The Stoker and the Stars - Cover

The Stoker and the Stars

by Algis Budrys

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: When you've had your ears pinned back in a bowknot, it's sometimes hard to remember that an intelligent people has no respect for a whipped enemy. but does for a fairly beaten enemy.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Know him? Yes, I know him--knew him. That was twenty years ago.

Everybody knows him now. Everybody who passed him on the street knows him. Everybody who went to the same schools, or even to different schools in different towns, knows him now. Ask them. But I knew him. I lived three feet away from him for a month and a half. I shipped with him and called him by his first name.

What was he like? What was he thinking, sitting on the edge of his bunk with his jaw in his palm and his eyes on the stars? What did he think he was after?

Well ... Well, I think he-- You know, I think I never did know him, after all. Not well. Not as well as some of those people who’re writing the books about him seem to.

I couldn’t really describe him to you. He had a duffelbag in his hand and a packed airsuit on his back. The skin of his face had been dried out by ship’s air, burned by ultraviolet and broiled by infra red. The pupils of his eyes had little cloudy specks in them where the cosmic rays had shot through them. But his eyes were steady and his body was hard. What did he look like? He looked like a man.

It was after the war, and we were beaten. There used to be a school of thought among us that deplored our combativeness; before we had ever met any people from off Earth, even, you could hear people saying we were toughest, cruelest life-form in the Universe, unfit to mingle with the gentler wiser races in the stars, and a sure bet to steal their galaxy and corrupt it forever. Where these people got their information, I don’t know.

We were beaten. We moved out beyond Centaurus, and Sirius, and then we met the Jeks, the Nosurwey, the Lud. We tried Terrestrial know-how, we tried Production Miracles, we tried patriotism, we tried damning the torpedoes and full speed ahead ... and we were smashed back like mayflies in the wind. We died in droves, and we retreated from the guttering fires of a dozen planets, we dug in, we fought through the last ditch, and we were dying on Earth itself before Baker mutinied, shot Cope, and surrendered the remainder of the human race to the wiser, gentler races in the stars. That way, we lived. That way, we were permitted to carry on our little concerns, and mind our manners. The Jeks and the Lud and the Nosurwey returned to their own affairs, and we knew they would leave us alone so long as we didn’t bother them.

We liked it that way. Understand me--we didn’t accept it, we didn’t knuckle under with waiting murder in our hearts--we liked it. We were grateful just to be left alone again. We were happy we hadn’t been wiped out like the upstarts the rest of the Universe thought us to be. When they let us keep our own solar system and carry on a trickle of trade with the outside, we accepted it for the fantastically generous gift it was. Too many of our best men were dead for us to have any remaining claim on these things in our own right. I know how it was. I was there, twenty years ago. I was a little, pudgy man with short breath and a high-pitched voice. I was a typical Earthman.

We were out on a God-forsaken landing field on Mars, MacReidie and I, loading cargo aboard the Serenus. MacReidie was First Officer. I was Second. The stranger came walking up to us.

“Got a job?” he asked, looking at MacReidie.

Mac looked him over. He saw the same things I’d seen. He shook his head. “Not for you. The only thing we’re short on is stokers.”

You wouldn’t know. There’s no such thing as a stoker any more, with automatic ships. But the stranger knew what Mac meant.

Serenus had what they called an electronic drive. She had to run with an evacuated engine room. The leaking electricity would have broken any stray air down to ozone, which eats metal and rots lungs. So the engine room had the air pumped out of her, and the stokers who tended the dials and set the cathode attitudes had to wear suits, smelling themselves for twelve hours at a time and standing a good chance of cooking where they sat when the drive arced. Serenus was an ugly old tub. At that, we were the better of the two interstellar freighters the human race had left.

“You’re bound over the border, aren’t you?”

MacReidie nodded. “That’s right. But--”

“I’ll stoke.”

MacReidie looked over toward me and frowned. I shrugged my shoulders helplessly. I was a little afraid of the stranger, too.

The trouble was the look of him. It was the look you saw in the bars back on Earth, where the veterans of the war sat and stared down into their glasses, waiting for night to fall so they could go out into the alleys and have drunken fights among themselves. But he had brought that look to Mars, to the landing field, and out here there was something disquieting about it.

He’d caught Mac’s look and turned his head to me. “I’ll stoke,” he repeated.

I didn’t know what to say. MacReidie and I--almost all of the men in the Merchant Marine--hadn’t served in the combat arms. We had freighted supplies, and we had seen ships dying on the runs--we’d had our own brushes with commerce raiders, and we’d known enough men who joined the combat forces. But very few of the men came back, and the war this man had fought hadn’t been the same as ours. He’d commanded a fighting ship, somewhere, and come to grips with things we simply didn’t know about. The mark was on him, but not on us. I couldn’t meet his eyes. “O.K. by me,” I mumbled at last.

I saw MacReidie’s mouth turn down at the corners. But he couldn’t gainsay the man any more than I could. MacReidie wasn’t a mumbling man, so he said angrily: “O.K., bucko, you’ll stoke. Go and sign on.”

“Thanks.” The stranger walked quietly away. He wrapped a hand around the cable on a cargo hook and rode into the hold on top of some freight. Mac spat on the ground and went back to supervising his end of the loading. I was busy with mine, and it wasn’t until we’d gotten the Serenus loaded and buttoned up that Mac and I even spoke to each other again. Then we talked about the trip. We didn’t talk about the stranger.

Daniels, the Third, had signed him on and had moved him into the empty bunk above mine. We slept all in a bunch on the Serenus--officers and crew. Even so, we had to sleep in shifts, with the ship’s designers giving ninety per cent of her space to cargo, and eight per cent to power and control. That left very little for the people, who were crammed in any way they could be. I said empty bunk. What I meant was, empty during my sleep shift. That meant he and I’d be sharing work shifts--me up in the control blister, parked in a soft chair, and him down in the engine room, broiling in a suit for twelve hours.

But I ate with him, used the head with him; you can call that rubbing elbows with greatness, if you want to.

He was a very quiet man. Quiet in the way he moved and talked. When we were both climbing into our bunks, that first night, I introduced myself and he introduced himself. Then he heaved himself into his bunk, rolled over on his side, fixed his straps, and fell asleep. He was always friendly toward me, but he must have been very tired that first night. I often wondered what kind of a life he’d lived after the war--what he’d done that made him different from the men who simply grew older in the bars. I wonder, now, if he really did do anything different. In an odd way, I like to think that one day, in a bar, on a day that seemed like all the rest to him when it began, he suddenly looked up with some new thought, put down his glass, and walked straight to the Earth-Mars shuttle field.

He might have come from any town on Earth. Don’t believe the historians too much. Don’t pay too much attention to the Chamber of Commerce plaques. When a man’s name becomes public property, strange things happen to the facts.

It was MacReidie who first found out what he’d done during the war.

I’ve got to explain about MacReidie. He takes his opinions fast and strong. He’s a good man--is, or was; I haven’t seen him for a long while--but he liked things simple.

MacReidie said the duffelbag broke loose and floated into the middle of the bunkroom during acceleration. He opened it to see whose it was. When he found out, he closed it up and strapped it back in its place at the foot of the stoker’s bunk.

MacReidie was my relief on the bridge. When he came up, he didn’t relieve me right away. He stood next to my chair and looked out through the ports.

“Captain leave any special instructions in the Order Book?” he asked.

“Just the usual. Keep a tight watch and proceed cautiously.”

“That new stoker,” Mac said.


“I knew there was something wrong with him. He’s got an old Marine uniform in his duffel.”

I didn’t say anything. Mac glanced over at me. “Well?”

“I don’t know.” I didn’t.

I couldn’t say I was surprised. It had to be something like that, about the stoker. The mark was on him, as I’ve said.

It was the Marines that did Earth’s best dying. It had to be. They were trained to be the best we had, and they believed in their training. They were the ones who slashed back the deepest when the other side hit us. They were the ones who sallied out into the doomed spaces between the stars and took the war to the other side as well as any human force could ever hope to. They were always the last to leave an abandoned position. If Earth had been giving medals to members of her forces in the war, every man in the Corps would have had the Medal of Honor two and three times over. Posthumously. I don’t believe there were ten of them left alive when Cope was shot. Cope was one of them. They were a kind of human being neither MacReidie nor I could hope to understand.

“You don’t know,” Mac said. “It’s there. In his duffel. Damn it, we’re going out to trade with his sworn enemies! Why do you suppose he wanted to sign on? Why do you suppose he’s so eager to go!”

“You think he’s going to try to start something?”

“Think! That’s exactly what he’s going for. One last big alley fight. One last brawl. When they cut him down--do you suppose they’ll stop with him? They’ll kill us, and then they’ll go in and stamp Earth flat! You know it as well as I do.”

“I don’t know, Mac,” I said. “Go easy.” I could feel the knots in my stomach. I didn’t want any trouble. Not from the stoker, not from Mac. None of us wanted trouble--not even Mac, but he’d cause it to get rid of it, if you follow what I mean about his kind of man.

Mac hit the viewport with his fist. “Easy! Easy--nothing’s easy. I hate this life,” he said in a murderous voice. “I don’t know why I keep signing on. Mars to Centaurus and back, back and forth, in an old rust tub that’s going to blow herself up one of these--”

Daniels called me on the phone from Communications. “Turn up your Intercom volume,” he said. “The stoker’s jamming the circuit.”

I kicked the selector switch over, and this is what I got:

“_--so there we were at a million per, and the air was gettin’ thick. The Skipper says ‘Cheer up, brave boys, we’ll--’_”

He was singing. He had a terrible voice, but he could carry a tune, and he was hammering it out at the top of his lungs.

Twas the last cruise of the Venus, _by God you should of seen us! The pipes were full of whisky, and just to make things risky, the jets were... _”

The crew were chuckling into their own chest phones. I could hear Daniels trying to cut him off. But he kept going. I started laughing myself. No one’s supposed to jam an intercom, but it made the crew feel good. When the crew feels good, the ship runs right, and it had been a long time since they’d been happy.

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