these people could not rise, could not walk again. They were dead and flat and cold. Nothing, chalk, imprecation, superstition, could wind them up and set them walking. They were dead and knew they were dead!

He was alone.

There were live people in the world who moved and drove beetles and drank quiet drinks in little dimly illumined bars by country roads, and kissed women and talked much good talk all day and every day.

But he was not alive.

Friction gave him what little warmth he possessed.

There were two hundred dead people here in this warehouse now, cold upon the floor. The first dead people in a hundred years who were allowed to be corpses for an extra hour or more. The first not to be immediately trundled to the Incinerator and lit like so much phosphorous.

He should be happy with them, among them.

He was not.

They were completely dead. They did not know nor believe in walking once the heart had paused and stilled itself. They were deader than dead ever was.

He was indeed alone, more alone than any man had ever been. He felt the chill of his aloneness moving up into his chest, strangling him quietly.

William Lantry turned suddenly and gasped.

While he had stood there, someone had entered the warehouse. A tall man with white hair, wearing a light-weight tan overcoat and no hat. How long the man had been nearby there was no telling.

There was no reason to stay here. Lantry turned and started to walk slowly out. He looked hastily at the man as he passed and the man with the white hair looked back at him, curiously. Had he heard? The imprecations, the pleadings, the shoutings? Did he suspect? Lantry slowed his walk. Had this man seen him make the blue chalk marks? But then, would he interpret them as symbols of an ancient superstition? Probably not.

Reaching the door, Lantry paused. For a moment he did not want to do anything but lie down and be coldly, really dead again and be carried silently down the street to some distant burning flue and there dispatched in ash and whispering fire. If he was indeed alone and there was no chance to collect an army to his cause, what, then, existed as a reason for going on? Killing? Yes, he’d kill a few thousand more. But that wasn’t enough. You can only do so much of that before they drag you down.

He looked at the cold sky.

A rocket went across the black heaven, trailing fire.

Mars burned red among a million stars.

Mars. The library. The librarian. Talk. Returning rocket men. Tombs.

Lantry almost gave a shout. He restrained his hand, which wanted so much to reach up into the sky and touch Mars. Lovely red star on the sky. Good star that gave him sudden new hope. If he had a living heart now it would be thrashing wildly, and sweat would be breaking out of him and his pulses would be stammering, and tears would be in his eyes!

He would go down to where ever the rockets sprang up into space. He would go to Mars, one way or another. He would go to the Martian tombs. There, there, by God, were bodies, he would bet his last hatred on it, that would rise and walk and work with him! Theirs was an ancient culture, much different from that of Earth, patterned on the Egyptian, if what the librarian had said was true. And the Egyptian—what a crucible of dark superstition and midnight terror that culture had been! Mars it was, then. Beautiful Mars!

But he must not attract attention to himself. He must move carefully. He wanted to run, yes, to get away, but that would be the worst possible move he could make. The man with the white hair was glancing at Lantry from time to time, in the entranceway. There were too many people about. If anything happened he would be outnumbered. So far he had taken on only one man at a time.

Lantry forced himself to stop and stand on the steps before the warehouse. The man with the white hair came on onto the steps also and stood, looking at the sky. He looked as if he was going to speak at any moment. He fumbled in his pockets, took out a packet of cigarettes.


V

They stood outside the morgue together, the tall pink, white-haired man, and Lantry, hands in their pockets. It was a cool night with a white shell of a moon that washed a house here, a road there, and further on, parts of a river.

“Cigarette?” The man offered Lantry one.

“Thanks.”

They lit up together. The man glanced at Lantry’s mouth. “Cool night.”

“Cool.”

They shifted their feet. “Terrible accident.”

“Terrible.”

“So many dead.”

“So many.”

Lantry felt himself some sort of delicate weight upon a scale. The other man did not seem to be looking at him, but rather listening and feeling toward him. There was a feathery balance here that made for vast discomfort. He wanted to move away and get out from under this balancing, weighing. The tall white-haired man said, “My name’s McClure.”

“Did you have any friends inside?” asked Lantry.

“No. A casual acquaintance. Awful accident.”

“Awful.”

They balanced each other. A beetle hissed by on the road with its seventeen tires whirling quietly. The moon showed a little town further over in the black hills.

“I say,” said the man McClure.

“Yes.”

“Could you answer me a question?”

“Be glad to.” He loosened the knife in his coat pocket, ready.

“Is your name Lantry?” asked the man at last.

“Yes.”

William Lantry?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’re the man who came out of the Salem graveyard day before yesterday, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Good Lord, I’m glad to meet you, Lantry! We’ve been trying to find you for the past twenty-four hours!”

The man seized his hand, pumped it, slapped him on the back.

“What, what?” said Lantry.

“Good Lord, man, why did you run off? Do you realize what an instance this is? We want to talk to you!”

McClure was smiling, glowing. Another handshake, another slap. “I thought it was you!”

The man is mad, thought Lantry. Absolutely mad. Here I’ve toppled his incinerators, killed people, and he’s shaking my hand. Mad, mad!

“Will you come along to the Hall?” said the man, taking his elbow.

“Wh-what hall?” Lantry stepped back.

“The Science Hall, of course. It isn’t every year we get a real case of suspended animation. In small animals, yes, but in a man, hardly! Will you come?”

“What’s the act!” demanded Lantry, glaring. “What’s all this talk.”

“My dear fellow, what do you mean?” the man was stunned.

“Never mind. Is that the only reason you want to see me?”

“What other reason would there be, Mr. Lantry? You don’t know how glad I am to see you!” He almost did a little dance. “I suspected. When we were in there together. You being so pale and all. And then the way you smoked your cigarette, something about it, and a lot of other things, all subliminal. But it is you, isn’t it, it is you!”

“It is I. William Lantry.” Dryly.

“Good fellow! Come along!”


The beetle moved swiftly through the dawn streets. McClure talked rapidly.

Lantry sat, listening, astounded. Here was this fool, McClure, playing his cards for him! Here was this stupid scientist, or whatever, accepting him not as a suspicious baggage, a murderous item. Oh no! Quite the contrary! Only as a suspended animation case was he considered! Not as a dangerous man at all. Far from it!

“Of course,” cried McClure, grinning. “You didn’t know where to go, whom to turn to. It was all quite incredible to you.”

“Yes.”

“I had a feeling you’d be there at the morgue tonight,” said McClure, happily.

“Oh?” Lantry stiffened.

“Yes. Can’t explain it. But you, how shall I put it? Ancient Americans? You had funny ideas on death. And you were among the dead so long, I felt you’d be drawn back by the accident, by the morgue and all. It’s not very logical. Silly, in fact. It’s just a feeling. I hate feelings but there it was. I came on a, I guess you’d call it a hunch, wouldn’t you?”

“You might call it that.”

“And there you were!”

“There I was,” said Lantry.

“Are you hungry?”

“I’ve eaten.”

“How did you get around?”

“I hitch-hiked.”

“You what?”

“People gave me rides on the road.”

“Remarkable.”

“I imagine it sounds that way.” He looked at the passing houses. “So this is the era of space travel, is it?”

“Oh, we’ve been traveling to Mars for some forty years now.”

“Amazing. And those big funnels, those towers in the middle of every town?”

“Those. Haven’t you heard? The Incinerators. Oh, of course, they hadn’t anything of that sort in your time. Had some bad luck with them. An explosion in Salem and one here, all in a forty-eight hour period. You looked as if you were going to speak; what is it?”

“I was thinking,” said Lantry. “How fortunate I got out of my coffin when I did. I might well have been thrown into one of your Incinerators and burned up.”

“That would have been terrible, wouldn’t it have?”

“Quite.”

Lantry toyed with the dials on the beetle dash. He wouldn’t go to Mars. His plans were changed. If this fool simply refused to recognize an act of violence when he stumbled upon it, then let him be a fool. If they didn’t connect the two explosions with a man from the tomb, all well and good. Let them go on deluding themselves. If they couldn’t imagine someone being mean and nasty and murderous, heaven help them. He rubbed his hands with satisfaction. No, no Martian trip for you, as yet, Lantry lad. First we’ll see what can be done boring from the inside. Plenty of time. The Incinerators can wait an extra week or so. One has to be subtle, you know. Any more immediate explosions might cause quite a ripple of thought.

McClure was gabbling wildly on.

“Of course, you don’t have to be examined immediately. You’ll want a rest. I’ll put you up at my place.”

“Thanks. I don’t feel up to being probed and pulled. Plenty of time in a week or so.”

They drew up before a house and climbed out.

“You’ll want to sleep, naturally.”

“I’ve been asleep for centuries. Be glad to stay awake. I’m not a bit tired.”

“Good.” McClure let them into the house. He headed for the drink bar. “A drink will fix us up.”

“You have one,” said Lantry. “Later for me. I just want to sit down.”

“By all means sit.” McClure mixed himself a drink. He looked around the room, looked at Lantry, paused for a moment with the drink in his hand, tilted his head to one side, and put his tongue in his cheek. Then he shrugged and stirred the drink. He walked slowly to a chair and sat, sipping the drink quietly. He seemed to be listening for something. “There are cigarettes on the table,” he said.

“Thanks.” Lantry took one and lit it and smoked it. He did not speak for some time.

Lantry thought, I’m taking this all too easily. Maybe I should kill and run. He’s the only one that has found me, yet. Perhaps this is all a trap. Perhaps we’re simply sitting here waiting for the police. Or whatever in hell they use for police these days. He looked at McClure. No. They weren’t waiting for police. They were waiting for something else.

McClure didn’t speak. He looked at Lantry’s face and he looked at Lantry’s hands. He looked at Lantry’s chest a long time, with easy quietness. He sipped his drink. He looked at Lantry’s feet.

Finally he said, “Where’d you get the clothing?”

“I asked someone for clothes and they gave these things to me. Darned nice of them.”

“You’ll find that’s how we are in this world. All you have to do is ask.”

McClure shut up again. His eyes moved. Only his eyes and nothing else. Once or twice he lifted his drink.

A little clock ticked somewhere in the distance.

“Tell me about yourself, Mr. Lantry.”

“Nothing much to tell.”

“You’re modest.”

“Hardly. You know about the past. I know nothing of the future, or I should say ‘today’ and day before yesterday. You don’t learn much in a coffin.”

McClure did not speak. He suddenly sat forward in his chair and then leaned back and shook his head.

They’ll never suspect me, thought Lantry. They aren’t superstitious, they simply can’t believe in a dead man walking. Therefore, I’ll be safe. I’ll keep putting off the physical checkup. They’re polite. They won’t force me. Then, I’ll work it so I can get to Mars. After that, the tombs, in my own good time, and the plan. God, how simple. How naive these people are.


McClure sat across the room for five minutes. A coldness had come over him. The color was very slowly going from his face, as one sees the color of medicine vanishing as one presses the bulb at the top of a dropper. He leaned forward, saying nothing, and offered another cigarette to Lantry.

“Thanks.” Lantry took it. McClure sat deeply back into his easy chair, his knees folded one over the other. He did not look at Lantry, and yet somehow did. The feeling of weighing and balancing returned. McClure was like a tall thin master of hounds listening for something that nobody else could hear. There are little silver whistles you can blow that only dogs can hear. McClure seemed to be listening acutely, sensitively for such an invisible whistle, listening with his eyes and with his half-opened, dry mouth, and with his aching, breathing nostrils.

Lantry sucked the cigarette, sucked the cigarette, sucked the cigarette, and, as many times, blew out, blew out, blew out. McClure was like some lean red-shagged hound listening and listening with a slick slide of eyes to one side, with an apprehension in that hand that was so precisely microscopic that one only sensed it, as one sensed the invisible whistle, with some part of the brain deeper than eyes or nostril or ear. McClure was all chemist’s scale, all antennae.

The room was so quiet the cigarette smoke made some kind of invisible noise rising to the ceiling. McClure was a thermometer, a chemist’s scales, a listening hound, a litmus paper, an antennae; all these. Lantry did not move. Perhaps the feeling would pass. It had passed before. McClure did not move for a long while and then, without a word, he nodded at the sherry decanter, and Lantry refused as silently. They sat looking but not looking at each other, again and away, again and away.

McClure stiffened slowly. Lantry saw the color getting paler in those lean cheeks, and the hand tightening on the sherry glass, and a knowledge come at last to stay, never to go away, into the eyes.

Lantry did not move. He could not. All of this was of such a fascination that he wanted only to see, to hear what would happen next. It was McClure’s show from here on in.

McClure said, “At first I thought it was the finest psychosis I have ever seen. You, I mean. I thought, he’s convinced himself, Lantry’s convinced himself, he’s quite insane, he’s told himself to do all these little things.” McClure talked as if in a dream, and continued talking and didn’t stop.

“I said to myself, he purposely doesn’t breathe through his nose. I watched your nostrils, Lantry. The little nostril hairs never once quivered in the last hour. That wasn’t enough. It was a fact I filed. It wasn’t enough. He breathes through his mouth, I said, on purpose. And then I gave you a cigarette and you sucked and blew, sucked and blew. None of it ever came out your nose. I told myself, well, that’s all right. He doesn’t inhale. Is that terrible, is that suspect? All in the mouth, all in the mouth. And then, I looked at your chest. I watched. It never moved up or down, it did nothing. He’s convinced himself, I said to myself. He’s convinced himself about all this. He doesn’t move his chest, except slowly, when he thinks you’re not looking. That’s what I told myself.”

The words went on in the silent room, not pausing, still in a dream. “And then I offered you a drink but you don’t drink and I thought, he doesn’t drink, I thought. Is that terrible? And I watched and watched you all this time. Lantry holds his breath, he’s fooling himself. But now, yes, now, I understand it quite well. Now I know everything the way it is. Do you know how I know? I do not hear breathing in the room. I wait and I hear nothing. There is no beat of heart or intake of lung. The room is so silent. Nonsense, one might say, but I know. At the Incinerator I know. There is a difference. You enter a room where a man is on a bed and you know immediately whether he will look up and speak to you or whether he will not speak to you ever again. Laugh if you will, but one can tell. It is a subliminal thing. It is the whistle the dog hears when no human hears. It is the tick of a clock that has ticked so long one no longer notices. Something is in a room when a man lives in it. Something is not in the room when a man is dead in it.”


McClure shut his eyes a moment. He put down his sherry glass. He waited a moment. He took up his cigarette and puffed it and then put it down in a black tray.

“I am alone in this room,” he said.

Lantry did not move.

“You are dead,” said McClure. “My mind does not know this. It is not a thinking thing. It is a thing of the senses and the subconscious. At first I thought, this man thinks he is dead, risen from the dead, a vampire. Is that not logical? Would not any man, buried as many centuries, raised in a superstitious, ignorant culture, think likewise of himself once risen from the tomb? Yes, that is logical. This man has hypnotized himself and fitted his bodily functions so that they would in no way interfere with his self-delusion, his great paranoia. He governs his breathing. He tells himself, I cannot hear my breathing, therefore I am dead. His inner mind censors the sound of breathing. He does not allow himself to eat or drink. These things he probably does in his sleep, with part of his mind, hiding the evidences of this humanity from his deluded mind at other times.”

McClure finished it. “I was wrong. You are not insane. You are not deluding yourself. Nor me. This is all very illogical and—I must admit—almost frightening. Does that make you feel good, to think you frighten me? I have no label for you. You’re a very odd man, Lantry. I’m glad to have met you. This will make an interesting report indeed.”

“Is there anything wrong with me being dead?” said Lantry. “Is it a crime?”

“You must admit it’s highly unusual.”

“But, still now, is it a crime?” asked Lantry.

“We have no crime, no criminal court. We want to examine you, naturally, to find out how you have happened. It is like that chemical which, one minute is inert, the next is living cell. Who can say where what happened to what. You are that impossibility. It is enough to drive a man quite insane.”

“Will I be released when you are done fingering me?”

“You will not be held. If you don’t wish to be examined, you will not be. But I am hoping you will help by offering us your services.”

“I might,” said Lantry.

“But tell me,” said McClure. “What were you doing at the morgue?”

“Nothing.”

“I heard you talking when I came in.”

“I was merely curious.”

“You’re lying. That is very bad, Mr. Lantry. The truth is far better. The truth is, is it not, that you are dead and, being the only one of your sort, were lonely. Therefore you killed people to have company.”

“How does that follow?”

McClure laughed. “Logic, my dear fellow. Once I knew you were really dead, a moment ago, really a—what do you call it—a vampire (silly word!) I tied you immediately to the Incinerator blasts. Before that there was no reason to connect you. But once the one piece fell into place, the fact that you were dead, then it was simple to guess your loneliness, your hate, your envy, all of the tawdry motivations of a walking corpse. It took only an instant then to see the Incinerators blown to blazes, and then to think of you, among the bodies at the morgue, seeking help, seeking friends and people like yourself to work with—”

“You’re too damned smart!” Lantry was out of the chair. He was half way to the other man when McClure rolled over and scuttled away, flinging the sherry decanter. With a great despair Lantry realized that, like a damned idiot, he had thrown away his one chance to kill McClure. He should have done it earlier. It had been Lantry’s one weapon, his safety margin. If people in a society never killed each other, they never suspected one another. You could walk up to any one of them and kill him.

“Come back here!” Lantry threw the knife.

McClure got behind a chair. The idea of flight, of protection, of fighting, was still new to him. He had part of the idea, but there was still a bit of luck on Lantry’s side if Lantry wanted to use it.

“Oh, no,” said McClure, holding the chair between himself and the advancing man. “You want to kill me. It’s odd, but true. I can’t understand it. You want to cut me with that knife or something like that, and it’s up to me to prevent you from doing such an odd thing.”

“I will kill you!” Lantry let it slip out. He cursed himself. That was the worst possible thing to say.

Lantry lunged across the chair, clutching at McClure.

McClure was very logical. “It won’t do you any good to kill me. You know that.” They wrestled and held each other in a wild, toppling shuffle. Tables fell over, scattering articles. “You remember what happened in the morgue?”

“I don’t care!” screamed Lantry.

“You didn’t raise those dead, did you?”

“I don’t care!” cried Lantry.

“Look here,” said McClure, reasonably. “There will never be any more like you, ever, there’s no use.”

“Then I’ll destroy all of you, all of you!” screamed Lantry.

“And then what? You’ll still be alone, with no more like you about.”

“I’ll go to Mars. They have tombs there. I’ll find more like myself!”

“No,” said McClure. “The executive order went through yesterday. All of the tombs are being deprived of their bodies. They’ll be burned in the next week.”

They fell together to the floor. Lantry got his hands on McClure’s throat.

“Please,” said McClure. “Do you see, you’ll die.”

“What do you mean?” cried Lantry.

“Once you kill all of us, and you’re alone, you’ll die! The hate will die. That hate is what moves you, nothing else! That envy moves you. Nothing else! You’ll die, inevitably. You’re not immortal. You’re not even alive, you’re nothing but a moving hate.”

“I don’t care!” screamed Lantry, and began choking the man, beating his head with his fists, crouched on the defenseless body. McClure looked up at him with dying eyes.

The front door opened. Two men came in.

“I say,” said one of them. “What’s going on? A new game?”

Lantry jumped back and began to run.

“Yes, a new game!” said McClure, struggling up. “Catch him and you win!”

The two men caught Lantry. “We win,” they said.

“Let me go!” Lantry thrashed, hitting them across their faces, bringing blood.

“Hold him tight!” cried McClure.

They held him.

“A rough game, what?” one of them said. “What do we do now?”


The beetle hissed along the shining road. Rain fell out of the sky and a wind ripped at the dark green wet trees. In the beetle, his hands on the half-wheel, McClure was talking. His voice was a susurrant, a whispering, a hypnotic thing. The two other men sat in the back seat. Lantry sat, or rather lay, in the front seat, his head back, his eyes faintly open, the glowing green light of the dash dials showing on his cheeks. His mouth was relaxed. He did not speak.

McClure talked quietly and logically, about life and moving, about death and not moving, about the sun and the great sun Incinerator, about the emptied tombyard, about hatred and how hate lived and made a clay man live and move, and how illogical it all was, it all was, it all was. One was dead, was dead, was dead, that was all, all, all. One did not try to be otherwise. The car whispered on the moving road. The rain spatted gently on the windshield. The men in the back seat conversed quietly. Where were they going, going? To the Incinerator, of course. Cigarette smoke moved slowly up on the air, curling and tying into itself in grey loops and spirals. One was dead and must accept it.

Lantry did not move. He was a marionette, the strings cut. There was only a tiny hatred in his heart, in his eyes, like twin coals, feeble, glowing, fading.

I am Poe, he thought. I am all that is left of Edgar Allan Poe, and I am all that is left of Ambrose Bierce and all that is left of a man named Lovecraft. I am a grey night bat with sharp teeth, and I am a square black monolith monster. I am Osiris and Baal and Set. I am the Necronomicon, the Book of the Dead. I am the house of Usher, falling into flame. I am the Red Death. I am the man mortared into the catacomb with a cask of Amontillado.... I am a dancing skeleton. I am a coffin, a shroud, a lightning bolt reflected in an old house window. I am an autumn-empty tree, I am a rapping, flinging shutter. I am a yellowed volume turned by a claw hand. I am an organ played in an attic at midnight. I am a mask, a skull mask behind an oak tree on the last day of October. I am a poison apple bobbling in a water tub for child noses to bump at, for child teeth to snap.... I am a black candle lighted before an inverted cross. I am a coffin lid, a sheet with eyes, a footstep on a black stairwell. I am Dunsany and Machen and I am the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I am The Monkey’s Paw and I am The Phantom Rickshaw. I am the Cat and the Canary, The Gorilla, the Bat. I am the ghost of Hamlet’s father on the castle wall.

All of these things am I. And now these last things will be burned. While I lived they still lived. While I moved and hated and existed, they still existed. I am all that remembers them. I am all of them that still goes on, and will not go on after tonight. Tonight, all of us, Poe and Bierce and Hamlet’s father, we burn together. They will make a big heap of us and burn us like a bonfire, like things of Guy Fawkes’ day, gasoline, torch-light, cries and all!

And what a wailing will we put up. The world will be clean of us, but in our going we shall say, oh what is the world like, clean of fear, where is the dark imagination from the dark time, the thrill and the anticipation, the suspense of old October, gone, never more to come again, flattened and smashed and burned by the rocket people, by the Incinerator people, destroyed and obliterated, to be replaced by doors that open and close and lights that go on or off without fear. If only you could remember how once we lived, what Hallowe’en was to us, and what Poe was, and how we gloried in the dark morbidities. One more drink, dear friends, of Amontillado, before the burning. All of this, all, exists but in one last brain on earth. A whole world dying tonight. One more drink, pray.

“Here we are,” said McClure.


The Incinerator was brightly lighted. There was quiet music nearby. McClure got out of the beetle, came around to the other side. He opened the door. Lantry simply lay there. The talking and the logical talking had slowly drained him of life. He was no more than wax now, with a small glow in his eyes. This future world, how the men talked to you, how logically they reasoned away your life. They wouldn’t believe in him. The force of their disbelief froze him. He could not move his arms or his legs. He could only mumble senselessly, coldly, eyes flickering.

McClure and the two others helped him out of the car, put him in a golden box and rolled him on a roller table into the warm glowing interior of the building.

I am Edgar Allan Poe, I am Ambrose Bierce, I am Hallowe’en, I am a coffin, a shroud, a Monkey’s Paw, a Phantom, a Vampire....

“Yes, yes,” said McClure, quietly, over him. “I know. I know.”

The table glided. The walls swung over him and by him, the music played. You are dead, you are logically dead.

I am Usher, I am the Maelstrom, I am the MS Found In A Bottle, I am the Pit and I am the Pendulum, I am the Telltale Heart, I am the Raven nevermore, nevermore.

“Yes,” said McClure, as they walked softly. “I know.”

“I am in the catacomb,” cried Lantry.

“Yes, the catacomb,” said the walking man over him.

“I am being chained to a wall, and there is no bottle of Amontillado here!” cried Lantry weakly, eyes closed.

“Yes,” someone said.

There was movement. The flame door opened.

“Now someone is mortaring up the cell, closing me in!”

“Yes, I know.” A whisper.

The golden box slid into the flame lock.

“I’m being walled in! A very good joke indeed! Let us be gone!” A wild scream and much laughter.

“We know, we understand....”

The inner flame lock opened. The golden coffin shot forth into flame.

“For the love of God, Montresor! For the love of God!”


Asleep in Armageddon

Published Winter 1948, Planet Stories

Magazine cover

Avoid Planetoid 787. Lush and sunny, with fine
air and no dangerous beasts, it’ll tempt you to
curve in for some nice solid-ground sleep. DON’T!


You don’t want death and you don’t expect death. Something goes wrong, your rocket tilts in space, a planetoid jumps up, blackness, movement, hands over the eyes, a violent pulling back of available power in the fore-jets, the crash....

The darkness. In the darkness, the senseless pain. In the pain, the nightmare.

He was not unconscious.

Your name? asked hidden voices. Sale, he replied in whirling nausea. Leonard Sale. Occupation, cried the voices. Spaceman! he cried, alone in the night. Welcome, said the voices. Welcome, welcome. They faded.

He stood up in the wreckage of his ship. It lay like a folded, tattered garment around him.

The sun rose and it was morning.

Sale pried himself out the small air-lock and stood breathing the atmosphere. Luck. Sheer luck. The air was breathable. An instant’s checking showed him that he had two month’s supply of food with him. Fine, fine! And this—he fingered at the wreckage. Miracle of miracles! The radio was intact.

He stuttered out the message on the sending key. CRASHED ON PLANETOID 787. SALE. SEND HELP. SALE. SEND HELP.

The reply came instantly: HELLO, SALE. THIS IS ADDAMS IN MARSPORT. SENDING RESCUE SHIP LOGARITHM. WILL ARRIVE PLANETOID 787 IN SIX DAYS. HANG ON.

Sale did a little dance.

It was simple as that. One crashed. One had food. One radioed for help. Help came. La! He clapped his hands.

The sun rose and was warm. He felt no sense of mortality. Six days would be no time at all. He would eat, he would read, he would sleep. He glanced at his surroundings. No dangerous animals; a tolerable oxygen supply. What more could one ask. Beans and bacon, was the answer. The happy smell of breakfast filled the air.

After breakfast he smoked a cigarette slowly, deeply, blowing out. He nodded contentedly. What a life! Not a scratch on him. Luck. Sheer luck.

His head nodded. Sleep, he thought.

Good idea. Forty winks. Plenty of time to sleep, take it easy. Six whole long, luxurious days of idling and philosophizing. Sleep.

He stretched himself out, tucked his arm under his head, and shut his eyes.


Insanity came in to take him. The voices whispered.

Sleep, yes, sleep, said the voices. Ah, sleep, sleep.

He opened his eyes. The voices stopped. Everything was normal. He shrugged. He shut his eyes casually, fitfully. He settled his long body.

Eeeeeeeeeeee, sang the voices, far away.

Ahhhhhhhh, sang the voices.

Sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sang the voices.

Die, die, die, die, die, sang the voices.

Ooooooooooooooo, cried the voices.

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, a bee ran through his brain.

He sat up. He shook his head. He put his hands to his ears. He blinked at the crashed ship. Hard metal. He felt the solid rock under his fingers. He saw the real sun warming the blue sky.

Let’s try sleeping on our back, he thought. He adjusted himself, lying back down. His watch ticked on his wrist. The blood burned in his veins.

Sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sang the voices.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, sang the voices.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, sang the voices.

Die, die, die, die, die. Sleep, sleep, die, sleep, die, sleep, die! Oohhh. Ahhhhh. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Blood tapped in his ears. The sound of the wind rising.

Mine, mine, said a voice. Mine, mine, he’s mine!

No, mine, mine, said another voice. No, mine, mine; he’s mine!

No, ours, ours, sang ten voices. Ours, ours, he’s ours!

His fingers twitched. His jaws spasmed. His eyelids jerked.

At last, at last, sang a high voice. Now, now. The long time, the waiting. Over, over, sang the high voice. Over, over at last!

It was like being undersea. Green songs, green visions, green time. Bubbled voices drowning in deep liquors of sea tide. Far away choruses chanting senseless rhymes. Leonard Sale stirred in agony.

Mine, mine, cried a loud voice. Mine, mine! shrieked another. Ours, ours! shrieked the chorus.

The din of metal, the crash of sword, the conflict, the battle, the fight, the war. All of it exploding, his mind fiercely torn apart!

Eeeeeeeeeeeeee!

He leaped up, screaming. The landscape melted and flowed.

Image

He leaped up, raving. What was going on?

A voice said, “I am Tylle of Rathalar. Proud Tylle, Tylle of the Blood Mound and the Death Drum. Tylle of Rathalar, Killer of Men!”

Another spoke, “I am Iorr of Wendillo, Wise Iorr, Destroyer of Infidels!”

The chorus chanted. “And we the warriors, we the steel, we the warriors, we the red blood rushing, the red blood falling, the red blood steaming in the sun—”

Leonard Sale staggered under the burden. “Go away!” he cried. “Leave me, in God’s name, leave me!”

Eeeeeeeeeee, shrieked the high sound of steel hot on steel.

Silence.


He stood with the sweat boiling out of him. He was trembling so violently he could not stand. Insane, he thought. Absolutely insane. Raving insane. Insane.

He jerked the food kit open, did something to a chemical packet. Hot coffee was ready in an instant. He mouthed it, spilled gushes of it down his shirt. He shivered. He sucked in raw gulps of breath.

Let’s be logical, he thought, sitting down heavily. The coffee seared his tongue. No record of insanity in the family for two hundred years. All healthy, well-balanced. No reason for insanity now. Shock? Silly. No shock. I’m to be rescued in six days. No shock to that. No danger. Just an ordinary planetoid. Ordinary, ordinary place. No reason for insanity. I’m sane.

Oh? cried a small metal voice within. An echo. Fading.

“Yes!” he cried, beating his fists together. “Sane!”

Hahahahahahahahahah. Somewhere a vanishing laughter.

He whirled about. “Shut up, you!” he cried.

We didn’t say anything, said the mountains. We didn’t say anything, said the sky. We didn’t say anything, said the wreckage.

“All right then,” he said, swaying. “See that you don’t.”

Everything was normal.


The pebbles were getting hot. The sky was big and blue. He looked at his fingers and saw the way the sun burned on every black hair. He looked at his boots and the dust on them. Suddenly he felt very happy because he made a decision. I won’t go to sleep, he thought. I’m having nightmares, so why sleep. There’s your solution.

He made a routine. From nine o’clock in the morning, which was this minute, until twelve, he would walk around and see the planetoid. He would write on a pad with a yellow pencil everything he saw. Then he would sit down and open a can of oily sardines and some canned fresh bread with good butter on it. From twelve thirty until four he would read nine chapters of War and Peace. He took the book from the wreckage, and laid it where he might find it later. There was a book of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, too. That might be nice.

Supper would come at five-thirty and then from six until ten he would listen to the radio from Earth. There would be a couple of bad comedians telling jokes and a bad singer singing some song, and the latest news flashes, signing off at midnight with the UN anthem.

After that?

He felt sick.

I’ll play solitaire until dawn, he thought. I’ll sit up and drink hot black coffee and play solitaire, no cheating, until sunrise.

Ho ho, he thought.

“What did you say?” he asked himself.

“I said ‘Ha ha’,” he replied. “Some time, you’ll have to sleep.”

“I’m wide awake,” he said.

“Liar,” he retorted, enjoying the conversation.

“I feel fine,” he said.

“Hypocrite,” he replied.

“I’m not afraid of the night, or sleep, or anything,” he said.

Very funny,” he said.

He felt bad. He wanted to sleep. And the fact that he was afraid of sleep made him want to lie down all the more and shut his eyes and curl up. “Comfy-cozy?” asked his ironic censor.

“I’ll just walk and look at the rocks and the geological formations and think how good it is to be alive,” he said.

“Ye gods,” cried his censor. “William Saroyan!”

You’ll go on, he thought, maybe one day, maybe one night, but what about the next night and the next, and the next? Can you stay awake all that time, for six nights? Until the rescue ship comes? Are you that good, that strong?

The answer was no.

What are you afraid of? I don’t know. Those voices. Those sounds. But they can’t hurt you, can they?

They might. You’ve got to face them some time. Must I? Brace up to it, old man. Chin up, and all that rot.

He sat down on the hard ground. He felt very much like crying. He felt as if life was over and he was entering new and unknown territory. It was such a deceiving day, with the sun warm; physically, he felt able and well, one might fish on such a day as this, or pick flowers or kiss a woman or anything. But in the midst of a lovely day, what did one get?

Death.

Well, hardly that.

Death, he insisted.

He lay down and closed his eyes. He was tired of messing around.

All right, he thought, if you are death, come get me. I want to know what all this damned nonsense is about.

Death came.


Eeeeeeeeeeeeee, said a voice.

Yes, I know, said Leonard Sale, lying there. But what else?

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, said a voice.

I know that, also, said Leonard Sale, irritably. He turned cold. His mouth hung open wildly.

“I am Tylle of Rathalar, Killer of Men!”

“I am Iorr of Wendillo, Destroyer of Infidels!”

What is this place? asked Leonard Sale, struggling against horror.

“Once a mighty planet!” said Tylle of Rathalar.

“Once a place of battles!” said Iorr of Wendillo.

“Now dead,” said Tylle.

“Now silent,” said Iorr.

“Until you came,” said Tylle.

“To give us life again,” said Iorr.

You’re dead, insisted Leonard Sale, flesh writhing. You’re nothing but empty wind.

“We live, through you.”

“And fight, through you!”

So that’s it, thought Leonard Sale. I’m to be a battleground, am I? Are you friends?

“Enemies!” cried Iorr.

“Foul enemies!” cried Tylle.


Leonard smiled a rictal smile. He felt ghastly. How long have you waited? he demanded.

“How long is time?” Ten thousand years? “Perhaps.” Ten million years? “Perhaps.”

What are you? Thoughts, spirits, ghosts? “All of those, and more.” Intelligences? “Precisely.” How did you survive?

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, sang the chorus, far away.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, sang another army, waiting to fight.

“Once upon a time, this was fertile land, a rich planet. And there were two nations, strong nations, led by two strong men. I, Iorr. And he, that one who calls himself Tylle. And the planet declined and gave way to nothingness. The peoples and the armies languished in the midst of a great war which had lasted five thousand years. We lived long lives and loved long loves, drank much, slept much, fought much. And when the planet died, our bodies withered, and, only in time, and with much science, did we survive.”

Survive, wondered Leonard Sale. But there is nothing of you!

“Our minds, fool, our minds! What is a body without a mind?”

What is a mind without a body, laughed Leonard Sale. I’ve got you there. Admit it, I’ve got you!

“True,” said the cruel voice. “One is useless lacking the other. But survival is survival even when unconscious. The minds of our nations, through science, through wonder, survived.”

But without senses, lacking eyes, ears, lacking touch, smell, and the rest? “Lacking all those, yes. We were vapors, merely. For a long time. Until today.”

And now I am here, thought Leonard Sale. “You are here,” said the voice. “To give substance to our mentalities. To give us our needed body.”

I’m only one, thought Sale. “Nevertheless, you are of use.”

I’m an individual, thought Sale. I resent your intrusion.

“He resents our intrusion! Did you hear him, Iorr? He resents!”

“As if he had a right to resent!”

Be careful, warned Sale. I’ll blink my eyes and you’ll be gone, phantoms! I’ll wake up and rub you out!

“But you’ll have to sleep again, some time!” cried Iorr. “And when you do, we’ll be here, waiting, waiting, waiting. For you.”

What do you want? “Solidity. Mass. Sensation again.” You can’t both have it. “We’ll fight that out between us.”

A hot clamp twisted his skull. It was as if a spike had been thrust and beaten down between the bivalvular halves of his brain.

Now it was terribly clear. Horribly, magnificently clear. He was their universe. The world of his thoughts, his brain, his skull, divided into two camps, that of Iorr, that of Tylle. They were using him!

Pennants flung up on a pink mind sky! Brass shields caught the sun. Grey animals shifted and came rushing in bristling tides of sword and plume and trumpet.

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! The rushing.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh! The roaring.

Nowwwwwwwwww! the whirling.

Mmmmmmmmmmmmm——

Ten thousand men hurtled across the small hidden stage. Ten thousand men floated on the shellacked inner ball of his eye. Ten thousand javelins hissed between the small bone hulls of his head. Ten thousand jeweled guns exploded. Ten thousand voices chanted in his ears. Now his body was riven and extended, shaken and rolled, he was screaming, writhing, the plates of his skull threatened to burst asunder. The gabbling, the shrilling, as, across bone plains of mind and continent of inner marrow, through gullies of vein, down hills of artery, over rivers of melancholy, came armies and armies, one army, two armies, swords flashed in the sun, bearing down upon each other, fifty thousand minds snatching, scrabbling, cutting at him, demanding, using. In a moment, the hard collision, one army on another, the rush, the blood, the sound, the fury, the death, the insanity!

Like cymbals, the armies struck!

He leaped up, raving. He ran across the desert. He ran and ran and did not stop running.

He sat down and cried. He sobbed until his lungs ached. He cried very hard and long. Tears ran down his cheeks and into his upraised, trembling fingers. “God, God, help me, oh God, help me,” he said.

All was normal again.


It was four o’clock in the afternoon. The rocks were baked by the sun. He managed, after a time, to cook himself a few hot biscuits, which he ate with strawberry jam. He wiped his stained fingers on his shirt, blindly, trying not to think.

“At least I know what I’m up against,” he thought. “Oh, Lord, what a world. What an innocent looking world, and what a monster it really is. It’s good no one ever explored it before. Or did they?” He shook his aching head. Pity them, who ever crashed here before, if any ever did. Warm sun, hard rocks, not a sign of hostility. A lovely world.

Until you shut your eyes and relaxed your mind.

And the night and the voices and the insanity and the death padded in on soft feet.

“I’m all right now, though,” he said, proudly. “Look at that.” He displayed his hand. By a supreme effort of will, it was no longer shaking. “I’ll show you who in hell’s ruler here,” he announced to the innocent sky. “I am.” He tapped his chest.

To think that thought could live that long! A million years, perhaps, all these thoughts of death and disorder and conquest, lingering in the innocent but poisonous air of the planet, waiting for a real man to give them a channel through which they might issue again in all their senseless virulence.

Now that he was feeling better, it was all silly. All I have to do, he thought, is stay awake six nights. They won’t bother me that way. When I’m awake, I’m dominant. I’m stronger than those crazy monarchs and their silly tribes of sword-flingers and shield-bearers and horn-blowers. I’ll stay awake.

But can you? he wondered. Six whole nights? Awake?

There’s coffee and medicine and books and cards.

But I’m tired now, so tired, he thought. Can I hold out?

Well, if not. There’s always the gun.

Where will these silly monarchs be if you put a bullet through their stage? All the world’s a stage? No. You, Leonard Sale, are the small stage. And they the players. And what if you put a bullet through the wings, tearing down scenes, destroying curtains, ruining lines! Destroy the stage, the players, all, if they aren’t careful!

First of all, he must radio through to Marsport, again. If there was any way they could rush the rescue ship sooner, then maybe he could hang on. Anyway, he must warn them what sort of planet this was, this so innocent seeming spot of nightmare and fever vision—

He tapped on the radio key for a minute. His mouth tightened. The radio was dead.

It had sent through the proper rescue message, received a reply, and then extinguished itself.

The proper touch of irony, he thought. There was only one thing to do. Draw a plan.

This he did. He got a yellow pencil and delineated his six day plan of escape.

Tonight, he wrote, read six more chapters of War and Peace. At four in the morning have hot black coffee. At four-fifteen take cards from pack and play ten games of solitaire. This should take until six-thirty when—more coffee. At seven o’clock, listen to early morning programs from Earth, if the receiving equipment on the radio works at all. Does it?

He tried the radio receiver. It was dead.

Well, he wrote, from seven o’clock until eight, sing all the songs you remember, make your own entertainment. From eight until nine think about Helen King. Remember Helen. On second thought, think about Helen right now.

Image

Helen King

He marked that out with his pencil.

The rest of the days were set down in minute detail.

He checked the medical kit. There were several packets of tablets that would keep you awake. One tablet an hour every hour for six days. He felt quite confident.

“Here’s mud in your evil eye, Iorr, Tylle!”

He swallowed one of the stay-wake tablets with a scalding mouth of black coffee.


Well, with one thing and another it was Tolstoy or Balzac, gin-rummy, coffee, tablets, walking, more Tolstoy, more Balzac, more gin-rummy, more solitaire. The first day passed, as did the second and the third.

On the fourth day he lay quietly in the shade of a rock, counting to a thousand by fives, then by tens, to keep his mind occupied and awake. His eyes were so tired he had to bathe them frequently in cool water. He couldn’t read, he was bothered with splitting headaches. He was so exhausted he couldn’t move. He was numb with medicine. He resembled a waxen dummy, stuffed with things to preserve him in a state of horrified wakefulness. His eyes were glass, his tongue a rusted pike, his fingers felt as if they were gloved in needles and fur.

He followed the hand of his watch. One second less to wait, he thought. Two seconds, three seconds, four, five, ten, thirty seconds. A whole minute. Now an hour less time to wait. Oh, ship, hurry on thy appointed round!

He began to laugh softly.

What would happen if he just gave up, drifted off into sleep? Sleep, ah, sleep; perchance to dream. All the world a stage.... What if he gave up the unequal struggle, lapsed down?

Eeeeeeeeeee, the high, shrill warning sound of battle metal.

He shivered. His tongue moved in his dry, burry mouth.

Iorr and Tylle would battle out their ancient battle.

Leonard Sale would become quite insane.

And whichever won the battle, would take this ruin of an insane man, the shaking, laughing wild body, and wander it across the face of this world for ten, twenty years, occupying it, striding in it, pompous, holding court, making grand gestures, ordering heads severed, calling on inward unseen dancing girls. Leonard Sale, what remained of him, would be led off to some hidden cave, there to be infested with wars and worms of wars for twenty insane years, occupied and prostituted by old and outlandish thoughts.

When the rescue ship arrived it would find nothing. Sale would be hidden somewhere by a triumphant army in his head. Hidden in some cleft of rock, placed there like a nest for Iorr to lie upon in evil occupation.

The thought of it almost broke him in half.

Twenty years of insanity. Twenty years of torture, doing what you don’t want to do. Twenty years of wars raging and being split apart, twenty years of nausea and trembling.

His head sank down between his knees. His eyes snapped and cracked and made soft noises. His eardrum popped tiredly.

Sleep, sleep, sang soft sea voices.

I’ll—I’ll make a proposition with you, listen, thought Leonard Sale. You, Iorr, you, too, Tylle! Iorr, you can occupy me on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tylle, you can take me over on Sundays, Tuesdays and Saturdays. Thursday is maid’s night out. Okay?

Eeeeeeeeeeeeee, sang the sea tides, seething in his brain.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, sang the distant voices softly, soft.

What’ll you say, is it a bargain, Iorr, Tylle?

No, said a voice.

No, said another.

Greedy, both of you, greedy! complained Sale. A pox on both your houses!

He slept.


He was Iorr, jeweled rings on his hands. He arose beside his rocket and held out his fingers, commanding blind armies. He was Iorr, ancient ruler of jeweled warriors.

He was Tylle, lover of women, killer of dogs!

With some hidden bit of awareness, his hand crept to the holster at his hip. The sleeping hand withdrew the gun there. The hand lifted, the gun pointed.

The armies of Tylle and Iorr gave battle.

The gun exploded.

The bullet tore across Sale’s forehead, wakening him.

He stayed awake for another six hours, getting over his latest siege. He knew it to be hopeless now. He washed and bandaged the wound he had given himself. He wished he had aimed straighter and it was all over. He watched the sky. Two more days. Two more. Come on, ship, come on. He was heavy with sleeplessness.

No use. At the end of six hours he was raving badly. He took the gun up and put it down and took it up again, put it against his head, tightened his hand on the trigger, changed his mind, looked at the sky again.

Night settled. He tried to read, threw the book away. He tore it up and burned it, just to have something to do.

So tired. In another hour, he decided. If nothing happens, I’ll kill myself. This is for certain now. I’ll do it, this time.

He got the gun ready and laid it on the ground next to himself.

He was very calm now, though tired. It would be over and done. He would be dead.

He watched the minute hand of his watch. One minute, five minutes, twenty-five minutes.

The flame appeared on the sky.

It was so unbelievable he started to cry. “A rocket,” he said, standing up. “A rocket!” he cried, rubbing his eyes. He ran forward.

The flame brightened, grew, came down.

He waved frantically, running forward, leaving his gun, his supplies, everything behind. “You see that, Iorr, Tylle! You savages, you monsters, I beat you! I won! They’re coming to rescue me now! I’ve won, damn you.”

He laughed harshly at the rocks and the sky and the backs of his hands.

The rocket landed. Leonard Sale stood swaying, waiting for the door to lid open.

“Goodbye, Iorr, goodbye, Tylle!” he shouted in triumph, grinning, eyes hot.

Eeeeee, sang a diminishing roar in time.

Ahhhhhh, voices faded.

The rocket flipped wide its air-lock. Two men jumped out.

“Sale?” they called. “We’re Ship ACDN13. Intercepted your SOS and decided to pick you up ourselves. The Marsport ship won’t get through until day after tomorrow. We want a spot of rest ourselves. Thought it’d be good to spend the night here, pick you up, and go on.”

“No,” said Sale, face melting with terror. “No spend night—”

He couldn’t talk. He fell to the ground.

“Quick,” said a voice, in the bleary vortex over him. “Give him a shot of food liquid, another of sedative. He needs sustenance and rest.”

“No rest!” screamed Sale.

“Delirious,” said one man softly.

“No sleep!” screamed Sale.

“There, there,” said the man gently. A needle poked into Sale’s arm.

Sale thrashed. “No sleep, go!” he mouthed horribly. “Oh, go!”

“Delirious,” said one man. “Shock.”

“No sedative!” screamed Sale.

The sedative flowed into him.

Eeeeeeeeeeee, sang the ancient winds.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhh, sang the ancient seas.

“No sedative, no sleep, please, don’t, don’t, don’t!” screamed Sale, trying to get up. “You don’t—understand!”

“Take it easy, old man, you’re safe among us now, nothing to worry about,” said the rescuer above him.

Leonard Sale slept. The two men stood over him.

As they watched, Sale’s features changed violently. He groaned and cried and snarled in his sleep. His face was riven with emotion. It was the face of a saint, a sinner, a fiend, a monster, a darkness, a light, one, many, an army, a vacuum, all, all!

He writhed in his sleep.

Eeeeeeeeee! the sound burst from his mouth. Ahhhhhhhhhhh! he screamed.

“What’s wrong with him?” asked one of the two rescuers.

“I don’t know. More sedative?”

“More sedative. Nerves. He needs more sleep.”

They stuck the needle in his arm. Sale writhed and spat and moaned.

Then, suddenly, he was dead.

He lay there, the two men over him. “What a shame,” said one of them. “Can you figure that?”

“Shock. Poor guy. What a pity.” They covered his face. “Did you ever see a face like that?”

“Totally insane.”

“Loneliness. Shock.”

“Yes. Lord, what an expression. I hope never to see a face like that again.”

“What a shame, waiting for us, and we arrive, and he dies anyway.”

They glanced around. “What shall we do? Shall we spend the night?”

“Yes. It’s good to be out of the ship.”

“We’ll bury him first, of course.”

“Naturally.”

“And spend the night in the open, with good air, right? Good to be in the open again. After two weeks in that damned ship.”

“Right. I’ll find a spot for him. You start supper, eh?”

“Done.”

“Should be good sleeping tonight.”

“Fine, fine.”

They made a grave and said a word over it. They drank their evening coffee silently. They smelled the sweet air of the planet and looked at the lovely sky and the bright and beautiful stars.

“What a night,” they said, lying down.

“Pleasant dreams,” said one, rolling over.

And the other replied, “Pleasant dreams.”

They slept.


A Little Journey

Published August 1951, Galaxy

Magazine cover

She’d paid good money to see the inevitable ...
and then had to work to make it happen!


There were two important things—one, that she was very old; two, that Mr. Thirkell was taking her to God. For hadn’t he patted her hand and said: “Mrs. Bellowes, we’ll take off into space in my rocket, and go to find Him together.”

And that was how it was going to be. Oh, this wasn’t like any other group Mrs. Bellowes had ever joined. In her fervor to light a path for her delicate, tottering feet, she had struck matches down dark alleys, and found her way to Hindu mystics who floated their flickering, starry eyelashes over crystal balls. She had walked on the meadow paths with ascetic Indian philosophers imported by daughters-in-spirit of Madame Blavatsky. She had made pilgrimages to California’s stucco jungles to hunt the astrological seer in his natural habitat. She had even consented to signing away the rights to one of her homes in order to be taken into the shouting order of a temple of amazing evangelists who had promised her golden smoke, crystal fire, and the great soft hand of God coming to bear her home.

Image

None of these people had ever shaken Mrs. Bellowes’ faith, even when she saw them sirened away in a black wagon in the night, or discovered their pictures, bleak and unromantic, in the morning tabloids. The world had roughed them up and locked them away because they knew too much, that was all.

And then, two weeks ago, she had seen Mr. Thirkell’s advertisement in New York City:

COME TO MARS!

Stay at the Thirkell Restorium for one week. And then,
on into space on the greatest adventure life can offer!

Send for Free Pamphlet: “Nearer My God To Thee.”

Excursion rates. Round trip slightly lower.

“Round trip,” Mrs. Bellowes had thought. “But who would come back after seeing Him?”

And so she had bought a ticket and flown off to Mars and spent seven mild days at Mr. Thirkell’s Restorium, the building with the sign on it which flashed: THIRKELL’S ROCKET TO HEAVEN! She had spent the week bathing in limpid waters and erasing the care from her tiny bones, and now she was fidgeting, ready to be loaded into Mr. Thirkell’s own special private rocket, like a bullet, to be fired on out into space beyond Jupiter and Saturn and Pluto. And thus—who could deny it?—you would be getting nearer and nearer to the Lord. How wonderful! Couldn’t you just feel Him drawing near? Couldn’t you just sense His breath, His scrutiny, His Presence?

“Here I am,” said Mrs. Bellowes, “an ancient rickety elevator, ready to go up the shaft. God need only press the button.”

Now, on the seventh day, as she minced up the steps of the Restorium, a number of small doubts assailed her.

“For one thing,” she said aloud to no one, “it isn’t quite the land of milk and honey here on Mars that they said it would be. My room is like a cell, the swimming pool is really quite inadequate, and, besides, how many widows who look like mushrooms or skeletons want to swim? And, finally, the whole Restorium smells of boiled cabbage and tennis shoes!”

She opened the front door and let it slam, somewhat irritably.

She was amazed at the other women in the auditorium. It was like wandering in a carnival mirror-maze, coming again and again upon yourself—the same floury face, the same chicken hands, and jingling bracelets. One after another of the images of herself floated before her. She put out her hand, but it wasn’t a mirror; it was another lady shaking her fingers and saying:

“We’re waiting for Mr. Thirkell. Sh!

“Ah,” whispered everyone.

The velvet curtains parted.

Mr. Thirkell appeared, fantastically serene, his Egyptian eyes upon everyone. But there was something, nevertheless, in his appearance which made one expect him to call “Hi!” while fuzzy dogs jumped over his legs, through his hooped arms, and over his back. Then, dogs and all, he should dance with a dazzling piano-keyboard smile off into the wings.

Mrs. Bellowes, with a secret part of her mind which she constantly had to grip tightly, expected to hear a cheap Chinese gong sound when Mr. Thirkell entered. His large liquid dark eyes were so improbable that one of the old ladies had facetiously claimed she saw a mosquito cloud hovering over them as they did around summer rain-barrels. And Mrs. Bellowes sometimes caught the scent of the theatrical mothball and the smell of calliope steam on his sharply pressed suit.

But with the same savage rationalization that had greeted all other disappointments in her rickety life, she bit at the suspicion and whispered, “This time it’s real. This time it’ll work. Haven’t we got a rocket?”

Mr. Thirkell bowed. He smiled a sudden Comedy Mask smile. The old ladies looked in at his epiglottis and sensed chaos there.

Before he even began to speak, Mrs. Bellowes saw him picking up each of his words, oiling it, making sure it ran smooth on its rails. Her heart squeezed in like a tiny fist, and she gritted her porcelain teeth.

“Friends,” said Mr. Thirkell, and you could hear the frost snap in the hearts of the entire assemblage.

“No!” said Mrs. Bellowes ahead of time. She could hear the bad news rushing at her, and herself tied to the track while the immense black wheels threatened and the whistle screamed, helpless.

“There will be a slight delay,” said Mr. Thirkell.

In the next instant, Mr. Thirkell might have cried, or been tempted to cry, “Ladies, be seated!” in minstrel-fashion, for the ladies had come up at him from their chairs, protesting and trembling.

“Not a very long delay.” Mr. Thirkell put up his hands to pat the air.

“How long?”

“Only a week.”

“A week!”

“Yes. You can stay here at the Restorium for seven more days, can’t you? A little delay won’t matter, will it, in the end? You’ve waited a lifetime. Only a few more days.”

At twenty dollars a day, thought Mrs. Bellowes, coldly.

“What’s the trouble?” a woman cried.

“A legal difficulty,” said Mr. Thirkell.

“We’ve a rocket, haven’t we?”

“Well, ye-ess.”

“But I’ve been here a whole month, waiting,” said one old lady. “Delays, delays!”

“That’s right,” said everyone.

“Ladies, ladies,” murmured Mr. Thirkell, smiling serenely.

“We want to see the rocket!” It was Mrs. Bellowes forging ahead, alone, brandishing her fist like a toy hammer.

Mr. Thirkell looked into the old ladies’ eyes, a missionary among albino cannibals.

“Well, now,” he said.

“Yes, now!” cried Mrs. Bellowes.

“I’m afraid—” he began.

“So am I!” she said. “That’s why we want to see the ship!”

“No, no, now, Mrs.—” He snapped his fingers for her name.

“Bellowes!” she cried. She was a small container, but now all the seething pressures that had been built up over long years came steaming through the delicate vents of her body. Her cheeks became incandescent. With a wail that was like a melancholy factory whistle, Mrs. Bellowes ran forward and hung to him, almost by her teeth, like a summer-maddened Spitz. She would not and never could let go, until he died, and the other women followed, jumping and yapping like a pound let loose on its trainer, the same one who had petted them and to whom they had squirmed and whined joyfully an hour before, now milling about him, creasing his sleeves and frightening the Egyptian serenity from his gaze.

“This way!” cried Mrs. Bellowes, feeling like Madame Lafarge. “Through the back! We’ve waited long enough to see the ship. Every day he’s put us off, every day we’ve waited, now let’s see.”

“No, no, ladies!” cried Mr. Thirkell, leaping about.

They burst through the back of the stage and out a door, like a flood, bearing the poor man with them into a shed, and then out, quite suddenly, into an abandoned gymnasium.

“There it is!” said someone. “The rocket.”

And then a silence fell that was terrible to entertain.

There was the rocket.

Mrs. Bellowes looked at it and her hands sagged away from Mr. Thirkell’s collar.

The rocket was something like a battered copper pot. There were a thousand bulges and rents and rusty pipes and dirty vents on and in it. The ports were clouded over with dust, resembling the eyes of a blind hog.

Everyone wailed a little sighing wail.

“Is that the rocket ship Glory Be to the Highest?” cried Mrs. Bellowes, appalled.

Mr. Thirkell nodded and looked at his feet.

“For which we paid out our one thousand dollars apiece and came all the way to Mars to get on board with you and go off to find Him?” asked Mrs. Bellowes.

“Why, that isn’t worth a sack of dried peas,” said Mrs. Bellowes.

“It’s nothing but junk!”

Junk, whispered everyone, getting hysterical.

“Don’t let him get away!”

Mr. Thirkell tried to break and run, but a thousand possum traps closed on him from every side. He withered.

Everybody walked around in circles like blind mice. There was a confusion and a weeping that lasted for five minutes as they went over and touched the Rocket, the Dented Kettle, the Rusty Container for God’s Children.

“Well,” said Mrs. Bellowes. She stepped up into the askew doorway of the rocket and faced everyone. “It looks as if a terrible thing has been done to us,” she said. “I haven’t any money to go back home to Earth and I’ve too much pride to go to the Government and tell them a common man like this has fooled us out of our life’s savings. I don’t know how you feel about it, all of you, but the reason all of us came is because I’m eighty-five, and you’re eighty-nine, and you’re seventy-eight, and all of us are nudging on toward a hundred, and there’s nothing on Earth for us, and it doesn’t appear there’s anything on Mars either. We all expected not to breathe much more air or crochet many more doilies or we’d never have come here. So what I have to propose is a simple thing—to take a chance.”

She reached out and touched the rusted hulk of the rocket.

“This is our rocket. We paid for our trip. And we’re going to take our trip!”

Everyone rustled and stood on tiptoes and opened an astonished mouth.

Mr. Thirkell began to cry. He did it quite easily and very effectively.

“We’re going to get in this ship,” said Mrs. Bellowes, ignoring him. “And we’re going to take off to where we were going.”

Mr. Thirkell stopped crying long enough to say, “But it was all a fake. I don’t know anything about space. He’s not out there, anyway. I lied. I don’t know where He is, and I couldn’t find Him if I wanted to. And you were fools to ever take my word on it.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Bellowes, “we were fools. I’ll go along on that. But you can’t blame us, for we’re old, and it was a lovely, good and fine idea, one of the loveliest ideas in the world. Oh, we didn’t really fool ourselves that we could get nearer to Him physically. It was the gentle, mad dream of old people, the kind of thing you hold onto for a few minutes a day, even though you know it’s not true. So, all of you who want to go, you follow me in the ship.”

“But you can’t go!” said Mr. Thirkell. “You haven’t got a navigator. And that ship’s a ruin!”

“You,” said Mrs. Bellowes, “will be the navigator.”

She stepped into the ship, and after a moment, the other old ladies pressed forward. Mr. Thirkell, windmilling his arms frantically, was nevertheless pressed through the port, and in a minute the door slammed shut. Mr. Thirkell was strapped into the navigator’s seat, with everyone talking at once and holding him down. The special helmets were issued to be fitted over every gray or white head to supply extra oxygen in case of a leakage in the ship’s hull, and at long last the hour had come and Mrs. Bellowes stood behind Mr. Thirkell and said, “We’re ready, sir.”

He said nothing. He pleaded with them silently, using his great, dark, wet eyes, but Mrs. Bellowes shook her head and pointed to the control.

“Takeoff,” agreed Mr. Thirkell morosely, and pulled a switch.

Everybody fell. The rocket went up from the planet Mars in a great fiery glide, with the noise of an entire kitchen thrown down an elevator shaft, with a sound of pots and pans and kettles and fires boiling and stews bubbling, with a smell of burned incense and rubber and sulphur, with a color of yellow fire, and a ribbon of red stretching below them, and all the old women singing and holding to each other, and Mrs. Bellowes crawling upright in the sighing, straining, trembling ship.

“Head for space, Mr. Thirkell.”

“It can’t last,” said Mr. Thirkell, sadly. “This ship can’t last. It will—”

It did.

The rocket exploded.

Mrs. Bellowes felt herself lifted and thrown about dizzily, like a doll. She heard the great screamings and saw the flashes of bodies sailing by her in fragments of metal and powdery light.

“Help, help!” cried Mr. Thirkell, far away, on a small radio beam.

The ship disintegrated into a million parts, and the old ladies, all one hundred of them, were flung straight on ahead with the same velocity as the ship.

As for Mr. Thirkell, for some reason of trajectory, perhaps, he had been blown out the other side of the ship. Mrs. Bellowes saw him falling separate and away from them, screaming, screaming.

There goes Mr. Thirkell, thought Mrs. Bellowes.

And she knew where he was going. He was going to be burned and roasted and broiled good, but very good.

Mr. Thirkell was falling down into the Sun.

And here we are, thought Mrs. Bellowes. Here we are, going on out, and out, and out.

There was hardly a sense of motion at all, but she knew that she was traveling at fifty thousand miles an hour and would continue to travel at that speed for an eternity, until....

She saw the other women swinging all about her in their own trajectories, a few minutes of oxygen left to each of them in their helmets, and each was looking up to where they were going.

Of course, thought Mrs. Bellowes. Out into space. Out and out, and the darkness like a great church, and the stars like candles, and in spite of everything, Mr. Thirkell, the rocket, and the dishonesty, we are going toward the Lord.

And there, yes, there, as she fell on and on, coming toward her, she could almost discern the outline now, coming toward her was His mighty golden hand, reaching down to hold her and comfort her like a frightened sparrow....

“I’m Mrs. Amelia Bellowes,” she said quietly, in her best company voice. “I’m from the planet Earth.”



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