When last heard from, Captain Sheldon was preparing to return to Japan—on the
not unreasonable claim that the Island Empire was the only place where he was
able to write undisturbed. Considering this two-time Air Force officer's output,
however—ranging from upper-bracket love and auto-racing tales to a brilliant
new novel, TROUBLING OF A STAR, that has won major bookclub distribution,
and including scores of fine science fiction stories—we wonder whether this
peripatetic author may not be planning to flood all markets. Not a bad idea.
by ... Walt Sheldon
One sure way to live dangerously is to become a practical joker.
Should you have any doubts about it you might ask Professor Dane.
You didn't have to be a potential
Einstein to take Professor Dane's
course. For one thing you got a few
easy credits and for another you were
entertained—without letup—by Professor
Lyman Dane's celebrated wit.
Take the time he was illustrating
terminal velocity. He jumped out
of the open third story window, horrifying
the class, until they learned
he'd rigged a canvas life net on the
floor below. Or the time he let a
mouse loose among the female students
to illustrate chain reaction. Or
the afternoon he played boogie-woogie
on the Huyler Memorial
"The absorption of knowledge,"
he used to say, "increases in direct
proportion to the sense of humor—the
belly laugh, measured in decibels,
He could say a thing like that and
make it sound funnier than anybody
else could. It was partly the
way he looked—tall and mournful
and sly, with wispy hair that had
once been blond, drooping like a
tired willow over his forehead.
But for all his vaudeville tactics he
was by no means a second-rate
scientist. Which was why he had
gained his position at Southwestern
Tech in the first place. He refused to
work directly for the government
(no sense of humor, just initials, he
said) but this way he could at least
be called upon for consultation at
the nearby Air Force Development
Center, just at the foot of the mountains
to the west.
Now the AFDC, as it was called,
didn't advertise what sort of thing it
was developing—but everybody
knew that Lyman Dane was an expert
on reactive propulsion of rocket
motors. He could tell you—and frequently
would without being asked—exactly
what mass ratio, nozzle
diameter and propulsive velocity
would be needed for the first trip to
the Moon. He knew how many hours
a round trip would take, both for
landing there or merely circling the
body of the satellite.
He had the courses to Mars and
Venus thoroughly charted—but considered
a trip to Jupiter somewhat
impractical. So, what with Dane's
presence and the mysterious white
streaks that so often shot up into the
sky like fuzzy yarn from the AFDC
base, it wasn't hard to guess what
was going on.
Nevertheless Professor Dane was
surprised and somewhat offended
when the young man from the Federal
Bureau of Investigation came to
call on him one afternoon. And the
worst part of it was that the young
man didn't have much sense of
"As you know, sir," the young
man said, "we've been sighting and
tracking these unidentified objects in
the sky. You must have read about
those they chased near Atlanta yesterday."
"Ah," said Professor Dane. "Martian
through Georgia, no doubt."
The young man stared at him
blankly. He seemed to Professor
Dane one of the most nondescript
young men his eyes had ever beheld.
He had a clean-shaven, pleasant face
without exactly being handsome and
his eyes were sincere and mild. He
wore a neat gray tropical worsted
suit and an unobtrusive tie. He was
about thirty. Professor Dane supposed
that all this was an advantage
in his profession.
The young man went on—earnestly.
"Without forming any theories
about these things we've been asked
to take certain precautions. I don't
know whether they suspect a hostile
power, or what. That's not my job.
At any rate I've been given the responsibility
of instituting certain
security techniques. You do after all,
sir, have access to and knowledge of
considerable classified information."
This lad reminded him somewhat
of his old friend and colleague, Dr.
Fincher, out in California. Wally
Fincher was a well-known physicist
now, though how anyone ever managed
to struggle through his dry
ponderous books Dane didn't know.
Probably he had gained most of his
fame through his part in those experiments
where they bounced radar
blips off the moon, Dane thought.
Wally always talked in long unnecessary
words. He never merely
"went" when he could "proceed,"
he never simply "used" when it was
possible to "utilize," he didn't "get
things done"—he "implemented"
them. Professor Dane made a mental
note to put in a long distance call
to Wally that evening and tweak
his nose a bit. Maybe Dane could
pretend he was the FBI—disguise his
voice and interrogate Wally, as
though he were investigating him.
He chuckled a little at the idea.
Then he realized that the young
man had been talking and he hadn't
"... so among other things, sir,
we thought it best to monitor your
official mail and hope you won't
"What?" said Dane, raising his
"And your phone. You'll hear a
couple of clicks whenever you use
it. We're recording what's said over
it—though I assure you all records
obtained will be kept in strictest
Dane acquiesced. The young man
finally managed to make it clear that
all this surveillance would have to be
with Dane's permission and the professor,
annoyed though he was,
didn't want to appear uncooperative.
He couldn't resist, however, giving
the young man the wrong hat when
he went out and being delighted
when the young man came back for
the right one five minutes later. He
was glad to see that something could
But that wasn't really enough. Professor
Dane had been annoyed, and
he needed to express himself further—by
means of the joke, which was
his art—in order to regain some
measure of his equilibrium and self-respect.
Inspiration visited him as he was
climbing the stairs to his bedroom
at ten-thirty that evening. He
stopped short, thought a minute,
then began to chuckle. He turned
and went downstairs again, stepped
to the phone. Professor Dane lived
alone and no one else would be able
to share his planned joke—but this
He had been privately enjoying
his pranks ever since, as a frail boy
with an unreasonable and dominating
male parent, he had discovered
that they were one way in which he
could compete with hardier souls,
at times even surpass them. Never
mind the audience, he thought. The
jest was the thing!
It was an hour earlier in Los
Angeles and Dr. Wallace Fincher
was at home. Dane disguised his
voice—he did a lot of University
Theater work and this kind of thing
came to him easily. He listened first
to Dr. Fincher's arid, humorless,
"Hello. Dr. Fincher speaking." Then
he heard the preliminary clicking,
just as the FBI man had predicted.
"Thandor," said Professor Dane,
"this is Klon calling."
"I beg your pardon?" said Doctor
"The jig's up," said Professor
Dane. "Captain Ixl in propul-cruiser
nine-nine-seven-three will never be
able to break through. The Earthlings
have set up a close watch—they're
"Who is this?" Doctor Fincher
sounded startled. "Who the devil is
Dane could barely keep his
laughter from breaking into his
voice. "Thandor, we can come to no
conclusion but that the Terrestrials
are definitely hostile. We should
have expected that from their primitive
stage of development. They
have orders to shoot any of our
propul-cruisers they can catch. I suggest
that we withdraw all ships of
the Franistan class immediately from
their free orbits and send them on a
standard Keplerian course to the
home planet for further consultation."
"Is this some kind of joke?"
Fincher sounded as if he were almost
"Furthermore," said Dane, "I
recommend that we withdraw all
agents from Earth. We can't conceal
our superior mental development
and advanced technology much
"Someone's bound to catch on
pretty soon. I was against this plan
in the Galactic Council in the first
place, you'll remember. Well, farewell,
Thandor! I'll be seeing you
soon in space!"
And Professor Dane hung up before
he exploded with laughter.
He laughed until the tears came
to his eyes. He held his stomach
with both hands. He was weak. He
supported himself on the stair railing
and for minutes was unable to
take the first tread. With his lively
scientist's imagination he could picture
the completely bewildered
look on the young FBI man's face
when he listened to this conversation
on the tape recorder or whatever
it was they used.
He was certainly going to have to
try to get that recording from them.
Play it back for Fincher some time—Lordy,
Fincher would have apoplexy
every time he heard it!
He finally gained enough strength
to climb the stairs. He went into his
bedroom, still chuckling weakly, still
wiping the tears from his eyes,
stomach muscles still aching.
Dr. Wallace Fincher stood there
by his bed. It was Fincher—the
same stocky round-faced man with
the steel-rimmed glasses he had
always known. It was either Fincher
or the darndest hallucination he had
"I'm sorry, Lyman," said Dr.
Fincher in a kindly but impersonal
voice. "You were getting a trifle
too close. I'm afraid you have left
me no choice."
He pointed a little silvery tube at
Professor Dane and there was a soft
buzzing and the smell of ozone and
Professor Dane was no longer in
the room—or anywhere else.
Dr. Fincher sighed, adjusted his
glasses and faded into the dimension
that would take him back to Los
Angeles and his interrupted work.
This etext was produced from Fantastic Universe Aug-Sept 1953.
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.