By CARL JACOBI
Grannie Annie, who wrote science fiction
under the nom de plume of Annabella C. Flowers,
had stumbled onto a murderous plot more
hair-raising than any she had ever concocted.
And the danger from the villain of the piece
didn’t worry her—I was the guy he was shooting at.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Fall 1944.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
I was killing an hour in the billiard room of the Spacemen’s Club in Swamp City when the Venusian bellboy came and tapped me on the shoulder.
“Beg pardon, thir,” he said with his racial lisp, “thereth thome one to thee you in the main lounge.” His eyes rolled as he added, “A lady!”
A woman here…! The Spacemen’s was a sanctuary, a rest club where in-coming pilots and crewmen could relax before leaving for another voyage. The rule that no females could pass its portals was strictly enforced.
I followed the bellhop down the long corridor that led to the main lounge. At the threshold I jerked to a halt and stared incredulously.
There she stood before a frantically gesticulating desk clerk, leaning on her faded green umbrella. A little wisp of a woman clad in a voluminous black dress with one of those doily-like caps on her head, tied by a ribbon under her chin. Her high-topped button shoes were planted firmly on the varpla carpet and her wrinkled face was set in calm defiance.
I barged across the lounge and seized her hand. “Grannie Annie! I haven’t seen you in two years.”
“Hi, Billy-boy,” she greeted calmly. “Will you please tell this fish-face to shut up.”
The desk clerk went white. “Mithter Trenwith, if thith lady ith a friend of yourth, you’ll have to take her away. It’th abtholutely againth the ruleth….”
“Okay, okay,” I grinned. “Look, we’ll go into the grille. There’s no one there at this hour.”
In the grille an equally astonished waiter served us—me a lime rickey and Grannie Annie her usual whisky sour—I waited until she had tossed the drink off at a gulp before I set off a chain of questions:
“What the devil are you doing on Venus? Don’t you know women aren’t allowed in the Spacemen’s? What happened to the book you were writing?”
“Hold it, Billy-boy.” Laughingly she threw up both hands. “Sure, I knew this place had some antiquated laws. Pure fiddle-faddle, that’s what they are. Anyway, I’ve been thrown out of better places.”
She hadn’t changed. To her publishers and her readers she might be Annabella C. Flowers, author of a long list of science fiction novels. But to me she was still Grannie Annie, as old-fashioned as last year’s hat, as modern as an atomic motor. She had probably written more drivel in the name of science fiction than anyone alive.
But the public loved it. They ate up her stories, and they clamored for more. Her annual income totaled into six figures, and her publishers sat back and massaged their digits, watching their earnings mount.
One thing you had to admit about her books. They may have been dime novels, but they weren’t synthetic. If Annabella C. Flowers wrote a novel, and the locale was the desert of Mars, she packed her carpet bag and hopped a liner for Craterville. If she cooked up a feud between two expeditions on Callisto, she went to Callisto.
She was the most completely delightful crackpot I had ever known.
“What happened to Guns for Ganymede?” I asked. “That was the title of your last, wasn’t it?”
Grannie spilled a few shreds of Martian tobacco onto a paper and deftly rolled herself a cigarette.
“It wasn’t Guns, it was Pistols; and it wasn’t Ganymede, it was Pluto.”
I grinned. “All complete, I’ll bet, with threats against the universe and beautiful Earth heroines dragged in by the hair.”
“What else is there in science fiction?” she demanded. “You can’t have your hero fall in love with a bug-eyed monster.”
Up on the wall a clock chimed the hour. The old woman jerked to her feet.
“I almost forgot, Billy-boy. I’m due at the Satellite Theater in ten minutes. Come on, you’re going with me.”
Before I realized it, I was following her through the lounge and out to the jetty front. Grannie Annie hailed a hydrocar. Five minutes later we drew up before the big doors of the Satellite.
They don’t go in for style in Swamp City. A theater to the grizzled colonials on this side of the planet meant a shack on stilts over the muck, zilcon wood seats and dingy atobide lamps. But the place was packed with miners, freight-crew-men—all the tide and wash of humanity that made Swamp City the frontier post it is.
In front was a big sign. It read:
ONE NIGHT ONLY
DOCTOR UNIVERSE AND HIS
THE QUESTION PROGRAM OF
As we strode down the aisle a mangy-looking Venusian began to pound a tinpan piano in the pit. Grannie Annie pushed me into a seat in the front row.
“Sit here,” she said. “I’m sorry about all this rush, but I’m one of the players in this shindig. As soon as the show is over, we’ll go somewhere and talk.” She minced lightly down the aisle, climbed the stage steps and disappeared in the wings.
“That damned fossilized dynamo,” I muttered. “She’ll be the death of me yet.”
The piano struck a chord in G, and the curtain went rattling up. On the stage four Earthmen, two Martians, two Venusians, and one Mercurian sat on an upraised dais. That is to say, eight of them sat. The Mercurian, a huge lump of granite-like flesh, sprawled there, palpably uncomfortable. On the right were nine visi sets, each with its new improved pantascope panel and switchboard. Before each set stood an Earthman operator.
A tall man, clad in a claw-hammer coat, came out from the wings and advanced to the footlights.
“People of Swamp City,” he said, bowing, “permit me to introduce myself. I am Doctor Universe, and these are my nine experts.”
There was a roar of applause from the Satellite audience. When it had subsided, the man continued:
“As most of you are familiar with our program, it will be unnecessary to give any advance explanation. I will only say that on this stage are nine visi sets, each tuned to one of the nine planets. At transmitting sets all over these planets listeners will appear and voice questions. These questions, my nine experts will endeavor to answer. For every question missed, the sender will receive a check for one thousand planetoles.
“One thing more. As usual we have with us a guest star who will match her wits with the experts. May I present that renowned writer of science fiction, Annabella C. Flowers.”
From the left wing Grannie Annie appeared. She bowed and took her place on the dais.
The Doctor’s program began. The operator of the Earth visi twisted his dials and nodded. Blue light flickered on the pantascope panel to coalesce slowly into the face of a red-haired man. Sharp and dear his voice echoed through the theater:
“Who was the first Earthman to titter the sunward side of Mercury?“
Doctor Universe nodded and turned to Grannie Annie who had raised her hand. She said quietly:
“Charles Zanner in the year 2012. In a specially constructed tracto-car.”
And so it went. Questions from Mars, from Earth, from Saturn flowed in the visi sets. Isolated miners on Jupiter, dancers in swank Plutonian cafes strove to stump the experts. With Doctor Universe offering bantering side play, the experts gave their answers. When they failed, or when the Truthicator flashed a red light, he announced the name of the winner.
It grew a little tiresome after a while and I wondered why Grannie had brought me here. And then I began to notice things.
The audience in the Satellite seemed to have lost much of its original fervor. They applauded as before but they did so only at the signal of Doctor Universe. The spell created by the man was complete.
Pompous and erect, he strode back and forth across the stage like a general surveying his army. His black eyes gleamed, and his thin lips were turned in a smile of satisfaction.
When the last question had been answered I joined the exit-moving crowd. It was outside under the street marquee that a strange incident occurred.
A yellow-faced Kagor from the upper Martian desert country shuffled by, dragging his cumbersome third leg behind him. Kagors, of course, had an unpleasant history of persecution since the early colonization days of the Red Planet. But the thing that happened there was a throw back to an earlier era.
Someone shouted, “Yah, yellow-face! Down with all Kagors!” As one man the crowd took up the cry and surged forward. The helpless Kagor was seized and flung to the pavement. A knife appeared from nowhere, snipped the Martian’s single lock of hair. A booted foot bludgeoned into his mouth.
Moments later an official hydrocar roared up and a dozen I.P. men rushed out and scattered the crowd. But a few stragglers lingered to shout derisive epithets.
Grannie Annie came out from behind the box office then. She took my arm and led me around a corner and through a doorway under a sign that read THE JET. Inside was a deep room with booths along one wall. The place was all but deserted.
In a booth well toward the rear the old lady surveyed me with sober eyes.
“Billy-boy, did you see the way that crowd acted?”
I nodded. “As disgraceful an exhibition as I’ve ever seen. The I.P. men ought to clamp down.”
“The I.P. men aren’t strong enough.”
She said it quietly, but there was a glitter in her eyes and a harsh line about her usually smiling lips.
“What do you mean?”
For a moment the old lady sat there in silence; then she leaned back, closed her eyes, and I knew there was a story coming.
“My last book, Death In The Atom, hit the stands last January,” she began. “When it was finished I had planned to take a six months’ vacation, but those fool publishers of mine insisted I do a sequel. Well, I’d used Mars and Pluto and Ganymede as settings for novels, so for this one I decided on Venus. I went to Venus City, and I spent six weeks in-country. I got some swell background material, and I met Ezra Karn….”
“Who?” I interrupted.
“An old prospector who lives out in the deep marsh on the outskirts of Varsoom country. To make a long story short, I got him talking about his adventures, and he told me plenty.”
The old woman paused. “Did you ever hear of the Green Flames?” she asked abruptly.
I shook my head. “Some new kind of …”
“It’s not a new kind of anything. The Green Flame is a radio-active rock once found on Mercury. The Alpha rays of this rock are similar to radium in that they consist of streams of material particles projected at high speed. But the character of the Gamma rays has never been completely analyzed. Like those set up by radium, they are electromagnetic pulsations, but they are also a strange combination of Beta or cathode rays with negatively charged electrons.
“When any form of life is exposed to these Gamma rays from the Green Flame rock, they produce in the creature’s brain a certain lassitude and lack of energy. As the period of exposure increases, this condition develops into a sense of impotence and a desire for leadership or guidance. Occasionally, as with the weak-willed, there is a spirit of intolerance. The Green Flames might be said to be an inorganic opiate, a thousand times more subtle and more powerful than any known drug.”
I was sitting up now, hanging on to the woman’s every word.
“Now in 2710, as you’d know if you studied your history, the three planets of Earth, Venus, and Mars were under governmental bondage. The cruel dictatorship of Vennox I was short-lived, but it lasted long enough to endanger all civilized life.
“The archives tell us that one of the first acts of the overthrowing government was to cast out all Green Flames, two of which Vennox had ordered must be kept in each household. The effect on the people was immediate. Representative government, individual enterprise, freedom followed.”
Grannie Annie lit a cigarette and flipped the match to the floor.
“To go back to my first trip to Venus. As I said, I met Ezra Karn, an old prospector there in the marsh. Karn told me that on one of his travels into the Varsoom district he had come upon the wreckage of an old space ship. The hold of that space ship was packed with Green Flames!”
If Grannie expected me to show surprise at that, she was disappointed. I said, “So what?”
“So everything, Billy-boy. Do you realize what such a thing would mean if it were true? Green Flames were supposedly destroyed on all planets after the Vennox regime crashed. If a quantity of the rock were in existence, and it fell into the wrong hands, there’d be trouble.
“Of course, I regarded Karn’s story as a wild dream, but it made corking good story material. I wrote it into a novel, and a week after it was completed, the manuscript was stolen from my study back on Earth.”
“I see,” I said as she lapsed into silence. “And now you’ve come to the conclusion that the details of your story were true and that someone is attempting to put your plot into action.”
Grannie nodded. “Yes,” she said. “That’s exactly what I think.”
I got my pipe out of my pocket, tamped Martian tobacco into the bowl and laughed heartily. “The same old Flowers,” I said. “Tell me, who’s your thief … Doctor Universe?”
She regarded me evenly. “What makes you say that?”
“The way the theater crowd acted. It all ties in.”
The old woman shook her head. “No, this is a lot bigger than a simple quiz program. The theater crowd was but a cross-section of what is happening all over the System. There have been riots on Earth and Mars, police officials murdered on Pluto and a demand that government by representation be abolished on Jupiter. The time is ripe for a military dictator to step in.
“And you can lay it all to the Green Flames. It seems incredible that a single shipload of the ore could effect such a wide ranged area, but in my opinion someone has found a means of making that quantity a thousand times more potent and is transmiting it en masse.”
If it had been anyone but Grannie Annie there before me, I would have called her a fool. And then all at once I got an odd feeling of approaching danger.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said, getting up.
On the mirror behind the bar a small circle with radiating cracks appeared. On the booth wall a scant inch above Grannie’s head the fresco seemed to melt away suddenly.
A heat ray!
Grannie Annie leaped to her feet, grasped my arm and raced for the door. Outside a driverless hydrocar stood with idling motors. The old woman threw herself into the control seat, yanked me in after her and threw over the starting stud.
An instant later we were plunging through the dark night.
Six days after leaving Swamp City we reached Level Five, the last outpost of firm ground. Ahead lay the inner marsh, stretching as far as the eye could reach. Low islands projected at intervals from the thick water. Mold balls, two feet across, drifted down from the slate-gray sky like puffs of cotton.
We had traveled this far by ganet, the tough little two headed pack animal of the Venus hinterland. Any form of plane or rocket would have had its motor instantly destroyed, of course, by the magnetic force belt that encircled the planet’s equator. Now our drivers changed to boatmen, and we loaded our supplies into three clumsy jagua canoes.
It was around the camp fire that night that Grannie took me into her confidence for the first time since we had left Swamp City.
“We’re heading directly for Varsoom country,” she said. “If we find Ezra Karn so much the better. If we don’t, we follow his directions to the lost space ship. Our job is to find that ore and destroy it. You see, I’m positive the Green Flames have never been removed from the ship.”
Sleep had never bothered me, yet that night I lay awake for hours tossing restlessly. The thousand sounds of the blue marsh droned steadily. And the news broadcast I had heard over the portable visi just before retiring still lingered in my mind. To a casual observer that broadcast would have meant little, a slight rebellion here, an isolated crime there. But viewed from the perspective Grannie had given me, everything dovetailed. The situation on Jupiter was swiftly coming to a head. Not only had the people on that planet demanded that representative government be abolished, but a forum was now being held to find a leader who might take complete dictatorial control.
Outside a whisper-worm hissed softly. I got up and strode out of my tent. For some time I stood there, lost in thought. Could I believe Grannie’s incredible story? Or was this another of her fantastic plots which she had skilfully blended into a novel?
Abruptly I stiffened. The familiar drone of the marsh was gone. In its place a ringing silence blanketed everything.
And then out in the gloom a darker shadow appeared, moving in undulating sweeps toward the center of the camp. Fascinated, I watched it advance and retreat, saw two hyalescent eyes swim out of the murk. It charged, and with but a split second to act, I threw myself flat. There was a rush of mighty wings as the thing swept over me. Sharp talons raked my clothing. Again it came, and again I rolled swiftly, missing the thing by the narrowest of margins.
From the tent opposite a gaunt figure clad in a familiar dress appeared. Grannie gave a single warning:
The thing in the darkness turned like a cam on a rod and drove at us again. This time the old woman’s heat gun clicked, and a tracery of purple flame shot outward. A horrible soul-chilling scream rent the air. A moment later something huge and heavy scrabbled across the ground and shot aloft.
I stood frozen as the diminuendo of its wild cries echoed back to me.
“In heaven’s name, what was it?”
“Hunter-bird,” Grannie said calmly. “A form of avian life found here in the swamp. Harmless in its wild state, but when captured, it can be trained to pursue a quarry until it kills. It has a single unit brain and follows with a relentless purpose.”
“Then that would mean…?”
“That it was sent by our enemy, the same enemy that shot at us in the cafe in Swamp City. Exactly.” Grannie Annie halted at the door of her tent and faced me with earnest eyes. “Billy-boy, our every move is being watched. From now on it’s the survival of the fittest.”
The following day was our seventh in the swamp. The water here resembled a vast mosaic, striped and cross-striped with long winding ribbons of yellowish substance that floated a few inches below the surface. The mold balls coming into contact with the evonium water of the swamp had undergone a chemical change and evolved into a cohesive multi-celled marine life that lived and died within a space of hours. The Venusians paddled with extreme care. Had one of them dipped his hand into one of those yellow streaks, he would have been devoured in a matter of seconds.
At high noon by my Earth watch I sighted a low white structure on one of the distant islands. Moments later we made a landing at a rude jetty, and Grannie Annie was introducing me to Ezra Karn.
He was not as old a man as I had expected, but he was ragged and unkempt with iron gray hair falling almost to his shoulders. He was dressed in varpa cloth, the Venus equivalent of buckskin, and on his head was an enormous flop-brimmed hat.
“Glad to meet you,” he said, shaking my hand. “Any friend of Miss Flowers is a friend of mine.” He ushered us down the catwalk into his hut.
The place was a two room affair, small but comfortable. The latest type of visi set in one corner showed that Karn was not isolated from civilization entirely.
Grannie Annie came to the point abruptly. When she had explained the object of our trip, the prospector became thoughtful.
“Green Flames, eh?” he repeated slowly. “Well yes, I suppose I could find that space ship again. That is, if I wanted to.”
“What do you mean?” Grannie paused in the act of rolling herself a cigarette. “You know where it is, don’t you?”
“Ye-s,” Karn nodded. “But like I told you before, that ship lies in Varsoom country, and that isn’t exactly a summer vacation spot.”
“What are the Varsoom?” I asked. “A native tribe?”
Karn shook his head. “They’re a form of life that’s never been seen by Earthmen. Strictly speaking, they’re no more than a form of energy.”
“Yes and no. Only man I ever heard of who escaped their country outside of myself was the explorer, Darthier, three years ago. I got away because I was alone, and they didn’t notice me, and Darthier escaped because he made ’em laugh.”
“Laugh?” A scowl crossed Grannie’s face.
“That’s right,” Karn said. “The Varsoom have a strange nervous reaction that’s manifested by laughing. But just what it is that makes them laugh, I don’t know.”
Food supplies and fresh drinking water were replenished at the hut. Several mold guns were borrowed from the prospector’s supply to arm the Venusians. And then as we were about to leave, Karn suddenly turned.
“The Doctor Universe program,” he said. “I ain’t missed one in months. You gotta wait ’til I hear it.”
Grannie frowned in annoyance, but the prospector was adamant. He flipped a stud, twisted a dial and a moment later was leaning back in a chair, listening with avid interest.
It was the same show I had witnessed back in Swamp City. Once again I heard questions filter in from the far outposts of the System. Once again I saw the commanding figure of the quiz master as he strode back and forth across the stage. And as I sat there, looking into the visi screen, a curious numbing drowsiness seemed to steal over me and lead my thoughts far away.
Half an hour later we headed into the unknown. The Venusian boatmen were ill-at-ease now and jabbered among themselves constantly. We camped that night on a miserable little island where insects swarmed about us in hordes. The next day an indefinable wave of weariness and despondency beset our entire party. I caught myself musing over the futility of the venture. Only the pleadings of Grannie Annie kept me from turning back. On the morrow I realized the truth in her warning, that all of us had been exposed to the insidious radiations.
After that I lost track of time. Day after day of incessant rain … of steaming swamp…. But at length we reached firm ground and began our advance on foot.
It was Karn who first sighted the ship. Striding in the lead, he suddenly halted at the top of a hill and leveled his arm before him. There it lay, a huge cigar-shaped vessel of blackened arelium steel, half buried in the swamp soil.
“What’s that thing on top?” Karn demanded, puzzled.
A rectangular metal envelope had been constructed over the stern quarters of the ship. Above this structure were three tall masts. And suspended between them was a network of copper wire studded with white insulators.
Grannie gazed a long moment through binoculars. “Billy-boy, take three Venusians and head across the knoll,” she ordered. “Ezra and I will circle in from the west. Fire a gun if you strike trouble.”
But we found no trouble. The scene before us lay steeped in silence. Moments later our two parties converged at the base of the great ship.
A metal ladder extended from the envelope down the side of the vessel. Mid-way we could see a circular hatch-like door.
“Up we go, Billy-boy.” Heat gun in readiness, Grannie Annie began to climb slowly.
The silence remained absolute. We reached the door and pulled it open. There was no sign of life.
“Somebody’s gone to a lot of trouble here,” Ezra Karn observed.
Somebody had. Before us stretched a narrow corridor, flanked on the left side by a wall of impenetrable stepto glass. The corridor was bare of furnishings. But beyond the glass, revealed to us in mocking clarity, was a high panel, studded with dials and gauges. Even as we looked, we could see liquid pulse in glass tubes, indicator needles swing slowly to and fro.
Grannie nodded. “Some kind of a broadcasting unit. The Green Flames in the lower hold are probably exposed to a tholpane plate and their radiations stepped up by an electro-phosicalic process.”
Karn raised the butt of his pistol and brought it crashing against the glass wall. His arm jumped in recoil, but the glass remained intact.
“You’ll never do it that way,” Grannie said. “Nothing short of an atomic blast will shatter that wall. It explains why there are no guards here. The mechanism is entirely self-operating. Let’s see if the Green Flames are more accessible.”
In the lower hold disappointment again confronted us. Visible in the feeble shafts of daylight that filtered through cracks in the vessel’s hull were tiers of rectangular ingots of green iridescent ore. Suspended by insulators from the ceiling over them was a thick metal plate.
But between was a barrier. A wall of impenetrable stepto glass.
Grannie stamped her foot. “It’s maddening,” she said. “Here we are at the crux of the whole matter, and we’re powerless to make a single move.”
Outside the day was beginning to wane. The Venusians, apparently unawed by the presence of the space ship, had already started a fire and erected the tents. We left the vessel to find a spell of brooding desolation heavy over the improvised camp. And the evening meal this time was a gloomy affair. When it was finished, Ezra Karn lit his pipe and switched on the portable visi set. A moment later the silence of the march was broken by the opening fanfare of the Doctor Universe program.
“Great stuff,” Karn commented. “I sent in a couple of questions once, but I never did win nothin’. This Doctor Universe is a great guy. Ought to make him king or somethin’.”
For a moment none of us made reply. Then suddenly Grannie Annie leaped to her feet.
“Say that again!” she cried.
The old prospector looked startled. “Why, I only said they ought to make this Doctor Universe the big boss and….”
“That’s it!” Grannie paced ten yards off into the gathering darkness and returned quickly. “Billy-boy, you were right. The man behind this is Doctor Universe. It was he who stole my manuscript and devised a method to amplify the radiations of the Green Flames in the freighter’s hold. He lit on a sure-fire plan to broadcast those radiations in such a way that millions of persons would be exposed to them simultaneously. Don’t you see?”
I didn’t see, but Grannie hurried on.
“What better way to expose civilized life to the Green Flames radiations than when the people are in a state of relaxation. The Doctor Universe quiz program. The whole System tuned in on them, but they were only a blind to cover up the transmission of the radiations from the ore. Their power must have been amplified a thousandfold, and their wave-length must lie somewhere between light and the supersonic scale in that transition band which so far has defied exploration….”
“But with what motive?” I demanded. “Why should…?”
“Power!” the old woman answered. “The old thirst for dictatorial control of the masses. By presenting himself as an intellectual genius, Doctor Universe utilized a bizarre method to intrench himself in the minds of the people. Oh, don’t you see, Billy-boy? The Green Flames’ radiations spell doom to freedom, individual liberty.”
I sat there stupidly, wondering if this all were some wild dream.
And then, as I looked across at Grannie Annie, the vague light over the tents seemed to shift a little, as if one layer of the atmosphere had dropped away to be replaced by another.
There it was again, a definite movement in the air. Somehow I got the impression I was looking around that space rather than through it. And simultaneously Ezra Karn uttered a howl of pain. An instant later the old prospector was rolling over and over, threshing his arms wildly.
An invisible sledge hammer descended on my shoulder. The blow was followed by another and another. Heavy unseen hands held me down. Opposite me Grannie Annie and the Venusians were suffering similar punishment, the latter screaming in pain and bewilderment.
“It’s the Varsoom!” Ezra Karn yelled. “We’ve got to make ’em laugh. Our only escape is to make ’em laugh!”
He struggled to his feet and began leaping wildly around the camp fire. Abruptly his foot caught on a log protruding from the fire; he tripped and fell headlong into a mass of hot coals and ashes. Like a jumping jack he was on his feet again, clawing dirt and soot from his eyes.
Out of the empty space about us there came a sudden hush. The unseen blows ceased in mid-career. And then the silence was rent by wild laughter. Peal after peal of mirthful yells pounded against our ears. For many moments it continued; then it died away, and everything was peaceful once more.
Grannie Annie picked herself up slowly. “That was close,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to go through that again.”
Ezra Karn nursed an ugly welt under one eye. “Those Varsoom got a funny sense of humor,” he growled.
Inside the freighter’s narrow corridor Grannie faced me with eyes filled with excitement.
“Billy-boy,” she said, “we’ve got two problems now. We’ve got to stop Doctor Universe, and we’ve got to find a way of getting out of here. Right now we’re nicely bottled up.”
As if in answer to her words the visi set revealed the face of the quiz master on the screen. He was saying:
“Remember tomorrow at this same hour I will have a message of unparalleled importance for the people of the nine planets. Tomorrow night I urge you, I command you, to tune in.“
With a whistling intake of breath the old woman turned to one of the Venusians.
“Bring all our equipment in here,” she ordered. “Hurry!”
She untied the ribbon under her chin and took off her cap. She rolled up her sleeves, and as the Venusians came marching into the space ship with bundles of equipment, she fell to work.
Silently Ezra Karn and I watched her. First she completely dismantled the visi set, put it together again with an entirely altered hookup. Next she unrolled a coil of flexible copper mesh which we had brought along as a protective electrical screening against the marsh insects. She fastened rubberite suction cups to this mesh at intervals of every twelve inches or more, carried it down to the freighter’s hold and fastened it securely against the stepto glass wall.
Trailing a three-ply conduit up from the hold to the corridor she selected an induction coil, several Micro-Wellman tubes and a quantity of wire from a box of spare parts. Dexterously her fingers moved in and out, fashioning a complicated and curious piece of apparatus.
At length she finished.
“It’s pretty hay-wire,” she said, “but I think it will work. Now I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. When Doctor Universe broadcasts tomorrow night, he’s going to announce that he has set himself up as supreme dictator. He’ll have the Green Flame radiations coming from this ship under full power. I’m going to insert into his broadcast—the laughing of the Varsoom!”
“You’re going to what?”
“Broadcast the mass laughter from those invisible creatures out there. Visualize it, Billy-boy! At the dramatic moment when Doctor Universe makes his plea for System-wide power, he will be accompanied by wild peals of laughter. The whole broadcast will be turned into a burlesque.”
“How you going to make ’em laugh?” interrupted Karn.
“We must think of a way,” Grannie replied soberly.
I, for one, am glad that no representative of the Interstellar Psychiatry Society witnessed our antics during the early hours of that morning and on into the long reaches of the afternoon, as we vainly tried to provoke the laughter of the Varsoom. All to no avail. Utter silence greeted our efforts. And the time was growing close to the scheduled Doctor Universe program.
Ezra Karn wiped a bead of perspiration from his brow. “Maybe we’ve got to attract their attention first,” he suggested. “Miss Flowers, why don’t you go up on the roof and read to ’em? Read ’em something from one of your books, if you’ve got one along. That ought to make ’em sit up and take notice.”
For a moment the old woman gazed at him in silence. Then she got to her feet quickly.
“I’ll do it,” she said. “I’ll read them the attack scene from Murder On A Space Liner.”
It didn’t make sense, of course. But nothing made sense in this mad venture. Grannie Annie opened her duffel bag and drew out a copy of her most popular book. With the volume under her arm, she mounted the ladder to the top of the envelope. Ezra Karn rigged up a radite search lamp, and a moment later the old woman stood in the center of a circle of white radiance.
Karn gripped my arm. “This is it,” he said tensely. “If this fails …”
His voice clipped off as Grannie began to read. She read slowly at first, then intoned the words and sentences faster and more dramatically.
And out in the swamp a vast hush fell as if unseen ears were listening.
“… the space liner was over on her beam ends now as another shot from the raider’s vessel crashed into the stern hold. In the control cabin Cuthbert Strong twisted vainly at his bonds as he sought to free himself. Opposite him, lashed by strong Martian vinta ropes to the gravascope, Louise Belmont sobbed softly, wringing her hands in mute appeal.“
A restless rustling sounded out in the marsh, as if hundreds of bodies were surging closer. Karn nodded in awe.
“She’s got ’em!” he whispered. “Listen. They’re eatin’ up every word.”
I heard it then, and I thought I must be dreaming. From somewhere out in the swamp a sound rose into the thick air. A high-pitched chuckle, it was. The chuckle came again. Now it was followed by another and another. An instant later a wave of low subdued laughter rose into the air.
Ezra Karn gulped. “Gripes!” he said. “They’re laughing already. They’re laughing at her book! And look, the old lady’s gettin’ sore.”
Up on the roof of the envelope Grannie Annie halted her reading to glare savagely out into the darkness.
The laughter was a roar now. It rose louder and louder, peal after peal of mirthful yells and hysterical shouts. And for the first time in my life, I saw Annabella C. Flowers mad. She stamped her foot; she shook her fist at the unseen hordes out before her.
“Ignorant slap-happy fools!” she screamed. “You don’t know good science fiction when you hear it.”
I turned to Karn and said quietly, “Turn on the visi set. Doctor Universe should be broadcasting now. Tune your microphone to pull in as much of that laughter as you can.”
It took three weeks to make the return trip to Swamp City. The Varsoom followed us far beyond the frontier of their country like an unseen army in the throes of laughing gas. Not until we reached Level Five did the last chuckle fade into the distance.
All during that trek back, Grannie sat in the dugout, staring silently out before her.
But when we reached Swamp City, the news was flung at us from all sides. One newspaper headline accurately told the story: DOCTOR UNIVERSE BID FOR SYSTEM DICTATORSHIP SQUELCHED BY RIDICULE OF UNSEEN AUDIENCE. QUIZ MASTER NOW IN HANDS OF I.P. COUP FAILURE.
“Grannie,” I said that night as we sat again in a rear booth of THE JET, “what are you going to do now? Give up writing science fiction?”
She looked at me soberly, then broke into a smile.
“Just because some silly form of life that can’t even be seen doesn’t appreciate it? I should say not. Right now I’ve got an idea for a swell yarn about Mars. Want to come along while I dig up some background material?”
I shook my head. “Not me,” I said.
But I knew I would.#ENGLISH