Blish,James – And all the Stars a Stage

It had all begun, Jorn Birn thought dispiritedly, with the exploding star.

The thought did not cheer him much. It is a hard thing to have to blame

one’s troubles upon an event which took place three hundred years ago,

particularly when one’s troubles are present, immediate, and full of

nagging little details which seem to have nothing to do with history at

all-let alone with so remote a subject as astronomy.

Take for example the present instance. Given, to begin with, a young

bachelor sitting alone in his government-allotted room in an all-male

“residence concIave”-the government’s totally transparent euphemism for a

barracks or dormitory, combining only the grimmer features of each. Given,

secondly, the morning television newscast, with its usual quota of stories

which seemed to differ from day to day but actually were always the same:

the swearing-in of the first World Legislature to be composed entirely of

women delegates; the failure (again) to meet the year’s food production

quota, despite the most intensive, back-


8 lames Blish

breaking exploitations of hydroponics, undersea farming, cloud culture,

desert irrigation, deep-tank mass cell culture and half a dozen other

techniques the names of which conveyed absolutely nothing to Jorn; the

successful landing of a robot-probe expedition on the tiny, sunbaked, and

intransigently useless planet nearest the Sun, whose name fled out of Jorn’s

head as slipperily as it had skidded in on the oil of the newscaster’s

voice, the verdict in a sensation trial involving a minor government

functionary who had brought a paternity suit against someone in her official

familias -sensational only in that the usually conclusive blood tests having

failed for some complicated genetic reason, she seemed to want to establish

paternity, rather than to disavow it and thus take the child into her own

cr6che (and two seconds after he had heard the verdict, Jorn could not

remember whether she had won or lost, and could think of no reason why he

should care).

And given, finally, the spectacle of an unusually intelligent young man,

still almost fully in possession of the standard engineer’s education of

his time, desperately sitting through this barrage of unchangingly

insignificant news stories, as daily and as interchangeable as a dish of

catmeat, in the sole hope of hearing something which might lead him to a

job. Of course a television newscast is a wholly inappropriate medium in

which to run a Help Wanted column, since the listener cannot decide whether

or not he is interested in a given bid until he has heard it all, by which

time it is too late for him to write down the address and the telephone

number and such other details as he may need to study or to carry out onto

the beItways with him. Employers who were really seriously in search of

skilled help invariably still resorted to the newspapers, and in the very

rare cases where they also

And all the Stars a Stage 9

Inserted a television appeal, they took it for granted that anyone in whom

they were likely to be interested would be making a telefax transcript of

the entire jobopenings announcement. This was nonsensical, since nobody but

an unmarried male would be desperate enough to hope to locate a job through

these television announcements in the first place, and the sets in the

residence conclave rooms did not include telefax equipment; it was of course

true that the set in the recreation hall had a telefax: attachment, but no

bachelor in his right mind could hope to compete with two hundred others for

that single sheet of blurrily printed brown paper, which even when new

looked as though it had been rescued almost too late from a fire, and still

have any time left over for tracking down the very few jobs it announced. If

you had hoped to have a hearing at all, you had to hop, the moment you got

the word. You couldn’t afford to waste time hanging around the orifice of a

community telefax, until it should choose-as it did only once an hour-to

protrude the long sickly brown tongue of its transcript.

All this was difficult enough to blame upon a star that had exploded three

hundred years ago; but in view of the persistent triviality of the news,

and the high unlikelihood that the job-opportunities commercial could offer

anything whatsoever worth pounding the beltways to get, Jorn managed. In a

world in which hardly anything satisfied him, it was easy enough to wonder

how today might have differed from itself if history could somehow have

been re-arranged; and the exploding star was a natural beginning to such a

daydream, since before that event nothing, really, could be said to have

happened at all.

Oh, there had been the usual wars, the usual pestilences, the usual

migrations, the usual births and declines of nations, but the details of

daily life for the

10 fames Blish

ordinary human being hardly changed from age to age. The industrial

revolution, of course, overturned all that; in the short course of slightly

more than a century, the average citizen of the wealthier countries found

himself in possession of riches beyond even the dreams of kings of any

earlier time; but even that great event was dwarfed by the supernova. In

fact, if Jorn remembered correctly, the industrial revolution had been still

in progress when the star exploded, though bow far along it had progressed

he could not be sure-his historical daydreams being more than a little

impeded by the fact that history had always been his weakest subject; the

might-have-beens kept getting mixed up with the facts.

In any event, when that mighty star rose in the night, everything was

changed. For a week it grew brighter and brighter, until it far outshone

any other object in the sky but the sun. At the peak of its 55-day life, it

was clearly visible in the daytime, a spearpoint of light too intense to be

looked at directly. At night, it cast distinct shadows and indeed was more

than bright enough to read by, so that for a little while the night as

everyone had known it in all the centuries before was effectively


Thereafter it waned, slowly. It was still there, and could still be seen by

the naked eye if one knew where to look: a dim, ghostly blob of light, like

a flower in a medieval field of uncut grass, of about the eighth magnitude.

Through the telescope it was a spreading, crawling cloud of incandescent

gas something under two light years in diameter, vaguely crablike in shape,

still expanding in the sky at the rate of about four angular seconds per

year. Its apparent diameter was already so great that a half-credit coin

held at arm’s length would not quite cover it, although of course the

nebula itself was quite invisible to the naked eye.

And all the Stars a Stage 11

There was still a star in its heart, but it was a shrunken corpse now, well

on its way toward becoming a white dwarf.

But the naked eye had not been the only observer even then. By an amazing

stroke of luck-bad luck, in Jorn~s soured view–one of history’s greatest

astronomical theorists had been watching it, through one of history’s first

really efficient large electronically amplified telescopes, at the instant

it had exploded. Since it proved to be located in a thin dust cloud,

undetected until then, the expanding globe of light racing outward from its

first brightening afforded a direct visual check of the speed of light, in

the vastest laboratory imaginable; while successive spectrographs of the

entire cataclysm unveiled the secrets of not just one, but a whole series

of nuclear reactions, several of which proved to be duplicatible- with

considerable effort–on a controllable scale. The Age of Power had arrived,

borne upon-starlight.

A head poked around the door into Jorn’s ruminations.

“Got the news on?” it said. “Who’s ahead?”

It was Jurg Wester, a fellow resident; Jorn was not particularly fond of

him, but a prudent man did not invite animosity in quarters as close and

lacking in privacy as a conclave. Today be was looking unusually seedy; his

state-issue suit looked as though it might have been slept in. But then,

they all got to looking like that after a while; the fabric wrinkled

readily and getting the wrinkles pressed out was too expensive for a

bachelor to undertake very often-too expensive, and mostly too purposeless.

“The women, who else?” Jorn said. “Sit down and shut up a minute, Jurg. I

want to hear this.”

“You want a job shoveling garbage?” Jurg said, but he subsided after that

accommodatingly enough, his

12 fames Blish

eyes slowly glazing as he watched the screen. jorn, only a little

distracted, did not find it difficult to recapture the skein of his musings.

For the Age of Woman had indeed followed almost directly upon the Age of

Power, though nobody had accurately foreseen it at the time. Probably such

a prophet, had he existed, would not have been heeded anyhow. The relevant

technique was called sperm electrophoresis, a ridiculously simple trick to

perform in glassware-and the pharmaceutical manufacturers had quickly come

up with a medium, an anion or cation exchange gel, which made it equally

easy to perform in situ. Its purpose was sex deten-nination of the child at


By hindsight, jom thought gloomily, it ought to have been realized that the

first several generations to have the trick made available to them would

respond by “starting with a boy.” That preference had already existed, and

indeed was so primitive that it might possibly be instinctual. The result,

in any event, was the world of today, heavily overburdened with males, most

of them useless-at least in the sense that neither the economy nor the

society couldfind places for most of them.

Being a man, jom was inclined to think that the real death blow had been

struck by the release of Selektrojel to the populace as an over-the-counter

or nonprescription item. Possibly if its use bad been restricted to couples

psychiatrically certified to need a baby of a given sex-like, say, a couple

to whom unaided nature had given only a string of five daughters, or, no,

better make it nine … But that would not have worked either. The demand

for the stuff had been far too great. Like alcohol, the trade in it could

be regulated more or less effectively but it could never be restricted in

any meaningful sense.

And all the Stars a Stage 13

All the same, Jorn was aware of his prejudices, and it was clear enough to

him that radical changes in the social mores had been in the making even

back then. Had it not been Selektrojel, it would have been something else.

That had appeared almost simultaneously with another dangerous triumph of

the pharmaceutical research laboratories: a cheap, simple, safe, foolproof

oral contraceptive. This, coupled with the fact that venereal disease had

disappeared (as a natural consequence of the virtually complete conquest of

infectious disease by chemotherapy, immunology, and universal sanitation),

might easily have destroyed the immemorial family system entirely, by

making sexual relations so free of any unwanted consequence that they could

hardly seem worth the price of a lifetime contract, especially to the

innately roving-eyed male. (“In fact,” one of the leading doctors of the

time had remarked in an immortal burst of unconscious humor, “venereal

disease is now almost as pleasant to cure as it is to catch.”) Legal

protection could still be afforded the woman afflicted with an accident of

impulse, since modern genetics made it possible to determine the parents of

any child ninety-nine times out of a hundred by blood tests alone.

That much had been predicted, by one of the most brilliant novelists of the

period; but it had not worked out that way-not entirely~_and for this Jorn

had reluctantly to give the credit to Selektrojel. Sexual customs were

indeed immensely less constrained now than they had been in the times of

Jorn’s grandparents, but the family had not been shattered. Being able to

choose the sex of their children had given people-enough of a stake in the

family system to turn the tide in favor of retaining it. To be sure, the

present prevalence of harems of male concubines, and the way women

officeholders had of recruiting male staffs

14 James Blish

by marrying them-that was not yet official, but it would become so on the

inevitable day when the first woman World Director was elected and chose her

cabinet that way-would have stunned and revolted Jorn’s grandparents, but it

was still recognizably a family system …

… Which did Jorn Birn no good whatsoever. The fourth boy in his

family-which, since his mother had been moderately well off, had provided

him with three people to call “father”-he had been farmed out to a creche

not long after infancy, as a luxury his mother had decided she could no

longer afford. He had been state-raised, state-educated, and

state-supported ever since. Nor did he have any hope of marrying into some

influential woman’s staff, or indeed much hope of marrying at all; though

he had never heard of Cinderella, he recognized the standard plot of the

usual television drama for the opiate it was.

Engineering or no engineering, it sometimes seemed to him in his worst

moments that he had no prospects but those of becoming a public gigolo. But

he was invariably brought up short by the realization that he was not

really attractive enough to make a living at it against the widespread

competition; and in any event, his powers in this field were at the age of

twenty-five not only unpracticed, but outright untested. Jorn Birn was

simply a glut on the market, any market, and that was the end of the


“And winds from the northeast, moderate to fresh,” the newscaster was

saying brightly. “And now, let!s see what’s stirring in the way of job

opportunities. We have an unusual item to lead off with. And there’s no use

listening to this one, girls, because it!s for a man.” There was an

appreciative giggle. “Heres an outfit that says it wants a young male with

technical train-

And all the Stars a Stage 15

ing. It won’t pay him much and hell have to work long hours in all kinds of

uncomfortable and dangerous situations. ‘Death not unlikely,’ it says here,

‘but survivors may become famous.’Well, well. The address is room

a-ten-prime, Research Tower, Central City. Here’s a big chance, fellows-be

the first man in history to circumnavigate the sun on skis, or somethingl

And now, lees get down to serious business. Continental Atomics informs your

communicator that it urgently needs five young women, in the twenty-toforty

age bracket, to administer a new power-conversion project. Although previous

experience is preferred, the firm-”

Convulsively, Jorn switched the set off. That was that.

“But why’d you bother to write the address down?” Jurg said immediately.

Jorn was startled; somehow, he had assumed that the other man had fallen

asleep with his eyes open. “It’s all Max anyhow, you ought to know that.”

I don’t know. I do it by habit. And a good thing this time she was so busy

being funny, she forgot to repeat it.”

“Klax,” Jurg said firmly, and ran his index finger under his nose. “If that

job’s a good thing. I’m a town clock with sixteen chimes. The witch was

right-it’s a recruiting poster for one of those space medicine

slaughterhouses. They’ll squirt you off to an orbit a thousand miles out

from nothing at all, record your blood pressure and a little muffled

cussing by radioand then, when they somehow don’t manage to bring you back,

they’ll shed a tear and scratch your name onto some imperishable back fence

with a blunt nafl.’

Jorn grinned in spite of himself. Jurg undoubtedly had hit the target

pretty close to dead center: that item had had all the ring of a lure of

some kind of

16 fames Blish

space travel experiment, which was already no more than a nearly-standard

way for a young man in despair to commit suicide … especially since the

money involved, even if you did survive, was invariably less than the

residence-conclave dole.

And yet, and yet … perhaps only because he bad been observed writing the

address down, perhaps only because he a little bit disliked Jurg’s habitual

air of knowing all the answers in advance, he felt himself turning


“Maybe so,” he said slowly. “But I’ve heard a lot of those ads. She said,

‘Survivors may become famousI can’t remember ever having heard that hook

before, except when I was a little boy. It certainly doesn’t sound like the

lunar colony project, just to begin with.”

“No,” Jurg agreed, “there’s too many people settled on that rock-ball

already. It’s just the usual guineapiggery-a satellite, or maybe an

interplanetary probe: tell us what you can see, old man, until we can’t

hear you any more, and then s-t-r-e-t-c-h that last can of

cream-of-fungus-mycelium soup. Besides, why do you want to be famous,


“I don’t, exactly,” Jorn said, irritated. ‘But if it meant what it said …

well, fame is negotiable, if you handle it right.-

How do you do that? By marrying the next World Director?”

. No. For that I’d have to be lovable, too-all the video shows tell you

that, don’t they? But being famous might help. A lot of women these days

think a little about good genes before they decide who they’re going to

marry next. If you weren’t born of a rich mother, or one with political

connections, it couldn’t hurt to have something else conspicuous in

And all the Star& a Stage 17

your record-something that shows that you’re pretty good in your own right.”

“Dream on,” Jurg said. “That’s how they got us in this trap in the first

place, and that’s just how they mean to keep us there. We aren’t ever going

to get out of it by swallowing their little myths down whole, I’ll tell you

that much.’

‘Well, tell me some more while you’re on the plat. form. How are we going

to get out of itr

“The time will come,” Jurg said, a little portentously, scratching under

one armpit. “I don’t think you’re really ripe for it yet, Bim. But you’ll

come around to it on your own before long; I know the type. I just hope it

isn’t too late by then.”

“Suit yourself,” Jorn said shortly. He had heard nonsense like that before,

often enough to know approximately what it was supposed to mean. He looked

at the address again, and then at his two-credit stateissue watch. What

harm could it do to follow the item up? After all, he bad nothing else

meaningful to do. His choices were restricted to listening to Jurg become

more and more cryptic, throwing Jurg out and watching the next episode of

“Pat’s Other Jon,” or sitting in a park surreptitiously chucking gravel at

the birds. A choice between another day of despair… and room a-10-prime,

Research Tower, Central City.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I think I’m going for a walk”

It was high summer at its worst outside. The massive blue-white supergiant

sun, an undulating variable with more than a hundred different overlapping

perfods, was at one of its thousands of possible peaks of three or more

cycles. It turned the air into an invisible cauldron, which might at any

moment boil up into a storm, very possibly one too violent for Weather Con.

18 lames Blish

trol to cope with-there had been an increasing number of those in the last

few years.

Nevertheless, Jorn elected to take the beltways. He was lucky enough to be

in Central City to begin with; but also, be had bought three books this

month, which had nearly wiped out his carfare budget.

The sensed threshold of violence in the weather forced his thoughts

reluctantly back to Jurg Wester, and the vague rumors of revolution which

Jurg had been attempting to float. Jorn had heard them before, and not

always from Jurg; they came drifting through the residence conclaves as

ominously and unpredictably as thunderheads. It was a minor cross to Jorn

that he was still unable to take much stock in them.

He had, to be sure, every reason to believe that the vast sexual

proletariat of the bachelors was bored and desperate enough to welcome

almost any imaginable kind of trouble. It was not hard to suspect, too,

that the husbands and concubines were just as unreconciled to the role of

belonging to the inferior sex. Anyone seriously examining the change which

had come over the statistics of crime in the last two generations would

draw very much the same conclusion.

All the same, he could not bring himself to hope that any open conflict

between the sexes-as opposed to the natural, buried, and eternal

conflict-could end by changing society more than slightly. You could of

course change human nature, since in the long r(m that meant nothing more

than changing human behavior; that had been done over and over again, quite

often by design. But the one thing you could not change was human needs. In

any formal war between the sexes, the defections from both sides would in

the end wipe out even the possibility that either side could win, exactly

as an ancient play Jorn had been

And all the Stars a Stage 19

forced to read at school had devoted five acts to insisting.

Damn Jurg Wester; but still, it was a nice notion to daydream about on an

afternoon of incipient thunder. At least it helped Jorn to ignore the fact

that he was hopelessly stumping the beltways: again, the pockets of his SI

suit without enough credits in them to clink against each other.

The beltways were depressingly well populated with men of all ages. Those

who looked to be about Jorn’s age or younger were dressed in a wild variety

of styles. Though the SI suit was predictably in the majority, even that

was often modified enough to accommodate the one mandatory feature of all

the current styles, an outlandishly stuffed and padded codpiece. Where the

men involved had the money for it, the suits were replaced entirely by

sbadow-cloaksfundamentally a cross between a tailored toga and a

front-split kilt. This was made of a synthetic fabric which took permanent

creases almost as well as paper did, and hence could be folded and pleated

by its owner to his own taste, so that in motion it afforded frequent but

not quite predictable glimpses of whatever good points he thought he had.

Here and there, too, Jorn saw a man in the highly conservative “business”

coverall which was this year’s uniform for the prosperous homosexual, a far

more powerful class among career women than any of the normals were; these

he eyed with a malice he knew to be at least half envy, for he had long ago

determined that he had been bom without the talent. All in all, his sex was

a colorful aggregate; and all in all, they made him want to spit.

A male revolution? No, Jurg was wrong;’it wasn’t .likely. There were

already too many different kinds

20 James Blish

of males in the world, all intent upon maintaining their differentness,

and if possible, parlaying it into the unique. They had suffered

themselves to be divided-and from now on, they would be ruled.


Room a-10-prime, Research Tower, Central City, was an absolute madhouse.

It consisted primarily of a huge waiting room, almost as big as a hall,

most of which was fenced off from the milling applicants. The fenced-in

area was occupied by closely spaced desks where interviews were conducted,

or dictation given to standard government vocoders. Outside the fence there

was an oblong of floor mostly taken up by massed ranks of folding wooden

chairs, like fugitives from a funeral. Here the applicants sat waiting

their turns to stand at one of the writing banquettes along the wall and

fill out a limp, gray legal-length questionnaire which offered not a single

clue to what the victim was applying for.

Those who got past the first screening at the desk by the gate, as jorn

eventually did, were transferred to an interviewer; and if the interviewer

was satisfied -though “satisfied” was hardly the word, for the young women

who did the work somehow managed to look as sour upon finding someone they

could pass


22 James Blish

as they did when (far more usually) they sent the applicant ignominiously

out-the legal-length form was promptly reduced to a series of punches in

three stiff colored cards. The floor around the interviewing desks was

drifted over by the little red, yellow and blue checks which had snowed down

from the busily snipping punches; they were also all over the tops of the

desks and even on the seats of the chairs. They clung to the hair, settled

into the creases of the SI suits, became airborne at whim and floated up the

nose, and every so often, immediately following an explosive sneeze, went

flying in all directions toward the ceiling like chaff through a silo. When

this happened, the young woman interviewing the hapless sneezer usually

changed her expression from routine disapproval to implacable grimness and

sent him packing, dropping his cards into the waste-can.

Jorn somehow managed to pass this test, though still without learning

anything at all about the job. He was sent back to the ranked folding

chairs to wait while his cards were processed, with an enormous roar which

made all talk in the room impossible except at a driving shout, by a

computer which seemed to be not so much analyzing the cards as chopping

them completely into more vari-colored little checks. After more than an

hour, during which the heat reduced Jorn’s SI suit to an assemblage of

clinging dishrags and the folding chair became increasingly impossible to

sit on comfortably regardless of how he tried to accommodate himself to it,

one of the young women took a red card out of the stack in the computer’s

return basket, stared at it with astonished disapproval, and came to the

rail to call Jorn’s name. Simple though it was, she had no difficulty in

mispronouncing it; obviously, she had had practice.

He was directed off the floor into a room not much

And all the Stars a Stage 23

bigger than a closet, but which at least seemed to be air-conditioned. Here

a middle-aged woman doctor asked him another hundred questions, these of

such astonishing intimacy that he did not himself know the answers to nearly

half of them. This, for some reason, seemed to satisfy her profoundly; he

was told to step into the next room and take off all his clothes. Since the

heat in the waiting room had long since converted the suit into a clammy,

slowly disintegrating shroud, he was a little reluctant to do so, out of the

conviction that he would never get it on again in one piece. Nevertheless he


The disrobing awoke Tabath, his familiar, who raised her tiny crested head

from his wrist to stare with unwinking yellow-eyed hostility at the glare

and confusion. Though both glare and confusion were commonplace enough at

the residence conclave, no one really yet knew how much the little

basilisks learned from experience, even after nearly a century of studying

them. Jorn was personally quite convinced that Tabath was unusually

intelligent for a familiar but he had the saving good sense to know that

everyone thought well of their own-that bias was absolutely necessary in so

personal a relationship, but that did not make it necessarily true.

The serpent shifted her two-foot length on his arm automatically and looked

back up at Jorn. As usual, he had no idea what she wanted-as an

ectoparasite she had no wants she needed to ask for-but the movement had

the effect of making him notice that none of the naked men in the long line

he was supposed to join was wearing a familiar.

As he hesitated, he heard behind him the clackclack of sandals, and turned

to see another woman doctor in the act of passing him. She was exceedingly

24 fames Blish

striking, and somehow Jorn had the impression that he knew her. She was

gray-haired, obviously old enough to be his grandmother, and yet at the same

time quite beautiful-not with the hard gloss of the television actress, nor

even that of the older woman fighting grimly to hold onto her looks, but

with a soft feminine warmth which was as captivating as it was rare.

She stopped, apparently noticing his hesitation, and smiled at him


“Don’t worry,” she said. “Just leave her with your clothes. She won’t

wander off and no one will bother her. You may have a very complete

physical exam ahead of you, and we can’t take the chance that she might

misinterpret it.”

That seemed logical enough. Jorn had never had an intensive physical

before, and Tabath had been known to take even cursory ones as having

aggressive intent. He began to stammer out his thanks, but the doctor had

already smiled again and moved on. As he stared after her, he realized why

it was that he had thought he knew her: She was Dr. Haryt Chase-Huebner,

one of the worl&s foremost authorities in cancer research. He had seen her

most recently on television only a month ago, in a newscast of the awarding

of a government-sponsored prize.

Her presence here was convincing evidence that the job, whatever else it

might prove to be, could hardly be what Jurg Wester had called “just the

usual guinea-piggery”; but that was not the aspect of the encounter which

impressed Jorn most. Instead, he was bemused to find that with a smile and

a few words the scientist had cut right through his ritual dislike of

women-in-general. In her own person she was a gentle but forcible reminder

that women, like men, came in all colors of the personal spectrum: some

bad, most indifferent, a few undeniably good. He found himself

And all the Stars a Stage 25

wondering how many husbands she had, and how much of her family she had kept

with her past puberty; he remembered vaguely that she had a son-a son, no

lessl-who was an eminent physicist in his own right, with whom she

occasionally collaborated on research problems which involved both sciences.

He sighed without being aware of it and stripped Tabath off his forearm.

She promptly coiled fiercely around his hand, but by saying “Shower,

Tabath” to her four or five times with increasing firmness, he managed to

overcome her suspicions of the strange surroundings. Nevertheless, she

promptly disappeared into one of his pockets; ordinarily she would have

coiled inside his collar, where she could keep watch until he reappeared.

The first physical was relative superficial, strictly an assembly-line

procedure. Once past it, however, iom found himself subject to an

individual examination which more than justified Dr. Chase-Huebner’s

prophecy. He had never realized before that he had so many orifices worth

looking into, so many internal organs to be palpated and X-rayed, so many

body products worth sampling, so many vital processes recordable by

appropriate machines. Had Tabath been present through all of this, she

would indeed probably have bitten somebody-or, more likely, everybody. Even

for Jorn it was something of an ordeal; when it was over, he felt as though

he had just run a mile. (And he had in fact run about a quarter of that

distance, on a treadmill, with a breathing mask over his nose and mouth.)

By this time he was deep into the labyrinth which was “room” a-10-primc.,

and had entirely lost sight and track of other applicants for the job, if

indeed any other than himself had been allowed to penetrate this far. It

had become wholly a private hial, in which he


26 fames Blish

moved entirely alone through a strange universe where a new dragon lurked in

every cave, unarmored, disweaponed and without even a familiar to share his


After the physical he was given a break for lunch. It was a better meal

than he had been able to buy for himself at any time in his life, but his

appreciation of it was somewhat dimmed by the company he was forced to eat

it in-three specialists of some kind, one of them male and decidedly

subordinate to the other two, who probed insistently for his opinions and

his stores of information on a wide variety of subjects. So many of these

questions were astronomical that they could not help but revive his

Jurg-nurtured suspicions of space research; but others-those dealing with

crop genetics, for instance, or the education of children-seemed wholly

unrelated either to the astronomical questions or to each other.

The entire aften-,.;on was given over to a battery of pencil-and-paper

tests, all sufficiently difficult to prevent his finishing them in the

allotted time … all, that is, but one, wherein he discovered immediately

that the questions were stacked in order of increasing difficulty, so that

by tackling the last question first, he was able to speed up steadily and

cross the wire with the answer to question number one just as the bell


These consumed five hours, and he took them all nearly birthday-naked. He

bad been kindly supplied a sort of breech-clout or dhoti which prevented

the many different chairs he had to sit in from tattooing his bottom

indelibly, but that was all. When they were over, however, he was led back

to his clothes and allowed to resume the terrified and nearly famished

Tabath; she fairly leapt onto his arm, on which she found more than enough

nervous perspiration to sate

And all the Stars a Stage 27

her hunger and make her grow half an inch in length in the bargain. To

Jorn’s consternation, however, his suit itself was immediately whisked away;

he was given instead a tailored coverall of totally strange design. He was

somewhat mollified to find that it fitted him far better than the suit ever

had, and that it was of expensive material and fine workmanship; an the same

it had so many pockets, zippers, tags, and attachments of odd location and

unknown functionincluding many metal devices which looked for all the world

like latch-staples-that even its undoubtable luxuriousness made him feel

more nervous and outr6 than ever.

Then back into the labyrinth again, to a new room which proved instead to

be a small but well-appointed apartment. Here he was given an excellent

dinner; and, for a wonder, left for nearly three hours entirely to himself

and-insofar as he could tell-unobserved. He was grateful; he had plenty to

think about.

On the whole, though it had been a gruelling day, it had not been a bad

one. At the very least it had seldom been dull, as most of his ordinary

days were; he had been occupied every minute until now. Furthermore, he had

gotten two first class meals out of it, and an expensive-though funny-new

outfit (providing that they planned to let him keep it; that, of course,

was not any too likely). And it had certainly all been novel; even if he

failed to get the job, he could while away many a day to come with wonder-

ing what it could have been, playing with the manifold clues which had been

heaped upon him today like pieces in the world’s most mammoth cutout pic-

ture puzzle.

As the third hour progressed, however, he found himself first becoming

gradually relaxed in spite of

28 James Blish

himself, and then imperceptibly crossing the line from there into

restiveness. It was all very well to treat a superfluous male job applicant

like a captive king, but he knew better than to suppose that it was being

done out of pure nobility. There had to be A rationale behind this elaborate

series of procedures; and now that he had been given the chance to recover

his strength, his breath and his perspective, he felt an increasing urgency

to get on with it. Even a labyrinth, after all, is supposed to have a

heart-or at least, an exit.

Then there was a knock, and while he was still considering this unusual

amenity, the door opened soundlessly. The young woman who came in could

hardly have been any older than he was; in fact, though he was abominably

poor at judging such matters–any woman with a reasonably competent or

sophisticated manner usually struck him as being older than Jorn was-he

thought she might well be younger. She was certainly very feminine; though

she was wearing precisely the same outfit he was-evidently it was a kind of

uniform-she filled it much more interestingly. After a moment’s hesitation,

he stood up.

‘You’re Jom Birn,” she said, looking up at him out of violet eyes with what

he took to be a sort of automatic, impersonal appraisal. It did not really

seem to be a question, but for want of any alternative, Jorn answered it


“That’s right.”

“I hope you’ve finished your meal. If so, we can go now.”

“I’m finished, thank you,” Jom said. “Go where?”

“To see the Director,” she said, a little curtly. Evidently she was not

used to being questioned by applicants. “We’re ready for your interview.”

“My interviewl” Jorn exploded. Abruptly, he had- And all the Stars a Stage 29

had more arrogance, impersonality and mystification. than he could take.

‘Vhat else have I been getting all day, anyhow?”

“Interviews, of a sort,” she said coolly. “Naturally. Otherwise you would

never have gotten this far. But now you’re to talk to the Director-that’s

a different thing entirely.”

“I see,” Jorn said. “Meaning that I’m finally going to be told what it is

that I’m applying for?’


“If it were obvious to me, I wouldn’t have asked,* Jorn said. “However,

lead on. After all, it is what I came here for.”

As she turned, another thought occurred to him. “By the way,” he said, “you

know my name, but I’m afraid I didn’t catch yours.”

“I didn’t offer it,” she said. “And judging by your attitude, ies not

likely that you’re going to need it. I certainly hope not, anyhow. Come


He followed her out the door. On the whole he felt grimmer than ever.

“You don’t make it sound as though it’s up to you to decide,” he said, a

little maliciously.

At that she stopped in her tracks and swung on him. Her normally pretty

face was drawn into an astonishing, unmistakable expression of pure disgust

which left him speechless. He had long since become resigned to being

rather unattractive, as well as superfluous; but somehow it had failed to

occur to him that he might even be disgusting as well.

After an instant, however, she turned her back on him and resumed her march

down the empty corridor.

“No,” she said, in a light neutral voice which gave no hint of the spasm of

emotion her face had just betrayed. “That’s up to the Director.”

30 fames Blish

The Director’s room was seemingly in the innermost keep of the fortress

that was room a-10-prime, but somehow it was light and airy 4 the same. Not

greatly to Jorn’s surprise, it was opulent as well, though its opulence was

of a rather standardized sort: wooden desks instead of metal ones, chairs

with dull red cushions instead of gray, a patternless carpetalso dull

red-instead of a scuffed series of coats of rubber-base paint. There were

five people there, not counting himself and the girl, among whom he recog-

nized, with pleasure, only Dr. Haryt Chase-Huebner.

Very little of this, however, held his attention more than a moment.

Thereafter he had eyes only for the Director.

The Director was a man.

“This would be Mr. Jorn Birn,” the Director said, looking up from a

fascicle of papers elaborately fastened inside a crimson folder. “Thank

you, Ailiss; please sit down and join us. And Mr. Birn, please be seated

there at the table. We’re very pleased to see you, let me assure you.”

Jorn muttered something which was doubtless inane –or if it was not he

would never know the difference, for he forgot it almost before it was out

of his mouth -and sat down. He was not, of course, stunned, for after all,

men did hold positions of responsibility here and there; but be was

certainly surprised, and somewhat baffled. He was also a little relieved,

for an accidental side glance at the stuffy young woman who had been his

guide-Ailiss-had captured on her face the identical spasm of disgust which

had so upset him in the corridor; but this time it was bent upon the

Director. By its intensity now, he saw that it bad been meant for the

Director even then; it bad very little, if anything, to do with Jorn.

VVIhich was very strange, for the man did not seem

And all the Stars a Stage 31

to be particularly disgusting. True, he was deformed, which was unusual in

this day and age. But he carried it well, and besides, he was hardly a

monster; his deformity was not so specific that a name could be given to it.

He was only … somehow out of proportion. jorn~s first impression had been

that he was hunchbacked, but actually he was not so twisted as that-at

least, not solely in that direction. He did have a hump on his shoulders,

but his shoulders themselves were enormously broad, so broad that the hump

might have been nothing more, or almost nothing more, than a great knot of

muscle which had grown to take advantage of all that leverage. His chest,

too, was huge, and so were his arms, particularly his upper arms, which

looked capable of supporting aloft the cables of a suspension bridge. Given

only this much of him, jorn could have said no more than that he was

obviously a physical giant.

Yet obviously, he was not. jorn could not see the lower part of his torso,

since that was hidden behind the desk, but the bead atop that magnificent

keg of a chest was disconcertingly small, and supported by a

correspondingly scrawny neck. The forearms tapered almost into sticks, at

least by contrast to the mighty thews above them, and ended with hands

absurdly narrow and delicate.

And most incongruous of all, the Director was old. The stringy neck was

wrinkled, the hands were knobby and freckled, the scalp bald and

discolored, the face pouchy, the mouth white with the whiteness of creases

stretched flat by a full set of dentures. Were you to look first at the

eyes, furthermore, you would think by their intricate red stitching of

broken capillaries that the Director might be as much as seventyfive years

old …

And then you would not; for those bloodshot eyes

32 James Blish

were as green as lightning, and as full of danger. Suddenly Jorn realized

that the Director had been waiting calmly, all this time, for Jorn to take

his measure-and had been watching how Jorn went about it. Jorn tried to look

away, embarrassed and confused, and promptly found it almost impossible to


The Director smiled frostily, and ended the mutual inspection with a

peculiar writhing gesture of his whole visible body, as though he bad

flexed all of his great anomalous muscles at once. As a warning? Or was it

simply some titanic equivalent of a shrug? Jorn found it impossible to

tell, especially since the Director was the only person in the room except

Dr. ChaseHuebner who was not wearing the odd coverall, which Jorn was now

quite certain was a uniform. Instead, be wore a loose-fitting kind of

smock, fastened only at the collar and the wrists, which allowed the

strange muscular convulsion ample play without revealing enough of its

details to permit Jorn to interpret it.

But at the very least, Jorn was abruptly surer than ever that be was out of

his depth. Perhaps that was all that the Director had intended. If so, it

was thoroughly convincing.

“I suppose you have realized, Mr. Birn,” the Director said at last, “that

this is essentially a project in space research. I don’t of course know at

what point in the tests this occurred to you, but at least I observe that

you are still with us. So let me ask you this: are you still interested in

the job?”

His voice, a light tenor astonishing in so big a man -or was he indeed so

big?-at first rather distracted Jorn from the substance of what he was

saying; and

And all the Stars a Stage 33

then, Jorn found the question itself very hard. Finally he said:

“I think so, sir. I wouldn’t be interested in any of the ordinary projects

in space research that I hear about in the press- I’m, well, not quite

ready for suicide. But this one looks like something different; if so, I’m

still interested.”

The Director smiled a wintry smile. “Exactly so,” he said. “Then, I’ll

proceed. This project emerges from a discovery in basic physics called the

Ertak Effect, named after me, as is quite proper since I’m its discoverer;

my name is Helminth Ertak. This effect is primarily that of the propagation

of patterns-patterns of any kind-to remote, pre-selected areas of space.

They go as transforms of the motion-waves of their constituent sub-atomic

particles, but essentially without losing their integrity … Forgive me,

Mr. Birn, but you have the expression of a man who is not following me very


“I’m hardly following you at all,” Jorn confessed. “The terms are more or

less familiar, but I can’t seem to make them coherent.”

“Then we’ll skip the theory-there’ll be plenty of time for that later-and

concentrate on the consequences. Primarily, what I was looking for was some

method of communication with interplanetary ships and planetary colonies

which would be reasonably fast, preferably instantaneous if that was

possible. One reason we have so much trouble in recruiting for space

research is that we can’t keep in decent touch with our volunteers once

they’re launched. They come to feel as though they’d been abandoned very

early in the game, which effectively they have though through no fault of

ours; and somehow or other, the word leaks back home, and results in just

such an attitude toward ordinary space research as you have just exhibited.

34 James Blish

Once the glamor wore off it, it became known as a form of suicide-mostly

because we couldn’t think of any way to talk to the volunteers, once they

were in space, without a long time-lag between sentences.”

Ailiss cleared her throat ostentatiously. Ertak ignored her.

“However, the Ertak Effect provides us with the means of communication we

needed. Though alas it isn’t instantaneous, and probably that hope was im-

possible of realization from the beginning, it is at least much faster than

the velocity of light. In fact, it’s better than twenty times as fast,

which is certainly a substantial gain, wouldn’t you say?”

“I was taught that beating light speed was impossible in itself,” Jorn said


“So was I. Nothing so irritates me as physics-by-flat. But that’s not all,

Mr. Birn. Shortly after we began to develop the necessary apparatus, we

discovered that the Ertak Effect provides much more than a fast method of

communication over long distances. It can send a physical object just as

well as it can send any other sort of pattern. Both, after all, are simply

problems in information transfer; they differ only in their orders of

complexity. Transforming this implication from theory into hardware took a

long, weary while, but we have now done so.”

He paused expectantly, but Jorn was again quite lost. He could only shake

his head helplessly.

“To be brief, then,” the Director said, “we now have a practicable

interstellar drive.”

“Interstellar?” Jorn whispered slowly. “With … with a ship to go with


“The ship is in the building,” Ertak said, leaning back in his chair. He

was visibly satisfied with the sensation he had produced by his summary,

though certainly he must have seen it many times before in

And all the Stars a Stage 35

other interviews. “And we are surveying suitable target systems. There seems

to be no shortage of them, especially since the first trip will be wholly

exploratory, with no attempts at planet-falls. We might even skulk around

the area of the Great Nova while we’re at it, just to get a close look at

the remains of an event which influenced our history so much. Why not? It

would only add a few months or so to the tripf”

Jorn could find nothing further to say. The Director seemed slightly


“Well,” he said at last, “this is why you’re here. We are building only one

ship, necessarily; but we are recruiting two crews, the one to understudy

the other. You are only the fourth man to get through our primary screen,

so we owe you a choice. Providing that you survive the secondary

screening-and the training programs thereafter-which crew would you like to

be on: the working crew, or the stand-by?”

“The ‘working crew’ is the one that will actually go on the trip?”

“Yes,” Director Ertak said. “The stand-by crew is only to replace washouts,

or men invalided out, or killed in some accident-the great Unforeseeable.”

“I want to be in the working crew,” Jorn said, without an instant’s further


For some reason, this did not appear to please Ailiss O’Kung. More

surprisingly, it did not appear to please the Director much, either. He

turned to the girl with a petulant expression and said crossly:

‘-fou are going to have to do something about your primary screen, Ailiss.

It’s selecting out nothing but would-be beroes-and we do need a stand-by

crew, after all.”

“I can’t control the way you phrase your final questions,” Ailiss said

between white lips. “If you will call the number one crew the ‘working’

crew, then of


36 James Blish

course every jobless drone who gets through the primary screen will opt for

it. Try calling it the ‘throwaway’ crew and youll see the trend reverse

completely-as I’ve already recommended till rm all out of patience.”

“I see you are,” Ertak said drily. “But let me remind you that a complete

reversal is not what I want either. Each man on the stand-by crew needs to

be emotionally ready to go, if we should need him. However, you have a

point. I’ll take it under advisement.”

“That’s what you always say,” Ailiss said; but the Director abruptly seemed

to have given up heeding the bickering. So, in fact, had Jorn Birn, who was

suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that he had a job.

And not just any ordinary piece of suicidal space research, a ghost of Jurg

Wester reminded him silently. These people didn’t do things by halves. They

were going to send him to the stars.

“That’s enough,” Ertak’s voice said sharply, cutting through his

bemusement. “Mr. Birn, it now becomes necessary for you to go home and

settle your affairs; we will send you further instructions in twenty-one

days. The rest of you, report to me tomorrow as usual. This session is


And once more, the Director’s body was briefly convulsed by that anomalous,

pulsing shudder.


You mean you really got it?” Jurg Wester said, in hurt disbelief. “What are

you going to do, anyhow-drop out of the satellite station in a barrel and

see how high you bounce?”

Jorn looked critically at his only dress nightgown, stuffed it into his

luggage, took it out again and threw it into the trash chute. He was not

very much astonished to find how little he owned that was worth anything at

all, even to him; but it was surprising to find that most of his few prized

possessions were now also quite meaningless.

The vegetable-grading process also helped him to delay answering Jurg,

whose question annoyed him in at least six specifiable ways and in an

indefinite number of others which he could not at the moment Identify. Jorn

had never specifically been told not to discuss the job outside of room

a-10-prime, but he nevertheless retained a strong impression that he had

better be discreet. Ertak and company had not made any attempt to tell

their applicants what they were applying for, and if Jorn’s experience was

typical, the


38 James Blish

secret never got out except to those who had been accepted. If that was the

way the Director was playing it, it ought certainly also to be jorn~s, at

least this early in the game.

“Ies space research, just like you said it would be,” Jorn said. “And it’s

outright suicidal as far as I can see. In fact it’s the craziest thing of

its kind I’ve ever heard of.”

“What kind of thing is it?”

“I don’t think I’m supposed to say. But Jurg, d near everything you said

about it in advance was right. I don’t see any harm in telling you that,

since you smelled it long before I did.”

“I’m not half as sure of it now as I was then,” Jurg said darkly. He

watched with obvious incredulity as Jorn jettisoned a threadbare but

otherwise perfectly good formal shirt, with his name embroidered on the

pocket and a delicate pattern of berries and leaves appliqu6d along the

sleeves. “If ies all that suicidal, why are you so hot for it? It doesn~t

make sense.”

“Because I’m sick and tired of these barracks, and sick and tired of being

useless, that’s why,” Jorn said. “It’s a job, and I’ve got it. All of a

sudden thaes enough for me. There’s no law that says you have to like it.

I’m the guy that’s taking it, and I like iL IsnI that enough?”

“I suppose so,” Jurg said, nibbling gently at one .fingernail. “I don’t

know. I mean, Great Ghost, Jorn, how could I know? What is it, anyhow? You

can tell me, I won~t blab … but Ive got to know. You’re a pretty sharp

article, I’ve known that all along, you wouldn’t let yourself be trapped

into any deal that was just like what I thought it was. What’s the dif-

ference-the kicker? Come on, you’ve got the job, and I’m still stuck in the

conclave, as useless as ever. How did you know to grab for this, while I

was still think-

And all the Stars a Stage 39

ing it was hopeless? I need to know; I missed out this time, but I don’t

want to miss out the next. You’ve got to tell me.”

Jorn straightened slowly and looked at Jurg. He stilJ disliked the man as

much as ever, but he could hardly deny that in that burst of candor he

found more to admire than he had ever seen in Jurg before. But what more

could be tell him?

“I don’t know how I got it,” Jorn said at last. “They take you through a

whole day of tests, and a lot of them are rough. After I passed them-and I

don’t know how I managed that because most of the time I didn’t know what

they were testing me for-they told me what it was all about, and asked me

whether or not I wanted to go along. I decided that I did, but maybe I was

out of my head to do any such thing.”

“Do you think I could passF’ Jurg said in a low voice, looking down at his


“I don’t know what to think. I don’t know how I passed-so how could I know

about you? But, Jurg, it is space research. Is that what you want?”

“I want a job,” Jurg said. “You haven’t told me much and I suppose you

can’t. So all I can think is that if you could get it, maybe I could too.

Then I suppose I’ll make up my own mind whether it’s suicide or not. And

whether or not I want to commit suicide that badly, in that particular way.

Is that how it goes?”

“Yes,” Jorn said, closing his valise and shutting the snaps. “That’s pretty

much how it goes.~

“All right, then I’ll take a stab at it,” Jurg said, standing up. “And if

I get it, Birn… Um.”

“Um? What’s the matter?”

“Another question. Can I take Koth?”

“Sure you can. You’ll have to leave her behind for part of it, but you’ll

get her back at the end.”

40 lames Blish

“Good. Okay. I’ll see you there.”

“You’ve left a speech in midair,” Jorn said curiously. ‘You were saying, if

you got the job-”

“Yes, if I get the job, I’ll thank you for steering me to it. But don’t

expect any more pats on the pants, Birn. You made a point of being

secretive about it when you left, and what’s more there’s a lot you could

tell me that you haven’t, and don’t think I don’t know it. If I make it all

the way, it’ll be on my own steam, not because you went out of your way to

help me. After that, devil take the hindmost.”

“And the hindmost’s familiar,” Jorn said, shrugging and turning back to his

puny suitcase. “That suits me fine.”

And in fact, he realized, he had not answered one of Jurg’s questions as

candidly as he might have, though only because he had misunderstood it.

Obviously the substance of the question about Koth had been whether or not

she would be allowed along on the trip itself, not just during the

interviews and testing; and about this Jorn had no information whatever,

only an automatic assumption which might very easily be wrong. After all,

presumably mass economy would have to be practiced even more stringently

aboard an interstellar vessel than it had to be in local interplanetary


But then, the entire status of the familiars was ambiguous, not only in the

area of Director Ertak’s project, but in society in general. Wholly a

product of the laboratory-the most complex life-fonn the biochemists had

yet managed to produce-they belonged to no group in nature, had no real

relatives or taxonomical status, no past nor any role in the drama of

evolution. It was generally agreed that they were sexually differentiated;

but there were not and had

And all the Stars a Stage 41

never been any males of the “species’~-they repro.* duced

parthenogenetically, and even that only under highly special, highly

artificial conditions. Though they looked like a sort of animal and were

popularly supposed to be such, even that question had not entirely been

settled: their lack of digestive organs and their extremely simple

nutritional needs were almost mold-like in character, so that many experts

maintained that they ought to be thought of as sapro. phytes, rather than

true parasites. On the other hand, their defensive teeth, their mobility and

their obvious, -if limited-self-consciousness and awareness of the!JZ

environment were not plant-like at all.

Even the popularity of the creatures had come about through a long series

of flukes. Their parasitisrij was a necessary condition of their existence;

the biochemists had not yet been able to turn out an inde. pendent entity

of that degree of complexity, and many of them, sensitive to the

possibility of a charge of manufacturing vermin, were not in any hurry to

try. The fact that the first successful experiment had been performed by a

man had made all the succeeding generations dependent upon traces of

testosterone an(I other androgens in their “diet”; and this nutritional

prejudice, plus the advantages that the creatures took up no living space

at all, cost nothing to maintain, had no fleas and required neither bedding

nor toilet facilities, had all combined to transform a hapless test-tube

freak into an almost universal pet in the short span of fifty years.

In that time they had proven their right to be regarded as truly living

creatures by their marked individuality and the unpredictability of their

behavior. In that sense it had to be admitted that fifty years of

experience with them had raised many more questions than it had resolved.

The woman-dominated

42 fames Blish

government viewing with purse-lipped matronly disapproval the obviously

compensatory and symbolic aspects of the man/familiar

relationship—especiaUy among the vast masses of jobless

bacbelors-developed powerful urges toward banning them. However, a twoyear

fact-finding commission was unable to turn up a shred of evidence that the

familiars were harmful in

any way, except for an unexceptionable tendency to bite anyone who seemed to

be menacing either the creature or her master. If nevertheless there was


psychological damage being done-the suspicion that had launched the inquiry

in the first place-it proved impossible to demonstate.

It did not seem very likely, Jorn thought with regret,

that any male allowed into the crew of an interstellar

ship would be permitted so purely supernumerary a

piece of baggage. The deprivation, it it did take place,

was going to seem strange. He had had Tabath since

he was thirteen years old-she bad been a birthday

present from one of his fathers. If his relationship with

her-always trouble-free, sometimes amusing, often

comforting, and by now almost as automatic as his

relationship with the strange person wh ‘ o lived inside

his skull-had also been damaging in some hidden

respect, there would be no faster way to find out than

having her stripped away from him for good and all;

for she would not last until his problematical return.

She could live only a little over a day without hin-L

The prospect was anything but pleasant.

He saw the last of the residence conclave on the twenty-first day. From

then on be was permanently stationed, not in room a-10-prime, but in a

geographically indefinite, quasi-abstract entity simply called The Project.

Its headquarters was an immense camp and launching field, ultra-secure

behind high wire fences

And all the Stars a Stage 43

in the middle of an appalling salt desert, located Jorn could not say where.

He was flown there, along with four other recruits (all female), and saw

only that the government rocket spent most of its time crossing an ocean, by

a route which was devoid of any checkpoints he might have been able to

recognize. Quite possibly this was unplanned; since Jorn had never before

flown in anything that went higher, faster and farther than a jitney before,

he knew nothing about how to read terrain from a great altitude.

‘Me camp on the salt flats, however, proved to be little more than a

sally-port for Jorn and the other recruits. Though there was obviously a

great deal of construction, testing and other activity going on there, Jorn

was allowed to take part in almost none of it. In the first six months of

his training, he was somewhere else almost all of the time; he knew only

that he had travelled at least half a million miles in that periodat least,

because he had spent three weeks of it on the Moon.

He was equally sure, on less evidence, that he must have- travelled at

least that far again going round and around in giant centrifuges; in riding

rocket sleds down horizon-to-horizon lines of railroad track; and most

mysteriously, in sitting patiently or doing exercises in isolation chambers

firmly fixed to the earth, while his weight varied steadily and smoothly

from nothing at all to close to nine times normal. He also covered

considerable ground crawling flat on his belly dragging a carbine behind

him, as though interstellar travel were going to be a sort of infantry

operation; conversely, he learned to read terrain from the air in

innumerable glider drops over every imaginable kind of landscape.

During none of this-gruelling, outr6 and bodeful though most of it was-did

he hear any suggestion

44 fames Blish

that he be deprived of Tabatb; and in time the possibility, though it was

actually still as great as ever, receded from the forefront of his attention

and went underground. If the familiar herself found the training alarming,

she gave no sign; or, more accurately, she seemed to find the world she

lived in almost continuousIy alarming, precisely as usual, but dismissible

as long as she could continue to ride through it on jorn’s arm.

Of all the rigors he was forced to undergo, one of the most difficult to

bear up under was the fact that his section leader was Ailiss O’Kung.

Obviously she had been through it all before, perhaps several times, and

regarded the gasps and struggles of the recruits with easy contempt; though

she allowed no one to fail through unfamiliarity or exhaustion, her

definition of these two categories only barely distinguished them from

stupidity and gold-bricking, with both of which she was utterly merciless.

And yet, oddly, she lost fewer recruits than any other section leader.

Though he tried to tell himself that the impression was nonsense, jorn was

nevertheless convinced that Ailiss went out of her way to assign him the

roughest, the dirtiest or the dullest details of every assignment. Since it

was impossible to discover a reason for this, he was forced to invent one,

this being the instantaneous dislike she seemed to have taken to him when

they had first met in room a-10-prime.

In response, he swore in private, gritted his teeth and bore down harder.

Simple male pride was not going to allow him to admit that a girl was any

better at all this than he was (the simple fact that she was better

notwithstanding; she might be better at it now, but he’d show her). Somehow

it quite failed to occur to him that approximately the same thought might

be being cherished in the heads of every male in the

And all the Stars a Stage 45

section, and that Ailiss’ attitude was expressly designed to provoke nothing

else. As for the women in the section, they were mostly a hardy,

uncomplaining, almost offensively cheerful lot, who quickly became

frighteningly competent, and seemed to have no threshold of boredom


At the end of the six-month period, the section was broken up and

reassigned, in groups of two and three, to new and more specialized types

of training. This still left jorn and Ailiss stuck firmly together, since

he had been so unfortunate as to show talent in piloting and navigation,

which was her own area of specialization.

In the new section, for the first time, he found himself also yoked to jurg


The encounter took place, wholly inconveniently, during jorn’s second

flight to the Moon-much different from the first one, in that now he was

turning a trial trick as cadet astrogator. Working under Ailiss, he allowed

himself to become rattled at the computers during turnover and was sent

down to the ward room in disgrace … and there was jurg, looking passing


“Well, Great Ghost,” jurg said. “It’s the boy wonder, himself. I thought

they were going to feed you to the meteor-eels, long ago. Don’t tell me

you’re in my sectionl”

“It looks that way,” jorn said. He looked Wester over carefully. He was

wearing a brassard which marked him as a temporary lance-corporal, only a

recruit rank but nevertheless higher than jorn’s own. This had the makings

of a bad situation. “Is this your first lunar trick?”

“It sure is. Old Corporal Wester was in no hurry.


46 James Blish

All the same, it seems I’m a stripe or so up on you already.”

“So you are. Congratulations.”

“It wasn’t luck, I can tell you that.” He grasped Jorn by the elbow and

lowered his voice confidentially, although there was no one else in the

ward room. “Listen, maybe I shot off my mouth a little the last time I saw

you, but you know I didn’t mean anything by it, don’t you? Old Big Mouth

Wester, I just love to sound off. But I owe you a favor for putting me on

to this nice soft berth. And seeing as bow you haven7t got a stripe yet,

maybe I could give you a tip or two. Let bygones be bygones. Okay?”

“Fine,” Jorn said. “Only I don’t see whaes so soft about it. You had to go

through most or all of what I did or you wouldn’t be here, let alone with

the stripe. And it didn’t strike me as so soft.”

“Oh, I work,” Jurg said scornfully. “I work like hell and I make a big

impression-when I have to. I was the only man in my old section who never

goofed in plain sight. I always do everything exactly by the books, even if

it’s nit-witted to do it that way. That’s what The Project says it wants

and that’s exactly what I give ’em, right down the line.”

“All right, but if that adds up to a soft berth, I’ll still take concrete,”

Jorn said, baffled.

“You’re not using your head, Birn, I can see that. For instance: who was

your section clerk?”

“One of the women-you wouldn’t know her. She was top-notch at it, too.”

“No doubt,” Jurg said. “But in my section, I was clerk. I saw to it that I

was. You’d be surprised bow much a simple thing like that can save you in

wearand-tear on the feet-and in hours of sleep.”

“I sure would. In our section the clerk’s job was an extra; it didn’t save

the girl from even one of the

And all the Stars a Stage 47 regular details. She did it

nights, for a proficienty rating, and if the strain had

slowed her up in the field, sVd not only have been broken but

gigged to boot.”

“Your section boss must be crazy,” Jurg said.

Much as Jorn had learned to loathe Ailiss O’Kung, he knew this proposition

to be untrue. Ailiss did not differ sharply from the few other section

leaders he had had a chance to observe, except that-unbappily for Jorn-she

was better than they were. Suddenly, he thought he had the answer.

“Jurg,” he said, “are you stand-by or throwaway?”

“Stand-by, naturally. I’m not going to let a job like this be a one-shot

proposition. You guys can have the heroics–.?’

And then his eyes narrowed. “Oh, ho,” he said. “Maybe I’ve been cutting my

throat all this time, eh? I suppose this is your second round on the Moon?”

“Yes, it is.”

“So you’re a brevet officer?”

“No, not now. I was cadet navigator, but I just finished lousing it, just

before I came down here. For all I know I may have had it for good-or at

least have to start again from the bottom.”

“Somehow I doubt it,” Jurg said, his voice turning ugly very gradually.

“All this time I’ve been trying to give you a hand, you’ve been standing

there with that klax-eating grin on your face, congratulating yourself that

crewmen rank stand-bys regardless of stripes. Big-hearted Westerl Well,

enjoy it while you can, Birn, because I’ll tell you something I don*t think

you know-since you let a woman interpret the rules for you; Throwaways doet

rank stand-bys until they’re actually on the crew. It doesn’t go for

recruits like you and me.”

“I never thought it did,” Jorn said stiffly.

“III bet you didn’t. But just in case you did-when

48 fames Blish

we get back from the Moon, I’m going to demonstrate the principle. Then

we’ll see how long that smirk of yours lasts.”

I sort of doubt,” Jorn said, remembering the month after his own first

lunar assignment, “that you’ll find the time. But you’re welcome to try.”

“Birnl” Ailiss OKung’s voice came stingingly through the ward room

annunciator. “On the bridge-on the doublel”

Jorn took off without bothering to make any manners. His last glimpse of

Jurg Westees face was not reassuring.

Turnover bad already been completed by the time he swam his way back into

the control cabin, but the atmosphere there was anything but the usual one

of cautious relaxation preceding a low-gravity landing. On the monitoring

screen from back home was the face of Pol Kamblin, The Project’s senior

astronomer, whom Jorn had come to know slightly since astrogation had come

to be his own principal cross. He was at a loss to account for such high

level supervision of Ailiss, who was more than competent to handle much

trickier landings than this; yet Kamblin’s face looked frighteningly stern.

“Computers,” Ailiss said briefly, without looking away from the ranked data

board before her. “I want a conversion to a cisIunar ellipse with an

intersect at Salt Flats-as close as possible to one hundred per cent on

momentum. And we’d better have landing fuel left, or I swear I’ll have your

hide in the Hereafter.”

“But there isn’t enough—:”

“There’s got to be,” KambIin said quietly from the screen. “You’ve got

forty-eight seconds to pick your orbit. Better move.”

And all the Stars a Stage 49

jorn moved, without wasting another second in wondering if this might

possibly be another test-with the lives of everyone aboard dependent on his

skilL The dilemma at bottom was simple: computers are hundreds of times

faster at calculation than human brains are, but they are also idiots; they

have to be programmed by a human brain, or they will say nothing about any

problem but, “Duuh?”

He worked faster than he had ever dreamed be could–even as recently as

half an hour ago. When the answer came through he had no idea whether it

was right or wrong, nor was there any time left in which to find out. He

fed the figures to Ailiss; the rockets fired briefly; and then the ship was

beginning its long slanting fall around behind the Moon.

The mountains slid beneath them like thousands of saw-toothed fangs. Only

after the ship crossed the terminator, and the moonscape was plunged into

darkness, did jorn think to recheck his figures. They seemed to be right.

They had to be. There was not a drop of reaction mass available for


“I check you,” Ailiss said suddenly. “That’s the way ft’s always supposed

to go, Mister-flat out with an speed and correct the first time.”

jorn said nothing, which was what was expected of him. He was reassured, a

little, but the margin was still going to be too narrow for comfort.

“I check you also,” said Kamblin’s voice. “Provided you don’t run into a

storm on the way down. I’ll call meteorology and report back.” The screen

went blank.

“Damn,” Ailiss said. “I was going to ask him why they loused up my


“He didn’t give any hint at all?” jorn said, emboldened by this sudden

outburst of confidence.

50 James Blish

“Not much. The Director has called a joint meeting of staff and crew, for

right now, or maybe ten minutes sooner.”

“And you’ve no idea why he might do that?”

“The only reason that occurs to me,” Ailiss said grimly, “is that the funds

have been cut off-and The Project is cancelled. Stand by, here comes

Kamblin with the weather.”

Even the Director’s big office could not have contained a joint meeting of

staff and crew, if by “crew” was meant all trainees, both stand-by and

throwaway; Ertak had to settle for the brevet ranks alone. Nor could he

have his meeting “right now or ten minutes sooner,” for a number of the

people he needed had been long distances away at the time the call went out

–some of them farther than Ailiss.

Nevertheless, when the meeting assembled, twentyfive rumor-filled hours

after Ailiss’ and Jorn’s last-teacup-of-propellant landing, it was sizable

enough. Most of the people there Jorn had never seen before, or seen only

briefly without knowing who they were. Besides Ertak and his four personal

staffers, there were Ailiss, Dr. Chase-Huebner, Kamblin, and &U the

surviving members of Jorn’s class and their section leaders. (This,

however, did not include Jurg Wester; there were no stand-by trainees of

any rank present) The staff members who would command the stand-by crew

were, however, there in force. Of them, Jorn recognized only Toni Cook, the

stand-by captain. The red room was decidedly crowded.

“Thank you for your promptness-in some cases the cause of considerable

personal danger to yourselves,” Ertak said, in his light wintry voice. “I

would not have asked you to take the risks had we not been confronted with

a crisis of the very first order-in

And all the Stars a Stage 51

fact, of a unique order. I am not very well equipped to explain that and I

am going to give the job to Dr. Kamblin in a moment. First, however, there’s

one other thing on my mind.”

He swung his head toward Ailiss.

Lieutenant O’Kung, we are going to have to discard your new nomenclature

for the crews. It turns out that in the four months we have been using it,

we have done ourselves considerable damage.”

“In what way?” Ailiss said coldly.

“It has seriously deteriorated the quality of the men we’ve been recruiting

as stand-bys. While I was waiting for you all to get here, I had some

samples taken among the stand-bys available to me here at the base. The

sampling shows that fully a third of the standby recruits we now have think

of the training, bard though it is, as essentially a make-work kind of

labor camp. If those men were suddenly asked to go on the actual mission,

they’d panic.”

I don’t think so,” Ailiss said. “I pre-tested their attitudes in that area,

naturally, Director.”

“Did you throw them the proposition itself, as an immediate reality?”

“No,” Ailiss said. “There were a good many obvious reasons why it wasn’t


“Maybe it wasn’t then. It’s advisable now. I threw them the question-and

they break like paperboard spoons.”

Ailiss was silent for what seemed like many minutes, though in actuality

she made a quick recovery. “Then, granted that the nomenclature should be

changedand that we’ll have to jettison those men. But what moved you to

such an extreme test in the first place, Director?”

Again that peculiar writhing shrug, which seemed to involve the Director’s

whole upper torso. If it still

52 James Blish

aroused the same revulsion in Ailiss, her expression this time didnot betray


“The fact,” Ertak said grimly, “that we are going to need to use both

crews-at a minimum. Time we got down to business. Dr. Kamblin, please take

the floor.”

“Certainly,” Kamblin said. He stood, quite unruffled. He was really quite

a big man compared to Ertak, but he was older, and there did not seem to be

much drive to him. Despite his eminence in his field, many decades of

subjection to women had made him non-committal about anything that mattered

to him, a man determined only to avoid becoming involved. “The situation,

as briefly as possible, is this:

“As you~re all too well aware, the solar pulsation cycles have been getting

increasingly out of phase in the last century or so, and the solar constant

has risen by as much as a thousandth of a percentage point. Thus far, these

things haven’t much more than inconvenienced us. For example, they’ve given

us hotter summers than we like; and they’ve made weather control

increasingly complex, sometimes even um-nanageable.

“Nevertheless, we-the astrophysicists and other scientists, I mean-were

interested in finding out the why of the changes. At first it was very

difficult to unearth any clues. The Sun seemed much the same as ever,

consisting mostly of hydrogen, with circulating traces of magnesium,

oxygen, aluminum, silicon, phosphorous, sulfur, chlorine, argon and

potassium-all, of course, in highly ionized states, and in traces only,

since most of these elements are at the core of the star, invisible to our

spectroscopes. (Forgive me the catalogue; I assure you Ws necessary for

proper understanding of what follows.)

“Nor did the solar constant at first provide us with any clues. The very

slight increase corresponded to

And all the Stars a Stage 53

no infra-stellar process that we could account for. As for the other

findings, I’ll summarize by saying that they were all quite consistent with

a star of our Sun~s age and mass.

“It was only when we applied the increase in thd solar constant to the core

of the Sun that we found what was happening.

“In brief, the heart of our Sun has now become sufficiently dense so that

the temperature there has passed 2,000 million degrees, in a hell of

stripped and mangled nuclei and intense gamma radiation such as no finite

mind could hope to imagine. At this temperature, the familiar metallic

trace elements are beginning to undergo fushion. We have already picked up

the first faint shadow of a titanium line. Soon we shall be seeing

vanadium; and after that, with increasing rapidity, chromium, manganese,

iron, cobalt, nickel and zinc. The rest of this history, alas, we know all

too well.

‘We have seen it before.~

This time the silence was actually long, and screaming with shock and

tension. jorn bad no need to ask any questions. Though he had not

understood a tithe of the technicalities of Kamblin’s explanation, the as-

tronomer’s final remark could have reference to nothing else but the Great


The Sun was going to go, the same way.

After a while, Kamblin went on, almost in a whisper. “We were fortunate in

several ways, as a planet. For one, consider the great distance of our

orbit from the Sun; since you’ve been studying other nearby systems lately,

youll have some appreciation of bow unusually long our One Astronomical

Unit is. Secondly, life apparently evolved here very late, after our

Sun,had gone through most of its swelling phase-a

54 lames Blish

process which takes about a thousand million years for a star the size of

ours. But it is just as bad, I’m afraid, to arrive at the end of this

process as it would have been to have suffered its growing pains.”

“How much longer will it last?” one of the section chiefs asked.

“Not very long. The core temperature will have to reach 5,000 million

degrees before the explosion takes place, and that may take a good fifty


“Fifty yearsl” Ailiss said raggedly. “Dr. Kamblin, that’s not-”

“I know,” Kamblin said gently. “It seems a stunningly short term for an

astronomical process; but bear in mind, Ailiss, that all such processes are

exponential, and that this one has been going on for a thousand million

years already. By now it is proceeding very rapidly, more so every minute.

“And I am very much afraid that in actuality we have much less time even

than that. I won’t afflict you with the thermodynamic and geometrical

arguments involved, but simply remind you that the solar constant, too, is

going to continue to rise. By the time it has risen just five per cent,

this plant will be uninhabitable. It will still be here for a while, but

therell be no life on it.”

“How long?” Ailiss repeated.

“Nine years,” Kamblin said. “It will be possible to work during the first

five of those, perhaps during the sixth. Then we will begin dying … and

at the end of the ninth year, everything will be dead … even the


“Work? What do you mean, work?” Jorn said almost angrily, finding his voice

at last. “Work at what? Obviously there’s nothing we can do. This is the

end, for all of us.”

-The end only for most of us,” a musical male voice

And all the Stars a Stage 55

said from the back of the room. Everyone turned except Kamblin, Ertak and

his staff, who of course were facing in that direction already; none of them

seemed to be in the least surprised by the interruption. From the rest of

the gathering, however, there arose a gasp of stunned confusion.

Even for those barely possible few who did not recognize the man himself,

the ceremonial blue and gold robes told the tale: he was the World Consort.

His presence could only mean that whatever he had to say was the

contribution of the Matriarch herself.

“I an here essentially to answer the young man’s question,” he said. “There

is work that we can dowork for a whole people, for a whole world. One

Ertak-drive ship is no longer enough; we want hundreds ven thousands if

that is possible. We are transforming The Project into a mass crash program

for the survival of the race. We are going to build, man and launch a


Nobody spoke. There was no comment anyone could have made which would not

have been ridiculously inadequate to the grandeur of the goal.

At long last Ertak cleared his throat and looked around the red room as if

seeking waverers. He found none.

“All right, Lieutenant Ailiss O’Kung,” be said, “start weeding.”

It was necessary, of course, but it would have been far better for

everyone, now and later, if the necessity had not arisen at all. That

apparently had been Ailiss O’Kung’s fault-but she had made her recommenda-

tion in good faith, and had to be allowed one mistake; if you shot everyone

for the first such, you would never have a next generation. Besides, the

mistake was Ertak’s as well-after all, he had allowed himself to

56 fames Blish

be persuaded, and had turned the recommendation into practice.

Jurg Wester was weeded.

He sought Jorn out at the anteroom of the armorer’s shop, where Jorn was

worriedly awaiting a prognosis on his spacesuit’s homing compass, on Jurg’s

last day at the base. Jorn would far rather have avoided the confrontation,

both for obvious reasons and because his training had so intensified that

he had no spare minutes worth mentioning. But in a way be too was

responsible for Jung’s having enlisted in the first place, so he listened


“I just want you to know,” Jurg said in an even voice, “that this outfit

dosen’t fool me for a minute, no matter how well they manage to bamboozle

you. Do you think I don’t know what the news is, already? I saw to it that

I had a friend at the meeting, you can take that from me. I know about the

nova, and I know about the fleet.”

“All right, why not?” Jorn said. “There’s always a grapevine, especially on

a thing this size. I don’t see what harm it does. Everyone in the world

will know in another week, anyhow.”

“They’ll know what they’ll be told, which will be half lies,” Jurg said.

“Ertak won’t mention that he busted out most of his best men to begin with,

will he? He knows that he’d never be able to call those boys incompetent

and make it stick-not on me, and not on most of the others he’s booting

into the beltways. But It won’t do any good for them to clam up about it,

because I know the story already, and I’ll see to it that it spreads.”

“What story?” Jorn said, confused. “Why do you care what I think, anyhow?”

“Because I think you might still be salvageable, once you get the

superiority klax pounded out of your head.

And all the Stars a Stage 57

They fired me and the rest of the boys out of The Project because they’re

going to pack their survival fleet with women. What else? It was another

matter when a star-trip looked like pure, expensive, ‘disin-

terested’research. Then, men were plenty good enough to throw away on it-the

usual suicide fodder. But now it’s different, isn’t it-now that only the

people on those ships are likely to live more than five or six yearsf”

“That makes no sense,” Jorn said. “They won’t perpetuate the race very well

if they concentrate on one sex.”

“Oh, they’ll carry a few studs along-nice complaisant types.” Jurg did not

specify whom he meant, but he hardly had to. “At least that’s obviously

what they’re planning. Well, I may upset their pushcart for them before

they’re done. I didn’t go along with their Project for a ride to the stars,

in the first place.”

“I remember your telling me you didn’t. But Great Ghost, Jurg, if you

didn’t want to go, they why are you making such a fuss about it now?”

“Because now I want to go, bero. And I’m going to go. I haven’t made up my

mind whether or not to take you along. Think about that a while. The boys

and I have a lot of very valuable military training under our jackets right

now, thanks to The Projectand The Project is turning us loose with it. ItT

be no trouble to pass most of that training on, to as many cadres as we

have men for noncoms. We even have a few little items of equipment we’re

taking with usand it won’t do you any good to blab to old wormy Ertak about

that, because we’ve got them taken down and distributed among us in a way

none of his female inspectors and other trained animals could detect in a

million years. We had a long head start on this

58 fames Blish

before The Project, by the way. Then it was a men’s liberation movement. And

it still is.

“By the time you start loading your ships, the government that built them

won’t be in existence. The next one will be a government of men. Men, not

studs. Think it over, Birn. There’s still time for you-but not much.”

He turned, shouldered his pack, and took one step away. Jorn made a

two-miscrosecond confession of complete wrong-headedness to his own soul,

and sent Jurg the rest of the way out the door with a wholehearted,

near-paralyzing full field kick.

It was 100% the wrong thing to do, and it was deeply satisfying.

What Jurg’s response might have been, after he recovered enough to realize

what bad happened, was a question never solved. The two guards outside

picked him up, dusted him off, and led him toward the gate with a

gentleness which was in fact only an optical illusion. Soon he was out of


There was a tsk of disapproval behind Jorn. It was the armorer, a motherly

doe sergeant of about fifty whose heart was wrung by the slightest

malfunctioning of any device, particularly if the device was supposed to be

lethal. She was carrying Jorn’s homing compass, in an advanced state of


“Some of those stand-bys had such big feet,” she said. “It’s just as well

not to have them stumbling around inside a starship. They might break

something . . . As for this compass, it’s gone. I’ll issue you a new one.

It’s a shame there isn’t time to slip it into your friend’s pack, along

with the other tinkertoys.”

Jorn grinned his relief. “Then you heard what be said.”

“I hear everything that goes on in my own shop,”

And all the Stars a Stage 59 she said. “Once I step out the

door, I’m deaf as a post.”

“Well . . . don’t you think something ought to he done? I mean, like

alerting the inspectors, so their packs can be pulled apart as they go out

the door?’

“They don7t have anything worth stealing, my dear,” the sergeant said. “My

goodness, you don’t think I’d let anybody leave my base carrying anything

dangerous, do you? After all, they might hurt somebody. just sign here, and

here, and I’ll issue you your compass, that’s a good boy.”

Jorn signed and the sergeant disappeared back into her shop. He felt

considerably better.

All the same, it was perfectly true that the survival ships’ passengers-as

well as their crews-were going to be women, by a vast majority. After all,

that was only a matter of simple biology: one man could start an almost

unlimited number of children; but one woman, only a few at a time.

Nevertheless, it rankled.


Being young, jorn was not immediately able to rid himself of his notion-no,

it was more than a notion, it was a fact of his brief experience-that five

years was a long, long time in the future. He was astonished to see how

rapidly Ertak and his staff forced themselves to make huge decisions, which

ordinarily should have been weighed for several months at the very least.

Now four or five of these might be made on a single typical day.

For a sufficient example, take ship design. The Project’s ship on the ways,

the javelin, had been planned as a vessel which would return home well

within the lifetime of its original crew. Now it had to be thought of,

instead, as a colony-in-flight, able to shelter many generations if

necessary. It was of course perfectly true that there were three other

solar systems near enough to home to have been detected by the satellite

observatories; also true that this implied, with a statistical

trustworthiness vanishingly close to unity, that planets were a part of the

normal life history of any star; and


And all the Stars a Stage 61

that these facts logically implied the existence of thousands of home-like,

hospitable planets within the Javelin’s theoretical range.

“But all three of those systems are effectively binaries,” Kamblin

explained in one of his regular orientation lectures to the crew. “That is,

the ‘planet’ we have discovered going around each of those three stars is

a gas supergiant so huge that ies almost hot enough to shine by its own

light … what we call a ‘gray ghost,’ to big to be a planet and yet not

quite large enough to be a dwarf star either. It’s very unlikely that

either of the two primaries in such a system will have habitable

planets-though of course one ship or another will be able to pass close

enough to each system to check that. No, gentlemen, we are all going to

have to sweep a considerable volume of space. . . and be much attended by


But spaceships which will also be colonies are not easily designed from

nothing; and an intersellar ship which was specifically designed not to be

a colony cannot speedily be torn down and changed over. When presented with

the time-budget for such an operation, Ertak decided almost instantly

against it. The lavelin was ordered to be modified in as many small ways as

possible, but she was not to be rebuilt, nor was she to be nibbled at

drastically enough to risk weakening her present structure. This made

sense, but jorn was not prepared for the corollary decision: that all the

lavelin~s sister ships were to be built to the same design and with only

such minor modifications as the lavelin herself could safely withstand.

This decision too was eminently reasonable, but not to a man to whom five

years seemed like a long time.

And as with the ships, so with the world. This decision was not Ertak’s to

make, but since the principles

62 James Blish

were the same, so was the outcome. The whole world was not converted

overnight, or at any other time, to the production of intersellar ships, as

jorn had fuzzily imagined the World Consort to have implied. Doom or no

doom, the fact remained that the original favelin at completion would have

cost half a billion credits, plus four years in construction time. Her

sister ships would cost slightly less than that, but not much-mass

production is an almost meaningless term for a structure like a bridge or a

skyscraper or a ship, the savings involved running narrowly between two and

four per cent per structure.

jorn had of course supposed that mere financial cost-and in that word

“mere” there resounded hollowly a huge hole in his education-would go by

the board in so ultimate an emergency. Like all the poor, money to him was

an abstraction, a frivolity, a curse; as a graduate engineer he knew all

about oil, but nobody had bothered to tell him money is even more necessary

and valuable. Skyscrapers, battleships, satellite stations or survival

fleets all require a high-energy economy, which means that almost all the

goods and services in the world-and hence almost all of the money-must

continue to be devoted to keeping that economy at the highest possible

leveL The farmer may not leap from her combineand take up a hammer on the

nearest incomplete intersellar ship; the submarine freighter engineer may

not abandon the engines which are propelling titanium ore or sponge

platinum from one continent to another; the baker may not cease to make

bread; the banker may not take her hands away from the guidance of credit,

the raw material of political unity and the only enduring testimonial to

man’s confidence in man; even the newscaster may not cease from telling all

the rest, who in fact do not know how to hold a hammer and cannot feel or

see the escape

And all the Stars a Stage 63

fleet growing, that grow it does, and any job weH done is an investment in

The Project.

All this takes money; nothing else will serve.

“Of course we’re trading for the moment on the fact that most of the people

don~t really believe a word of it,” Ertak remarked. “They’re willing to go

along because the government’s buttered on a little inflation; that!s how

you ease civilians into any war. But that won’t last long enough. By the

end of the next year the bombs will start falling, and then they’ll want to

run the war themselves, for their own personal protection. That’s when the

trouble begins.”

“I don’t see the analogy,” Jorn confessed.

“I mean that by that time they’ll be beginning to feel the heat-all of

them, not just the neurotics who think they can feel it now. It’ll occur to

them that the Sun really is going to explode. Then they’ll begin to wonder

what they’re really working for: in other words, whether or not what

they’re doing is going to get them an entrance ticket to one of our ships.

And the moment we have to start paying them in hope instead of in credits,

well be in trouble–and there won~t be a ship in the fleet that’s much

beyond half done at that point, except of course the javelin.”

“But we are going to be carrying pasengers,” Jorn said hesitantly. “Lots of


“My dear Jorul Never mind, Ailiss O’Kung says you may be a great navigator

… Of course we’ll be carrying passengers-roughly a hundred for every

crewman on the javelin, and even more on the others. But how many people

does that come to? We won’t know until we see how many ships we manage to

build before we have to leave, but I’ll tell you this: under the best

possible circumstances, the total population of the fleet will be less than

the differential birthrate of

64 James Blish

this planet for one single day. Probably a good deal less.”

“Still, Director, we won’t be taking the old, or the handicapped or . . .

certainly not the newborn . . .”

“Ah,” Ertak said with a frozen smile. “That makes it look much easier. But

let’s do a little simple multiplication, by tens. The Javelin will be able

to carry about twenty-five hundred people. If the fleet consists of a

hundred such ships-which would astonish me

then it will leave carrying a quarter of a million. Correct?”

Jorn began to feel sick. The Director saw it, obviously, but he continued

his explanation without mercy.

“Now let’s suppose that you’ve managed to disqualify tweny-five million

people, on sure sound principles. This leaves you with 2,475,000,000

eligible candidates from which to pick 250,000. About one from every ten

million. Would you like the job?”

“No,” Jorn said. “Great Ghost, no.”

“I don’t blame you,” Ertak sjid. “In fact nobody wants it. But all the

same, my deii Jorn, somebody is going to have to take it.”

Ertak did not take it, nor did anyone else who was known to Jorn, even

marginally. Perhaps the Matriarch herself did; if so, it was never written

against her name. Nor against anyone else’s.

The slashing, ruthless style of it might once have been Ertak’s signature,

but this time all such decadeponderable decisions were being made in his

style, overnight, on every level. And possibly only the Matriarch could

have killed off so much of the world on principle, long before the moral

agonies of even so ruthless a man as Ertak could have been much past


And all the Stars a Stage 6.5

Item: No marginal farmers.

Item: No piece-workers.

Item: No administrators-whtther private, government or technical; that was

what the crew was for.

Item: No drones.

Item: No infertiles; no disabled; no one over 30, except on the crews; no

one under 17; no one with a family history of cancer, insanity, epilepsy,

mycobacterial infection, opposition to the Matriarchy, or about two hundred

other genetic or possibly genetic defects; no one with a personal history

of (nearly five thousand) medical conditions; no one convicted of a major


Item: No one who had left a job without cause within three years before the

launching. (The “without cause” clause was window-dressing; the government

had no intention of making any check on causes, let alone entertaining any


Item: No parasitic skills, such as brokerage or advertising.

Item: No doctors, no engineers, no mathematicians, no astronomers, no

unique skills in the sciences or in engineering not already included in the


… And much more. It was a chillingly inclusive list. Some of its

categories included the equivalents of whole nations. Very little of it was

ever made public; there were some parts of it which were never even written

down; and some others so coldly slaughterous that they could not even be

deduced by anyone not charged with the choices involved.

But it served, for a while. It cut the choices back especially during the

privileged period when the world did not know that they were being cut

back. At term, there were left only a single million possible choices for

each passenger.

And in the end, it became impossible to disguise

66 fames Blish

this piece of elementary arithmetic, or to protect the migration from it,

even with the greatest ill-will in the world.

“And besides,” Dr. Chase-Huebner said gently, “I am afraid that in all

conscience we must also leave the animals behind.”

Ertak leaned forward, splaying his elbows out on his immense desk. In this

position his shoulders loomed so large that it was hard to imagine how his

torso could support them; but his voice was oddly subdued, even defensive.

“It’s a little late for vegetarianism, isn’t it?” he said. “Or being kind

to animals? We’ve ruled people out by so many millions, we can hardly start

trying to trade cows for them.”

“Of course not,” Dr. Chase-Huebner agreed. “I wasn’t talking about meat

animals. We need them; vegetable proteins are incomplete. We’ll have to

carry cattle and carry them alive, for breeding. No; what I’m talking about

are worms, and the like.”

Ertak’s shoulders heaved slowly. “Go ahead,” he said. “But make it brief,


“I can be as brief as you like,” the biologist told him, compassionately.

“You knew it would come to this I’m sure, And you know that I dont mean to

mount a personal attack on you, Hari; give me that much credit.”

Ertak said, “It isn’t a question of credit, mother.” The obscenity escaped

into the air without either of them seeming to notice it. ‘You were always

a scientist, and so now am 1, or something like one. We face each other as

accomplished facts. Simply tell me what you mean; that’s sufficient.” He

shuddered again. “rm not unequipped to argue the point-but do me

And all the Stars a Stage 67

the favor of recognizing that I already know what it is..

“I”m not so sure Hari. You’ve been too busy with your drive fields and your

proving-stand tests and your training programs to think about worms, or

bacteria, or all the other insidious parasites-turnor cells included-that

you assigned to me. I’ve been thinking about all these things, as you asked

me to do. Now rm ready to report:

“The familiars will have to be left behind.”

“Justify,” the Director said. “Pound for pound—!’

‘~-~ a nonsense way of approaching the question. Those are not the

parameters that we need to fill. Better an ounce of canned fish than a

pound of familiar-they’re mostly water, and they’re inedible~ useless, even

unable to adapt: dead weight.”

“A woman would naturally say so.”

“Perhaps. But as I say, that isn’t even the argument.”

“No? T~en what is?”

“Contamination,” the woman said quietly.

“Now youre talking nonsense. Familiars contaminate nothing.”

“Nothing here, at home. But who knows what will contaminate a virgin world?

Do you know how huge a role epidemics have played in the history of man-

kind? The books tell us the name of the man who discovered a given

continent, but they don’t tell us the name of the man in his crew who

picked up that continent’s epidemic disease and brought it back home with

him-back to whole populations that had no immunity to it at all. And who

among us is going to take the responsibility of infecting a whole new

planet with the mycobacterium, the spirochete, the plague virus, the white

death-or the familiar, that unknown, unclassifiable thing we have made


68 lames Blish

selves? We can’t swear as yet that the creature is harmless even to usl

“You don’t answer. Well, then, I shall have to answer for you. I say:

Nobody. I am empowered to rule on such questions-and I so rule.”

After a while, he inclined his head, once. This seemed to be victory

enough, for now, considering how well she knew what it had cost him. She

smiled gently and made as if to take his hand; but he did not look up and

she thought better of it With a formal murmur of thanks, she turned and

left the group.

Finally, the Director’s chest and shoulders stirred again, and the movement

flowed down his right sleeve, puffing it out above his forearm, which was

resting on the desk. From the cuff there snouted out a flat, narrow head,

as pink and freckled as Ertak’s own hand, and almost as big. It stared at

the closed door by which the woman had left.

Then the still air of the red room was split with a scrannel hiss, like the

sudden escape of live steam.

jorn had no time to puzzle over the sudden inaccessibility of the Director;

everything abruptly was going too fast. The five years had in fact almost

gone by; and the fleet was, both by definition and a long accumulation of

miracles, well more than half done. By now, jorn was better equipped to

understand the awful logic of the simple theory of numbers involved, which

ruled that a fleet half finished today may tomorrow have to be dubbed,

arbitrarily, all the fleet that there is going to be.

“And we are very close to term now,” Dr. ChaseHuebner told a meeting in the

red room. These days she spoke for the Director; if anybody knew why,

nobody had been able to tell jorn. “We have thirty

And aU the Stars a Stage 69

ships. A thirty-first, the Haggard, is far enough along to be counted in.”

‘Vhat about the Assegai?’ someone asked.

‘Out of the question. It would take more than a year just talking about the

heat and the storms, eitherthough both are awful enough already. Public

panic is rising so rapidly now that we won’t be able to keep workers on the

Assegai another year without promising them all a berth on her; and as you

all know, our complement is filled. Believe me, I hate to leave that ship

behind-I hate to leave any ship behind, but particularly the Assegai with

her refinements. But we have to stop somewhere. It would be nice to wait

for the Boonwrang, too; on paper she!s far and away the trimmest ship of

her class on the ways-but at the moment sh&s nothing but a keel and a heap

of loose I-beams. This has got to be the end.”

“Why not call a halt on the Haggard, too?” Kamblin proposed. ‘Shell take

another five months, it seems.”

“Because,” Dr. Chase-Huebner said gently, “we have a crew and passengers

for the Haggard, and the Director dosen’t mean to leave anyone behind whom

we have promised can go.”

From what little Jorn knew of Ertak, this did not seem very like the

Director; but perhaps the doctor herself had somehow persuaded him to so

rule. But then, suddenly a thought so wild that sheer surprise prevented

him from censoring it came tumbling out of him in a rush.

“If so, how much government are we carrying?” he heard himself demanding,

in a voice at the same time cracking with alarm as he overheard his own

temerity. The Matriarch, I suppose; and how many others?”

Dr. Chase-Huebner stared at him. Her expression seemed to be one of

reproachful astonishment; but

70 fames Blish

all the same, for the very first time since he had known her, he found

himself afraid of her.

~’Nobody else,” she said, in a silken-soft voice. “Nobody at all, not even

the Matriarch. We have chosen and trained everyone honestly, and we are not

taking anyone just because she happens to be Somebody.”

That should have been that; and for a few seconds, as Jorn subsided into an

agony of embarrassment and self-recrimination, it was. But then Ailiss

OKung said precisely:

“Does that include the Director, Dr. Chase-Huebner?”

“Naturally,” the physician said, without even blinking. “We could hardly do

without him, after all.”

“I raise that question, if you please,” Ailiss said grimly. “I understand

he has suffered a breakdown. Other people have been weeded for less. Do you

still regard him as competent?”

“I do. That closes the question, I trust?”

“Not quite. Will you allow me to test him?”

The two women were now rigidly face to face in a furious locking of gazes

whose import was totally beyond Jorn’s understanding.

“For what purpose?”

“To confirm your assessment. Competence among crew members is my


“You have often been wrong,” Dr. Chase-Huebner said.

“Sometimes, often, never, I won’t argue. Nevertheless, I am the

psychologist responsible; you are not”

“Very well,” Dr. Chase-Huebner said with a gentle smile, folding her plump,

magnificently competent fingers together. “In that case, you are

discharged. Let us proceed.”

“At your peril, Doctor,” Afliss said, as though she were driving nails.

Jorn had never seen her looking

And all the Stars a Stage 71

so downright ugly before; her mouth was white, her cheekbones stood out like

flying buttresses, even her eyebrows seemed to have become blacker. “I think

I know why you’re now speaking for the Director, and why he has not suffered

any breakdown. And why you have not extended the ruling you tried to make to

include all the other … to include the rest of the crew. You’re afraid of

universal breakdown of … those elements … if you do promulgate that

ruling; so you are going to take the Director along instead.”

“I don’t find such vague talk worthy of comment.”

“You don’t find it in the least vague, Haryt. Do you think that the

Matriarch will stay home and die for her people once she knows the facts?

In the face of … in the face of such wholesale ballasting of–”

“Stop,- Dr. Chase-Huebner said, her face working. After a moment, she

managed to become a little more composed. “All right, Ailiss, you may be

right. I agree that you should talk to the Director; on some points,

obviously, you won’t be convinced you’re wrong until he tells you so. But

in the meantime, this discussion is explosive in the extreme; it had better

be closed.”

Insofar as Jorn could read Ailiss’ expression, she was about to agree to

this baffling, inconclusive proposal; but she never had the chance. In

mid-air in Ertak’s office a siren groaned briefly, urgently, and on Ertak’s

desk, just to the left and directly in front of Dr. Chase-Huebner, the

orange light went on.

It bad never been on before. It would never go on again. It meant, very

simply, that Dr. Cbase-Huebner -and Director Ertak?-had already waited too

long, and that even the Haggard would now never be finished.

The Sun, baleful though it had become, was still decades away from its last

agony; but the cataclysm was upon them, all the same.


The truck was covered and there was hardly anything to be seen from it. Jorn

and fourteen other crew members of the Javelin clung to the hard benches and

craned their necks around each other, trying to peer out the back over the

tailgate; but at first the administration building blocked off the view, and

then the driver was careening across Salt Flats at a pace which made

visibility less important than just hanging on. It was maddening.

All the same, a general distant roar of human and machine sound, massive

and ugly, came rolling clearly over the snarling of the truck’s own engine.

If the sputtering of gas guns was a part of that clamor, it could not be

distinguished, at this distance, from the boundary fences; but there were

louder explosions too -explosive bullets, grenades, even an occasional


It was hard to believe that any sort of a mob could have gathered outside

that fence, in the middle of one of the most forbidding deserts in this

entire hemisphere of the world; but that was what the orange


And all the Stars a Stage 73

light had been triggered to foretell. And the fact that the mob was already

here and that the truck was already racing for the Javelin-could mean only

that it was huge, armed, and at least partially organized.

And it also meant, Jorn was fervently sure regardless of the evidence, that

somebody-a great many somebodies-had badly misjudged Jurg Wester, and the

likes of him.

The flickering night framed over the tailgate of the truck was streaked

briefly by the track of a rocket shell. The concussion from the tank-killer

hung fire long after the wake of the little missile had vanished, and its

residual image after it; and then, blam, there it came, from somewhere in

the middle distance. Obviously it hadn’t been aimed at the truck, which in

any event was showing no lights; but it left behind no doubt that the mob

was armed. Of course at this speed a tire blowout would kill Jorn and

everyone else almost as instantly-

The tires screamed and the truck, yawing and lurching, slammed down to a

dead stop, piling all fifteen of them up against the back wall of the cab.

Accompanying the yell of brakes and tires was the awful grinding, pounding

note of gears being stripped: the driver had shifted down into first in

order to stop shorter than the brakes could manage alone, trusting to the

creiVs field gear to protect them and her own skill to protect her.

They were still trying to unscramble themselves from their own swearing

black homologous knot when the tailgate clanged down. “Outl” a woman’s

voice shouted. “Hit that liftl Lock closes in seven minutesl Movel”

Jorn recognized the voice. It belonged to the armorer. Well, that explained

the drastic driving. She was waiting for them as they unscrambled and


74 fames Blish I

turf, carrying a hooded torch further hooded by her gauntlet, between two

fingers of which she allowed only a razor-edge of red light to shear at the

ground. Even in the dim monochrome, however, Jorn could see that she was

bleeding a black rill from one nostril.

For an instant thereafter he was totally confused. Then, against the

starlight, he picked out the colossal shaft of the Javelin, sweeping

motionlessly into the sky as though she would never end. Beside her, seem-

ingly clinging to one long dully-gleaming curve, was’ the delicate

scaffolding of the elevator, waiting to be extinguished like a flame at the

moment of take-off.

“That way,” the armorer growled, “that way.” She gestured along the sand

and salt with the razor-edge of the torch; but Jorn was already running. He

could hear others behind him. Far away, something-a bomb?-burst open with

a deep, heavy groan, and a minute temblor shook the desert under his

pounding, feet.

Then the aluminum deck of the lift car was ringing with the trampling of

boots as they charged aboard, shoving each other and grabbing for cables or

struts they could only guess were there. “…thirteen… fourteen … Now

by the Ghost … All right, get in, dammit, fifteen!” A whistle warbled

shrilly, almost in Jorn’s ear. The cab shuddered, and then, without any

pause, lurched skyward with a muscle-wrenching jolt.

After that, it did not geem to be going anywhere at all, despite the

piercing, unpredictable screams it sometimes uttered against its

guide-rails, and the jittering of the deck beneath their feet. Nevertheless

it was rising, and as it rose, Jorn could see more and more of the

outskirts of the base. Now they were seething with light and smoke, all

along the perimeter. Tracers criss-crossed the hot night air in all

directions. The higher the car inched, the more likely it seemed

And all the Stars a Stage 75

to Jorn that everyone on it would be riddled before they would be able to

reach the faraway airlock of the Javelin.

Then, ages later, they were high enough to begin to see the general shape

of the attack. It was huge. Beyond the immediate, writhing lines of fire

along the fences, twinkling processions of vehicles were racing in nearly

straight lines over the desert toward Salt Flats. Near the horizon there

did indeed seem to be some bombs falling, and some of these small “nominal”

atomics. Evidently the government still controlled the air-which was good

as far as it went, but the planes would be under strict orders to stay well

away from the ships, where the main part of the mob obviously was

concentrating, and hence the only place where a really comprehensive

explosion might be decisive.

The lift quivered and rose a little faster. It brought them all high enough

to test their handbolds: with a heavy buffeting of wind-though the wind

seemed to be just as hot as the air on the desert itself had been. There

would be no more cool winds on this planet, not at any altitude at which a

man could expect to breathe, not even on the mountains.

Another rocket shell went searing past in a high hazy arc. Jorn stopped

breathing for an instant. That one was close. Didn’t they realize that they

might hit the ship itself? For that matter, didn’t they know that they

couldn~t pack all of those thousands of people into the Javelin and her

sisters? Didn’t they know that they’d wreck her, just trying? Sure, there

were three other ships standing on Salt Flats, but-

But as he realized the futility of trying to think like a mob, his mind

repeated, “thousands of people,” and quailed. That mob was being held off

only by the stand-bys and there were very few of those any more,

76 fames Blish

certainly far from a full extra crew for each ship. They bad been weeded;

and judging by the rocket shells, many of the rejects were now howling on

the other side of the fence. Despite the stand-by training, and the supernal

lethality of their gear, the stand they were making was suicidal. They would

have to fall back, or-

But they did not fall back. Not this time.

They were broken open.

About two miles northwest of the administration building, the line of flame

sagged inward. Then it went dark along at least half a mile; the fence was

down. Outside, there was a flaming surge of movement toward the hole like

surf foaming around a whirlpool.

The cab came to a bouncing stop in the middle of the sky.

“All right, insidel” the armorer shouted. “Lock closes in one minutel Insid

huffle or dusti”

Had that whole crawling ascent been only six minutes long? But there was no

time for post-mortems. The sixteen of them were packed into the lock like

fish in a jar, and the outer door swung ponderously, unfeelingly shut on

the battle and on the whole outside world… for good.

As it sealed, a hairline semi-circle of light, intolerably brilliant after

the near-blac4mess of the field, began to widen on the other side of the

lock. Jorn was momentarily startled; it had not occurred to him that the

interior of the ship might be fully litalthough, since she had no ports,

there was no reason why she shouldn’t have been; and besides, her pas-

sengers had been living aboard her ever since she was finished. In the

first influx of light he was startled to find Ailiss OKung standing next to

him, white and sweating with strain.

And all the Stars a Stage 77

“Very good,” the armorer said, a little more quietly, but not much. “Posts,

ladies and gentlemen. And thank you.”

Proper enough, jorn thought deliriously, since the armorer was the only one

in the party who was not an officer. Still the speech had all the

irrationality of a dream.

Everything had been rehearsed over and over long before this. jorn headed

for the control barrel almost by instinct, Ailiss trotting by his side. In

the big blinking cavern he ran a fast tally of his navigation section and

found them there; he did not stop to count Ailiss~ crew, but he had a vague

feeling that she was at least one officer short.

Ertak was there, hunched in the command chair above them. That was his

right, since the Javelin was the flagship. But it was the first time that

jorn had seen him in five years; it increased the dream-like feeling.

The Director did not turn around. He did not even seem to hear what was

going on behind him. After a moment, however, he spoke into a chest

microphone, and all the desk screens came to life, including jorn’s own.

Once again he had a view of the scene outside.

It no longer really looked like a battle, but more like a carnival,

confusing, gay with light, without real meaning. Nevertheless, from this

height jorn was able to see that a miracle had happened around the breach

at the fence. Somehow, whoever had been generalling the defense had managed

to pinch off the inflow, clean up the stragglers, and order a retreat. The

irregular closed curve of fire, curiously amoeboid, was well inside the

fences everywhere, and drawing closer and closer to the ships; but it was

still unbroken.

Beside jorn’s right hand he heard a razzy muttering,

78 fames Bligh

and reached guiltily for his operations helmet. Inside it, Ertak’s voice was


.. and maintain routine identification signal cen. sus in a continuous

cycle. Field officers, continue to hold ground by the Haggard and the

Assegai; they both look finished and we want the rabble to assume that they

are. On Signal Red, flatten out toward the Assegai; on Signal Blue, let

them have her. Lifts are down on favelin and Quarrel; repeat, lifts down

on Javelin and Quarrel… Congratulations, Deep Station. To all hands: Deep

Station reports it has secured all five ships…. Census? Census, reportl

… Field officers, Signal Red, this is Signal Red, execute… To all

hands: Deep Station is launching … Census?… Field officers, supersede

previous orders. On blue signal, yield both Assegai and Boomerang and fall

back toward Javelin. Fall back toward Javelin, we will be last off…

Attention Quarrel, cycle airlock and begin countdown; we won’t need you for


The line of fire bulged inward toward the Javelin, and then toward the

incomplete ships. Then there was an even deeper bulge toward the Quarrel.

“Field officers, blue signal will be on count of zero. At the signal, yield

the field and board the Javelin’s lift. One minute allowed for boarding,

repeat one minute. Counting toward blue signal: five… four… three …

two … one … zero, Signal Bluel Signal Bluel”

The line swept inward on all sides-and then suddenly it disappeared

utterly. There was no longer even a part of it to be seen. Instead there

were only the torches and vehicle lights of the mob, pouring inward toward

the three ships they thought they had gained. In a barely perceptible

flickering of smallarms fire, what little there was left of the stand-by

And all the Stars a Stage 79

crew funnelled toward the lift shaft of the favelin, trying to disengage.

“Census, I have pips for twenty-one survivors and a load estimate of

eighteen on the lift. Conflrm, please…. All right, nineteen now. Time’s

up-. Lift crew, haul them…. Absolutely not. Quarrel will leave in six

minutes exactly. If we wait for three stragglers, all twenty-one will die.


A minute went by. The mob continued to concentrate around the bases of the

“captured” ships, like phosphorescent ants, until each of them seemed to be

standing in a spreading pool of light. The pool around the Boomerang,

however, quickly began to seep away toward the others; close up it was

self-evident that that ship was radically incomplete.

“To all hands: Deep Station has launched all five ships. We have garbled

reports from other stations indicating at least eighteen more either

secured or already launched. There are also still two stations holding

radio silence; we are hoping this means that their locations remain unknown

and they are undergoing no attack.”

Three minutes.

“Passenger census … Well, that’s what they get for sightseeing; we warned

them. Certainly it could be a lot worse…. Airlock crew, prepare to admit


Nobody could call them stand-bys after tonight.

Four minutes. There was turmoil now in the pools of light around the

Assegai and the Haggard. Little sparks of light were clambering slowly up

the scaffolding of their lift-shafts; obviously they had discovered that

the lifts themselves were inoperable.

Five minutes. The airlock was open now, gaping for the nineteen seared

heroes. The mob was beginning to ooze tentatively toward the Quarrel.

80 James Blish

“. . . seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. Cycle airlock. Field officers, welcome

aboard. Get that thing closed, you’ve got four seconds . ….


The Quarrel vanished. On Salt Flats the pools of light were still visible,

but they looked dimmer, and completely frozen: truck lights left on,

torches fallen from hands…. The concussion had probably killed many of

them. The rest would be likely to be still unconscious when the Javelin


“A clean take-off,” Ertak’s voice said calmly. ‘Ship’s officers, begin

countdown. We will follow in eight minutes.” He paused and seemed to check

some board bidden by his chest. Then he added, “To all bands:

congratulations. The Javelin is the last ship able to leave, and the last

of these still on the ground. Twenty-nine others are all already on their


Thirty ships, Jorn thought numbly. Thirty ships.

“Correction, we are thirty-one in all. We have a signal from the Kestrel.

She is damaged but off safely.”

There was a ragged cheer in the earphones. Jorn did not join in it. What

difference could one ship make? What difference would ten have made?

“Census … thank you. To all hands: we now have a final population check.

We are carrying seventyfive thousand people, give or take about a hundred.

We have escaped-and by that token, we know that we will survive. Take-off

in thirty seconds.”

We have escaped … we will survive. And yet… how many died when the

Quarrel vanished, and the lights were stilled on Salt Flats? How many more

would die to the departure of the Javelin? How many had been killed to keep

them out of the ships, A over the world?

We will survive. But who are we to survive?


Doubtless some such question was on many minds, but the first month of

flight afforded nobody any time for brooding, least of all jorn. Like all

the officers, he was standing two watches out of three, and hit his bunk so

exhausted that he frequently went to sleep while still in the midst of

removing his clothes.

The chores involved in part emerged from the favelin’s role as flagship of

the fleet, hence responsible for its overall direction. The time would come

when the expanding cloud of ships would be too tenuous to keep such an

arrangement practicable; but in the meantime, the fleet could not be

permitted to hurtle off in thirty-one random directions, toward obviously

unfruitful or even overlapping targets. Most of the burden of reducing this

chaos-a natural outcome of the sudden take-off-to some desirable order, or

rather, to a set of such orders, fell upon Kamblin and jorn; selecting the

final order and imposing it was of course Ertak’s function and duty.

For the most part, however, the burdens were simply a part of the

shaldng-down process; every ship


82 James Blish

in the fleet was having virtually the same experience. Boarding and take-off

had been disorderly at best, entirely contrary to plan at worst. Some ships

were seriously understaffed; some almost bulging with lastminute refugees.

Only the ten ships whose ground locations had remained unknown had exactly

the complement of passengers, stand-bys and crew that the plans had called

for. A number of the ships were damaged, some only slightly, some seriously.

In particular, the ship’s day did not begin without the question as to

whether or not the Kestrel was still on course. Almost a third of her was

useless, and into the remaining two thirds was packed an appalling press of

humanity-for she had been the only ship of the five at her base to get away

at all. Ertak had twice counselled her captain to turn back, each time to

be refused. jorn could hardly blame the man; between the probability of

death in space, and the absolute certainty of being pulled to pieces very

slowly after returning home, the choice was narrow but clear. Evidently

Ertak thought so too; at least, the Director did not take the risk of

turning his recommendation into a direct order.

Finally-and about this there was precisely nothing that could be done-there

was the ineluctable fact that the ships had not been designed to do what

they were now being asked to do. Coping with their deficiencies as arks was

an obviously impossible task, and yet one which had to be faced every day,

day after day, end without world. The Javelin, since she was the piptotype

of them all, was the worst ship in the fleet in this respect; but even the

most recent, the Peregrine, could boast of very few ameliorations of the

problem. jorn hated to think of what daily life aboard the Kestrel must be

like; luckily, perhaps, he had no time to.

And all the Stars a Stage 83

Yet even in the midst of all this feverish, desperate activity there was a

common emotion, brooding over everything, difficult to label yet so

palpable that jom could almost imagine himself breathing it in with the

air. People’s faces had no expression, as though they had withdrawn almost

wholly into themselves. Conversation between crew members was limited

almost entirely to duty matters and technicalities, even at mess.

The work load slackened significantly after the first week of the second

month, but there was no visible change in mood to go with it. If anything,

the silence became even more intense. In part, jorn was sure, each man and

woman was thinking of the tragedy at Salt Flats, and the single enormous

fact that all those had died so that these should live. They were the

elect, and jorn at least could not rid himself of the feeling that many of

them, surely including himself, owed their election to chance … or worse.

Though he had never understood the meaning of the Ertak affair, the very

presence of the Director constantly hinted at some still-uncauterized

corruption; and if corruption were there, where else might it not be found?

And elected for what? No one could say. The Javelin was outward bound for

an unknown destinatfon, on a journey of unknown length in both time and

space: a frail steel bubble which might be washed up on any shore… or

burst tracelessly, so far into the wastes that not even a fragment would

ever reach any beach, without even the dim solace of a sea-bottom grave to

sink to, but only nothing, nothing at all … For this they had given up

everything that had given their lives continuity and meaning up to now; and

even where, as with jorn, those lives had seemed unrewarding to the point

of meaninglessness already, there was something about being uprooted


84 fames Blish

that made even the stoniest of soils worth mourning. There was a song, a

very old one:

When I was a pup, I lived in a hut,

My father was a drunkard, my mother was a slut,

And oh, my love, how the rains came down,

We had not to eat, neither bread nor meat,

Not a rag for our sores, nor shoes for our feet,

And oh, my love, how the rains came dowt4

Take a fortune for your fee, ies no matter to me,

For last week I journeyed that hovel for to see,

And oh, my love, how the rains came down;

It was burnt to the ground; not a cinder to be found,

And I fell upon my knees, as I had a mortal wound,

And oh, my love, how the rains came down!

He had, he realized, never understood it before,

And yet behind them their sun still burned, only a point of light now but

still the only star in their sky with a magnitude greater than -2. As the

months went by and they gradually forgot the insane storms and the blasting

heat of their last year at home ‘ it seemed less and less credible that so

immemorial a friend and companion might explode. Everyone knew that the

explosion was supposed to be decades in the future; some few of them even

knew that there was doubt as to whether or not the ships could be far

enough away from it to be safe, even after all that time in which to flee

at even greater velocities. Yet there the Sun shone still, as always,

unchanged except to the photographic plates and diffraction gratings of

Kamblin and his assistants, who kept their own counsel.

And all the Stars a Stage 85

The reaction was inevitable. Within another two months, the unrelieved

gloom of the shakedown period was gradually transforming itself into its

opposite. It took the form of an almost childish interest and delight in

the total novelty of the new life, both in its abstract, scarcely

visualizable goals and in its intimate details. Some of the passengers, and

many of the officers and crew, even became interested enough to feel

disappointed that the Javelin would not, after an, pass anywhere near the

grave of the old nova, which had played so crucial a role in history. (The

ship was, in fact, going almost directly away from that unquietly dead

star. Ertak was following a Great Circle in the galactic plane, counter to

the direction of rotation of the lens as a whole, hoping to take at least

a little advantage of the contrary motion to increase the number of systems

the Javelin might encounter. Since the ship had shared that rotation on

take-off, it would be a long time before any such gain could begin to


Steadily the new mood grew stronger. If leaving home had been death, then

perhaps this was rebirth, with all its hopes of avoiding past mistakes.

Those on the bridge also had the diversion of the Grand Log. It had been

agreed long ago that every ship should keep a common fleet log, as well as

a log of its own; so that when some ships were destroyed or Iost-which

everyone knew to be inevitable, though it would not happen to their

ship-the unique records might not be lost with them. This entailed a great

deal of inter-ship cbatter-much more, in fact, than was strictly necessary:

everyone involved realized that this kind of fraternization was not going

to be possible for more than a few years, even with the Ertak communicator.

The globe of ships was growing too fast.

86 fames Blish

Almost nobody listened to any messages from home, though those, since they

came in by radio, would be cut off much more quickly~as soon as the Javelin

passed the speed of light, as she would by the end of her first year in

space. But the new mood was too fragile to test with the corrosions of

whatever was being broadcast at home, even with that large majority of

messages which were not intended for the fleet at all.

Kamblin, however, listened; he had to. Eventually, he was forced to ask

Ertak to call together the officers for a report.

“I won’t burden you with any specifies about content, since I’m pretty sure

you don’t want them,” he said. “But the changes in the Sun are going rather

faster than I had anticipated, and I couldn’t account for them by any solar

process; so I had to have recourse to the radio to see if they were real,

or just an artifact of the time-velocity relationship.”

‘And are they?” Ertak said, startled. “I certainly would have predicted

that they wouldn’t be.”

“But they are, Director. It’s lop-sided and I think I can show you why;

there is no accompanying mass effect, and having found that out from theory

in advance, you must have assumed that the contraction equation was

meaningless under the conditions of your drive-field. I made that

assumption too, but with the evidence now in hand, I can see where the

error hes.”

“What does it mean for us?” Ailiss asked.

“Right now, all it means is that the radio broadcasts from home are

beginning to sound a little tinny, despite the fact that they should sound

lower in pitch the faster we go away from the source,” Kamblin said. “But

it will mean a good deal more than that to us

And all the Stars a Stage 87

later. I’m Still uncertain of the exact figures, but it looks as though the

accumulated error will be about thirty per cent.”

Ertak nodded, but Ailiss said promptly, “Sorry, Im not reading you. Error

in what? Which parameters are you filling?”

“Real time and acceleration,” Kamblin said patiently. “Here, look at it

this way. I set the date of the explosion at about forty-five years after

take-off. That’s when it will happen, back home. But for us’ time is

gradually speeding up. For us, the explosion will happen about thirty-one

years after take-off.”

“Oh. Well, that still seems to be a fair distance in the future. And we’ll

be just as far away from it as we thought we’d be, if it’s only a

relativistic effect.”

“It isn’t only a relativistic effect,” Jorn said suddenly.

“Ies either that or it’s entirely meaninglessl”

“Easy, Ailiss, that isn’t what he means,” Kamblin said gently. “I don’t

think he’s talking about physics now. What is it, Jorn?”

“Well … It’s going to be bad for us. It means that the people home are

going to seem to have less time, too, from our point of view. I can’t do

contraction equations in my head or I could tell you how much less.”

“Don’t try, I know already,” Kamblin said. “The effect is small on this end

of the curve, this early. For us, it will seem that our planet will die

after we have been about three years in space instead of the predicted

four. And we’ve been out nearly half a year already.”

“And you’ve been listening to them?” Jorn whispered. ‘It must be an inferno

back there.”

‘It is wholly horrible,” Kamblin said gravely, “and it will get much worse.

That’s why I bring the matter up now. It could have waited, otherwise. But

in view

88 lames Blish

of this, it seems to me that the general cheerfulness on board ship lately

is not only unwarranted-it’s extremely dangerous.”

“It is,” Ertak rumbled. “It is. But there’s one thing about it that’s

absolutely certain: It won’t last.

“Give them a little time to reflect and the hopefulness will give way to

despair and then-well, mark my words, the cheerfulness won’t last.”



And of course it did not. As the year stretched out toward its end, bringing

closer the moment when nothing more could be heard from home thereafter,

more and more people began to vote in the wardrooms to hear whatever was

coming from there. Kamblin had suggested that access to those broadcasts be

confined to the bridge, but the Director overruled this, for reasons he did

not see fit to explain.

The messages all came through originally in a high, disquieting chittering

which had to be recorded and played back at well under its reception speed

to be intelligible at all. Even then, not very much that anyone could

comprehend came through. Entertainment broadcasting had long since died,

that was clear; now nothing was being transmitted but routing orders, pleas

for help, hard news in hard codes, and other matters of official business

whose purport could not be riddled. The tropics were gone, scorched to the

ground, and the temperate zones were afire in many places. Those who

remained alive huddled at the


90 fames Blish

poles, dying of heat prostration and starvation in about equal numbers,

under skies permanently black with smoke.

Incredibly, there was a war on between the two poles. Nobody could guess

what they had found to fight about. They no longer seemed to know them-


And yet, and yet, in some unguessable crypt of this blistered, blackened,

burning world, there was a sane man-

The signal was quite strong compared to the others, and directional.

Furthermore, it was slowed by just the necessary amount, so that it first

came through as a strange groaning noise, and had to be picked up direct

instead of on the tape. It said:

“Calling the Interstellar Expeditionary Project. Don’t try to reply, III

never hear you. If my figures are right, you’re about to cross over the

speed of light. May the Ghost bear you in His hands. If you find any

worlds, make a better job of them than we did with this one. Can’t say any

more but will set this to repeat–7

Then there was a heavy explosion, powerful even at this enormous distance;

and a woman’s voice, screaming:

“Thought you’d get away clean, did you? Thought we couldn’t find your

little spy’s den, eh? Somebody kill me that traitorl”

A crackle and hiss of shots; a groan; the laughter of several people, sex

not deten-ninable; retreating footsteps, somehow unsteady. And then,

another groan, and the slow, slow onset of terminal breathing.

He took a long time to die. Then the recording began again:

“Calling the Interstellar Expeditionary Project. Don’t try to reply, III

never hear you…”

And all the Stars a Stage 91

Somebody, surely, should have turned it off. Many left the ward-room at

their second hearing of the woman’s voice; many more after the man died a

second time. But there was still a little knot of listeners around the

public-address speaker when, eight repetitions later, the Javelin crossed

smoothly over the light barrier and the broadcast slid downward sickeningly

into eternal silence.

And with this, Jorn realized in a gray mist of horror, their flight had

actually begun.

If Ertak bad thought that the reaction might include some form of violence,

he did not get it. The shock was too great for that. The response was more

than just the old depression come back full force; for not only did the

broadcast bring home to the Javelin’s people the full horror of what was

happening back home, but it was known to be the last message the Javelin

could receive from there … until the Ultimate Message of the explosion

itself. Thus with the gloom there came back guilt, tearing at the liver

like a bird of prey.

Not that anyone could sensibly believe himself responsibIe for the heat and

the smoke and the war and the insanity. Nevertheless, the fact that those

on the Javelin’were no longer there to share these things brought with it

a sense of responsibility which reason could not shake off. It was the

feeling of having gotten away with something, and hence accompanied, as

always before, by the conviction that punishment could not be deferred

forever-and probably was imminent

This time, however, though it was much more intense, it did not last so

long; the distractions, their way smoothed by habit, took command more

rapidly. Neither the depression nor the guilt vanished entirely,

92 fames Blish

but it became possible more and more to ignore them. Time was going about

healing over the wound; there would of course be scars, but it was no longer

acutely painful, diminishing first to a chronic twinge, then gradually into

an ache, and from there into an unsensed emotional disability which was its

last and lasting residue.

In this they were helped by the Javelin’s steady acceleration, which had

already brought her well past twice the speed of light. It was no longer

possible even to see the Sun, except with complex instrumental systems

depending upon the Ertak Effect which were available only in the control

barrel. These consumed significant budgets of power, easy to provide from

the fusion generators but not at all easy to handle, and Ertak saw no

reason-nor did anyone else on the crew -to make such special glances

backward a part of the general transcasts to the ward-rooms. Mostly, nobody

needed them but Kamblin. They were not missed.

And again, coping with the exigencies of shipboard life was bound sooner or

later to take precedence over any abstract emotion, no matter how powerful;

it was immediate and minute-by-minute, the commonplace and tragic treachery

of daily living to grand sorrows and grand loves alike.

There were, for example, many more women among both passengers and crew

than had originally been planned. They had been packed on board, in the

plans as well as in fact, at what had been effectively the last minute-that

is to say, when the Interstellar Expeditionary Project had been converted

into a survival armada-for the same reason that the IEP had first planned

to include women only among the officers: because they were regarded as too

rare and valuable to risk suicide. Originally, it had been very clear, the

IEP was to have been like the usual inter-

And all the Stars a Stage 93

planetary probe in this respect: something that one threw away drones on.

Jurg Wester (and where was he now? a carbonized mark among many on, the

floor of the furnace that had been Salt Flats?) bad been right about that,

as about some other things.

Because of this change in plans and procedures, the women on board the

Javelin had far less privacy than did the men, despite every attempt at

rearranging the ship, simply because there were fewer facilities of all

kinds available for them. This drawback was in addition to the fact that

there was very little privacy available for either sex, or for both as a

unit. There were few corridors anywhere in the ship; they had been torn out

Cabins, where they existed at all, simply gave on other cabins, so that in

proceeding from one task to another one was constantly forced to happen

upon and bull through the most personal kinds of scenes. This was so

commonplace that even the habit of apologizing for it was dying out, and

the habit of seeking privacy, though much more stubborn, was dying away in

its wake. There was a theory current aboard ship that this kind of physical

openness-and it was not merely erotic, but included everything from

scratching to plumbing-was good; but it was equally easy to find partisans

of the opposite view. One aspect of it, however, was undeniable: it was

fatal to sexual possessiveness and jealousy. The customs of some five

centuries back, when love-making had been regarded as often a team sport

and almost always a spectator sport, were undergoing an obvious renaissance

on board the faveline (though the fact was not read into the Grand Log, nor

was it reported from any other ship in the fleet; as usual, the letter was

showing itself far more durable than the facts).

It was also gradually becoming evident, as the calendars ticked inexorably

on, that it was true that

94 fames Blish

males are more adept with machinery than females are, despite the vast

number of women in the past society who had made successes in engineering

and other mechanical trades. Even in the fabric of that society that

assumption had been built firmly, for it bad been standard, as Jorn himself

exemplifled, to give a surplus male an engineering education. The theory was

that if such a male were ever needed in a hurry, he would be most likely to

be needed for that sort of task–or, at the least, that that was the best

one could do toward training him to be proteanly useful. This had seemed to

be a workable arrangement in the relatively static matriarchy-though its

long-run practicality would now never be known, for the matriarchy had been

the first society of its kind in the history of the world, and it had been

young When it died-but that whole balance was now completely upset. Aboard

the Javelin the males were rising ineluctably into the ascendancy. They

were, first, suddenly in short supply to service the mechanical details of

ship life-and almost all the important details of ship life were mechanical

in the broadest sense of the word, ranging from apprentice ship’s

electrician to Ertak’s ability to handle complex mathematical abstractions

as though they had some bearing upon real life. (“A female mathematician is

historically as unlikely an object as a female composer,” Kamblin bad once

observed-privately-to Jorn. “There’ve been a few of each-but never a good


This was no longer a theory, but a fact of the situation in which they all

had to live, and upon which all their lives depended. Nevertheless many of

the women aboard the Javelin found themselves unable to adapt to it. Time

after time, in large matters as well as in small, they were betrayed into

revealing that they still

And all the Stars a Stage 95

thought of themselves as part of a power elite, definable simply by gender.

It was often annoying, sometimes infuriating, and once or twice had been

actively dangerous; yet in retrospect jorn found that he could not remain

indignant for long. It was hardly their fault. After all, they had been born

and raised in a society where they had been a power elite, as he had been

born and raised in one where he had been something not much better than

trash. That kind of deep, irrational conviction is notably difficult to

unlearn, and in fact is never unlearned entirely.

Nevertheless shipboard society, as a new society in itself, was showing

increasing signs of strain from this source. The passengers were the first

to feel it, since they had relatively less to do with their time (though

they were by no means idle-no one could be). The first sign was a sudden

surge of covert and then open promiscuity, followed by an equally sudden

outbreak of family realignments, the latter usually signalled in advance by

midnight scuffling and snarling and morning black eyes. At this stage the

strain was not so noticeable on the bridge and in the control barrel, but

it was there, and growing.

It grew steadily as time went by, daylessly, nightlessly, but without let

or surcease. In the five yearscould that be right? Yes, incredibly, it had

been that long-since the light barrier had been broken, not a ship in the

armada had made an even slightly promising planet-fall. There had been

false alarms, but even those were growing rarer, as the ships’ computers

learned by experience. The keeping of the Grand Log became a duty, and

then, finally, a positive cbore, there simply was no longer anything

interesting to report, except for scraps of astrophysical data which held

meaning only for Kamblin and his counterparts

96 fames Blish

elsewhere in the fleet. Otherwise, what each ship found to say was very much

like what all the others found to say. The entries became steadily shorter,

the attendance at the transceiver more and more perfuncm tory; often, now,

what was written down in the Log was not the full text of the message, and

sometimes the message was not entered at all.

“Birn, just what are you doing now?” Ailiss’ voice snapped down from the

RIF bridge. “Trying to figure out what thirty per cent of three is, again?”

“I was thinking,” Jorn said slowly.

‘Well, do it on sack time. I need those fleet angular momentum corrections


“They’ve been on your clipboard for the last twenty minutes.”

“Um. Oh. High time. Well, find something else to do. Something productive.”

Jorn suppressed a retort and bent to faking a job. She had caught him

during one of those brief periods –once rare, but they were becoming

commoner now -when be was ahead of schedule; but he was not going to let

the matter turn into another session of snapping and snarling over nothing

if he could help it. He had bad more than enough of those already.

Ailiss O’Kung was in fact tolerating the strains of the new society rather

more poorly, on the whole, than Jorn would have expected. Jorn found the

reaction thoroughly unpleasant. Perhaps the only compensation to be derived

from it from his point of view -and it was mainly a gain only for his

curiosity, though it did slightly increase his respect for Ailiss at a time

when he had lost almost all other traces of itwas that through these

quarrels he managed to learn something about her background. She had never

let a scrap of that kind of information slip out during the training

period, and thereafter there simply hadn7t

And all the Stars a Stage 97

been time, until now. What prompted her suddenly to volunteer what she had

so long withheld was unknown to Jorn, but it was his guess-and a good one,

he suspected on very little evidence-that she felt forced by her situation

into using it to bold her emotional “altitude,” not only over Jorn, but in

the whole hierarchy of the shipboard peck-order.

And she had been indeed highly placed back home: a scientific attach6 to a

member of the Matriarch’s cabinet, and the youngest person of either sex

ever to hold the post. She had surrendered it on her own initiative to join

The Project, which had had no such high place to offer her, though to be

sure it bad placed her as high as it could.

This was admirable, doubtless. But it was no longer of any moment: an empty

title in a discarded history, without bearing on the world of the lavelin.

That Ailiss referred to it at all now meant only that she had failed to

reconcile herself to the deprivation of power, and the reversal of status,

which she herself had engi” neered. In this, though perhaps she was an

extxeme case (or perhaps not), she was far from alone on board the ship;

the affliction was as general among the women as a low-grade contagion, and

it was ever present.

Their third major enemy, as Jorn was coming more and more to appreciate,

was time itself. The median age on board the javelin was slightly over

forty. This meant that there were a few babes-in-arms (though more were

arriving all the time) and a very few elderly people of both sexes, but

that most of the population clustered around middle-age or youngerso

closely, in fact, that the average age was a good six years under the

median. Life expectancy had stabilized back home, many decades before the

present debacle had even been suspected, at around a century


98 James Blish

for males and between 115 and 120 years for females; and though the hazards

of interstellar travel, both known and unknown, could be expected to cut

those figures somewhat, there was a general awareness that this kind of

communal, cooped-up, low-reward living, with all its sensory deprivations,

disorientations, boredoms, frustrations, offenses to the aesthetic sense,

and inescapable personal frictions might go on for many decades to come.

Indeed, in view of the lack of success of the entire armada thus far, it

might constitute all that was left of life, perhaps for generations to come,

perhaps-wbo could tell?-forever.

But they had bad the firmest of reminders that even this was better than

death: the fate of the Kestrel.

It had been assumed throughout the rest of the armada that that problem bad

settled itself. It bad not-, it remained exactly what it bad been before;

but the urgency had gone out of it. The packed masses aboard the Kestrel

had come to the only terms possible with the intolerable kind of life their

damaged ship forced them to lead. The Kestrel was still with the expanding

sphere of ships, a sort of stabilized slum without hope of relief or

rehabilitation … except by a planet-fall which the Kestrel would probably

be unable to handle.

Then, in a period of hardly more than three weeks, the inhabited part of

the Kestrel was gutted from end to end by pestilence.

Maddeningly, the disease was wholly familiar. It was nothing more than one

of the twenty-odd known forms of the white death. Yet none of the measures

that the Kestrel could take, nor any recommended by Dr. Chase-Huebner or

any other physician in the fleet, seemed even to slow it down by more than

a day. Familiar though it was, the micro-organism

And aN the Stars a Stage 99

responsible had’evidenfly undergone a drastic mutation in the only part of

its metabolism that counted: it was totally resistant to anti-bacterial

drugs. And since the Kestrel was now twenty-five light years away from her

nearest neighbor in the fleet, there was no help that could be offered her

except useless advice. The end was inevitable.

Suddenly the Grand Log was an interesting document again.

There was some survivors-nothing in biology ever happens 100 per cent, not

even death-who had every hope, according to Dr. Cbase-Huebner, of being im-

mune henceforth. But from the Kestrers preceding situation, where she had

had far more people aboard than she could keep alive-as the pestilence bad

belatedly but conclusively proven-the ship had been cut back to so small a

complement that they could not even help each other in their

convalescences, let alone operate the Kestrel herself. In addition, the

survivors were unselected. Surveying their losses, and particularly their

losses in terms of skills, the survivors set about shutting down most of

the rest of the ship. This was for personal survival only, and for the sake

of a few possible children in the future, for the Kestrel could never make

a planet-fall now. Grimly, the survivors set about making her instead into

a planet.

But they failed. The food went first. They still had a fusion engineer, who

promised them that she could make them anything they needed out of the

hydrogen sweepings of the interstellar gas. But by this she meant chemical

elements, which can indeed be made by simple, straightforward atomic

processes if only enough energy is available; and the Kestrel still had the

energy. Putting together chemical compounds like protein molecules,

however, is of an altogether higher

100 James Blish

order of complexity, and there was no one left aboard the Kestrel who knew

how to program the computers who had handled this task before. An attempt to

do it by the handbook poisoned half the pitiful remainder, including the

only man capable of servicing the shiVs one remaining electrical converter;

the fusion engineer had always thought simple electricity beneath her

notice. The temperature began to drop; the air gradually became foul; and

starvation followed after in the cold black eaves. The fusion engineer

locked herself in with her little sun, and spent her time synthesizing

torrents of undrinkable water. Sometimes she could be heard singing.

The prospect of having to listen to this process going to completion, and

entering it duly in the Grand Log, was almost too much for anyone in the

control barrel of the Javelin to bear, though it had its fans in the

ward-rooms; but they were spared this. Among those aboard the Kestrel whom

the plague had passed over, there was evidently still one brave woman …

or man.

The Kestrel ceased to exist. No one saw it go, but suddenly it was gone,

beacon, carrier wave and all.

Exactly what happened could never be known, but all the same there was

hardly any doubt about it. Someone had had the ultimate courage to blow up

the ship.

“But could so few people do it?” jorn asked, afterward.

“One person could do it,” Ertak said somberly. “That’s the penalty that

complexity pays. It takes thousands of people to keep an enterprise like

the javelin alive; but only one man can kill it … if he knows how.”

Jorn shuddered. “I wonder…”

And aLL the Stars a Stage 101

“Um. What!

I, I was wondering if Id have had the nerve. The Ghost award him, whoever

he was.”

“Yes,” Ertak said abstractedly, shifting his shoulders as though they were

a burden to him. “Or whoever she was. But there~s more to it than that,

Birn. Do you realize what a hole this leaves in the flight plan? I never

did think that the Kestrel would be able to bring off a landing if she

found anything promising; but there were three ships in her vicinity that

could have been diverted to any promising target she sighted, at least at

any time during the next ten years –one of them the Dart, which is in

near-perfect shape. But now thafs no longer possible. And yet the one

inhabitable planet that we’re all seeking might very well. be along that

radius of expansion from home. With the Kestrel gone, that planet will

never be discovered-not by our race, anyhow. That’s what giving me


jorn swallowed and excused himself. There were times when the Director

seemed to him to be utterly inhuman.

“What’s the matter, Birn?” Ailiss said from the RF bridge, as he resumed

his post. “Director dress you down?”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Mind your tonguel’ she said, turning quite white. ‘rve had about enough

insubordination from you. I could use a navigator who doesn’t have to count

on his fingers-and by the Ghost if I get any more hp 0 go recruit me one.”

“You give me a great big fat blue-green fuzzy frozen pain in my starboard

rump, ApprenticeAdmiral OKung,” jorn said, hunching forward over his desk

and glaring up at her. ‘My math is better than yours and always was, and

you know it. if you

102 fames Blish

can find a better navigator, go ahead-I’d rather rub brigbtwork than be the

kicking-boy for your twitches any longer.”

“One word more, and–”

“Down, girl. If you don’t like it here, go back where you came from, but

lay off me-beginning right now. I didn’t volunteer you out of your attacb6s

office. If I could, I’d volunteer you right back into it before you could

draw another breath. Especially since its a little bit on fire by now. But

lay off-or he down, I don’t care which.”

Ailiss’ distorted mouth was opening and closing rapidly, but not quite

completely, like a singing bird’s, but no sound came from it but a sort of

hoarse hiccup. This one, Jorn thought detachedly, is going to be a beauty

when she finally gets it out He didn’t care. He hadn’t enjoyed himself so

much since he had kicked Jurg Wester out of the armorer’s office; which had

been-when?-some time before the last glaciation, probably.

This was the end, that was for sure. From now on they would never be able

to work together again, not even by exchanging frigid monosyllables on the

job and otherwise ignoring each other’s existence. If they were even to try

that, it would inevitably lead to a technical fiasco, and thence, if they

persisted, to a catastrophe; each of them would be trying so hard to make

the other look incompetent, or to inflict even deeper hurts, that the job

would be perverted almost totally into a weapon. Better to give it up,

before innocent people got hurt … or the favelin went the way of the


All right, so be it. It was all unreal anyhow. Anything to get this

obsessed young woman off his back. He hoped he would like polishing


Ailiss opened her mouth and drew in her breath.

And all -the Stars a Stage 103

The control barrel rang. Then it rang again, and once more. As jorn and

Ailiss stared at each other in a fury of disbelief, the whole winking

cavern began to pulse steadily with the slow, clear strokes of a pair of

deep chimes.

Ailiss stood bolt upright, her eyes wide. So did jom.

“TO ALL HANDS,” Ertak’s voice boomed throughout the ship. “TO ALL HANDS. YELLOW WARNING ONE FOR




For a ship’s computer to pick out a possibly likely system and sound a

preliminary warning of this kind was not unique; it had happened twice

before in the fleet as a whole-though never to the Javelin-but both these

incidents had proven to be false alarms. All the same, since the event was

novel to the Javelin herself, it created an almost undiluted ecstasy of


Since Ertak bad issued his Yellow Warning One to all hands, the excitement

was not confined to the crew. Even before human observers were able to

examine in detail what the computer thought it had found, everyone on board

the Javelin was looking at his neighbor, thinking, Maybe, maybe we have reached

our unknown goal; maybe this is It.

After his first look at the tapes and at the star itself, however, Kamblin

was puzzled.

“It’s certainly an intensely luminous star,” he said, “as most stars

go-especially only three light years away from it. Its absolute luminosity

appears to be about sixty, and its surface temperature is upwards of


And all the Stars a Stage 105

15,000 degrees. That’s by no means as big a sun as the model the computers

are set to scan for.”

“I don’t see how they could have made a mistake,” Jom said, frowning. “They

shouldn’t have been fooled by so simple a thing as the comparative nearness

of the object.”

“Well, no,” Kamblin agreed. “They’re also supposed to search for planets,

and the tape says this star has at least one. We have to bear in mind that

very large brilliant stars, like our old one, are pretty rare, and they

aren’t necessarily the only type which might bear planets suitable for us.

Even back home, from the lunar observatory, it was possible to detect four

faint nearby stars, each of which had at least one planetlike companion; so

actually planets must be relatively common.

“In other words, if the computer has made a mistake,” Ailiss said, “we hope

it’s a happy accident.”

“You could put it like that.”

“We’ll close in,” Ertak decided. “But cautiously. Birn, I want a tangential

approach, arriving at right angles to a radius of the total system at a

distance of about a light year. Thereafter we’ll spiral inward, making sure

we don’t miss any planets on the way; if we do make a landing, I don’t want

anybody on the back of my neck that I’m unaware of. Ailiss, begin to scan

for patterned electromagnetic disturbances of any kind and keep at it until

further orders. If the computer thinks there might be an inhabitable planet

here, it may very well be inhabited as well … Dr. Kamblin, you have that

expression of mild indigestion again. Any comments?”

“Nothing serious. But at the rate this star is burning its hydrogen, it

can’t be much more than a thousand million years old. There’s a question in

my mind as

106 fames Blish

to whether any of its planets can be far enough along in their evolution to

support life in any form.”

“That will wait upon inspection. What else?”

“I think a light year is unnecessarily far out. A sun this small couldn’t

support a solar system much larger than half that diameter.”

“Quite so; thus we rule out starting inside a planetary orbit without being

aware of it. Proceed, Mr. Birn.”

By the time the javelin was within a light year of the blue-wbite sun, the

fever had percolated thoroughly through the crew and the stand-bys, and

thence down to the passengers. Jorn, however, was beginning to feel

familiar harbingers of letdown, which he suspected were shared by several

other officers. It had now become visible that the star did indeed have

planets-the computer estimated a total of ten. This was promising enough,

and yet at the same time vaguely disappointing. After all, the system they

had quitted had 116. All but two of those, or three counting the home

planet, bad been utterly hopeless from the view of human usefulness. To

find so much smaller a number of planets here seemed to cut the odds for

finding even one hospitable world below the point of credibility.

“Let’s not prejudge the case on so little evidence,” Ertak said abruptly to

no one in particular. “We win see what the actual situation is very

shortly. Ailiss, any detectable redundancy anywhere in the electromagnetic


“No, Director, just solar noise so far.”

“Well, keep scanning; thaes not significant at this distance. To all hands:

We are now preparing to enter this system. Yellow Warning Two is now in


There was the beginning of a muted stir throughout

And all the Stars a Stage 107

the Javeline, as battle gear and drop ships began to be readied. jom, going

for his own gear, wondered how Ertak had been so quick to detect the first

faint stirrings of defeatism among his officers; on most occasions he had

shown himself to be next to no psycliologist at all. Maybe Ailiss had done

it for him.

In any event, the die was cast. The Javelin was beginning her slow,

circuitous drop toward the bluewhite sun.

Excerpts from the Grand Log, as broadcast by the Javelin in the course of

exploration of System IEP #3:

‘The most distant planet of this system is at a distance of 6,720 million

miles from its primary, with an orbital period of 610 years. It is quite

dark, with some whitish streaks not parallel to its equator, its diameter

is 10,000 miles and it is accompanied by two small moons. One is 250,000

miles from its primary, with a period of 24 days and a diameter of 30

miles. The second, 5,000 miles out, has a period of four hours and a

diameter of three miles. It is presumed by Dr. Kamblin to be a captured

comet. No landings attempted.

“The next planet inward, at a distance of 2,500 million miles, has a period

of 420 years and a diameter of 33,000 miles. It is dark and moonless. No

landings attempted.

“The next, obviously the. first to be detected by the computer, is a gas

giant of 110,000 miles diameter, at a distance of 4,500 million miles from

the primary and with a period of 265 years, and close approach reveals &

common methane-ammonia-hydrogen pattern for worlds of this size. It is

thermally quite hot, though not self-luminous in the visible spectrum. It

has six large moons, the largest 4,000 miles in diam-

108 fames Blish

eter and with a deep but thin atmosphere, and 17 small ones ranging from 10

to 160 miles in diameter. No landings attempted on the moons as yet.

“Between this world and its nearest neighbor inward there is a wide gap

which has defied explanation and presumably is responsible for the computer

having described this nine-planet system as having 10 planets. The next

planet is 850 million miles from its sun, 40,000 miles in diameter and with

a period of 30.5 years. It is accompanied by seven small moons and one of

about 3,900 miles diameter. This large moon is 800,000 miles from its

planet. The planet itself presents a speckled appearance, as though it had

many high, snow-clad mountain chains, although this is obviously

impossible. No landings.

“The next world is a small high-albedo gas giant 450 million miles from its

primary, with a diameter of 15,000 miles and period of 12.25 years. It has

two small moons and exhibits the usual methane-ammoniahydrogen

characteristics. No landings.

“Inside the orbit of this world there is a highly unstable and not very

dense belt of meteoric and planetary matter with wide gaps and many members

which fail to conform to the orbital plane of the system as a whole. The

total amount would make up a planet about 3,000 miles in diameter, and the

belt probably represents such a planet, torn apart (or prevented from

forming) by the gravitational force of the biggest of the gas giants. It is

not so widespread as to represent a serious hazard to navigation.

“The most interesting objects in the system are twin planets, each 7,000

miles in diameter, of considerable density, and exhibiting extensive

(though not chemically identical) atmospheres. One is 90 million miles from

the primary and has a period of 285 days; the other is 67 million miles out

and has a period of 224

And all the Stars a Stage 109

days. The planet at 90 million miles is of especial interest and will be

reported on in detail; the other is too hot to support life except at the

poles, and even there only for half the year, as the planet has a pronounced

axial tilt.

“Finally, there is a very high albedo planet with a diameter of 4,100

miles, going around its primary in 81 days at a distance of 30 million

miles. It appears to have been belted into a smooth ball, and is surrounded

by a slight haze spectroscopically identified as composed of vaporized

metals, predominantly heavy radioactives. It is of remarkable density and

has a high eccentric orbit.”

There was no doubt about it now. The third world, even seen from just

outside its atmosphere, was wholly inhabitable. In contrast to the second

planet, the air showed no detectable carbon dioxide, and hence no

greenhouse effect would exist to run up the surface temperature.

Thermocouple studies showed that to be intolerably torrid all the same at

the equator, all year round-for the planet had no axial tilt, and hence no

seasons-but there were cool poles, and two “temperate” zones for which a

better adjective would be “balmy.” The spectroscope also showed the air to

be somewhat low in oxygen; but in view of the prevailing planet-wide,

eternal summer, this was not a real disadvantage. At least nobody on this

world would have to expend any energy just keeping warm.

In any event it appears to be this one or none,” Kamblin concluded. “Does

anybody want to enter a demurrer?”

“Well…” Jorn said hesitantly.

‘Yes, go ahead, Jorn.”

“I’ve been thinking, ies kind of enervating to live where ies warm-to-hot

all the time–and I think we’ve

110 fames Blish

all bad a full enough dose of hot weather over the last five years on our

own planet to last us a long time. What about the biggest satellite of the

giant planet? That planet radiates a lot of heat, enough so the satellite is

tolerably warm around the equator even at night. And this sun is plenty

bright enough to give it enough light to raise crops by–even though the

days might be pretty dim to our eyes.”

“Interesting,” Ertak said. “I’m against it but I can’t think why; it may be

only emotional. Dr. Kamblin?”

I have two objections,” Kamblin said. “To begin with, the reason why that

planet is hot is that it has a core of collapsed atoms, and it’s generating

a small amount of energy by the red giant or deuteriumhydrogen reaction.”

He got up and went to the blackboard, where he wrote:

-,D2 + 1111 -* ~Hel + gamma

“In fact it’s not really so much a planet as it Is 4 spoiled star, what we

call a ‘gray ghost.’ Note the last term in the expression; it means that on

any of those moons we’d be getting much more hard radia. tion than would be

good for us, especially genetically. The other reason is, that satellite

isn’t massive enough to hold its atmosphere long enough to be a permanent

home for a whole race. Even in a brief thousand million years, I estimate

that it’s lost about half of it.”

“We could always migrate to the third planet when it got too thin for us,”

Jorn said. “But of course I didn’t know about the radiation hazard; I

withdraw the suggestion.”

“Nevertheless, Mr. Bim, you have made an impor. tant point, even if

inadvertently,” Ertak said. ‘Vhere life can exist, life NN411 arise-the

forests below us now are proof enough of that-and a high radiation level

And all the Stars a Stage III

means a high mutation rate and high evolutionary pressure. We had better

keep a close eye on that satellite, and explore it the moment we’ve consoli-

dated the present world-explore it in force.”

“Hmm,” Kamblin said. “Very true; a disquieting thought.”

“Now: The next problem is to select a landing place. We will need one big

enough for the favelin.”

“Excuse me, Director, but why not boats first?” Ailiss said.

Because we have no need to be that cautious here,” Ertak said. “A boat

can’t carry enough apparatus to make all the necessary tests; they’re

useful primarily for scouting actively hostile planets. The Javelin herself

is the only laboratory at our disposal of sufficient size and resources to

get a significant number of samples and process them thoroughly.”

“Why risk throwing away four or five people?” Dr. Chase-Huebner. agreed.

‘Especially when even their return unharmed coulddt be considered

definitive? Landing the whole ship is a much more economical procedure in

the long run.”

“Very good,” Ertak said. He picked up his microphone.




The landing site looked ideal, even after they were safely down on it. It

was a broad plain beside the western shore of a huge body of water which,

since it was both fed and drained by rivers, could safely be assumed to be

fresh. Farther to the west there was a

112 fames Blish

solid wall of virgin forest, marching unbroken for hundreds of miles into

the foothills of a long and very high mountain range.

“Now we sit,” Ertak said firmly. “I know everybody has his nose pressed to

the ports, or would if we had any ports. But I want everyone to bear the

fate of the Kestrel at the very front of his mind. We are going to make

especially exhaustive bacteriological tests-and we are not going to miss

any other tricks, either. The stand-bys will suit up and go out in rotation

to collect samples; first man to disembark will be selected by lot. And

nobody comes back into the ship without spending one full hour in the

airlock under live steam at sixteen atmospheres, until Dr. Chase-Huebner’s

prepared to certify this planet as clean.”

That took two weeks, and her certification was well hedged with conditions.

I can’t rule out long incubation periods,” she reminded the Director. “Some

forms of viral cancer, for instance, take five or six years to incubate;

and some bacterial diseases, like leprosy, may take as long as fifteen. But

I assume that you don’t expect any world to be completely free of dis-

ease-that would be demanding the impossible~”

“No, of course not. What I want to rule out are galloping, uncontrollable,

wild-fire plagues-like what happened to the Kestrel.”

“There aren’t any in our immediate area,” Dr. Chase-Huebner said promptly.

“But warn everybody to watch out for dirty wounds. Theres a soil bacterium

that’s close to identical with gangrene.”

Ertak shrugged his titanic shrug. “Expectable. That kind of thing we can

cope with. All right, ladies and gentlemen, we will prepare to pitch camp.”

There was an instant clamor among the officers, which Ertak silenced, after

a moment, with a sour grin and a wave of his hand.

And all the Stars a Stage 113

“Calm down, please. I know everyone~s got shipboard fever, but I assure you

that you’ll all be satisfied. We don’t need volunteers; this is to be a

foray in force from the very beginning. I want a fortified encampment

covering roughly a hundred acres, centered on the ship herself. That will

call for more work from you all than you1l find you’re able to do. The

passengers will remain behind for the time being, and the ship will be

staffed on a skeleton basis by the stand-bys; they had the fun of being

first out, now comes the time for them to pay the fee. I’ll stay with them,

of course; Ailiss,’you’re in charge of the camp itself. Prepare to


Crowing, the crew broke for their quarters and their gear.

jorn’s heart was in his mouth as he stepped off the ladder onto the actual,

inarguable soil of the new world. He had not really realized how unlikely

such a moment had come to seem to him. Nor had he known, ever before in his

life, what it would be like to be in the midst of a wilderness. There had

been none left at home, not even for the rich and powerful; everything

there had been tamed, organized, put to use. Here, everything was new; they

were starting over.

It was appallingly hard work, as Ertak had prophesied, but his training

stood him in good stead. Despite the years of confinement in the ship, he

had kept himself in reasonably good shape. Though his muscles ached

abominably at the end of each day for the first week, he was never actually

incapacitated, and finally his body caught the work-rhythm and fell in with

it. After that there was no trouble.

And there was time, even while wielding spade or sledge-hammer or

winch-handle, to look at the life around him. There were no birds here, but

there were

114 fames Blish

plenty of delicate insect-like creatures of many species, none larger than

a hand’s breadth. Often they simply hovered, with improbably slow motions of

their wings; sometimes, on the other hand, they traveled with invisible

speed from one hovering spot to another, slowing down into visibility only

for an unpredictable swerve, and then accelerating beyond vision again. None

of these seemed to have stinging or biting habits; after watching them for

a long time, Dr. Chase-Huebner authorized disembarking small samples of the

ship’s livestock.

On the ground, the commonest form was a mollusc, superficially resembling

a snail but considerably larger, and with as much apparent intelligence as

a turtle; they were housed in brittle silicoid shells. They seemed to

prefer crawling over pitted rocks; though they were sometimes found

crossing over vegetation, it was only on the way to another rock. The

plants over which they passed en route showed no signs of having been

eaten-which was promising for the crops, some of which were just beginning

to show their first shoots in the eternal summer.

All this was duly reported to the Grand Log. Messages poured in daily from

the rest of the fleet, offering congratulations and voracious for more

details. The four ships in the globe nearest the Javelin were decelerating

under full drive; all the same, it would take them years to get here. The

rest of the armada, not without jealousy, continued to expand outward.

Then came the morning when Jorn looked down out of a tree he was trimming

to string wire, to find himself being watched by a demon. Yes, it could be

described no other way.

It was a striped animal, four-footed, about twice as big as a man and

obviously at least four times as heavy; it looked, in fact, almost

overstuffed. It padded

And all the Stars a Stage 115

smoothly, soundlessly in figure eights around the base of the tree, looking

up at him with a face whose markings gave it an expression of permanent,

insane fury. Occasionally it stopped and sighed; then it resumed pacing.

Jorn hurriedly dug his lineman’s cleats into the tree bole and reached for

his sidearm. He doubted that he could hit the beast-there were too many

branches in the way~but he was going to try. With the other hand, he swung

his cheek microphone into position.

“Birn calling base camp. I’m treed by something over here. Nothing we’ve

seen before. It’s big and obviously carnivorous. I’m going to take some

shots at it, but I may need help.”

“O’Kung here. I read you, Bim. I’m sending a squad. Try not to damage it

too much-Biology will want to look at it.”

“I’ll try,” Jorn said disgustedly and swung the mike away. Leaning back

against his safety belt, he steadied the pistol with both hands and tried

to lead the animal back and forth in its pacing. It was, as he had antici-

pated, difficult to do; the tree bole kept getting in the way. But if he

could have it in the sights just as it stopped to sigh-

It stopped and he squeezed the trigger. He did not hit it-not by several

feet, at least-but the result was utterly unexpected. He watched with

incredulity for nearly five minutes; and then, holstering the pistol, began

to climb carefully down to the ground.

He was looking down at the colorful corpse when the cautious party from

camp arrived. ‘

They dragged it back to camp and into the improvised surgery tent, where

Dr. Chase-Huebner, the ship’s surgeon and the chief of biology were already

set up to perform an autopsy. The beast, looking somehow smaller, was

hauled up onto the table,


116 James Blish

where it lay in a peculiarly floppy position, like a child’s toy.

“What a face,” Dr. Chase-Huebner said. “Like a devil. What happened, Jorn?”

‘I wish I knew. I know I didn’t hit it. But at the sound of my gun it

jumped sidewise, and landed in a tangle of those clover-like plants we’ve

been clearing away, the ones with all the long thorns. It thrashed around

in there for just a moment as though it were going to jump out, and then

all at once it just -collapsed. From the noises it made, you would have

thought it was suffocating.”

“Very likely. Those thorns must carry some kind of nerve poison-something

that blocks the breathing reflex. Odd; weve been scratched often enough by

them without any apparent barm. We’ll send some more samples to

Chemistry-and I suppose we’d better take to wearing boots and heavy puttees

until we get the results.” She hefted a pair of electric shears

thoughtfully, and then bent to shaving the animars, belly for the first


” That was my guess,” Jorn agreed. “But what puz

zles me is, why should it have been so jumpy about

so small a noise as my gun makes? The sighing noise

the critter makes itself is almost as loud. But it

jumped like it had been stung.”

Dr. Chase-Huebner didn’t answer. She was busy painting the shaven surface

with alcohol. After a moment she took up a scalpel, and Jorn, who was in-

clined to be sensitive about raw innards, went back to work as quickly as

his dignity would allow. Questions about the creature continued to fill his


, We can take the boots off,” Dr. Cbase-Huebner reported at the end of the

next day. “There are no alkaloids on the thorns; the plants are entirely


And all the Stars a Stage 117

less, just as we first thought. And we won’t have to worry about these

carnivores, either. If you can’t get a fast shot into one before he’s on

you, stab him around the limbs or the rib-cage and you’ve done for him..

“I don’t know,” Jom said dubiously. “You never saw him when he was alive.

He looked powerful-and mean.”

“I assume he’s both,” Dr. Chase-Huebner said cheerfully. “But that doesn’t

matter. You see, he hasn1 got any bones. He’s supported entirely by

nitrogen under high pressure, in sealed tubes, thick-walled but essentially

flexible. When the poor animal dodged into the thorns, his ‘skeleton~ got

punctured in several places and the nitrogen pressure was reIeased-some of

it into the outside air, but most of it into his body cavities. He couldn’t

support himself any longer and smothered under his own weight. Probably

that was why he panicked when he heard your gun hiss, Jorn: to him the

sound of escaping gas is the sound of death. Ordinarily, I assume, he has

better sense than to jump into a patch of thorns.”

‘naes fine,” Ailiss said, but she did not sound pleased. “But I’m afraid

I’ve got another case for you. About five minutes ago a man came swearing

into the first aid station with a wounded shoulder. He didn’t hear anything

and didn’t see anything; he was digging post-holes in an open field when it

happened. But it looks to us very much as though he’s been shot.”

Dr. Chase-Huebner agreed. She could contribute little more, except that the

missile had been quite small and of relatively low velocity-not much past

the speed of sound, just enough to go on through and out the other side of

the shoulder. In that the victim

118 James Blish

had been lucky, for a high-velocity missile can kill a man from shock alone,

no matter where it hits him.

Two nights later one of the cattle was dead of the same cause, shot all the

way through the chest. A bigger and faster missile, this time; but no other


“We will make the obvious assumption,” Ertak said grimly. “There are no

safer ones to make. That is, that there are intelligent natives here after

all-without electricity, but with enough brains to construct missile

weapons of relatively low velocity and accuracy-and that they’re keeping

under cover and sniping at us. I want a doubled guard, and a twenty-four-

hour infra-red watch from the bridge of the Javelin; also radar, sonar,

trip-wires, the works. If anyone sees a native, notify headquarters first;

I’d rather catch one than kill one.”

Within a day, the camp was in a state of siege. Within a week, a woman on

the agronomy team was creased lightly across the back. Two weeks later, an

officer on temporary duty as a lineman, as jorn had been when be bad met

the stuffed tiger, was kiRed, a hole driven right through his skull; it

took most of the day to get his body out of the tree in which he had been

working, but it did not tell them anything they did not know already. Then

there was a lull, which lasted more than a month. It ended when the woman

who had sustained the back crease earlier was brought in with a shattered


“Their accuracy,” Ertak said, “is improving. And still we haven’t seen a

thing. From now on, the guards are to wear spacesuits at all times, day and

night; the rest of you will sleep in the ship. All the animals are to be

brought back in. Birn, doesn’t analysis of the apparent direction of the

shots give you anything?”

And all the Stars a Stage 119

“No, Director, not a thing, except that we’re obviously surrounded.”

“AUch is logical. Orders to capture a native if possible are hereby

rescinded; we can’t afford these losses. The new orders are: Shoot to


It was almost as though he had been overheard. For nearly two months, the

only incident was a minor flesh wound. One of the night guards also

reported in with a bright weal across one hip of his suit, which might or

might not have been the result of a grazing shot; there were no traces of

extraneous metal in the weal, the steel had simply been polished. He hadn’t

even heard the impact, let alone felt it, and the weal wasn’t turned up

until suit inspection.

Then, in broad cloudless daylight, ten naked unarmed men came out of the

forest to the west, and walked slowly toward the distant, bristling fence

of the encampment, which was yet unaware of their action.



It was lucky, although it was probably also inevitable, that the natives

were spotted first by the watch atop the Javelin, and the alert conveyed directly

to Ertak. A quick, fierce look at the magnified image on his screen

evidently was enough to convey to him, first of all, the absolute nakedness

of the entire deputation; and secondly to convince him that if this race

nevertheless had arms and could use them, the deputation was probably

enfiladed by many invisible warriors in the forest behind them. His command

boomed out over the camp from the Javelin’s loudspeakers like the voice of a god:

HOLD YOUR FIREI I REPEAT, HOLD FIREr jom was the first to reach the

creatures, with Ailiss and her party panting not far behind. As soon as the

natives saw them coming, they stopped and waited peaceably, even passively,

their hands held palms outwards at their sides.

jorn was most astonished at their absolute humanity. These were all males,

and except for a certain oddness in the shape of the eyes, and a rather



And all the Stars a Stage 121

sheen to the skin, they could well have belonged to any of the races of

Jom’s own people. That they were savages seemed attested to by their

nakedness, which was accentuated by a few stripes of paint on bodies and

arms, all identical except for one man who was entirely without them; yet

they did not give the impression of being savage quite the contrary. Jorn’s

immediate impression was one of total inoffensiveness, even of timidity.

He spoke to them, and one of them to him, in a questioning voice so low

that it was almost a whisper, but of course to no effect. Nevertheless, the

exchange reinforced his impression that their intentions, at least for the

present, were not war-like. On a hunch, he turned and beckoned, and then

began to walk slowly back toward the ship.

Despite their obvious weaponlessness, he quickly developed a powerful itch

between his vulnerable shoulderblades. He kept walking.

Thus, by the time Ailiss and her party arrived, all ten of them were

trooping docilly after Jorn. Ailiss’ party, managing to look wise,

belligerent and baffled all at the same time, bad no choice but to fall in

around them as a sort of inadvertent honor-guard.

That they were intelligent was established almost instantly. Ailiss was

able to ask them a question and get a significant answer before either

party had learned a word of the other’s language. After inspecting their

hands quickly and finding them essentially just like hers, she included

them all in a quick gesture and held up ten fingers. To this, the

leader-the unpainted man who had spoken to Jorn-responded at once by

pointing to Ailiss and holding up one finger, to Jorn and Ailiss and

holding up two fingers, and to Ailiss~ party and holding up five. Although

her expression showed that she was a little stunned, Ailiss

122 fames Blish

promptly included the whole of the forest behind them with a sweep of both

hands, and then simply looked at the leader; to this he made a movement of

his head which might have been either negative or positive, and then, seeing

that she did not know how to interpret this, he held up one hand with all

the fingers closed.

Ailiss turned to jorn. “If he understands me, he means that there’s nobody

in the forest behind him,” she said, frowning, “and damned if I don’t think

he does.”

“I think so too,” jorn said. “Let me try it once.”

At her nod, forn pointed to the horizon across the lake and then did a slow

720-degree pivot, returning at last to look at the leader. To this he

responded with so rapid an opening and closing of both hands that it was

impossible to keep count, nor did jorn believe that that was what bad been

intended; it was the plainest kind of manual sign for the word “many.”

“He understands, all right,” jorn said. “He’s not only intelligent, but

be’s exceedingly fast on the uptake. I think wed better be careful, no

matter how harmless these ten may look.”

“For once,” Ailiss said grimly, I couldn’t agree with you more.”

The party picked up the language of the people of the favelin with

astonishing rapidity, much faster than anyone in the camp could pick up

theirs. The humiliating reason for this, it soon turned out, was that

theirs was by far the ricber and more complex. Among the several knots in

it which nobody proved completely able to untie was a syntax of

states-of-being, partly referrable to the emotions and partly to a con-

struct of metaphysical concepts, which Ertak was not psychologist enough

and Ailiss not philosopher

And all the Stars a Stage 123 enough to plumb more than

fractionally. Nobody else in the camp ever got any farther

than recognizing its existence.

But there seemed to be no reason to be afraid of them or of the people they

represented. Their sole desire, and indeed the whole purpose of their visit

to the camp, seemed to be to know whether the strangers in the giant house

had any orders they could have the honor (sanctity? enrichment?) of

obeying. Toward the end of the second week, one bold unauthorized soul

among the crewmen, seeing one of the natives standing nearby watching her

work, as they watched everything, with an air of interested submissiveness,

took it into her bead to indicate to the native that he should take over

the dirtier half of the job she was doing.

The impulse doubtless came deep out of the wells of the lost past on the

home planet, when she might automatically have done the same thing with the

nearest passing drone. But what counted was that the native took up the

spade at once and, handling it oddly but not inexpertly, proceeded to dig

her her trench with great speed. He then shouldered the spade and waited

for more orders-but by that time the incident had been seen by one of

Ailiss’non-coms, and it was speedily brought to an end. The woman was given

a dressing-down both on the spot by Ailiss and later by Ertak, but not

entirely wholeheartedly in either ‘ case: the incident had been

regrettable, perhaps, but after all it was also a datum.

And yet, as later, more tentative experiments showed, the attitude of the

natives toward working for their guests was bard to define. They did so

willingly and quickly, and yet without any apparent pleasure. It was as

though they knew they had gotten what they had come for, and were satisfied

to End their expectations realized, and that was all . . . “Almos4” MW

124 fames Blish

summarized uneasily, “like a guilty man who’s de. cided he’ll feel better if

he turns himself in and takes what’s coming to him.”

Some limited field work with the local tribe, with which the ten men of the

deputation cooperated completely, confirmed and widened this impression.

For all their intelligence, the natives had no technology. They had no

shelters except flimsy temporary ones against rain and sun; they had almost

no tools, and those that they did make were those expectable, at best, from

the most refined and sophisticated era of a late Stone Age, they were

nomadic hunters, dependent about equally upon fleetness of foot and fire-

hardened thorn daggers. The closest thing to a missile weapon that anyone

could find among them was a sling, used only against game they could not


Except for the stuffed tigers, whose fatal secret they knew with surgical

precision, they had no natural enemies. They used neither thom nor sling

against each other, and seemed completely shocked at the Idea after it was

conveyed to them, with much linguistic difficulty. It was in fact so

unthinkable that their codes contained no prohibition against it. In all

other respects their social and religious structures were elaborate in the

extreme, and both were buttressed by a long and equally elaborate literary

tradition, mostly oral, but with key works preserved upon fine parchment in

a written language which was the despair of everyone on board the favelim

And yet, trimmed of all these riches, the central tenet of their religion

seemed to be that of utter resignation to anything that a completely

malignant Fate might bring.

“Which is a peculiarly anomolous notion in such a paradise as this planet

seems to be,” Ertak said, when he was appraised of it ‘And yet I don’t see

how it can

And all the Stars a Stage 125

have grown up without some reason in the real universe to give it weight.

There’s still some cause for caution here, which we simply haven’t fathomed

yet In the meantime, I must say, in one way it seems to be promising.”

“How’s that, Director?” Ailiss said.

“If these people are just as we see them to be now,” Ertak said, “then they

appear to be an ideal work force for a more aggressive race like ours-and

I needn~t remind you that manpower is going to be one of our chiefest

problems, even after the other ships get here. The question of slavery

doesn’t raise itself, happily; as far as I can see, these people seem

genuinely to want to be pushed around. AD right, we’ll pushbut gently,

bearing in mind what happens to cultures who come to think that they can

really own a man.”

“It would make a nice stable relationship all around,” Ailiss agreed.

“Nevertheless, Director, I can’t quite rid myself of a few misgivings.”

“Oh, as to that,” the Director said moodily, “neither can V

That conference took place late one night aboard the Javelin, it was one of

the regular monthly planning boards which had evolved more or less

naturally as the camp seemed to be settling down toward a routine. Some

time during the same night, one of the spacesuited guards was killed. He

was pierced clean through; so was the suit

In the ensuing consternation and fury, only prompt action by Ailiss

O’Kung’s squad was able to prevent the mass murder of all thirty-five of

the natives who had spent the night in the compound. She was as furious,

Jorn could see, as any of the rest of them, but primarily at herself, for

her failure to have asked any of the natives, over the more than a month

when the state of communications between them could have

126 lames Blish

made it possible, if they could shed any light upon this random sniping.

“Certainly,” the leader said, obviously as content as usual to find that he

could be of service-quite as content, in fact, as he seemed to be over the

four deaths in his party which Ailiss had been unable to prevent -but

filled with wonderment at the simplicity of the question. ‘Those are the


No one believed it at first. Yet it speedily became evident that there was

something decidedly peculiar about the insects, all the same. Attempts to

capture some of them were defeated in a variety of ways: first by cut nets

and punctured airscoops; then by several skin creases, and eventually a

serious and all too familiar band wound. They would not be caught, and

after a while it began to appear that they could not be caught.

After nearly two weeks, a small cloud of gnat-like motes was captured by

the elaborate expedient of gassing it. They came drifting down through the

poisonous cloud in strangely slow, erratic spirals, as though they weighed

nothing-and they tinkled bouncing into the collection bottles like


The returns from the field laboratory showed that the natives had been

telling the truth, though they were even more incredible. Under the

microscope the tiny creatures proved to resemble beetles more closely than

they did gnats; and their rigid exoskeletons seemed to be made of something

closely resembling tool steel. The wings under those impossible wingcases

had iron-sheathed venules: and the color in the blood of the creatures was

provided by Reeks of rust, which picked up and lost oxygen and energy by

changing cyclicaHy from ferrous to ferric oxides and

And all the Stars a Stage 127

-impossibly-back again. Nothing so heavy for its size could ever have flown,

not even an inch.

They could not, indeed, be said to be true fliers, despite the wings.

Instead, they hovered or trayelled in the planet’s magnetic fleld. Such

wing movements as they made set up eddy currents throughout the metal

exoskeleton, which were promptly transformed into movement, at more than

bullet-like velocities, along a line of magnetic force. The sudden slowing

and veering motions which had been observed from the beginning were

probably attributable to passage over local iron ore deposits; there was

plenty of the metal on the planet, though the natives did not know its


“The velocities involved vary, but some are quite sufficient to penetrate

a spacesuit with a man in it,” Dr. Cbase-Huebner reported to a hastily

convened council of war. “The injuries and deaths we have sustained thus

far have been due to nothing but standing in the way. We shall sustain many

more, depending entirely on how long we decide to stay here. I can think of

no way to prevent it, and neither can anybody else that I have talked to.”

“Does the impact kill the insect too?” Jorn asked.

‘Undoubtedly,” Dr. Chase-Huebner said, “though that seems to me to be small

consolation. And in addition I have a few other discoveries to report to

you all, none of which you are going to like very much. You have all seen

these brittle little molluscs with the silicon shells crawling around on

the rocks. They are no joke either, it turns out. All the time we have been

ignoring them, they have been crawling over the Javelin as well, working

hard on all the ship’s outside sensing instruments which have fused quartz

lenses; and they have ruined about twenty per cent of them and damaged

almost half of the rest. These two examples,

128 fames Blish plus that of the inflated tiger that you ran afoul of, Jorn,

suddenly made a pattern in my mind and I asked the natives about it, with

Ailiss to help me over the hard spots. My conclusion is that the probable

and possible dangers of this kind that we will encounter if we expand over

this planet are just about numberless.”

“Of what kind?” Ertak said. I can’t see anything in common among the


“I’m not surprised, but I should have, long before this. In brief,

Director, what has happened here is that on this planet, evolution has

adopted nearly every imaginable path for giving its creatures structural

rigidity. This includes both plants and animals, and a good many borderline

or mixed forms; I can show you a catalogue later. And it has also produced

all the compensatory attack mechanisms.

Some of these, like the inflated tiger and the thorn, don’t represent any

particular danger to us. Some of them, like the iron insects, look

difficult indeed to cope with. Some of them are outright impossible: there

are highly organized animals on this planet with skeletons like ours, of

which the natives are the immediately available example, and natural

enemies for them which are as deadly to us as the thorn is to the tiger.

One of these, in fact, is a plague quite capable of turning our bones to a

watery jelly in about thirtysix hours. We are only lucky that we haven’t

encountered it yet, especially since it never occurred to me to look for

such a thing while I was making my bacteriological tests of this world.

“In short, it turns out that the native religion of complete resignation to

an implacable Fate accurately reflects things as they are on this planet.

The place is gay, colorful, fertile, inviting-and wholly uncolonizable.”

And all the Stars a Stage 129

“The natives seem to get along,” Jorn protested.

“ne natives,” Dr. Chase-Huebner said with a sad and glacial calm, “are the

last tatters of their species. They will probably be extinct before ten

more generations have passed. Like most intelligent anthropoid creatures,

they’re unspecialized in the biological sense, and under these conditions

their intelligence is of no use to them. They won’t have time to develop a

technology sufficient to protect them. We found them, here only because we

arrived while their planet is still young.”

“But we have the technology—-” Kamblin started to protest.

I assure you, Dr. Karnblin, that we do not. We will be unable even to

protect ourselves; nor will we be able to do so after the other four ships

have landed here, if we let them. I will have a full written report ready

for you all by day after tomorrow; if you are not convinced now, I am fully

persuaded that you will be after you have read it.”

No one left the ship for the next two days, and the caves and halls of the

lavelin were hushed with a silent fury of reading. On the morning of the

third day, Ertak’s voice came tiredly and heavily over the public address


“To all hands: Prepare to embark.”

Easier said than done; relaxation of vigilance and felling of trees had

spread the encampment wider and wider, and there were the damaged sensor

lenses to replace too, with a squad to keep the molluscs off the ship

henceforth. At Jorn’s suggestion, the perimeter of the camp was drawn in to

about half the distance over which the would-be colonists had been working,

and the intervening space between perimeter and jungle became a sort of

tunnel of charged wire, like

130 James Blish

a loosely wound armature about fifty feet in diameter. The effect was to

scramble the local magnetic field so that very few of the insects could

“fly” at all inside the encampment. In fact-though this hadn’t been

foreseen-there were soon thousands of them trapped inside the tunnel. The

electrified boma consumed a lot of energy, but they bad energy to spare.

What was more important, hardly anyone was hurt thereafter, and nobody was


The planet bad one last unpleasant surprise for them, however. On the last

day before embarkation would be possible, a lookout spotted a reptilian

head coming along the surface of the lake toward them. As it drew closer,

the head rose, on the end of an impossibly long neck and then the

creature’s bow wave broadened, yard by yard.

Dr. Chase-Huebner studied it through binoculars. “Something like a

plesiosaur, only much bigger,” she said finally. “I wouldn’t like to count

on the charged wire stopping it-and even if it did, that neck is plenty

long enough for it to arch over the wire and grab anybody close by.”

“Maybe we could order some natives to swim around behind it and stick

thorns in it?” Ailiss said dubiously.

“Useless. There must be yards of blubber under that bide to keep such a

monster afloat, especially in fresh water. And in fact the chest looks

armored-I can’t tell about the rest of it. We’ll be very lucky if we can

even shoot it.~

‘I can shoot it,” jorn said abruptly. “If I’ve got time.” He was already

working frantically at the juryrigged exterior board which fed power to the

fence. “Hey, you, drive that little truck over here-no, dammit, closer, I

want to be able to reach the engine.”

And all the Stars a Stage 131 The monstees chest rose higher in

the water, its head weaving back and forth nearly a hundred

feet in the air. The shallow water churned to either side of

its chest.

“It s got flippers,” the lookout said. “Not legs.”

“Lots of sea animals back home made fair speed overland on flippers, for

short distances,” Dr. ChaseHuebner said. “And a short distance is all this

one needs.”

Paying out wire, Jorn jumped eight of the twelve switches of the fence to

the distributor of the truck’s engine, which was idling. At once, the

tubular gray cloud which surrounded the encampment-the trapped

insects-began to move, slowly, and all in the same direction.

“It works,” Jorn said with grim satisfaction. ‘Driver, run up the engine

slowly. And keep right on running it up until it’s racing, and keep it


The roar of the engine grew slowly. As it did, the circular cloud moved

faster and faster, and from it came another roar, as of a distant gale.

Both sounds grew. The gray cloud changed color; now it was a dull red.

“Fasterl” Jorn shouted.

The engine snarled. The circling cloud turned glowing white and began to

scream like a cyclone. By now, of course, the insects were all dead, but

their metallic cores hurtled onward in the circling magnetic field.

Then Jorn snapped off one non-jumped switch. At the lakeside, history’s

longest, widest, densest column of white-hot grapeshot screamed straight

out of the tunnel of wire. It struck the looming saurian at an angle.

Nevertheless, the monster vanished utterly. Nothing was left but boiling

red water.

132 lames Blish

“Cyclotrons,” jorn said, “are useful instruments. But well have to board

on the double, now. The screen’s destroyed and the insects will be back.”


After nearly a year on the planet, the order to embark had come with

sickening suddenness, and the embarkation itself was so hasty that there was

no time left any more to talk about the problem itself. The javelin was driving

outward from the blue-white sun at full acceleration before the four ships

who had veered that way could even be told to turn back, and the reasons why

so promising a world had had to be abandoned took considerable explanation

to them and to the rest of the armada-and then the explanations had to be

made all over again, because those who had made them the first time had been

so low in heart that they had been too curt to be wholly understandable.

Besides, nobody on the other ships bad seen the lake creature.

And even another year thereafter, many of the captains of the other ships

remained openly critical of the decision; the more boldly so since there

was no way any more by which any displeasure Ertak might have felt at their

criticism could be vented upon them. Though perhaps no one but Ertak sensed

it at the


134 lames Blish

time, it was the beginning of the end of his power as Director of the IEP

and commander of the armada.

It was perhaps more important that this dissent was shared by a significant

number of the people aboard the favelin, particularly among the passengers,

although in Ertak’s own demesne the criticism was necessarfly less vocal.

After all, it had been a beautiful place, hadn’t it? And they had never

even gotten around to naming it, much less exploring and exploiting all its

visible promises. Supposing it had cost them some loss of life to

consolidate it? Did anyone expect anything less, on any planet they might

choose to try to settle? And when, after all, are we likely to see its like

again? Not until we are old, surely … or, perhaps, never.

The officers, in general, knew better, yet the feeling was endemic in their

country too. Even after a year, they talked about hardly anything else but

hindsight ways of coping with one or another of the experienced, reported

or conjectured menaces summarized in the Chase-Huebner Report.

“Take the magnetic insects, for example,” Jorn said privately to Ailiss.

“Once the other ships had landed, we could have expanded the camp and kept

up a really big electrical barrier without any significant energy drain at


“First of all, you couldn’t put down five ships the size of ours in the

same area anywhere on that planet,” Ailiss said, “and even if you could,

each one of them would have to have had its own camp, each with its own

electrical chevaux-de-frise; I don’t know what the maximum radius of

protection such a gimmick would grant you, but it couldn’t be very large.”

“Ailiss, your answer to everything is an automatic


And all the Stars a Stage 135 “If you’d stop pasting that

sticker on my nose every time we argue, you might actually hear

what I’m saying.”

“All right, go ahead.”‘

“Good. The next thing is, our intention is to colonize a planet, not just

garrison it-crouching in selflimited camps which can’t be expanded beyond

a certain perimeter. The only real protection in the long run would be to

exterminate the insects-and what that would have done to the balance of

nature on that planet I don’t know, but I’m inclined to think it would have

created even more damage in the long run. Dr. Chase-Huebner thinks so,

that’s sure.”

“That’s true enough, but it’s only one such expedition,” Jorn insisted. “If

that one wouldn’t have done it, there are lots of others that might have

been possible. After all, it’s only a technical problem, and there are

always solutions for those if you look hard enough.”

Us not a technical problem, ies an ecological problem, which is something

entirely different,” Ailiss said. “It wasn’t only the insects, it was the

whole planet. You can’t approach a problem like that one on a piecemeal

basis. Look: Supposing I grant you that we might well have come through,

after years and years, even though a good many of us were killed or

crippled in the process. Now you grant me this: supposing we didn’t? No

other ship has made a planetfall yet, and the javelin contains a big

fraction of all that there’s left of the whole of humanity. It simply isn’t

permissible that risks be taken with that, on nothing better than

speculation and boldness. Of course some chances will have to be taken,

there’s no way around that and I wouldn’t want to catch anybody thinking

that there might be. But at least they ought to look like good chances-not

just blind gambles.”

136 fames Blish

Jorn could see that there was justice in this argument, which be bad beard

advanced before, in more condensed form, by Ertak; but nevertheless be did

not feel compelled to agree with it. He was realistic enough to grant that

since the die had been cast, that ended the debate, at least for this time.

Next time, however-if any such situation were ever to arise again-he had

every intention of raising his voice more loudly in the councils of the


Neither the Javelin nor any other ship in the armada was ever likely to find a

planet which was not hostile in some degree; and suitable planets of any

kind seemed to be so scarce that chances, even blind chances, were going to

have to be taken. It seemed to him that pulling up stakes every time a

world showed its fangs, and going on to look for a blander one, was in

itself in the long run a matter of taking the longest of all long chances

with the remaining scraps of humanity … for after all, the search was

being conducted in a limited strip of finite time, cut off at its visible

end by the lifespan of man. It was nonsense to suppose, as fiction writers

often bad done, that the next generations might carry on the search

successfully; with no experience of any other kind of life than ship life,

their judgment in selecting planets to land on was bound to be bad, and

their chances of being wiped out utterly by their first choice very good

indeed. The chances would have to be taken by those who knew something

about the odds; those who did not would fare just as well, or just as

badly, by selecting their star of choice from a table of random numbers.

And as the years passed, and the Javelin began to bury in space, one by one,

the irreplaceable members of her original complement-some of them carried

off inevitably by age, some suddenly by physical or med.

And all the Stars a Stage 137

Ical accident-the odds grew longer and longer. There was nothing to write in

the Grand Log; and the next day, nothing again. One by one, too, the ships

of the armada were passing out of earshot, even to the straining,

hypersensitive nerve-ends of the Ertak Effect. The expanding, misshapen

globe of ships now encompassed an unthinkably enormous volume of space,

without filling that volume in the least; and the favelin and her four

sister ships who had stopped or slowed down for the system of the blue-white

sun were the farthest behind of all, and still losing ground every day. The

armada was no longer an entity, but only a loose system of far-flung

outposts. Before very much longer it would cease to be even that, leaving

behind only a number of single cells, each alone and silent in the voiceless


There were other silences, already, which were not so easily accounted for.

Several ships had stopped transmitting while still well inside the

theoretical reception area of the Ertak Effect. Sometimes they had simply

failed to respond to calls after a short silence~ then and thereafter;

sometimes the broadcast was broken off in the middle of an apparently

routine message; and twice the end was a garbled message, or a fragmentary

one, obviously intended to be final, but impossible to interpret. In only

three of these vanishments was there enough information available to con-

struct a sensible hypothesis of what had happened to the ships, and in

those three it appeared to have been a major accident of some kind-one of

them a roaring, self-propagating engine-room explosion so unlikely

according to theory that it shook Ertak all the way to his secret core; he

promptly shut the Javelin!s drive down for nearly two weeks while he had it

rebuilt almost from the Aeck-plates up, and therafter kept detailed,

tape-recorded instructions for so doing spray-

138 James Blish

ing off into space over and over again until he had gotten acknowledgments

from every ship that could hear him that the instructions had been received.

For the remaining disappearances there was no explanation at all.

Of the ships still in flight and still in range, none had yet reported a

successful planet-fall, and it was apparent to everyone that the process of

attrition of the fleet was far advanced. Kamblin, in a moment of reflection

unusually morbid for him, extrapolated this curve: at this rate, there

would be nothing left of the fleet at all within the lavelin’s range,

before the second generation would be old enough to have to worry about it,

let alone be prepared to take command from its elders.

And then, to everyone’s incredulity, came the hour of the death that they

had been fleeing.

Had it really been that long? jorn, looking into a polished hullplate at

his graying temples, could see that it had; yet he found it hard to

believe. Except for the botched colonization attempt, the years had A been

so much alike since take-off that it was difficult to accept that they had

been years at all.

“Everyone feels that way,” Ertak said. “And that!s one of several reasons

why I mean to broadcast the view of the explosion over the general intercom

system. I know what you’re going to say, Ailiss. I remember very well that

the last broadcast we got from home had a nasty emotional effect on ship

life as a whole, but I’m persuaded that a good deal of time and experience

has intervened, and that the people have both the stamina and the right to

see the end come. Nor is it an ordinary way for a world to end; Dr. Kamblin

tells me that a supernova happens in a galaxy on the average of less than

once every three

And all the Stars a Stage 139

hundred years. It will not be pleasant to watch, but it will be spectacular.

I for one shall take some pride in that; I counsel you all to try to do the


The Sun hung there in the screens, calm, steady, about the size of a fist.

It would have looked like that, in its present swollen state, to someone on

a satellite of the next-to-outermost planet of the home system. Nothing

seemed to be happening; but along the bottom of the screen was a thin

ribbon of color, like a tape-recorded rainbow-only the screen on the bridge

was big enough to bold all seven decks of it, for the complete spectrum was

13 feet long-along which vertical lines, striations and shadings shifted

and shuttled. In the doomed star the eternal blacksmith was forging more

and more iron, more and more cobalt, more and more nickel, more and more

zinc . . .

And then, at first so slowly that the motion in the image seemed to be only

an illusion brought on by staring, and then faster and faster, the Sun

began to shrink. Within five hundred seconds it had fallen back to its

“normal” size; within another five hundred, it was half as big as anyone

had ever seen it before.

All the heavy metal lines, and those of titanium, vanadium, chromium and

manganese, too, vanished instantly from the spectrum. That ribbon could not

show the sudden outpouring of gamma rays; instead, there glowed forth the

malignant blue and indigo lines of helium, so glaringly that the rest of

the spectrum seemed to dim and shrink almost to invisibility.

The Sun collapsed.

For a full second it was not there at all. All that was left was a

heartbreaking after-image upon the retina.

The screen turned white. Then, it turned black. It was burned out. In

something less than a hundred seconds, the Sun was shining again …

shining more

140 James Blish

brilliantly than all of the hundreds of millions of other stars in the

galaxy put together.

In the glare of this colossal torch they fled outward, disinherited.

jorn and Ailiss were married the next day. Somehow, there seemed to be

nothing else to do.

I i


Disinherited they were, as finally and completely as it was possible for a

people to be, short of complete extinction. Yet the ultimate irony of their

situation lay in this: that after nearly fifty years of traveling, they were

now three thousand light years away from home.

Were they now by some flat of magic to stop in their tracks and look back,

what they would see would be their Sun as it had always been-although not

a sun any one of them nor even any of their grandparents ever could have

seen. Since where one act of magic has occurred, anything is possible, add

to this halt and sighting sufficient magnification to see events on the

home planet; then they might be able to watch the crowning of Gol of

Dobrai, a small, uninteresting and short-lived nation distinguished only by

Gol himself. He had been the first king in recorded history.

And yet a backward look with the comparatively minor magic of the Ertak

Effect showed what at first glance seemed to be a different segment of the

skies altogether. The enormous glare of the initial explosion


142 James Blish

had died away in slightly less than a year, leaving be

hind a sprawling, growing cloud like a glowing cancer

which seemed slowly but inexorably to be reaching

after them. The interferometer showed that it was in

fact expanding at the rate of 0.31 angular seconds per

year; and since not even the Ertak Effect could pro

duce absolute simultaneity between ship time and the

time of an object three thousand light years away,

what they were seeing on the screens was the after

matb of the ex ‘ Plosion as it had appeared between five

and six years after the event-and since that day was

in fact closer to fifteen years in the past, the malignant

nebula was now actually far larger than the screens

could show it to be.

The central mass of the nebula, which could not be seen, but only

photographed by infra-red light, was a smooth sphere. It was surrounded by

an irregular, interwoven complex of filaments and jets of glowing hydrogen,

brilliantly visualized through a crimson filter. The total effect was

lace-like, innocently delicate and beautiful-and intensely radioactive.

From this gigantic natural cosmotron, immense gusts of cosmic rays, rich in

heavy primaries, fountained out into the universe at large in never-ending

blasts. The boundaries of the envelope, too, were rushing outwards at

nearly six hundred and fifty miles per second; the cloud was already nearly

a light year across.

And at its heart, only dimly visible through the enormously rarefied

inferno which writhed and seethed about it, was a steadily glowing ball

hardly bigger than their vaporized home planet: a white dwarf star-the

quiet and infinitely heavy corpse of their blue-white supergiant Sun.

But the Ertak Effect was seldom called upon any more, even by Kamblin.

Ertak himself had retired to his quarters almost as completely as he had in


And all the Stars a Stage 143

years just before take-off, emerging like a sleep-walker at intervals of six

months or more to stalk along the bridge, stare at the banked instruments,

the screens and the Grand Log with an expression of stunned and remote

agony, and then vanish again. His meals were brought to him by a

close-mouthed and apparently not very bright teen-age boy selected from

among the passengers. Occasionally Dr. Chase-Huebner visited him briefly,

sometimes coming out with a few orders, but more usually with nothing to say

at all. After these visits, Dr. Chase-Huebner’s expression was a strange

duplicate of his, but it never lasted more than a few days at most. No one

else had any access to him.

Jom did not care, and neither, he suspected, did anyone else. He had his

family to think about. It now included a twelve-year-old daughter named

Kasi, conceived after the most protracted and solemn discussion with Ailiss

had resulted in an agreement to have no children, and he devoted almost all

his free time to her, with a sort of gloomy delight. He no longer thought

about his duties, nor did Ailiss; they got them over with, and that was


In this, it was evident, they were typical. With the actual extinction of

the home world, nobody on board the Javelin really believed any more that

there was any place in the universe that was a real and tangible world for

them, except the Javelin-unless it was Ertak himself; but it was impossible

to know what be thought, and becoming increasingly harder to care. A

promising sighting by the computer of the Quarrel, one of the few remaining

ships of the armada within range, so completely failed to disturb this

pervasive, self-centered apathy that there was hardly any detectable

disappointment when it turned out to be a false alarm. The sk~ itself a

prison is, some anonymous hand had quoted in a slantwise scrawl across one

144 fames Blish

otherwise blank page of the Grand Log; and whatever Ertak might have thought

of the entry, he let it stand.

Or perhaps he never saw it; for between the day when it had apparently been

written in, and the expected date of his next somnambulist’s tour of the

bridge, the Javelin’s own computer once again made the control barrel clang

with Yellow Warning One.

It was a shock to find something very like the old excitement singing

wirily in the air of the Javelin again, like sympathetic vibrations in the

taut strings of some invisible harp. There was no doubt that, this time,

the excitement was moderately and heavily overlaid with caution; the

barriers against a new disappointment were almost visibly going up in the

minds and hearts of everyone; but it was still a real excitement, and jorn

was surprised to find how ready he was to welcome it. When Ertak came

loping out of his hermetic quarters to pull the tapes from the computer,

his eyes glowing like corpse-fires in the dark, gaunt hollows of his face,

it was as though everyone in the control barrel bad an instant previously

been organic marionettes, now abruptly drawn together and set to dancing by

the hands of their accustomed master.

“These tapes are a mystery,” Ertak summarized tersely, a day later.

“They’re completely ambiguous. Dr. Kamblin and I are in agreement that the

sun involved is somewhat less promising than the bluewhite star we last hit

was, and there don’t seem to be any evident astronomical reasons for the

computeA having sounded the alarm at all. All it seems to have to offer is

a long series of gnomic equations in probability, which in turn seem to

depend on several rhythmic functions it says the system involved ex.

hibits-but neither Dr. Kamblin nor I can find any

And all the Stars a Stage 145

way to tie them to the observations we have made.”In fact, there’s more to it

than that,” Kamblin added. “The most baffling problem of all is that the

computer seems, all by itself, to have evolved a new mathematics to handle

this material, which we’re finding very difficult to interpret from scratch.

Though I don1 understand how such a thing could be, it has all the stigmata

of an original invention.”

“Creativity from machinery?” Ailiss said. “Thaes impossible. There must be

some other explanation.”

“I think there is,” Jorn said slowly. “I’ve never mentioned it before,

since the evidence I had for it seemed to be so wispy. But I’ve been

suspecting for some years now, nearly five years, in fact, that the various

computers within the armada had begun to work out a sort of Grand Log of

their own. Certainly we fed into our computer everything in the way of data

that we could get from the rest of the fleet, but that’s not quite what I

mean. I think theres also been some kind of direct connection.”

“A lot of machines are no more creative than one machine,” Ailiss objected.

“True enough; and I think it very likely that the new mathematical system

you’re talking about did have a human inventor-but on some other ship,

maybe one that has been out of range of us for years. There would be no

reason for any of the computers to store his name, they’re not interested

in personalities, they just gobble up data and processes.”

“Well, whoever he was, he was good,” Kamblin said reflectively. “We’ve

still got a lot to learn about this scholium, but we can already see enough

of the principles on which it seems to be based to suspect that it may be

a powerful tool for applications in many different disciplines-which may or

may not

146 James Blish

have direct bearing on ship life and ship processes, that’s one of the

things we don’t know yet.”

“Which is exactly our trouble now,” Ertak interposed. “Getting our teeth

into this discipline and mastering it is probably going to take well over

a yearand during that time the Javelin will have swept by the star the

computer has indicated without our having been able to examine it. And this

is the question that I want to raise: Are we going to take the computeis

word for it, without a thorough understanding of the reasons behind the

choice, and plow in to look the place over anyhow? If we do, well be

dealing from the most original kind of ignorance, since at the moment we

very frankly don’t know what the computer is talking about Any opinions?

Yes, Jorn.”

“Long chances are all we have left, Director,” Jorn said. Carefully, he

laid out his reasoning, remembered from’ his arguments with Ailiss back

before the detonation of the Sun, and scarcely thought of since. For the

most part, they still seemed to him to be as valid as ever, though they

were, not to his great surprise, a little tempered by the fact of his new

fatherhood. This time, on the other hand, he had Ailiss on his side-a

rather better prop to his courage than the marriagedissolved Tabath.

“Any rebuttal?” Ertak said. “No? I see no hands raised; nothing but vaguely

disturbed expressions. Well, that’s how I feel myself. Nevertheless, we

will take the chance.”

Excerpts from the Grand Log, as broadcast by the Javelin during preliminary

exploration of the system IEP #5.-

“This appears to be a rather tightly organized eightplanet system whose

original supply of hydrogen separated out from the primal cloud rather

earlier than is

And all the Stars a Stage 147

usual in the formation of new stars, forming a thick shell inside which the

sun involved eventually condensed. This event was evidently very ancient,

since the sun is a second-generation star, implying high stability; and

preliminary studies indicate that it will last in its present phase without

significant change for at least another 2,000 million years-probably longer.

‘The result of this accident, whose causes can now only be conjectured, is

that the three outermost planets of the system are all gas giants of about

equal size, widely separated in orbital distance from each other, and all

so far away from the central sun that even the largest bodies among their

considerable families of satellites cannot maintain atmospheres in gaseous

form. An exception may have to be made for the largest satellite of the

innermost gas giant, a body about 3,500 miles in diameter, which may still

have a very thin atmosphere of neon and other noble gasses, but observation

shows that the remainder of its original envelop now lies frozen on the


“All five other planets in the system are relatively small, dense bodies

drawn close in to the sun, the outermost orbit of this interior system

being at a mean distance of 300 million miles from the primary, and the

innermost at about 42 million. By virtue of their surprisingly different

diameters and densities, all but the innermost of these worlds appear to be

habitable in some degree, and even the innermost-hot and stormy though it

obviously is–cannot entirely be ruled out as an abode of indigenous life.

The outermost, a body about 10,000 miles in diameter and rich in both water

vapor and carbon dioxide, exhibits a frost-line after midnight almost as

far down as the equatorial belt, and it is permanently glaciated in both

its northern and its southern sixths; but the tem-

148 fames Blish

peratures at noon range from hot along the equator to freezing at about 250

N. and S. latitude. As a result the prevailing planetary weather may be de-

scribed as violent, but by no means intolerable.

“The three planets bracketed by these two extremes are all livable, and in

fact the spectroscope shows that life has arisen on all three. The fourth

planet outward from the sun, a world 9,000 miles in diameter with one very

large moon and two small ones, is particularly verdant, and close

inspection shows that both the planet and the large moon were in fact

occupied at one time. The lunar installation is a featureless metal dome.

The planet can be seen to bear many large stone and metal artifacts

suggesting cities, now obviously quite silent and deserted. Pending

exploration, their age, origin and fate remain conjectural.

“We are not yet able to say upon what basis our computer selected this

extraordinarily promising system, but hope to accumulate more data after

planetfall. Stand by.”

The hammer fell. As the Javelin began to settle complacently into the

outermost reaches of the atmosphere of that abandoned, incredibly rich

planet, the smooth, blown-steel, pilot-fish shapes of the blind little

ships came raining down around her out of the blackness, spitting needles

of white fire. The computer rang all its bells at once, radio heat red

orange yellow green blue indigo violet ultra-violet X-ray and panic, but it

was too late. Above the bubble ships which were seeing to it that the

Javelin continued to go down, turret-bumpy forts as big as small moons

crashed into orbit out of nothingness, indifferently forcing the entire

metrical frame of local space-time to bear their malignant tumorous masses

with groans profound enough to be heard, should anyone with

And all the Stars a Stage 149

ears for gravitational waves be listening, almost to the center of the


The computer yelled its mechanical horror so loudly in the control barrel

of the lavelin that it was almost impossible to think. After a brief moment

of fury and bafflement, Ertak cut its power; and then, for thirty seconds

of ringing, desperate silence, he turned his back on the barrel and pressed

his temples with the heels of his hands.

“We are fordone,” he said at last in a high, white voice. ‘We will maintain

our landing trajectory. We have no other choice. Ailissl”

“Great Ghost. Yes, Director.”

“Try to raise someone out there. Find out what they want; try to convince

them that we’re harmless. They’ve got us-there’s no other way out.”

There was no doubt about that. The hull of the lavelin was banging

continuously with the admonitory small shot from the bubble ships,

obviously not intended to wound the great clumsy interstellar vessel much,

but only to see to it with a fusillade of whipcracks that she came to

ground conveniently near her proper cow-barn. She could no longer see the

landing place she had picked for herself; suddenly the quiet atmosphere

into which she had been settling was aroil with black storms, blinking and

bursting with gigantic, jagged lightning-bolts.

‘No,” Ailiss said,_ in a hoarse whisper. “Ob, no.”

The beautiful black creature on the screen smiled at her, but without


“And why not?” he said, in a voice as deep and rich as that of an organ.

“You cannot say no to us. You never could. You were stupid to try; and now

ies far too late. Too bad-anywhere else, you might have gotten away with


As Afliss swallowed and attempted to muster an

150 fames Blish

answer, he burst into a peal of musical, glistening black-and-white

laughter. There was no humor in it, though there was a great deal of joy: it

was the amusement of a demon, part delight, part calculation, and part the

compulsive wbicker of insanity.

While the laughter died away, they had time to realize that this tall black

man-thing without lashes, brows or hair which glittered at them from the

screen like volcanic glass spoke their language as fluently as through he

had been born to it-and as contemptousIy as though he had picked it up

entirely just yesterday afternoon.

“You’re making a mistake,” Ailiss said, with the sudden prim severity of a

schoolteacher. “We’re not doing you any harm.”

“No, indeed. Nor will you. We’ve been listening to you talk to yourselves

ever since your probe picked us up; we know what’s on your mind-and we know

about your other starsbips waiting outside. We mean to make an example of

you. This system is ours.”

ney may wind up making an example of you,” Miss said, seizing instantly

upon the slight apparent error. “For that matter, we are not as helpless

as you think. We could very well plant nuclear bombs in a good many of your

cities before we’re forced down.”

“The cities are empty,” the black man said indifferently. “Do you know why

you didn’t detect us until now? We evacuated this planet completely when we

heard you coming, and shut down electromagnetic activity throughout our

system. If your main force looks too strong for us, why then we won’t be

found; and if it isn’t—!’

Symbolically he cut his throat, with a gesture an the more shocking for its

complete-and completely spurious-familiarity.

Ertak, out of sight of the, screen, beckoned to Jorn,

And all the Stars a Stage 151 motioning for silence. Jorn

walked over to him, and tried to understand his pointing

finger and odd gestures. Kambfin understood first, and once he

fumblingly began to carry out the action, Jorn could see what

was wanted: a jury-rigged “take-off” sequence without benefit

of the computers. It looked like sheer suicide, but there was

no time to argue; he could no more successfully rig such a

thing than Kamblin could. He buzzed crew”s quarters for the

armorer; she seemed to arrive almost before he took his finger

off the button. She looked once, nodded once, and got to work.

“I can see that you don’t have an interstellar drive of your own,” Ailiss’

voice went on. “You’d be better off dealing with us, instead of shooting at

us. We may have a good many other things you might want.”

“An interstellar drive is of no use to us,” the black man said. “And if it

were, we would invent it ourselves. I demean myself by talking to a race

that could make such an offer. Death and destruction to you all.”

The screen went dark. Ailiss wrung suddenly trembling hands.

“Ailiss, no time now for shock reactions,” Ertak said in a voice as bleak

as lava. “Come here and see what we’re doing-and don’t say anything aloud

about it. I don’t know whether our friend can overhear us when we’re off

the air or not, but I don’t want to take any chances. Do you understand

this rig?”

“Mmmm … yes, Director.”

“All right, it’s your job to run it, understand? just as you would a more

conventional thing of its kind. Pick your own, uh, target, and don’t

stint-do you follow me?”


“I know all the ‘buts’ just as well as you do,” Ertak

152 fames Blish

said. “We’ve got no time for them. You’ve got fifteen seconds to

familiarize yourself with the apparatus, starting now.” He snatched up a

microphone. “To ALL



Those ten seconds seemed preternaturally quiet to jorn, despite the

screaming of the atmosphere and the clangor of the missiles against the

hull. Five

four … three … two … one.. .

With a rasping roar from the drive, more thunderous and ugly than any sound

it had ever made before, the Javelin rolled on her axis and clawed skyward,

on full emergency acceleration.

The nearest fort got off a shot at her as she passed, already doing 200

miles per second and building more velocity every instant. The shot was a

clean missluckily, for a few thousand miles to starboard-and-rear some

metallic bit of meteoric trash triggered its proximity fuse and it

blossomed out into a megaton fusion explosion.

But from now on, for a while, the Javelin would be an increasingly better

target. If the black creatures bad a drive fast enough to enable them to

colonize all their planets economically, furthermore, there would still be

a considerable gauntlet to run.

The gabble of venom and fury spewing after them by radio did not suggest

that the creatures would simply be glad to see them go. The ranging shots

were coming closer-

But in fact the battle was effectively over. Had the fifth planet not been

on the other side of the sun at the time, the outcome might have been


And all the Stars a Stage 153 but as events actually fell out,

there was only a stern chase, in which the Javelin proved to

have the advantage all the way. The ranging shots fell farther

and farther behind; and then, finally, they stopped.

“Radio silence until we pass the light barrier,” Ertak ruled, mopping his

brow. “And we’ll keep the computer off, too. I strongly suspect that those

devils could overhear it thinking, if they could pick up its probes from

three light years out-and if it is in some sort of contact with computers

in the other ships, so much the worse. After we pass light speed, we’ll

risk using my communicator to pass the word, but not before.”

He turned toward his quarters, steadying himself with one band against a

bulkhead; suddenly he seemed to be all gone at the knees. Jorn could well

understand why; he was grateful that be himself was already sitting down.

Then, surprisingly the Director turned back.

“Masterly piloting, Ailiss,” he said. “And not as rough as I expected; but

Doctor, you’d better check around for injuries. Jorn, you’d better find out

where we’re headed.”

And then be vanished.

Her drivers still snarling under the maximum emergency overload, the

Javelin raced outward from her second defeat.

And this one, Jorn sensed dimly, was crucial. It would never be completely

forgotten; eventually, if any of them survived, it might retreat into the

mists of mythology, but it could never be expunged from the racial memory.

It was one thing to be driven off a verdant world by blind natural forces

… and quite another to be scourged away with whips and con-

154 James Blish

tempt, by a people very like their own-whose last words had been a promise

of undying hatred for so long as any member of either race remained alive.

It was a heavy blow.


In this jorn was both right and wrong; for he did not know that they were

not done biting that bullet yet. It was over, as far as he was concerned,

when the defeat had been recorded in the Grand Log, in terms as unemotional

as possible, for the benefit of the few ships that were left who could still

take part in that communal rite.

Staring into the plotting tank only five years later, he saw with hypnotic

gloom how few their numbers had become: only nine, counting the Javelin, of

that original thirty-one.

Watching the tank had become one of his main hobbies these days, especially

since Kasi bad become a teen-ager, and become abruptly both incompreben-

sible and-he could hardly bear to admit it-a little hateful. He had set the

tank up originally on the pretext that it would be an aid to navigation;

there was nobody to say him nay, especially since time, power and materials

for it had been plentiful, but it bad in fact never been of much use. More

recently, he bad


156 James Blish

begun to entertain the faint hope that it might offer some clue to the


That was about all there was to see in the tank: lights winking out, faster

and faster-much more rapidly, in fact, than even tottering old Kamblin~s

original extrapolation had predicted. It seemed to jorn that the positions

and rates of the disappearances might yet reveal some pattern, and thus

re-infuse at least a faint shade of meaning into the scraps and ghosts of

the armada. But the few arcs and chords of the original sphere that were

left for the plotter to work on were too scattered to provide sufficient

data; and now the tank was only one more well-spring of despair, with jorn

hanging over it like an impotent god, waiting year after year for another

world to dim and go out.

“Why do you keep watching that thing?” a dry, whispery voice said behind

him. He straightened, cautiously-he was a little creaky lately. The voice

was Kamblin7s, of course; he had been the last of the officers but jorn to

lose interest in the tank, but lose it he had, finally.

“I don’t quite know. The Ghost knows I don’t have any hope of seeing

anything significant in it any more. But it fascinates me, somehow.”

“I can see that,” Kamblin said. “I suppose I can see why, too. But I can’t

stand it any more myself. It depresses me too much.”

“Well, I’m beyond that, maybe. I don’t know… Ailiss tells me you were in

to see the Director this morning. Any news?”

“No good news,” Kamblin said, twisting his mouth wryly. “I’m afraid he’s

not going to be with us much longer.”

“I suppose you’re right, but it’s hard to believeI thought he’d last

forever. My, he’s younger than

And all the Stars a Stage 157

you are … and be’s had these fits of being in isolation before. He always

comes out, when there’s any real need for him.”

“He!s a sick man,” Kamblin said heavily. “Sick in his mind. This business

with the black devils … well, of course, you don’t know the whole story.”

I was there,” Jom said, a little huffily.

“That!s not what I mean. I don’t suppose theres any harm in your knowing

about it now. You see, those creatures were never there at all.”

“Never there … I Excuse me, Dr. Kamblin, but they made some remarkably

real dents in the lavelin.”

‘I know. Let me begin at the beginning. Didn’t it strike you that that

black man was more than A little insane, going to such lengths to destroy

one ship, and refusing even to consider that we might have sornething to

offer him? And he was the only one of them we ever saw; he made decisions

that only the chief person of the entire system could have made-but under

what circumstances would such a personage be in direct command of a fleet?

“Then there was his claim that they had evacuated a whole planet, in

something under six months, just to trap one ship-ours. Not very easy, or

very logical either. But he also claimed that they had maintained strict

electromagnetic silence from the moment they overheard our computer until

the time they jumped us. Tell me, Jorn, is that possible?”

“Well, with chemical rockets … but then tberes communications, logistics

… No, you’re right, it isn’t possible. No electromagnetics, no


“Very good, now we reach step two: To maintain a high energy civilization,

you must have power-lots of it. Yet he claimed that they shut themselves

down entirely for six months in order to hide themselves from us; and he

said they would do it again if our

158 James Blish

imaginary ‘main body’ proved to be too big for them to handle. For how long

could they have done that? Supposing this main body had decided to stick

around indefinitely? Would the black people have just remained in hiding,

living on roots, until they froze to death? Not very likely.”

“Hmmm. But the electromagnetic silence was perfectly real; we sampled

continuously, and never heard a whisper, beyond whatever it was that the

computer first picked up.”

“Right,” Kamblin said solemnly. “The silence was real; therefore the

high-energy civilization was not You can’t shut a high-energy civilization

down that far without exterminating it, it’s just plain impossible. And if

Ertak hadn’t cut the power to the computer when we were attacked, we might

have found that out in time. That was one of the things the computer was

ringing its alarms about; it detected right away that the entire attack was

being directed from a single central source-tbat big metal dome on the

large moon. Now it makes sense, you see: you can shut down the energy

output of a single installation to a trickle, and shield the trickle,

except for detectors; and if the detectors are transistorized they don’t

make enough noise to be overheard from space.

“And once we turned the computer back on again and fed the tapes of the

attack to it, it immediately identified the broadcast of the black man as

coming from the same source. Furthermore, it identified the black man

himself as a solidigraph-a construct. So we never really saw even one black

man; we saw a synthetic image, and heard a synthetic voice. The computer

also says that what was actually doing the speaking-the being with which

Ailiss was really talking-was itself a computer.”

And all the Stars a Stage 159

“Great Ghost,” Jorn whispered. “But, couldn’t there have been–2′

“A real such race? Yes, we think so. But there are two more things to be

added. While we were in our aborted landing orbit around that planet, we

were photographing continuously, as a matter of course; and the pictures

show that all the cities over which we passed were in a fairly uniform

stage of ruin, Secondly, we passed over the spot which later turned out to

be the place where our attackers wanted us to land; and after this matter

came up, we examined that site closely.

“It evidently had been a landing field, a large spaceport, at one time in

the distant past. Its completely overgrown now, and you can only see its

bare outlines. You can also see two wrecks. One of them is about three

hundred years old, if we have interpreted the vegetation around it

correctly. It looks rather like the lavelin in general design. The other

one is such a ruin that almost nothing can be told about it, except that

it’s of completely different design. I would like to guess that the more

recent of the two might have been a refugee from the Great Nova, but of

course, that’s just my romantic nature speaking.

“Given this much, however, we can put the story together. The black race

obviously was real, and it was probably just as proud and hostile as was

the ghost of it we encountered-after all, the computer involved had to

build its solidigrapb and its social attitudes from stored data, it

couldn’t invent them. Maybe the race was visited by an interstellar

squadron once, and was sufficiently panicked to fortify against any such

visitor again; so they built the lunar station, equipping it to act the

moment it detected an intruder, long before the people themselves could.

“After a while-who can guess bow long a while?-160 James Blish

the computer malfunctioned. It went mad, if you like. It decided that the

black race itself was the invader against which it was instructed to act,

and it so acted. If each of the two wrecks we saw was a refugee from a

separate supernova explosion, as we are, then that race has been dead at

least six hundred years, and probably more. The cities are in poor enough

shape to support that estimate. But the trap is still there, and it very

nearly made us its third victim-or, counting the black race, its fourth.”

For a while Jorn could think of nothing to say. At last, he found one

unanswered question:

“So then if we’d just bombed that lunar installation -but how long ago did

you find this out? Wasn’t there any other ship nearby who could have gone

in there and done what we failed to do? It would be easy enough to pretend

to walk into the trap, and then hit the lunar station with a fusion

salvo-and after that, that whole beautiful system—”

“Yes, I know,” Kamblin said. “That’s what’s hurting the Director’s sanity.

He could have sent a message to the Quarrel; she was still close enough,

though we weren’t any longer.

“But he didn’t. And now it’s too late. We lost our opportunity.”

The story, like a worm at the heart of a fruit,

gnawed incessantly at Jorn, for * no reason that he

could put his finger on. It was tragic, sureIy-not only

for them, but for the earlier explorers, and even for

the black race, for whom Jorn could now feel nothing

but pity. But none of this explained why he woke

up, day after day, with the awful feeling that he had

somehow missed the point.

It was a dream that gave him the clue: a peculiar nightmare, more

depressing at first even than the

And all the Stars a Stage 161

nightmare of daily living because of its apparent meaninglessness. He had

had similar ones before. As when, be was about to graduate from engineering

school, and facing one last comprehensive test in some subject-just which

one he could not afterwards say, if indeed it was identified in the dream at

all-and realized suddenly that he had never, during the entire .course, paid

the least attention to what the teacher had said, or even opened the book;

in fact, be could not specifically remember ever having attended a class. At

this he sat bolt upright, banging his forehead against the bottom of Ailiss’

bunk, and said hoarsely-

“The computerl”

“Uhm? Whassa?”

“Nothing. An idea. Sorry-”

By the end of the next morning the plotting tank bad finally ceased to be

an old man~s toy. With the aid of Sergeant Strage, the aged but still

incredibly deft armorer, he had wired its output end into the computer,

with specific shunts to that section of the insensate brain where the new

mathematical discipline was stored. Then he sat back and waited it out.

He did not have to wait long. Within half an hour the computer was showing

more activity than had been evident since the disastrous retreat from the

dead devils; and within an hour after that, it uncoiled a long tongue of

tape which Jorn’s trembling hands nearly tore in two as he tried to look at


For the merely human brain studying it, several weeks were required to see

what the machine was driving at; during the last stages, Jorn had to enlist

Kamblin’s knowledge of the recondite mathematical scholium.

“No doubt about it,” Kamblin said at last “This changes a good many

things-and not for the better, either, as usual.”

162 fames Blish

“Well, let me be sure I understand it,” Jom said intensely. “The computer

says that the extinction rates for the lights in the tank were higher in

the wavefronts of the fleet that were proceeding inward, toward the center

of the galaxy. Correct?”

“I’m afraid so. Of course, there’s a little uncertainty–7

“Uncertainty, my eyel I mean, uh, sure, ies far from obvious just from

watching the spots of light in the tank, otherwise I might have seen it

myself; but isn~t that what the equations say?”

“I have to agree.”

“All right, now: If that means anything at all, it means that the galactic

center is not only a center of population for suns, it’s a center of

population for people. Of course, the equations don’t say that, but how

else can you account for such heavy losses? And that’s the way the Javelin

is going now. It looks to me like it would be a damn good idea to change

course. Let’s see what the Director thinks.”

“I doubt very much,” Dr. Kamblin said, “that you will ever find out what

the Director thinks. But I agree that we’d better ask for some extra heads

in discussing our next move.”

They did not find out what the Director thought, he did not appear; Dr.

Chase-Huebner, now shockingly white and withered, spoke for him. Jorn spoke

for himself, but the agreed strategy called for Dr. Kamblin to open.

“So much for the facts,” Kamblin was saying. “Now we are thrown into the

realm of deductions, and from there into the reahn of inferences. To begin

with, obviously as one goes inward toward a center of population-stellar or

otberwise-one’s chances of locating a habitable planet begin to rise. They

go up pretty

And all the Stars a Stage 163

sharply toward the tail of the curve, because the stars at the heart of the

galaxy seem to average about a light year apart, or only a little more. If

everyone is clear about this so far, I will yield the floor to Jorn Birn.”

There seemed to be no questions. Jorn rose slowly. All eyes were on him.

“What I want to point out is this,” he said. “The farther we go toward the

galactic center, the more likely we are apt to meet more advanced,

civilized, colonized, dangerous systems; the more likely we are to meet

someone like the black men and get thrown out, probably with more damage.

Sergeant Strage tells me that the lavelin can no longer survive such a

fight. It’s my opinion that we never could have. We lost the first one we

got into so decisively that were going to have to face up to our own

pretensions. All the military training and weaponry and gimmickry, all our

postures of ferociousness, look now to have been nothing but whistling past

an obvious graveyard-an illimitable one, but all the same a graveyard.”

“That may mean something,” Dr. Chase-Huebner said, “or it may be just


“I’m not the orator type, as you know full well after all these years. Look

at the facts. We proceeded from the start from an assumption-maybe a buried

assumption, but all the same it was there-that we might be able to take

over an inhabited planet by force. Back then, we had the temerity to think

that we might find a world resembling the Akimisov Empire, big, rich and

pre-scientific, that we could push over with determination and a few hand-


“The real fact of our existence, as these equations prove-I’m not so

cautious as Dr. Kamblin-is that our whole armada is nothing but a small


164 fames Blish

force of nomads, advancing steadily farther into the heartland of cultures

far older and bigger than ours. Most of the races that we meet there will

probably be able to blow us all away, with nothing more than a buff or two

of surprised contempt.”

‘Or swallow us up,” Ailiss said surprisingly. “Jorn, if you don’t mind,

perhaps we ought to pause here for a debate on the desirability of being

swallowed by a more advanced culture?”

“I’ve already been swallowed once,” Jorn said grimly. “So have we all, and

here we sit in the bowels of that very whale. I’m frank to say that the

novelty has worn off, and I’m not anxious to be swallowed again by

something whose very nature I can’t even guess.”

“Part of the fleet is going to be swallowed in any event,” Kamblin noted,

with a faint grimace. “And we can only hope that at least some of these

disappearances in that direction mean that the ships involved were

swallowed whole, without having been chewed to bits first. I can’t say that

I opt for that either, Ailiss.’

There was a short silence.

“Well, then,” Dr. Chase-Huebner said, “what is your alternative, Jorn?”

“There’s only one: to tam the ship out of what’s

left of the armada-that’s only a direction now any

how, not a body of anything-and resume cruising

along the galactic spiral arm our old Sun belonged to

. . . just as the Director started us out to do. We aren , t

out of that arm yet, of course. The stars will be sparser

there and the chances of finding a good planet-fall

correspondingly smaller; but all the same I wGuldnt

take us even one light year farther in toward the

galactic center.”

“I oppose it,” Dr. Chase-Huebner said. “There are penalties to pay for such

a policy which I don’t think you have considered. If we adopt it, we

divorce the

And all the Stars a Stage 165

Javelin quite finally from the organism of which it is supposed to be a part

… and I don’t mean just from the remaining tatters of the physical thing,

I agree that that’s only a wraith now, but also from the very notion of

being any longer a part of such an organism. That would deprive us of our

last cultural tie with home and race, weak though that admittedly is. The

results in terms of morale would be disastrous; it would, I think, destroy


“My field,” Ailiss said. “And I disagree. Those ties are already illusory;

and the second generation will not feel them at all. Look around you,

Doctor; we are not young any morel That generation is treading on our heels

and ought to be given its chance. Ws not much of a chance, perhaps, but we

are not empowered to commit suicide for them; that is their decision to

make, not ours.”

“Suicide is an inflammatory term,” Dr. ChaseHuebner said.

“Murder is an even more unpleasant one, Doctor. I thought you would

appreciate my avoiding it.”

“Exactly,” Jorn said. I haven’t heard anybody arguing with the computer’s

equations, or with Dr. Kamblin’s interpretation of them. That’s where we

have to start. They are both perfectly definite and don~t permit of any

argument. All the rest, I am afraid, is emotion -as is signalled by the

fact that we have already degenerated into using loaded words. And I cannot

impress upon you too strongly that every minute we spend now brings us

closer and closer to that enemy, whoever he may turn out to be, who will

burst our bubble for good … and our children’s as well.”

Dr. Chase-Huebner’s lips thinned; it was obvious that she thought she was

being reminded that she had no children aboard.

166 James Blish

“Very well,” she said remotely. “I will present your opinions to the


“Please,” Jorn said, as gently as be could. “That!s not quite how it goes.

Please present our decision to the Director.”

Ailiss’ eyebrows shot up, but she offered no protest. Her old back as

straight as a spear, Dr. ChaseHuebner walked away from them and into the

Director’s quarters. The door closed.

They waited all day, but she did not come out. The next morning, the

middle-aged “cabin boy” found the doorlocked.

But by noon of that day, in response to some extension of control into the

cabin which no one bad suspected even existed, the Javelin began to turn.

The signals in the plotting tank faded precipitously, and went out. At

last, among the miniature symbols of stars, there were only two ship lights

left: The Quarrel, and the Javelin herself.

But at least, Jorn told himself, it had been by their own decision … not

only because of some failure of the Ertak Effect generators, or by some

increase in the malice of the absolutely unknowable, but by deliberate

action of the Javelin’s own crew. It was all but over; the umbilical cord

bad been cut.

Kamblin joined him beside the tank.

What do you think will happen to them?” Jorn said.

“I have no evidence to go on,” Kamblin said in a quiet, distant voice, as

though he were half asleep, or very far away. “From now on, Jorn, it’s

going to be all guesses and dares … and we’re a little old for either.”

“Ertak wasn’t too old.”

“No. More power to him. I didn’t really believe … well, no matter now. As

for the fleet, about half of the remains of it is still proceeding


And all the Stars a Stage 167

almost certain encounter with some kind of interstellar empire, if you and

I are right.”

“You adopt my view, then.”

“I have to. As for the rest … well, they are doubtless proceeding outward

toward the galactic edge, and before they get there they will have to cross

the Rift -a term I won’t explain, it almost stops my heart to think of it.

They will find no promising stars there, that’s all that needs to be said.

They will probably not even get to the other side. Of course, some few

ships like the Javelin may still be cruising along the spiral arm, in

diametrically opposed directions, by accident or even by policy. But if

they are, it’s something about which we can’t know now, and will never

know. Thq distances have grown too great; the end of the fleet as an

organism is almost complete. The Javelin is on her own.

Together, they stared down into the plotting tank, the little lights in it

glinting on the wet curves of their blind eyes.

While they watched, the point that was the Quarrel turned slowly russet,

and then crimson. It began to dim.

For a moment, then, it brightened to a sullen orange. As a visible signal

the little light had gone out, but the computer was reporting that it was

still maintaining the pip in the infra-red. Now it was crimson again: a

signal in radio in the tank, but growing longer and longer in wave-length

It flickered, turned sooty, and was gone.

The old men stood like statues over the tank for an indefinite length of

time. No one seeing them could have told for certain whether they were

alive or not, except perhaps by the two tears standing under Kamblin’s


Behind them, at last, there was a fumbling sound;

168 James Blish

and then an uncertain sliding of metal against metaL They turned slowly and

looked up at the bridge.

Ertak’s door was half open; a little light, steamy and dim, spilled out of

it into the control barrel and cast itself into the plotting tank, making

faint glints among the little, hair-fine wires which guided the fields in

that compact planetarium. It turned Kamblin’s face into a skull.

Ertak was moving along the bridge, with the utrnost care. He was so thin

that his joints inside his ancient, tissue-paper uniform seemed far larger

than the shafts of his limbs. High on his agony-bent back the hump rode,

exuberantly strong, pulling at his arms as though demanding him to help

himself. In contrast, he seemed to have no belly left at all.

Somehow he reached the lectern by the communications desk where the Grand

Log was kept. He looked down at it for a while, breathing heavily, but

without seeming to see or to care what was written there. Then, pulling all

his wobbly parts together, he lifted it, and carried it clutched to his

collapsed chest, by inches, into his stateroom.

They could hear him sobbing for breath. just as obviously, he could not.

The door closed, and they heard the slight sound of the lock. Then, ‘with

a dead slam, they heard the Grand Log fall to the deck.

None of them ever saw it again.



jorn was playing Castles with Ailiss in the dimness of their cabin when the

chimes began, soft with distance but quite clear. He paid no attention, nor,

as far as he could see, did she. Almost all of the remains of the original

crew had cabins now, thanks to the fact that the differential birth rate on

the Javelin was negative –or, to put it another way, that there were fewer

births than deaths-and the privacy was all the more valuable for the many

years that they had been without it.

Not that Ailiss was much more than an indifferent player of Castles; she

could think as many moves ahead as jorn could when she wanted to, but she

was given to impulses, and she had never bothered to study the classical

openings and the Great Games; but with Kamblin dead, there was nobody else

on board jorn cared to play with. This time, for a wonder, she was putting

up a passable resistance.

Besides, the dim light was grateful, a privilege in itself. The children

were welcome to the glare of the working areas and ward-rooms of the

Javelin; they


170 James Blish

had been born to it and seemed to prefer it, but it was hard on old eyes.

It was Ailiss’move. After a while, her mouth pursed in an expression of


“I can’t think,” she complained. “Isn’t that thing ever going to stop?”

“Probably. It’s not our job to answer it. You’re in double jeopardy, let me

remind you.”

“I see that. I just keep losing my train of thought, with those bells

jangling away. Lees declare a recess. Maybe we ought to see what the

trouble is, anyhow.”

“If there’s any trouble, the Director will let us know,” Jorn said

ponderously. “It’s probably just some routine thing. Let the kids handle

it, it’s good practice for them.”

“Jorn, my dear, how long has it been since you last saw the Director?”

Jorn frowned. It seemed an irritatingly minor question. ‘I can’t say.

Several years.”

“Has it occurred to you that he might be dead?”

“Frequently. However, there have been meals coming in and going out of

there all that time, and somebody’s been eating them.”

‘That could be the doctor. Anyhow, I think we ought to go to the control

barrel and take a look. Unless my memory has gone bad entirely, that’s

Yellow Warning One we’re hearing.”

Jorn sighed and pushed himself carefully back from the board. “I hope not,”

he said; but he followed her out, all the same, wincing as the fluorescent

light came pouring through the open door.

They shuffled toward the barrel, favoring their individual arthritides with

the unselfconsciousness of long resignation. Looking at the ship around him

closely for the first time in many months, Jorn found good reason to renew

his wish that no planet-fall was

And all the Stars a Stage 171

being foreshadowed. It was not only that he personally had been disappointed

more than often enough already-he could still, he told himself, see the

course of that apathy dispassionately for what it was. But in addition, the

javelin was shabby. The children bad been keeping her running, at least as

far as her essential services were concerned, but they had not been keeping

her up . . . and where little negligence are allowed, big ones are sure to

come creeping after, unnoticed until it is too late.

Well, perhaps that’s our fault, too-all of us on the original crew. They

never had the training we had. We were too old and tired and discouraged to

give it to them, even if we’d had all the facilities. And of course, you

can’t expect anything of passengers …

The thought faltered. It was hard to bear in mind that there were very few

passengers any more. They bad outnumbered the crew enormously at the start,

he seemed to recall. But somehow they had failed to breed, in anything like

sufficient numbers. Odd, when you thought about it; what else had they had

to do?

There were not very many people in the control barrel, and of these Jorn

and Ailiss recognized only two: their daughter Kasi and her new husband, a

hard-voiced, cock-sure youngster whom Jorn could barely stand. Ailiss

seemed to be able to put up with him a little better, if only for Kasi’s

sake. He had been in training to be Kamblin’s replacement at the time of

the latter’s death, but how much astronomy he actualIy knew was an open

question. Hearing him talk, in that arrogant, know-it-all voice of his,

Jorn sometimes got the fleeting impression that he did not think of stars

as being real objects at all, but only dots with certain arbitrary

properties which he had been forced to learn by rote. His name was Monel.

He did not appear to be so cock-sure at the

172 James Blish

moment, however. Like everyone else in the barrel, he was standing at his

post but not doing anything, his glance going from the door of Ertak’s

quarters, to the computer, and back again to the door.

The door did not open.

“How long has this been going on?” Jorn demanded.

“About five minutes, Father,” Kasi said.

“Tbat’s already too long. If the Director doesn1 appear in another five,

we’ll have to take action ourselves.” The decision came out with great

reluctance; but anything was better than this agony of suspended doubt,

ringing with the chimes of the computer.

“And then?” Ailiss said.

“I don’t know. I suppose we’ll have to break into the cabin, just to make

sure that he’s dead … that they’re both dead.”

As an afterthought, Jorn started to cut the bells from the computer, and

then, remembering the last time such a step had been taken, decided against

it. Better to give Ertak, or Dr. Chase-Huebner, every possible opportunity

to hear them, if they were going to within the time limit.

The bells chimed away at the minutes. At last Jorn said, “All right,” and

cut off the sound. “Somebody get a drill.”

The whirring cutter bit into the tough metal of the bulkhead. It was heavy

work; in seconds the business end of the tool was white hot. The boy

wielding it sweated over his work, frowning with absurdlyfierce

concentration, his teeth slightly bared. After a while, he had a

quarter-circle cut around the main dog, the one which carried the lock. He

paused to push his wet hair back out of his eyes.

The annunciators cleared their throats, all at once. Jorn started and

looked up, automatically.

And all the Stars a Stage 173

“Rrch. Rk. Tsu’arr hamds. Rk. Arr hamds. Yerrow Warming. Wum. Rk. Yerrow

Warming Ome.”

The sound sputtered and popped, and then the carrier hum cut off again.

Everyone turned to look at jorn, but he had no answers; no more did Ailiss.

The voice had been a little like Ertak’s. It had also been a little like

Dr. Chase-Huebner’s, though in reality, he recalled, these two had never

sounded in the least alike.

jorn spread his hands helplessly.

“Whoever it is, they’re sick,” he said. “We’d better get in fast. Resume


“Arrchk. Arr hamds. Rk.”

The cherry-red half-disc of metal canted suddenly, and then fell on the

other side of the door. The boy put the cutter down carefully and yanked

the two unlocked dogs free, pushing open the door and walking through it

without waiting for orders.

Then he put his band over his mouth and tried to get out again, but he

could not entirely baffle the press of people pushing after him; somehow

the word had been passed, and the control barrel was almost crowded now. He

was sick in their midst before he could break free into the barrel itself.

The rest sidled slowly into the cabin along the walls, less because they

wanted to than because the pressure of people behind them made it


It was wholly incredible. Certainly the youngsters could not have

understood it; though they could clearly see that it was horrible, they

could hardly begin to guess where the real horror lay. They lacked the data

for any such awareness.

At first glance, jorn thought that the wizened old lady was still alive. It

was only long minutes later, at third or fourth look, that he saw that the

open eyes were dull and unwinking, and that she was in fact

174 James Blish

almost mummified. She was seated on the deck, leaning against the hult her

mouth sagging open on one side.

Ertak, nude except for a few scraps, lay on his bunk, looking even smaller

than the woman. His great shoulders and chest had somehow vanished; in

death it could be seen that his frame had in fact been perfectly normal for

his height and weight. He too looked quite dried out, so that it was

impossible to guess how long he had been dead; but appearance alone both of

them might have been lying there for months, though their “Cabin boy” had

spoken to one of them-he did not know which-through the door only two days


But all this was secondary to the central terror. In the middle of the deck

there lay coiled the serpentine shape of a familiar so huge that jorn did

not at first even recognize it for what it was. Its head was as big as a

large book … and as the invaders tried to press back against the inward

urging of the curious people outside, it raised that head from the floor.

“Rreh,” it said, in a hoarse feminine parody of Ertak’s voice. “Rk. Arr

hamds. Tsu arr hamds.”

At the very center of its coils, in the geometric center of the cabin,

there rested a smooth, dully shining sphere, about the size and shape, and

even almost the color, of an apple.

“Out,” jorn croaked. “Everybody out. Who’s Sergeant Strage’s successor?

Never mind yet-out, quickl”

The familiar watched them go, her head weaving back and forth slightly.

jorn was the last one; and with more courage than he had ever dreamed he

possessed, he stopped on the sill to look around the cabin for the Grand


If it was still there, it was nowhere in sight Then he found himself

looking first into the eyes of the

And all the Stars a Stage 175

mummified woman, and then into the eyes of the familiar.

“Yerrow Warming Ome,” the voice rasped. “Arr hamds. Arr hands.”

He fled, and the bulkhead was secured behind him by willing, shaking hands.

“Great Ghost,” someone quavered. “What … what is that?”

He did not answer for a few minutes. He could not have spoken had he wanted


“The armorer,” he croaked at last.

“That!s Prin Tober,” Kasi said in a bushed voice. “I’ve called her,


“Call her again. Tell her to bring a flame-thrower.”

“Jorn-” Ailiss said hesitantly.

“Yes. Now it’s up to you, Ailiss.”

“No, no, I-I just wanted to ask a question. My me?’

“Because you’re in command now. Ertak’s dead, the doctor’s dead, the

stand-by captain died on Salt Flats, Kamblin’s dead. That leaves you.”

‘Absolutely not,” Ailiss said, sounding a little surer of herself. “I

relinquish it, formally and officially. I Will not be in command over my own

husband-not at my age.”

“Well,” Jorn said drily, “since I’m the last other officer, I’m getting at

least one order from you: Take over. All right. Where’s that girl?”

“Here, Director,” a voice at his right said. He was still too deeply in

shock to take more than marginal notice of the title. He was a little too

old now to be tickled by such gauds, anyhow. He was even less able to

notice how completely, in only half a century, the last faint traces of the

Matriarchy had vanished.

He looked the girl over, bearing in mind that she had not seen what still

awaited them inside the Diree-

176 James Blish

tor’s cabin. She was sturdy, flat-footed, straight-haired, and her gaze was

direct and matter-of-fact; very much like his first memory of Sergeant

Strage, in fact, though, of course, much younger. She held the flamethrower

as though she knew how to use it. He decided that she would do.

He walked to his desk, unlocked a drawer, and retrieved his side-arm,

checking it as he returned to the enigmatic and fatal door. It had been a

long time since he had even worn it, let alone used it, but it seemed to be

all right. It was armed, and would fire.

“A couple of the boys are going to undog that bulkhead for you,” he told

the youthful armorer. “As soon as it swings open, and you’re sure that the

boys are in the clear, I want you to cut loose. No matter what you see, no

matter what, burn that room out. I’ll be right behind you, covering you.


‘Yes, Director. All ready.’ She planted her feet, standing directly in

front of the cabin, her tanks of fuel and propellant hunched high on her

sturdy back, the flame-thrower canted slightly downward in her gloved

hands, her mask pulled down over her face.

“All right.” jorn drew a deep breath. “Open up.”

The dogs fell and the door swung inward. jorn bad only the briefest of

glimpses inside, but it was more than be wanted.

“Rk. Yerrow Warming-”

The flame-thrower gushed inferno. Despite his promise, jorn had to fall

back immediately, his eyes streaming. The girl stood where she was, an

immobile form of solid black framed in a panel of intolerable bright yellow


Inside the cabin there was a single high-pitched squeak, like the pinch of

air escaping from a balloon; and then, a small, muffled detonation. The

curtain of

And all the Stars a Stage 177

yellow fire seemed to ripple, and the armorer took one step back.

. The flame-thrower died out with a sputter of black smoke. Everyone was

coughing. The aperture to the hell that had been the cabin glowed cherry,

then crimson, and finally went black, but waves of beat continued to wbehn

out from it. The girl pushed up her mask.

‘Cleaned out, Director.”

“Thank you,” Jorn said, swallowing hard. “Well done. Very well done.” He

could think of nothing more adequate to say. She must have looked for at

least a second into that room, and into those eyes; but she had not even


“Nothing to it,” she said, shaking a last little spatter of fire-drops from

the nozzle of the flame-thrower onto the deck. “I’m glad I finally got to

use it for something.”

She marched out, disconnecting her hoses as she went. forn wondered

crazily: has she no curiosity at all? But Sergeant Strage wouldn’t have

had, either.

“What’s next?” Monel said. He seemed, to Jorn’s secret and malicious

pleasure, to be a little dazed.

“We’ve got a Yellow Warning,” be said. “Pull the tapes and look them over.

That’s your job, isn’t it? When you’ve got a digest of what’s on them,

report to me in my cabin-no later than tomorrow noon.”

“The tapes? Oh, of course. Yes, all right.”

“No, it’s not all right. Try again.”

The youngster looked up, startled, into his fatherin-law’s eyes. Then his

expression turned slightly sullen.

“Yes, Director.”

Unfortunately, Kasi chose this moment to giggle. That was not going to

improve matters. All the same,

178 James Blish

Jorn enjoyed it. His small streak of sadism was one of his few remaining


“Ailiss, let’s go.” Heads high, the Director and his consort walked

arthritically out of the control barrel.

“Now, Director,” Ailiss said sardonically over the Castles board, “tell me

what you make of that affair, or I won~t make another move, double jeopardy

or no double jeopardy.”

“I’d make more of it if I knew more about synthetic biochemistry,” Jorn

said reluctantly. “I never saw a familiar that size before and I didn’t

know it was possible. But Ertak was old and he never married, so I suppose

be had the sheer time for it-though he must have pampered her beyond

belief, enough to make him quite sick now and then.”

“I knew that much,” Ailiss said. “It was his own special vice. There are a

few other cases in the literature, though none of them are this extreme.

His mother tried to–.!’

“His mother?”

‘Yes. Dr. Chase-Huebner. He was a reject of the Chase line. That’s how he

got her into The Project; she felt guilty at having made Jon Huebner such

a favorite, and a partner in her cancer research and so on, and having

dumped her earlier son. When Ertak got to be an eminent scientist in his

own right, he had a club he could use, and he did.”

Jorn stared at his wife with new eyes. “And you knew this all the time?”

“Well, ever since she tried to persuade him to give up the familiar before

take-off. She couldn’t make him; she was afraid to try. Otherwise, you’d

have had to give up Tabath, and the same for all the other bachelors.”

And all the Stars a Stage 179

“Great Ghost. Hmm. How many of them are there aboard ship now, do you


“None, I’m almost sure,” Ailiss said. “Everyone sur~ viving from the first

generation is married; and of course, we couldn~t make new familiars for

the male children, we diddt have the laboratory to reproduce them.” The

wrinkles at the comers of her eyes suddenly deepened sharply. “Though from

what I saw back up there, she’d solved that problem. Quite an achievement,

when you look at it dispassionately.”

‘Yes. An egg. Thafs what I took that apple-thing to be, too. But only on

intuition.” He stared down at the still-incomplete game on the Castles

board. “And you were asking me what I thought of all thisl You might as

well go on. Why did she do it?”

“Do what?”

“Dodt dodge, Ailiss, this is your field. Why did she help her son’s

familiar to make the egg?”

“If I told you that you would go out of your own mind.”

“There seem to be a good many things that you dodt tell,” he said stiffly.

“There are some things I dont tell until I’m asked,” she said, “and some I

dodt tell even then. You want an explanation? It depends on who died first.

Well never know that now, and we might never have been able to figure it

out; obviously the familiar was living off the corpses’ body fluids, which

was a new departure in itself. But if he died first, then she knew the

familiar would die soon after unless she could get it to reproduce; strong

though it was, it needed some new emotional attachment. And she still felt

that she owed him something. So … I suppose you could say that the egg

was her grandchild.”

jorn choked, nearly upsetting the board.

“You see?” Ailiss saicL “Where would it get me,

180 fames Blish

peddling that kind of information to anybody who asked for it? The first

thing a psychologist learns is to keep her mouth shut around laymen.” She

reached out and picked up a charger, twiddled it judiciously, and moved it

from here to there.

“I can see why … She must have been crazy, poor old woman. You know, I

almost loved her once, old though she was even when we met.”

“Of course, I know,” Ailiss said. ‘And if it comforts you any, she wasn’t

crazy at all. She was being quite normal. I haven’t given you the real

explanation, and I don’t plan to, either … All right, that’s my move; and

now you’re in jeopardy, Director.”

There was a decorous knock at the door of their cabin. It was divinely well

timed, from Jorn’s point of view; though he spent the rest of his life

wondering what he would have said next, nothing satisfactory ever occurred

to him.

The knocker was Monel. He was being very stiff and formal.

“The tapes, Director.”

“Very good,” Jorn said, trying to regroup some of the scraps of his

dignity. “Report.”

“Ies a yellow dwarf star, sir, forty-one hundred light years from our point

of origin; surface temperature about fifty-five hundred degrees. The

computer says ten planets, possibly eleven. No evidence of patterned

electromagnetic activity. The star is third generation and good for about

five thousand million years more at a minimum before it begins to expand.”

“Hmm. Pretty cold star. Anything else?”

“Very little as yet, sir,” the boy said stiffly. “Except that the star is

a double.”

“A double? With planets?”

“Yes, Director. There’s a small white dwarf located

And all the Stars a Stage 181

about half a light year below the south pole of the yellow sun, and their

masses are such that at that distance they have to be in orbit around each

other. les almost a duplicate of the doublet system we passed at extreme

range just a few weeks ago. But the larger star here has planets; we can

even see the biggest one from here, just barely.”

“I see. Very good. Dismissed.”

‘Mank you, sir. Uhm … Director?”

“What is it?”

‘Do you have any further orders, sir?”

Jorn frowned. He did not; that was his trouble. It was, of course, remotely

possible that the lonely and decrepit Javelin had finally found herself a

stop, but it was not very likely-sureIy not in a system as outr6 as this

one. One more Yellow Warning like this and he would be convinced for good

and all that the computer, like the one the black men had devised and

entrusted their fate to, was deranged; none of its choices, now that he

came to think of it, had ever been very close to the model it was supposed

to have been set to scan for.

And did they really want a stop? Now, after all this time? They were in no

shape to fight for a planet, not only with hostile natives, but even with

blind nature. It would be so much easier simply to glide onward forever.

Now that they could be sure that they were not likely to run head-on into

the dangers and mysteries of the galactic center, they might continue to go

uneventfully along parallel to the rim until death solved their problems,

and no longer have to cope at all with their old, foolish notions of having

had some definite, Elysian goal.

Why not? With Ertak dead, it was suddenly easy to see that the armada

itself had never been more than a daydream, a minute and evanescent

soap-bubble in

182 faines Blish

the eternal silver-and-black silences of the sidereal universe.

“Maintain course,” jorn said. “No further orders at present.”

The boy left. jorn turned back to the board with a sigh to consf der his

next move. He was aware of Ailiss’ eyes upon him, but he did not look up.

He had had enough for one day-or one lifetime. More than enough.


But, as he knew well enough in his heart of hearts, he had finally to make

up his mind. When he came into the control barrel with Ailiss, almost all

the young officers were already gathered, watchful and waiting. Feeling

utterly displaced, he mounted the bridge, and after a while was able to

bring himself to sit down in Ertak’s old chair … though not without a

shudder. Before him was the master screen, with a tiny yellow globe shining,

like a lambent egg, in its geometric center.

“Very well, posts, everyone. Monel, report, please.”

“Director, we have continued on course as you ordered. This has brought us

well inside one light year of the system.”

jorn repressed a start. He should have checked that before issuing any

orders; but what was done was done. “Go on.”

“This is a ten-pIanet system; the presumptive eleventh is actually an

asteroid belt between planets four and five. Number five is the gas giant

first spotted by the computer; it is large but not as large as the one


184 lames Blish

recorded for system IEP number three. Six, seven, eight and ten are also gas

giants of moderate size. Nine is a small dense world about eight thousand

miles in diameter with a very eccentric orbit; presumably it is an escaped

satellite of number eight, which also has four other moons, all much

smaller. Number ten has two moons, and number seven has five. Numher six has

twelve, including a large one, plus a small asteroid belt of its own, which

the spectroscope shows to be mostly ice. Number five has fourteen

satellites, three of them large. None of these bodies are livable. Then

comes the asteroid belt, followed by four small dense planets, two of which

appear to be inhabitable.”

“Two of them? Around so cold a star?”

“Yes, Director. Number four is small and cold and wouldn’t support us

except under domes, but it shows traces of water and indigenous simple

plant life. Number three is a binary, consisting of one planet about two

thousand miles in diameter and one of about eight thousand miles, revolving

around each other. The smaller body is quite dead and meteor-battered and

obviously never had any atmosphere to speak of. The larger is almost an

exact duplicate of our home world in many important respects, according to

the computer, except that it has much more extensive bodies of water. The

land areas show a few limited deserts, but for the most part are completely

covered with plant life, apparentlyVery complex. This binary system is at

a mean distance from the primary of about ninety-three million miles. The

two innermost planets are not inhabitable.”

As close as that? jorn thought. Thaes no good. One really extensive solar

flare, and-

But life took a long time to arise. Evidently there hadn’t been any solar

flare big enough to be dangerous for some 500 mfflion years, at the least.

And all the Stars a Stage 185

‘How quiet is the star, Monel?”

“Very quiet, Director. It`s a micro-variable. judging by spot types, the

longest period would seem to be about ten years. During that time the solar

constant may vary by about two per cent—certainly no more.”

“I see. What is the situation in the binary system itself? The dynamical


‘Stable, Director. The two worlds are about a quarter of a million miles

apart, and separating slowly, because of tides in the oceans I mentioned.

The tidal friction appears as an increase in the angular momentum of the

smaller planet; but it’s very slight.”

There went another possible out. Jorn sighed.


There was a long silence. Finally he realized that they were waiting for

him to turn around. When he did so, Monel’s hand was raised.

“Go ahead, Monel.”

“Director, we know that this isn’t exactly the kind of star that the

computer is supposed to favor. But we ask leave to remind you that our

generation can’t share your prejudices in the matter, or the computer’s

either. We have never seen a blue-wbite super-giant star except in

pictures-and in one of those pictures, we saw it blow up. If this little

yellow star has a livable planet, we think we ought to try it. There’s-

there’s something to be said for a star thaes good for another five

thousand million years.”

Quite so, Jorn thought, reading the tone as well as the words. And though

you are far from being as excited as we would have been, at your age, about

making another planet-fall, still you’re contemptuous of our laxness; and

convinced that whatever this planet-fall may turn out to involve, youll

make a better job of it than we would have.

And you ought to have the chance. What can it

186 James Blish

matter to the rest of us now, the tiny remnant? One death is as good as

another, if death is what you are courting.

And after Ertak, it was clear that almost anything was better than dying in


‘Very good,” he said. “I agree. We will sit down,”

And then he had to grin as he watched the boy’s tense belligerence sag

sidewise into surprise.

The continents passed across the master screen, and then were replaced,

again and again, by enormous oceans. There was a lot of water here, for


There were also several inarguable cities. Jorn studied the photographs

anxiously, despite his inner resignation; but the towns were uniformly

mud-brick affairs, each structure heaped squatly into a pyramid, with the

levels connected by ramps. Beyond the ziggurats were slums, and beyond

these, enormous acres of tilled fields; it looked as though as many as five

acres were required to feed each and every person in one of these little


The cities were also isolated. The rest of this world was pure jungle. That

there was a sort of civilization arising here could not be argued, but it

was obviously primitive, based upon the most back-breaking, aroundthe-cIock

labor-slave labor, almost beyond question. So it appeared to forn.

An almost microscopically close examination of the giant moon had showed

nothing. It was dead, and always had been. The fourth planet, on . the

other hand, still had rudimentary vegetation; but its surface was cracked

and split and tilted like a vast artillery target by millennia, even by

geological ages of bombardment by large strays from this system’s asteroid

belt If it had ever held advanced forms of lifewhich was in itself very

doubtful, considering the

And all the Stars a Stage 187

p I lanet’s small size they had been bombed out by

more planet-wide concussions than an aching old head

cared to visualize. There was nothing to fear from that


‘We’ll be touching down after the next circuit, Director. Near the spur of

the large southern continent that’s shaped like a big upside-down buskin.”

I see no objection. Let her go, Monel. I think this is it.”

“Yes, sirl”

The Javelin creaked, righted herself, and glided down like a dowager,

dignified, ancient, and more than a little weary. The green world rushed up

to meet her.

She settled. The engines throbbed once and were silent. Was it over at

last-or, once more, just beginning?


“Orders, Director?”

Jorn got painfully up out of the Directoes chair. He bad never been

comfortable in it.

“Prepare your disembarkation party.”

“But … Tests, Director?”

“The party will be your test,” Jorn said, making his way down the stairway

from the bridge to the floor of the control barrel. “We have nobody to man

the laboratories any more; what we need now are guineapigs. I’ll go first;

and if something happens … Ailiss? What is it?”

“A point of privilege, Director,” Jorn’s wife said steadily. “I am as

entitled to be first out as you are. And then if something happens, all the

original crew will be gone, and the children will be in charge. That’s

their privilege, Director.”

Jom could feel the tears coming. He choked them back as best he could; but

he was old … old.

188 James Blish

“I was going to ask you,” he said, not ashamed-no, not really-of the quaver

in his voice. “But I didn’t quite know how… Monel, put out a crane, and

rig us some kind of cab. I’m afraid we won’t be able to manage the ladder.”

They had meant to come back to the favelin: Jorn was always positive about

that But after walking carefully a while, hand in hand, in the singing,

flowerburdened heat, with the heart-stopping blue sky bending above them,

they came to a yellow, rutted road.

There was a man trudging along it, blue-bearded and bronze-skinned. Behind

him he was leading a four-legged animal, gray, with a long mournful face

and long mobile ears, and with a net thrown across its back in which

earthenware jugs and bolts of cloth were entwined. It had a long slim tail

with a tassel, with which it switched incessantly at small insects which

harried it, in absurdly familiar fashion.

The man was dressed in skirts of some skin with the wool still on it; the

wool had been twisted into little decorative tufts. Some part of his

clothing, also, was metal, but it did not seem to be armor, but merely

ceremonial-otherwise he would have shucked it off in the heat He looked at

them, and at their clothing, without any apparent surprise.

He was wholly human. That did not surprise Jorn either. There was, he had

come to suspect, a Model.

Jorn asked the greeting question. The man only nodded, and pointed down the

road, the way he had been going.

“Gerzea,” he said, and beckoned. He tugged at the sad little animal. Jorn

and Affiss, wondering, each grasped a hand in the netting, and followed.

It was a long journey. The man was kind in hfs brutal way, but they were

old. He buried them in the

And all the Stars a Stage 189

sands not far west of the Faiyum, and resumed his pilgrimage; and it may

be also that he forgot them.

But they had come, with all the rest of the civilized world of 3900 B.C., to

within miles of the crowning of the Earth’s first king.



It is written:

That given any one of a thousand million possible paths, life will take

them all;

That worlds which will support life will give birth to it;

That worlds which cannot support intelligent life will be colonized;

And that where both can take place, both will take place.

It is written that this is what the vast, unknowing interstellar stage is

for: To be given consciousness and purpose while its gift of existence


It is written:

That this is a random process;

That in the end all will be darkness and silence again;

But that while it lasts, life spreads through it, to make it aware of its

own vastness and beauty, which otherwise it can never have known.

This is a gift; but the Giver is unknown.

That too is written.


And all the Stars a Stage 191

1086 A.D.: A sudden glare of light in the constellation later called Taurus.

The Chinese astronomer Tang Yaou-Shun marks it down: A new and marvelous

star, portending miracles.

But the miracle has already happened. It sleeps inside Yaou-Shun, in twelve

of his genes.

Categories: Blish, James