The Pluto Lamp by Charles A. Stearns



It was the most outrageous kind of irony that
fate, and the Commission of Galactic Astrography,
should select such a prime misfit as Knucklebone
Smith to light the lamp of Pluto.

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

This is really two stories. The first is solar history; the second, the mostly true legend of a misfit called Knucklebone Smith.

Knucklebone, so far as anyone could ever determine, was his real name—the sin of prankish, or perhaps disillusioned parents. He was exactly six feet eight inches tall from the insulated soles of his engineering boots to the top of his planeteer’s helmet. He never in his life weighed more than one hundred sixty-five pounds. His face was angular and horse-like, and it had never, within the memory of anyone who knew him, contained the slightest vestige of a smile.

He was not nature’s first error, nor her last, but he differed from the unexceptional many in that he believed in Destiny … with a capital ‘L.’ Throughout a lifetime of unfortunate ventures he remained firm in the conviction that sooner or later he would find his own metier and become famous. At last he did, and that is the story of Knucklebone Smith.

The Pluto Lamp, a relic of the pioneering days of interstellar flight, is harder to explain, but easier to believe. It was once as well known to spacemen as Rafferty Shoals to the ancient China clippers.

The gulf between the stars was vast and uncharted in those days; still a thing of superstitious dread for the planet-bound. But it was no more unknown than the solitary planet which tails all the others in its dark, millennial path about our own sun. The planetary freighters went as far as Uranus and no farther. For the black little planet whose very namesake is Hell had nothing to attract them that could not be gotten at more conveniently.

The starships passed it by warily, giving it a wide berth, for it had an evil reputation. The old scanners were unreliable at best, what with the confusing debris that fills space, and more than one ship, through miscalculation, swerved from its course, brushing through the magnetic field of the unillumined wasteland, and crashed on the hard frozen surface of Pluto.

It was inevitable that someone would give birth to the idea of the Lamp. It was to be a permanent, unmanned beacon, strategically placed on the Dead Planet to warn ships that should have passed in the night, but didn’t always make it.

A magnificent idea, everyone thought. Everyone, that is, excepting Knucklebone Smith.

The very idea of Pluto made him ill. He had set his number twelve size feet on all the inner planets at one time or another in the disillusioning search for fortune. He had starved and thirsted, baked and bled for his dream. But he had always hated and avoided cold. He had, in fact, the look of a man born cold, and never entirely warmed.

It was the most outrageous kind of irony, therefore, that fate, and the Commission of Galactic Astrography, should select him to light the Lamp.

The latter, at least, was innocent of paradoxical motive. They needed a man like Smith. A man planet-wise enough to do the job, and not intelligent enough to decline it. There would be another man along, of course, to direct, but he presented no problem, for he was Professor Salvor-Jones, who had invented the Light, and insisted upon being along when it was installed. He was a dedicated man.

Knucklebone Smith, however, was dedicated to something else, and it was only his pressing need for money that prodded him into acceptance of the offer. He didn’t care a fig for the safety of starships. This would be a dangerous job at best, decidedly unpleasant at worst. Smith didn’t mind the danger; he had seen much of it in his wanderings; but of unpleasantness he had experienced even more, and being a sybarite by nature, in spite of his hard life, he preferred real (but painless) peril. He was sure that he would be cold on Pluto. He was right.

The lamp was not really a light, of course, nor did it faintly resemble one. What it did, in fact, resemble, was a sleek space cruiser. This was wholly misleading, for though it was designed for interplanetary travel, it was to be a one-way voyage. Once in the orbit of Pluto it would nose down, smash a few feet into the crystalline surface of frozen ammonia, and remain there forever, standing on end like a lighthouse. It was at this point that it would cease to be a spaceship and become a beacon.

At least that was what Professor Salvor-Jones said.

The beacon was three hundred feet long, white in color, for some mysterious reason, and had cost the government of Earth something less than seventeen million dollars. It was packed with expensive robotic equipment, and was designed to be completely self-sustaining, once its controls were properly set. It did everything for passing starships that could possibly be expected of a well-reared beacon. It cheered them on the outward passage, making them feel less lonely. It greeted them, like a remote, cold Statue of Liberty upon their return, warned them of lurking meteorite storms within the vicinity of their course, and advised them of their position with relation to their destination when they contacted its sensitive radio. But most important, it warned them to steer clear of Pluto.

It very nearly failed before it had begun all this show of monkish wayside hospitality, however. It would have failed if it hadn’t been for Knucklebone Smith.

They cut the beaconship loose from its convoy five hundred miles out, which was sufficient for it to spiral in on the minimum of power it carried and land safely.

Salvor-Jones and Smith had only to lie in their safety hammocks in the cramped temporary passenger cubicle. The ship would land by itself. Their duties began once it had established itself firmly on the bleak expanse of dark planet below them. They were to adjust the automatic controls, make tests, and generally see that the thing was as it should be for the lonely vigil that lay ahead.

Three weeks, Salvor-Jones indicated, should be plenty of time for all this. When it was finished, they could send a patrol cruiser from Ganymede to pick them up.

That was what he said but he was a very zealous man, and doted on thoroughness.

The fact was that they were finished with the tests in seven and a half hours, and there was nothing to do, unhappily, for the remaining twenty days except to entertain themselves as best they could, and wait. It might be said that things went too smoothly.

Professor Salvor-Jones was a smallish man with a square mustache of regulation black, and a lock of jet hair that hung at times over his left eye. He had a perpetual motion machine built into him, and a profound contempt for the normal pace of life.

But worst of all, in view of his predicament, he had Knucklebone Smith.

Salvor-Jones finished his checking at 1800 star time and came into the living compartment from the chill outer ship, or beacon, as it had now become. He blew on his hands, put away his check-sheet board, and stood uncertainly, gnawing his thumb and gazing at the spectacle of Smith hunkered silently in front of a portable radiant heater. Knucklebone was, as usual, the picture of contemplative suicide.

“Well, well,” said Salvor-Jones briskly.

Smith made no answer. He swallowed thoughtfully, his Adam’s apple convulsing, and continued to stare into the glowing sun of the heater.

“We’ve not much to do from now on, I’m afraid,” Salvor-Jones said, “until a starship passes within range. Then we’ll be able to see how well it works.”

Smith nodded glumly. He was sulking. He had been assigned to assist, but this little man insisted on doing everything himself. Didn’t trust a damn soul but himself. Pick up a tool and like as not he’d snatch it from your hand and leave you standing there watching him. Smith hated people like that.

“Play chess?” Salvor-Jones asked.

“I never played chess,” Knucklebone Smith said.

“Quite an assortment of games on board,” Salvor-Jones said. “Checkers. Maybe you’d rather play checkers.”

“Never tried it.”



Salvor-Jones sighed. He got out the animated slide pictures, set up the screen, and amused himself at length. The slides were mostly those of lightly clad females in warm climates, doing pleasantly idle things.

After the second slide, Knucklebone switched his chair around so that his back was to the screen. The girls made him feel too sentimental. The blue skies and golden beaches made him homesick.

On the fifth day Knucklebone Smith was fiddling with a power switch and blew out a safety fuse. It required some three hours for Professor Salvor-Jones to repair it, but he was glad for the diversion.

On the eighth day Smith was pottering in the pile room with an electric torch, making himself a wire bookrack. A lubrication reservoir caught on fire and a minor generator was ruined.

On the eleventh day he dropped a hammer from the fidley of the power room to the floor, a hundred feet below. A gas line was smashed. Salvor-Jones put on a gas mask and went down to fix it. It took quite a long while.

On the fourteenth day, without the slightest pretext, Salvor-Jones called Knucklebone Smith a meddling fool. Smith hit him once and that was that. They didn’t speak to each other for four days.

The meteor storm came only three days before their exile was to end. On Pluto, where the frozen atmosphere lies inert on the surface, there was nothing to stop the rain of debris from space. It sounded like sporadic hail on the tough metal hull of the beacon, and their scopes showed the mass to be more than a million miles in width, streaming in from the direction of Orion.

Salvor-Jones was worried. There was a tiny blip in the lower corner of the solar coordinate on the radar screen; a blip that occulted with alternating brightness and dimness, in a pattern of unnatural regularity. A ship!

Her radio came in an hour later. She announced her name, Luna Star, and destination, Alpha Centauri. The hail of stones from space was getting worse. The beacon was built to stand such stress, but a starship, meeting them head on—!

It was a dangerous situation.

Within the Pluto Lamp a hundred relays clicked and buzzed. Automatic switches closed. The power pack, deep in the body of the beacon hummed with sudden power. Even Knucklebone Smith seemed slightly interested. But nothing happened.

The ship’s signal came in loud and clear once more. “This is Luna Star. Come in, robot station Pluto Lamp. Come in Pluto Lamp.”

Salvor-Jones sprang for the manual switch and flicked it on. “Luna Star,” he screamed, “Do you read me? This is Pluto Lamp. Do you read me?”

“This is Luna Star. We understand the robot station is now in operation, but manned. Come in if you are there.”

Luna Star, do you read me?” They waited a long, tense minute. There was no answer. “We’re not getting through,” Salvor-Jones said.

Knucklebone cleared his throat. “There’s a red light on over at the emergency panel. Would that have anything to do with it?”

“You imbecile!” Salvor-Jones said, “Why didn’t you say so. It’s the antenna. I knew it. I knew there’d be trouble with the antenna! A meteorite must have damaged it.”

“I guess this thing ain’t going to work,” Knucklebone said. “We’ve been here only a couple of weeks, and look what happens. I never thought it would be any good anyway.”

Salvor-Jones bared his teeth. “There isn’t a storm like this one every twenty-five years,” he growled. “Don’t sit there; we’ve got to go up on the dome. No! Stay where you are. I don’t want this job botched.” He began to struggle into his exposure suit.

“If the Star hits it head-on there’ll be hell to pay,” Knucklebone said diffidently. “I was in one of these storms once before on an old crate out in the Belt.” He got up and stretched his spidery frame languidly. Then he went over and took down his impossibly long exposure suit from its hook.

“What are you doing?” Salvor-Jones said.

“Guess I’ll go with you.”

“You’re going to play hell,” Professor Salvor-Jones said in an unscholarly manner. “What good could you possibly be?”

There was a steely glint in Knucklebone Smith’s eyes. Later on, at the inquiry, Salvor-Jones testified concerning that glint. “Listen,” Smith said, “I guess I’m sick and tired of you trying to play the big hero all alone on this here tub. A body would think I was a moron. They picked me out of millions, didn’t they? That’s Destiny. I guess you haven’t thought about it, but everybody’s got a Destiny—something they can do better than anybody else. Everybody’s good at something.” It was a long speech for Knucklebone Smith. There were two red spots of anger on his sallow cheeks.

“So I’ve heard,” Salvor-Jones said wryly. “Well, come along, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. It may be the end of us, you know.”

Knucklebone snorted. He had walked in the shadow of death before. A man had his destiny. Something worthwhile to perform before he kicked off. And if he had ever done anything worthwhile he couldn’t remember it. He zipped up his suit and reached for his helmet.

The roof hatch, massively armored, opened noiselessly on its hydraulic supports. The coldness rushed at them, and could not be entirely shut out by the suits. Smith shivered throughout his long, skinny body.

Clambering out on the roof of the beacon they became aware of what seemed like a strong wind, but what was, in reality, microscopic interstellar dust from the storm, traveling at supersonic speed, flattening their suits against them.

Here and there a pea-sized pebble clanged against the metal hull like a bullet. Crouching in the shelter of the antenna tower, they scanned its naked ribs of steel alloy for a break.

At last Salvor-Jones, who knew what he was looking for, found it, six feet up, where a meteorite had smashed into the coaxial and shorted it against the frame. He climbed up and went to work, cursing to himself in his helmet as the death missiles hurtled about him.

It seemed to Salvor-Jones that he had been up there forever, with one leg draped over a brace, clumsily working with his heavy gloves. The cold was seeping in more and more in spite of the fact that it could not have been more than half an hour from the time of his ascent.

He clambered down at last, beating his hands together to restore circulation.

Knucklebone Smith, who had done nothing, leaned against the tower on the storm side. He was staring fixedly at something out in that perpetual night. But there was nothing to see. Only the faint glow of the bluish-white methane crystals, swirling through the frozen gullies of the rugged terrain; sweeping around the dark ridges as they were agitated by the driving stellar dust.

“You’ll be killed out there,” Salvor-Jones said into his mike. “Get behind something, quick!”

Smith said nothing. He just stood there, with his back to Salvor-Jones, contemplating the horizon as the storm rippled his uniform. His position had not shifted a fraction of an inch. It was this fact that frightened Salvor-Jones suddenly. He caught his breath, and crept around the edge of the shelter. He reached out and shook his assistant’s arm.

Knucklebone Smith did not move. There was a gaping hole in the side of his helmet where a rock had struck. He had frozen to death, standing up.

A sudden flurry of unseen particles buffeted Salvor-Jones and bowled him over. Something big smashed against the roof hatch with such force that the entire beacon shuddered. The lid of the hatch, its braces torn from under it, clanged shut. Then the sudden gust abated.

Salvor-Jones crawled over to the escape hatch and looked at it. It was slightly askew; there was plenty of room to get his hands under the edge of it. He tugged manfully in an effort to slide it aside enough to admit him, but in vain. It weighed more than half a ton.

He pried at it with his adjustable wrench but it wouldn’t budge. He looked around for something longer. There was nothing.

Professor Salvor-Jones realized that he was going to die on Pluto. He wished that he believed in prayer.

He read the gage of his heating unit. Not much longer.

He sat down on the hatch, heedless of the silent flak about him. He envied Knucklebone Smith over there; the man had never known what hit him.

Knucklebone was still standing there, tall against the night, rigidly leaning against the superstructure, an impossible caricature of death.

Something clicked in Salvor-Jones’s brain. One faint, mad hope. He crawled over and tugged at Smith’s legs. The tall corpse came crashing down on top of him.

He seized one unyielding foot, a big, all-important, boot-clad foot that stuck out at just the right angle, and began to drag Knucklebone across the width of the dome.

The Lunar Star got through safely. It was turned aside by a last minute warning from the Pluto Lamp beacon. This impressed the importance of the Lamp in the minds of the authorities, as is attested to by history, for it was in service well over one hundred years after Salvor-Jones’s ordeal.

In Selena City there is a small monument, equally dedicated to the two heroes, Salvor-Jones and Smith. For the professor declared that Smith had been as much responsible for the success of the Lamp as he, himself. Hadn’t he saved the day, there at the very last?

As for Knucklebone Smith, his frozen body still lies in simple state on Pluto. There is a faint, fixed smile on his face; or presumably there is, for Salvor-Jones attests that it was there that night. And it can hardly have escaped him now.

For it was just as Knucklebone had always said. Every man is good for something.

Even if it is only to be used for a lever.