The Altar at Midnight

by C. M. Kornbluth

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Doing something for humanity may be fine--for humanity--but rough on the individual!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

He had quite a rum-blossom on him for a kid, I thought at first. But when he moved closer to the light by the cash register to ask the bartender for a match or something, I saw it wasn’t that. Not just the nose. Broken veins on his cheeks, too, and the funny eyes. He must have seen me look, because he slid back away from the light.

The bartender shook my bottle of ale in front of me like a Swiss bell-ringer so it foamed inside the green glass.

“You ready for another, sir?” he asked.

I shook my head. Down the bar, he tried it on the kid--he was drinking scotch and water or something like that--and found out he could push him around. He sold him three scotch and waters in ten minutes.

When he tried for number four, the kid had his courage up and said, “I’ll tell you when I’m ready for another, Jack.” But there wasn’t any trouble.

It was almost nine and the place began to fill up. The manager, a real hood type, stationed himself by the door to screen out the high-school kids and give the big hello to conventioneers. The girls came hurrying in, too, with their little makeup cases and their fancy hair piled up and their frozen faces with the perfect mouths drawn on them. One of them stopped to say something to the manager, some excuse about something, and he said: “That’s aw ri’; get inna dressing room.”

A three-piece band behind the drapes at the back of the stage began to make warm-up noises and there were two bartenders keeping busy. Mostly it was beer--a midweek crowd. I finished my ale and had to wait a couple of minutes before I could get another bottle. The bar filled up from the end near the stage because all the customers wanted a good, close look at the strippers for their fifty-cent bottles of beer. But I noticed that nobody sat down next to the kid, or, if anybody did, he didn’t stay long--you go out for some fun and the bartender pushes you around and nobody wants to sit next to you. I picked up my bottle and glass and went down on the stool to his left.

He turned to me right away and said: “What kind of a place is this, anyway?” The broken veins were all over his face, little ones, but so many, so close, that they made his face look something like marbled rubber. The funny look in his eyes was it--the trick contact lenses. But I tried not to stare and not to look away.

“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s a good show if you don’t mind a lot of noise from--”

He stuck a cigarette into his mouth and poked the pack at me. “I’m a spacer,” he said, interrupting.

I took one of his cigarettes and said: “Oh.”

He snapped a lighter for the cigarettes and said: “Venus.”


I was noticing that his pack of cigarettes on the bar had some kind of yellow sticker instead of the blue tax stamp.

“Ain’t that a crock?” he asked. “You can’t smoke and they give you lighters for a souvenir. But it’s a good lighter. On Mars last week, they gave us all some cheap pen-and-pencil sets.”

“You get something every trip, hah?” I took a good, long drink of ale and he finished his scotch and water.

“Shoot. You call a trip a ‘shoot’.”

One of the girls was working her way down the bar. She was going to slide onto the empty stool at his right and give him the business, but she looked at him first and decided not to. She curled around me and asked if I’d buy her a li’l ole drink. I said no and she moved on to the next. I could kind of feel the young fellow quivering. When I looked at him, he stood up. I followed him out of the dump. The manager grinned without thinking and said, “G’night, boys,” to us.

The kid stopped in the street and said to me: “You don’t have to follow me around, Pappy.” He sounded like one wrong word and I would get socked in the teeth.

“Take it easy. I know a place where they won’t spit in your eye.”

He pulled himself together and made a joke of it. “This I have to see,” he said. “Near here?”

“A few blocks.”

We started walking. It was a nice night.

“I don’t know this city at all,” he said. “I’m from Covington, Kentucky. You do your drinking at home there. We don’t have places like this.” He meant the whole Skid Row area.

“It’s not so bad,” I said. “I spend a lot of time here.”

“Is that a fact? I mean, down home a man your age would likely have a wife and children.”

“I do. The hell with them.”

He laughed like a real youngster and I figured he couldn’t even be twenty-five. He didn’t have any trouble with the broken curbstones in spite of his scotch and waters. I asked him about it.

“Sense of balance,” he said. “You have to be tops for balance to be a spacer--you spend so much time outside in a suit. People don’t know how much. Punctures. And you aren’t worth a damn if you lose your point.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Oh. Well, it’s hard to describe. When you’re outside and you lose your point, it means you’re all mixed up, you don’t know which way the can--that’s the ship--which way the can is. It’s having all that room around you. But if you have a good balance, you feel a little tugging to the ship, or maybe you just know which way the ship is without feeling it. Then you have your point and you can get the work done.”

“There must be a lot that’s hard to describe.”

He thought that might be a crack and he clammed up on me.

“You call this Gandytown,” I said after a while. “It’s where the stove-up old railroad men hang out. This is the place.”


It was the second week of the month, before everybody’s pension check was all gone. Oswiak’s was jumping. The Grandsons of the Pioneers were on the juke singing the Man from Mars Yodel and old Paddy Shea was jigging in the middle of the floor. He had a full seidel of beer in his right hand and his empty left sleeve was flapping.

The kid balked at the screen door. “Too damn bright,” he said.

I shrugged and went on in and he followed. We sat down at a table. At Oswiak’s you can drink at the bar if you want to, but none of the regulars do.

Paddy jigged over and said: “Welcome home, Doc.” He’s a Liverpool Irishman; they talk like Scots, some say, but they sound almost like Brooklyn to me.

“Hello, Paddy. I brought somebody uglier than you. Now what do you say?”

Paddy jigged around the kid in a half-circle with his sleeve flapping and then flopped into a chair when the record stopped. He took a big drink from the seidel and said: “Can he do this?” Paddy stretched his face into an awful grin that showed his teeth. He has three of them. The kid laughed and asked me: “What the hell did you drag me into here for?”

“Paddy says he’ll buy drinks for the house the day anybody uglier than he is comes in.”

Oswiak’s wife waddled over for the order and the kid asked us what we’d have. I figured I could start drinking, so it was three double scotches.

After the second round, Paddy started blowing about how they took his arm off without any anesthetics except a bottle of gin because the red-ball freight he was tangled up in couldn’t wait.

That brought some of the other old gimps over to the table with their stories.

Blackie Bauer had been sitting in a boxcar with his legs sticking through the door when the train started with a jerk. Wham, the door closed. Everybody laughed at Blackie for being that dumb in the first place, and he got mad.

Sam Fireman has palsy. This week he was claiming he used to be a watchmaker before he began to shake. The week before, he’d said he was a brain surgeon. A woman I didn’t know, a real old Boxcar Bertha, dragged herself over and began some kind of story about how her sister married a Greek, but she passed out before we found out what happened.

Somebody wanted to know what was wrong with the kid’s face--Bauer, I think it was, after he came back to the table.

“Compression and decompression,” the kid said. “You’re all the time climbing into your suit and out of your suit. Inboard air’s thin to start with. You get a few redlines--that’s these ruptured blood vessels--and you say the hell with the money; all you’ll make is just one more trip. But, God, it’s a lot of money for anybody my age! You keep saying that until you can’t be anything but a spacer. The eyes are hard-radiation scars.”

“You like dot all ofer?” asked Oswiak’s wife politely.

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