Death Star | James McKimmey Jr. (1953)

Hurtz went through the automatic motions of preparing himself for their landing on the small unnamed planet, but each thing he did was a wasted motion because it was really the boy, Jones, who was going to put the rocket down. And what could Hurtz do now?

Hurtz touched his rough cheek with the back of his hand and swore silently. The hard, aging muscles of his body were taut, and although the lines about his eyes had deepened, his eyes, blue and sparkling, still retained their old ferocity. His eyebrows, although nearly completely gray now, intensified that ferocity with their thickness.

Jones, the boy, moved his hands and the rocket made its turn clumsily, pointing its blazing fins at the strange globe beyond.

Hurtz shook his head and asked himself why he had ever tried to help this cocky, all-knowing kid with the thin mouth and short-clipped hair.

The boy had fought everything Hurtz had tried to do for him, and right now Hurtz knew, even before he said it, that the boy would respond in the same way he had since the trip started:

“I think you’re doing all right,” Hurtz said, and he tried to keep the tone of his voice casual, as though he really meant what he said.

The boy glanced at him briefly with insolent eyes. “I know I am,” he said.

Hurtz had to clamp his jaw shut tightly to keep from saying anything more.

There was hardly any time involved in this landing, but each second stretched out to an individual eternity. The distant globe came up to meet them steadily, enlarging its circumference, and the roar of the jets was thunderous after the quiet free movement they had made through space.

There was nothing left for Hurtz to do now but wait, and he placed his hands on his knees, raising his curled fingers, dropping them, in a monotonous silent tapping.

It isn’t right. None of it. The feel of it—the speed, the sound, the very movement. It isn’t going to work, and why not, for God’s sake, on this one last run?

As they slipped down through the atmosphere of the planet, Hurtz knew that he had been very foolish and sentimental and very, very stupid for having asked to accompany the boy. The boy’s first trip. Hurtz’s last. But if Hurtz still believed in the premonitions that he could feel to the marrow of his tired bones, this might be the last trip for both of them.

He watched the boy and he wished he could take control now before it was too late. But this was the boy’s own run, his rocket, and there was nothing for Hurtz to do but wait.

Seconds now, and Hurtz thought of all the times he had done just what the boy was trying to do now. Twenty years of it, from globe to globe. Stretching the fingers of exploration, all to make the money and finally tip his damned hat and say, “Thank you. It was nice, and now I’m going to retire and let some other poor slob take my place.” But when the time came for him to do and say just that, he had climbed in for one more ride, just so a kid who didn’t want any help might have had a better chance to get along in this rotten exploratory service than Hurtz had been given.

The distance between the rocket and the widening surface of the planet was disappearing, and in that last interval, Hurtz thought again of his dream, the dream he had been carrying in his brain for all of these years.

The width and breadth of his own land, that section of Mars where he had stood twenty years ago and watched with hungry eyes, and then ever since had sweated and cried and suffered to own. His land, with its silent rolling hills and quiet green valleys. With its sweet sloping clearing where he would place his house, the rippling brook singing softly nearby.

The only place he had seen in any system that had the peace of it, the magnificence of it. His land. Paid for finally and bound by legal protection, waiting for him. And here he was, letting the reward for those twenty years drift away by sitting beside a crazy, over-confident infant, who was sure as hell going to crash this rocket.

When the crash came, however, Hurtz was still surprised somehow, but only until he fell into the depthless darkness.

When he awoke he saw that the ship rested at an odd angle. One whole side of the compact cabin had become a gaping open tear that looked away to the horizon of this new world. Hurtz had a thin cut over his left eye and a collection of stinging bruises, nothing more serious.

Jones, on the other hand, appeared to have been smashed brutally about the legs, and from where Hurtz lay he could see the ugly cut in the boy’s head and the unnatural angle of the boy’s right arm.

“Jones?” he said to the motionless form, and then with effort he crawled to the boy who was still clamped tightly into the swivel seat before the instrument panel.

His hands searched and found two broken bones in the arm and leg. The cut in the boy’s head had obviously touched bone. Hurtz gathered medicine, bandages and splints from the first-aid compartment. He swabbed, bound, compressed, and covered the wounds of the boy. Then with teeth tight together he set the two bones with the rough skill of practical experience. When the splints were bound he loosened the boy’s body from the binding straps and carried him to the rear bunk space of the cabin.

He tested the boy’s pulse and regularity of breathing, then injected enough of relieving drug into the boy’s blood to keep the full impact of pain away from his senses.

Hurtz returned to the front of the cabin to look over the damaged radio. Tentative inspection told him he could make sufficient repairs to send out a help call. But first, he knew, he would have to make an estimate of their position on this strange planet.

He strapped a pistol to his waist, donned his helmet and lowered himself to the ground. He looked about him. There was a bluish tint to the atmosphere that hovered over the rim of the circling trees. Yellow, pink and deep-white flowers with fragile petals nodded silently through the stretches of growth.

Another planet, his eyes told him, another simple damned planet, like the one before and the one before that. Vegetation and earth beneath another shining sun.

And this is what I’ve earned, he told himself. Instead of my land, my estate, my kingdom. His lips compressed and he hammered a fist against the side of the rocket.

Well, it’s not going to be, he promised himself, starting his climb back to the cabin. Nothing is going to keep me from getting what I’ve earned. Nothing. He was swearing aloud when he pulled himself into the cabin.

Jones was watching as Hurtz straightened up inside the littered compartment.

Hurtz unstrapped his pistol belt and tossed it to the floor. “How do you feel, son?” he asked quietly.

The boy only stared at Hurtz.

“All right?” Hurtz said helpfully.

“All right, hell,” the boy said in a thin monotone.

“You were pretty well banged up.”

“That’s news?”

“If you’re still feeling pain I’ll give you another shot.”

“Why don’t you save it for your head?”

Hurtz turned and went to the forward part of the cabin and the radio. He didn’t want to listen to that high, whining voice; the boy was hurt and Hurtz recognized it, but Hurtz couldn’t take too much more, from anyone, injured or not.

“I’m not going to live,” the boy called after Hurtz.

Hurtz turned back to face the boy. “What the hell kind of talk is that?”

“I’m not going to live,” the boy repeated in exactly the same tone.

“You’re getting delirious.”

“I’m getting dead.”

“Listen,” Hurtz said slowly, “I respect the fact that you’ve been smashed up, Jones, but I don’t want any talk like that, do you understand?”

He tried to keep authority in his voice and at the same time, enough softness to give the boy assurance that Hurtz could take care of him. “We can have help here in no time,” Hurtz continued. “The radio can be fixed, and the first thing you know you’ll be bedded down in some pretty hospital with flowers, and….”

“This was your fault,” the boy said, as though Hurtz had not been talking.

Hurtz closed his mouth slowly and his lips got thin. “Why don’t you try to get some sleep?”

“Because I’m bleeding to death inside.”

Hurtz blinked. It was a possibility, of course. The boy may have been hurt worse than Hurtz had thought.

With great effort the boy raised a bandaged hand to his lips and ran his tongue across the white gauze. The movement left a red streak. “You see?” he said. “You see that? I’m bleeding out my guts. I’ll sleep, all right. I’ll really sleep, and it’ll be your fault, Hurtz.”

“Listen, Jones,” Hurtz said, deliberately lying, “you’ll be all right. Don’t you see?”

“No, damn you. No. And if you hadn’t forced yourself onto this run, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“Jones,” Hurtz said, trying to keep his voice soft. “These things just happen, that’s all. This is nobody’s fault. You fly these damned runs, you take your chances. But you’re going to be all right, son.”

“Don’t call me that!” the boy said, and now his voice was higher, louder, and Hurtz could see a little of the blood showing on a corner of the boy’s mouth. “Son, son! I’m as good a pilot as anybody. You or Gearing or Royce or anybody in the stinking service! I didn’t need your damned help, and that’s what did it. Sitting there, watching me every minute, making me tighten up until I couldn’t fly a kite. It’s your fault, and why the hell couldn’t you have died or gone back to your stupid Martian farm….” The boy was crying. A thin trickle of blood crawled down his chin.

Hurtz took a step forward. “Kid, listen. I wanted to help you, and….”

“Keep the hell away from me!” the boy screamed.

Hurtz froze. He hadn’t realized either how badly hurt the boy had been or how much resentment had lain beneath the boy’s cold exterior. He was beginning to feel some of the guilt that was placed on him by the look in the boy’s staring eyes. “But why?” he asked himself. “Why? When all he had wanted to do was help someone?”

“I know how you’re feeling,” Hurtz said, trying to be patient and calm. “I really do, but you can’t blame anyone for this.”

The boy remained silent and condemning, and Hurtz knew that his words were ringing hollowly in the cabin. Still he tried:

“Look. I’ve crashed before, on a dozen planets. But that’s the way it works. And that’s why I wanted to help you. I wanted to quit on this last one, don’t you see? For twenty unholy years I’ve been trying to own a piece of my own land where I could say, ‘This is my own world,’ and what I tried to do by going with you, was make it easier for you. Because in you, I could see myself twenty years ago. Don’t you see?”

The boy said nothing.

“I wanted to give it up and quit, but I thought if I could show you something, teach you something….” He cut the words short because he could feel himself pleading. There was no need for this. What he had done had been a sacrifice, and if the boy couldn’t see that, then it was because he was hurt and in great pain.

“If I had a medal,” the boy said hoarsely, “I’d shove it down your rotten throat.”

Hurtz ran the palms of his hands down the sides of his trousers. “I’ll give you another shot and then I’ll get the radio set up. You’ll be all right.”

The boy shook his head slowly, the bright eyes never looking away from Hurtz. “You’re not going to give me anything, and I’m not going to be all right.”

“I can’t waste more time, Jones. You are hurt. Bad. And I’ve got to get help.” He turned abruptly and went back to the radio. There were only wires loosened and parts slightly shaken. No irreparable damage. His hands moved quickly.

When he heard the thump of the boy’s body hitting the floor of the cabin his stomach jumped. He turned, made a step forward, then halted.

The boy was stretched below the bunk. Blood was spilling from his mouth. But he was moving and alive, and in his hands now was the pistol Hurtz had dropped.

“What the hell are you doing?” Hurtz said.

But the boy was motioning with the pistol. “Stay where you are. Stay the hell where you are.”

Hurtz waited, watching the way the boy lay on one of his arms, the broken one. The drug would be cutting out the pain to some extent, but he was breaking himself up. “Jones,” Hurtz said, “for God’s sake, you’re killing yourself.”

“Oh, no,” the boy said, pointing the pistol. “You’re killing me. I would have been all right, but you had to come along and this is your work, Hurtz. You’re killing me. Now you’re going to get your reward for that.”

“Jones,” Hurtz said, “if you think this was my fault, all right then. I’m suddenly very damned tired. I was tired before I started this, and it’s worse now. If what went wrong was my fault, then I’m sorry. I really am. Do what you want to about it.” Hurtz felt his energy draining out, and all he seemed to want to do at that moment was sit down and be quiet.

“I will,” the boy answered, and Hurtz could hear the click of the safety going off. “I’ll do exactly what I want to do about it. Are you ready?”

Hurtz watched the pistol in the boy’s hands. Then he threw himself sideways, rolling across the cabin, trying to find protection as the pistol cracked again and again. When the sound had stopped and silence had settled itself heavily over the cabin, Hurtz lay half-sprawled, looking at the boy.

He knew none of the shots had struck him and the surprise of this made his position on the floor seem, for a moment, very foolish. Then he realized what the boy had hit—the radio and the replacement cabinet full of extra parts.

From his twisted position on the floor the boy had done a very effective job of splintering every part of their communication system.

Sudden anger ran through Hurtz and he pushed himself up to stand flush-faced, watching the smiling boy. “You’ve gone crazy,” he said.

The boy shook his head, his fingers still clutching the pistol. “No. I really haven’t. But you will, Hurtz. Because you aren’t going anywhere now. No place at all. You’re going to stay right here, because you can’t get help now.”

“The hell I can’t,” Hurtz said, but he knew as he said it, that the statement was a childish reaction, and that in truth he couldn’t.

“The radio makes no difference to me,” the boy said. “I’m going to die. In a very few minutes. I can feel it crawling up in me. But I’ll die knowing you aren’t going to get what you were after, Hurtz, any more that I did. I was good, damn you. I was a damned good pilot. I had it all in front of me, and you had to ruin it. But you aren’t going to get anything now. Your land, Hurtz? Your stupid land. How about that? Who’ll be sitting on that when you don’t get back?”

“I feel sorry for you.”

“Oh, that’s good of you, Hurtz. You feel sorry for me while you spend the rest of your life stuck on this damned planet, will you? I enjoy the thought of that.”

“I won’t be here long,” Hurtz bluffed.

“Oh, no?” the boy said, as more blood ran down his chin. “A planet half the size of Venus? No way to send them your position? You think they’re going to send out a fleet to look for you over every inch of this globe? They couldn’t find you in forty years.”

Hurtz stood silent, his eyes thin as he watched the boy with the bleeding and smiling mouth. “I only wanted one thing, Jones. Just that one thing.”

“That’s right,” the boy grinned. “Just that one thing, that section on Mars. Only now you aren’t going to get it. You’ve got a one-track obsession, Hurtz, like a simple damned child, even though you’ve flown the universe for twenty years. This’ll kill you, and you have my deepest regrets. Here,” he said, sending the pistol spinning across the floor so that it stopped beside Hurtz’s boots. “There’s a round left in it. I saved it. Just for you.”

The boy began to laugh then, a kind of building laughter, that turned into choking. He put one hand to his throat and then rolled over suddenly, so that his eyes stared at the ceiling.

Hurtz looked at the dead boy for a long time, then he tapped the pistol very lightly with a toe of a boot. Finally he stepped to the broken radio and ran his fingers carefully over the useless equipment.

When he crawled from the cabin of the rocket to the ground, his movements were automatic. On the ground, he stood, very quietly, his back against the ship, watching the tree leaves flutter faintly with the breeze.

The words of the boy were still in his brain, and he could still see the very clean-cut, very young, very dead face. So many times he’d thought of Jones as he had been himself, twenty years ago. It was almost as though he’d died up there himself. Worse, was the realization that what the boy had told him was right. Somehow, this was all his own fault. With his age and knowledge and experience, he’d taken the confidence out of the boy. The fears, the distrust, during the whole trip, had been communicated to Jones and so this was the result.

He shook his head a little and pushed himself away from the rocket. He began walking, step after step, unknowing of his movement. Jones had been right about another thing, too. Hurtz’s one-track obsession. That was true, and it had been his motivation for everything he had done. To get one thing. A lifetime of blindness to everything else, while he lived through one day after another, year after year, to reach one individual day that was as surely lost now as the life of that boy in the rocket.

And so this is life. You fight your blind way through an entire lifetime, and when you get to the end there isn’t anything at all. His hands knotted at his sides, and he walked with anger and a rising bitterness.

All at once he stopped, his eyes widening. The rim of trees had disappeared, and now in front of him lay the entire length and breadth of it. Detail for detail. His land, with its silent rolling hills and quiet green valleys. His land, with the sweet sloping clearing and the rippling brook singing softly beside it. His land right in front of his eyes.

But it couldn’t be. A mirage, perhaps? Shock twisting the responses of his brain?

Yet when he had stood there, wide-eyed, examining, he knew that what he saw was reality and every blade of grass, every leaf, every drop of water in the singing brook was physically there. Inch for inch.

Lord, he thought, dropping to his knees. How could this be?

He thought about it as he looked and felt and thrilled. Perhaps, he thought, this was the way it was on other planets, when I couldn’t see anything but a long-distant dream. Perhaps I could have had this a dozen times in my life, and all I would have had to do was take it. But why didn’t I? Why couldn’t I see this before? Did it take twenty years for me to start seeing what was in front of my eyes?

And why twenty years? Why this time and moment? Because for once in my life I forgot about my own damned desires and thought about something and someone else? Is that it?

Hurtz climbed to his feet slowly. He didn’t know and he asked no more questions of himself. He simply walked forward to it, forgetting the broken rocket and boy who broke it. He simply breathed deep of the perfumes of the hills and the valleys, and he stepped onto the sloping clearing, listening to the singing of the brook.

His nostrils failed to respond to the faintly acrid odor of wet dead leaves. His eyes failed to discover the rather sharp, ugly cut of the profile of the hills or the ungainly dip of the valleys. He was blind to the muddiness of the brook and his ears could not hear the sucking sound the water made as it pitched over dirty-colored rocks. He did not look, hear, or feel as he might have on that section of Mars, where the dream of twenty years might have disappeared like a speared bubble to become ugly reality. He was capable of none of the deadening response that might have been his, here on Mars, had he been a man who had not lived twenty years to offer, finally, one totally honest, unselfish motion in this universe.

He simply stepped to his reward, smiling.

James McKimmey Jr’s short story, “Death Star”, was first published in the September 1953 issue of Planet Stories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s