Joe Carson’s Weapon by James R. Adams

Joe Carson’s Weapon


From Mars they had come, these vanguards
of a ruthless horde that would conquer
Earth—if they could steal the weapon
of Joe Carson’s fertile mind.

[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Spring 1945.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Joe Carson grinned broadly and again reread his letter to the editor of Galactic AdventuresGalactic Adventures was Joe’s favorite science-fiction magazine and he had spent many happy hours roaming the cold of space and inventing ponderous machines through the medium of its pages.

The latest issue lay open on the desk before him, its garish cover mercifully hidden from view. The cover was Joe’s main reason for writing his missive, although he had several minor motives, not the least of them being his desire to see his name in print. The book was opened to the readers’ section, which contained various vituperative gripes, complaints and kicks in the pants for the editor, intermingled with gushy, complimentary notes that praised the magazine to high heaven. Boy! That one from Henry Snade (The Obscure Organism) was a lulu. It told the editor, in no uncertain terms, where to go and gave half a page of reasons why he should never return.

Joe had all but bashed his brains out trying to pen a letter half as entertaining as the one from Snade and now his eyes flickered with appreciation as he scanned the product of his efforts.

Ye Humble Ed:

Once again the keeper has negligently left my door unlatched and I slyly crawl from my cage, drawn by one, irrevocable purpose. Glancing hither and yon, to make sure I am unobserved, I dash to the fence and clear it with a prodigious leap that carries me half way to the corner drugstore.

Snatching a tricycle from a gawping kid, I push his face in the mud and pedal furiously the remaining distance to the store. Leaping off, I rush in and batter my way through the screaming throng, shouting imprecations at all who stand in my way.

Panting with exhaustion, I at last reach my goal and clutch it to my breast. The crowd surges forward and frantic hands grab at the prize.

“It’s mine! All mine!” I shout in their faces. “No one can take it from me!”

Galloping madly from the store I race swiftly across yards and up alleys, quickly losing the howling mob in the distance. Squatting under a street-lamp, I sneak a triumphant look at the treasure. What is it? Yep, you guessed it—Galactic Adventures!

But—shades of Major Mars!—what is that horrible monstrosity on the cover? A BEM, no less … an abominable, wretched BEM. Why, oh why, can’t we have at least one different cover painting? Wesley is no good. Get Marlini or Sidney to do the covers. I don’t mind a BEM now and then, but a steady diet of them soon palls on the palate. (Heh heh.) All joking aside, your covers are terrific.

Now we come to the task of rating the stories. Only one stands out in my mind as being of excellent quality. I refer to Arthur M. Ron’s super-epic, The Infinite Finite. The other stories paled into insignificance in comparison to this classic. More power to Ron! Percival’s Puissant Pulveriser and Nothing Is Something follow Ron’s story in that order. The rest are not worth mentioning.

The interior illustrations are somewhat better than the cover, although, for the most part, they are inaccurate and do not follow the themes of the stories. Ye gods! Can’t your artists read? So much for the art, which wasn’t so much.

Say! What does that jerk, The Amphibious Android, mean by calling me a “mere child”? His assertion that I’m but a youth of fifteen is a good way off the beam. I’ve been reading Galactic Adventures for the past eight years and I was nine years old when I picked up my first copy, so figure it out for yourself. A jug of sour zeni to him. May fire burst out in his s.f. collection and utterly destroy it. No! I retract that. That’s too horrible a fate, even to visit upon The Amphibious Android. Let him wallow in his ignorance. I, The Super Intellect, will smile down on him and forgive him his sins.

That’s an interesting letter from Charlie Lane. The Miserable Mutant has propounded an amazing theory that has set me to wondering. Perhaps G. A. can induce one of its authors to work this theory into a story. I’m reserving my four wooden nickels right now for the tale, if it is written. I’ll even suggest a title—Those Who Are Froze In The Cosmos. How’s that? Well, I didn’t like it either.

Once again I tear my hair and roar: GIVE US TRIMMED EDGES! Ye Ed must know by now that the majority of fandom is in favor of trimmed edges. As it is, one comes suddenly to the most interesting part of a story, at the very bottom of a page and spends several moments feverishly attempting to gain a hold on the ragged edge and go on to the next passage. By the time he has accomplished this, he is a raving lunatic, a martyr to trimmed edges. I am not a crusader, as is The Misled Biped, but I insist on seeing justice done.

As a whole, this is a fair issue. I might even call it good, if it were not for the artwork and stories. Ron’s epic will live forever in my mind, although its ending was rather weak and it could have been developed into a more powerful tale by having the Slads all die in the Inferno.

I enter my plea for longer stories. A long novel by M. S. Jensen would be appreciated. His last, Dr. Higbaum’s Strange Manifestation, was a gem. On the other hand, short stories are not without merit and good old G. A. wouldn’t be the same without them. I believe the story policy had best remain as is.

Give Higgins a rest. His yarns are rapidly degenerating into hack, with only four out of the last five meeting with this reader’s approval. I don’t like to be finicky, but it seems like he isn’t contributing his best material to G. A.

Well, this missive is growing to huge proportions and I would like to see it in print, so I’d better sign off.

Oh, yeh, almost forgot to comment on the departments. They are all good, with The Reader’s Opinion being the most interesting. Ye Ed’s ruminations come in for a close second. Do not change the departments in any way, although the quiz and the Strange Phenomena feature could be discontinued, without any great loss.

Before I close, I wish to make a revelation which will rock the world. Yes, Ed, I have a secret weapon! Nothing can stand against this terrible invention and, with it, I could even destroy Earth, with Mars and Pluto thrown in for good measure. Beware, Ed, lest you arouse my ire and cause me, in my wrath, to unleash this vast force upon helpless, trusting mankind.

Having read G. A. from cover to cover, I crawl back to my cage, drooling with delight. Prying up a loose stone in the center of the floor, I tenderly deposit the mag among the other issues of my golden hoard. Replacing the stone, I sigh contentedly and manipulate my lower lip with two fingers to indicate complete satisfaction. See you next issue!

Joe Carson
The Super Intellect

Joe carefully placed the letter in a previously addressed envelope, mentally complimenting himself for authoring such a masterpiece. Slapping a stamp on the back, he sealed the envelope and rushed forth to post it at the nearest mail-box.

Harl and Kir-Um slowly materialized and glanced about to take stock of their surroundings. They were on the roof of some tall building and night pressed in all about them, relieved only by the intermittent winking of a huge neon sign anchored on the roof.

They had come from far off Mars to draw out and discover the weaknesses of Earth—for the Great Invasion was not far in the offing and the Grand Councilor had deemed it wise to know in advance where best to strike and in what manner.

Mars was in its final death throes and its inhabitants must soon immigrate to a new world or perish. Their sister planet, Earth, was best adapted to their particular form of life, thus it had been selected for subjugation to their purpose.

The atoms that were Harl and Kir-Um were hurled, in a state of fluidity, through space, to be reassembled on Earth. For the purpose of escaping detection, they had assumed the bodies of terrestrials and now they stood, staring triumphantly out over this world that was soon to be theirs. The conquering hordes would follow later in spaceships, as soon as Harl and Kir-Um had gathered the necessary data.

Harl spoke—mastering the strange vocal-cords with an ease that amazed him. To be sure, he spoke an alien, unintelligible tongue. We translate:

“Well, Kir-Um, what now? We have arrived at our destination, but I haven’t the slightest idea what to do next.”

Kir-Um pondered this a moment and eventually answered: “The situation suggests we first descend to the surface of this world and, from there, perhaps we can map a line of attack.”

“E-e-e-ump!” Harl made the noise, which, on Mars, denoted extreme pleasure. “Excellent, Kir-Um. How can a decadent civilization, such as this one undoubtedly is, stand against such brilliant minds as ours?”

“You are right, as usual, Harl,” Kir-Um agreed. “My analysis of the problem was only typical of a Martian. Now, let us proceed to the base of this crude structure.”

By diligent search, they finally located a stair leading downward and cautiously made their way into the bowels of the building.

Reaching the fifth floor, Kir-Um placed a restraining hand on Harl’s shoulder and pointed excitedly to a door at the far end of the hall. Light streamed from beneath it and glowed faintly through the frosted glass panel set in its upper half.

Scarcely daring to breathe, they approached the door and stood, regarding it with apprehensive eyes. Harl noted the gold-leaf lettering on the glass panel, but the cryptic legend had no meaning to his Martian mind. But, to an Earthly member of that rabid army known as scientification fans, the words would have brought a tinge of awe. For this was the room where far-flung systems were denied existence, by one shake of a firm, unyielding head; where the most expressive cuss-words of super villains were brutally censored with a fiendish swipe of a little, blue pencil—the editorial office of Galactic Adventures.

“Harl,” Kir-Um whispered softly. “There’s a creature in that room! Do you not detect its thought vibrations?”

Harl opened his mind to reception and stood a moment, as if in a trance. His eyes slowly dilated and he gasped in astonishment.

“Yes, Kir-Um, there is a creature in there. A strange, horrible creature, possessed of mad, meaningless thoughts. I—I wonder what it looks like?”

Kir-Um pointed to a small, oddly-shaped aperture, which undoubtedly was some sort of device for locking the door. Hesitantly he stepped forward and placed his eye to the hole.

Inside the room, Newt Jorgsen, the building’s janitor, was hugely enjoying the contents of a letter he had retrieved from the wastebasket. Tears streamed from his blurry eyes and his bent, bony shoulders shook with spasms of laughter. His gunboat feet were planted firmly on the editor’s desk and a tall bottle of beer, smuggled in by devious means and of which Newt was inordinately fond, sat on the floor at his side. The letter was from one Joe Carson and the mirth it provoked almost caused Newt to spill from his precarious perch and brought numerous, gleeful shouts of, “Oh, Yimminy!” from his foam-flecked lips.

Kir-Um stared in amazement at this tableau and uttered a quick, staccato, “Ickly-unc!” Luckily, Newt did not hear the Martian’s expression of surprise, but continued his perusal of the letter.

Kir-Um drew back and silently motioned Harl to look. Harl sucked in his breath, but dutifully bent forward to the door. Newt had just placed the bottle to his lips and Harl gasped with horror as he half-emptied it, with one, tremendous gulp. On Mars, such wanton waste of moisture would be punished with swift death, without benefit of trial. But this wasn’t Mars: this was Earth, the planet of abundance.

Kir-Um plucked at Harl’s sleeve. “Why do we cringe at the sight of this creature, Harl?” he whispered. “After all, it is no more repulsive than are these wretched bodies we have nobly assumed, for the glory of our race. We are great, Harl. Unselfishly, we have foregone the pleasures and conveniences of our magnificent physiques, so that our civilization might once again take its rightful place in the destiny of our System.”

Harl’s mind wistfully conjured a picture of his own, splendid body, with its bulbous head, sleek, furry torso and many sensitive tentacles, and he sighed heavily. “Yes, we are truly martyrs. My only regret is, I have but nine tentacles to give for my species.”

The two ceased their council of self-glorification and stood “listening” to the thoughts of the Being inside. Their first impression was that the Earthman was insane, so the mad cogitations of his mind would indicate. Such random notions as: “Corner drugstore … BEM … Amphibious Android … Trimmed edges …” had no significance to them. But, quite suddenly, they picked up a thought that electrified their very beings and caused a quick glance of fear to pass between them. At the same time, it was a glance of elation, for here they had found what was probably Earth’s most invulnerable armament. Intently, they concentrated on the astonishing thought unraveling in the creature’s brain.

Newt had reached the next to the last paragraph of Joe Carson’s letter and he was now reading it, with great enthusiasm. The hearty chuckles it gave Newt were lost on the Martians, for they did not know the meaning of humor. They understood only that here was the greatest force against which they would have to contend; the biggest obstacle in the path of the coming invasion; a barrier that would have to be battered down and made impotent.

“This is incredible, Harl,” Kir-Um whispered in awe. “Imagine it—a weapon powerful enough to destroy all Earth! With such a thing, they could completely annihilate our invading forces.”

“It causes me no little alarm,” Harl agreed. “I can’t conceive of such a fantastic weapon, but perhaps these Earthlings possess more intelligence than we give them credit for. Perhaps they have anticipated our invasion and have prepared for it.”

“Harl,” Kir-Um said with great solemnity, “I believe we are standing in a citadel of science. A place where great, new theories and devices are propounded and deliberated. And that creature in there is the guiding hand of this stronghold of knowledge. The letter he is reading was undoubtedly written by the highest intellect of this world. As you say, this genius may have foreseen our coming and moved to nullify it. Spurred on by desperation, he created this marvelous weapon and thought to surprise our onrushing, confident armies with an impregnable defense. Quite by chance, we have stumbled upon this dastardly plot, before it could be brought to bear.”

“But what can we do?” Harl despaired. “The letter does not reveal the nature of this weapon. How can we combat something of which we know absolutely nothing? I am of the opinion we should abandon our conquest and die a slow, peaceful death on our own aging world.”

Kir-Um deliberated this advice, the deciding factor being a vision of the Grand Councilor rising up in all his wrath and condemning the two who had brought the bad news.

“No, Harl. The Grand Councilor might not approve of such a course. To suggest such a thing would be to admit we have failed, and the Councilor does not tolerate failure. Without thought of the consequences, he might order us executed and deprive our planet of two of its greatest minds. No, that won’t do.”

“We have no alternative,” Harl pointed out, still whispering. “We cannot stand against such a weapon, and better to sacrifice ourselves than have our entire space fleet meet with destruction. If only our armies could come through the Ato-Decomposera Twunend-Materializationa Tutherend, perhaps we could surprise these scheming Earthlings and overwhelm them, before they could bring this tremendous force into play. But, unfortunately, we don’t have the metal to build enough of the machines.”

Kir-Um nodded thoughtfully. “No, we can’t stand against this weapon. But we can gain possession of it and put it to our own use!”

Harl stared uncomprehendingly at Kir-Um. “You mean, ferret out this genius and force him to divulge the plans of his invention?”

There was a gleam in Kir-Um’s eye now. “Not only that, we’ll secure a working model and take it with us, to study and build from. No doubt the weapon is complicated and, in this manner, we can gain first-hand knowledge of its working.”

“E-e-e-ump,” Harl murmured softly. “Good, good, Kir-Um. It amazes me that I didn’t think of the very same thing. But, of course, you’re one hundred and thirty nine years older than I and, naturally, your mind is more alert.”

“Naturally,” Kir-Um nodded. “But to get back to more vital matters…. We shall go to this Joe Carson, who, according to the thoughts of that creature inside, resides in a place called Majestic, Maine. I also receive the impression this town is three hundred miles north of here, in a straight line. The problem of transportation is easily solved; we will purloin some sort of vehicle for the purpose. Once there, we shall question this intellect, under influence of a hypnotic sleep, and lay bare his secret. The plan will move forward of its own momentum then. Let us go.”

The two alien beings from a far world eventually gained the ground floor and, easily forcing the, to them, crude lock, made their way out into the night.

For a long moment, they stood, looking up at the black, impassive sky. Something within their hearts called out to the mocking void for reassurance; pleading for a tiny shred of encouragement. But no answer came from the hollow emptiness that surrounded them.

Then, placing a thumb and finger to their nostrils, in the ageless Martian gesture signifying complete unity of purpose, Harl and Kir-Um strode forth to meet the destiny that awaited them.

Joe Carson glanced back uneasily at the two disheveled, unkempt figures pedaling along wearily behind him. He was returning home from the nearest drugstore, having purchased there all the latest science-fiction magazines he could lay his hands on. The mysterious strangers had appeared suddenly from a side-street, four blocks back, and had clung doggedly to his trail, from that point on. Joe didn’t know what they were up to, but he was keeping a wary eye on them.

Harl and Kir-Um had performed a somewhat remarkable feat in driving two stolen bicycles across three hundred odd miles of steaming, strength-sapping, concrete highways and bumpy, bone-dry country lanes, that weren’t much more than wagon-ruts through the woods. They had made many false starts and had fallen prey to numerous mishaps, such as punctures and broken spokes. They had subsisted on berries, small game and whatever food they could glean from a farmer’s field. Since they had not yet mastered the tongue of these Earth people, they couldn’t ask for food at the small road-stands that dotted the way. Nor could they ask directions to their destination. But, by dint of stubborn adherence to their purpose, they had, at last, arrived at the little, prosaic town of Majestic. Covered with dust from head to foot and ready to topple, from sheer exhaustion, they made their way through the streets, feeling a dull conviction of defeat growing within them. For they were unable to read the names of the streets or the numbers of the houses lined tidily along each side, like proud soldiers. It was night again and the uncompromising gloom only added to their despair. The glaring street-lamps winked gleefully at their plight and cast strange shadows to confuse their tired minds. The plain natives who passed them paid no attention to the Martians. Being of a farming community, they were used to seeing men encrusted with dirt and grime, going home to a hard-earned night’s rest.

Harl and Kir-Um were about ready to concede failure, when they had turned from a side-street into the main thoroughfare. There, a thought impinged upon their ever-receptive minds that lent new zest to their sinking spirits. The reflection they received was:

“Boy! You’re a lucky stiff, Joe Carson. You’ll sure have some good reading tonight!”

Joe Carson! The name struck a vibrant chord in their brains and sent a feeling of elation surging through their bodies. Here was the object of their quest. The person whom they had travelled across scores of miles of terrifying, unfamiliar terrain to find.

Immediately they took up a close orbit in his wake, determined not to lose this brilliant inventor of strange weapons in the darkness of the night.

Joe was at once aware of his shadows, but he thought perhaps they merely happened to be going his way. As block followed block, however, with no let-up of the pursuit, he began to suspicion a dire purpose behind their actions.

Harl and Kir-Um were slowly overtaking the object of their chase, making no attempt to conceal themselves. Squeezing out every last bit of energy, they matched pace with Joe, as he speeded up his pedaling in an effort to pull away.

Joe was beginning to get a little bit scared. What could he have that the strangers would want? Certainly not his bike, for it was worth only a few dollars and had just about seen the end of its years of usefulness. He laughed mentally at the fantastic thought that maybe they were after his science-fiction magazines. Then, what?

They were approaching Joe’s house now and his fear mounted steadily. His parents were gone, away at some social function, and they wouldn’t return for three or four hours yet. There was nothing else to do, and so Joe, philosophically deciding to let fate take its course leaped from his bike and made a sudden dash for the shelter of the house.

Instantly they were after him, pounding across the dew-laden sod with all the agility and grace of a couple of rampaging hippopotamuses. Joe bounded through the front door and swung to snap the night-lock. At that moment, something grasped his mind in a firm, unrelenting grip. He no longer had any desire to resist the intruders and stood waiting for them to enter and make him prisoner. Quickly Harl and Kir-Um forced him into a chair and stared down at their victim with triumphant eyes.

“So,” Harl panted. “At last we shall learn the secret of Joe Carson, Earth’s most amazing genius. Kir-Um, he is but a youth. I shudder at the thought of one so young possessing so much knowledge. Could it be that we have made a mistake?”

Kir-Um looked up at Harl reprovingly. “Do Martians ever err?” he demanded. “No, this boy has a powerful, secret weapon and we must get it from him, at all costs. I can’t understand you, Harl. It would seem as if you actually sympathize with these puny Earth people. The Councilor wouldn’t like to hear that, Harl. I would hate to see my best friend put to death because he was too friendly with the enemy.”

“I’m not friendly with these Earthlings, Kir-Um,” Harl hastily objected. “I merely think we should be cautious and not proceed at too fast a pace but what we shall be lured into some sort of death trap.”

“Well and good,” Kir-Um nodded. “I believe we both realize our task calls for vigilance and a meticulous sifting of fact from fancy. That much goes unsaid. Conceding this genius is merely a boy, perhaps he is a child prodigy or, then again, he may have invented this weapon by accident. That is of little import, however. He has the weapon, we want it and we shall have it.”

Harl bowed humbly. “You are right again, Kir-Um. Your deductive powers constantly amaze me. Shall we begin the questioning?”

Kir-Um wasted no time in preliminaries, but came right to the point.

“Where is your secret weapon, boy?” he snapped. He spoke in his native Martian tongue, but the thought behind the words was quite clear in Joe Carson’s receptive mind. Joe fumbled for words and finally answered:

“Weapon? What weapon? The only kind of weapon I’ve got is my Daisy B-B gun, and that’s no secret. Mr. Jones, next door, found out about it yesterday when I shot out his front room window. Boy, was he sore!”

Kir-Um nodded knowingly at Harl and said, in an aside: “He’s trying to mislead us. But he won’t succeed. The truth will out.”

Harl leaned forward to try his hand at the cross-examination. “You know very well what weapon we mean, creature. You have kept your secret well, but now you must relinquish it. Do not try to delude us with fanciful stories and false denials.”

“Somebody’s been feeding you a line, chum,” Joe laughed. “Your trolley’s jumped the track. Go on back to your cage, pa, and dream up another one. You bore me.”

The Martians realized the youth’s mental barrier was going to be more difficult to break through than they had anticipated. The situation called for tact, yet the amount of time left to them necessitated a direct attack. Kir-Um summoned all the powers of concentration at his command and slowly, but surely, forced Joe’s mind into a state of passiveness. Satisfied, at last, the Earthling would give direct replies to his questions, Kir-Um once more took over the interrogating duties.

“You cannot deceive us, boy,” he began. “A few days ago, you wrote a letter to Earth’s great science center, Galactic Ventures, I believe it is. In this letter, you stated you possessed a secret weapon, powerful enough to destroy this whole planet. You did not divulge the details of this invention, but promised dire happenings to anyone unfortunate enough to have this weapon directed upon them. We want the plans of this amazing contrivance and you will do well to place them in our hands, without delay.”

“Oh, that,” Joe’s voice came dull and emotionless. “That’s just a joke. Just something I dreamed up to give the ed. a laugh.”

Harl and Kir-Um didn’t know what a ‘laugh’ was, but they did know that they were finally making some progress. A meaningful glance passed between them and they silently congratulated themselves for uncovering the genius’ secret in such short order.

“And these Jokes, creature,” Harl spoke, “does anyone beside yourself possess them?”

The Martians feared perhaps this strange scientist had already distributed his weapon among his fellowmen, in preparation to resist the coming attack. Joe’s next revelation immediately justified their fears and shocked them to the point of frustration.

“Sure. All the stf. fans have their little jokes, and they never miss a chance to use them on some dumb ninny. Once I saw the Misled Biped pull a joke on a guy and he nearly went into epileptic fits. Of course, it was a low-grade joke, or it would have laid him out cold as a mackeral. You better never meet up with a fan when he’s in a joking mood, ’cause they don’t have a bit of mercy and he’d probably play you till you busted wide open.”

The goggling intruders had visions of their marvelous bodies, bloated till they were but horrible travesties of themselves, then to burst apart like rotten bladders. Their eyes tried to pierce the forbidding blackness of the suddenly-alive corners of the room and sandpaper tongues darted nervously across dry lips. This bland-faced boy seated in front of them was suddenly a repulsive gargoyle, squatting in his evil throne and reveling in his fiendish power.

Harl coughed and made a feeble effort to compose himself. He had been right—this was too big for them to cope with. They may as well return to Mars and forget their dream of conquest. The Grand Councilor was a fool for ever sending them on such a foolhardy expedition and he and Kir-Um were still bigger fools for accepting the task. Yet, how could they have known they would have to face a smoothly-geared organization consisting of bloodthirsty monsters and power-mad geniuses who dreamed up fantastic weapons just as an idle pastime? It was a plain case of underestimation of the foe, a miserable, stupid failure.

“Don’t give up so easily, Harl,” Kir-Um had intercepted Harl’s unguarded thoughts and, realizing utter despair was rapidly pulling them down to the point of bolting for the door and making a frantic exit from this mad world, grimly purchased a new hold on his waning optimism.

“Don’t forget,” he added, carefully shielding his thoughts from the ugly Earth-creature, “once this force is in our hands, we will be as powerful as they. More so, in fact, by virtue of our superior intelligence and our ability to improve the Jokes and make of them weapons far surpassing the crude originals in performance. The mere mention of a Joke seems to cause a strange emotion in this youth; an odd, violent vibrating of the entire body, accompanied by spasmodic grunts and squeaks. Probably it is his passionate reaction to the thought of the magnitude of his terrible deed. It is like nothing a Martian has ever known. But it is proof this Earthling regards his own creation with apprehensive fear and is reverently aware of its immense potentialities. We must also realize only a portion of the population of this world has Jokes at their command, which will make our invasion easier and our victory far more certain. True, many of us will die, but, in the end, we will have Earth and all its wondrous resources for our very own. Would you place your own personal valuation above the continuation of our species, Harl? Do you respect the wishes of the Councilor—Dibble-Ibble, bless him—or do you love your own precious fur in preference to honor and glory? Reflect a moment, Harl, and I know you’ll see the wrongness of your decision.”

Harl’s chin was already halfway down to his feet and his shamed blushing indicated he had reconsidered and repented. He still had his doubts, but they had been squelched to a bare fraction of their former greatness by Kir-Um’s defaming tirade.

Kir-Um reminded Harl of their determination by pinching his nostrils together and, assured of Harl’s co-operation, resumed the questioning of the youth.

“Do you have a Joke with you now, creature?” he asked curiously.

“You bet,” Joe replied. “I’m lousy with ’em. Wanta hear one? I got one that’ll simply kill you.”

The Martians recoiled in terror.

“No,” Kir-Um said sternly. “We do not wish to have the Joke demonstrated on us. The first suspicious move you make, Earthling, and you are dead. You may exhibit the Joke and operate it, if you wish, but do not direct it at us, for your life.”

“Okay,” Joe agreed amiably. “I’ll just give you sort of a sample. Here goes: Why did the moron plant dynamite in the dairy? He wanted to see a boom in the ice cream industry!”

Joe bent double, clasping his hands to his stomach and emitting loud “Haws” and raucous “Hee hees.” His head bobbed back and forth like an apple in a tub and his feet played a staccato rhythm on the carpeted floor.

Harl and Kir-Um looked on in confused wonder. They could see no reason for the boy’s sudden outburst. They looked in vain for the weapon Joe had promised to display. Then the light dawned in Kir-Um’s mind and he let go with a tremendous: “E-e-e-ump!”

“Harl!” he said excitedly. “Don’t you see—it’s the words! The words are the weapon; his Joke, as he calls it. Imagine it—words built into a complex pattern to form a destructive force! It is in an embryo stage though, Harl. This creature barely averted disaster just now when his Joke back-fired on him. The pain must be excruciating, the way he is retching and gasping for breath. We may consider ourselves lucky he didn’t aim the weapon at us. I shudder at the thought.”

Harl was shuddering, too. They were indeed fortunate they were not the object of the force Joe had unleashed, or they would probably now be nothing but lifeless hulks, rotting on the weird world that had betrayed them. He could not understand how words could cause such havoc, but undoubtedly they could, for wasn’t the pitiful Thing before them even now contorted with the paralyzing torture he had accidentally inflicted upon himself? Harl knew he could never forget the gruesome drama he was now witnessing. Why, even the creature they had encountered at the citadel of science must have been a victim of a Joke, for he had acted in the same strange manner.

“That’s the only possible explanation, Harl,” Kir-Um was speaking again. “This Earthling has discovered a way to assemble words in such a formation as to cause a violent agitation in whatever they are directed upon. I suspect, Harl, if this genius had received the full force of that Joke, it would have shaken him apart, utterly and completely. In other words, it would have decomposed his atoms and spread them from here to Dibble-Ibble knows where. Now, we must learn how to form these word patterns, thus to use them against our foe in the coming invasion. Creature, have you a treatise on Jokes?”

Joe ceased his giggling and thought a moment. Yes, he did have a treatise on jokes and they would find it in his desk upstairs. Be sure and not touch his perpetual-motion machine, though, for it was delicately balanced.

Kir-Um immediately dispatched Harl to procure the valuable document and waited impatiently till his companion returned. He accepted the book reverently and placed it safely in an inside pocket.

“Good,” he muttered. “Now, creature, you will forget all that took place here.”

Joe nodded dully. “I understand. You guys are strictly from dreams. I won’t remember a thing about you when I come out of my coma.”

The Martians walked to the door and turned to stare triumphantly at their strange companion of the evening. There was a slight twinge of pity in Harl’s heart, as he thought of this boy as nothing but a bunch of jumbled atoms flying helter-skelter through the universe, all because he had made a Joke.

“You will awaken an hour after we leave,” Kir-Um directed.

“Sixty minutes to the dot,” Joe affirmed.

Harl and Kir-Um stepped through the door and breathed deeply of the night air. It all seemed like a nightmare now, but the significant bulge in Kir-Um’s coat pocket confirmed their brief interlude with the amazing genius, Joe Carson.

Kir-Um withdrew the book and painfully deciphered the title, by the light streaming from a window. It read: Joe Miller’s Joke Book. The printer must have made a mistake, he reflected. It should read: Joe Carson’s Joke Book. But no matter.

In the Martians’ minds, a picture formed. It was a beautiful picture. Hundreds of sleek, fast spaceships hurtled down on Earth, forming almost a solid sky of steel above the hapless planet. They were strange spaceships, for apparently they carried no armament. The metal that would have been used to equip the ships with guns had, instead, gone into the building of more dreadnaughts of space, for they possessed a weapon far more destructive than any bolt from a ray-gun or blast of a disintegrator-cannon. On the bridge of each ship stood a renowned Martian scientist, a small book clutched tightly in his hand. And on the flagship, the Grand Councilor himself occupied the place of honor, the original copy of the weapon open on a stand before him. As the huge armada entered Earth’s atmosphere, gigantic amplifiers blared forth messages of doom to the inhabitants. Words with horrible meaning assailed the ears of the population: ‘Why doesn’t a chicken cross the road? It doesn’t want on the other side!’ ‘Who was that wife I seen you with last night? That was no wife, that was a lady!’ Human creatures screamed in agony and fell in the streets. Ghastly moans of ‘Ha haw oh hee!’ escaped from clenched teeth and bodies retched with the unbearable pain of their torture. Slowly their bodies decomposed, losing a couple of billion atoms with each convulsion. Soon, not a human remained on Earth and this beautiful world and all its riches passed into the hands of the proven superior species—the Martians. Ah! It was a lovely dream. But soon it would be more than a dream—it would be happy reality. Harl and Kir-Um both sighed together.

Spacers would hover, their mighty weapons blaring forth.

They pressed buttons concealed under their coats and slowly began to fade, their outlines becoming indistinct and hazy. Kir-Um raised a hand to his head in salute.

“Poor, foolish Earthlings,” he murmured, “this is the end. Always remember, if it had not been for Joe Carson’s Joke, you would never have found your demise. I salute you, strange creatures.”

And they were gone.