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Authors: Jack Vance

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BOOK: The Potter of Firsk and Other Stories
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Jay cried, “I saw it plain as day, I tell you! I’m not crazy! It was a whitish figure, and it came flitting up and then the face looked in through the port…”

Julius stopped shuffling, Galt was leaning out of his bunk. Chiram strode across the floor, peered out briefly. He turned back to Jay, said in a brusque voice, “You’ve had a bad dream.”

Jay laid his head on his arm, blinked at tears. So far, far from home…Ghosts peering in from space…Was this where souls came when they died? Out here to wander the void, so completely forlorn and lonesome…

“I saw it,” he said. “I saw it, I tell you. I saw it.”

“Relax, kid, relax,” said Julius. “You’ll give us all the willies.”

Jay lay on his side, staring at the port. He gave a great gasp. “I saw it again! It’s a face, I tell you!” He rose up from his bunk, his lank black hair, very long now, dangling past his forehead. His mouth wobbled, glistened wetly.

Chiram went to the medicine chest, loaded a hypospray. He motioned; Galt and Julius held Jay’s arms and legs; Chiram pressed the trigger, and the opiate seeped through Jay’s pale skin, into his blood, into his brain…

When he awoke, Galt and Julius were playing chess, and Chiram was asleep. He looked fearfully to the port. Darkness. Blackness. Lightlessness.

He sighed, moaned. Julius flashed him a glance, returned to the chess-board. Jay sighed, reached for his journal.

Weeks, months. Fantastic speed toward—what? One day Jay called Chiram from his pacing.

“Well?” asked Chiram crisply.

“If you’ll let me loose,” muttered Jay, “I’d like to take up my duties again.”

Chiram said in a carefully passionless voice, “I’m sorry that you’ve had to be confined. It was necessary, not for punishment, but for the safety of the expedition. Because you are irresponsible. Because I can’t trust you.”

Jay said, “I promise you that I’ll act—well—responsibly. I’ve learned my lesson…Suppose we go on forever like this? Into nothing? Do you intend to keep me chained the rest of my life?”

Chiram stared at him thoughtfully, trying to fathom the ultimate justice of the situation.

Galt called down from the bridge deck, “Hey, Cap! There’s a glow ahead!
Light!

Three bounds took Chiram to the port. Jay rose on his elbow, craned his neck.

Far ahead hung a ball of glowing fog.

Chiram said in a hushed voice, “That’s what a universe of billions of galaxies would look like—from a great distance.”

“Have we made it around, Cap?” Galt asked, his voice sharp.

Chiram said slowly, “I don’t know, Bob…We’ve come so far—so much farther than anyone had predicted…It might be our universe, or it might be another. I’m as much in the dark as you are.”

“If it is our universe, Cap, what are the chances of hitting home?”

There was a pause. Chiram said, “Darned if I know, Bob. I’m hoping.”

“Think we better slow down? We’re hitting an awful clip.”

“Twenty-two thousand light years a second. We can slow down a lot faster than we pick up, just by slacking off the field.”

There was silence. Then Galt said, “She’s expanding mighty fast…”

Chiram said in an even voice, “It’s no universe. It’s a cloud of gas. I’m going to get a spectral reading on it.”

The glowing fog grew large, flooded under the ship, was gone. Ahead was blackness. Chiram came down from the bridge-deck, took up his pacing, head bent.

He looked up and his eyes met Jay’s. Jay was still propped up on his arms, still looking out ahead into the void.

Chiram said, “Very well. I’ll take a chance on you.”

Jay slowly sank back on the bunk, lay lax and loose. Chiram said, “These are your orders. You are forbidden to set foot on the bridge deck. Next time I’ll shoot to kill.”

Jay nodded wordlessly. His eyes glistened under the long lank hair. Chiram pulled a key from his pocket, unlocked the shackles, and without a word resumed his pacing.

For five minutes Jay lay unmoving on his bunk. Julius said from the galley, “Come and get it.”

Jay saw he had set four places at the table.

Jay washed, shaved. Freedom was a luxury. This was living again—if it were nothing but eat, sleep, look out into darkness. This was life: it would be like this the rest of his life…Curious existence. It seemed natural, sensible. Earth was a trifling recollection, a scene remembered from childhood.

The gyroscopes…Yes, what would they tell him now? They had been far from his mind; perhaps he had banned them from his consciousness as being a symbol of his disgrace…Still, what did they say?

He went to the corner of the workbench where they lay, raised the dust-lid. He stared for a minute.

“Well, kid, how’s it look?” Julius asked him lightly. “Are we on course?”

Jay slowly replaced the lid. He said, “The last time I looked we were one degree off to the right. Now we’re seventy-five degrees off—to the left!”

Julius shook his head in genial perplexity, grinning. “Looks mighty bad from here.”

Jay chewed at his lip. “Something damn strange is working around the ship…”

Galt yelled loudly. “Hey, Cap! There’s more light ahead—and this time it’s stars for sure!”

They came on the universe like a ship raising an island from the sea—first a blur without detail, then larger, clearer, and finally the great masses dwarfed the ship. Galaxies pelted at them, flats of wild light rushing past.

Chiram stood like a man of marble on the bridge deck, one hand on the control of the destriation field. Galt stood beside him, head hunched down into his shoulders.

They passed flat over a great whirlpool galaxy, and the individual stars glinted and glanced and told of wonderful bright planets.

Galt said, “That sort of looks like her, Cap.”

Chiram shook his head. “Not large enough. Don’t forget we’ve got a markedly large galaxy—several times average size. That’s what I’m watching for. Of course,” and his voice blurred, “this may not even be our home universe. It might be a different set of galaxies entirely. There’s no way of knowing…If we run directly into an exceptionally large galaxy, with approximately the right configuration—we’ll turn off the power.”

“Look,” said Bob, “there’s a big one out there, see it? That looks about like ours, too.” His voice rose. “That’s it, Cap!”

Chiram said irresolutely, “Well, Bob, I don’t know. She’s a long way to the side…Of course, we’ve come a long way, but if we once turn off our course, and we’ve made a mistake—then we’re goners for sure.”

“We’re goners if we drive past,” said Galt.

Chiram wavered in a hell of indecision. Jay saw his mouth twitch. He reached, took a firm grip on the field control.

Jay said suddenly, “That’s not it: this isn’t even the right universe.”

Galt turned an angry red face down. “Shut up!”

Chiram paid no heed. His hand tightened on the field cut-off.

Jay said, “Captain, I can prove it. Listen!”

Chiram turned his head. “How can you prove it?”

“By the gyroscope.” He spoke hurriedly, over Galt’s contemptuous snort, trying to wash down Chiram’s wall of hostility with words.

“The gyroscope holds a steady axis. It points in a constant direction. When we were a few weeks out I saw a degree of deflection. I misinterpreted the reading. I thought it indicated an error in course. I was wrong; it was showing how far around we had traveled. One three hundred and sixtieth. I just looked at it again. It read seventy-five degrees to the other side—or two eighty-five degrees around. In other words, we’ve come more than three-quarters of the way. And when the gyro is back at zero again we’ll know we’re home.”

Chiram narrowed his eyes, surveyed Jay—looked at him, through him, beyond. Galt’s angry mouth pushed out doubtfully, his color faded. He glanced to the big galaxy, now passing close by amidships.

Chiram asked, “What does the gyro read now?”

Jay ran, raised the dust lid. “Two eighty-six.”

Chiram said, “We’ll go on. Dead ahead.”

“Dead ahead,” said Galt.

Chiram smiled grimly. “I hope not.”

They passed the universe, and off into a new ocean of blackness. It was the old routine—except now there was a restless watchfulness aboard. Chiram watched the gyro as carefully as Jay; steadily the lubber-line ticked around, day after day after day. 290—300—310—320.

Galt spent his time on the bridge deck, watching ahead, hardly coming down to eat. No more chess—Julius played solitaire, slowly, with careful attention to each card.

330, and Chiram joined Galt’s restless watch.

340. “We should be getting close,” said Galt, staring into the bottomless blackness.

Chiram said, “We’ll be there when we get there.”

350. Galt bent forward, hands pressed to the chart table, head on a level with his elbows.

“It’s light! Light!”

Chiram came to stare at the pale glow dead ahead.

“There it is.” He cut off the acceleration; they plunged free at constant speed. For the first time since the start of the voyage the partner-ship Tuck appeared; they had almost forgotten its existence.

At 355 galaxies swept past like the first suburbs of a city.

At 357 they felt as if they were riding down familiar streets.

358. They looked here and there expectantly. There was quick movement of feet on the deck, the restless movement of heads. Chiram kept saying, “Too soon, too soon…There’s a long way to go yet…”

359. Chiram had tacitly relaxed his orders to Jay, and all four stood on the bridge deck together pointing, looking, muttering.

360. “There! The big one! Golly, it looks almost like the face of someone you know!”

Dead ahead lay the great wheeling galaxy. It grew huge, its arms of glowing stars spread open to embrace the ship. Chiram relaxed the field. The striations of space gripped at their atoms, the ship slowed like a bullet shot into water.

They coasted into the outer lanes of stars, across the far-flung tendrils, past the globular clusters, across the central knot.

Ahead, like magic, the sky suddenly showed full of familiar patterns.

“Dead ahead!” cried Chiram. “See—that’s the constellation Cygnus; that’s where we started for…And there—dead ahead—that yellow star…”

Hard Luck Diggings
 

In solving a problem, I form and consider every conceivable premise. If each of these results in an impossible set of implications, except one, whose consequence is merely improbable: then that lone hypothesis, no matter how unprecedented, is necessarily the correct solution of the problem.


Magnus Ridolph

 
 

Superintendent James Rogge’s office occupied the top of a low knoll at Diggings A, and his office, through a semi-circular window, overlooked both diggings, A and B, all the way down to the beach and the strange-colored ocean beyond.

Rogge sat within, chair turned to the window, drumming his fingers in quick irregular tempo. Suddenly he jumped to his feet and strode across the room. He was tall and thin, and his black eyes sparkled in a face parched and bony, while his chin dished out below his mouth like a shovel-blade.

He punched a button at the telescreen, waited, leaning slightly forward, his finger still holding down the button. There was no response. The screen hummed quietly, but remained ash-gray, dead.

Rogge clenched his fists. “What a demoralized outfit! Won’t even answer the screen.”

As he turned his back, the screen came alive. Rogge swung around, clasped his hands behind his back. “Well?”

“Sorry, Mr. Rogge, but they’ve just found another,” panted the cadet engineer.

Rogge stiffened. “Where, this time?”

“In the shower room. He’d just been cleaning up.”

Rogge flung his arms out from his sides. “How many times have I told them not to shower alone? By Deneb, I can’t be everywhere! Haven’t they brains enough—” A knock at the door interrupted him. A time-keeper pushed his head in.

“The mail ship’s in sight, Mr. Rogge.”

Rogge took a step toward the door, looked back over his shoulder.

“You attend to that, Kelly. I’m holding you responsible!”

The cadet blinked. “I can’t help it if—” he began querulously, but he was speaking to the retreating back of his superior, and then the empty office. He muttered, dialed off.

Rogge strode out on the beach. He was early, for the ship was still a black spot in the purple-blue sky. When it finally settled, fuming and hissing, on the glinting gray sand, Rogge hardly waited for the steam to billow away before stepping forward to the port.

There was a few minutes’ delay while the crew released themselves from their shock-belts. Rogge shuffled his feet, fidgeting like a nervous race-horse. Metallic sounds came from within. The dogs twisted, the port opened with a sigh, and Rogge moved irritably back from the smell of hot oil, men, carbolic acid, paint.

A round, red face looked out the port.

“Hello, doc,” called Rogge. “All cleared for landing?”

“Germ-free,” said the red face. “Safe as Sunday school.”

“Well, open ’er up!”

The flushed medico eyed Rogge with a detached bird-like curiosity. “You in a hurry?”

Rogge tilted his head, stared at the doctor, eye to eye. The red face disappeared, the port opened wider, a short plump man in blue shorts swung out on the stage, descended the ladder. He flipped a hand to Rogge.

“Hello, Julic,” said Rogge, peering up past him to the open port. “Any passengers?”

“Thirteen replacements for you. Cat-skinners, a couple plumbers—space-sick all the way.”

Rogge snorted, jerked his head. “Thirteen? Do you know I’ve lost thirty-three men this last month? Didn’t you pick up a T.C.I. man in Starport?”

The captain looked at him sidewise. “Yes, he’s aboard. Looks like you’re anxious.”

“Anxious!” Rogge grinned wickedly, humorlessly. “You’d be anxious yourself with two, three men strangled every day.”

Captain Julic narrowed his eyes. “It’s true, is it?” He looked up to the two tall cliffs that marked Diggings A and B, the raw clutter of barracks and machine-shops below. “We heard rumors in Starport, but I didn’t—” His voice dwindled away. Then: “Any idea at all who’s doing it?”

“Not one in the world. It’s a homicidal maniac, no doubt as to that, but every time I think I’ve got him spotted, there’s another killing. The whole camp’s demoralized. I can’t get an honest day’s work out of any man on the place. I’m a month behind schedule. I radioed the T.C.I. two weeks ago.”

Captain Julic nodded toward the port. “There he is.”

Rogge took a half-step forward, halted, blinked. The man descending the ladder was of medium height, medium weight, and something past middle-age. He had white hair, a small white beard, a fine straight nose.

Rogge darted a glance at Captain Julic who returned him a humorous shrug. Rogge turned back to the old man, now gazing leisurely up and down the glistening gray beach, out over the lambent white ocean.

Rogge pulled his head between his bony shoulders, stepped forward. “Ah—I’m James Rogge, Superintendent,” he rasped. The old man turned, and Rogge found himself looking into wide, blue eyes, clear and guileless.

“My name is Magnus Ridolph,” said the old man. “I understand that you’re having difficulty?”

“Yes,” said Rogge. He stood back, looking Magnus Ridolph up and down. “I was expecting a man from the Intelligence Corps.”

Magnus Ridolph nodded. “I happened to be passing through Starport and the Commander asked me to visit you. At the moment I’m not officially connected with the Corps, but I’ll do all I can to help you.”

Rogge clamped his teeth, glared out to sea. At last he turned back to Ridolph. “Here’s the situation. Men are being murdered, I don’t know by whom. The whole camp is demoralized. I’ve ordered the entire personnel to go everywhere in couples—and still they’re killed!”

Magnus Ridolph looked across the beach to the hills, low rounded masses covered with glistening vegetation in all shades of black, gray and white.

“Suppose you show me around the camp.”

Rogge hesitated. “Are you ready—right now? Sure you don’t want to rest first?”

“I’m ready.”

Rogge turned to the captain. “See you at dinner, Julic—unless you want to come around with us?”

Captain Julic hesitated. “Just a minute, till I tell the mate I’m ashore.” He clambered up the ladder.

Magnus Ridolph was gazing out at the slow-heaving, milk-white ocean that glowed as if illuminated from beneath.

“Plankton?”

Rogge nodded. “Intensely luminescent. At night the ocean shines like molten metal.”

Magnus Ridolph nodded. “This is a very beautiful planet. So Earthlike and yet so strangely different in its coloring.”

“That’s right,” said Rogge. “Whenever I look up on the hill I think of an extremely complicated steel engraving…the different tones of gray in the leaves.”

“What, if any, is the fauna of the planet?”

“So far we’ve found creatures that resemble panthers, quite a few four-armed apes, and any number of rodents,” Rogge said.

“No intelligent aborigines?”

Rogge shook his head. “So far as we know—no. And we’ve surveyed a good deal of the planet.”

“How many men in the camp?”

“Eleven hundred, thereabouts,” said Rogge. “Eight hundred at Diggings A, three hundred at B. It’s at B where the murders occur. I’m thinking of closing down the diggings for a while.”

Magnus Ridolph tugged at his beard. “Murders only at Diggings B? Have you shifted the personnel?”

Rogge nodded, glared at the massive column of ore that was Diggings B. “I’ve changed every man-jack in the camp. And still the killings go on—in locked rooms, in the showers, the toilets, anywhere a man happens to be alone for a minute or two.”

“It sounds almost as if you’ve disturbed an invisible
genius loci
,” said Magnus Ridolph.

Rogge snorted. “If that means ‘ghost’, I’ll agree with you. ‘Ghost’ is about the only explanation I got left. Four times, now, a man has been killed in a locked room with no opening larger than a barred four-inch ventilator. We’ve slipped into the room with nets, screened every cubic foot. Nothing.”

Captain Julic came down the ladder, joined Rogge and Magnus Ridolph. They turned up the hard-packed gray beach toward Diggings A, a jut of rock breaking sharply out of the gently rolling hills.

“The ore,” Rogge explained, “lies in a layer at about ground level. We’re bull-dozing the top-surface off onto the beach. When we’re all done, that big crag will be leveled flat to the ground, and the little bay will be entirely filled.”

“And Diggings B is the same proposition?” asked Magnus Ridolph. “It looks about the same formation from here.”

“Yes, it’s about the same. They’re old volcanic necks, both of them. At B, we’re pushing the fill into a low canyon in back. When we’re done at B—if we ever get done—the canyon will be level full a mile back, and we’ll use it for a town-site.”

They climbed up from the beach on a sloping shoulder of rock. Rogge guided them toward the edge of the forest, fifty feet distant.

“I’ll show you something,” Rogge said. “Fruit like you’ve never seen before in your life.” He stopped at a shiny black trunk, plucked one of the red globes that hung within easy reach. “Try one of these.” And Rogge bit into one of the soft skins himself.

Magnus Ridolph and the captain gravely followed suit.

“They are indeed very good,” said the old man.

“They don’t grow at B,” said Rogge bitterly. “Just along this stretch here. Diggings B is the hard-luck spot of the entire project. The leopards and apes killed men at B until we put up a charged steel fence. Here at A there’s some underbrush that keeps them out. Full of thorns.”

A sound in the foliage attracted his attention. He craned his neck. “Look! There’s one right now—an ape!” And Magnus Ridolph and the captain, looking where he pointed, glimpsed a monstrous black barrel, a hideous face with red eyes and a fanged mouth. The brute observed them, hissed softly, took a challenging step forward. Magnus Ridolph and the captain jerked back. Rogge laughed.

“You’re safe. Watch him.”

The ape lunged nearer, then suddenly halted, with a roar. He struck out a great arm at the air, roared again. He charged forward, stopped short, howling, retreated.

Rogge threw the core of the fruit at him. “If this were at B, he’d have killed the three of us.” He peered through the foliage. “Gah! Get away from here, you ugly devil!” And Rogge ducked in alarm as a length of stick hurtled past his head.

“The creature apparently has a comparatively high order of intelligence,” suggested Magnus Ridolph.

“Mmph,” snapped Rogge. “Well—perhaps so. We killed one at Diggings B, and two others dug a grave for him under a tree, buried him while we were watching.”

Magnus Ridolph looked soberly into the forest. “I can tell you how to stop these murders.”

Rogge jerked his head around. “How?”

“Survey off an area of land, in such a way that both diggings, A and B, are a mile inside the perimeter. Around the boundary erect a charged steel fence, and clear the land inside of all vegetation.”

Rogge stared. “But how—” His belt radio buzzed. He flipped the switch.

“Superintendent Rogge!” came a voice.

“Yes!” barked Rogge.

“Foundry-foreman Jelson’s got it!”

Rogge turned to Captain Julic and Magnus Ridolph. “Come along. I’ll show you.”

Ten minutes later they stood staring down at the naked body of Foreman Jelson. He had been taking a shower and his body still glistened with the wet. A red and blue bruise ringed his neck, his eyes popped, and his tongue lolled from the side of his mouth.

“We was right here, sittin’ in the dressin’ room,” babbled a red-headed mechanic. “We didn’t see a thing. Jelson went in to shower. The next thing, we heard him flop—and there he was!”

Rogge turned to Magnus Ridolph. “You see? That’s what’s been going on. Do you still think that building a fence will stop the murders?”

Ridolph mused, a hand at his white beard. “Tonight, if I am not mistaken, there will be a murder attempted at Diggings A.”

Rogge’s mouth opened slackly, then snapped shut. From behind came the sobbing breath of the red-headed mechanic.

“Diggings A? How? Why do you say that?”

“No one will be killed, I hope,” said Magnus Ridolph. “Indeed, if I’m wrong my theory has been founded on a non-comprehensive survey of the possibilities, and there may be no attempt upon my life.” He stared thoughtfully at the corpse. “Perhaps I overestimate the understanding and ability of the murderer.”

Rogge turned away. “Call the medics,” he snapped to the mechanic.

They rode back to Diggings A in a jeep, and Rogge took Captain Julic and Magnus Ridolph to his apartment for the evening meal.

“I could easily clear the land,” he told Ridolph, “but I can’t understand what you have in mind.”

Magnus Ridolph smiled slowly. “I have an alternate proposal.”

“And what’s that?”

“Armor the necks of your personnel in steel bands.”

Rogge snorted. “Then the murderer would go to smashing skulls or poisoning.”

“Bashing heads, no—poisoning, possibly,” said Magnus Ridolph. He reached for an enormous purple grape. “For instance, it would be an easy matter to poison the fruit.”

BOOK: The Potter of Firsk and Other Stories
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