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´╗┐Title: McIlvaine's Star
Author: Derleth, August William, 1909-1971
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 "McIlvaine's Star" ***

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    McILVAINE'S
       STAR

 By August Derleth


[Illustration: _McIlvaine sat down to his machine, turned the complex
knobs, and a message flamed across the void._]

 _Old Thaddeus McIlvaine discovered a
 dark star and took it for his own. Thus
 he inherited a dark destiny--or did he?_


"Call them what you like," said Tex Harrigan. "Lost people or strayed,
crackpots or warped geniuses--I know enough of them to fill an entire
department of queer people. I've been a reporter long enough to have run
into quite a few of them."

"For example?" I said, recognizing Harrigan's mellowness.

"Take Thaddeus McIlvaine," said Harrigan.

"I never heard of him."

"I suppose not," said Harrigan. "But I knew him. He was an eccentric old
fellow who had a modest income--enough to keep up his hobbies, which
were three: he played cards and chess at a tavern called Bixby's on
North Clark Street; he was an amateur astronomer; and he had the fixed
idea that there was life somewhere outside this planet and that it was
possible to communicate with other beings--but unlike most others, he
tried it constantly with the queer machinery he had rigged up.

"Well, now, this old fellow had a trio of cronies with whom he played on
occasion down at Bixby's. He had no one else to confide in. He kept them
up with his progress among the stars and his communication with other
life in the cosmos beyond our own, and they made a great joke out of it,
from all I could gather. I suppose, because he had no one else to talk
to, McIlvaine took it without complaint. Well, as I said, I never heard
of him until one morning the city editor--it was old Bill Henderson
then--called me in and said, 'Harrigan, we just got a lead on a fellow
named Thaddeus McIlvaine who claims to have discovered a new star.
Amateur astronomer up North Clark. Find him and get a story.' So I set
out to track him down...."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was a great moment for Thaddeus McIlvaine. He sat down among his
friends almost portentously, adjusted his spectacles, and peered over
them in his usual manner, half way between a querulous oldster and a
reproachful schoolmaster.

"I've done it," he said quietly.

"Aye, and what?" asked Alexander testily.

"I discovered a new star."

"Oh," said Leopold flatly. "A cinder in your eye."

"It lies just off Arcturus," McIlvaine went on, "and it would appear to
be coming closer."

"Give it my love," said Richardson with a wry smile. "Have you named it
yet? Or don't the discoverers of new stars name them any more?
McIlvaine's Star--that's a good name for it. Hard a port of Arcturus,
with special displays on windy nights."

McIlvaine only smiled. "It's a dark star," he said presently. "It
doesn't have light." He spoke almost apologetically, as if somehow he
had disappointed his friends. "I'm going to try and communicate with
it."

"That's the ticket," said Alexander.

"Cut for deal," said Leopold.

That was how the news about McIlvaine's Star was received by his
cronies. Afterward, after McIlvaine had dutifully played several games
of euchre, Richardson conceived the idea of telephoning the _Globe_ to
announce McIlvaine's discovery.

       *       *       *       *       *

"The old fellow took himself seriously," Harrigan went on. "And yet he
was so damned mousy about it. I mean, you got the impression that he had
been trying for so long that now he hardly believed in his star himself
any longer. But there it was. He had a long, detailed story of its
discovery, which was an accident, as those things usually are. They
happen all the time, and his story sounded convincing enough. Just the
same, you didn't feel that he really had anything. I took down notes, of
course; that was routine. I got a picture of the old man, with never an
idea we'd be using it.

"To tell the truth, I carried my notes around with me for a day or so
before it occurred to me that it wouldn't do any harm to put a call in
to Yerkes Observatory up in Wisconsin. So I did, and they confirmed
McIlvaine's Star. The _Globe_ had the story, did it up in fine style.

"It was two weeks before we heard from McIlvaine again...."

       *       *       *       *       *

That night McIlvaine was more than usually diffident. He was not like a
man bearing a message of considerable importance to himself. He slipped
into Bixby's, got a glass of beer, and approached the table where his
friends sat, almost with trepidation.

"It's a nice evening for May," he said quietly.

Richardson grunted.

Leopold said, "By the way, Mac, whatever became of that star of yours?
The one the papers wrote up."

"I think," said McIlvaine cautiously, "I'm quite sure--I have got in
touch with them. Only," his brow wrinkled and furrowed, "I can't
understand their language."

"Ah," said Richardson with an edge to his voice, "the thing for you to
do is to tell them that's your star, and they'll have to speak English
from now on, so you can understand them. Why, next thing we know, you'll
be getting yourself a rocket or a space-ship and going over to that star
to set yourself up as king or something."

"King Thaddeus the First," said Alexander loftily. "All you
star-dwellers may kiss the royal foot."

"That would be unsanitary, I think," said McIlvaine, frowning.

Poor McIlvaine! They made him the butt of their jests for over an hour
before he took himself off to his quarters, where he sat himself down
before his telescope and found his star once more, almost huge enough to
blot out Arcturus, but not quite, since it was moving away from that
amber star now.

McIlvaine's star was certainly much closer to the Earth than it had
been.

He tried once again to contact it with his home-made radio, and once
again he received a succession of strange, rhythmic noises which he
could not doubt were speech of some kind or other--a rasping, grating
speech, to be sure, utterly unlike the speech of McIlvaine's own kind.
It rose and fell, became impatient, urgent, despairing--McIlvaine sensed
all this and strove mightily to understand.

He sat there for perhaps two hours when he received the distant
impression that someone was talking to him in his own language. But
there was no longer any sound on the radio. He could not understand what
had taken place, but in a few moments he received the clear conviction
that the inhabitants of his star had managed to discover the basic
elements of his language by the simple process of reading his mind, and
were now prepared to talk with him.

What manner of creatures inhabited Earth? they wished to know.

McIlvaine told them. He visualized one of his own kind and tried to put
him into words. It was difficult, since he could not rid himself of the
conviction that his interlocutors might be utterly alien.

They had no conception of man and doubted man's existence on any other
star. There were plant-people on Venus, ant-people on Andromeda,
six-legged and four-armed beings which were equal parts mineral and
vegetable on Betelguese--but nothing resembling man. "You are evidently
alone of your kind in the cosmos," said his interstellar correspondent.

"And what about you?" cried McIlvaine with unaccustomed heat.

Silence was his only answer, but presently he conceived a mental image
which was remarkable for its vividness. But the image was of nothing he
had ever seen before--of thousands upon thousands of miniature beings,
utterly alien to man; they resembled amphibious insects, with thin,
elongated heads, large eyes, and antennae set upon a scaled, four-legged
body, with rudimentary beetle-like wings. Curiously, they seemed
ageless; he could detect no difference among them--all appeared to be
the same age.

"We are not, but we rejuvenate regularly," said the creature with whom
he corresponded in this strange manner.

Did they have names? McIlvaine wondered.

"I am Guru," said the star's inhabitant. "You are McIlvaine."

And the civilization of their star?

Instantly he saw in his mind's eye vast cities, which rose from beneath
a surface which appeared to bear no vegetation recognizable to any human
eye, in a terrain which seemed to be desert, of monolithic buildings,
which were windowless and had openings only of sufficient size to permit
the free passage of its dwarfed dwellers. Within the buildings was
evidence of a great and old civilization....

       *       *       *       *       *

"You see, McIlvaine really believed all this. What an imagination the
man had! Of course, the boys at Bixby's gave him a bad time; I don't
know how he stood it, but he did. And he always came back. Richardson
called the story in; he took a special delight in deviling McIlvaine,
and I was sent out to see the old fellow again.

"You couldn't doubt his sincerity. And yet he didn't sound touched."

"But, of course, that part about the insect-like dwellers of the star
comes straight out of Wells, doesn't it?" I put in.

"Wells and scores of others," agreed Harrigan. "Wells was probably the
first writer to suggest insectivorous inhabitants on Mars; his were
considerably larger, though."

"Go on."

"Well, I talked with McIlvaine for quite a while. He told me all about
their civilization and about his friend, Guru. You might have thought he
was talking about a neighbor of his I had only to step outside to meet.

"Later on, I dropped around at Bixby's and had a talk with the boys
there. Richardson let me in on a secret. He had decided to rig up a
connection to McIlvaine's machine and do a little talking to the old
fellow, making him believe Guru was coming through in English. He meant
to give McIlvaine a harder time than ever, and once he had him believing
everything he planned to say, they would wait for him at Bixby's and let
him make a fool of himself.

"It didn't work out quite that way, however...."

       *       *       *       *       *

"McIlvaine, can you hear me?"

McIlvaine started with astonishment. His mental impression of Guru
became confused; the voice speaking English came clear as a bell, as if
from no distance at all.

"Yes," he said hesitantly.

"Well, then, listen to me, listen to Guru. We have now had enough
information from you to suit our ends. Within twenty-four hours, we, the
inhabitants of Ahli, will begin a war of extermination against
Earth...."

"But, why?" cried McIlvaine, astounded.

The image before his mind's eye cleared. The cold, precise features of
Guru betrayed anger.

"There is interference," the thought-image informed him. "Leave the
machine for a few moments, while we use the disintegrators."

Before he left the machine, McIlvaine had the impression of a greater
machine being attached to the means of communication which the
inhabitants of his star were using to communicate with him.

       *       *       *       *       *

"McIlvaine's story was that a few moments later there was a blinding
flash just outside his window," continued Harrigan. "There was also a
run of instantaneous fire from the window to his machine. When he had
collected his wits sufficiently, he ran outside to look. There was
nothing there but a kind of grayish dust in a little mound--as if, as he
put it, 'somebody had cleaned out a vacuum bag'. He went back in and
examined the space from the window to the machine; there were two thin
lines of dust there, hardly perceptible, just as if something had been
attached to the machine and led outside.

"Now the obvious supposition is naturally that it was Richardson out
there, and that the lines of dust from the window to the machine
represented the wires he had attached to his microphone while McIlvaine
was at Bixby's entertaining his other two cronies, but this is fact, not
fiction, and the point of the episode is that Richardson disappeared
from that night on."

"You investigated, of course?" I asked.

Harrigan nodded. "Quite a lot of us investigated. The police might have
done better. There was a gang war on in Chicago just at that time, and
Richardson was nobody with any connections. His nearest relatives
weren't anxious about anything but what they might inherit; to tell the
truth, his cronies at Bixby's were the only people who worried about
him. McIlvaine as much as the rest of them.

"Oh, they gave the old man a hard time, all right. They went through his
house with a fine-toothed comb. They dug up his yard, his cellar, and
generally put him through it, figuring he was a natural to hang a murder
rap on. But there was just nothing to be found, and they couldn't
manufacture evidence when there was nothing to show that McIlvaine ever
knew that Richardson planned to have a little fun with him.

"And no one had seen Richardson there. There was nothing but McIlvaine's
word that he had heard what he said he heard. He needn't have
volunteered that, but he did. After the police had finished with him,
they wrote him off as a harmless nut. But the question of what happened
to Richardson wasn't solved from that day to this."

"People have been known to walk out of their lives," I said. "And never
come back."

"Oh, sometimes they do. Richardson didn't. Besides, if he walked out of
his life here, he did so without more than the clothing he had on. So
much was missing from his effects, nothing more."

"And McIlvaine?"

Harrigan smiled thinly. "He carried on. You couldn't expect him to do
anything less. After all, he had worked most of his life trying to
communicate with the worlds outside, and he had no intention of
resigning his contact, no matter how much Richardson's disappearance
upset him. For a while he believed that Guru had actually disintegrated
Richardson; he offered that explanation, but by that time the dust had
vanished, and he was laughed out of face. So he went back to the machine
and Guru and the little excursions to Bixby's...."

       *       *       *       *       *

"What's the latest word from that star of yours?" asked Leopold, when
McIlvaine came in.

"They want to rejuvenate me," said McIlvaine, with a certain shy
pleasure.

"What's that?" asked Alexander sourly.

"They say they can make me young again. Like them up there. They never
die. They just live so long, and then they rejuvenate, they begin all
over. It's some kind of a process they have."

"And I suppose they're planning to come down and fetch you up there and
give you the works, is that it?" asked Alexander.

"Well, no," answered McIlvaine. "Guru says there's no need for that--it
can be done through the machine; they can work it like the
disintegrators; it puts you back to thirty or twenty or wherever you
like."

"Well, I'd like to be twenty-five myself again," admitted Leopold.

"I'll tell you what, Mac," said Alexander. "You go ahead and try it;
then come back and let us know how it works. If it does, we'll all sit
in."

"Better make your will first, though, just in case."

"Oh, I did. This afternoon."

Leopold choked back a snicker. "Don't take this thing too seriously,
Mac. After all, we're short one of us now. We'd hate to lose you, too."

McIlvaine was touched. "Oh, I wouldn't change," he hastened to assure
his friends. "I'd just be younger, that's all. They'll just work on me
through the machine, and over-night I'll be rejuvenated."

"That's certainly a little trick that's got it all over monkey glands,"
conceded Alexander, grinning.

"Those little bugs on that star of yours have made scientific progress,
I'd say," said Leopold.

"They're not bugs," said McIlvaine with faint indignation. "They're
people, maybe not just like you and me, but they're people just the
same."

He went home that night filled with anticipation. He had done just what
he had promised himself he would do, arranging everything for his
rejuvenation. Guru had been astonished to learn that people on Earth
simply died when there was no necessity of doing so; he had made the
offer to rejuvenate McIlvaine himself.

McIlvaine sat down to his machine and turned the complex knobs until he
was en rapport with his dark star. He waited for a long time, it seemed,
before he knew his contact had been closed. Guru came through.

"Are you ready, McIlvaine?" he asked soundlessly.

"Yes. All ready," said McIlvaine, trembling with eagerness.

"Don't be alarmed now. It will take several hours," said Guru.

"I'm not alarmed," answered McIlvaine.

And indeed he was not; he was filled with an exhilaration akin to
mysticism, and he sat waiting for what he was certain must be the
experience above all others in his prosaic existence.

       *       *       *       *       *

"McIlvaine's disappearance coming so close on Richardson's gave us a
beautiful story," said Harrigan. "The only trouble was, it wasn't new
when the _Globe_ got around to it. We had lost our informant in
Richardson; it never occurred to Alexander or Leopold to telephone us or
anyone about McIlvaine's unaccountable absence from Bixby's. Finally,
Leopold went over to McIlvaine's house to find out whether the old
fellow was sick.

"A young fellow opened up.

"'Where's McIlvaine?' Leopold asked.

"'I'm McIlvaine,' the young fellow answered.

"'Thaddeus McIlvaine,' Leopold explained.

"'That's my name,' was the only answer he got.

"'I mean the Thaddeus McIlvaine who used to play cards with us over at
Bixby's,' said Leopold.

"He shook his head. 'Sorry, you must be looking for someone else.'

"'What're you doing here?' Leopold asked then.

"'Why, I inherited what my uncle left,' said the young fellow.

"And, sure enough, when Leopold talked to me and persuaded me to go
around with him to McIlvaine's lawyer, we found that the old fellow had
made a will and left everything to his nephew, a namesake. The
stipulations were clear enough; among them was the express wish that if
anything happened to him, the elder Thaddeus McIlvaine, of no matter
what nature, but particularly something allowing a reasonable doubt of
his death, the nephew was still to be permitted to take immediate
possession of the property and effects."

"Of course, you called on the nephew," I said.

Harrigan nodded. "Sure. That was the indicated course, in any event. It
was routine for both the press and the police. There was nothing
suspicious about his story; it was straightforward enough, except for
one or two little details. He never did give us any precise address; he
just mentioned Detroit once. I called up a friend on one of the papers
there and put him up to looking up Thaddeus McIlvaine; the only young
man of that name he could find appeared to be the same man as the
present inhabitant's uncle, though the description fit pretty well."

"There was a resemblance, then?"

"Oh, sure. One could have imagined that old Thaddeus McIlvaine had
looked somewhat like his nephew when he himself was a young man. But
don't let the old man's rigmarole about rejuvenation make too deep an
impression on you. The first thing the young fellow did was to get rid
of that machine of his uncle's. Can you imagine his uncle having done
something like that?"

       *       *       *       *       *

I shook my head, but I could not help thinking what an ironic thing it
would have been if there had been something to McIlvaine's story, and in
the process to which he had been subjected from out of space he had not
been rejuvenated so much as just sent back in time, in which case he
would have no memory of the machine nor of the use to which it had been
put. It would have been as ironic for the inhabitants of McIlvaine's
star, too; they would doubtless have looked forward to keeping this
contact with Earth open and failed to realize that McIlvaine's
construction differed appreciably from theirs.

"He virtually junked it. Said he had no idea what it could be used for,
and didn't know how to operate it."

"And the telescope?"

"Oh, he kept that. He said he had some interest in astronomy and meant
to develop that if time permitted."

"So much ran in the family, then."

"Yes. More than that. Old McIlvaine had a trick of seeming shy and
self-conscious. So did this nephew of his. Wherever he came from, his
origins must have been backward. I suspect that he was ashamed of them,
and if I had to guess, I'd put him in the Kentucky hill-country or the
Ozarks. Modern concepts seemed to be pretty well too much for him, and
his thinking would have been considerably more natural at the turn of
the century.

"I had to see him several times. The police chivvied him a little, but
not much; he was so obviously innocent of everything that there was
nothing for them in him. And the search for the old man didn't last
long; no one had seen him after that last night at Bixby's, and, since
everyone had already long since concluded that he was mentally a little
off center, it was easy to conclude that he had wandered away somewhere,
probably an amnesiac. That he might have anticipated that is indicated
in the hasty preparation of his will, which came out of the blue, said
Barnevall, who drew it up for him.

"I felt sorry for him."

"For whom?"

"The nephew. He seemed so lost, you know--like a man who wanted to
remember something, but couldn't. I noticed that several times when I
tried to talk to him; I had the feeling each time that there was
something he wanted desperately to say, it hovered always on the rim of
his awareness, but somehow there was no bridge to it, no clue to put it
into words. He tried so hard for something he couldn't put his finger
on."

"What became of him?"

"Oh, he's still around. I think he found a job somewhere. As a matter of
fact, I saw him just the other evening. He had apparently just come from
work and he was standing in front of Bixby's with his face pressed to
the window looking in. I came up nearby and watched him. Leopold and
Alexander were sitting inside--a couple of lonely old men looking out.
And a lonely young man looking in. There was something in McIlvaine's
face--that same thing I had noticed so often before, a kind of
expression that seemed to say there was something he ought to know,
something he ought to remember, to do, to say, but there was no way in
which he could reach back to it."

"Or forward," I said with a wry smile.

"As you like," said Harrigan. "Pour me another, will you?"

I did and he took it.

"That poor devil!" he muttered. "He'd be happier if he could only go
back where he came from."

"Wouldn't we all?" I asked. "But nobody ever goes home again. Perhaps
McIlvaine never had a home like that."

"You'd have thought so if you could have seen his face looking in at
Leopold and Alexander. Oh, it may have been a trick of the streetlight
there, it may have been my imagination. But it sticks to my memory, and
I keep thinking how alike the two were--old McIlvaine trying so
desperately to find someone who could believe him, and his nephew now
trying just as hard to find someone to accept him or a place he could
accept on the only terms he knows."


THE END



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _If Worlds of Science Fiction_ July
    1952. 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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