THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION.
AN ANTHOLOGY OF 50 SHORT STORIES.
By Poul Anderson
Since the Howard-de Camp system for deciphering preglacial inscriptions first appeared, much progress has been made in tracing the history, ethnology, and even daily life of the great cultures which flourished till the Pleistocene ice age wiped them out and forced man to start over. We know, for instance, that magic was practiced; that there were some highly civilized countries in what is now Central Asia, the Near East, North Africa, southern Europe, and various oceans; and that elsewhere the world was occupied by barbarians, of whom the North Europeans were the biggest, strongest, and most warlike. At least, so the scholars inform us, and being of North European ancestry they ought to know.
The following is a translation of a letter recently discovered in the ruins of Cyrenne. This was a provincial town of the Sarmian Empire, a great though decadent realm in the eastern Mediterranean area, whose capital, Sarmia, was at once the most beautiful and the most lustful, depraved city of its time. The Sarmans" northern neighbors were primitive horse nomads and/or Centaurs; but to the east lay the Kingdom of Chathakh, and to the south was the Herpetarchy of Serpens, ruled by a priestly cast of snake worshipers or possibly snakes.
The letter was obviously written in Sarmia and posted to Cyrenne. Its date is approximately 175,000 B.C.
Marilion Quaestos, sub-sub-sub-prefect of the Imperial Waterworks of Sarmia, to his nephew Thyaston, Chancellor of the Bureau of Thaumaturgy, Province of Cyrenne: Greetings!
I trust this finds you in good health, and that the gods will continue to favor you. As for me, I am well, though somewhat plagued by the gout, for which I have tried [here follows the description of a home remedy, both tedious and unprintable]. This has not availed, however, save to exhaust my purse and myself.
You must indeed have been out of touch during your Atlantean journey, if you must write to inquire about the Barbarian affair. Now that events have settled down again, I can, I hope, give you an adequate and dispassionate account of the whole ill-starred business. By the favor of the Triplet Goddesses, holy Sarmia has survived the episode; and though we are still rather shaken, things are improving. If at all times I seem to depart from the philosophic calm I have always tried to cultivate, blame it on the Barbarian. I am not the man I used to be. None of us are.
To begin, then, about three years ago the war with Chathakh had settled down to border skirmishes. Now and then a raid by one side or the other would penetrate deeply into the countries themselves, but with no decisive effect. Indeed, since these operations yielded a more or less equal amount of booty for both lands, and the slave trade grew brisk, it was good for business.
Our chief concern was the ambiguous attitude of Serpens. As you well know, the Herpetarchs have no love for us, and a major object of our diplomacy was to keep them from entering the war on the side of Chathakh. We had, of course, no hope of making them our allies. But as long as we maintained a posture of strength, it was likely that they would at least stay neutral.
Thus it stood when the Barbarian came to Sarmia, We had heard rumors of him for a long time. An accurate description was available. He was a wandering soldier of fortune from some kingdom of swordsmen and seafarers up in the northern forests. He had drifted south, alone, in search of adventure or perhaps only a better climate. Seven feet tall, and broad in proportion, he was one mass of muscle, with a mane of tawny hair and sullen blue eyes. He was adept with any weapon, but preferred a four-foot double-edged sword with which he could cleave helmet, skull, neck, and so on down at one blow. He was also said to be a drinker and lover of awesome capacity.
Having overcome the Centaurs singlehanded, he tramped down through our northern provinces and one day stood at the gates of Sarmia herself. It was a curious vision the turreted walls rearing up over the stone-paved road, the guards with helmet and shield and corselet, and the towering near-naked giant who rattled his blade before them. As their pikes slanted down to bar his way, he cried in a voice of thunder: "I yam Cronkheit duh Barbarian, an' I wanna audience widjer queen!"
His accent was so ludicrously uneducated that the watch burst into laughter. This angered him; flushing darkly, he drew his sword and advanced stiff-legged. The guardsmen reeled back before him, and the Barbarian swaggered through.
As the captain of the watch explained it to me afterward: "There he came, and there we stood. A spear length away, we caught the smell. Ye gods, when did he last bathe?"
So with people running from the streets and bazaars as he neared, Cronkheit made his way down the Avenue of Sphinxes, past the baths and the Temple of Loccar, till he reached the Imperial Palace. Its gates stood open as usual, and he looked in at the gardens and the alabaster walls beyond, and grunted. When the Golden Guardsmen approached frim upwind and asked his business, he grunted again. They lifted their bows and would have made short work of him, but a slave came running to bid them desist.
You see, by the will of some malignant god, the Empress was standing on a balcony and saw frini, As is well known, our beloved Empress, Her Seductive Majesty the Illustrious Lady Larra the Voluptuous, is built like a mountain highway and is commonly believed to be an incarnation of her tutelary deity, Aphrosex, the Mink Goddess. She stood on the balcony with the wind blowing her thin transparent garments and thick black hair, and a sudden eagerness lit her proud lovely face. This was understandable, for Cronkheit wore only a bearskin kilt So the slave was dispatched, to bow low before the stranger and say: "Most noble lord, the divine Empress would have private speech with you."
Cronkheit smacked his lips and strutted into the palace. The chamberlain wrung his hands when he saw those large muddy feet treading priceless rugs, but there was no help for it, and the Barbarian was led upstairs to the Imperial bedchamber.
What befell there is known to all, for of course in such interviews the Lady Larra posts mute slaves at convenient peepholes, to summon the guards if danger seems to threaten; and the courtiers have quietly taught these mutes to write. Our Empress had a cold, and had furthermore been eating a garlic salad, so her aristocratically curved nose was not offended. After a few formalities, she began to pant Slowly, then she held out her arms and let the purple robe slide down from her creamy shoulders and across the silken thighs.
"Come," she whispered. "Come, magnificent male."
Cronkheit snorted, pawed the ground, rushed forth, and clasped her to him.
"Yowww!" cried the Empress as a rib cracked. "Leggo! Help!"
The mutes ran for the Golden Guardsmen, who entered at once. They got ropes around the Barbarian and dragged him from their poor lady. Though in considerable pain, and much shaken, she did not order his execution; she is known to be very patient with some types.
Indeed, after gulping a cup of wine to steady her, she invited Cronkheit to be her guest. After he had been conducted off to his rooms, she summoned the Duchess of Thyle, a supple, agile little minx.
"I have a task for you, my dear," she murmured. "You will fulfill it as a loyal lady in waiting."
"Yes, Your Seductive Majesty," said the Duchess, who could well guess what the task was and thought she had been waiting long enough. For a whole week, in fact. Her assignment was to take the edge off the Barbarian's impetuosity.
She greased herself so she could slip free if in peril of being crushed, and hurried to Cronkheit's suite. Her musky perfume drowned out his odor, and she slipped off her dress and crooned with half-shut eyes: "Take me, my lord!"
"Yahoo!" howled the warrior. "I yam Crontheit duh Strong, Cronkheit duh Bold, Cronkheit what slew a mammot' singlehanded an' made hisself chief o' duh Centaurs, an' dis's muh nigjit! C'mere!"
The Duchess did, and he folded her in his mighty arms. A moment later there was another shriek. The palace attendants were treated to the sight of a naked and furious greased Duchess speeding down the jade corridor.
"Fleas he's got!" she cried, scratching as she ran.
So all in all, Cronkheit the Barbarian was no great success as a lover. Even the women in the Street of Joy used to hide when they saw him coming. They said they'd been exposed to clumsy technique before, but this was just too much.
However, his fame was so great that the Lady Larra put him in command of a brigade, infantry and cavalry, and sent him to join General Grythion on the Chathakh border. He made the march in record time and came shouting into the city of tents which had grown up at our mam base.
Now admittedly our good General Grythion is somewhat of a dandy, who curls his beard and is henpecked by his wives. But he has always been a competent soldier, winning honors at the Academy and leading troops in battle many times before rising to the strategfc-planning post One could understand Cronkheit's incivility at their meeting. But when the general courteously declined to go forth in the van of the army and pointed out how much more valuable he was as a coordinator behind the lines -- that was no excuse for Cronkheit to knock his superior officer to the ground and call him a coward, damned of the gods. Giythion was thoroughly justified in having him put in irons, despite the casualties involved. Even as it was, the spectacle had so demoralized our troops that they lost three important engagements in the following month.
Alas! Word of this reached the Empress, and she did not order Cronkheit's head struck off. Indeed, she sent back a command that he be released and reinstated. Perhaps she still cherished him enough to be an acceptable bed partner.
Grythion swallowed his pride and apologized to the Barbarian, who accepted with an ill grace. His restored rank made it necessary to invite him to a dinner and conference in the headquarters tent It was a flat failure. Cronkheit stamped in and at once made sneering remarks about the elegant togas of his brother officers. He belched when he ate and couldn't distinguish the product of one vineyard from another. His conversation consisted of hourlong monologues about his own prowess. General Grythion saw morale zooming downward, and hastily called for maps and planning.
"Now, most noble sirs," he began, "we have to lay out the summer campaign. As you know, we have the Eastern Desert between us and the nearest important enemy positions. This raises difficult questions of logistics and catapult emplacement." He turned politely to the Barbarian. "Have you any suggestion, my lord?"
"Duh," said Cronkheit "I think," ventured Colonel Pharaon, "that if we advanced to the Chunling Oasis and dug in there, building a supply road--"
"Dat reminds me," said Cronkheit "One time up in duh Norriki marshes, I run acrost some swamp men an' dey uses poisoned arrers--"
"I fail to see what that has to do with this problem," said General Grythion.
"Nuitin'," admitted Cronkheit cheerfully. "But don't innerup' me. Like I was sayin'--" And he was off for another dreary hour.
At the end of a conference which had gotten nowhere, the general stroked his beard and said shrewdly: "Lord Cronkheit, it appears your abilities are more in the tactical than the strategic field."
The Barbarian snatched for his sword.
"I mean," said Grythion quickly, "I have a task which only the boldest and strongest leader can accomplish."
Cronkheit beamed and listened closely for a change. He was to be sent out with his men to capture Chantsay. This was a fort in the mountain passes across the Eastern Desert, and a major obstacle to our advance. However, in spite of Grythion's judicious flattery, a full brigade should have been able to take it with little difficulty, for it was known to be undermanned.
Cronkheit rode off at the head of his men, tossing his sword in the air and bellowing some uncouth battle chant. Then he was not heard of for six weeks.
At the close of that time, the ragged, starving, fever-stricken remnant of his troops staggered back to the base and reported utter failure. Cronkheit, who was in excellent health himself, made some sullen excuses. But he had never imagined that men who march twenty hours a day aren't fit for battle at the end of the trip -- the more so if they outrun their own supply train.
Because of the Empress's wish, General Grythion could not do the sensible thing and cashier the Barbarian. He could not even reduce him to the ranks. Instead, he used his well-known guile and invited the giant to a private dinner.
"Obviously, most valiant lord," he purred, "the fault is mine. I should have realized that a man of your type is too much for us decadent southerners. You are a lone wolf who fights best by himself."
"Duh," agreed Cronkheit, ripping a fowl apart with his fingers and wiping them on the damask tablecloth.
Grythion winced, but easily talked him into going out on a one-man guerrilla operation. When he left the next morning, the officers' corps congratulated themselves on having gotten rid of the lout forever.
In the face of subsequent criticism and demands for an investigation, I still maintain that Grythion did the only rational thing under the circumstances. Who could have known that Cronkheit the Barbarian was so primitive that rationality simply slid off his hairy skin?
The full story will never be known. But apparently, in the course of the following year, while the border war continued as usual, Cronkheit struck off into the northern uplands. There he raised a band of horse nomads as ignorant and brutal as himself. He also rounded up a herd of mammoths and drove them into Chathakh, stampeding them at the foe. By such means, he reached their very capital, and the King offered terms of surrender.
But Cronkheit would have none of this. Not he! His idea of warfare was to kill or enslave every last man, woman, and child of the enemy nation. Also, his irregulars were supposed to be paid in loot. Also, being too unsanitary even for the nomad girls, he felt a certain urgency.
So he stormed the capital of Chathakh and burned it to the ground. This cost him most of his own men. It also destroyed several priceless books and works of art, and any possibility of tribute to Sarmia.
Then he had the nerve to organize a triumphal procession and ride back to our own city!
This was too much even for the Empress. When he stood before -- for he was too crude for the simple courtesy of a knee bend -- she exceeded herself in describing the many kinds of fool, idiot, and all-around blockhead he was.
"Duh," said Cronkheit. "But I won duh war. Look, I won duh war, I did. I won duh war,"
"Yes," hissed the Lady Larra. "You smashed an ancient and noble culture to irretrievable ruin. And did you know that one half our peacetime trade was with Chathakh? There'll be a business depression now such as history has never seen before."
General Grythion, who had returned, added his own reproaches. "Why do you think wars are fought?" he asked bitterly. "War is an extension of diplomacy. It's the final means of making somebody else do what you want. The object is not to kill them all off--how can corpses obey you?"
Cronkheit growled in his throat.
"We would have negotiated a peace in which Chathakh became our ally against Serpens," went on the general. "Then we'd have been safe against all comers. But you -- You've left a howling wilderness which we must garrison with our own troops lest the nomads take it over. Your atrocities have alienated every civilized state. You've left us alone and friendless. You've won this war by losing the next one!"
"And on top of the depression which is coming," said the Empress, "we'll have the cost of maintaining those garrisons. Taxes down and expenditures up--It may break the treasury, and then where are we?"
Cronkheit spat on the floor. "Yuh're all decadent, dat's what yuh are," he snarled, "Be good for yuh if yer empire breaks up. Yuh oughtta get dat city rabble o' years out in duh woods an' make hunters of 'em, like me. Let 'em eat steak."
The Lady Larra stamped an exquisite gold-shod foot "Do you think we've nothing better to do with our time than spend the whole day hunting, and sit around in some mud hovel at night licking the grease off our fingers?" she cried "What the hell do you think civilization is for, anyway?"
Cronkheit drew his great sword so it flashed before their eyes. "I hadda nuff!" he bellowed. "I'm t'rough widjuh! It's time yuh was all wiped off duh face o' duh eart', an I'm jus' duh guy t' doit!"
And now Genegal Grythion showed the qualities which had raised him to his high post. Artfully, he quailed. "Oh no!" he whimpered. "You're not going to -- to -- to fight on the side of Serpens?"
"I yam," said Cronkheit. "So long." The last we saw of him was a broad, indignant, flea-bitten back, headed south, and the reflection of the sun on a sword.
Since then, of course, our affairs have prospered and Serpens is now frantically suing for peace. But we intend to prosecute the war till they meet our terms. We are most assuredly not going to be ensnared by their treacherous plea and take the Barbarian back!
By Fredric Brown
"The first time machine, gentlemen," Professor Johnson proudly informed his two colleagues. "True, it is a small-scale experimental model. It will operate only on objects weighing less than three pounds, five ounces and for distances into the past and future of twelve minutes or less. But it works."
The small-scale model looked like a small scale-a postage scale-except for two dials in the part under the platform.
Professor Johnson held up a small metal cube. "Our experimental object," he said, "is a brass cube weighing one pound, two point three ounces. First, I shall send it five minutes into the future."
He leaned forward and set one of the dials on the time machine. "Look at your watches," he said.
They looked at their watches. Professor Johnson placed the cube gently on the machine's platform. It vanished.
Five minutes later, to the second, it reappeared.
Professor Johnson picked it up. "Now five minutes into the past." He set the other dial. Holding the cube in his hand he looked at his watch. "It is six minutes before three o'clock. I shall now activate the mechanism-by placing the cube on the platform-at exactly three o'clock. Therefore, the cube should, at five minutes before three, vanish from my hand and appear on the platform, five minutes before I place it there."
"How can you place it there, then?" asked one of his colleagues.
"It will, as my hand approaches, vanish from the platform and appear in my hand to be placed there. Three o'clock. Notice, please."
The cube vanished from his hand.
It appeared on the platform of the time machine.
"See? Five minutes before I shall place it there, it is there!"
His other colleague frowned at the cube. "But," he said, "what if, now that it has already appeared five minutes before you place it there, you should change your mind about doing so and not place it there at three o'clock? Wouldn't there be a paradox of some sort involved?"
"An interesting idea," Professor Johnson said. "I had not thought of it, and it will be interesting to try. Very well, I shall not ..."
There was no paradox at all. The cube remained.
But the entire rest of the Universe, professors and all, vanished.