The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 5
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Twenty years is a long time to live in antic.i.p.ation. At least, Professor Pettibone thought so--until the twenty years were up.
This was to be the day, but of course Professor Pettibone had no way of knowing it. He arose, as he had been doing for the previous twenty years, donned the tattered remnants of his s.p.a.ce suit, and went out into the open. He stood erect, bronzed, magnificent, faced distant Earth, and recited: "Good morning, bright suns.h.i.+ne, We're glad you are here. You make the world happy, And bring us good cheer."
It was something he had heard as a child and, isolated here on Mars, he had remembered it and used it to keep from losing his power of speech.
The ritual finished, he walked to the edge of the nearest ca.n.a.l, and gathered a bushel or so of dried Martian moss. He returned and began polis.h.i.+ng the s.h.i.+ny exterior of the wrecked s.p.a.ce s.h.i.+p. It had to really glitter if it was to be an effective beacon in guiding the rescue s.h.i.+p.
Professor Pettibone knew--had known for years--that a s.h.i.+p would come. It was just a matter of time, and as the years slipped by, his faith diminished not a whit.
With his task half completed, he glanced up at the sun and quickened the polis.h.i.+ng. It was a long walk to the place the berry bushes grew, and if he arrived too late, the sun would have dried out the night's crop of fragile berries and he would wait until the morrow for nourishment.
But on this day, he was fated to arrive at the bush area not at all, because an alien sound from above again drew the Professor's eyes from his work, and he knew that the day had arrived.
The s.h.i.+p was three times as large as any he had ever visualized, and its futuristic design told him, sharply, how far he had fallen behind in his dreaming. He smiled and said, quite calmly, "I daresay I am about to be rescued."
And he experienced a thrill as the great s.h.i.+p set down and two men emerged therefrom. A thrill tinged with a guilt-sense, because emotional experiences were rare in an isolated life and seemed somehow indecent.
The two men held weapons. They advanced upon Professor Pettibone, looked up into his face, reflected a certain wary hostility. That the hostility was tinged with instinctive respect, even awe, made it no less potent.
One of them asked, "Fella--man came in s.h.i.+p--sky boat--long time ago. Him dead? Where?" Appropriate gestures accompanied the words.
Professor Pettibone smiled down at the little men and bowed. "You are of course referring to me. I came in the s.h.i.+p. I am Professor Pettibone. It was nice of you to hunt me up."
The eyes of the two Terran s.p.a.cemen met and locked in startled inquiry. One of them voiced the reaction of both when he said, "What the h.e.l.l--"
"You no doubt are curious as to the fate of the other members of the expedition. They were killed, all save Fletcher, who lasted a week." Professor Pettibone waved a hand. "There--in the graveyard."
But their eyes remained on the only survivor of that ill-fated first expedition. It was hard to accept him as the man they sought, but, faced with undeniable similarity between what they expected and what they had found, the two s.p.a.cemen had no alternative.
"I hope your food supply is ample--and varied," Professor Pettibone said.
This seemed to bring them out of their bemus.e.m.e.nt. "Of course, Professor. Would you care to come aboard?"
The other made a try at congenial levity. "You must be pretty hungry after twenty years."
"Really--has it been that long? I tried to keep track at first...."
"We can blast off anytime you say. You're probably pretty anxious to get back."
"Indeed, I am. The changes, in twenty years--must be breathtaking. I wonder if they'll remember me?"
A short time later, the Professor said, "It's amazing. A s.h.i.+p of this size handled by only two men." Then he sat down to a repast laid out by one of the awed s.p.a.cemen.
But, after nibbling a bit of this, a forkful of that, he found that satisfaction lay in the antic.i.p.ation more so than in the eating.
"We'll look around and see what we can find in the way of clothing for you, Professor," one of the s.p.a.cemen said. Then the man's bemus.e.m.e.nt returned. His eyes traveled over the magnificent physique before him. The perfect giant of a man; the great, Apollo-like head with the calm, clear eyes; the expression of complete contentment and serenity.
The s.p.a.ce man said, "Professor--to what do you attribute the changes in your body. What is there about this planet--?"
"I really don't know." Professor Pettibone looked down his torso with an impersonal eye. "I think the greenish skin pigmentation is a result of mineral-heavy vapors that occur during certain seasons. The growth. As to my body--I really don't know."
But the two s.p.a.cemen, though they didn't refer to it--were not concerned with the body so much as the aura of completeness, the radiation of contentment which came from somewhere within.
And it was pa.s.sing strange that nothing more was said about the Professor returning to Earth. No great revelation, suddenly arrived at, that he would not go. Rather, they discussed various things, that three gentlemen, meeting casually, would discuss.
Then Professor Pettibone arose from his chair and said, "It was kind of you to drop off and see me."
And one of the s.p.a.cemen replied, "A pleasure, sir. A real pleasure indeed."
Then the Professor left the s.h.i.+p and watched it lift up on a tail of red fire and go away. He raised an arm and waved. "Say 'h.e.l.lo' for me," he called. Then he turned away and, from force of habit, he began again to polish the hull, knowing that he would keep it s.h.i.+ning, and be proud of it, for many years to come.
Almost beyond reach of the planet, one of the s.p.a.cemen flipped a switch and put certain sensitive communication mechanisms to work. So sensitive, they could pick up etheric vibrations far away and make them audible.
But only faintly, came the pleasant voice of a contented man: "Good morning, bright suns.h.i.+ne, We're glad you are here. You make the world ..."
BY IRVING c.o.x, JR.
It's not always "The Truth shall set you free!" Sometimes it's "Want of the Truth shall drive you to escape!" And that can be dangerous!
Mryna Brill intended to ride the G.o.d-car above the rain mist. For a long time she had not believed in the taboos or the Earth-G.o.d. She no longer believed she lived on Earth. This paradise of green-floored forests and running brooks was something called Rythar.
Six years ago, when Mryna was fourteen, she first discovered the truth. She asked a question and the Earth-G.o.d ignored it. A simple question, really: What is above the rain mist? G.o.d could have told her. Every day he answered technical questions that were far more difficult. Instead, he repeated the familiar taboo about avoiding the Old Village because of the Sickness.
And consequently Mryna, being female, went to the Old Village. There was nothing really unusual about that. All the kids went through the ruins from time to time. They had worked out a sort of charm that made it all right. They ran past the burned out sh.e.l.ls of the old houses and they kept their eyes shaded to ward off the Sickness.
But even at fourteen Mryna had outgrown charms and she didn't believe in the Sickness. She had once asked the Earth-G.o.d what sickness meant, and the screen in the answer house had given her a very detailed answer. Mryna knew that none of the hundred girls and thirty boys inhabiting Rythar had ever been sick. That, like the taboo of the Old Village, she considered a childish superst.i.tion.
The Old Village wasn't large--three parallel roads, a mile long, lined with the charred ruins of prefabs, which were exactly like the cottages where the kids lived. It was nothing to inspire either fear or legend. The village had burned a long time ago; the gra.s.s from the forest had grown a green mantle over the skeletal walls.
For weeks Mryna poked through the ruins before she found anything of significance--a few, scorched pages of a printed pamphlet buried deep in the black earth. The paper excited her tremendously. It was different from the film books photographed in the answer house. She had never touched anything like it; and it seemed wonderful stuff.
She read the pamphlet eagerly. It was part of a promotional advertis.e.m.e.nt of a world called Rythar, "the jewel of the Sirian Solar System."
The description made it obvious that Rythar was the green paradise where Mryna lived--the place she had been taught to call Earth. And the pamphlet had been addressed to "Earthmen everywhere."
Mryna made her second find when she was fifteen, a textbook in astronomy. For the first time in her life she read about the spinning dust of the universe lying beyond the eternal rain mist that hid her world.
The solid, stable Earth of her childhood was solid and stable no longer, but a sphere turning through a black void. Nor was it properly called Earth, but a planet named Rythar. The adjustment Mryna had to make was shattering; she lost faith in everything she believed.
Yet the clock-work logic of astronomy appealed to her orderly mind. It explained why the rain mist glowed with light during the day and turned dark at night. Mryna had never seen a clear sky. She had no visual data to tie her new concept to.
For six years she kept the secret. She hid the papers and the astronomy text which she found in the Old Village. Later, after the metal men came, she destroyed everything so none of the other women would know the Earth-G.o.d was a man.
At first she kept the secret because she was afraid. For some reason the man who played at being G.o.d wanted the kids to believe Rythar was Earth, the totality of the universe enveloped in a cloud of mist. She knew that because she once asked G.o.d what a planet was. The face on the screen in the answer house became frigid with anger--or was it fear?--and the Earth-G.o.d said: "The word means nothing."
But late that night a very large G.o.d-car brought six metal men down through the rain mist. They were huge, jointed things that clanked when they walked. Four of them used weapons to herd the kids together in their small settlement. The two others went to the Old Village and blasted the ruins with high explosives.
Vaguely Mryna remembered that the metal men had been there before, when the kids were still very small. They had built the new settlement and they had brought food. They lived with the children for a long time, she thought--but the memory was hazy.
As the years pa.s.sed, Mryna's fear retreated and only one thing became important: she knew the Earth-G.o.d was a man. On the fertile soil of Rythar there were one hundred women and thirty men. All the boys had taken mates before they reached seventeen. Seventy girls were left unmarried, with no prospect of ever having husbands. A score or more became second wives in polygamous homes, but plural marriage had no appeal for Mryna. She was firmly determined to possess a man of her own. And why shouldn't it be the Earth-G.o.d?
As her first step toward escape, Mryna volunteered for duty in the answer house. For as long as she could remember, the answer house had stood on a knoll some distance beyond the new settlement. It was a square, one-room building, housing a speaking box, a gla.s.s screen and a console of transmission machinery. Anyone in the settlement could contact G.o.d and request information or special equipment.
G.o.d went out of his way to deluge them with information. The simplest question produced voluminous data, transmitted over the screen and photographed on reels of film. Someone had to be in the answer house to handle the photography. The work was not hard, but it was monotonous. Most of the kids preferred to farm the fields or dig the sacrificial ore.
A request for equipment was granted just as promptly. Tools, machines, seeds, fertilizers, packaged buildings, games, clothing--everything came in a G.o.d-car. It was a large cylinder which hissed down from the rain mist on a pillar of fire. The landing site was a flat, charred field near the answer house. Unless the equipment was unusually heavy, the attendant stationed in the house was expected to unload the G.o.d-car and pile aboard the sacrifice ores mined on Rythar.
G.o.d asked two things from the settlement: the pieces of unusually heavy metal which they dug from the hills, and tiny vials of soil. In an hour's time they could mine enough ore to fill the compartment of a G.o.d-car, and G.o.d never complained if they sometimes sent the cylinder back empty. But he fussed mightily over the small vials of Earth. He gave very explicit directions as to where they were to take the samples, and the place was never the same. Sometimes they had to travel miles from the settlement to satisfy that inexplicable whim.
For two weeks Mryna patiently ran off the endless films of new books and unloaded the G.o.d-car when it came. She examined the interior of the cylinder carefully and she weighed every possible risk. The compartment was very small, but she concluded that she would be safe.
And so she made her decision. Tense and tight-lipped Mryna Brill slipped aboard the G.o.d-car. She sealed the lock door, which automatically fired the launching tubes. After that there was no turning back.
The dark compartment shook in a thunder of sound. The weight of the escape speed tore at her body, pulling her tight against the confining walls. She lost consciousness until the pressure lessened.
The metal walls became hot but the s.p.a.ce was too confining for her to avoid contact entirely. Four narrow light tubes came on, with a dull, red glow, and suddenly a gelatinous liquid emptied out of ceiling vents. The fluid sprayed every exposed surface in the cubicle, draining through the s.h.i.+pment of sacrifice ores at Mryna's feet. It had a choking, antiseptic odor; it stung Mryna's face and inflamed her eyes.
Worse still, as the liquid soaked into her clothing, it disintegrated the fiber, tearing away the cloth in long strips which slowly dissolved in the liquid on the floor. Before the antiseptic spray ceased, Mryna was helplessly naked. Even her black boots had not survived.
The red lights went out and Mryna was imprisoned again in the crus.h.i.+ng darkness. A terror of the taboos she had defied swept her mind. She began to scream, but the sound was lost in the roar of the motors.
Suddenly it was over. The G.o.d-car lurched into something hard. Mryna was thrown against the ceiling--and she hung there, weightless. The pieces of sacrifice ore were floating in the darkness just as she was. The motors cut out and the lock door swung open.
Mryna saw a circular room, brightly lighted with a glaring, blue light. The nature of her fear changed. This was the house of the Earth-G.o.d, but she could not let him find her naked.
She tried to run into the circular room. She found that the slightest exertion of her muscles sent her spinning through the air. She could not get her feet on the floor. There was no down and no up in that room. She collided painfully with the metal wall and she s.n.a.t.c.hed at a light bracket to keep herself from bouncing free in the empty air again.
The G.o.d-car had landed against what was either the ceiling or the floor of the circular room. Mryna had no way of making a differentiation. Eight brightly lighted corridors opened into the side walls. Mryna heard footsteps moving toward her down one of the corridors; she pulled herself blindly into another. As she went farther from the circular room, a vague sense of gravity returned. At the end of the corridor she was able to stand on her feet again, although she still had to walk very carefully. Any sudden movement sent her soaring in a graceful leap that banged her head against the ceiling.
Cautiously she opened a thick, metal door into another hall--and she stood transfixed, looking through a mica wall at the emptiness of s.p.a.ce pinpointed with its billions of stars. This was the reality of the charts she had seen in the astronomy text: that knowledge alone saved her sanity. She had believed it when the proof lay hidden above the rain mist; she must believe it now.
From where she stood, she was able to see the place where the G.o.d-car had brought her--like a vast cartwheel spinning in the void. The G.o.d-car was clamped against the hub, from which eight corridors radiated outward like wheel spokes toward the rim. Far below the gigantic wheel Mryna saw the sphere of Rythar, invisible behind its shroud of glowing mist.
She moved along the rim corridor, past the mica wall, until she came to a door that stood open. The room beyond was a sleeping compartment and it was empty. She searched it for clothing, and found nothing. She went through four more dormitory rooms before she came upon anything she could use--brief shorts, clearly made for a man, and a loose, white tunic. It wasn't suitable; it wasn't the way she wanted to be dressed when she faced him. But it had to do.
Mryna was pawing through a footlocker looking for boots when she heard a hesitant step behind her. She whirled and saw a small, stooped, white-haired man, naked except for trunks like the ones she was wearing. The wrinkled skin on his wasted chest was burned brown by the hot glare of the sun. Thick-lensed gla.s.ses hung from a chain around his neck.
"My dear young lady," he said in a tired voice, "this is a men's ward!"
"I'm sorry. I didn't know--"
"You must be a new patient." He fumbled for his gla.s.ses. Instinctively she knew she shouldn't let him see her clearly enough to identify her as a stranger. She shoved past him, knocking the gla.s.ses from his hand.
"I'd better find my own--ward." Mryna didn't know the word, but she supposed it meant some sort of sleeping chamber.
The old man said chattily, "I hadn't heard they were bringing in any new patients today."
She was in the corridor by that time. He reached for her hand. "I'll see you in the sunroom?" It was a timid, hopeful question. "And you'll tell me all the news--everything they're doing back on Earth. I haven't been home for almost a year."
She fled down the hall. When she heard voices ahead of her, she pulled back a door and slid into another room--a storeroom piled with cases of medicines. Behind the cartons she thought she would be safe.
This wasn't what she had expected. Mryna thought there might be one man living in a kind of prefab somehow suspended above the rain mist. But there were obviously others up here; she didn't know how many. And the old man frightened her--more than the dazzling sight of the heavens visible through the mica wall. Mryna had never seen physical age before. No one on Rythar was older than she was herself--a st.u.r.dy, healthy, l.u.s.ty twenty. The old man's infirmity disgusted her; for the first time in her life she was conscious of the slow decay of death.
The door of the supply room slid open. Mryna crouched low behind the cartons, but she was able to see the man and the woman who had entered the room. A woman--here? Mryna hadn't considered that possibility. Perhaps the Earth-G.o.d already had a mate.
The newcomers were dressed in crisp, white uniforms; the woman wore a starched, white hat. They carried a tray of small, gla.s.s cylinders from which metal needles projected. While the woman held the tray, the man drove the needles through the caps of small bottles and filled the cylinders with a bright-colored liquid.
"When are you leaving, d.i.c.k?" the woman asked.
"In about forty minutes. They're sending an auto-pickup."
"Now don't start worrying. They have got the bugs out of it by this time. The auto-pickups are entirely trustworthy."
"Sure, that's what the army says."
"In theory they should be even more reliable than--"
"I wish you'd wait for the hospital shuttle."
The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 5
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