Got a strange cell-phone text from my old pal and erstwhile publisher: describe the alines in “Sleeping Planet.” Alines? WTF?
When I asked clarification I learned Apple spell check had turned aliens into alines. Go figure.
The request got me browsing the first novel I ever published, 1964, in ANALOG Magazine. Looking for a teenager’s description of Llralans. Then on to the internet for images Kelly Freas, the celebrated SF illustrator, did for ANALOG. And finally sent a text to my son to ask his daughters to review my teenage sketch book that included what I thought the alien invaders looked like. No word yet. I got caught up reading a book I have not read this century. And found one of my favorite character creations. Not an alien. A deceased grandpa, aka Gremper to the aliens.
For Bradford Donovan, time had virtually ceased to exist. In the cell there was no night or day, the lights were never dimmed or darkened. His watch had been taken from him; so had all his other personal belongings they hadn’t even left him cigarettes.
Interrogation, he knew, having been so informed, was coming as soon as the commander got around to him. The commander, it seemed, was presently occupied doing his part in arranging an orderly conquest duty. Until he was called, he would remained jailed, be fed at fairly regular intervals and taken to a multi-species type head down the hall when he made the wish to do so known.
That was all. His only contact with his captors was when two guards brought him a tray of food, one carrying the tray, the other a wicked looking truncheon and returned later to suspiciously count dishes and utensils and then go away until he was compelled to summon an honor guard for a journey to the head. In between times, he lay on his bunk and gloomed up at the ceiling. He did not know how the battle was progressing, whether the Llralan tactics had succeeded wholly, partially or not at all. He had only the word of his captors and the vast boredom evinced by his guards to judge by and judging by that, the outlook for Terra was black indeed. He especially believed that the guards could not be so bored if they considered Terran retaliation imminent.
Which would infer that Terra was incapable of retaliation.
Out among the stars, along the Line, Terra had fleets boasting technical superiority but numerical inferiority to those of the enemy. Weaken those fleets to drive Larry off Terra, and the hordes opposing them out there would make a push. Save three worlds, lose fifty; that kind of arithmetic just wouldn’t work, even if one of the three was Terra.
Terra, Venus, Mars, the first, second and third planets, respectively, ever to be inhabited by Homo sapiens.
Terra, Venus, Mars, taken in force from the rear, going down to ignominious defeat at the hands of an enemy heretofore considered too stupid to accomplish any such victory.
Terra, Venus, Mars, casualties in a stellar conflict, expended pawns in a game of cosmic chess. Cut off, captured, carried off the board.
Sometime in the far future, when the depths of the Empire of Four Thousand Suns had been plumbed, bombs delivered to its factories and governmental palaces, and blockades thrown across its supply routes — when and if — then the Federation could proclaim victory and declare surrender for the smashed foe. Then, no doubt, the three worlds would be handed back and any atrocities committed upon the inhabitants thereof repaid in blood and broken necks.
But that was in the future, and this was the present. The grim, grim present. Donovan doubted whether he would have lived to see the end of the war anyway — it threatened to far outlast the remainder of his natural life — but his present situation removed the doubt. He would die in captivity and before the end of the war, whether against a wall, on the rack, or in a POW camp. To come to such a futile end had he threaded precariously through fifty years of hazardous life, wandered over parsecs in search of the rainbow’s end and struggled to keep certain principles more or less intact. And done so with the deep conviction that he was the main character, held the center stage, and would emerge victorious in the end.
Now from the looks of things, the only victors would be the Larrys. Just how many races, he wondered, must be buried within the sprawling reaches of Empire, races that harbored billions of individuals such as himself, possessed of dreams, loves, hates, and idiosyncrasies; individuals who had died or been subjugated when their races died or fell.
It must be an old, old tale to the lank conquistadors from Llrala.
When an irresistible force meets a movable object, there is only one result; and the Llralan Empire was that irresistible force, a lapping sea of soldiers and guns and ships that eroded and finally inundated any bulwark erected against it, and then moved on. Homo sapiens, join the honored rolls of the vanished peoples, of the space-island dwellers lost to sight beneath the Llralan wave.
Somewhere, time passed. But for Bradford Donovan time had ceased to exist. His life became a round of cryptic orange faces and plastic food trays and stumping trips to the head; of fitful periods of sleep in which distorted nightmares left him dripping with sweat when he awoke to the close oppressiveness of the cell.
Returning from one of his journeys down the corridor, a pant leg worked free from where he had tucked it under his belt and began to trail. He stopped, got the dragging leg and began tucking it back in place. His lone escort a dopey looking type with which the lower echelons of Larry infantry seemed to be well stocked stopped obligingly and waited. Donovan noticed that the corner of his mouth twitched convulsively.
“Well,” he growled irritably, “what’s your problem?”
“Problem?” The guard was taken aback. “I have no problem.”
“Then why are you staring at me?” Donovan glowered at him. “It seems to me your mother would have taught you it’s impolite to stare, if you had a mother.”
“But I’m not staring!” protested the guard.
“Don’t hand me that! You’re staring, all right, and I know why, too.”
“Yio, I do. You’re wondering why a cripple should be guarded so closely; you’re wondering why the brass thinks I’m so important. Where you come from, legless men are either beggars in the street or if affluent enough to afford artificial legs possessors of soft jobs out of deference to their condition. They are objects of pity not fear.”
The guard stared at him, round-eyed. “How did you know all that?”
“Grandpa’s ghost told me,” retorted Donovan, occupied with pulling the pant leg up good and tight.
“Gremper?” the guard repeated, butchering the Terran word. “Who is Gremper? You are forbidden to speak to other prisoners.” He indicated the doors lining the corridor. “And there is no guard by that name. My name is Svitta. So who or what is Gremper?”
Donovan looked up at him, thinking he was being kidded. He wasn’t; Svitta was dead serious, his brow corrugated in puzzlement. Somewhere in Donovan’s brain, a gear meshed and wheels began to turn…
“A Grandpa,” he explained solemnly, “is the father of your father, or maybe of your mother, but never both.”
“Oh,” said Svitta relievedly. “That explains it.” Then his face clouded. “Doesn’t it?”
“Oh, definitely,” agreed Donovan, having a hard time keeping a straight face.
“But you said you were talking to Gremper!”
“I was. And he was talking to me. We talked together.”
“I see… I think.” Svitta frowned, added perplexedly, “But I remember no visitors being authorized to see you. Of course, he could have come while I was off duty… I didn’t have a chance to read the log when I came on, but that must be it.”
“Yio, that must be,” echoed Donovan.
“I shall check the log first thing I report back to the desk,” promised Svitta. “If I don’t keep up with events, some officer will catch me one day and have me flogged.”
“It’s a hard life,” sympathized the Terran.
“Yio, it sure is.”
Svitta deposited him in his cell, closed the door with a clang. The stride of his hurriedly departing jump boots vibrated faintly through the walls.
Donovan lay back on his bunk and waited.
It didn’t take long.
Where one pair of boots had departed, two returned and paused before his door while a key scraped in the lock. It opened and Svitta came in, his face a study in bewilderment. He was followed by a heavy, beetle-brow specimen wearing sergeant’s insignia. Beetle brow was frowning like a thundercloud. Donovan pulled himself to a sitting position.
“And to what do I owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit?”
“You told me you had a visitor,” accused Svitta reproachfully.
The sergeant looked from the Terran to his subordinate as if both had taken leave of their senses. Finally he addressed Donovan. “You had a visitor here in this cell?”
“That is correct.”
“There is no record of such a visit,” he informed. “If such a breach in procedure had occurred, the day sergeant would have told me. What do you say to that?”
“What should I say? I’m not in charge of your paperwork, nor your jail. I’m but a stranger here; Heaven is my home.”
“I cannot take responsibility for the incompetency of your staff.”
“You persist in your claim that you had a visitor here?”
“There’s no persistence involved,” countered Donovan. “It is a fact, perhaps an unrecorded one, but nevertheless a fact.”
“There’s only one reason I can think of that would excuse your staff from disciplinary measures of the strictest nature,” he went on, in a musing voice.
“What?” asked the sergeant, in spite of himself hooked by his eagerness to duck painful manifestations of official displeasure.
“Why,” said Donovan, in the manner of one pointing out the obvious, “perhaps Grandpa didn’t come through official channels at all. That would explain it, wouldn’t it?”
“Yio…” admitted the sergeant, somewhat hesitantly. “But how could he get here without coming through channels?”
“Simple,” Donovan told him. “If he didn’t come through channels, what’s left?”
“What?” prompted the sergeant.
“Why the walls, of course.”
“The walls? Great Sirri, Rekk, have your brains become addled?”
“Not at all. Grandpa ought to be able to come through walls.” He rapped his fist on the bulkhead “He’s had enough practice in the last thirty years.”
“What d’you mean?” queried the sergeant suspiciously.
“Well, he’s been dead for thirty years, you see, and…”
“Dead?” yelped the sergeant. “Did you say dead?”
Donovan blinked at him in amazement. “But of course, didn’t I mention that before? How careless of me… but then I’m prone to forget little details like that.”
The sergeant simply stared at him in incomprehension. Svitta, however, reacted much more satisfactorily. His face lost color, his eyes widened perceptibly and he swallowed several times. After a long-drawn moment, the sergeant looked at Svitta. “Let’s go.”
Svitta obediently led the way out of the cell, eyes shunting around as if to espy any spooks in the process of wall-coming-through. The fact he saw none seemed to please him immensely. The sergeant stalked out, stuck his head back through the door.
“You will not change your story?”
“What story? I have stated a simple fact, that Grandpa visited me, and you have attached a lot of unnecessary significance to it, that’s all. Seems a person can’t even visit a relative in bad straits and offer his condolences without a top level investigation. Why, if I were Grandpa…”
Slam went the door.
It was several minutes before Donovan’s ears stopped ringing in sympathy. By that time the Llralans had moved beyond the limited earshot afforded by the metal walls.
He leaned back against the wall and contemplated overhead rivets while old and half-forgotten memories of his days among the Llralan stars flooded back. Planets and mountains and seas, cities and villages and people, all parading across his mind’s eye in kaleidoscopic array. Local dress, local custom, local superstition… foibles, fancies, fantasies.
“May your forebears sleep well and deeply.”
It had only been a form of greeting to him then, an expressed hope for one’s continued well-being. And on certain festival days, various offerings were made at tiny, faerie-like chapels scattered across the countryside to insure that ancestors did sleep well. The ceremonies were simple, dignified and touched with a certain hushed awe for those who had gone before; choice fodder for his tourist’s camera, while some Imperial Intelligence agent hung around close by, trying to be inconspicuous, and watched to make sure no military installations fell within the range of his lens. On many of the worlds, the ceremony had become simply part of a way of life, without too much inherent meaning. A labor performed on festival day, that was all, just a meaningless ritual. But on others…
Ah, therein lay that which made the wheels go round in his cranium.
“May your forebears sleep well…”
In ancient tradition stretching back to the time when Llralans were not haughty rulers of a stellar empire, but simple mud-slogging, planet-bound slobs, there was a very good reason for that pious wish: If forebears didn’t sleep, they hung around their living descendants and bent an ear to hear how oft and kindly they were mentioned. If what they heard didn’t please them, they took out their pique on the offenders by methods ruthless and bloody.
“May your forebears sleep…”
Well, he had exhumed one of his. Now to see just how old Rumjet Donovan would react to his favorite planet being infested with Larrys, and his favorite grandson incarcerated by same. If Llralans could believe in inimical ancestors, then what was to keep them from swallowing a benevolent one? Benevolent to one Bradford Donovan, that was and pure hell on Larrys.
Which went to show just how desperate he was for a friend and confidant, he mused sadly. Desperate enough to whistle up a spook. Much more of this, and he’d be seeing things, too.
“Grandpa,” he said at length, “Grandpa, bless your rum-soaked old bones, you’re finally going to come in useful. I hope.”
If Rumjet Donovan had known the use to which his carefully and artfully besmirched name, remembered only by relatives, a modest tombstone, and in legend in bars from Singapore to Alpha City, was going to be put he would have rolled over in his grave, sat up, and called hoarsely for a double Scotch.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I was disappointed to learn how many skipped lines, typos, and other textual error existed in my computer-file copy of my first novel. This is my third edit. Hope it takes this time. Personal computers of course did not exist in 1961–1963, the years I wrote this on a Remington portable typewriter. It was purchased within a month of its submission to ANALOG. The editor explained there was no room for novel until 1964, but meanwhile here’s a check for $2,700. More than my annual salary as newspaper copyboy.
A year later my excitement seeing the first installment in print was blunted by having my byline wrong: Walter, not William. So typos and other errors are not exclusive to computers. The editor never replied to my bitch about the mangled byline, but the next two installments were correct. With advent of computers, an early online publisher scanned (and in the scanning destroyed) a second-issue paperback that followed hardback publication by Doubleday. They sent me a computer copy via email before they went out of business. This century I sent it to AbsolutelyAmazingeBooks.com for a fiftieth-anniversary edition. Either my or their copy-editing, or both, missed an awful lot, or this version they re-sent by email accumulated gremlins due to computer error. So sixty years after writing it I am back to copy-reader. I’m afraid to look at my hard copy. At least “Walter” has so far failed to re-appear…