If Nature suddenly began to behave differently, what we consider
obvious and elementary today might become--unthinkable.
In the story THE DESPOILERS in the October 1947 Amazing Stories I
raised the question, "Is there anything absolutely beyond human
comprehension?" In that story I gave humanity a thousand years to give
birth to one man who could comprehend the incomprehensible.
The incomprehensible is harder to portray in a story than is merely the
unknown. If we denote anything incomprehensible by the symbol X, we can
describe what X is to a certain extent by knowing what it is not. We
can, gradually, gain a certain insight into what it is by comparing it
to what IS comprehensible.
In the last analysis the universe of normalcy is incomprehensible. We
have made progress in comprehending it because we have isolated it into
small bundles of events that can be dealt with by the human intellect.
We have arrived at certain basic pictures of the behavior of the
incomprehensible. We have found a certain stability existing in the
picture we have built up. We have searched the heavens and found that
stars are made up of the same elements as the Earth--with a few
exceptions. And with those exceptions we have brought them into the
framework of our picture of the Universe by postulating "dense matter."
We have, slowly, come to the belief that the same laws operate
throughout the entire Universe, just as they do here on the Earth. This
is the Uniformity Postulate.
In that story THE DESPOILERS the Uniformity Postulate was not denied.
The incomprehensible in that story was the mind of a Despoiler. It, to
the human mind, was incomprehensible; and to the Despoiler, the human
mind was incomprehensible.
Each viewed the Universe differently due to a difference in whatever
lies at the foundations of the thinking processes. In other words,
uniformity of the principle of thought was denied there.
Both the Despoilers and Man had mechanical civilization and science, but
due to their different minds neither could comprehend completely the
viewpoint of the other ON THE SAME THING. Each had applied his REASON to
the disorder of nature and constructed what to him was a REASONABLE
The type of mentality I attributed to the Despoiler may be impossible.
It may be that if the human race eventually reaches out and encounters
other intelligent races it will find that the basic principles which
result in thought as we know it are the ONLY basic principles that can
give rise to thinking intelligence, so that wherever we find
civilization we will find creatures that think the same as we do, and
have seen the same pattern in nature that we have.
There is another possibility besides the encountering of
incomprehensible minds. That is the possibility of encountering
incomprehensible "islands" of reality.
One thing we have discovered about nature that makes such "islands"
possible--or that makes it possible WE are living in such an
"island"--is that matter has a habit of "reacting" to some types of
energy patterns, and "totally ignoring" others.
Perhaps you can better understand what I mean by the following analogous
position: Kah is an intelligent entity fixed at a certain point. He can
only derive a picture of reality from what he sees. He can only see a
foot in front of him. In all his existence he has seen only one type of
thing--rocks about an inch in diameter. He therefore concludes that all
reality is rocks an inch in diameter.
He is unable ever to learn that he is situated at a place where the
one-inch rocks leave a screen with seven-eighths-inch holes that let
every smaller pebble and all the sand through, and that
seven-eighths-inch screen is the catch-all for a higher screen with
one-inch holes that kept everything larger from coming through.
His Universe is brought to him by selective screening. He rationalizes
what his Universe presents him, and postulates that ALL reality is
identical to what he can experience. He can NOT conceive of what is
utterly beyond his range of experience and imagination--which is merely
the re-arrangement of reality or of thoughts derived from reality.
We are perhaps in much that same position. To be sure, our telescopes
bring us data from stars that are so far away the human race will never
reach them--but is not our telescope a "screen" that brings us only the
There may be and probably is a vast realm of reality co-existent with
the reality we know, right around us; but it is "screened" from us. It
may be possible that we know less than ten percent of actual reality
around us due to the screening of our senses and our instruments that
blocks completely, or permits to pass completely, every energy pattern
that can't pass through the "holes" of our "screen."
Going back to Kah, the one-inch-rock-universe observer, suppose that in
one batch of dirt dumped at the head of the screening system there
happened to be no one-inch rocks at all? Or, more closely to the story
you are about to read, suppose, with his mind deeply grooved with the
tracks of the one-inch rocks, he were to move to a vantage point where
there were no one-inch rocks, but larger or smaller ones?
He would immediately find nature behaving according to an utterly
strange pattern, BUT he could only sort the incoming sensations
according to the neural grooves already built up in his mind! In his
mind he could only see one-inch rocks or nothing, and since what he
would see would obviously be something, it would either seem nothing to
him, or one-inch rocks behaving strangely.
His instruments and his mind would interpret by the old gradations and
scales and concepts. His Universe would still be made of nothing but
one-inch rocks, to him, but its behavior would be strange.
Perhaps slowly, like a newborn child making sense out of its
surroundings, or a foreigner slowly making sense out of our language, he
would penetrate to the new reality with his mind. Perhaps in the very
process his being would change its structure.
In the end he would be in a unique position. He would have the memories
of one Reality, and the experiences of a new one. He would have the
language of the old with which to describe the new to his old
companions. Could he do it so they would comprehend it?
It would do him no good simply to invent new words to describe something
beyond the experience of his old companions. He would have to describe
something beyond their experience with words and sentences they had
created to describe only what they had gained from their own experience!
How could he hope to make them gain a true understanding of it?
He might tell them simply and truthfully everything he experienced--and
it might come out utter nonsense! It probably would. Unless he could
bring back some of the evidence, either intentionally or unwittingly.
At first that evidence might present a pattern of utter nonsense and
contradiction with known thought patterns and concepts. It might present
seemingly normal events in nonsense sequences. It might present
impossible events in seemingly normal sequences. It might even present
disjointed events in sequence.
What it would present would be only what the screen of the senses and
the screen of the mind could accept. Underneath would be a perfectly
orderly pattern of events of some sort, behaving according to different
natural laws in conflict with those we have existed under. Slowly we
might penetrate to an understanding of them, but not at first, because
at first they would be completely UNTHINKABLE.
In this story, UNTHINKABLE, an attempt has been made to depict such a
conflict of nature and human mentality. It is not the ordinary science
fiction attempt. It is not new laws working in harmony with old, or new
discoveries that fit into the old pattern. It is, if you please, an
utterly alien bit of reality in conflict with the old.
The story cannot but be inadequate. It is the froth and foam of the
struggle. It is the parts that fit into the words and phrases and
sentences. You won't like it at all--unless you have the type of mind
that can reach a little way beyond experience. And though what you may
"see" may have no counterpart in all reality, if this story serves to
expand your mental horizons, it has at least found an excuse for being
Dr. Nale Hargrave tossed his spotless grey hat expertly across the six
feet of space between him and the coat tree, humming the while a
currently popular tune whose only words he could remember were "Feemo
fimo fujo, the flumy fwam to fwojo."
His eyes rested self-congratulatingly on the hat after it came to a safe
stop, then turned to beam an instant at his receptionist before he
continued on to his office.
She smiled after him with an affectionate, indulgent look, gave him as
long as it took her to powder her nose and tuck a few stray hairs into
place, then pressed the buzzer that signaled to quarantine that the
doctor was ready to screen the crew of the U triple S Endore.
The Endore had arrived during the night. Usually crews that had to
wait hours before passing through psych raised a big fuss. Quarantine
wasn't exactly designed for comfort. A man couldn't be expected to enjoy
sitting on a bench and reading a worn-out magazine after looking forward
to visiting his old haunts on Earth after months or years in space. His
only thought was to get through the red tape and step through the door
on the other side of which lay freedom of expression and freedom from
space discipline--and girls.
That was the usual result of forced delay in quarantine. The crew of the
Endore hadn't let a peep out of them.
Martha Ryan, the receptionist, glanced knowingly at the closed door. She
knew that Nale was sitting at his desk, his legs crossed carelessly, his
long fingers holding the report on the Endore and the report of the
psych observer. He was probably frowning slightly over the unusual
behavior of the crew.
She had her own list of names of the crew on the desk before her.
Heading the list was the name, Comdr. Hugh Dunnam. Dr. Nale would
ordinarily call him first. Next would come any of the crew that the
commander reported unbalanced, followed by the rest of the crew.
Sometimes when the psych observer's report was unfavorable to the whole
crew he called some crew member at random before calling the top name.
It didn't surprise her, therefore, when the intercom came to life and
Dr. Nale's voice pleasantly asked for a name two-thirds of the way down
on the list of forty names--Ren Gravenard, spaceman/2d cls.
Martha's pencil followed the list down, making a light check after the
name while she dialed quarantine to send in the man.
In her mind's eye she could visualize the lifted eyebrows of the day
shift guards as they glanced over the huddled crew. She could see their
suddenly changed attitude toward the crew, their new caution as they
opened the heavy wire door and led the man out. She could see, too, the
worried frown of Comdr. Dunnam, whoever he was, as he realized what that
meant--to have a crew member precede him.
She could see, too, Dunnam's probable warning look to spaceman Gravenard
to keep mum and play his cards close.
That was the trouble with crews of ships when they thought they might be
held up by psych over something. They invariably overplayed their
innocence right from the start.
The side door from quarantine opened. Two guards entered, preceding and
following the first victim warily. Martha sized Ren Gravenard up closely
while her face assumed the careful, welcoming smile that often brought
attempts at dating.
Ren Gravenard was no different in appearance than a million like him. He
was average in everything including his type of character.
"You are Ren Gravenard?" she asked.
He nodded without speaking.
Martha pressed the button that told Doctor Nale the first one had
arrived, got his O.K. signal, and motioned Gravenard and the guards
toward the inner door with a sweep of long yellow pencil in perfectly
As the three passed into the private office she made a slow dash after
the spaceman's name preparatory to writing his destination when he came
out. It would be "obs" or "O.K."
Then she glanced at her wrist watch. Its hands pointed to six after
nine. Two hours and fifty-four minutes later Ren Gravenard had still not
come out. And in her two years as receptionist for Dr. Nale Hargrave,
Martha Ryan had never known him to spend more than twenty minutes with
Her manicured nail pressed the buzzer three times to signal she was
going to lunch. Giving Dr. Nale a full minute to make any request,
without receiving any, she opened the door to the corridor and left.
* * * * *
When she returned an hour later she was surprised to see the door to Dr.
Hargrave's inner office open and Dr. John Bemis, the chief of the psych
staff, at the desk.
"Come in, Miss Ryan," Dr. Bemis said, accenting his invitation with a
wave of his hand.
He waited until she had come in and closed the door behind her before
"There's something's happened," he said gravely. "I don't know just
what, and maybe I don't exactly WANT to know."
Dr. Bemis spread his hands in an all inclusive gesture.
"The universe is a big place," he said. "I suppose we should have
expected that sooner or later we'd run into something a little outside
He shook his head slowly, looking up at the ceiling as though trying to
pierce it and see beyond. When he continued, his voice was sharp and
"Tell me exactly what you saw, thought, and felt this morning. Every
detail, however unimportant you might think it."
"There's really very little to tell," Martha said, surprised and
alarmed. "There was this crew of the Endore in quarantine when I came
to work this morning. They were unusual in that they didn't complain
about having to wait, indicating a guilt feeling in the crew. Dr.
Hargrave asked to see a common spaceman first. That proved he recognized
this. The name of the spaceman he saw is Ren Gravenard, who was brought
in at a little after nine and was still in there when I left at twelve."
She looked keenly at Dr. Bemis. Something was so radically wrong
somewhere that she didn't have the courage to even ask him. She just
"Dr. Hargrave has been taken to observation," he said without warning.
"So has the crew of the Endore. I--ah--believe you may take an
indefinite leave from the office until further notice. With full pay, of
"Dr. Hargrave?" Martha asked, not hearing the last.
"Yes!" Dr. Bemis's voice changed from harsh tenseness to contriteness.
"I'm sorry, Miss Ryan, but I feel it inadvisable to discuss it just now.
All I can say is that full quarantine measures are now in force as of
fifteen minutes ago. There will be no landing or taking off from Earth
until it is lifted; and within this area the same quarantine
Martha Ryan hesitated, then turned and left. Dr. Bemis watched her go.
After the door closed behind her he did a very peculiar thing. He took a
gun out of his coat pocket and shot himself through the head. After that
he went to a mirror on the wall, dressed the wounds carefully, wincing
at the bite of the alcohol in the raw flesh, and, after drinking several
glasses of water, returned to Dr. Hargrave's desk.
* * * * *
He sat there, drumming his fingers on the walnut surface, his eyes
closed as if he were listening to something very far away. A buzzer
under his desk gave three short buzzes. He reached over and deflected
the toggle on the intercom.
"Back already, Martha?" he said cheerily. "Any more left on your list
for the Endore?"
Martha checked her list. There had been two left when she went to lunch.
They had been checked off, too, while she was gone.
"That's all, Dr. Nale," she said.
"Good," came his voice through the intercom. "Think I'll go out and have
something to eat myself."
The click of the intercom was followed at once by the opening of the
inner office door. Martha's eyes watched Dr. Nale Hargrave as he walked
through the office and out into the corridor.
Her eyes remained on the exit after he had gone, a faint frown creasing
the smooth skin above her eyes. She had an IRRATIONAL impression that
she had seen Dr. Bemis, the super, instead of Dr. Nale, and with his
head bandaged clumsily.
She dismissed this with a pout and took a book out of a drawer to do her
The buzzer on her desk buzzed a warning. She laid the book flat as the
inner office door opened and Dr. Nale escorted Ren Gravenard out into
the waiting room.
Martha glanced at her watch. It was ten after nine. Four minutes! She
expected the nod from Dr. Nale. Her pencil wrote an O.K. after the dash
she had drawn four minutes ago.
"Thank you doctor," Ren Gravenard was saying heartily. The two guards
left by the side door back to quarantine.
Dr. Nale went over and bent close to Martha's ear.
"As your psychiatrist," he said pseudo-seriously, "I can advise you that
unless you kiss me I am going to feel quite frustrated."
"Oh, that would never do!" Martha laughed, and kissed him.
She jerked back, startled. There was the sound of a shot from the inner
office. The door was still open. Martha and Dr. Nale looked through the
Ren Gravenard was standing in the middle of the inner office dropping a
flat automatic into his side pocket. There was an ugly wound on either
side of his head from a bullet that had passed directly through his
He smiled at them disarmingly, "It's quite all right. You see, it
couldn't possibly do me any harm because I'm waiting for the elevator."
"Oh," they said, relieved. They bent and kissed each other again while
Ren Gravenard went over to the mirror on the wall and dressed the
wounds, wincing from the raw touch of the alcohol on wounded bone and
The outer door opened and two men came in with a wicker basket.
Dr. Nale pointed over in the corner where one of the guards lay dead.
"What happened to him, Doc?" one of the men asked.
"He got shot through the head," Dr. Hargrave explained. "One of the men
off the Endore did it. They're all being taken over to observation. I
think I'll have to go over with them. I'm beginning to get an inkling of
what's going on, and I'm very much afraid of what I think it is."
The two men set the basket down and lifted the wicker lid. Dr. Bemis
came out of the inner office and laid down in the corner. The two men
waited until he had settled himself, then lifted him into the basket.
Dr. Hargrave held open the outer door for them. He returned to the desk
beside Martha and took a gun out of his coat pocket. He pointed it at
her, frowned in indecision, then slowly, with perspiration standing out
on his forehead, pulled out the clip and emptied the barrel of the gun.
"Good for you," Martha said. She picked up her book and started reading.
Dr. Hargrave put the gun back in his pocket and went to the door.
"Take a few days off starting tomorrow," he said before going out. "I'm
going to be slowly going crazy trying to figure this mess out. That's
why I insisted to Dr. Bemis that I be confined with the crew of the
Endore--just in case."
His heels made loud noises on the marble floor of the corridor. He
pushed through the revolving doors to the sidewalk.
There was an argument going on between a small newsboy and an elderly
gentlemen type of man.
"I tell you there's only two pennies," the boy insisted.
"There's four," the man insisted just as strongly. "See?"
He pried open the boy's fingers and looked.
"Sorry," he said. "You're right." His hand went into his pocket to make
up the deficit.
"Hey! Wait a minute," the boy said. "I was wrong. You gave me two
pennies too much."
A small pudgy finger took two of the pennies. The boy glanced at the
others to make sure the right number were left.
Nale was close enough to see what happened. He saw the pennies taken
from what seemed to be seven or eight in the boy's palm. When the two
were taken away there seemed to be a slight blur--and there was only a
solitary penny left.
He didn't wait. The paper boy and the customer were still patiently
arguing as he climbed into his car and drove away. He drove slowly with
his foot close to the brakes.
Although his eyes were warily watching each car on the street, his mind
was busy. He was trying to figure out who had been shot.
"It might even have been me!" he thought. And there was no way of
He drove the car another block. There was doubt growing in his mind. On
a sudden impulse he pulled the car over to the curb and stopped the
motor. Getting out, he started walking rapidly. There would be three
miles of walking before he reached observation, but it would be safer to
A block further he stopped abruptly in surprise. The spaceport
observation hospital was just in front of him.
"I should have guessed," he muttered as he pushed through the heavy
doors. "The speedometer, of course. Naturally it would go first."
* * * * *
Martha Ryan saw the door close on Dr. Hargrave, then started reading
again. She finished the page and turned it over. The first few words of
the opposite side of the sheet showed the continuity to be difficult.
Thinking she might have turned two sheets by mistake, she turned back
one. It was still wrong. She sighed exasperatedly. She distinctly
remembered that she had been on page twenty-five, so the next page
should be twenty-six. Since it hadn't been, she would have to look for
She looked through the book, page by page, and it wasn't there. Getting
over her exasperation she made a game of it. Finally she developed to
the stage where she would open the book at random, note the number of
the page, close the book, and then try to find that page she had just
It was a very peculiar book. She found that, (a) she could find any page
number she wasn't looking for, and (b) any page number she looked for
was not in the book, even though it had been a moment before.
Resting thoughtfully for several minutes on this achievement of
deduction she decided to try another experiment. She counted the number
of sheets of paper in the book and wrote the number down. It was one
Then she counted them again. There were one hundred eighty-six. She
counted them five more times, making seven times she had counted them.
She got nine different numbers of sheets in the book. She decided she
couldn't get nine different numbers after counting only seven times, and
counted the numbers. There were five. She closed her eyes and counted to
ten rapidly, then counted them again. There were fourteen.
She held out her hands. She had seven fingers on her right hand and
three on her left. She chuckled dryly and thought, "Well, anyway there
are ten altogether." She counted them to be sure, and there were
Pursing her lips stubbornly she held up two fingers and counted them.
There were two. She held them rigid and closed her eyes, counting
rapidly to ten. Opening her eyes she looked cautiously at the upraised
fingers. There were two.
She raised a third finger to join the other two, and there were five
upraised fingers. Not only that, there were seven of them clenched. She
closed her eyes and counted to ten quickly, then opened them. There were
three upraised fingers. She counted the clenched ones and there were
two. Relieved, she checked on the upraised fingers again--and there were
She gave up in disgust. Deciding she ought to go home she stood up and
started to cross to the coat tree.
The door to the corridor opened and Ren Gravenard stepped in.
"Hello!" Martha said in surprise. "I thought you were sent to
"I was," Ren said. "That's where I am now, but when there are forty of
you, you can sort of get lost in the group and wind up anywhere you want
"Well, I'm glad you're here," Martha said dryly. "Maybe you can explain
a few things."
Ren grinned crookedly.
"Suppose I do the explaining over something to eat," he said. "I almost
stopped and had something on the way over here, but I wanted to wait and
eat with you. Do you mind?"
"Of course not," Martha frowned. She was taking a closer look at this
spaceman second class. He had a nice way of smiling at her. His eyes had
depths she hadn't noticed before.
* * * * *
The illogical thought came to her that maybe now that things didn't
behave the way they should, maybe he and his fellow spacemen were the
only ones that knew what it was all about.
"All this," Martha waved her hand vaguely. "It must have been caused by
something about the Endore, mustn't it?"
Ren nodded, holding the door open for her. They walked along the
corridor to the revolving doors, his hand tucked protectively under her
"Is it mental?" Martha asked when they were on the sidewalk.
"No," Ren answered. "But let's wait until we eat. I'm starved to death.
If you run into any trouble I'll help you out. You see, I know how to
"Like finding page twenty-six in the book I'm reading?" Martha asked.
"That's simple," Ren said. "All you have to do is look for page
twenty-nine and you'll run across page twenty-six right away. Things
like that are mental, partly. I mean, you have to have the right
attitude to get results you want."
"I don't understand," Martha said.
"Well, it's like this," Ren explained. "If you're looking for page
twenty-six it won't be one of the first two pages you look at,
regardless of where you open the book. But after you've looked at three
of them you've passed the page you want unless you're not looking for
it. If you're not looking for it you REACH the right page."
"But why page twenty-nine to find twenty-six?" Martha persisted.
"It has to do with the new arithmetic," Ren said.
"Oh," Martha said dully. "So that's the whole trouble with everything."
"No, that's only part of it," Ren said. "But here's a good place to
eat." He guided her through the door.
An hour later Ren lit a cigarette and took a long drag on it, his eyes
looking longingly into Martha's. He exhaled the smoke in a long white
plume. Then he began talking.
"I don't know whether you read it on the report sheet or not, but the
trip of the Endore began from this same spaceport two years ago. The
observatory on Pluto had reported a free planet passing within two
hundred quadrillion miles of the solar system. The Endore was assigned
the task of landing on it, if feasible.
"I had been a member of the crew for only four months when the Endore
turned outward from its position just the other side of Mars' orbit."
Ren smiled apologetically.
"I hadn't exactly planned on being a spaceman, second class. I don't
know whether you know the system, but whether you do or not, it should
suffice to say that I had studied for five years to become a research
scientist, and failed. I decided to take out my disappointment by
joining up for two years. I planned on making another try at research
when I got out.
"Everything went along fine on the trip out. We were a very congenial
crew with a fine, human commander. He made it a point to get personally
acquainted with every member of the crew eventually. He seemed to take
a particular liking to me for some reason. By the time we were half-way
out to Metapor, as we found out it was called later, I was an unofficial
first mate or something with free run of the pilot room and the
"I had guessed by now that when I enlisted they looked up my record and
passed the word along to Commander Dunnam to sell me on the idea of a
career as a spaceman.
"At any rate, I was in an ideal position to see all that went on first
hand. We were within three hundred thousand miles of Metapor when we got
the first indication of the change in metaphysics. I discovered it
myself. I was helping the astrogator get the constants for the
* * * * *
"Take a look at the gravy board, Ren," Ford Gratrick, the astrogator
said. "What's she say?"
Ren looked at the fine black pointer on the gravity potentiometer. It
pointed to a spot just two marks above the number ten on the dial.
"Ten and two tenths," Ren read.
"That can't be right," Ford frowned. "At this distance that would make
this baby a super."
He came over and looked himself. While he was looking the pointer moved
up to twenty and then down to six tenths.
"Must be out of order," Ford muttered. "Well, this'll give you
experience with emergency equipment. Break out the manual gravy dish,
It was a fine coil spring in a glass tube. Other glass tubes fastened
on, to make the length almost ten feet. At one g the spring with its
weight would stretch out to the bottom. From there to a ten thousandth
of a g the spring rose up to a point half-way.
Ren put it together speedily, placing it in the wall clamps designed to
hold it. The glass itself was graduated with the scale of gravity
strength. The cylindrical weight at the free end of the spring had a
line on it that would coincide with the proper reading.
In practice it vibrated up and down so that it had to be read by
estimation of the half-way point of the up and down motion.
Ren and Ford watched the red weight with its black line. It moved slowly
and uniformly from the bottom to the top of the scale, from a full g to
ten thousandth of a g, and back down again.
Meanwhile the gravity potentiometer (gravy board) was changing its
reading constantly and erratically.
Ford licked his lips nervously and said, "Don't know what the old man'll
say about this, but it looks like all we can say is that the thing has
"Why not call him and let him see for himself?" Ren asked.
Ford looked out the viewport at the round object in the distance and
shook his head.
"I've got a hunch he knows it already," he said slowly. "The ship is
probably on a nonsense track and the automatic tracker is either trying
to find out what the law of gravity is, or is exploring for clues to
light aberration. One gets you ten he'll give me a buzz in another
He was right. The phone rang almost at once. It was Hugh Dunnam himself,
asking for the gravy reading.
"You'll have to see it to believe it," Ford Gratrick said over the
phone. "The manual swing is uniform over the whole range. The gravy
board can't make up its mind where to settle at. It tries this and that
He listened briefly. "Yes, sir," he said, and hung up. "He wants you in
the pilot room, Ren," he added.
Ren started out of the central instrument room through the axis tube.
"Better be careful," Ford shouted after him. "No telling how this
gravitation will behave. Don't let it slam you against anything."
Ren heard his words. He had a sudden, crazy thought that it was his own
voice, and that he, as he sped along through the ship, was in reality
Ford Gratrick. The thought startled him. He promptly forgot it.
There was a frown of concentration on his face. He was trying to
visualize a gravity pull whose intensity was not a single-valued
pressure but a uniform continuum of pressure values from a minimum to a
It was like--well, like having an air pressure in a car tire that wasn't
thirty pounds or thirty-two pounds, but every value from zero to
It was like transforming the points and intervals on a line to a domain
where there had previously been only points!
* * * * *
Hugh Dunnam was waiting for him when he arrived in the pilot room. His
iron grey hair was mussed from exasperated hair-pulling. He jabbed a
finger in the direction of the automatic pilot without speaking.
Ren saw that it had been cut out. The first mate was controlling the
ship manually. The robot mechanism was still turning out its data
sheets, however. In five minutes Ren saw that the only consistent detail
was the distance of the ship from the planet.
Commander Dunnam watched him silently for several minutes. Finally Ren
laid down the data sheets and looked at him with a slow smile.
"Well?" Dunnam asked.
"It reminds me of a kid I knew quite well when I was in grade school,"
Ren said. "He was an incurable liar, so you could never take anything he
said, but always had to figure out the truth yourself and act on it
regardless of what he might claim to be the truth."
"You mean the instruments have all become liars?" Hugh Dunnam asked,
amazed at the idea.
"No," Ren replied. "I don't think that. I think nature is the liar, in a
way. I mean she is according to our standards. We'll have to outguess
her, that's all."
"Now you're cooking," Hugh exclaimed. "What would you suggest?"
"We know this planet has gravity," Ren replied. "There's no way of
knowing how much or how little. Suppose we kill our tangential speed and
just fall in? The gravity will take care of that, regardless of its
value or set of values."
"But we'll crash!" Hugh objected.
Ren took one of the report sheets and figured rapidly on its back.
"Unless I'm radically wrong," he said, "our speed of impact will be
every speed from zero to a thousand miles a minute. Not only that, no
matter how we try to land that will be the set of values for our speed.
Naturally the thousand miles a minute will smash us flat, but the zero
speed will let us down easy."
"And so?" Hugh asked suspiciously.
"No matter how we go in," Ren smiled, "we'll smash the ship and kill
everybody--and we'll land safely."
"Are you crazy?" Hugh snorted.
"I--I'm not quite sure," Ren said seriously. "I think that we've run
across a bit of matter that works from different basics than what we are
used to. You might call it a different metaphysics. That's what it
really amounts to."
A pain of remembrance appeared on his face.
"That's why I didn't get my degree," he said softly. "I insisted that it
might be possible there were no absolute rules underlying all reality,
but only relative rules that might be changeable. In other words, I
questioned the validity of asserting that natural law was universal.
They flunked me in stability."
"Yes, I know," Commander Dunnam said sympathetically. "One of the most
unjust rules of modern education in the opinion of many, but no way of
changing it unless the educators themselves did it. Since they all
passed O.K. in stability, they think everyone else should. Maybe they're
afraid they would be considered unstable if they wanted to make such a
* * * * *
Ren glanced toward the screen that showed the magnified image of the
interstellar wanderer, and back again to the commander.
"Of course," he said, "I'm trying to use ordinary basics transposed onto
the basics of this system, which is wrong. Or it may be right. It might
be better if we just turned around and went back. There's no way of
knowing ahead of time whether we'd be killed on landing or not."
"Look, Ren," the commander said seriously. "I like you. You--you're just
about like my son would have been today if he had lived. I'm just a
spaceman. I depend on instruments. They don't work here. All of us are
just as helpless as if we didn't know the first thing about our trade.
We can't go back without landing on this stray planet. If we tried to
tell them the reasons, I'd be retired and the whole crew would be stuck
on various routine tub runs. Suppose you unofficially take charge. If we
get killed--we all expect to end that way in our trade. If we don't,
we'll be able to take back something with us to prove what we've run
into. Maybe it will vindicate you and make you a reputation. You'll get
all the credit I can turn your way."
"Thank you, sir," Ren said, his voice choked with gratitude. In his
heart he knew that he would have sold his soul to the devil for this
coming experience that had been given him without his asking.
He had spent years preparing for this--years that his teachers had felt
were wasted. He had explored all the crazy systems of logic abandoned in
the march of progress. He had even devised systems of his own,
synthesized from undefined symbols according to strange patterns outside
the field of logic.
Yes. He felt that even if the basics of natural law in operation here
were purely nonsense laws, he would be able to penetrate to a rational
manipulation and control of things. Perhaps he might even set up the
pattern operating, and join it in some way with so-called normal
Commander Dunnam came to attention, a twinkle in his eyes.
"At your command, sir," he said, saluting.
"Not that," Ren objected. "Let me just play the part of a scientist
under your command, whose part it is to advise only."
"No," Hugh Dunnam said. "Until we leave this part of space you're in
sole command. Call it what you want--a hunch maybe; but I feel that
there is a purpose in things, and it wasn't chance that gave you the
type of mind you have and threw you under my command on this trip."
"Very well, sir," Ren said, returning the salute. He smiled. Behind his
smile his analytical mind was working rapidly.
"The commander's reactions are not normal," his thoughts said. "They
could not be dictated by anything in his past. Therefore they are
dictated by something outside him--something on that planet below!"
It was a wild conjecture. The more he thought of it the more certain Ren
became that there was some intelligence down there that had already
made contact with the minds in the ship.
Strangely, this didn't alarm him. He felt that "it" was friendly. He
felt that "it" had plumbed the minds of all on board and chosen him to
take over and lead the others.
Eagerly he "listened," but no faintest whisper or flavor of thought came
to support his feeling of an alien contact. In spite of this he went
ahead with his study of things with a confidence that "something" was
watching and would see them through all right.
* * * * *
His eyes turned again to the image of the cold planet below. That image
returned his stare blankly, its inscrutable surface devoid of any hint
"I'd suggest we keep circling the planet until I have a chance to form a
few definite conclusions," Ren said. "If that can't be done I'd suggest
we retreat far enough so we can."
"Yes sir," Commander Dunnam said quietly. He repeated the suggestion in
the form of an order to the first mate.
Ren studied the image of the planet. He left the pilot room and wandered
over the ship aimlessly. He talked to the members of the crew he ran
He slept at his usual time. He ate his meals as usual. He stopped
talking to the crew and just wandered about, occasionally going to the
pilot room and studying the strange sphere of matter.
After three days he ordered the ship dropped to an orbit about five
thousand miles from the surface. Almost as soon as the ship reached its
new orbit changes began to be noticed.
Ren had the commander issue an order that every crew member was to
report all unusual happenings within the ship. Twenty-four hours later
he issued an order that each crew member was to write out a brief report
of his movements during the past twenty-four hours as he remembered
Ren studied these reports. And gradually he was building up a picture
that was wilder than the wildest of fantastic imaginative creation.
He and Commander Dunnam had grown very close to each other. Finally Ren
broke his long silence and talked to him about what he was discovering.
They were in the dining room. Crew members were eating their "evening"
meal. They listened as Ren tried to explain.
"I think I've formed a few permanent conclusions about things here," Ren
began. "They aren't an EXPLANATION of things, but just a description of
the way things are behaving. I'll try to make it clear as I go along."
He chewed his food slowly while trying to think of a good way to begin.
"Take any number, for example," he said. "Take the number five. Back on
Earth you can count five apples and say there are five apples. You can
count out five eggs and place them in a box, and say there are the same
number of eggs as there are apples. There are five of each. Actually
that isn't true. There aren't five of either. There is no such thing as
the number five. The number is a mental thing, a concept. The apples
have a basic property which would more accurately be called a
'fiveness'. The eggs also have a basic property called a 'fiveness', and
the fiveness of the eggs and the fiveness of the apples are NOT the
same. They are peculiar to each group. The human race invented a concept
called the number five, and formulated a theory that all fivenesses
belong to a class, called the number five. In nature this theory acted
as though it were true. If you have five apples and five eggs you have
ten objects. A fiveness placed with another fiveness makes a tenness. So
arithmetic merely describes the behavior of a basic property of reality
in a consistent manner. Arithmetic is NOT a basic law. It's merely a
DESCRIPTION of a basic law.
"That basic doesn't seem to hold where we are now. But there are other
basic things that seem to be violated here, too, and will probably be
violated even more when and if we land on this planet.
"I've pretty well concluded that number doesn't exist here in the same
way it does ordinarily. Take the strength of gravity, for example.
Instead of being a single value it is equally a broad range of values,
and is all of them at the same time. How that can be I don't know.
* * * * *
"It's the same way with the number of objects. Instead of having five
fingers I have three, four, five, six and so on, fingers all at the same
time. But my mind can't see that. It can only grasp a single number. My
eyes look at my fingers and see the many simultaneous numbers of
fingers, but my mind can't grasp that, so it conjures up a single
number at random. It RATIONALIZES what it gets, and so we have a real
problem--the devising of some method of helping the mind deal with what
it can't grasp because it hasn't the equipment to grasp it as it really
"There are sixty of us on board--or rather, there WERE sixty. Now there
are three, four, and so on, to some number above sixty. The last report
handed in by the crew shows eighty-three men on board! I can't prove it,
because if I handed you the report sheets you would count more or less
than that number.
"So what we must realize is that now there isn't any NUMBER of crew
members, but a 'something else' that is different than a number,
corresponding to an INTERVAL of numbers. It is real. It's a metaphysical
basic for this part of space around this planet.
"It's subtle, too. For example, right now there may be more than one me
on this ship, depending on whether there are more than sixty people on
board or not. I don't quite understand about that yet. There are a lot
of things I don't understand about it. If there is more than one of any
person on board, is it a reality, or is it a trick of rationalization of
the mind to fit something utterly incomprehensible into at least a
semblance of something comprehensible? If it is the latter, then why do
the two who are supposedly the same person hand in DIFFERENT reports on
what the supposedly one person did, and why do the reports check with
"I have a theory which might account for part of all this. Our ship and
all in it belongs to the universe of the metaphysics we know of and use
as the thought process. It is hovering on the borders of a region
containing this planet we are to land on--a region operating on other
basics. In some way both sets of basics operate in either conflict or
compromise. Besides mental confusion there is actual physical confusion.
"But maybe it's better that way. If we make the transition in steps the
actual noumenal confusion may guide our minds correctly into a correct
understanding of the new basics of this system by the time we land."
Ford Gratrick had come into the dining room unnoticed at the beginning
of this. He spoke now.
"Then you claim that the laws of nature are different here than we are
accustomed to, and that our minds are not equipped to deal with them?"
Ren frowned. Not at the words but at something he had not mentioned,
about people and identities.
"They are different, yes," Ren returned. "But as to our minds dealing
with them--human minds have dealt with things without truly
comprehending them since the dawn of time."
"Things that were sane," Ford said.
"These are sane, too," Ren said, studying Ford keenly from hidden eyes.
"They're just sane in a different way."
"So is a crazy man," Ford almost sneered openly. "I think we've seen
enough to make it obvious we should get away from here while we can."
There was a murmur among the men at the tables that agreed with what
Ford had said.
"We may do that," Ren said, ignoring the signs of almost open defiance
patent in Ford's tone and manner, and in the men's muttered approval of
what he had said. "But we won't until we're sure it's suicide to go down
there and land. Don't you realize that we have something here which may
be unique in the universe? This space wanderer won't be close enough to
the solar system for exploration more than two or three years. Then it
will be gone. There may never be another opportunity to study something
"Which is a good thing," Ford snorted. "If you decide to drop the ship
any closer to this mad planet you're going to have trouble with the
"Meaning you've been talking to them?" Commander Hugh Dunnam asked
"Talking WITH them," Ford Gratrick said, matching Hugh's softness.
"Don't try to put me in the position of being a leader of any rebellion
that might develop. I'll confess quite frankly, though, that I want no
part of landing on this God-forsaken hunk of matter, and a good many of
the crew agree on that. It's suicidal. Frankly, sir, I think you must be
under some kind of spell to turn your command over to a spaceman second
class as you did."
* * * * *
Ren's scalp crawled. This had been exactly what he himself had felt! So
others besides him had "felt" that alien contact from below! On impulse
he made up his mind.
"Before anyone says something they might regret later," he cut in, "let
me say that I've made up my mind that it's too dangerous to land. The
effects we experience up here would probably be increased beyond
conception down there. Our thought processes are being affected in ways
we can't understand. It's possible that if we landed the ship would
behave so differently that it would be impossible to get away. So, give
me another two days of study in this orbit and then we'll go back to the
While Ren was talking he had a curious feeling, far back in the depths
of his mind. It was as though a section of the bank of a stream had
broken off and dropped into the stream.
Irrational. There had been so many such feelings that crept to the
borders of consciousness and faded away without meaning anything.
Time! Ren felt that time was all he needed to get to the bottom of it.
He compared himself to a newborn babe coming into the world. For the
first few months things come and go in meaningless fashion. Slowly the
mind makes order out of them. The oft-repeated patterns become clear
first, then more obscure ones. Finally the baby is able to understand
the apparently senseless sequence of events.
Ren felt that the results would be the same here if he were given half a
chance ... but Ford Gratrick was right, too. It concerned more than the
mind. It struck at the roots of reality that had been used in the
principle of the ship's operation--and there was no way of knowing the
ship would operate once it landed.
* * * * *
Ren Gravenard flicked the ashes from the end of his cigarette off the
edge of the table onto the floor. Martha's eyes took this in and slowly
lost their faraway look.
"I'm trying to make clear, Martha," Ren said gravely, "the emergence
into consciousness of the things going on around us. There was no way
yet for us to suspect their full activity--their inroads. Things were
going on that we simply could not see or sense in any way because we
didn't yet have the faculty of grasping them. They made their impression
and were lost in a hodge-podge of neural channels already deeply grooved
in the normal way, so that when they got close enough to the conscious
mind to be sensed, they were distorted beyond any semblance of the true
"I can see that," Martha said, her eyes brooding. "But DID you find a
living, intelligent creature or race on Metapor?"
Ren nodded. "I'm coming to that later," he said. "Be patient and let me
take things in order. That's the only way you can understand when I tell
His eyes studied the glowing coal at the end of the cigarette. He lifted
the white cylinder to his lips and sucked in. Dropping the cigarette on
the floor and stepping on it, he let the grey smoke seep from his mouth
Traffic sounds came through the window. A murmur of voices drifted over
the two as they sat there, quietly.
"I've tried to bring you up to the point where I began to suspect," Ren
continued. "I described the feeling I had that was something like
watching a large chunk of the bank of a stream break away, starting
first as a jagged crack in the turf, with it widening slowly at first,
then faster, until the broken chunk becomes a separate THING,
dissociated from the bank. It breaks away, drops into the stream--and
vanishes; while the bank itself remains, enclosing and containing the
"I didn't realize then what that feeling meant. I had felt it in varied
shades before. It rose almost into consciousness, then, like the broken
section of the bank itself, it would drop away and dissolve in the
swirling stream of mind.
"Sitting there at the table in the ship's dining room, suddenly I
suspected what that feeling really sprung from. I got my first inkling
of what intervalness instead of numberness really meant.
"For an insane period I was two people, both the same person and yet not
a person--and even not two, or even one, but a 'something' that
contained in the logical sense all of those, as a class contains the
members of the class.
"Remember that I said I was making a little speech, sitting there, that
assured Ford Gratrick and the members of the crew present in the room
that we weren't going to risk landing, but get away in a couple of days.
"At the same time, while I was talking, I was experiencing this strange
feeling. It was quite clear, for a few seconds. I was two Ren
Gravenards, saying two different things. The two of me were very close.
But while I talked they separated distinctly as the bank of the stream
and the chunk are suddenly not one, but two.
"It was not me alone. Every man in that room was doing the same. The
ship itself was doing it--and suddenly ..."
* * * * *
"Before anyone says something they might regret," Hugh Dunnam, the
commander, said in a quiet warning voice, "get this straight, all of
you. This is a government ship. I'm an officer of the Earth Space Fleet
and my command is law. I have a right temporarily to promote any member
of my crew to complete command of the ship with power equal to mine or
even greater than mine. If Ren Gravenard says we go down, we go down
even if it seems certain we'll all be killed. You have a choice of
certain but honorable death, and equally certain but dishonorable death.
Or you have a choice between an uncertain but honorable death if death
it is, and certain but dishonorable death as a coward and a traitor.
Let's not have any more thoughts of insubordination. You, Ford Gratrick,
under a stricter commander, would already be on the way to the brig."
Ford looked at Hugh Dunnam through slitted eyes, his face
expressionless. Suddenly he smiled.
"You forget, sir," he said smoothly. "Under a less human commander I
would have kept my thoughts to myself."
* * * * *
"I was sitting there, Martha," Ren said. "Trying to grab hold of the
strange 'split' in things. It's even more mixed up than I pictured it. I
had a feeling of BEING both Hugh Dunnam and myself, and also of being
myself on a 'something' drifting apart from all I could see. At the same
time there was a feeling of two separate things now existing on the
ship. Those two things might be called a composite of each of the two
forces that began their existence at that moment--the forces obedient to
the commander, and me; and the forces that were to side in with Ford
"In a way numberness in any group depends on the independent unity of
each member of the group. Put a thousand drops of water in a glass and
you don't have a thousand drops of water but a teaspoon or so of water.
It would be impossible to take a drop of water out and definitely say
that it was one of the drops you had put in. And if you changed all the
water back into drops you might have more or less than the thousand you
"But water is a fluid. A human being is not. In some inexplicable way,
however, I was becoming more and more like the drop of water after it is
dropped into a large volume of water. I was 'spreading', while all the
time seeming to be just my normal self.
"I think I was beginning dimly to see the new metaphysical basics that
were to make the whole thing sensible and manipulable. At least, I had
already realized that it was different than would be, for example, the
difference in operational principle of a gas engine and an electric
"If you've ever studied any abstract mathematical system you'll be able
to understand how the changing of one basic axiom can alter the whole
structure almost beyond recognition. Suppose that change in a basic
axiom were not a clean change, but that for a time both the axiom and
its alternative were to be used interchangeably and unpredictably. You
would have results that were double-valued. You would have contradictory
results following from whatever you began with until the old axiom got
weeded out entirely.
"Perhaps you can see that well enough to understand everything. I hope
so, Martha. If you can I can skip the landing. We DID land. We crashed,
and we landed safely. We also did something else. I think that when
they check the records they'll find that the Endore also came back to
Earth and reported that it hadn't actually landed on Metapor. It did all
those things--returned over a year ago, landed safely, and was crushed
in landing. If you could see HOW it could do all those things--it's like
the page in a book; you pass it if you look for it, and find it if you
don't look for it.
"It's happening here on Earth right now and will keep on happening until
the old basics that contradict the new ones are no longer operating. You
see, Martha, we knew that would happen. That's why we came back. The new
system is so much more perfect than the old. SHE taught it to us when we
landed. Ford Gratrick and his fellow objectors were killed in the ship
that crashed. They also were on the ship that came back to Earth.
They're alive and they're dead."
Martha's face was a mask of confusion. She was trying to understand and
not knowing how. Ren saw this and tried again.
"Suppose we try from this angle," he said patiently. "If a car is going
ten miles an hour it will be ten miles farther on at the end of an hour.
If it goes twenty miles an hour it will be twenty miles farther on. But
suppose it goes both ten miles an hour and twenty miles an hour. At the
end of an hour it will be ten miles and twenty miles along, and
according to what the Earth is used to it would have to become two cars
to do that.
"If it went every speed from zero to twenty miles an hour it would have
to become an infinite number of cars, and occupy every position from the
starting point to a twenty-mile distance at the end of an hour. That
would be the conventional conclusion to the abstract problems. With the
new basics it does just that--except that it is still just one car, and
yet never was just one car and never will be. It CAN'T be, because there
is no such thing, in the new system, as a one thing.
"I myself am not Ren Gravenard, only Ren Gravenard, or anything else
that your old ideas can conceive of. You'll see, Martha. The whole world
will see soon, just as I did after we had been on Metapor a short while
and had gotten the contradictions out of my mind and my structure."
"Then what are you?" Martha asked tensely.
"I'm the crew of the Endore," Ren said softly. "I'm Ren Gravenard here
and now because that is the only thing you can accept at present.
I'm--Her, the incomprehensible."
A question rose in Martha's mind. She drew back from the question as
from the brink of the Abyss, yet felt drawn magnetically toward it. Ren
watched and knew what that question would be. She opened her lips.
"Who--am I?" she asked.
"Look at your hands," Ren said.
Martha looked down at her hands resting on the edge of the table. They
were large, gnarled, strong--the hands of a man. She flexed them. They
were smooth and skillful.
Wonderingly she raised her eyes to look at her companion across the
table. Her companion was--herself and she was Ren Gravenard. Anything
else would have been--unthinkable.
Next: A World Called Crimson
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