Posts tagged short story
Posts tagged short story
This is a very interesting tale with an unexpected ending and well worth the read. Although the writers of the Twilight Zone adapted it into script form back in the 1960’s, they did a piss poor job so I would not recommend wasting your time on that.
Unless you want the climatic ending spoiled for you, don’t read the wiki page for this story.
THIRD FROM THE SUN
Escaping a known danger is highly advisable if you can know the unknown dangerahead!
HIS EYES were open five seconds before the alarm was set to go off. There was no effort in waking. It was sudden. Coldly conscious, he reached out his left hand in the dark and pushed in the stop. The alarm glowed a second, then faded.
At his side, his wife put her hand on his arm.
“Did you sleep?” he asked.
“No, did you?”
“A little,” he said. “Not much.”
She was silent for a few seconds. He heard her throat contract. She shivered. He knew what she was going to say.
“We’re still going?” she asked.
He twisted his shoulders on the bed and took a deep breath.
“Yes,” he said, and felt her fingers tighten on his arm.
As noted in As noted in the December 2012 / January 2013 issue of Free Inquiry Magazine, Harry Harrison was not only an atheist but he was also consistent in his secular humanism which is beautifully presented in this short story The Streets of Ashkelon, written early in his career in 1961.
In this story, the atheistic sole human on the planet urges a newly arrived and uninvited Christian priest to abandon his mission to convert the planets indigenous sapient species explaining that the natives “have thunder, trees, and water without having thunder-gods, tree sprites, or water nymphs. They have no ugly little gods, taboos, or spells to hag-ride and limit their lives. They are the only primitive people I have ever encountered that are completely free of superstition and appear to be much happier and sane because of it. I just wanted to keep them that way.”
Of course the priest has his mission and will not be dissuaded.
Below is a link to this story as well as a great narration by Light Speed Magazine. I encourage you to check it out, it’s a great read or listen, which ever you prefer.
From the moment that the priest show up on Ashkelon, it didn’t bode well for the of this planets inhabitants. Leave it to religion to destroy the peace of a world and taint fresh impressionable minds and rob creatures of their innocence for some theological agenda. Now wouldn’t it be nice if people just believed what they needed to believe and felt secure enough about it about that, that they didn’t need to save or convert others, racking up social capital to reinforce their own beliefs.
Progeny by Philip K. Dick
First published in the November 1954 issue of “if: Worlds Of Science Fiction” (volume 4, number 3).
Ed Doyle hurried. He caught a surface car, waved fifty credits in the robot driver’s face, mopped his florid face with a red pocket-handkerchief, unfastened his collar, perspired and licked his lips and swallowed piteously all the way to the hospital.
The surface car slid up to a smooth halt before the great white-domed hospital building. Ed leaped out and bounded up the steps three at a time, pushing through the visitors and convalescent patients standing on the broad terrace. He threw his weight against the door and emerged in the lobby, astonishing the attendants and persons of importance moving about their tasks.
“Where?” Ed demanded, gazing around, his feet wide apart, his fists clenched, his chest rising and falling. His breath came hoarsely, like an animal’s. Silence fell over the lobby. Everyone turned toward him, pausing in their work. “Where?” Ed demanded again. “Where is she? They?”
It was fortunate Janet had been delivered of a child on this of all days. Proxima Centauri was a long way from Terra and the service was bad. Anticipating the birth of his child, Ed had left Proxima some weeks before. He had just arrived in the city. While stowing his suitcase in the luggage tread at the station the message had been handed to him by a robot courier: Los Angeles Central Hospital. At once.
Ed hurried, and fast. As he hurried he couldn’t help feeling pleased he had hit the day exactly right, almost to the hour. It was a good feeling. He had felt it before, during years of business dealings in the “colonies,” the frontier, the fringe of Terran civilization where the streets were still lit by electric lights and doors opened by hand.
That was going to be hard to get used to. Ed turned toward the door behind him, feeling suddenly foolish. He had shoved it open, ignoring the eye. The door was just now closing, sliding slowly back in place. He calmed down a little, putting his handkerchief away in his coat pocket. The hospital attendants were resuming their work, picking up their activities where they had left off. One attendant, a strapping late-model robot, coasted over to Ed and halted.
The robot balanced his noteboard expertly, his photocell eyes appraising Ed’s flushed features. “May I inquire whom you are looking for, sir? Whom do you wish to find?”
“Her name, sir?”
“Janet. Janet Doyle. She’s just had a child.”
The robot consulted his board. “This way, sir.” He coasted off down the passage.
Ed followed nervously. “Is she okay? Did I get here in time?” His anxiety was returning.
“She is quite well, sir.” The robot raised his metal arm and a side door slid back. “In here, sir.”
Janet, in a chic blue-mesh suit, was sitting before a mahogany desk, a cigarette between her fingers, her slim legs crossed, talking rapidly. On the other side of the desk a well-dressed doctor sat listening.
“Janet!” Ed said, entering the room.
“Hi, Ed.” She glanced up at him. “You just now get in?”
“Sure. It’s — it’s all over? You — I mean, it’s happened?”
Janet laughed, her even white teeth sparkling. “Of course. Come in and sit. This is Doctor Bish.”
“Hello, Doc.” Ed sat down nervously across from them. “Then it’s all over?”
“The event has happened,” Doctor Bish said. His voice was thin and metallic. Ed realized with a sudden shock that the doctor was a robot. A top-level robot, made in humanoid form, not like the ordinary metal-limbed workers. It had fooled him — he had been away so long. Doctor Bish appeared plump and well fed, with kindly features and eyeglasses. His large fleshy hands rested on the desk, a ring on one finger. Pinstripe suit and necktie. Diamond tie clasp. Nails carefully manicured. Hair black and evenly parted.
But his voice had given him away. They never seemed to be able to get a really human sound into the voice. The compressed air and whirling disc system seemed to fall short. Otherwise, it was very convincing.
“I understand you’ve been situated near Promixa, Mr Doyle,” Doctor Bish said pleasantly.
Ed nodded. “Yeah.”
“Quite a long way, isn’t it? I’ve never been out there. I have always wanted to go. Is it true they’re almost ready to push on to Sirius?”
“Look, Doc —”
“Ed, don’t be impatient.” Janet stubbed out her cigarette, glancing reprovingly up at him. She hadn’t changed in six months. Small blond face, red mouth, cold eyes like little blue rocks. And now, her perfect figure back again. “They’re bringing him here. It takes a few minutes. They have to wash him off and put drops in his eyes and take a wave shot of his brain.”
“He? Then it’s a boy?”
“Of course. Don’t you remember? You were with me when I had the shots. We agreed at the time. You haven’t changed your mind, have you?”
“Too late to change your mind now, Mr Doyle,” Doctor Bish’s toneless voice came, high-pitched and calm. “Your wife has decided to call him Peter.”
“Peter.” Ed nodded, a little dazed. “That’s right. We did decide, didn’t we? Peter.” He let the word roll around in his mind. “Yeah. That’s fine. I like it.”
The wall suddenly faded, turning from opaque to transparent. Ed spun quickly. They were looking into a brightly lit room, filled with hospital equipment and white-clad attendant robots. One of the robots was moving toward them, pushing a cart. On the cart was a container, a big metal pot.
Ed’s breathing increased. He felt a wave of dizziness. He went up to the transparent wall and stood gazing at the metal pot on the cart.
Doctor Bish rose. “Don’t you want to see, too, Mrs Doyle?”
“Of course.” Janet crossed to the wall and stood beside Ed. She watched critically, her arms folded.
Doctor Bish made a signal. The attendant reached into the pot and lifted out a wire tray, gripping the handles with his magnetic clamps. On the tray, dripping through the wire, was Peter Doyle, still wet from his bath, his eyes wide with astonishment. He was pink all over, except for a fringe of hair on the top of his head, and his great blue eyes. He was little and wrinkled and toothless, like an ancient withered sage.
“Golly,” Ed said.
Doctor Bish made a second signal. The wall slid back. The attendant robot advanced into the room, holding his dripping tray out. Doctor Bish removed Peter from the tray and held him up for inspection. He turned him around and around, studying him from every angle.
“He looks fine,” he said at last.
“What was the result of the wave photo?” Janet asked.
“Result was good. Excellent tendencies indicated. Very promising. High development of the —” The doctor broke off. “What is it, Mr Doyle?”
Ed was holding out his hands. “Let me have him, Doc. I want to hold him.” He grinned from ear to ear. “Let’s see how heavy he is. He sure looks big.”
Doctor Bish’s mouth fell open in horror. He and Janet gasped.
“Ed!” Janet exclaimed sharply. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Good heavens, Mr Doyle,” the doctor murmured.
Ed blinked. “What?”
“If I had thought you had any such thing in mind —” Doctor Bish quickly returned Peter to the attendant. The attendant rushed Peter from the room, back to the metal pot. The cart and robot and pot hurriedly vanished, and the wall banged back in place.
Janet grabbed Ed’s arm angrily. “Good Lord, Ed! Have you lost your mind? Come on. Let’s get out of here before you do something else.”
“Come on.” Janet smiled nervously at Doctor Bish. “We’ll run along now, Doctor. Thanks so much for everything. Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s been out there so long, you know.”
“I understand,” Doctor Bish said smoothly. He had regained his poise. “I trust we’ll hear from you later, Mrs Doyle.”
Janet pulled Ed out into the hall. “Ed, what’s the matter with you? I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life.” Two spots of red glowed in Janet’s cheeks. “I could have kicked you.”
“But what —”
“You know we aren’t allowed to touch him. What do you want to do, ruin his whole life?”
“Come on.” They hurried outside the hospital, on to the terrace. Warm sunlight streamed down on them. “There’s no telling what harm you’ve done. He may already be hopelessly warped. If he grows up all warped and — and neurotic and emotional, it’ll be your fault.”
Suddenly Ed remembered. He sagged, his features drooping with misery. “That’s right. I forgot. Only robots can come near the children. I’m sorry, Jan. I got carried away. I hope I didn’t do anything they can’t fix.”
“How could you forget?”
“It’s so different out at Prox.” Ed waved to a surface car, crestfallen and abashed. The driver drew up in front of them. “Jan, I’m sorry as hell. I really am. I was all excited. Let’s go have a cup of coffee some place and talk. I want to know what the doctor said.”
Ed had a cup of coffee and Janet sipped at a brandy frappe. The Nymphite Room was pitch black except for a vague light oozing up from the table between them. The table diffused a pale illumination that spread over everything, a ghostly radiation seemingly without source. A robot waitress moved back and forth soundlessly with a tray of drinks. Recorded music played softly in the back of the room.
“Go on,” Ed said.
“Go on?” Janet slipped her jacket off and laid it over the back of her chair. In the pale light her breasts glowed faintly. “There’s not much to tell. Everything went all right. It didn’t take long. I chatted with Doctor Bish most of the time.”
“I’m glad I got here.”
“How was your trip?”
“Is the service getting any better? Does it still take as long as it did?”
“About the same.”
“I can’t see why you want to go all the way out there. It’s so — so cut off from things. What do you find out there? Are plumbing fixtures really that much in demand?”
“They need them. Frontier area. Everyone wants the refinements.” Ed gestured vaguely. “What did he tell you about Peter? What’s he going to be like? Can he tell? I guess it’s too soon.”
“He was going to tell me when you started acting the way you did. I’ll call him on the vidphone when we get home. His wave pattern should be good. He comes from the best eugenic stock.”
Ed grunted. “On your side, at least.”
“How long are you going to be here?”
“I don’t know. Not long. I’ll have to go back. I’d sure like to see him again, before I go.” He glanced up hopefully at his wife. “Do you think I can?”
“How long will he have to stay there?”
“At the hospital? Not long. A few days.”
Ed hesitated. “I didn’t mean at the hospital, exactly. I mean with them. How long before we can have him? How long before we can bring him home?”
There was silence. Janet finished her brandy. She leaned back, lighting a cigarette. Smoke drifted across to Ed, blending with the pale light. “Ed, I don’t think you understand. You’ve been out there so long. A lot has happened since you were a child. New methods, new techniques. They’ve found so many things they didn’t know. They’re making progress, for the first time. They know what to do. They’re developing a real methodology for dealing with children. For the growth period. Attitude development. Training.” She smiled brightly at Ed. “I’ve been reading all about it.”
“How long before we get him?”
“In a few days he’ll be released from the hospital. He’ll go to a child guidance center. He’ll be tested and studied. They’ll determine his various capacities and his latent abilities. The direction his development seems to be taking.”
“Then he’s put in the proper educational division. So he’ll get the right training. Ed, you know, I think he’s really going to be something! I could tell by the way Doctor Bish looked. He was studying the wave pattern charts when I came in. He had a look on his face. How can I describe it?” She searched for the word. “Well, almost — almost a greedy look. Real excitement. They take so much interest in what they’re doing. He —”
“Don’t say he. Say it.”
“Ed, really! What’s got into you?”
“Nothing.” Ed glared sullenly down. “Go on.”
“They make sure he’s trained in the right direction. All the time he’s there ability tests are given. Then, when he’s about nine, he’ll be transferred to —”
“Nine! You mean nine years?”
“But when do we get him?”
“Ed, I thought you knew about this. Do I have to go over the whole thing?”
“My God, Jan! We can’t wait nine years!” Ed jerked himself upright. “I never heard of such a thing. Nine years? Why, he’ll be half grown up then.”
“That’s the point.” Janet leaned towards him, resting her bare elbow against the table. “As long as he’s growing he has to be with them. Not with us. Afterwards, when he’s finished growing, when he’s no longer so plastic, then we can be with him all we want.”
“Afterwards? When he’s eighteen?” Ed leaped up, pushing his chair back. “I’m going down there and get him.”
“Sit down, Ed.” Janet gazed up calmly, one supple arm thrown lightly over the back of her chair. “Sit down and act like an adult for a change.”
“Doesn’t it matter to you? Don’t you care?”
“Of course I care.” Janet shrugged. “But it’s necessary. Otherwise he won’t develop correctly. It’s for his good. Not ours. He doesn’t exist for us. Do you want him to have conflicts?”
Ed moved away from the table. “I’ll see you later.”
“Where are you going?”
“Just around. I can’t stand this kind of place. It bothers me. I’ll see you later.” Ed pushed across the room to the door. The door opened and he found himself on the shiny noonday street. Hot sunlight beat down on him. He blinked, adjusting himself to the blinding light. People streamed around him. People and noise. He moved with them.
He was dazed. He had known, of course. It was there in the back of his mind. The new developments in child care. But it had been abstract, general. Nothing to do with him. With his child.
He calmed himself, as he walked along. He was getting all upset about nothing. Janet was right, of course. It was for Peter’s good. Peter didn’t exist for them, like a dog or cat. A pet to have around the house. He was a human being, with his own life. The training was for him, not for them. It was to develop him, his abilities, his powers. He was to be molded, realized, brought out.
Naturally, robots could do the best job. Robots could train him scientifically, according to a rational technique. Not according to emotional whim. Robots didn’t get angry. Robots didn’t nag and whine. They didn’t spank a child or yell at him. They didn’t give conflicting orders. They didn’t quarrel among themselves or use the child for their own ends. And there could be no Oedipus Complex, with only robots around.
No complexes at all. It had been discovered long ago that neurosis could be traced to childhood training. To the way parents brought up the child. The inhibitions he was taught, the manners, the lessons, the punishments, the rewards. Neuroses, complexes, warped development, all stemmed from the subjective relationship existing between the child and the parent. If perhaps the parent could be eliminated as a factor…
Parents could never become objective about their children. It was always a biased, emotional projection the parent held toward the child. Inevitably, the parent’s view was distorted. No parent could be a fit instructor for his child.
Robots could study the child, analyze his needs, his wants, test his abilities and interests. Robots would not try to force the child to fit a certain mold. The child would be trained along his own lines; wherever scientific study indicated his interest and need lay.
Ed came to the corner. Traffic whirred past him. He stepped absently forward.
A clang and crash. Bars dropped in front of him, stopping him. A robot safety control.
“Sir, be more careful!” the strident voice came, close by him.
“Sorry.” Ed stepped back. The control bars lifted. He waited for the lights to change. It was for Peter’s own good. Robots could train him right. Later on, when he was out of growth stage, when he was not so pliant, responsive — “It’s better for him,” Ed murmured. He said it again, half aloud. Some people glanced at him and he colored. Of course it was better for him. No doubt about it.
Eighteen. He couldn’t be with his son until he was eighteen. Practically grown up.
The lights changed. Deep in thought, Ed crossed the street with the other pedestrians, keeping carefully inside the safety lane. It was best for Peter. But eighteen years was a long time.
“A hell of a long time,” Ed murmured, frowning. “Too damn long a time.”
Doctor 2g-Y Bish carefully studied the man standing in front of him. His relays and memory banks clicked, narrowing down the image identification, flashing a variety of comparison possibilities past the scanner.
“I recall you, sir,” Doctor Bish said at last. “You’re the man from Proxima. From the colonies. Doyle, Edward Doyle. Let’s see. It was some time ago. It must have been —”
“Nine years ago,” Ed Doyle said grimly. “Exactly nine years ago, practically to the day.”
Doctor Bish folded his hands. “Sit down, Mr Doyle. What can I do for you? How is Mrs Doyle? Very engaging wife, as I recall. We had a delightful conversation during her delivery. How —”
“Doctor Bish, do you know where my son is?”
Doctor Bish considered, tapping his fingers on the desk top, the polished mahogany surface. He closed his eyes slightly, gazing off into the distance. “Yes. Yes, I know where your son is, Mr Doyle.”
Ed Doyle relaxed. “Fine.” He nodded, letting his breath out in relief.
“I know exactly where your son is. I placed him in the Los Angeles Biological Research Station about a year ago. He’s undergoing specialized training there. Your son, Mr Doyle, has shown exceptional ability. He is, shall I say, one of the few, the very few we have found with real possibilities.”
“Can I see him?”
“See him? How do you mean?”
Doyle controlled himself with an effort. “I think the term is clear.”
Doctor Bish rubbed his chin. His photocell brain whirred, operating at maximum velocity. Switches routed power surges, building up loads and leaping gaps rapidly, as he contemplated the man before him. “You wish to view him? That’s one meaning of the term. Or do you wish to talk to him? Sometimes the term is used to cover a more direct contact. It’s a loose word.”
“I want to talk to him.”
“I see.” Bish slowly drew some forms from the dispenser on his desk. “There are a few routine papers that have to be filled out first, of course. Just how long did you want to speak to him?”
Ed Doyle gazed steadily into Doctor Bish’s bland face. “I want to talk to him several hours. Alone.”
“No robots around.”
Doctor Bish said nothing. He stroked the papers he held, creasing the edges with his nail. “Mr Doyle,” he said carefully, “I wonder if you’re in a proper emotional state to visit your son. You have recently come in from the colonies?”
“I left Proxima three weeks ago.”
“Then you have just arrived here in Los Angeles?”
“And you’ve come to see your son? Or have you other business?”
“I came for my son.”
“Mr Doyle, Peter is at a very critical stage. He has just recently been transferred to the Biology Station for his higher training. Up to now his training has been general. What we call the non-differentiated stage. Recently he has entered a new period. Within the last six months Peter has begun advanced work along his specific line, that of organic chemistry. He will —”
“What does Peter think about it?”
Bish frowned. “I don’t understand, sir.”
“How does he feel? Is it what he wants?”
“Mr Doyle, your son has the possibility of becoming one of the world’s finest bio-chemists. In all the time we have worked with human beings, in their training and development, we have never come across a more alert and integrated faculty for the assimilation of data, construction of theory, formulation of material, than that which your son possesses. All tests indicate he will rapidly rise to the top of his chosen field. He is still only a child, Mr Doyle, but it is the children who must be trained.”
Doyle stood up. “Tell me where I can find him. I’ll talk to him for two hours and then the rest is up to him.”
Doyle clamped his jaw shut. He shoved his hands in his pockets. His face was flushed and set grim with determination. In the nine years he had grown much heavier, more stocky and florid. His thinning hair had turned iron-gray. His clothes were dumpy and unpressed. He looked stubborn.
Doctor Bish sighed. “All right, Mr Doyle. Here are your papers. The law allows you to observe your boy whenever you make proper application. Since he is out of his non-differentiated stage, you may also speak to him for a period of ninety minutes.”
“You can take him away from the Station grounds for that length of time.” Doctor Bish pushed the papers over to Doyle. “Fill these out, and I’ll have Peter brought here.”
He looked up steadily at the man standing before him.
“I hope you’ll remember that any emotional experience at this crucial stage may do much to inhibit his development. He has chosen his field, Mr Doyle. He must be permitted to grow along his selected lines, unhindered by situational blocks. Peter has been in contact with our technical staff throughout his entire training period. He is not accustomed to contact with other human beings. So please be careful.”
Doyle said nothing. He grabbed up the papers and plucked out his fountain pen.
He hardly recognized his son when the two robot attendants brought him out of the massive concrete Station building and deposited him a few yards from Ed’s parked surface car.
Ed pushed the door open. “Pete!” His heart was thumping heavily, painfully. He watched his son come toward the car, frowning in the bright sunlight. It was late afternoon, about four. A faint breeze blew across the parking lot, rustling a few papers and bits of debris.
Peter stood slim and straight. His eyes were large, deep brown, like Ed’s. His hair was light, almost blond. More like Janet’s. He had Ed’s jaw, though, the firm line, clean and well chiseled. Ed grinned at him. Nine years it had been. Nine years since the robot attendant had lifted the rack up from the conveyor pot to show him the little wrinkled baby, red as a boiled lobster.
Peter had grown. He was not a baby any longer. He was a young boy, straight and proud, with firm features and wide, clear eyes.
“Pete,” Ed said. “How the hell are you?”
The boy stopped by the door of the car. He gazed at Ed calmly. His eyes flickered, taking in the car, the robot driver, the heavy set man in the rumpled tweed suit grinning nervously at him.
“Get in. Get inside.” Ed moved over. “Come on. We have places to go.”
The boy was looking at him again. Suddenly Ed was conscious of his baggy suit, his unshined shoes, his gray stubbled chin. He flushed, yanking out his red pocket-handkerchief and mopping his forehead uneasily. “I just got off the ship, Pete. From Proxima. I haven’t had time to change. I’m a little dusty. Long trip.”
Peter nodded. “4.3 light years, isn’t it?”
“Takes three weeks. Get in. Don’t you want to get in?”
Peter slid in beside him. Ed slammed the door.
“Let’s go.” The car started up. “Drive —” Ed peered out the window. “Drive up there. By the hill. Out of town.” He turned to Pete. “I hate big cities. I can’t get used to them.”
“There are no large cities in the colonies, are there?” Pete murmured. “You’re unused to urban living.”
Ed settled back. His heart had begun to slow down to its normal beat. “No, as a matter of fact it’s the other way around, Pete.”
“How do you mean?”
“I went to Prox because I couldn’t stand cities.”
Peter said nothing. The surface car was climbing, going up a steel highway into the hills. The Station, huge and impressive, spread out like a heap of cement bricks directly below them. A few cars moved along the road, but not many. Most transportation was by air, now. Surface cars had begun to disappear.
The road leveled off. They moved along the ridge of the hills. Trees and bushes rose on both sides of them. “It’s nice up here,” Ed said.
“How — how have you been? I haven’t seen you for a long time. Just once. Just after you were born.”
“I know. Your visit is listed in the records.”
“You been getting along all right?”
“Yes. Quite well.”
“They treating you all right?”
After a while Ed leaned forward. “Stop here,” he said to the robot driver.
The car slowed down, pulling over to the side of the road. “Sir, there is nothing —”
“This is fine. Let us out. We’ll walk from here.”
The car stopped. The door slid reluctantly open. Ed stepped quickly out of the car, on to the pavement. Peter got out slowly after him, puzzled. “Where are we?”
“No place.” Ed slammed the door. “Go on back to town,” he said to the driver. “We won’t need you.”
The car drove off. Ed walked to the side of the road. Peter came after him. The hill dropped away, falling down to the beginnings of the city below. A vast panorama stretched out, the great metropolis in the late afternoon sun. Ed took a deep breath, throwing his arms out. He took off his coat and tossed it over his shoulder.
“Come on.” He started down the hillside. “Here we go.”
“For a walk. Let’s get off this damn road.”
They climbed down the side of the hill, walking carefully, holding on to the grass and roots jutting out from the soil. Finally they came to a level place by a big sycamore tree. Ed threw himself down on the ground, grunting and wiping sweat from his neck.
“Here. Let’s sit here.”
Peter sat down carefully, a little way off. Ed’s blue shirt was stained with sweat. He unfastened his tie and loosened his collar. Presently he searched through his coat pockets. He brought out his pipe and tobacco.
Peter watched him fill the pipe and light it with a big sulphur match. “What’s that?” he murmured.
“This? My pipe.” Ed grinned, sucking at the pipe. “Haven’t you ever seen a pipe?”
“This is a good pipe. I got this when I first went out to Proxima. That was a long time ago, Pete. It was twenty-five years ago. I was just nineteen, then. Only about twice as old as you.”
He put his tobacco away and leaned back, his heavy face serious, preoccupied.
“Just nineteen. I went out there as a plumber. Repair and sales, when I could make a sale. Terran Plumbing. One of those big ads you used to see. Unlimited opportunities. Virgin lands. Make a million. Gold in the streets.” Ed laughed.
“How did you make out?”
“Not bad. Not bad at all. I own my own line, now, you know. I service the whole Proxima system. We do repairing, maintenance, building, construction. I’ve got six hundred people working for me. It took a long time. It didn’t come easy.”
Peter turned. “What?”
“Are you hungry?” Ed pulled a brown paper parcel from his coat and unwrapped it. “I still have a couple of sandwiches from the trip. When I come in from Prox I bring some food along with me. I don’t like to buy in the diner. They skin you.” He held out the parcel. “Want one?”
“No thank you.”
Ed took a sandwich and began to eat. He ate nervously, glancing at his son. Peter sat silently, a short distance off, staring ahead without expression. His smooth handsome face was blank.
“Everything all right?” Ed said.
“You’re not cold, are you?”
“You don’t want to catch cold.”
A squirrel crossed in front of them, hurrying toward the sycamore tree. Ed threw it a piece of his sandwich. The squirrel ran off a way, then came back slowly. It scolded at them, standing up on its hind feet, its great gray tail flowing out behind it.
Ed laughed. “Look at him. Ever see a squirrel before?”
“I don’t think so.”
“It’s good to come back to Terra once in a while. See some of the old things. They’re going, though.”
“Away. Destroyed. Terra is always changing.” Ed waved around at the hillside. “This will be gone, some day. They’ll cut down the trees. Then they’ll level it. Some day they’ll carve the whole range up and carry it off. Use it for fill, some place along the coast.”
“That’s beyond our scope,” Peter said.
“I don’t receive that type of material. I think Doctor Bish told you. I’m working with bio-chemistry.”
“I know,” Ed murmured. “Say, how the hell did you ever get mixed up with that stuff? Bio-chemistry?”
“The tests showed that my abilities lie along those lines.”
“You enjoy what you’re doing?”
“What a strange thing to ask. Of course I enjoy what I’m doing. It’s the work I’m fitted for.”
“It seems funny as hell to me, starting a nine-year-old kid off on something like that.”
“My God, Pete. When I was nine I was bumming around town. In school sometimes, outside mostly, wandering here and there. Playing. Reading. Sneaking into the rocket launching yards all the time.” He considered. “Doing all sorts of things. When I was sixteen I hopped over to Mars. I stayed there a while. Worked as a hasher. I went on to Ganymede. Ganymede was all sewed up tight. Nothing doing there. From Ganymede I went out to Prox. Got a work-away all the way out. Big freighter.”
“You stayed at Proxima?”
“I sure did. I found what I wanted. Nice place, out there. Now we’re starting on to Sirius, you know.” Ed’s chest swelled. “I’ve got an outlet in the Sirius system. Little retail and service place.”
“Sirius is 8.8 light years from Sol.”
“It’s a long way. Seven weeks from here. Rough grind. Meteor swarms. Keeps things hot all the way out.”
“I can imagine.”
“You know what I thought I might do?” Ed turned toward his son, his face alive with hope and enthusiasm. “I’ve been thinking it over. I thought maybe I’d go out there. To Sirius. It’s a fine little place we have. I drew up the plans myself. Special design to fit with the characteristics of the system.”
“Do you think maybe you’d be interested? Like to hop out to Sirius and take a look? It’s a good place. Four clean planets. Never touched. Lots of room. Miles and miles of room. Cliffs and mountains. Oceans. Nobody around. Just a few colonists, families, some construction. Wide, level plains.”
“How do you mean, interested?”
“In going all the way out.” Ed’s face was pale. His mouth twitched nervously. “I thought maybe you’d like to come along and see how things are. It’s a lot like Prox was, twenty-five years ago. It’s good and clean out there. No cities.”
“Why are you smiling?”
“No reason.” Peter stood up abruptly. “If we have to walk back to the Station we’d better start. Don’t you think? It’s getting late.”
“Sure.” Ed struggled to his feet. “Sure, but —”
“When are you going to be back in the Sol system again?”
“Back?” Ed followed after his son. Peter climbed up the hill toward the road. “Slow down, will you?”
Peter slowed down. Ed caught up with him.
“I don’t know when I’ll be back. I don’t come here very often. No ties. Not since Jan and I separated. As a matter of fact I came here this time to —”
“This way.” Peter started down the road.
Ed hurried along beside him, fastening his tie and putting his coat on, gasping for breath. “Peter, what do you say? You want to hop out to Sirius with me? Take a look? It’s a nice place out there. We could work together. The two of us. If you want.”
“But I already have my work.”
“That stuff? That damn chemistry stuff?”
Peter smiled again.
Ed scowled, his face dark red. “Why are you smiling?” he demanded. His son did not answer. “What’s the matter? What’s so damn funny?”
“Nothing,” Peter said. “Don’t become excited. We have a long walk down.” He increased his pace slightly, his supple body swinging in long, even strides. “It’s getting late. We have to hurry.”
Doctor Bish examined his wristwatch, pushing back his pinstriped coat sleeve. “I’m glad you’re back.”
“He sent the surface car away,” Peter murmured. “We had to walk down the hill on foot.”
It was dark outside. The Station lights were coming on automatically, along the rows of buildings and laboratories.
Doctor Bish rose from his desk. “Sign this, Peter. Bottom of this form.”
Peter signed. “What is it?”
“Certifies you saw him in accord with the provisions of the law. We didn’t try to obstruct you in any way.”
Peter handed the paper back. Bish filed it away with the others. Peter moved toward the door of the doctor’s office. “I’ll go. Down to the cafeteria for dinner.”
“You haven’t eaten?”
Doctor Bish folded his arms, studying the boy. “Well?” he said. “What do you think of him? This is the first time you’ve seen your father. It must have been strange for you. You’ve been around us so much, in all your training and work.”
“It was — unusual.”
“Did you gain any impressions? Was there anything you particularly noticed?”
“He was very emotional. There was a distinct bias through everything he said and did. A distortion present, virtually uniform.”
Peter hesitated, lingering at the door. He broke into a smile. “One other thing.”
“What was it?”
“I noticed —” Peter laughed. “I noticed a distinct odor about him. A constant pungent smell, all the time I was with him.”
“I’m afraid that’s true of all of them,” Doctor Bish said. “Certain skin glands. Waste products thrown off from the blood. You’ll get used to it, after you’ve been around them more.”
“Do I have to be around them?”
“They’re your own race. How else can you work with them? Your whole training is designed with that in mind. When we’ve taught you all we can, then you will —”
“It reminded me of something. The pungent odor. I kept thinking about it, all the time I was with him. Trying to place it.”
“Can you identify it now?”
Peter reflected. He thought hard, concentrating deeply. His small face wrinkled up. Doctor Bish waited patiently by his desk, arms folded. The automatic heating system clicked on for the night, warming the room with a soft glow that drifted gently around them.
“I know!” Peter exclaimed suddenly.
“What was it?”
“The animals in the biology lab. It was the same smell. The same smell as the experimental animals.”
They glanced at each other, the robot doctor and the promising young boy. Both of them smiled, a secret, private smile. A smile of complete understanding.
“I believe I know what you mean,” Doctor Bish said. “In fact, I know exactly what you mean.”
Note: This story is in the public domain. For publication and copyright details, please click here.
I highly recommend this piece by Ballard both for it’s brevity and vivid depiction of a possible future that is not pleasant to contemplate yet a possibility that is very important to acknowledge.
The Tunnel Under The World by Frederik Pohl
This is classic science fiction at it’s best. It takes about an hour and a half to read this story and it will be time well spent.
I love this line from Walter J. Sheldon’s “This is Klon Calling,” a science fiction short story that humorously illustrates how “the one sure way to live dangerously is to become a practical joker.”