Sometime around February 1952, having sent a finished draft of the novel eventually published as The Space Merchants off to Horace Gold at Galaxy magazine, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth got the news that there was “a kind of hitch” in their plans for the book: it wasn’t long enough. Gold needed several thousand additional words to fill up the space he had allotted for the novel, which he was publishing in Galaxy as Gravy Planet.
It’s not clear whether it was Pohl or Kornbluth or both who wrote these additional chapters, and they’re not part of the final version of the novel published a little over a year later. For those who enjoyed the book version, however, here’s a way to find out what happened next.
The Space Merchants: An Alternate EndingChapter XX
So we landed. After the wild excitement wore off, I felt like sitting and writing a postcard to the little man back in Washington:
“Dear Mr. President, now I know what you mean. On special occasions they sometimes let me in, too. Sincerely, Mitchell (Superfluous) Courtenay.”
We torpedoed the billowy cloud layer, roared incandescently down in the tangential orbiting approach, minced the final few hundred meters to the landing—and I was a bum.
They were nice enough about it. They said things like: “No, thanks, I can handle it myself,” and, “Would you mind stepping back, Mr. Courtenay?” when what they should have said was: “Get the hell out of the way.” And I wondered how long it would take before they began to put it that way.
You know what it’s like being a lost soul?
It’s wandering through a spaceship with busy people rushing here and there carrying incomprehensible things. It’s people talking urgently and efficiently to each other and you understand maybe one word in three. It’s offering a suggestion or trying to help and getting a blank stare and polite refusal.
It’s Kathy: “Not right now, Mitch darling. Why don’t you––” And her voice trailed off. The only appropriate, constructive, positive thing I could do was drop dead. But nobody said so. They would carry me on the books, a hero whose brief hour of service rendered, when balanced against the long years that followed, might or might not show a tiny net profit. You never could tell with ex-heroes, but you can’t just gas them...
They were nice about letting me come along when fourteen of the really important people donned spacesuits and set foot on Venus. (Note for historians: it was completely unceremonious. We just went out the lock into the lee of the ship, anchored by cables. Nobody noticed who of the fifteen was first to step out––and be yanked by the burning wind as far as the cable slack would let him, or her.)
I reached for my wife and the wind sent her bobbing on the end of her cable out of my grasp. Nor did she notice me, a hulking and brutish figure in an oversized suit, trying to claw my way to her along the grab-irons welded to the hull. She had eyes only for the planet I had given her, the orange-lit, sandstorming inferno.
When they reeled us in and we took off our armor, I felt as though I had been flailed with anchor chains from Easter to Christmas. Aching, I turned to Kathy.
She was briskly rubbing her surgeon’s fingers and conferring with somebody named Bartlow in words that sounded like these: “––then we’ll clam the ortnick for seven frames and woutch green until sembril gills?”
“Yes,” Barlow said, nodding.
“Splendid. When the grimps quorn with the fibers, Bronson can fline dimethyloxypropyloluene with the waterspouts––”
I hung around and Kathy finally noticed me with a “Hello, dear” and plunged back into the important stuff. After a while I wandered off. I got in the way of the crews dismantling the ship’s internal bulkheads. Then I got in the way of the commissary women, then in the way of the engineers who were already modifying our drive reactor to an AC electric pile. When I got in the way of the medics who were patching up passengers banged around in the landing, I took a sleepy-pill. My dreams were not pleasant.
Kathy was crouched over the desk when I woke up, pawing through stacks of green, pink and magenta-covered folders. I yawned. “You been up all night?”
She said absently, “Yes.”
“Anything I can do to help?”
I rescued one of the folders from the floor. Medical Supplies Flow Chart, 3d to 5th Colony Year, No Local Provisioning Assumed was the heading. The one under it covered: Permissible Reproductive Rate, 10th Colony Year.
“That’s real planning,” I said. “Got one covering forecasted life-expectancy of third-generation colonists born of blue-eyed mothers and left-handed fathers?”
“Please, Mitch,” she said impatiently. “I’ve got to find the planning schedules for the first two months. Naturally we planned far ahead.”
I dressed and wandered out to the chowline. The man ahead of me, still wearing soft padded undershoes that went with donning a heat suit, was telling his friends about Venus. Not more than a tenth of the colonists had seen their new planet close up as yet; he had a large and fascinated audience.
“So we located the spot for the drilling unit,” he said. “We moored it to a rock taller than me. We started bracing the unit. What happens? Plop. The damn rock explodes. The wind catches the drill and you should’ve seen that thing take off. Lucky we hadn’t cast off the cables to the ship yet, it’d still been going. As it is, back to the shop. A whole day’s work shot.”
I listened through the story and the questions.
When he was hurrying off to another incomprehensible job, I said to him: “Wait a minute. I want to talk to you.”
“Sure, Mr. Courtenay. What can I do for you?”
“Most of this stuff I don’t get, but I understand a rock drill. You’re a foreman. Can you put me on your crew?”
“You sure you understand a rock drill, Mr. Courtenay? It ain’t easy to change a carbide tip out there in the wind. You got to unscrew the camber-flamber and wuldge it to the imbrie before the wind gets it, and that takes––”
There we were again. But this time I said: “I can handle it.”
“That’s great, Mr. Courtenay. I can use another man. Weiss, I guess you don’t know him, he got smacked by a piece of flying something or other, so I’m one short.” He measured me with his eye. “You can use his suit. It wasn’t hurt a bit.”
An ugly little chill went through me. “What about Weiss?”
“The work-suits are too rigid. Something hits you hard, it goes clang hard enough to burst your eardrums, drive your eyes into your head and rupture membranes all through your body. But the suit lives through it. Well, we go out with a replacement drill at 1730, Port Fourteen aft. I’ll see you there, Mr. Courtenay.”
I was there and proud of it. The drilling crew was big and tough––shock troops. They knew my name and face, of course, and were reserved. As we got into the armored work-suits, one of them asked apologetically: “Sure you can handle this, Mr. Courtenay? It’s rough out there––”
I felt my blood pounding with anger I shouldn’t put into words. He was only trying to be helpful. There was no use yelling at him that I was a man and could swing my weight with men, that I wasn’t just a copysmith and as obsolete as the dinosaur. I nodded and we stepped out.
Whoosh! The wind hurled us five yards.
Crack! The cables held.
Three seconds outside and I was fighting for breath.
“Goddam it!” I gasped, hating my weakness.
I had forgotten that work-suits were wired for sound. The foreman’s voice said inside my helmet: “Mr. Courtenay, please keep the circuit clear for orders. Guire! Slack off! More––hold it! Winters, haul your cable––hold it. Mr. Courtenay, work your way over to Winters and lay hold.”
Clawing along the storm-swept rocks, I reached Winters and grabbed the cable. I wondered dimly if the suit’s oxygen supply was functioning, if the dryer was working. It didn’t feel as if they were. I could hardly breathe and I was soaked with sweat.
I made a feeble pretense of helping Winters, who had the build of a granite crag, jockey the drill.
It was like flying a kite––if it took five men to fly a kite, and if the kite had to be kept at ground level, and if the kite perpetually threatened to fly you instead of vice versa.
After two minutes outside, my leg and arm muscles were quivering uncontrollably from the mere effort of standing up and keeping balanced. It was the tremor of flexor pulling against extensor, the final fatigue that comes just before you let go, forgetting everything except that you can’t keep it up any longer, that you’ll die if you keep it up for another split-second.
But I hung on for one minute more, streaming sweat, sobbing air into my lungs and maybe––maybe––helping a little with a few extra foot pounds of heave-ho on the cable when it was ordered.
And then I let go, a little less than half-conscious, and the wind got me. My cable streamed and I dangled at the end of it, unable to do anything but listen to the voices in my helmet.
“Mr. Courtenay, can you make it back to the ship?”
“He don’t answer. He must have blacked out.”
“Stinking luck! Almost get the drill positioned and then––damn the stinking luck! Winters, work your way to him and see if he’s all right.”
“Hell, what can I see? Phone them to reel him in is all we can do.”
“Winchman! Reel in Number Five. He’s blacked out.”
The cable thrummed and I began to scrape along the ground to the port.
And still they talked. “We can do it with four if it kills us, men. You all game?”
I heard the ragged chorus of yesses as I scraped helplessly over the rocks, like a fish on a hook.
“Shouldn’t have let him come out at all,” one of the crew said.
Shame was crowded out by terror. My suit clanged against something and motion stopped. A rock, I saw dazedly. A big rock. The six ring-bolts to which my cable was lashed began to creak and strain.
The fools at the winch, I realized with clear, pure horror, had not noticed I was snagged.
“Stop!” I screamed into the helmet. But I did not have a phone line through my cable to the ship.
The foreman understood instantly. “Winchman! Ease off! He’s snagged!” The ring-bolts ceased to strain. “Mr. Courtenay, can you clear yourself or—or should we come to help you?” He was only human. There was bitterness in his voice.
I said rustily: “I can clear myself. Thanks.”
But I didn’t have to. The big, solid rock I had snagged on began to disappear. I don’t mean it vanished, either with or without a thunderclap. Nor did it grow transparent and finally become invisible. But it began to melt from the top, like a ball of string unraveling or like an apple being peeled for a banquet before it’s divided into servings––and yet it was something like gradually turning into powder and blowing away. Naturally, it isn’t easy to describe.
It was the first Venusian anybody had ever seen.Chapter XXI
They got me into the ship and patched me up. Kathy didn’t tend me in the hospital––she was a surgeon and administrator, and all I had was R.N. stuff like bruises and scrapes, but plenty of them.
In three days I was discharged with the entire hospital staff suspecting I was psychotic. I could go them one better. I knew I was.
Item: I would wash and wash, but I never felt clean.
Item: Suicidal tendencies. I wanted to go into the nuclear reactor room so bad I could taste it––and the reactor room was sudden death.
Item: Claustrophobia. The giant ship wasn’t big enough for me. I wanted to go outside into the flailing inferno.
The first night out of the hospital, I sat up in bed waiting and waiting for Kathy to come back from a staff meeting. I was dog-tired, but I didn’t dare sleep. I had once found myself halfway to the reactor room before I stubbed my toe and woke up.
She came in blinking and red-eyed at 0245. “Still awake?” she yawned at me, plumping onto her hammock.
“Kathy,” I said hoarsely. “I’m cracking up.”
She looked at me without much interest. “Did I ever tell you I read a paper on malingering to the New York Academy of Medicine?”
I got up mechanically and started for the reactor room, grabbed hold of myself, turned around and sat down. I told her where I had been going.
She turned nasty. “Not you. I know you better than most doctors get to know their patients. I also know the exact science of psychiatry and I know that a person with your mental configuration could not possibly have the symptoms you describe. No more than two plus two can equal five. I presume you feel rejected––which, God knows, you have every right to––and are consciously trying to hoodwink me into thinking you’re an interesting case that needs my personal attention.”
“Bitch,” I said.
She was too tired to be angry. “If I thought there were the smallest possible chance that your alleged symptoms are real and do spring from your unconscious, I’d treat you. But there isn’t any such chance. I have to conclude that you’re consciously trying to divert my energy from the job I have to do. And under the circumstances that is a despicable thing.”
“Bitch,” I said again, and got up and went out to go to the reactor room.
My feet moved as though they didn’t belong to me, and I still felt the dirt on me that no soap and water or alcohol had been able to remove.
She had meant every word of it. She knew her trade. And it was an exact science. She thoroughly believed that I couldn’t have the symptoms I had. If she’d said it about somebody else, I would have taken her word for it unquestioningly. Only I had the symptoms––
Or were they symptoms?
I stopped in the corridor, though my legs wanted to go on carrying me into the reactor room.
AGRONOMY SECTION, a sign over a door said. I went in. There was no microscope. I looked through three more rooms before I found one––and a knife that would do as a scalpel.
I meant only to flick a pinpoint specimen off the base of my thumb, but in my dull intoxication I gashed a minor blood vessel. I found some reasonably sterile-looking gauze and wound it around my hand.
I dropped the ragged little crumb of meat into the oil-lens objective, tapped it to shake free the bubbles, levered it into a turret chosen at random. There was some difficulty in getting the light source to function––I couldn’t make out what I was supposed to do with the knob marked “polarizer”––but finally the stage appeared through the eyepiece, bathed in a greenish glow.
Clustered around the fabric of the epidermis that loomed in the eyepiece like a decayed glacier were massive chunks of rock, the random dust particles of any atmosphere, the faint accretion that no washing will completely remove from the human skin. They were featureless, irregular blobs, most of them.
But not all.
Among the dust fragments were a dozen or so living things, sea-urchin-shaped. Under the flaring light of the microscope, they seemed spurred to action. The spines of one touched the spines of another; they flexed and locked. A third blundered into the linked pair, and they became a Laocoön trio.
They were no protozoans or bacilli of Earth. They glowed; they were utterly alien. And as I watched, the trio became six, then ten globes locked together. And at once the character of the action changed: The clustered spheroids seemed to beat their flagella in unison, driving the mass, like eggs trailing from a spawning trout, about the field of vision. Purposefully, the massed ten ran down the other globes and absorbed them, till all were joined.
That was the second time anyone had seen a Venusian.
This time, though, it was with awareness.
I didn’t want to go into the reactor room. I didn’t want to go outside. The Venusian did and somehow we had become . . . tangled.
Kathy, with the reflexes of a doctor, woke easily when I shook her shoulder. She stared fixedly at me.
“Come along,” I said. “I want to show you something under a microscope. And I can’t begin to tell you what it is because you won’t believe me until you see it.”
“You, with a microscope,” she said scornfully.
But she came.
She looked, blinked, looked again. At last, not moving from the eyepiece, she said softly: “Good God! What in the world are they?”
“Now you prepare a slide from my skin,” I told her.
She did, in seconds, and stared at it through the microscope. I knew the––cells?––were going through their outlandish linkup behavior.
“I’m sorry, Mitch,” she said doubtfully. “Some sort of pathogenic organism, causing a paranoid configuration––” She swallowed. “I didn’t mean to be unfair.”
“It’s all right.” Forgiven, she was in my arms. “But they’re––it’s not a pathogenic organism. It’s a Venusian.” I told her about the rock that vanished. “Some of it got carried in with me on the suit, I suppose, and got on me, or into me––I don’t know. But I feel intelligence. I can sort of isolate it, now that I can tell which is it and which is me. I can think of the reactor room in two ways. When it’s me thinking, I know it’s deadly. When it’s it thinking, there’s—hunger? Yes, I think hunger.”
“It lives on plutonium? No, there isn’t any on Venus. It has to be manufactured.”
I was exploring, thinking of the reactor room, what was in it, what it looked like, what happened there, and noting my––no, its––no, call them the reactions that followed.
“Energy,” I said softly. “Not material. It wants to be irradiated.”
And I thought of the outside. The wind meant nothing to it, the heat meant mild comfort, like air to me or water to a minnow.
But lightning, free electrons and cosmic rays––ah, that was really living!
“Energy,” I whispered.
And I thought of the rocks of Venus, the rocks that sometimes exploded and sometimes unwound like balls of string.
“Love,” I said almost inaudibly. “Community. The whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Without hate, without fear––”
Kathy told me later that I pitched forward onto my face in an old-fashioned faint.XXII
Well, the grass is still not green. But Kathy and I walked the hundred yards from the ship’s skeleton to our hut this morning with only oxygen masks on. The wind was no more than gale force, and it keeps dropping in velocity every week.
Once we found that the Venusians, those incongruous flurries of silicate life, were capable of something resembling thought, we learned what they needed and what they could do.
They needed energy. We gave them energy, from the hot-gas ends of our giant Hilsch Tubes. Maxwell’s mythical demon picked the hottest molecules from Venus’s air and flung them at the Venusians, who rejoicingly sucked them dry of high-level heat and used the energy so they could reproduce even more prolifically to absorb still more energy.
The water roared down from the upper atmosphere like an ocean falling out of the sky. Now we have seas, and the poisoned atmosphere is being locked in chemical bonds with the soil and the rocks.
We’ve saved a decade at least, the planners say. And the Venusians are doing it for us. They’re feasting themselves into famine on the energy we ripped out of the air for them. They’ll never vanish completely of course: as the amount of available energy grows less and less, they’ll reduce their numbers and we’ll have more and more of the planet for our use, but we’ll keep some of them alive out of sheer gratitude.
We cannibalized the ship for our huts and shops, leaving only the giant structural members that we’ll be able to work with later––melt them down, I suppose, or cut them up into useful shapes. It’s a tidy little community, each couple with a plot of ground and furniture that doesn’t have to be rolled or folded out of the way. We’re scouting the terrain for sources of metals and minerals, which won’t be senselessly scooped out of the ground, manufactured, used and thrown away: they’ll be restored to the soil or scrupulously collected and reworked. We can’t grow anything yet, but already we have plans for the protection of the rich loam we’ll create.
It’s a Conservationist world, all right, and it makes sense . . . you take what you need from the planet and put back when you’re through. On Earth, that’s the worst kind of radicalism, of course. Being a copysmith, trained in semantics, I keep wondering how I could get my concepts so tangled that I mistook the epitome of conservatism for wild-eyed sabotage, when I know now that any kind of purposeless destruction is almost physical anguish for a Conservationist.
You don’t have to be a prophet to see how Venus is developing into a self-sustaining economy. Kathy figured it out: By the time our first-born is of age, Fowler Shocken’s commercials will have come true.