The God in the Box

by Sewell Peaslee Wright

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: In the course of his Special Patrol duties Commander John Hanson resolves the unique and poignant mystery of "toma annerson.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

This is a story I never intended to tell. I would not even tell it now if it were not for the Zenians.

Understand that I do not dislike the Zenians. One of the best officers I ever had was a Zenian. His name was Eitel, and he served under me on the old Tamon, my first command. But lately the Zenians have made rather too much of the exploits of Ame Baove.

The history of the Universe gives him credit, and justly, for making the first successful exploration in space. Baove’s log of that trip is a classic that every school-child knows.

But I have a number of friends who are natives of Zenia, and they fret me with their boastings.

“Well, Hanson,” they say, “your Special Patrol Service has done wonderful work, largely under the officership of Earth-men. But after all, you have to admit that it was a Zenian who first mastered space!”

Perhaps it is just fractiousness of an old man, but countless repetitions of such statements, in one form or another, have irritated me to the point of action--and before going further, let me say, for the benefit of my Zenian friends, that if they care to dig deeply enough into the archives, somewhere they will find a brief report of these adventures recorded in the log of one of my old ships, the Ertak, now scrapped and forgotten. Except, perhaps, by some few like myself, who knew and loved her when she was one of the newest and finest ships of the Service.

I commanded the Ertak during practically her entire active life. Those were the days when John Hanson was not an old man, writing of brave deeds, but a youngster of half a century, or thereabouts, and full of spirit. Sometimes, when memory brings back those old days, it seems hard for me to believe that John Hanson, Commander of the Ertak, and old John Hanson, retired, and a spinner of ancient yarns, are one and the same--but I must get on to my story, for youth is impatient, and from “old man” to “old fool” is a short leap for a youthful mind.

The Special Patrol Service is not all high adventure. It was not so even in the days of the Ertak. There was much routine patrolling, and the Ertak drew her full share of this type of duty. We hated it, of course, but in that Service you do what you are told and say nothing.

We were on a routine patrol, with only one possible source of interest in our orders. The wizened and sour-faced scientists the Universe acclaims so highly had figured out that a certain planet, thus far unvisited, would be passing close to the line of our patrol, and our orders read, “if feasible,” to inspect this body, and if inhabited, which was doubted, to make contact.

There was a separate report, if I remember correctly, with a lot of figures. This world was not large; smaller than Earth, as a matter of fact, and its orbit brought it into conjunction with our system only once in some immemorable period of time. I suppose that record is stored away, too, if anybody is interested in it. It was largely composed of guesses, and most of them were wrong. These white-coated scientists do a lot of wild guessing, if the facts were known.

However, she did show up at about the place they had predicted. Kincaide, my second officer, was on duty when the television disk first picked her up, and he called me promptly.

“Strobus”--that was the name the scientists had given this planet we were to look over--”Strobus is in view, sir, if you’d like to look her over,” he reported. “Not close enough yet to determine anything of interest, however, even with maximum power.”

I considered for a moment, scowling at the microphone.

“Very well, Mr. Kincaide,” I said at length. “Set a course for her. We’ll give her a glance, anyway.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Kincaide promptly. One of the best officers in the Service, Kincaide. Level-headed, and a straight thinker. He was a man for any emergency. I remember--but I’ve already told that story.

I turned back to my reports, and forgot all about this wandering Strobus. Then I turned in, to catch up somewhat on my sleep, for we had had some close calls in a field of meteors, and the memory of a previous disaster was still fresh in my mind.[1] I had spent my “watch below” in the navigating room, and now I needed sleep rather badly. If the scientists really want to do something for humanity, why don’t they show us how to do without food and sleep?

[1] See “The Ghost World” in the April issue of Amazing


When, refreshed and ready for anything, I did report to the navigating room, Correy, my first officer, was on duty.

“Good morning, sir,” he nodded. It was the custom, on ships I commanded, for the officers to govern themselves by Earth standards of time; we created an artificial day and night, and disregarded entirely, except in our official records, the enar and other units of the Universal time system.

“Good morning, Mr. Correy. How are we bearing?”

“Straight for our objective, sir.” He glanced down at the two glowing charts that pictured our surroundings in three dimensions, to reassure himself. “She’s dead ahead, and looming up quite sizeably.”

“Right!” I bent over the great hooded television disk--the ponderous type we used in those days--and picked up Strobus without difficulty. The body more than filled the disk and I reduced the magnification until I could get a full view of the entire exposed surface.

Strobus, it seemed, bore a slight resemblance to one view of my own Earth. There were two very apparent polar caps, and two continents, barely connected, the two of them resembling the numeral eight in the writing of Earth-men; a numeral consisting of two circles, one above the other, and just touching. One of the roughly circular continents was much larger than the other.

“Mr. Kincaide reported that the portions he inspected consisted entirely of fluid sir,” commented Correy. “The two continents now visible have just come into view, so I presume that there are no others, unless they are concealed by the polar caps. Do you find any indications of habitation?”

“I haven’t examined her closely under high magnification,” I replied. “There are some signs...”

I increased power, and began slowly searching the terrain of the distant body. I had not far to search before I found what I sought.

“We’re in luck, Mr. Correy!” I exclaimed. “Our friend is inhabited. There is at least one sizeable city on the larger continent and ... yes, there’s another! Something to break the monotony, eh? Strobus is an ‘unknown’ on the charts.”

“Suppose we’ll have trouble, sir?” asked Correy hopefully. Correy was a prime hand for a fight of any kind. A bit too hot-headed perhaps, but a man who never knew when he was beaten.

“I hope not; you know how they rant at the Base when we have to protect ourselves,” I replied, not without a certain amount of bitterness. “They’d like to pacify the Universe with never a sweep of a disintegrator beam. ‘Of course, Commander Hanson’ some silver-sleeve will say, ‘if it was absolutely vital to protect your men and your ship’--ugh! They ought to turn out for a tour of duty once in a while, and see what conditions are.” I was young then, and the attitude of my conservative superiors at the Base was not at all in keeping with my own views, at times.

“You think, then, that we will have trouble, sir?”

“Your guess is as good is mine,” I shrugged. “The people of this Strobus know nothing of us. They will not know whether we come as friends or enemies. Naturally, they will be suspicious. It is hard to explain the use of the menore, to convey our thoughts to them.”

I glanced up at the attraction meter, reflecting upon the estimated mass of the body we were approaching. By night we should be nearing her atmospheric envelope. By morning we should be setting down on her.

“We’ll hope for the best, sir,” said Correy innocently.

I bent more closely over the television disk, to hide my smile. I knew perfectly what the belligerent Correy meant by “the best.”

The next morning, at atmospheric speed, we settled down swiftly over the larger of the two continents, Correy giving orders to the navigating room while I divided my attention between the television disk and the altimeter, with a glance every few seconds at the surface temperature gauge. In unknown atmospheres, it is not difficult to run up a considerable surface temperature, and that is always uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous.

“The largest city seems to be nearer the other continent. You should be able to take over visually before long. Has the report on the atmosphere come through yet?”

“Not yet. Just a moment, sir.” Correy spoke for a moment into his microphone and turned to me with a smile.

“Suitable for breathing,” he reported. “Slight excess of oxygen, and only a trace of moisture. Hendricks just completed the analysis.” Hendricks, my third officer, was as clever as a laboratory man in many ways, and a red-blooded young officer as well. That’s a combination you don’t come across very often.

“Good! Breathing masks are a nuisance. I believe I’d reduce speed somewhat; she’s warming up. The big city I mentioned is dead ahead. Set the Ertak down as close as possible.”

“Yes, sir!” snapped Correy, and I leaned over the television disk to examine, at very close range, the great Strobian metropolis we were so swiftly approaching.

The buildings were all tall, and constructed of a shining substance that I could not identify, even though I could now make out the details of their architecture, which was exceedingly simple, and devoid of ornament of any kind, save an occasional pilaster or flying buttress. The streets were broad, and laid out to cut the city into lozenge-shaped sections, instead of the conventional squares. In the center of the city stood a great lozenge-shaped building with a smooth, arched roof. From every section of the city, great swarms of people were flocking in the direction of the spot toward which the Ertak was settling, on foot and in long, slim vehicles of some kind that apparently carried several people.

“Lots of excitement down there, Mr. Correy,” I commented. “Better tell Mr. Kincaide to order up all hands, and station a double guard at the port. Have a landing force, armed with atomic pistols and bombs, and equipped with menores, as an escort.”

“And the disintegrator-ray generators--you’ll have them in operation, sir, just in case?”

“That might be well. But they are not to be used except in the greatest emergency, understand. Hendricks will accompany me, if it seems expeditious to leave the ship, leaving you in command here.”

“Very well, sir!” I knew the arrangement didn’t suit him, but he was too much the perfect officer to protest, even with a glance. And besides, at the moment, he was very busy with orders to the men in the control room, forward, as he conned the ship to the place he had selected to set her down.

But busy as he was, he did not forget the order to tune up the disintegrator-ray generators.

While the great circular door of the Ertak was backing out ponderously from its threaded seat, suspended by its massive gimbals, I inspected the people of this new world.

My first impression was that they were a soldiery people, for there were no jostling crowds swarming around the ship, such as might have been expected. Instead, the citizenry stood at ease in a sort of military formation of numerous small companies, each apparently in charge of an officer. These companies were arranged to form a long wide avenue, leading to the city, and down this avenue a strange procession was coming toward the ship.

I should make it clear at this point that these Strobians were, in form, very similar to Earth-men, although somewhat shorter in stature, and certainly more delicately formed. Perhaps it would be better to say they resembled the Zenians, save for this marked difference: the Strobians were exceedingly light in color, their skins being nearly translucent, and their hair a light straw color. The darkest hair I saw at any time was a pale gold, and many had hair as colorless as silver--which I should explain is a metal of Earth somewhat resembling aluminum in appearance.

The procession was coming toward the ship slowly, the marchers apparently chanting as they came, for I could see their lips moving. They were dressed in short kirtles of brilliant colors--scarlet, green, orange, purple--and wore brilliant belts suspended about their waists by straps which crossed over their breasts and passed over each shoulder.

Each marcher bore a tall staff from which flew a tiny pennon of the same color as his chief garment. At the top of each staff was a metal ornament, which at first glance I took to be the representation of a fish. As they came closer, I saw that this was not a good guess, for the device was without a tail.

“The exit port is open, sir,” reported Hendricks. “The people seem far from hostile, and the air is very good. What are your orders?”

“There will be no change, I think,” I said as I hurried toward the now open door. “Mr. Kincaide will be in command of the guard at the port. You and I, with a small landing force, will advance to meet this procession. Make sure that there are a number of extra menores carried by the escort; we shall need them.”

“Yes, sir!” Hendricks snapped a command and the landing force fell into place behind us as we passed through the circular doorway, and out onto the rocky ground of Strobus.

The procession stopped instantly, and the chanting died to a murmur. The men forming the living wall on each side bowed their heads and made a quick sign; a peculiar gesture, as though they reached out to shake an invisible hand.

The leader of the procession, a fine-featured man with golden hair, walked forward with bowed head, chanting a single phrase over and over again in a voice as sweet as a woman’s: “_Toma annerson ... toma annerson ... toma annerson... _”

“Sounds friendly enough,” I whispered to Hendricks. “Hand me an extra menore; I’ll see...”

The chanting stopped, and the Strobian lifted his head.

“Greetings!” he said. “You are welcome here.”

I think nothing ever surprised me more, I stared at the man like a fool, my jaw dropping, and my eyes bulging. For the man spoke in a language of Earth; spoke it haltingly and poorly, but recognizably.

“You--you speak English?” I faltered. “Where--where did you learn to speak this language?”

The Strobian smiled, his face shining as though he saw a vision.

“Toma annerson,” he intoned gravely, and extended his right hand in a greeting which Earth-men have offered each other for untold centuries!

I shook hands with him gravely, wondering if I were dreaming.

“I thank you for your welcome,” I said, gathering my wits at last. “We come as friends, from worlds not unlike your own. We are glad that you meet us as friends.”

“It was so ordered. He ordered it so and Artur is His mouthpiece in this day.” The Strobian weighed every word carefully before he uttered it speaking with a solemn gravity that was most impressive.

“Artur?” I questioned him. “That is your name?”

“That is my name,” he said proudly. “It came from He Who Speaks who gave it to my father many times removed.”

There were many questions in my mind, but I could not be outdone in courtesy by this kindly Strobian.

“I am John Hanson,” I told him, “Commander of the Special Patrol Service ship Ertak. This is Avery Hendricks, my third officer.”

“Much of that,” said Artur slowly, “I do not understand. But I am greatly honored.” He bowed again, first to me, and then to Hendricks, who was staring at me in utter amazement. “You will come with us now, to the Place?” Artur added.

I considered swiftly, and turned to Hendricks.

“This is too interesting to miss,” I said in an undertone. “Send the escort back with word for Mr. Correy that these people are very friendly, and we are going on into the city. Let three men remain with us. We will keep in communication with the ship by menore.”

Hendricks gave the necessary orders, and all our escort, save for three men, did a brisk about face and marched back to the ship. The five of us, conducted by Artur, started for the city, the rest of the procession falling in behind us. Behind the double file of the procession, the companies that had formed the living wall marched twenty abreast. Not all the companies, however, for perhaps a thousand men, in all, formed a great hollow square about the Ertak, a great motionless guard of honor, clad in kirtles like the pennon-bearers in the procession, save that their kirtles were longer, and pale green in color. The uniform of their officers was identical, save that it was somewhat darker in color, and set of with a narrow black belt, without shoulder straps.

We marched on and on, into the city, down the wide streets, walled with soaring buildings that shone with an iridescent lustre, toward the great domed building I had seen from the Ertak.

The streets were utterly deserted, and when we came close to the building I saw why. The whole populace was gathered there; they were drawn up around the building in orderly groups, with a great lane opened to the mighty entrance.

There were women waiting there, thousands of them, the most beautiful I have ever seen, and in my younger days I had eyes that were quick to note a pretty face.

Through these great silent ranks we passed majestically, and I felt very foolish and very much bewildered. Every head was bowed as though in reverence, and the chanting of the men behind us was like the singing of a hymn.

At the head of the procession, we entered the great domed, lozenge-shaped building, and I stared around in amazement.

The structure was immense, but utterly without obstructing columns, the roof being supported by great arches buttressed to pilasters along the walls, and furnished with row after row of long benches of some polished, close-grained red wood, so clear that it shone brilliantly.

There were four great aisles, leading from the four angles of the lozenge, and many narrower ones, to give ready access to the benches, all radiating from a raised dais in the center, and the whole building illuminated by bluish globes of light that I recognized from descriptions and visits to scientific museums, as replicas of an early form of the ethon tube.

These things I took in at a glance. It was the object upon the huge central dais that caught and held my attention.

“Hendricks!” I muttered, just loud enough to make my voice audible above the solemn chanting. “Are we dreaming?”

“No, sir!” Hendricks’ eyes were starting out of his head, and I have no doubt I looked as idiotic as he did. “It’s there.”

On the dais was a gleaming object perhaps sixty feet long--which is a length equal to the height of about ten full-sized men. It was shaped like an elongated egg--like the metal object surmounting the staffs of the pennon-bearers!

And, unmistakably, it was a ship for navigating space.

As we came closer, I could make out details. The ship was made of some bluish, shining metal that I took to be chromium, or some compound of chromium, and there was a small circular port in the side presented to us. Set into the blunt nose of the ship was a ring of small disks, reddish in color, and deeply pitted, whether by electrical action or oxidization, I could not determine. Around the more pointed stern were innumerable small vents, pointed rearward, and smoothly stream-lined into the body. The body of the ship fairly glistened, but it was dented and deeply scratched in a number of places, and around the stern vents the metal was a dark, iridescent blue, as though stained by heat.

The chanting stopped as we reached the dais, and I turned to our guide. He motioned that Hendricks and I were to precede him up a narrow, curving ramp that led upwards, while the three Zenians who accompanied us were to remain below. I nodded my approval of this arrangement, and slowly we made our way to the top of the great platform, while the pennon-bearers formed a close circle around its base, and the people, who had surrounded the great building filed in with military precision and took seats. In the short space of time that it took us to reach the top of the dais, the whole great building filled itself with humanity.

Artur turned to that great sea of faces and made a sweeping gesture, as of benediction.

“Toma annerson!” His voice rang out like the clear note of a bell, filling that vast auditorium. In a great wave, the assembled people seated themselves, and sat watching us, silent and motionless.

Artur walked to the edge of the dais, and stood for a moment as though lost in thought. Then he spoke, not in the language which I understood, but in a melodious tongue which was utterly strange. His voice was grave and tender; he spoke with a degree of feeling which stirred me even though I understood no word that he spoke. Now and again I heard one recognizable sequence of syllables, that now familiar phrase, “toma annerson.”

“Wonder what that means, sir?” whispered Hendricks. “‘Toma annerson?’ Something very special, from the way he brings it out. And do you know what we are here for, and what all this means?”

“No,” I admitted. “I have some ideas, but they’re too wild for utterance. We’ll just go slow, and take things as they come.”

As I spoke, Artur concluded his speech, and turned to us.

“John Hanson,” he said softly, “our people would hear your voice.”

“But--but what am I to say?” I stammered. “I don’t speak their language.”

“It will be enough,” he muttered, “that they have heard your voice.”

He stood aside, and there was nothing for me to do but walk to the edge of the platform, as he had done, and speak.

My own voice, in that hushed silence, frightened me. I would not have believed that so great a gathering could maintain such utter, deathly silence. I stammered like a school-child reciting for the first time before his class.

“People of Strobus,” I said--this is as nearly as I remember it, and perhaps my actual words were even less intelligent--”we are glad to be here. The welcome accorded us overwhelms us. We have come ... we have come from worlds like your own, and ... and we have never seen a more beautiful one. Nor more kindly people. We like you, and we hope that you will like us. We won’t be here long, anyway. I thank you!”

I was perspiring and red-faced by the time I finished, and I caught Hendricks in the very act of grinning at his commander’s discomfiture. One black scowl wiped that grin off so quickly, however, that I thought I must have imagined it.

“How was that, Artur?” I asked. “All right?”

“Your words were good to hear, John Hanson,” he nodded gravely. “In behalf--”

The hundreds of blue lights hung from the vaulted roof clacked suddenly and went out. Almost instantly they flashed on again--and then clicked out. A third time they left us momentarily in darkness, and, when they came on again, a murmur that was like a vast moan rose from the sea of humanity surrounding the dais. And the almost beautiful features of Artur were drawn and ghastly with pain.

“They come!” he whispered. “At this hour, they come!”

“Who, Artur?” I asked quickly. “Is there some danger?”

“Yes. A very great one. I will tell you, but first--” He strode to the edge of the dais and spoke crisply, his voice ringing out like the thin cry of military brass. The thousands in the auditorium rose in unison, and swept down the aisles toward the doors.

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