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´╗┐Title: The Stoker and the Stars
Author: Budrys, Algis, 1931-2008
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Stoker and the Stars" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



[Illustration]

 THE STOKER
 AND THE STARS

 BY JOHN A. SENTRY

 _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._

Illustrated by van Dongen


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.

"Yeah?"

"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.

He went on for another twenty minutes. Then his voice thinned out, and I
heard him cough a little. "Daniels," he said, "get a relief down here
for me. _Jump to it!_" He said the last part in a Master's voice.
Daniels didn't ask questions. He sent a man on his way down.

He'd been singing, the stoker had. He'd been singing while he worked
with one arm dead, one sleeve ripped open and badly patched because the
fabric was slippery with blood. There'd been a flashover in the drivers.
By the time his relief got down there, he had the insulation back on,
and the drive was purring along the way it should have been. It hadn't
even missed a beat.

He went down to sick bay, got the arm wrapped, and would have gone back
on shift if Daniels'd let him.

Those of us who were going off shift found him toying with the theremin
in the mess compartment. He didn't know how to play it, and it sounded
like a dog howling.

"Sing, will you!" somebody yelled. He grinned and went back to the "Good
Ship _Venus_." It wasn't good, but it was loud. From that, we went to
"Starways, Farways, and Barways," and "The Freefall Song." Somebody
started "I Left Her Behind For You," and that got us off into
sentimental things, the way these sessions would sometimes wind up when
spacemen were far from home. But not since the war, we all seemed to
realize together. We stopped, and looked at each other, and we all began
drifting out of the mess compartment.

And maybe it got to him, too. It may explain something. He and I were
the last to leave. We went to the bunkroom, and he stopped in the middle
of taking off his shirt. He stood there, looking out the porthole, and
forgot I was there. I heard him reciting something, softly, under his
breath, and I stepped a little closer. This is what it was:

    "_The rockets rise against the skies,
    Slowly; in sunlight gleaming
    With silver hue upon the blue.
    And the universe waits, dreaming._

    "_For men must go where the flame-winds blow,
    The gas clouds softly plaiting;
    Where stars are spun and worlds begun,
    And men will find them waiting._

    "_The song that roars where the rocket soars
    Is the song of the stellar flame;
    The dreams of Man and galactic span
    Are equal and much the same._"

What was he thinking of? Make your own choice. I think I came close to
knowing him, at that moment, but until human beings turn telepath, no
man can be sure of another.

He shook himself like a dog out of cold water, and got into his bunk. I
got into mine, and after a while I fell asleep.

       *       *       *       *       *

I don't know what MacReidie may have told the skipper about the stoker,
or if he tried to tell him anything. The captain was the senior ticket
holder in the Merchant Service, and a good man, in his day. He kept
mostly to his cabin. And there was nothing MacReidie could do on his own
authority--nothing simple, that is. And the stoker had saved the ship,
and ...

I think what kept anything from happening between MacReidie and the
stoker, or anyone else and the stoker, was that it would have meant
trouble in the ship. Trouble, confined to our little percentage of the
ship's volume, could seem like something much more important than the
fate of the human race. It may not seem that way to you. But as long as
no one began anything, we could all get along. We could have a good
trip.

MacReidie worried, I'm sure. I worried, sometimes. But nothing happened.

When we reached Alpha Centaurus, and set down at the trading field on
the second planet, it was the same as the other trips we'd made, and the
same kind of landfall. The Lud factor came out of his post after we'd
waited for a while, and gave us our permit to disembark. There was a Jek
ship at the other end of the field, loaded with the cargo we would get
in exchange for our holdful of goods. We had the usual things; wine,
music tapes, furs, and the like. The Jeks had been giving us light
machinery lately--probably we'd get two or three more loads, and then
they'd begin giving us something else.

But I found that this trip wasn't quite the same. I found myself looking
at the factor's post, and I realized for the first time that the Lud
hadn't built it. It was a leftover from the old colonial human
government. And the city on the horizon--men had built it; the touch of
our architecture was on every building. I wondered why it had never
occurred to me that this was so. It made the landfall different from all
the others, somehow. It gave a new face to the entire planet.

       *       *       *       *       *

Mac and I and some of the other crewmen went down on the field to handle
the unloading. Jeks on self-propelled cargo lifts jockeyed among us,
scooping up the loads as we unhooked the slings, bringing cases of
machinery from their own ship. They sat atop their vehicles, lean and
aloof, dashing in, whirling, shooting across the field to their ship
and back like wild horsemen on the plains of Earth, paying us no notice.

We were almost through when Mac suddenly grabbed my arm. "Look!"

The stoker was coming down on one of the cargo slings. He stood upright,
his booted feet planted wide, one arm curled up over his head and around
the hoist cable. He was in his dusty brown Marine uniform, the scarlet
collar tabs bright as blood at his throat, his major's insignia
glittering at his shoulders, the battle stripes on his sleeves.

The Jeks stopped their lifts. They knew that uniform. They sat up in
their saddles and watched him come down. When the sling touched the
ground, he jumped off quietly and walked toward the nearest Jek. They
all followed him with their eyes.

"We've got to stop him," Mac said, and both of us started toward him.
His hands were both in plain sight, one holding his duffelbag, which was
swelled out with the bulk of his airsuit. He wasn't carrying a weapon of
any kind. He was walking casually, taking his time.

Mac and I had almost reached him when a Jek with insignia on his
coveralls suddenly jumped down from his lift and came forward to meet
him. It was an odd thing to see--the stoker, and the Jek, who did not
stand as tall. MacReidie and I stepped back.

The Jek was coal black, his scales glittering in the cold sunlight, his
hatchet-face inscrutable. He stopped when the stoker was a few paces
away. The stoker stopped, too. All the Jeks were watching him and paying
no attention to anything else. The field might as well have been empty
except for those two.

"They'll kill him. They'll kill him right now," MacReidie whispered.

They ought to have. If I'd been a Jek, I would have thought that uniform
was a death warrant. But the Jek spoke to him:

"Are you entitled to wear that?"

"I was at this planet in '39. I was closer to your home world the year
before that," the stoker said. "I was captain of a destroyer. If I'd had
a cruiser's range, I would have reached it." He looked at the Jek.
"Where were you?"

"I was here when you were."

"I want to speak to your ship's captain."

"All right. I'll drive you over."

The stoker nodded, and they walked over to his vehicle together. They
drove away, toward the Jek ship.

"All right, let's get back to work," another Jek said to MacReidie and
myself, and we went back to unloading cargo.

       *       *       *       *       *

The stoker came back to our ship that night, without his duffelbag. He
found me and said:

"I'm signing off the ship. Going with the Jeks."

MacReidie was with me. He said loudly: "What do you mean, you're going
with the Jeks?"

"I signed on their ship," the stoker said. "Stoking. They've got a
micro-nuclear drive. It's been a while since I worked with one, but I
think I'll make out all right, even with the screwball way they've got
it set up."

"Huh?"

The stoker shrugged. "Ships are ships, and physics is physics, no matter
where you go. I'll make out."

"What kind of a deal did you make with them? What do you think you're up
to?"

The stoker shook his head. "No deal. I signed on as a crewman. I'll do a
crewman's work for a crewman's wages. I thought I'd wander around a
while. It ought to be interesting," he said.

"On a Jek ship."

"Anybody's ship. When I get to their home world, I'll probably ship out
with some people from farther on. Why not? It's honest work."

MacReidie had no answer to that.

"But--" I said.

"What?" He looked at me as if he couldn't understand what might be
bothering me, but I think perhaps he could.

"Nothing," I said, and that was that, except MacReidie was always a
sourer man from that time up to as long as I knew him afterwards. We
took off in the morning. The stoker had already left on the Jek ship,
and it turned out he'd trained an apprentice boy to take his place.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was strange how things became different for us, little by little
after that. It was never anything you could put your finger on, but the
Jeks began taking more goods, and giving us things we needed when we
told them we wanted them. After a while, _Serenus_ was going a little
deeper into Jek territory, and when she wore out, the two replacements
let us trade with the Lud, too. Then it was the Nosurwey, and other
people beyond them, and things just got better for us, somehow.

We heard about our stoker, occasionally. He shipped with the Lud, and
the Nosurwey, and some people beyond them, getting along, going to all
kinds of places. Pay no attention to the precise red lines you see on
the star maps; nobody knows exactly what path he wandered from people to
people. Nobody could. He just kept signing on with whatever ship was
going deeper into the galaxy, going farther and farther. He messed with
green shipmates and blue ones. One and two and three heads, tails, six
legs--after all, ships are ships and they've all got to have something
to push them along. If a man knows his business, why not? A man can live
on all kinds of food, if he wants to get used to it. And any nontoxic
atmosphere will do, as long as there's enough oxygen in it.

I don't know what he did, to make things so much better for us. I don't
know if he did anything, but stoke their ships and, I suppose, fix them
when they were in trouble. I wonder if he sang dirty songs in that bad
voice of his, to people who couldn't possibly understand what the songs
were about. All I know is, for some reason those people slowly began
treating us with respect. We changed, too, I think--I'm not the same
man I was ... I think--not altogether the same; I'm a captain now, with
master's papers, and you won't find me in my cabin very often ...
there's a kind of joy in standing on a bridge, looking out at the stars
you're moving toward. I wonder if it mightn't have kept my old captain
out of that place he died in, finally, if he'd tried it.

So, I don't know. The older I get, the less I know. The thing people
remember the stoker for--the thing that makes him famous, and, I think,
annoys him--I'm fairly sure is only incidental to what he really did. If
he did anything. If he meant to. I wish I could be sure of the exact
answer he found in the bottom of that last glass at the bar before he
worked his passage to Mars and the _Serenus_, and began it all.

So, I can't say what he ought to be famous for. But I suppose it's
enough to know for sure that he was the first living being ever to
travel all the way around the galaxy.


THE END



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Astounding Science Fiction_ February
    1959. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
    typographical errors have been corrected without note.





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