Paresi bent away from the blow like a caterpillar being bitten by a fire-ant. He said nothing.
"And finally," said the Captain, "you won't be a book because you got ... no ... spine." He leapt abruptly to his feet. "Well, what do you know!"
He bent and scooped up an unaccountable object that rested by the nearest shadows. It was a quarter-keg of beer.
He hefted it and thumped it heavily down on the table. "Come on, Nick," he chortled. "Gather ye round. Here's old Ives, like I said."
Paresi stared at the keg, his eyes stretched so wide open that the lids moved visibly with his pulse. "Stop it, Anderson, you swine...."
The Captain tossed him a disgusted glance and a matching snort. From the clutter of radar gear he pulled a screwdriver and a massive little step-down transformer down on its handle. The bung disappeared explosively inside the keg, and was replaced by a gout of white foam. Paresi shrieked.
"Ah, shaddup," growled Anderson. He rummaged until he found a tube-shield. He stripped off a small length of self-welding metal tape and clapped it over the terminal-hole at the closed end of the shield, making it into an adequate mug. He waited a moment while the weld cooled, then tipped the keg until solid beer began to run with the foam. He filled the improvised mug and extended it toward Paresi.
"Good ol' Ives," he said sentimentally. "Come on, Paresi. Have a drink on Ives."
Paresi turned and covered his face like a frightened woman.
Anderson shrugged and drank the beer. "It's good beer," he said. He glanced down at the doctor, who suddenly flung himself face down across the couch with his head hanging out of sight on the opposite side, from which came the sounds of heaving and choking.
"Poor ol' Nick," said the Captain sadly. He refilled the mug and sat down. With his free hand he patted Paresi's back. "Can't take it. Poor, poor ol' Nick...."
After that there was a deepening silence, a deepening blackness. Paresi was quiet now, breathing very slowly, holding each breath, expelling air and lying quiet for three full seconds before each inhalation, as if breathing were a conscious effort--more; as if breathing were the whole task, the entire end of existence. Anderson slumped lower and lower. Each time he blinked his lids opened a fraction less, while the time his eyes stayed closed became a fraction of a second longer. The cabin waited as tensely as the taut pose of the rigid little victory trophy.
Then there was the music.
It was soft, grand music; the music of pageantry, cloth-of-gold and scarlet vestments; pendant jewels and multicolored dimness shouldering upward to be lost in vaulted stone. It was music which awaited the accompaniment of whispers, thousands of awed, ritualistic sibilants which would carry no knowable meaning and only one avowed purpose. Soft music, soft, soft; not soft as to volume, for the volume grew and grew, but soft with the softness of clouds which are soft for all their mountain-size and brilliance; soft and living as a tiger's throat, soft as a breast, soft as the act of drowning, and huge as a cloud.
Anderson made two moves: he raised his head, and he spun the beer in his mug so its center surface sank and the bubbles whirled. With his head up and his eyes down he sat watching the bubbles circle and slow.
Paresi rose slowly and went to the center of the small lighted space left to them, and slowly he knelt. His arms came up and out, and his upturned face was twisted and radiant.
Before him in the blackness there was--or perhaps there had been for some time--a blue glow, almost as lightless as the surrounding dark, but blue and physically deep for all that. Its depth increased rather than its light. It became the ghost of a grotto, the mouth of a nameless Place.
And in it was a person. A ... presence. It beckoned.
Paresi's face gleamed wetly. "Me?" he breathed. "You want--me?"
"I--don't believe you," said Paresi. "You can't want me. You don't know who I am. You don't know what I am, what I've done. You don't want me...." His voice quavered almost to inaudibility. "... do you?"
"Then you know," sang Paresi in the voice of revelation. "I have denied you with my lips, but you know, you know, you know that underneath ... deep down ... I have not wavered for an instant. I have kept your image before me."
He rose. Now Anderson watched him.
"You are my life," said Paresi, "my hopes, my fulfillment. You are all wisdom and all charity. Thank you, thank you ... Master. I give thee thanks oh Lord," he blurted, and walked straight into the blue glow.
There was an instant when the music was an anthem, and then it too was gone.
Anderson's breath whistled out. He lifted his beer, checked himself, then set it down gently by the figurine of the athlete. He went to the place where Paresi had disappeared, bent and picked up a small object. He swore, and came back to the couch.
He sucked his thumb and swore again. "Your thorns are sharp, Paresi."
Carefully he placed the object between the beer keg and the statuette. It was a simple wooden cross. Around the arms and shaft, twisted tightly and biting deeply into the wood, was a thorny withe. "God all mighty, Nick," Anderson said mournfully, "you didn't have to hide it. Nobody'd have minded."
"Well?" he roared suddenly at the blackness, "what are you waiting for? Am I in your way? Have I done anything to stop you? Come on, come on!"
His voice rebounded from the remaining bulkhead, but was noticeably swallowed up in the absorbent blackness. He waited until its last reverberations had died, and then until its memory was hard to fix. He pounded futilely at the couch cushions, glared all about in a swift, intense, animal way. Then he relaxed, bent down and fumbled for the alcohol bottle. "What's the matter with you, out there?" he demanded quietly. "You waiting for me to sober up? You want me to be myself before you fix me up? You want to know something? In vino veritas, that's what. You don't have to wait for me, kiddies. I'm a hell of a lot more me right now than I will be after I get over this." He took the figurine and replaced it on the other side of the keg. "Tha's right, Johnny. Get over on the other side of ol' Beer-belly there. Make room for the old man." To the blackness he said, "Look, I got neat habits, don't leave me on no deck, hear? Rack me up alongside the boys. What is it I'm going to be? Oh yeah. A coat of arms. Hey, I forgot the motto. All righty: this is my motto. 'Sic itur ad astra'--that is to say, 'This is the way to the men's room.'"
Somewhere a baby cried.
Anderson threw his forearm over his eyes.
Someone went "Shh!" but the baby went right on crying.
Anderson said, "Who's there?"
"Just me, darling."
He breathed deeply, twice, and then whispered, "Louise?"
"Of course. Shh, Jeannie!"
"Jeannie's with you, Louise? She's all right? You're--all right?"
"Come and see," the sweet voice chuckled.
Captain Anderson dove into the blackness aft. It closed over him silently and completely.
On the table stood an ivory figurine, a quarter-keg of beer, a thorny cross, and a heart. It wasn't a physiological specimen; rather it was the archetype of the most sentimental of symbols, the balanced, cushiony, brilliant red valentine heart. Through it was a golden arrow, and on it lay cut flowers: lilies, white roses, and forget-me-nots. The heart pulsed strongly; and though it pumped no blood, at least it showed that it was alive, which made it, perhaps, a better thing than it looked at first glance.
Now it was very quiet in the ship, and very dark.
... We are about to land. The planet is green and blue below us, and the long trip is over.... It looks as if it might be a pleasant place to live....
A fragment of Old Testament verse has been running through my mind--from Ecclesiastes, I think. I don't remember it verbatim, but it's something like this: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.
For me, anyway, I feel that the time has come. Perhaps it is not to die but something else, less final or more terrible.
In any case, you will remember, I know, what we decided long ago--that a man owes one of two things to his planet, to his race: posterity, or himself. I could not contribute the first--it is only proper that I should offer the second and not shrink if it is accepted.... --From a letter by Peter Hoskins to his wife.
In the quiet and the dark, Hoskins moved.
"Checkmate," he said.
He rose from his chair and crossed the cabin. Ignoring what was on the table, he opened a drawer under the parts cabinet and took out a steel rule. From a book rack he lifted down a heavy manual. He sat on the end of the couch with the manual on his knees and leafed through it, smoothing it open at a page of physical measurements. He glanced at the floor, across it to the black curtain, back to the one exposed bulkhead. He grunted, put the book down, and carried his tape to the steel wall. He anchored one end of it there by flipping the paramagnetic control on the tape case, and pulled the tape across the room. At the blackness he took a reading, made a mark.
Then he took a fore-and-aft measurement from a point opposite the forward end of the table to one opposite the after end of the bunk. Working carefully, he knelt and constructed a perpendicular to this line. He put the tape down for the third time, arriving again at the outboard wall of darkness. He stood regarding it thoughtfully, and then unhesitatingly plunged his arm into it. He fumbled for a moment, moving his hand around in a circle, pressing forward, trying again. Suddenly there was a click, a faint hum. He stepped back.
Something huge shouldered out of the dark. It pressed forward toward him, passed him, stopped moving.
It was the port.
Hoskins wiped sweat away from his upper lip and stood blinking into the airlock until the outer port opened as well. Warm afternoon sunlight and a soft, fresh breeze poured in. In the wind was birdsong and the smell of growing things. Hoskins gazed into it, his mild eyes misty. Then he turned back to the cabin.
The darkness was gone. Ives was sprawled on the after couch, apparently unconscious. Johnny was smiling in his sleep. The Captain was snoring stertorously, and Paresi was curled up like a cat on the floor. The sunlight streamed in through the forward viewports. The manual wheel gleamed on the bulkhead, unbroken.
Hoskins looked at the sleeping crew and shook his head, half-smiling. Then he stepped to the control console and lifted a microphone from its hook. He began to speak softly into it in his gentle, unimpressive voice. He said: "Reality is what it is, and not what it seems to be. What it seems to be is an individual matter, and even in the individual it varies constantly. If that's a truism, it's still the truth, as true as the fact that this ship cannot fail. The course of events after our landing would have been profoundly different if we had unanimously accepted the thing we knew to be true. But none of us need feel guilty on that score. We are not conditioned to deny the evidence of our senses.
"What the natives of this planet have done is, at base, simple and straightforward. They had to know if the race who built this ship could do so because they were psychologically sound (and therefore capable of reasoning out the building process, among many, many other things) or whether we were merely mechanically apt. To find this out, they tested us. They tested us the way we test steel--to find out its breaking point. And while they were playing a game for our sanity, I played a game for our lives. I could not share it with any of you because it was a game only I, of us all, have experience in. Paresi was right to a certain degree when he said I had retreated into abstraction--the abstraction of chess. He was wrong, though, when he concluded I had been driven to it. You can be quite sure that I did it by choice. It was simply a matter of translating the contactual evidence into an equivalent idea-system.
"I learned very rapidly that when they play a game, they abide by the rules. I know the rules of chess, but I did not know the rules of their game. They did not give me their rules. They simply permitted me to convey mine to them.
"I learned a little more slowly that, though their power to reach our minds is unheard-of in any of the seven galaxies we know about, it still cannot take and use any but the ideas in the forefront of our consciousness. In other words, chess was a possibility. They could be forced to take a sacrificed piece, as well as being forced to lose one of their own. They extrapolate a sequence beautifully--but they can be out-thought. So much for that: I beat them at chess. And by confining my efforts to the chessboard, where I knew the rules and where they respected them, I was able to keep what we call sanity. Where you were disturbed because the port disappeared, I was not disturbed because the disappearance was not chess.
"You're wondering, of course, how they did what they did to us. I don't know. But I can tell you what they did. They empathize--that is, see through our eyes, feel with our fingertips--so that they perceive what we do. Second, they can control those perceptions; hang on a distortion circuit, as Ives would put it, between the sense organ and the brain. For example, you'll find all our fingerprints all around the port control, where, one after the other, we punched the wall and thought we were punching the button.
"You're wondering, too, what I did to break their hold on us. Well, I simply believed what I knew to be the truth; that the ship is unharmed and unchanged. I measured it with a steel tape and it was so. Why didn't they force me to misread the tape? They would have, if I'd done that measuring first. At the start they were in the business of turning every piece of pragmatic evidence into an outright lie. But I outlasted the test. When they'd finished with their whole arsenal of sensory lies, they still hadn't broken me. They then turned me loose, like a rat in a maze, to see if I could find the way out. And again they abided by their rules. They didn't change the maze when at last I attacked it.
"Let me rephrase what I've done; I feel uncomfortable cast as a superman. We five pedestrians faced some heavy traffic on a surface road. You four tried nobly to cross--deaf and blindfolded. You were all casualties. I was not; and it wasn't because I am stronger or wiser than you, but only because I stayed on the sidewalk and waited for the light to change....
"So we won. Now ..."
Hoskins paused to wet his lips. He looked at his shipmates, each in turn, each for a long, reflective moment. Again his gentle face showed the half-smile, the small shake of the head. He lifted the mike.
"... In my chess game I offered them a minor piece in order to achieve a victory, and they accepted. My interpretation is that they want me for further tests. This need not concern you on either of the scores which occur to you as you hear this. First: The choice is my own. It is not a difficult one to make. As Paresi once pointed out, I have a high idealistic quotient. Second: I am, after all, a very minor piece and the game is a great one. I am convinced that there is no test to which they can now subject me, and break me, that any one of you cannot pass.
"But you must in no case come tearing after me in a wild and thoughtless rescue attempt. I neither want that nor need it. And do not judge the natives severely; we are in no position to do so. I am certain now that whether I come back or not, these people will make a valuable addition to the galactic community.
"Good luck, in any case. If the tests shouldn't prove too arduous, I'll see you again. If not, my only regret is that I shall break up what has turned out to be, after all, a very effective team. If this happens, tell my wife the usual things and deliver to her a letter you will find among my papers. She was long ago reconciled to eventualities.
"Johnny ... the natives will fix your lighter....
"Good luck, good-bye."
Hoskins hung up the microphone. He took a stylus and wrote a line: "Hear my recording. Pete."
And then, bareheaded and unarmed, he stepped through the port, out into the golden sunshine. Outside he stopped, and for a moment touched his cheek to the flawless surface of the hull.
He walked down into the valley.
By Albert Hernhunter
"Cole. Martin Cole."
"A very important one. I am a literary agent specializing in science fiction. I sell the work of various authors to magazine and book publishers."
The Coroner paused to study Cole; to ponder the thin, mirthless smile. The Coroner said, "Mr. Cole, this inquest has been called to look into the death of one Sanford Smith, who was found near your home with a gun in his hand and a bullet in his brain. The theory of suicide has been-"
"-rather hard to rationalize?"
The Coroner blinked. "You could put it that way."
"I would put it even stronger. The theory is obviously ridiculous. It was a weak cover-up. The best I could do under the circumstances."
"You are saying that you killed Sanford Smith?"
The Coroner glanced at his six-man jury, at the two police officers, at the scattering of spectators. They all seemed stunned. Even the reporter sent to cover the hearing made no move toward the telephone. The Coroner could think of only the obvious question: "Why did you kill him?"
"He was dangerous to us."
"Whom do you mean by us?"
"We Martians, who plan to take over your world."
The Coroner was disappointed. A lunatic. But a lunatic can murder. Best to proceed, the Coroner thought. "I was not aware that we have Martians to contend with."
"If I'd had the right weapon to use on Smith, you wouldn't be aware of it now. We still exercise caution."
The Coroner felt a certain pity. "Why did you kill Smith?"
"We Martians have found science-fiction writers to be our greatest danger. Through the medium of imaginative fiction, such writers have more than once revealed our plans. If the public suddenly realized that-"
The Coroner broke in. "You killed Smith because he revealed something in his writings?"
"Yes. He refused to take my word that it was unsalable. He threatened to submit it direct. It was vital material."