This story is reprinted courtesy of Project Gutenberg. View the source text.
Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy, July, 1954
Narant’s personal problem seemed of more importance than his mission as an interstellar investigator. But they combined when he met—
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The Incredible Aliens
By William Bender, Jr.
It was only a tiny dot on the view screen when the military lookout on the armed cruiser identified it as an alien spaceship and sounded the general alert. Technicist Ninth Class Narant, chief psychanalyst aboard, studied its approach with a rebellious, almost passionate hope that the impossible was at last going to happen.
Or was it impossible? They were the first men to visit this planetary system. Why couldn’t they expect to encounter a truly superior race for a change?
Intently, Narant examined the course of the alien craft. Rather mischievously he hoped the stranger would suddenly adopt evasion tactics showing it had detected their presence in the black void between the 6th and 7th planets of the Star Restus. That would certainly be a sign of superiority! And what a blow to Central Scientific Headquarters back home. The anti-detection shield was one of their proudest accomplishments.
And yet, though still wishful, Narant realized deep in his heart that such hopes were blighted. Illogical and improbable. No people in the Universe could even compare with them. Explorers and merchants and military ships and privateers had prowled all the great planetary systems of the galaxy. They and their technology reigned supreme everywhere. Indeed, the accumulated evidence of their supremacy even formed the irrefutable foundation of Central Scientific’s dogma on selective breeding.
“I must ask you to leave the bridge now, doctor.” The voice, crisp and authoritative, crackled over Narant’s shoulder.
Commander Karsine had entered the control room during Narant’s brief reverie in front of the viewing screen. An able and successful combat officer still in his early thirties, Karsine wore the light weight space armor the regulations prescribed for moments of impending action. Even if the enemy blasted a hole in the control room itself, that armor could protect Karsine long enough to save or disintegrate the cruiser, as the case might be.
“Commander,” Narant suddenly blurted. “One request. I should like to remain this one time and observe your tactics right here.”
“Denied.” Karsine explained brusquely that only combat personnel were allowed in the central control room during contact with a strange vessel. “But,” he ended, patronizingly, “you can watch from the observation room. When we have made the capture, I’ll be happy to review my operations with you.”
When we have made the capture. The Commander’s abundant self confidence only served to further depress Narant. Out there in the void rode a space vessel of an altogether unknown race. And there was no question in Karsine’s mind but that their cruiser would take the alien. Not “if” we make the capture. Simply, “when.” It was small solace for Narant to recall that he himself had firmly established Self Confidence as one of the highest-rated mental traits for military command. It had been one of his major projects as a Psychanalyst 4th Class.
As he left the bridge, the airlock rumbled shut behind him, sealing off the control room from the rest of the ship. Narant climbed the spiral staircase into the observation room. One entire wall was a thick quartzite pane over-looking the control center. You could see as much from up here as down below. But somehow it wasn’t the same.
Other technicists with non-combatant specialties were already strapped to seats in the room, prepared to watch the show on which their very lives might depend. The “VM” lamp winked slowly on and off, its orange glow warning against “possible violent maneuvers.” Narant found a seat and obediently fastened the safety harness. He studied the view screen on the bridge below. The alien ship, seemingly unaware of the danger that now threatened it, still followed its initial course.
Narant tried to concentrate on the scrambling activity in the control center, but his rebellious mind would have none of it. Unwanted memories rose up to haunt him. He had been assigned to this trip mainly to purge those thoughts from his mind with work and action, but the cure appeared no cure at all.
Three months ago his final request for the marriage permit had returned disapproved. The accompanying explanation had been a masterpiece of scientific doggerel. It analyzed the genetic composition of Narant and Technicist 3rd Class Melda. It presented carefully worked-out Tables of Probability regarding the nature and potential achievement of the offspring of such a union. It called attention to the low probability rate of Melda and Narant begetting a genius. “Therefore,” it had concluded, “it is not in the best interests of the intended participants, nor will it serve to build the race, if the aforementioned are joined in matrimony.”
There followed a rare bit of sterilized philosophy: “It is to be hoped that each party mentioned in the above will readily find another individual in whom to repose his and her natural emotional interest.” Narant felt, with a startling sense of the primeval, that if he should find the person who phrased that report he would delightfully club him to death.
But of course emotionalism was absurd. The whole thing had been handled dispassionately. Certain basic factors had been fed into banks of electronic calculators and, a few micro-seconds later, the resultant statistical data came out. It simply failed to measure up. There was no arguing or quibbling about the results for the calculators were mechanically infallible.
However, Narant had taken one more step: an application for “random mating.” But the retention drums of the master calculators had accumulated a far too overwhelming amount of information about the advantages of scientific breeding. So that application, too, had been refused.
And shortly after, Narant found himself assigned to this cruiser bound for Restus. A report that the inhabitants had begun space flight. A distant, but conceivable threat to the security of the home planet. He knew the assignment resulted from some scientific effort to mollify his disappointment. So he left home. But he took with him the forlorn hope that on this voyage, or the next, or the one after that, he would find somewhere in the vast reaches of space an advanced people who still practiced random mating; that he might find them, analyze them and feed that information back to the master calculators. For only by placing hard new facts into the “brain” could there be any chance of changing the decision.
In the sealed combat control center, Commander Karsine finished strapping himself into the anthropometric chair in front of the view screen. A subordinate lowered the master control panel into position. Narant perked up with new interest. A specialist of Karsine’s class, he realized, could manipulate that control panel with the consummate skill of a master musician at a great organ. The battery of keys, buttons and switches built into the panel gave Karsine complete domination over the thousands of small engines and servo-mechanisms, tens-of-thousands of electric tubes, and the millions of electrical synapses that comprised the fighting apparatus of the space cruiser.
Abruptly the “VM” sign began flashing more rapidly, its color changing from orange to red. A siren whooped throughout the ship. Karsine’s voice, somewhat metallic over the speakers, gave the “Imminent Combat” alert. The ship was going into action.
Narant felt the seat straps pull at his chest. In the view screen below, the alien vessel began to swell rapidly. A low hum permeated the observation room. Narant glanced out the nearest port. Glistening metallic spines were expanding outward from the body of the cruiser. At the tip of each bulged the glowing cone of the force and detection heads, the cruiser’s most potent tools of attack and defense.
“Engine room!” Karsine’s peremptory voice snapped through the speakers.
“Engine room standing by.”
“For ten seconds only, do not … repeat, do not act on manual signal control. This is a test only. Read them off.”
“Yes, sir. Reading test signals: Fire eight … fire six … fire nine … fire one … fire main.” The voice paused. “Is that all, sir?”
“The ten seconds are up,” reproached Karsine. Henceforth, his every command would have to be acted upon instantly. “Divert seventy per cent of main power supply into armament system.”
“Check spinal extension.”
“Extended and locked. All force heads burning, Commander.” Another voice had answered this time.
“Good.” Karsine’s brief acknowledgment for an efficient crew. “Activate the combat calculator.”
“In action, sir.”
There, Narant realized, was another de-humanizing achievement of Central Scientific. Years ago in the war with the repulsive exoskeletal inhabitants of Sirius 13, earth’s military commanders had gone into battle with terrible ardor. To destroy the Sirians they had taken frequent, unnecessary risks, and in so doing had sacrificed dozens of brand new combat ships. So a special calculator had been designed for all craft except humble merchantmen. It kept a running check on the enemy’s tactics, his power output, his course, speed and relative aggressiveness; it measured the power consumption of its own ship in counteracting enemy weapons, and a score of other factors. Once activated, the “brain” computed the mathematical probabilities of ultimate success at each instant of the battle. If the scale ever tipped in favor of the enemy craft, the calculator instantly selected the best evasion course, fired auxiliary rockets and broke off the engagement.
Narant unconsciously shook his head in disapproval. He wondered if he was getting old? Such efficiency disturbed him more than he cared to admit. Only in the histories, it seemed, could you find those thrilling battles where human ingenuity played the decisive role. Where a handful of courageous men could face outrageous odds and win through to victory by wit and resourcefulness. Yes, only in the histories.
Nowadays warfare, like love, revolved about mathematics and probability curves and trillions of electrons chasing themselves through a maze of wires and throwing switches and making decisions that once had been the prerogative of man alone.
Narant yearned for man’s lost freedom to make an honest error.
Suddenly Karsine’s harsh voice came blasting over the loudspeaker. “Prepare to grapple!”
Narant glanced quickly out through the port into the black sky. The alien ship, its bright metal reflecting the light of the distant sun, floated a mile away. Motionless. Or so it seemed against the unchanging stellar background.
It possessed hard sleek lines, pointed nose, flaring tail vanes. Its designers, he guessed, must still be thinking in terms of atmospheric flight. It hardly seemed the type of craft that could cross the broad interstellar reaches; probably had been built simply to plod about its neighboring planets. It must be an early development, for spaceships had never before been detected in the Restus system. More than likely the ship had not even become aware of their presence. Small wonder Karsine had decided to grapple.
The force heads on Narant’s side of the cruiser began to shimmer under the surge of power being fed to them. They grew red hot, almost translucent. They would hold fire until the beam became powerful enough to withstand tremendous forces. Sometimes in grappling, an enemy craft had been known to discharge its main rocket batteries in an effort to wrench loose. But any second now….
“Execute grapple!” Karsine ordered.
The cruiser shuddered. Lights dimmed as the force heads sucked at every available bit of power. With a blinding flash, a blue-white ribbon of energy streaked across the mile-wide void to the alien ship. It flicked the nose of the Restus craft, gripped, and swept over the entire hull like a glittering cocoon.
“Tension indicator: Nine-eight-point-eight,” reported a too-casual voice over the speaker. “Enemy ship secured.”
Karsine cautiously studied his dials, alert for the first sign of a counter-blow. Nothing happened. A minute dragged by. The tension indicators remained constant; detection heads, zero. And then: “Bring it alongside.”
The grappling beam slowly began to contract, bringing the alien ship closer. As it passed through the invisibility screen, multi-colored de-action rays focussed upon it, nullifying virtually every weapon known to man.
Narant’s hopes dissolved. The emptiness left only an aching futility. As usual, the capture had been simple … and complete.
“Advance parties prepare to go aboard,” commanded the loudspeaker.
A man behind Narant unbuckled his straps, got up and stretched. “Here we go again,” he said. And then, to nobody in particular: “I used to get a kick out of investigating strange creatures. Now it’s work. Just work.”
Narant looked over his shoulder at the cruiser’s anthropometrist. He would have to board the ship right behind the combat team, analyze the tools, controls, living conditions of the crew. Perhaps he, too, experienced this ennui of persistent success?
Narant had ended his preparations in the psych-examination chamber by the time they brought the first of the alien people to him. Narant stared in sudden amazement. The creature was humanoid. It had a well-formed head with a squat, shrunken nose and steep brows; there were prehensile arms, and hands with five fingers. But the man was hairy and, Narant winced, immodestly naked.
The humanoid was still in the grip of the paralytic when they took him into the examination chamber and strapped him to the table. Narant judged the alien a little taller, give or take a few inches, than a normal human being. His interest began to perk up. It always did when he could study another creature that had learned to conquer space. For perhaps the first time in three months, thoughts of Melda were over-shadowed by the immediate prospect of exploring the mysteries of an alien mind.
As the attendant came back out of the chamber, Narant secured the door. “How many of them?” he asked.
The attendant shook his head in evident amazement. “Four. I don’t know how they do it, but that ship had only a four man crew.”
“Impossible,” Narant exclaimed.
“That’s all there are,” the man insisted. “We’ve covered the whole ship.”
“But how could they…?”
“The engineers are working on that now. I heard one of them remark about the great number of automatic controls, but even so … isn’t that one for the book?”
That, Narant agreed, was one for the book. Four men. The space vessels he knew usually held scores of crewmen and specialists to handle the manifold emergencies that arose in flight. His imagination soaring, Narant turned rapidly to begin his experiments.
He started the automatic recorder that would code his findings on a thin strip of tape and then, more excited than usual, began the examination. Inside the chamber, a giant multi-faceted crystal began to rotate slowly in the gimbals which held it suspended from the ceiling. Sharp individual beams of light swept over the face of the alien being on the table. One by one, the lights flickered over him and passed on, each one probing, measuring, comparing with universal norms, and then recording its findings on both dial and tape.
Long before the five-hour examination was over, the hopes of Technicist 9th Class Narant far transcended any he had experienced in the past three months. The aliens had almost human potential. They were fun-loving, kindly, clannish. Their resourcefulness and their ingenuity were literally unsurpassed.
But then the most amazing fact of all revealed itself: The time-lapse since this race had been entirely primitive was fantastically short. In one brief—almost abrupt—transition, they had gone from jungle to the conquest of space. The mind, the racial background and the obvious achievements of these creatures presented such a picture of rapid advancement as to stagger the imagination.
Once he had transmitted the coded tapes to Central Scientific, Narant sought out the anthropometrist. His lingering doubts vanished when the two compared findings. Everything inside the spaceship had been designed expressly for these strange creatures with the five fingers and the prehensile hands and arms.
As the cruiser finally pointed toward home, Narant was a new man. Of course their information would set the scientific world spinning on its collective ear. But more important, it would have vast personal significance. According to the crystal, the mating pattern of these surprisingly progressive beings was entirely one of random selection!
Already that data would be digesting inside the master calculators. The knowledge would become a part of all future decisions. Probability rates would change strikingly … especially those that governed the issuance of “random-mating” licenses. For Narant, the voyage had been a tremendous success.
However, in the space experimental laboratories near the Nevada desert on the third planet of the sun Restus, no such optimism existed.
Twenty-four hours had passed since the S-X-2 had vanished. They had had a precise fix on it as it blistered through the void on an elliptic course that would return it automatically to Earth. Everything had seemed to be going perfectly. All the bugs of the first Spacerocket Experimental had evidentally been straightened out in making the “2”. And then, some 250-thousand miles beyond Saturn, it had disappeared. Just like that.
Dr. Gordon Basset glanced distastefully at the telephone on his desk. Then he began thumbing through the metropolitan directory for a number. The hands that held the directory were strong, supple. They would have been a revelation to Technicist Ninth Class Narant, if he had seen them.
But then Technicist Ninth Class Narant himself would have been something of a revelation to Dr. Gordon Basset, what with his twenty claw-like extensors.
Basset found the number, dialed, and waited for the connection.
“Hello, Dr. Farrell? Basset here. I’ve got bad news on the S-X-2…. No details yet, but the ship has broken contact…. Yes, I must presume it’s lost…. I’ll file a complete report as soon as possible…. What’s that?… I suppose you’re right—we’ll have the S.P.C.A. on our necks for sacrificing four more test animals. What the hell, they can’t expect us to send men on these experimental flights!”
Basset talked for a moment longer and then replaced the phone. He sighed. Another report. Another failure. Another requiem to be written for a lost ship—and four chimpanzees.
This was a great story, hard to believe it was written in the fifties.
M.G. Herron says
It’s true! Some of the public domain stories I’ve re-published here haven’t aged so gracefully. They feel dated by character behaviors, modes of thinking, or stilted dialogue with retired slang…. but every once in a while you find a gem!
Another I recommend is Omnilingual by H Beam Piper: https://mgherron.com/2019/02/sci-fi-short-story-omnilingual-h-beam-piper/ — incredible story that, in spite of a few quirks, still feels incredibly modern.