Home > SCI-FI > "Correspondence Course" (1945) by Raymond F. Jones
"Correspondence Course" (1945) by Raymond F. Jones
Friday 7 April 2017, by
A soldier returning from war subscribes to a correspondence course and opens up a whole new vista of exciting possibilities for himself – and for the world: what a great theme, and what a great story!
This very classy and evocative tale was first published in the April 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, the most important popular science-fiction magazine of the “golden-age” forties by far, a magazine in which most issues during that decade had a full-page ad on page 1 by the International Correspondence Schools similar to the one pictured here and which said so much to so many at the time about the exciting new possibilities open to one and all.
With the many excellent Astounding illustrations by Williams and cover artwork by Timmins.
An ebook is available for downloading below.
THE OLD lane from the farmhouse to the letter box down by the road was the same dusty trail that he remembered from eons before. The deep summer dust stirred as his feet moved slowly and haltingly. The marks of his left foot were deep and firm as when he had last walked the lane, but where his right foot moved there was a ragged, continuous line with irregular depressions and there was the sharp imprint of a cane beside the dragging footprints.
He looked up to the sky a moment as an echelon of planes from the advanced trainer base fifty miles away wheeled overhead. A nostalgia seized him, an overwhelming longing for the men he had known —and for Ruth.
He was home; he had come back alive, but with so many gone who would never come back, what good was it?
With Ruth gone it was no good at all. For an instant his mind burned with pain and his eyes ached as if a bomb-burst had blinded him as he remembered that day in the little field hospital where he had watched her die and heard the enemy planes overhead.
Afterwards, he had gone up alone, against orders, determined to die with her, but take along as many Nazis as he could.
But he hadn’t died. He had come out of it with a bullet-shattered leg and sent home to rust and die slowly over many years.
He shook his head and tried to fling the thoughts out of his mind. It was wrong. The doctors had warned him—
He resumed his slow march, half dragging the all but useless leg behind him. This was the same lane down which he had run so fast those summer days so long ago. There was a swimming hole and a fishing pond a quarter of a mile away. He tried to dim his vision with half-shut eyes and remember those pleasant days and wipe out all fear and bitterness from his mind.
It was ten o’clock in the morning and Mr. McAfee, the rural postman, was late, but Jim Ward could see his struggling, antique Ford raising a low cloud of dust a mile down the road.
Jim leaned heavily upon the stout cedar post that supported the mailbox and when Mr. McAfee rattled up he managed to wave and smile cheerily.
Mr. McAfee adjusted his spectacles on the bridge of his nose with a rapid trombone manipulation.
"Bless me, Jim, it’s good to see you up and around!"
"Pretty good to be up." Jim managed to force enthusiasm into his voice. But he knew he couldn’t stand talking very long to old Charles McAfee as if everything had not changed since the last time.
"Any mail for the Wards, today?"
The postman shuffled the fistful of mail. "Only one."
Jim glanced at the return address block and shrugged. "I’m on the sucker lists already. They don’t lose any time when they find out there’s still bones left to pick on. You keep it."
He turned painfully and faced toward the house. "I’ve got to be getting back. Glad to have seen you, Mr. McAfee."
"Yeah, sure, Jim. Glad to have seen you. But I . . . er . . . got to deliver the mail—" He held the letter out hopefully.
"O.K." Jim laughed sharply and grasped the circular.
He went only as far as the giant oak whose branches extended far enough to overshadow the mailbox. He sat down in the shade with his back against the great bole and tried to watch the echelon still soaring above the valley through the rifts in the leaf coverage above him. After a time he glanced down at the circular letter from which his fingers were peeling little fragments of paper. Idly, he ripped open the envelope and glanced at the contents. In cheap, garish typograph with splatterings of red and purple ink the words seemed to be trying to jump at him.
SERVICEMAN—WHAT OF THE FUTURE?
You have come back from the wars. You have found life different than you knew it before, and much that was familiar is gone. But new things have come, new things that are here to stay and are a part of the world you are going to live in.
Have you thought of the place you will occupy? Are you prepared to resume life in the ways of peace?
WE CAN HELP YOU
Have you heard of the POWER CO-ORDINATOR? No, of course you haven’t because it has been a hush-hush secret source of power that has been turning the wheels of war industries for many months. But now the secret of this vast source of new power can be told, and the need for hundreds, yes, thousands of trained technicians—such as you, yourself, may become—will be tremendous in the next decade.
LET US PROVE TO YOU
Let us prove to you that we know what we are talking about. We are so certain that you, as a soldier trained in intricate operations of the machines of war, will be interested in this almost miraculous new source of power and the technique of handling it that we are willing to send you absolutely FREE the first three lessons of our twenty-five lesson course that will train you to be a POWER CO-ORDINATOR technician.
Let us prove it to you. Fill out the inclosed coupon and mail it today!
Don’t just shrug and throw this circular away as just another advertisement. MAIL THE COUPON NOW!
Jim Ward smiled reminiscently at the style of the circular. It reminded him of Billy Hensley and the time when they were thirteen. They sent in all the clipped and filled-out coupons they could find in magazines. They had samples of soap and magic tricks and catalogues and even a live bird came as the result of one. They kept all the stuff in Hensley’s attic until Billy’s dad finally threw it all out.
Impulsively, in whimsical tribute to the gone-forever happiness of those days, Jim Ward scratched his name and address in pencil and told the power co-ordinators to send him their three free lessons.
Mr. McAfee had only another mile to go up the road before he came to the end and returned past the Ward farm to Kramer’s Forks. Jim waited and hailed him.
"Want to take another letter?"
The postman halted the clattering Ford and jumped down. "What’s that?"
Jim repeated his request and held up the stamped reply card. "Take this with you?"
Mr. McAfee turned it over and read every word on the back of the card. "Good thing," he grunted. "So you’re going to take a correspondence course in this new power what-is-it? I think that’s mighty fine, Jim. Give you new interests—sort of take your mind off things."
"Yeah, sure." Jim struggled up with the aid of his cane and the bole of the oak tree. "Better see if I can make it back to the house now."
All the whimsy and humor had suddenly gone out of the situation.
It was a fantastically short time—three days later—that Mr. McAfee stopped again at the Ward farm. He glanced at the thick envelope in his pack and the return address block it bore. He could see Jim Ward on the farmhouse porch and turned the Ford up the lane. Its rattle made Jim turn his head and open his eyes from the thoughtless blankness into which he had been trying to sink. He removed the pipe from his mouth and watched the car approach.
"Here’s your course," shouted Mr. McAfee. "Here’s your first lesson!"
"The correspondence course you sent for. The power what-is-it? Don’t you remember?"
"No," said Jim. "I’d forgotten all about it. Take the thing away. I don’t want it. It was just a silly joke."
"You hadn’t ought to feel that way, Jim. After all, your leg is going to be all right. I heard the Doc say so down in the drugstore last night. And everything is going to be all right. There’s no use of letting it get you down. Besides—I got to deliver the mail."
He tossed the brown envelope on the porch beside Jim. "Brought it up special because I thought you’d be in a hurry to get it."
Jim smiled in apology. "I’m sorry, Mac. Didn’t mean to take it out on you. Thanks for bringing it up. I’ll study it good and hard this morning right here on the porch."
Mr. McAfee beamed and nodded and rattled away. Jim closed his eyes again, but he couldn’t find the pleasing blankness he’d found before. Now the screen of his mind showed only the sky with thundering, plummeting engines—and the face of a girl lying still and white with closed eyes.
Jim opened his eyes and his hands slipped to his sides and touched the envelope. He ripped it open and scanned the pages. It was the sort of stuff he had collected as a boy, all right. He glanced at the paragraph headings and tossed the first lesson aside. A lot of obvious stuff about comparisons between steam power and waterfalls and electricity. It seemed all jumbled up like a high school student’s essay on the development of power from the time of Archimedes.
The mimeographed pages were poorly done. They looked as if the stencils had been cut on a typewriter that had been hit on the type faces with a hammer.
He tossed the second lesson aside and glanced at the top sheet of the third. His hand arrested itself midway in the act of tossing this lesson beside the other two. He caught a glimpse of the calculations on an inside page and opened up the booklet.
There was no high school stuff there. His brain struggled to remember the long unused methods of the integral calculus and the manipulation of partial differential equations.
There were pages of the stuff. It was like a sort of beacon light, dim and far off, but pointing a sure pathway to his mind and getting brighter as he progressed. One by one, he followed the intricate steps of the math and the short paragraphs of description between. When at last he reached the final page and turned the book over and scowled heavily the sun was halfway down the afternoon sky.
He looked away over the fields and pondered. This was no elementary stuff. Such math as this didn’t belong in a home study correspondence course. He picked up the envelope and concentrated on the return address block.
All it said was: M. H. Quilcon Schools, Henderson, Iowa. The lessons were signed at the bottom with the mimeographed reproductions of M. H. Quilcon’s ponderous signature.
Jim picked up lesson one again and began reading slowly and carefully, as if hidden between the lines he might find some mystic message.
By the end of July his leg was strong enough for him to walk without the cane. He walked slowly and with a limp and once in a while the leg gave way as if he had a trick knee. But he learned quickly to catch himself before he fell and he reveled in the thrill of walking again.
By the end of July the tenth lesson of the correspondence course had arrived and Jim knew that he had gone as far as he could alone. He was lost in amazement as he moved in the new scientific wonderland that opened up before him. He had known that great strides had been made in techniques and production, but it seemed incredible that such a basic discovery as power co-ordination had been producing war machines these many months. He wondered why the principle had not been applied more directly as a weapon itself—but he didn’t understand enough about it to know whether it could or not. He didn’t even understand yet from where the basic energy of the system was derived.
The tenth lesson was as poorly produced as the rest of them had been, but it was practically a book in its thickness. When he had finished it Jim knew that he had to know more of the background of the new science. He had to talk to someone who knew something about it. But he knew of no one who had ever heard of it. He had seen no advertisements of the M. H. Quilcon Schools. Only that first circular and these lessons.
As soon as he had finished the homework on lesson ten and had given it into Mr. McAfee’s care Jim Ward made up his mind to go down to Henderson, Iowa, and visit the Quilcon School.
He wished he had retained the lesson material because he could have taken it there faster than it would arrive via the local mail channels.
The streamliner barely stopped at Henderson, Iowa, long enough to allow him to disembark. Then it was gone and Jim Ward stared about him.
The sleepy looking ticket seller, dispatcher, and janitor eyed him wonderingly and spat a huge amber stream across his desk and out the window.
"Looking for somebody, mister?"
"I’m looking for Henderson, Iowa. Is this it?" Jim asked dubiously.
"You’re here, mister. But don’t walk too fast or you’ll be out of it. The city limits only go a block past Smith’s Drugstore."
Jim noticed the sign over the door and glanced at the inscription that he had not seen before: Henderson, Iowa, Pop. 8o6.
"I’m looking for a Mr. M. H. Quilcon. He runs a correspondence school here somewhere. Do you know of him?"
The depot staff shifted its cud again and spat thoughtfully. "Been here twenty-nine years next October. Never heard a name like that around here, and I know ’em all."
"Are there any correspondence schools here?"
"Miss Marybell Anne Simmons gives beauty operator lessons once in a while, but that’s all the school of that kind that I know of."
Disconcerted, Jim Ward murmured his thanks and moved slowly out of the station. The sight before him was dismaying. He wondered if the population hadn’t declined since the estimate on the sign in the station was made.
A small mercantile store that sagged in the middle faced him from across the street. Farther along was a tiny frame building labeled Sheriff’s Office. On his side Jim saw Smith’s Drugstore a couple of hundred feet down from the station with a riding saddle and a patented fertilizer displayed in the window. In the other direction was the combined postoffice, bank and what was advertised as a newspaper and printing office.
Jim strode toward this last building while curious watchers on the porch of the mercantile store stared at him trudging through the dust.
The postmistress glanced up from the armful of mail that she was sorting into boxes as Jim entered. She offered a cheery hello that seemed to tinkle from the buxom figure.
"I’m looking for a man named Quilcon. I thought you might be able to give me some information concerning him."
"Kweelcon?" She furrowed her brow. "There’s no one here by that name. How do you spell it?"
Before he could answer, the woman dropped a handful of letters on the floor. Jim was certain that he saw the one he had mailed to the school before he left.
As the woman stooped to recover the letters a dark brown shadow streaked across the floor. Jim got the momentary impression of an enormous brown slug moving with lightning speed.
The postmistress gave a scream of anger and scuffled her feet to the door. She returned in a moment.
"Armadillo," she explained. "Darn thing’s been hanging around here for months and nobody seems to be able to kill it." She resumed putting the mail in the boxes.
"I think you missed one," said Jim. She did not have the one that he recognized as the one he’d mailed.
The woman looked about her on the floor. "I got them all, thank you. Now what did you say this man’s name was?"
Jim leaned over the counter and looked at the floor. He was sure—But there was obviously no other letter in sight and there was no place it could have gone.
"Quilcon," said Jim slowly. "I’m not sure of the pronunciation myself, but that’s the way it seemed it should be."
"There’s no one in Henderson by that name. Wait a minute now. That’s a funny thing—you know it was about a month ago that I saw an envelope going out of here with a name something like that in the upper left corner. I thought at the time it was a funny name and wondered who put it in, but I never did find out and I thought I’d been dreaming. How’d you know to come here looking for him?"
"I guess I must have received the mail you saw."
"Well, you might ask Mr. Herald. He’s in the newspaper office next door. But I’m sure there’s no one in this town by that name."
"You publish a newspaper here?"
The woman laughed. "We call it that. Mr. Herald owns the bank and a big farm and puts this out free as a hobby. It’s not much, but everybody in town reads it. On Saturday he puts out a regular printed edition. This is the daily."
She held up a small mimeographed sheet that was moderately legible. Jim glanced at it and moved towards the door. "Thanks, anyway."
As he went out into the summer sun there was something gnawing at his brain, an intense you-forgot-something-in-there sort of feeling. He couldn’t place it and tried to ignore it.
Then as he stepped across the threshold of the printing office he got it. That mimeographed newssheet he had seen—it bore a startling resemblance to the lessons he had received from M. H. Quilcon. The same purple ink. Slightly crooked sheets. But that was foolish to try to make a connection there. All mimeographed jobs looked about alike.
Mr. Herald was a portly little man with a fringe around his baldness. Jim repeated his inquiry.
"Quilcon?" Mr. Herald pinched his lips thoughtfully. "No, can’t say as I ever heard the name. Odd name—I’m sure I’d know it if I’d ever heard it."
Jim Ward knew that further investigation here would be a waste of time. There was something wrong somewhere. The information in his correspondence course could not be coming out of this half dead little town.
He glanced at a copy of the newssheet lying on the man’s littered desk beside an ancient Woodstock. "Nice little sheet you put out there," said Jim.
Mr. Herald laughed. "Well, it’s not much, but I get a kick out of it, and the people enjoy reading about Mrs. Kelly’s lost hogs and the Dorius kid’s whooping cough. It livens things up."
"Ever do any work for anybody else—printing or mimeographing?"
"If anybody wants it, but I haven’t had an outside customer in three years."
Jim glanced about searchingly. The old Woodstock seemed to be the only typewriter in the room.
"I might as well go on," he said. "But I wonder if you’d mind letting me use your typewriter to write a note and leave in the post-office for Quilcon if he ever shows up."
"Sure, go ahead. Help yourself."
Jim sat down before the clanking machine and hammered out a brief paragraph while Mr. Herald wandered to the back of the shop. Then Jim rose and shoved the paper in his pocket. He wished he had brought a sheet from one of the lessons with him.
"Thanks," he called to Mr. Herald. He picked up a copy of the latest edition of the newspaper and shoved it in his pocket with the typed sheet.
On the trip homeward he studied the mimeographed sheet until he had memorized every line, but he withheld conclusions until he reached home.
From the station he called the farm and Hank, the hired man, came to pick him up. The ten miles out to the farm seemed like a hundred. But at last in his own room Jim spread out the two sheets of paper he’d brought with him and opened up lesson one of the correspondence course.
There was no mistake. The stencils of the course manuals had been cut on Mr. Herald’s ancient machine. There was the same nick out of the side of the o, and the b was flattened on the bulge. The r was minus half its base.
Mr. Herald had prepared the course.
Mr. Herald must then be M. H. Quilcon. But why had he denied any knowledge of the name? Why had he refused to see Jim and admit his authorship of the course?
At ten o’clock that night Mr. McAfee arrived with a special delivery letter for Jim.
"I don’t ordinarily deliver these way out here this time of night," he said. "But I thought you might like to have it. Might be something important. A job or something, maybe. It’s from Mr. Quilcon."
"Thanks. Thanks for bringing it, Mac."
Jim hurried into his room and ripped open the letter. It read:
Dear Mr. Ward:
Your progress in understanding the principles of power co-ordination are exceptional and I am very pleased to note your progress in connection with the tenth lesson which I have just received from you.
An unusual opportunity has arisen which I am moved to offer you. There is a large installation of a power co-ordination engine in need of vital repairs some distance from here. I believe that you are fully qualified to work on this machine under supervision which will be provided and you would gain some valuable experience. The installation is located some distance from the city of Henderson. It is about two miles out on the Balmer Road. You will find there the Hortan Machine Works at which the installation is located. Repairs are urgently needed and you are the closest qualified student able to take advantage of this opportunity which might lead to a valuable permanent connection. Therefore, I request that you come at once. I will meet you there.
M. H. Quilcon
For a long time Jim Ward sat on the bed with the letter and the sheets of paper spread out before him. What had begun as a simple quest for information was rapidly becoming an intricate puzzle.
Who was M. H. Quilcon?
It seemed obvious that Mr. Herald, the banker and part-time newspaper publisher, must be Quilcon. The correspondence course manuals had certainly been produced on his typewriter. The chances of any two typewriters having exactly the same four or five disfigurements in type approached the infinitesimal.
And Herald—if he were Quilcon—must have written this letter just before or shortly after Jim’s visit. The letter was certainly a product of the ancient Woodstock.
There was a fascination in the puzzle and a sense of something sinister, Jim thought. Then he laughed aloud at his own melodrama and began repacking the suitcase. There was a midnight train he could get back to Henderson.
It was hot afternoon again when he arrived in the town for the second time. The station staff looked up in surprise as he got off the train.
"Back again? I thought you’d given up."
"I’ve found out where Mr. Quilcon is. He’s at the Hortan Machine Works. Can you tell me exactly where that is?"
"Never heard of it."
"It’s supposed to be about two miles out of town on Balmer Road."
"That’s just the main street of town going on down through the Willow Creek district. There’s no machine works out there. You must be in the wrong state, mister. Or somebody’s kidding you."
"Do you think Mr. Herald could tell me anything about such a machine shop. I mean, does he know anything about machinery or things related to it?"
"Man, no! Old man Herald don’t care about nothing but money and that little fool paper of his. Machinery! He can’t hook up anything more complicated than his suspenders."
Jim started down the main street toward the Willow Creek district. Balmer Road rapidly narrowed and turned, leaving the town out of sight behind a low rise. Willow Creek was a glistening thread in the midst of meadow land.
There was no more unlikely spot in the world for a machine works of any kind, Jim thought. Someone must be playing an utterly fantastic joke on him. But how or why they had picked on him was mystifying.
At the same time he knew within him that it was no joke. There was a deadly seriousness about it all. The principles of power co-ordination were right. He had slaved and dug through them enough to be sure of that. He felt that he could almost build a power co-ordinating engine now with the proper means—except that he didn’t understand from where the power was derived!
In the timelessness of the bright air about him, with the only sound coming from the brook and the leaves on the willow trees beside it, Jim found it impossible to judge time or distance.
He paced his steps and counted until he was certain that at least two miles had been covered. He halted and looked about almost determined to go back and re-examine the way he had come.
He glanced ahead, his eyes scanning every minute detail of the meadowland. And then he saw it.
The sunlight glistened as if on a metal surface. And above the bright spot in the distance was the faintly readable legend:
HORTAN MACHINE WORKS
Thrusting aside all judgment concerning the incredibility of a machine shop in such a locale, he crossed the stream and made his way over the meadow toward the small rise.
As he approached, the machine works appeared to be merely a dome-shaped structure about thirty feet in diameter and with an open door in one side. He came up to it with a mind ready for anything. The crudely painted sign above the door looked as if it had been drawn by an inexpert barn painter in a state of intoxication.
Jim entered the dimly lit interior of the shop and set his case upon the floor beside a narrow bench that extended about the room.
Tools and instruments of unfamiliar design were upon the bench and upon the walls. But no one appeared.
Then he noticed an open door and a steep, spiral ramp that led down to a basement room. He stepped through and half slid, half walked down to the next level.
There was artificial lighting by fluorescent tubes of unusual construction, Jim noticed. But still no sign of anyone. And there was not an object in the room that appeared familiar to him. Articles that vaguely resembled furniture were against the walls.
He felt uneasy amid the strangeness of the room and he was about to go back up the steep ramp when a voice came to him.
"This is Mr. Quilcon. Is that you, Mr. Ward?"
"Yes. Where are you?"
"I am in the next room, unable to come out until I finish a bit of work I have started. Will you please go on down to the room below? You will find the damaged machinery there. Please go right to work on it. I’m sure that you have a complete understanding of what is necessary. I will join you in a moment."
Hesitantly, Jim turned to the other side of the room where he saw a second ramp leading down to a brilliantly lighted room. He glanced about once more, then moved down the ramp.
The room was high-ceilinged and somewhat larger in diameter than the others he had seen and it was almost completely occupied by the machine.
A series of close-fitting towers with regular bulbous swellings on their columns formed the main structure of the engine. These were grouped in a solid circle with narrow walkways at right angles to each other passing through them.
Jim Ward stood for a long time examining their surfaces that rose twenty feet from the floor. All that he had learned from the curious correspondence course seemed to fall into place. Diagrams and drawings of such machines had seemed incomprehensible. Now he knew exactly what each part was for and how the machine operated.
He squeezed his body into the narrow walkway between the towers and wormed his way to the center of the engine. His bad leg made it difficult, but he at last came to the damaged structure.
One of the tubes had cracked open under some tremendous strain and through the slit he could see the marvelously intricate wiring with which it was filled. Wiring that was burned now and fused to a mass. It was in a control circuit that rendered the whole machine functionless, but its repair would not be difficult, Jim knew.
He went back to the periphery of the engine and found the controls of a cranelike device which he lowered and seized the cracked sleeve and drew off the damaged part.
From the drawers and bins in the walls he selected parts and tools and returned to the damaged spot.
In the cramped space he began tearing away the fused parts and wiring. He was lost and utterly unconscious of anything but the fascination of the mighty engine. Here within this room was machine capacity to power a great city.
Its basic function rested upon the principle of magnetic currents in contrast to electric currents. The discovery of magnetic currents had been announced only a few months before he came home from the war. The application of the discovery had been swift.
And he began to glimpse the fundamental source of the energy supplying the machine. It was in the great currents of gravitational and magnetic force flowing between the planets and the suns of the universe. As great as atomic energy and as boundless in its resources, this required no fantastically dangerous machinery to harness. The principle of the power co-ordinator was simple.
The pain of his cramped position forced Jim to move out to rest his leg. As he stood beside the engine he resumed his pondering on the purpose it had in this strange location. Why was it built there and what use was made of its power?
He moved about to restore the circulation in his legs and sought to trace the flow of energy through the engine, determine where and what kind of a load was placed upon it.
His search led him below into a third sub-basement of the building and there he found the thing he was searching for, the load into which the tremendous drive of the engine was coupled.
But here he was unable to comprehend fully, for the load was itself a machine of strange design, and none of its features had been covered in the correspondence course.
The machine upstairs seized upon the magnetic currents of space and selected and concentrated those flowing in a given direction.
The force of these currents was then fed into the machines in this room, but there was no point of reaction against which the energy could be applied.
The logical, inevitable conclusion forced itself upon his mind. There was only one conceivable point of reaction.
He stood very still and a tremor went through him. He looked up at the smooth walls about him. Metal, all of them. And this room—it was narrower than the one above—as if the entire building were tapered from the dome protruding out of the earth to the basement floor.
The only possible point of reaction was the building itself. But it wasn’t a building. It was a vessel.
Jim clawed and stumbled his way up the incline into the engine room, then beyond into the chamber above. He was halfway up the top ramp when he heard the voice again.
"Is that you, Mr. Ward? I have almost finished and will be with you in a moment. Have you completed the repairs? Was it very difficult?"
He hesitated, but didn’t answer. Something about the quality of that voice gave him a chill. He hadn’t noticed it before because of his curiosity and his interest in the place. Now he detected its unearthly, inhuman quality.
He detected the fact that it wasn’t a voice at all, but that the words had been formed in his brain as if he himself had spoken them.
He was nearly at the top of the ramp and drew himself on hands and knees to the floor level when he saw the shadow of the closing door sweep across the room and heard the metallic clang of the door. It was sealed tight. Only the small windows—or ports—admitted light.
He rose and straightened and calmed himself with the thought that the vessel could not fly. It could not rise with the remainder of the repair task unfinished—and he was not going to finish it; that much was certain.
"Quilcon!" he called. "Show yourself! Who are you and what do you want of me?"
"I want you to finish the repair job and do it quickly," the voice replied instantly. "And quickly—it must be finished quickly."
There was a note of desperation and despair that seemed to cut into Jim. Then he caught sight of the slight motion against the wall beside him.
In a small, transparent hemisphere that was fastened to the side of the wall lay the slug that Jim had seen at the postoffice, the thing the woman had called an "armadillo." He had not even noticed it when he first entered the room. The thing was moving now with slow pulsations that swelled its surface and great welts like dark veins stood out upon it.
From the golden-hued hemisphere a maze of cable ran to instruments and junction boxes around the room and a hundred tiny pseudo-pods grasped terminals inside the hemisphere.
It was a vessel—and this slug within the hemisphere was its alien, incredible pilot. Jim knew it with startling cold reality that came to him in waves of thought that emanated from the slug called Quilcon and broke over Jim’s mind. It was a ship and a pilot from beyond Earth—from out of the reaches of space.
"What do you want of me? Who are you?" said Jim Ward.
"I am Quilcon. You are a good student. You learn well."
"What do you want?"
"I want you to repair the damaged engine."
There was something wrong with the creature. Intangibly, Jim sensed it. An aura of sickness, a desperate urgency came to his mind.
But something else was in the foreground of Jim’s mind. The horror of the alien creature diminished and Jim contemplated the miracle that had come to mankind.
"I’ll bargain with you," he said quietly. "Tell me how to build a ship like this for my people and I will fix the engines for you."
"No! No—there is no time for that. I must hurry—"
"Then I shall leave without any repairs."
He moved toward the door and instantly a paralyzing wave took hold of him as if he had seized a pair of charged electrodes. It relaxed only as he stumbled back from the door.
"My power is weak," said Quilcon, "but it is strong enough for many days yet—many of your days. Too many for you to live without food and water. Repair the engine and then I shall let you go."
"Is what I ask too much to pay for my help?"
"You have had pay enough. You can teach your people to build power co-ordinator machines. Is that not enough?"
"My people want to build ships like this one and move through space."
"I cannot teach you that. I do not know. I did not build this ship."
There were surging waves of troubled thought that washed over his mind, but Jim Ward’s tenseness eased. The first fear of totally alien life drifted from his mind and he felt a strange affinity for the creature. It was injured and sick, he knew, but he could not believe that it did not know how the ship was built.
"Those who built this ship come often to trade upon my world," said Quilcon. "But we have no such ships of our own. Most of us have no desire to see anything but the damp caves and sunny shores of our own world. But I longed to see the worlds from which these ships came.
"When this one landed near my cave I crept in and hid myself. The ship took off then and we traveled an endless time. Then an accident to the engine killed all three of those who manned the ship and I was left alone.
"I was injured, too, but I was not killed. Only the other of me died." Jim did not understand the queer phrase, but he did not break into Quilcon’s story.
"I was able to arrange means to control the flight of the ship, to prevent its destruction as it landed upon this planet, but I could not repair it because of the nature of my body."
Jim saw then that the creature’s story must be true. It was obvious that the ship had been built to be manned by beings utterly unlike Quilcon.
"I investigated the city of yours near by and learned of your ways and customs. I needed the help of one of you to repair the ship. By force I could persuade one of you to do simple tasks, but none so complex as this requires.
"Then I discovered the peculiar customs of learning among you. I forced the man Herald to prepare the materials and send them to you. I received them before the person at the postoffice could see them. I got your name from the newspapers along with several others who were unsatisfactory.
"I had to teach you to understand the power co-ordinator because only by voluntary operation of your highest faculties will you be able to understand and repair the machine. I can assist but not force you to do that."
The creature began pleading again. "And now will you repair the engine quickly. I am dying—but shall live longer than you—it is a long journey to my home planet, but I must get there and I need every instant of time that is left to me."
Jim caught a glimpse of the dream vision that was the creature’s home world. It was a place of security and peace—in Quilcon’s terms. But even its alienness did not block out the sense of quiet beauty that Quilcon’s mind transmitted to Jim’s. They were a species of high intelligence. Exceptionally developed in the laws of mathematics and theory of logic, they were handicapped in bodily development from inquiring into other fields of science whose existence was demonstrated by their logic and their mathematics. The more intellectual among them were frustrated creatures whose lives were made tolerable only by an infinite capacity for stoicism and adaptation.
But of them all, Quilcon was among the most restless and rebellious and ambitious. No one of them had ever dared such a journey as he had taken. A swelling pity and understanding came over Jim Ward.
"I’ll bargain with you," he said desperately. "I’ll repair the engine if you’ll let me have its principles. If you don’t have them, you can get them to me with little trouble. My people must have such a ship as this."
He tried to visualize what it would mean to Earth to have space flight a century or perhaps five centuries before the slow plodding of science and research might reveal it.
But the creature was silent.
"Quilcon—" Jim repeated. He hoped it hadn’t died.
"I’ll bargain with you," said Quilcon at last. "Let me be the other of you, and I’ll give you what you want."
"The other of me? What are you talking about?"
"It is hard for you to understand. It is union—such as we make upon our world. When two or more of us want to be together we go together in the same brain, the same body. I am alone now, and it is an unendurable existence because I have known what it is to have another of me.
"Let me come into your brain, into your mind and live there with you. We will teach your people and mine. We will take this ship to all the universes of which living creatures can dream. It is either this or we both die together, for too much time has gone for me to return. This body dies."
Stunned by Quilcon’s ultimatum, Jim Ward stared at the ugly slug on the wall. Its brown body was heaving with violent pulsations of pain and a sense of delirium and terror came from it to Jim.
"Hurry! Let me come!" it pleaded.
He could feel sensations as if fingers were probing his cranium looking, pleading for entrance. It turned him cold.
He looked into the years and thought of an existence with this alien mind in his. Would they battle for eventual possession of his body and he perhaps be subjected to slavery in his own living corpse?
He tried to probe Quilcon’s thoughts, but he could find no sense or intent of conquest. There were almost human amenities intermingled with a world of new science and thought.
He knew Quilcon would keep his promise to give the secrets of the ship to the men of Earth. That alone would be worth the price of his sacrifice—if it should be sacrifice.
"Come!" he said quietly.
It was as if a torrent of liquid light were flowing into his brain. It was blinding and excruciating in its flaming intensity. He thought he sensed rather than saw the brown husk of Quilcon quiver in the hemisphere and shrivel like a brown nut.
But in his mind there was union and he paused and trembled with the sudden great reality of what he knew. He knew what Quilcon was and gladness flowed into him like light. A thought soared through his brain: Is sex only in the difference of bodily function and the texture of skin and the tone of voice?
He thought of another day when there was death in the sky and on the Earth below, and in a little field hospital. A figure on a white cot had murmured, "You’ll be all right, Jim. I’m going on, I guess, but you’ll be all right. I know it. Don’t miss me too much."
He had known there would be no peace for him ever, but now there was peace and the voice of Quilcon was like that voice from long ago, for as the creature probed into his thoughts its inherent adaptability matched its feelings and thought to his and said, "Everything is all right, isn’t it, Jim Ward?"
"Yes . . . yes it is." The intensity of his feelings almost blinded him. "And I want to call you Ruth, after another Ruth—"
"I like that name." There was shyness and appreciation in the tones, and it was not strange to Jim that he could not see the speaker, there was a vision in his mind far lovelier than any Earthly vision could have been.
"We’ll have everything," he said. "Everything that your world and mine can offer. We’ll see them all."
But like the other Ruth who had been so practical, this one was, too. "First we have to repair the engine. Shall we do it, now?"
The solitary figure of Jim Ward moved toward the ramp and disappeared into the depths of the ship.