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Authors: Isaac Asimov

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Pebble in the Sky

BOOK: Pebble in the Sky
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Praise for the Novels of the Galactic Empire

 

Pebble in the Sky


Pebble in the Sky
was originally published in 1950 but, except for a few details, holds up. . . . You get to share in the rare view of the beginning of Asimov’s vision of the Galactic Empire, which would serve as the backdrop of many novels, culminating with the Foundation series.”

—SFRevu

The Stars, Like Dust

“Science fiction on the larger scale is Isaac Asimov’s specialty. The scene of his new book, a rousing adventure story of the remote future, is the Galaxy, which, with its hundreds of inhabited planets, has been taken over by a dictatorial race called, appropriately enough, the Tyranni. . . . Clear writing and excellent suspense make this book a welcome addition to the science fiction lists.”

—The New York Times

The Currents of Space

“Obviously, Isaac Asimov had a lot of fun concocting this merry tangle of interplanetary power politics. . . . If it isn’t often science fiction, it is always beautifully contrived melodrama. The reader will have just as much fun as Mr. Asimov.”

—The New York Times

Pebble in the Sky

I
SAAC
A
SIMOV

 

ORB
A T
OM
D
OHERTY
A
SSOCIATES
B
OOK
N
EW
Y
ORK

 

 

 

 

 

The characters and the incidents in this book are entirely the product of the author’s imagination and have no relation to any person or event in real life.

 

PEBBLE IN THE SKY

 

Copyright © 1950, renewed 1978 by The Estate of Isaac Asimov

 

All rights reserved.

 

An Orb Book

Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC

175 Fifth Avenue

New York, NY 10010

 

www.tor-forge.com

 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

 

Asimov, Isaac, 1920–1992.

Pebble in the sky / Isaac Asimov.—1st Orb ed.

   p. cm.

“A Tom Doherty Associates book.”

ISBN 978-0-7653-1913-5

I. Title.

PS3551.S5P4 2009

813'.54—dc22

2008046430

 

First Tor Edition: January 2008

First Orb Edition: May 2010

 

Printed in the United States of America

 

0   9   8   7   6   5   4   3   2   1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To my father,
who first introduced me to science fiction

 

 

 

 

Contents

 

 

1
       Between One Footstep and the Next

2
       The Disposal of a Stranger

3
       One World—or Many?

4
       The Royal Road

5
       The Involuntary Volunteer

6
       Apprehension in the Night

7
       Conversation with Madmen?

8
       Convergence at Chica

9
       Conflict at Chica

10
      Interpretation of Events

11
      The Mind That Changed

12
      The Mind That Killed

13
      Spider Web at Washenn

14
      Second Meeting

15
      The Odds That Vanished

16
      Choose Your Side!

17
      Change Your Side!

18
      Duel!

19
      The Deadline That Approached

20
      The Deadline That Was Reached

21
      The Deadline That Passed

22
      The Best Is Yet to Be

Pebble in the Sky

1

Between One Footstep and the Next

Two minutes before he disappeared forever
from the face of the Earth he knew, Joseph Schwartz strolled along the pleasant streets of suburban Chicago quoting Browning to himself.

In a sense this was strange, since Schwartz would scarcely have impressed any casual passerby as the Browning-quoting type. He looked exactly what he was: a retired tailor, thoroughly lacking in what the sophisticates of today call a “formal education.” Yet he had expended much of an inquisitive nature upon random reading. By the sheer force of indiscriminate voracity, he had gleaned a smattering of practically everything, and by means of a trick memory had managed to keep it all straight.

For instance, he had read Robert Browning’s
Rabbi Ben Ezra
twice when he was younger, so, of course, knew it by
heart. Most of it was obscure to him, but those first three lines had become one with the beating of his heart these last few years. He intoned them to himself, deep within the silent fortress of his mind, that very sunny and very bright early summer day of 1949:

“Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made . . .”

Schwartz felt that to its fullness. After the struggles of youth in Europe and those of his early manhood in the United States, the serenity of a comfortable old age was pleasant. With a house of his own and money of his own, he could, and did, retire. With a wife in good health, two daughters safely married, a grandson to soothe these last best years, what had he to worry about?

There was the atom bomb, of course, and this somewhat lascivious talk about World War III, but Schwartz was a believer in the goodness of human nature. He didn’t think there would be another war. He didn’t think Earth would ever see again the sunlike hell of an atom exploded in anger. So he smiled tolerantly at the children he passed and silently wished them a speedy and not too difficult ride through youth to the peace of the best that was yet to be.

He lifted his foot to step over a Raggedy Ann doll smiling through its neglect as it lay there in the middle of the walk, a foundling not yet missed. He had not quite put his foot down again . . .

 

In another part of Chicago stood
the Institute for Nuclear Research, in which men may have had theories upon the essential worth of human nature but were half ashamed of them, since no quantitative instrument had yet been designed to measure it. When they thought about it, it was often enough to wish
that some stroke from heaven would prevent human nature (and damned human ingenuity) from turning every innocent and interesting discovery into a deadly weapon.

Yet, in a pinch, the same man who could not find it in his conscience to curb his curiosity into the nuclear studies that might someday kill half of Earth would risk his life to save that of an unimportant fellow man.

It was the blue glow behind the chemist’s back that first attracted the attention of Dr. Smith.

He peered at it as he passed the half-open door. The chemist, a cheerful youngster, was whistling as he tipped up a volumetric flask, in which the solution had already been made up to volume. A white powder tumbled lazily through the liquid, dissolving in its own good time. For a moment that was all, and then Dr. Smith’s instinct, which had stopped him in the first place, stirred him to action.

He dashed inside, snatched up a yardstick, and swept the contents of the desk top to the floor. There was the deadly hiss of molten metal. Dr. Smith felt a drop of perspiration slip to the end of his nose.

The youngster stared blankly at the concrete floor along which the silvery metal had already frozen in thin splash marks. They still radiated heat strongly.

He said faintly, “What happened?”

Dr. Smith shrugged. He wasn’t quite himself either. “I don’t know. You tell me. . . . What’s been doing here?”

“Nothing’s been doing here,” the chemist yammered. “That was just a sample of crude uranium. I’m making an electrolytic copper determination. . . . I don’t know what could have happened.”

“Whatever happened, young man, I can tell you what I saw. That platinum crucible was showing a corona. Heavy radiation was taking place. Uranium, you say?”

“Yes, but
crude
uranium, and that isn’t dangerous. I mean, extreme purity is one of the most important qualifications for
fission, isn’t it?” He touched his tongue to his lips quickly. “Do you think it was fission, sir? It’s not plutonium, and it wasn’t being bombarded.”

“And,” said Dr. Smith thoughtfully, “it was below the critical mass. Or, at least, below the critical masses we think we know.” He stared at the soapstone desk, at the burned and blistered paint of the cabinets and the silvery streaks along the concrete floor. “Yet uranium melts at about 1800 degrees Centigrade, and nuclear phenomena are not so well known that we can afford to talk too glibly. After all, this place must be fairly saturated with stray radiations. When the metal cools, young man, it had better be chipped up, collected, and thoroughly analyzed.”

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