Authors: Poul Anderson
Copyright © 1954 by Poul Anderson
Cover art to the electronic edition copyright © 2002 by RosettaBooks, LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Electronic editions published 2002, 2010 by RosettaBooks LLC, New York.
ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795311291
THE trap had closed at sundown. In the last red light, the rabbit had battered himself against its walls until fear and numbness ached home and he crouched shaken by the flutterings of his own heart. Otherwise there was no motion in him as night and the stars came. But when the moon rose, its light was caught icily in his great eyes, and he looked through shadows to the forest.
His vision was not made to focus closely, but after a while it fell on the entrance to the trap. It had snapped down on him when he entered, and then there had been only the flat bruising beat of himself against the wood. Now slowly, straining through the white unreal haze of moonlight, he recalled a memory of the gate falling, and he squeaked ever so faintly with terror. For the gate was there now, solid and sullen against the breathing forest, and yet it
been up and
come thunking down, and this now-then doubleness was something the rabbit had never known before.
The moon rose higher, swinging through a sky full of stars. An owl hooted, and the rabbit froze into movelessness as its wings ghosted overhead. There was fear and bewilderment and a new kind of pain in the owl’s voice, too. Presently it was gone, and only the many little murmurs and smells of night were around him. And he sat for a long time looking at the gate and remembering how it had fallen.
The moon began to fall too, into a paling western heaven. Perhaps the rabbit wept a little, in his own way. A dawn which was as yet only a mist in the dark limned the bars of the trap against gray trees. And there was a crossbar low on the gate.
Slowly, very slowly, the rabbit inched across until he
was at the entrance. He shrank from the thing which had clamped him in. It smelled of man. Then he nosed it, feeling dew cold and wet on his muzzle. It did not stir. But it had fallen down.
The rabbit crouched, bracing his shoulders against the crossbar. He strained then, heaving upward, and the wood shivered. The rabbit’s breath came fast and sharp, whistling between his teeth, and he tried again. The gate moved upward in its grooves, and the rabbit bolted free.
For an instant he poised wildly. The sinking moon was a blind dazzle in his eyes. The gate smacked back into place, and he turned and fled.
Archie Brock had been out late grubbing stumps in the north forty. Mr. Rossman wanted them all pulled by Wednesday so he could get the plowing started in his new field, and promised Brock extra pay if he would see to it. So Brock took some dinner out with him and worked till it got too dark to see. Then he started walking the three miles home, because they didn’t let him use the jeep or a truck.
He was tired without thinking of it, aching a little and wishing he had a nice tall beer. But mostly he didn’t think at all, just picked them up and laid them down, and the road slid away behind him. There were dark woods on either side, throwing long shadows across the moon-whitened dust, and he heard the noise of crickets chirring and once there was an owl. Have to take a gun and get that owl before he swiped some chickens. Mr. Rossman didn’t mind if Brock hunted.
It was funny the way he kept thinking things tonight. Usually he just went along, especially when he was as tired as now, but—maybe it was the moon—he kept remembering bits of things, and words sort of formed themselves in his head like someone was talking. He thought about his bed and how nice it would have been to drive home from work; only of course he got sort of mixed up when driving, and there’d been a couple of smashups. Funny he should have done that, because all at once it didn’t seem so hard: just a few signals to learn, and you kept your eyes open, and that was all.
The sound of his feet was hollow on the road. He breathed deeply, drawing a cool night into his lungs, and looked upward, away from the moon. The stars were sure big and bright tonight.
Another memory came back to him, somebody had said the stars were like the sun only further away. It hadn’t made much sense then. But maybe it was so, like a light was a small thing till you got up close and then maybe it was very big. Only if the stars were as big as the sun, they’d have to be awful far away.
He stopped dead, feeling a sudden cold run through him. Jesus God! How far
the stars were!
The earth seemed to fall away underfoot, he was hanging on to a tiny rock that spun crazily through an everlasting darkness, and the great stars burned and roared around him, so far up that he whimpered with knowing it.
He began to run.
The boy rose early, even if it was summer and no school and breakfast wouldn’t be for a while yet. The street and the town outside his windows looked very clean and bright in the young sunshine. A single truck clattered down the road and a man in blue denim walked toward the creamery carrying a lunch pail, otherwise it was as if he had the whole world to himself. His father was already off to work, and Mom liked to go back to bed for an hour after fixing his breakfast, and Sis was still asleep, so the boy was all alone in the house.
His friend was coming over and they’d go fishing, but first he wanted to get some more done on his model plane. He washed as thoroughly as you could ask a ten-year-old to, snatched a roll from the pantry, and went back to his room and the littered table there. The plane was going to be a real beauty, a Shooting Star with a CO
cartridge to make a jet. Only somehow, this morning it didn’t look as good as it had last night. He wished he could make a real jet motor for it.
He sighed, pushing the work away, and took a sheet of paper. He’d always liked to doodle around with numbers, and one of the teachers had taught him a little about algebra. Some of the fellows had called him teacher’s pet for
that, till he licked them, but it was real interesting, not just like learning multiplication tables. Here you made the numbers and letters do something. The teacher said that if he really wanted to build spaceships when he grew up, he’d have to learn lots of math.
He started drawing some graphs. The different kinds of equations made different pictures. It was fun to see how x = ky + c made a straight line while x
= c was always a circle. Only how if you changed one of the x’s, made it equal 3 instead of 2? What would happen to the y in the meantime? He’d never thought of that before!
He grasped the pencil tightly, his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth. You had to kind of sneak up on the x and the y, change one of them just a weeny little bit, and then—
He was well on the way to inventing differential calculus when his mother called him down to breakfast.
PETER CORINTH came out of the shower, still singing vigorously, to find Sheila busy frying bacon and eggs. He ruffled her soft brown hair up, kissing her on the neck, and she turned to smile at him.
“She looks like an angel and cooks like an angel,” he said.
“Why, Pete,” she answered, “you never—”
“Never could find words,” he agreed. “But it’s gospel truth, me love.” He bent over the pan, inhaling the crisp odor with a contented sigh. “I have a hunch this is one of those days when everything will go right,” he said. “A bit of
for which the gods will doubtless visit a
Gertie, the slut, will burn out a tube. But you’ll amend it all.”
“Hubris, Nemesis, Ate.”
A tiny frown creased her broad
clear forehead. “You’ve used those words before, Pete. What do they mean?”
He blinked at her. Two years after marriage, he was still far gone in love with his wife, and as she stood there his heart turned over within him. She was kind and merry and beautiful and she could cook—but she was nothing of an intellectual, and when his friends came over she sat quietly back, taking no part in the conversation. “What do you care?” he asked.
“I was just wondering,” she said.
He went into the bedroom and began dressing, leaving the door open so he could explain the basis of Greek tragedy. It was much too bright a morning to dwell on so somber a theme, but she listened closely, with an occasional question. When he came out, she smiled and went over to him.
“You dear clumsy physicist,” she said. “You’re the only man I ever knew who could put on a suit straight from the cleaners and make it look like you’d been fixing a car in it.” She adjusted his tie and pulled down the rumpled coat. He ran a hand through his black hair, immediately reducing it to unkemptness, and followed her to the kitchenette table. A whiff of steam from the coffeepot fogged his hornrimmed glasses, and he took them off and polished them on his necktie. His lean, broken-nosed face looked different without them—younger, perhaps only the thirty-three years which was his actual age.
“It came to me just when I woke up,” he said as he buttered his toast. “I must have a well-trained subconscious after all.”
“You mean the solution to your problem?” asked Sheila.
He nodded, too absorbed to consider what her query meant. She usually just let him run on, saying “yes” and “no” in the right places but not really listening. To her, his work was altogether mysterious. He had sometimes thought she lived in a child’s world, with nothing very well known but all of it bright and strange.
“I’ve been trying to build a phase analyzer for inter-molecular resonance bonds in crystal structure,” he said. “Well, no matter. The thing is, I’ve been plugging along for the past few weeks, trying to design a circuit which
would do what I wanted, and was baffled. Then I woke up just this morning with an idea that might work. Let’s see—” His eyes looked beyond her and he ate without tasting. Sheila laughed, very softly.
“I may be late tonight,” he said at the door. “If this new idea of mine pans out, I may not want to break off work till—Lord knows when. I’ll call you.”
“Okay, honey. Good hunting.”
When he was gone, Sheila stood for a moment smiling after him. Pete was a—well, she was just lucky, that was all. She’d never really appreciated how lucky, but this morning seemed different, somehow. Everything stood out sharp and clear, as if she were up in the Western mountains her husband loved so well.
She hummed to herself as she washed the dishes and straightened up the apartment. Memory slid through her, the small-town Pennsylvania girlhood, the business college, her coming to New York four years ago to take a clerical job at the office of a family acquaintance. Dear God, but she had been unsuited for that kind of life! One party and boy friend after another, everybody fast-talking, jerky-moving, carefully hard-boiled and knowing, the expensive and market-wise crowd where she always had to be on her guard—All right, she’d married Pete on the rebound, after Bill walked out calling her a stupid—never mind. But she’d always liked the shy, quiet man, and she had been on the rebound from a whole concept of living.
So I’m stodgy now
, she told herself,
and glad of it, too
An ordinary housewifely existence, nothing more spectacular than a few friends in for beer and talk, going to church now and then while Pete, the agnostic, slept late; vacation trips in New England or the Rocky Mountains; plans of having a kid soon—who wanted more? Her friends before had always been ready for a good laugh at the shibboleth-ridden boredom which was bourgeois existence; but when you got right down to it, they had only traded one routine and one set of catchwords for another, and seemed to have lost something of reality into the bargain.
Sheila shook her head, puzzled. It wasn’t like her to go
daydreaming this way. Her thoughts even sounded different, somehow.
She finished the housework and looked about her. Normally she relaxed for a while before lunch with one of the pocket mysteries which were her prime vice; afterward there was some shopping to do, maybe a stroll in the park, maybe a visit to or from some woman friend, and then supper to fix and Pete to expect. But today—