The Recluse by Mike Curry



The human voice! Had there even been
so sweet a sound? Arak Miller ached
for it—too eagerly; too swiftly.

[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Twenty-five years later a ship appeared, on an afternoon in the planet’s summer.

Arak Miller watched it from the mesa.

From Earth, he thought. From Earth!

But Arak Miller was an ordered man. Even now, in the face of resurging visions of his wife, and his sons, and his work, and the mighty civilization from which he had been cut adrift, his thoughts were ordered: probably the ship had arrived from Earth to resurvey one of the Class II uninhabitable planets of the Alpha Centaurus System. Tomorrow its scout ships would whip along the day sides at five thousand feet. Tomorrow atop the mesa he must light his pyres, some hundred-odd gigantic piles of pine trees and brush that would burn with billowing smoke. He must signal the presence of a lone Earthman.

With a hypnotic intensity he stood watching the ship until, toward evening, it merged into the gray sky over the horizon. Then he ran across the clearing and down to his house by the river that wound through the valley a thousand feet below. “Come on, you fool!” he shouted to Marbach, sitting beneath a tree. Arak Miller threw the figure over his shoulder and carried him to the house. He sat Marbach on a chair and went into the kitchen to eat.

Arak Miller had been nomadic the first few years after he crashed and had been abandoned for dead, until he found in the planet’s narrow temperate zone one of the few arable regions capable of sustaining him. There was sufficient small game, the river was cool, and because the rain fell mainly in the valley, his pyres were safe.

In recent years he was always building. He had added a front porch to the cabin he had started with, then more rooms which he had never used, then an attic into which he never went. Now it was a house. It had chairs and tables, a bed, a rug of vines, a garden for vegetables and tobacco, and a garden for flowers.

He ate a leisurely meal of potatoes and corn and meat of the rabbit-like creatures which he trapped. Miss Gormeley was sitting on the porch as he went out. “A ship’s come,” he shouted. “I may be saved, you understand?”

He recalled he had intended to do something about Miss Gormeley’s nostril. With one of his knives he scraped a little against the wall of her left nostril. Then he stood back, satisfied. “Now you look better,” he said. With a wry grin he added, “You can smell better, too.”

For a long time he could not sleep, remembering that he had been cut off in the prime of his life. He had been the Senior Astrophysicist in the Systems War Office on Earth, working on the Second Einstein Modifications that promised travel to the more distant galactic Systems. He had completed six months of comparison spectography in the barren Centaurus System and had been about to take the year’s return journey to Earth, looking forward to a vacation trip with his family to Venus City. He had been in the forefront of the free world’s pushing back of the last frontiers of man.

He twisted on his bed in a wild agony of hope and yearning. “Someday soon,” he shouted to the walls, “I’ll ride the monorail across the Western plains.” He had discovered that it helped, to talk aloud, though none of his devices could make him forget he was a prisoner. To feel the Centaurus skies closing down on him and the alien mountains crushing him, so far from his work and those he loved, was to feel a terrible suffocation from which there was no release.

But then he would go doggedly to work, or else carve the life-size figures to keep him silent company, and try to forget.

He talked on and on, and finally he could talk no more. He slept.

He was awakened by a pattering on the roof.

“Rain!” he shouted. He jumped up and ran to the window socket. The rain clouds were high, and heavy with storm.

It struck him like a blow: they hung above the mesa.

Above his pyres.

In a panic he clambered up to the mesa, forgetting his breakfast, forgetting his outer clothing, his mind in disorder.

The shock wave pounded his eardrums.

He was too startled to make words. With unbelieving eyes he saw, about five miles away where the river emptied into the sea, the black cloud of an atomic explosion rise into the sky to spread out under the rain.

Then suddenly he was running blindly through the rain. The scout must have come down. They must be testing. The area was ideal for testing atomic weapons. I must reach them before they leave.

Through heavy undergrowth he pushed his way down the slope to the valley. His foot slipped on an exposed root. With a sharp crack of bone, he fell.

“My ankle!” he screamed, with terror smashing at his mind. He managed to find two thick lengths of branch that would serve as crutches. Then he started hobbling awkwardly toward the river.

For an hour he forced himself on urgently along the river bank, now feeling knife-like pains slicing up through his body. The effort of moving was beginning to exhaust him.

He fell down, and rested a moment. He heard a tree crash in the forest ahead. He heard someone shout.

A human voice!

He began to sob, softly at first, then uncontrollably. A human voice! It had never been so sweet a sound.

He climbed painfully to his feet, crashed on through the undergrowth. The density of trees ended abruptly and he stopped. Around the scout ship in the clearing beyond, robot dredges were digging the foundations for buildings. Gray-uniformed men were setting up new-type atomic artillery at the perimeters.

Arak Miller drew a deep breath. “I’m saved,” he said, his voice breaking. “I’m going to be a free man!” He tottered on the edge of hysteria, but controlled himself with a mighty effort of will.

He took a step forward to reach the clearing. Then he stopped.

Something was wrong.

He tried to put together the pieces of his mind. Everything looked normal. Construction going on, stores being transferred to temporary warehouses, all the usual activities of a scout party on an atomic testing mission. The artillery was pointing—

That was the flaw.

The artillery faced inward.

He looked back at the construction work. “Not foundations for buildings,” he said dully. “Ditches.”

As he watched, a flag was run up on a pole. The dreams of Arak Miller crashed in his mind.

It was the flag of the slave world, super-imposed upon the symbol of the Systems. The world controlled by the dictators, which for centuries had existed alongside the free world in a perpetual cold war. During some stage of Arak Miller’s long imprisonment, from Venus to Centaurus the dictators had taken over.

Hidden from guards, he lay on the ground and watched for a long time. Only when the next batch of captives was taken out of the scout ship and lined up in front of the ditch, did he turn his gaze away.

He waited till the next shock wave had passed, then with tears streaming down his face, hobbled back in the rain toward the river. He crawled the last two miles to his house. Miss Gormeley was sitting where he had left her. “I am sorry,” he said painfully. “I will have to destroy you. And Marbach. And our house, and the pyres. And when all that is done, I will have to leave this area. Otherwise they might find me.”

Miss Gormeley stared blindly out at the river.

He lay still on the floor, gasping for breath. “You see,” he explained, “I am not a prisoner. They are the prisoners. All of them. All the world—but me.”

His eyes closed in exhaustion. “I like it here now,” he said, almost in a whisper. “I intend to stay. There must be some place here where they can never find me, you understand?”