In late 1986, while on a glorious spending spree, I bought a brand new book entitled, 101 Science Fiction Stories. The following story, by Ray Russell, is one of my favorites from the book. It’s one of those stories I wish I had written!
An invisible starship stood at rest near a canal. If the eye could have seen it, the sight would have been one of immense beauty, for it was a thing of harmonious circles: an outer rim, hollow and transparent, in which the crew of four lived and worked and looked out upon space and suns and exotic worlds; contained in this circle, another, the core of powerful engines whose surging, flaming energy propelled the ship across galactic distances. And all of this unseen.
Inside, the captain spoke briefly to his specialist, first class. “Your report is finished, then? We can embark?”
“That was fast work.”
“These rudimentary cultures are all very much alike. The report is simple–planet’s inhabitants too primitive to comprehend our presence here; therefore suggest a return in a few millenia when the species may be more advanced and we can set up cultural and scientific exchange, trade, and so on.”
The first mate drew near them. “Do you really think they’re too primitive? They already have language, laws, religion. . . . ”
“But no technology,” said the specialist.
“They couldn’t possibly understand that we come from another planet; the very concept ‘planet’ is beyond them. . . . No, no, to try to establish contact now would be traumatic for them. If we revealed ourselves–flicked off the invisibility shield–there would be . . . ramifications . . . repercussions . . .”
“Ripples?” said the captain.
“Ripples,” replied the specialist with a nod. “An apt word. Like a pebble dropped in a pond, spawning ever larger and larger and more grandiose images of its own smallness, so even an instantaneous glimpse of us and our ship could, with time and retellings, become magnified and elaborated and distorted–into something far beyond anything we could dream.”
“Then, let us head for home and a well-earned leave,” said the captain.
The first mate added, “And a well-shaped young lady I hope has been pining away in solitude!”
“Ah, youth–” began the captain, but broke off as his navigator approached with a worried air. “Trouble?” the captain asked.
“Yes, sir, I’m afraid so,” said the navigator.
“A little. The main engine is inoperable–just as I feared.”
The first mate said, “That rough landing damaged more than our pride.”
“What about the auxiliary?” asked the captain.
“It will get us home, just barely, but it won’t hold up under the strain of lift-off–”
“–unless we conserve all other energy. That means switching off lights, chart banks, communications, sensors, air, invisibility shield, everything–but only for those few vital seconds of lift-off, of course.”
“Then, do it.”
The specialist, alarmed, said, “Captain! Not the invisibility shield! We must not turn that off!”
“You heard the navigator. It’s our only chance–and it will just be for a few seconds.” He nodded to the navigator, saying, “Lift off.” Then he looked out through the transparent hull at the world they would soon depart. “Primitive, you say. Well, you’re the expert. But it’s too bad we can’t contact them now. It might have been interesting. They’re so much like us, they’re almost human.”
“Well, hardly that,” said the specialist as the starship moved.” They’re monofaced, and their feet are different, and they completely lack wings. But I know what you mean. . . .”
Outside, a bearded denizen of the primitive planet blinked, stared, pointed.
“Behold!” he cried to his companion. “A whirlwind! A great cloud! A fire! Men with wings and many faces! A wheel . . . in the middle of a wheel!”
“Where? What?” said his companion, turning a second too late. “I saw nothing, Ezekiel.”
But, roiled by that whirlwind, the waters of the Chebar canal were a dancing spiderwork of ripples.