“THE FIRST time machine, gentlemen,” Professor Johnson proudly informed his two colleagues. “True, it is a small-scale experimental model. It will operate only on objects weighing less than three pounds, five ounces and for distances into the past and future of twelve minutes or less. But it works.”
The small-scale model looked like a small scale—a postage scale—except for two dials in the part under the platform.
Professor Johnson held up a small metal cube. “Our experimental object,” he said, “is a brass cube weighing one pound, two point three ounces. First, I shall send it five minutes into the future.”
THE space freighter Queen Dierdre was a great, squat, pockmarked vessel of the Earth-Mars run and she never gave anyone a bit of trouble. That should have been sufficient warning to Mr. Watkins, her engineer. Watkins was fond of saying that there are two kinds of equipment—the kind that fails bit by bit, and the kind that fails all at once.
Watkins was short and red-faced, magnificently mustached, and always a little out of breath. With a cigar in his hand, over a glass of beer, he talked most cynically about his ship, in the immemorial fashion of engineers. But in reality, Watkins was foolishly infatuated with Dierdre, idealized her, humanized her, and couldn’t conceive of anything serious ever happening.
On this particular run, Dierdre soared away from Terra at the proper speed; Mr. Watkins signaled that fuel was being consumed at the proper rate; and Captain Somers cut the engines at the proper moment indicated by Mr. Rajcik, the navigator.
CARRIN decided that he could trace his present mood to Miller’s suicide last week. But the knowledge didn’t help him get rid of the vague, formless fear in the back of his mind. It was foolish. Miller’s suicide didn’t concern him.
But why had that fat, jovial man killed himself? Miller had had everything to live for—wife, kids, good job, and all the marvelous luxuries of the age. Why had he done it?
He was wet and muddy and hungry and cold, and he was fifty thousand light-years from home.
A strange blue sun gave light and the gravity, twice what he was used to, made every movement difficult.
But in tens of thousands of years this part of war hadn’t changed. The flyboys were fine with their sleek spaceships and their fancy weapons. When the chips are down, though, it was still the foot soldier, the infantry, that had to take the ground and hold it, foot by bloody foot. Like this damned planet of a star he’d never heard of until they’d landed him there. And now it was sacred ground because the aliens were there too. The aliens, the only other intelligent race in the Galaxy… cruel, hideous and repulsive monsters.
Contact had been made with them near the center of the Galaxy, after the slow, difficult colonization of a dozen thousand planets; and it had been war at sight; they’d shot without even trying to negotiate, or to make peace.
Now, planet by bitter planet, it was being fought out.
He was wet and muddy and hungry and cold, and the day was raw with a high wind that hurt his eyes. But the aliens were trying to infiltrate and every sentry post was vital.
He stayed alert, gun ready. Fifty thousand light-years from home, fighting on a strange world and wondering if he’d ever live to see home again.
And then he saw one of them crawling toward him. He drew a bead and fired. The alien made that strange horrible sound they all make, then lay still.
He shuddered at the sound and sight of the alien lying there. One ought to be able to get used to them after a while, but he’d never been able to. Such repulsive creatures they were, with only two arms and two legs, ghastly white skins and no scales.
Fredric Brown (1906-1972) was an American science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fiction writer, who was well known for his use of humour and his mastery of the so-called “short-short” form of story-telling. “Sentry” is one of his shortest and best-known examples of this form, and was first published in the February 1954 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction.