Title: From An Unseen Censor
Author: Rosel George Brown
Summary: You can’t beat my Uncle Isadore—he’s dead but he’s quick—yet that is just what he was daring me to try and do!
Word count: 8357
Public Domain Mark (PDM)
Image: Galaxy Magazine September 1958.
Uncle Isadore’s ship wasn’t in bad shape, at first glance. But a second look showed the combustion chamber was crumpled to pieces and the jets were fused into the rocks, making a smooth depression.
The ship had tilted into a horizontal position, nestling in the hollow its last blasts had made. Dust had sifted in around it, piling over the almost invisible seam of the port and filming the whole ship.
We circled around the ship. It was all closed and sealed, blind as a bullet.
“Okay,” Rene said. “He’s dead. My regrets.” He coughed the word out as though it were something he had swallowed by accident.
“But how do you know?” I asked. “He might be in there.”
“That port hasn’t been opened for months. Maybe years. I told you the converter wouldn’t last more than a month in dock. He couldn’t live locked up in there without air and water. Let’s go.” My guide had no further interest in the ship. He hadn’t even looked to see what the planet was like.
I stood shivering in my warm clothes. The ship seemed to radiate a chill. I looked around at the lumpy, unimaginative landscape of Alvarla. There was nothing in sight but a scraggly, dun heather sprouting here and there in the rocks and dust, and making hirsute patches on the low hills.
I had some wild idea, I think, that Uncle Izzy might come sauntering nonchalantly over the hills, one hand in the pocket of a grilch-down jacket and the other holding a Martian cigarene. And he would have on his face that look which makes everything he says seem cynical and slightly clever even if it isn’t.
“The scenery is dull,” he might say, “but it makes a nice back-drop for you.” Something like that, leaving the impression he’d illuminated a side of your character for you to figure out later on.
Nothing of the kind happened, of course. I just got colder standing there.
“All right,” Rene said. “We’ve had a moment of silence. Now let’s go.”
“I—there’s something wrong,” I told him. “Let’s go in and see the—the body.”
“We can’t go in. That ship’s sealed from the inside. You think they make those things so any painted alien can open the door and shoot in poisoned arrows? Believe me, he has to be inside if those outside ports are sealed. And he has to be dead because that port hasn’t been opened in months. Look at the dust! It’s a fourth of the way up the port.”
Rene lumbered over to it and blew away some of the lighter dust higher up.
“See that?” he asked.
He groaned. “Well, you’ll have to take my word for it. It’s a raindrop. Almost four months old. A very light rain. You could see the faint, crusted outline of the drop if you knew how to look.”
“I believe you,” I said. “I hired you because you know which side of the trees the moss grows on and things like that. Still….”
Rene was beginning to stomp around impatiently. “Still what?”
“It just isn’t like Uncle Isadore.” I was trying to search out, myself, what it was that struck me as incongruous. “It’s out of character.”
“It’s out of character for anybody to die,” Rene said. “But I’ve seen a lot of them dead.”
“I mean at least he would have died outside.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake! Why outside? You think he took rat poison?”
I went around to the other side of the spaceship, mostly to get away from Rene for a moment. I’m only a studs and neck clasp man and Rene had twenty years’ experience on alien planets. So he was right, of course, about the evidence. There was no getting around it. Still….
I circled back around to where Rene was smoking his first cigarette since we left Earth. His face was a mask of sunbaked wrinkles pointing down to the cigarette smack in the middle of his mouth.
“Uncle Izzy wouldn’t die like an ordinary mortal,” I said. “He’d have a brass band. Or we’d find his body lying in a bed of roses with a big lily in his hand. Or he might even disappear into thin air. But not this.” I waved a hand toward the dead ship.
“Look,” Rene said. “My job was to find your Uncle Isadore. I’ve found him. We can’t get inside that ship with anything short of a matter reducer, which I don’thappen to have along since they weigh several tons. You’ll have to take my word for it that his body’s in there. Now let’s go home.” He managed to talk without moving the cigarette at all.
“You said a week,” I reminded Rene.
“I said if I didn’t find him in a week, then he wasn’t there. I’ve found him. I’m sorry if he was your favorite uncle or something.”
“As a matter of fact, I never liked him. He was—frivolous. He never had a job. He thought life was a big game.”
“Then how come he got so rich?”
“He always won.”
“Not this time, brother! But if he’s not your favorite uncle, why all this concern? You can take my word for it he’s dead and you’ve done your duty.”
“There are two things that bother me. One is curiosity. I just don’t believe Uncle Izzy died in an ordinary fashion locked up in a spaceship. You don’t know him, so you wouldn’t understand. The other thing I’m concerned about is—well, his will.”
Rene barked a couple of times. I had learned this indicated laughter. “I figured what you were really after was his money.”
Under my yellow overskin, I could feel myself coloring. That wasn’t at all the point. I’d mortgaged Mother’s bonds to finance this trip, confident that Uncle Izzy would make it good when we found him. If I couldn’t get Mother’s bonds out of hock, she’d have to live out her life in a Comfort Park. I shuddered at the thought. Uncle Isadore must have known that when he radared for help. He must have provided some way….
“You said a week and we’re staying a week,” I told Rene as authoritatively as I could manage. “You haven’t actually showed me Uncle Izzy’s—er—corpus delicti, so I have you on a legal technicality.” I didn’t know whether or not this was true, but it sounded good.
“All right, we’ll stay.” Rene spat the sentence out onto the ground. “But if you think I’m going to do any more looking, take another guess.”
He tramped back into his own ship, leaving the outside port and the pressure chamber open.
If only Uncle Izzy had done that!
I went over his ship inch by inch, feeling with my hands, to be sure there was no extra door that might be opened. Rene would have laughed, but I was beginning to build up antibodies against Rene’s laughter.
I got the bottom part of the ship dusted off and found nothing.
I pushed open the door of Rene’s ship and asked him for a ladder.
“You’ll have to pay for it,” he warned. “Once it’s open, I can’t carry it in my ship and I’ll have to get another.”
“Okay, okay! I’ll pay for it.”
He handed me a synthetic affair that looked like a meshed rope, wound tight, about the size of a Venusian cigar.
“This is a ladder?” I asked incredulously, but he had shut the door in my face.
I slipped the cellophane off and unrolled it. It seemed to unroll endlessly. When it was ten feet long and four feet wide, I stopped unrolling. Sure enough, it hardened into a ladder in about ten minutes. It was so strong I couldn’t begin to bend it over my knee.
I set it against the side of the ship and began to investigate the view ports. The first two were sealed tight as a drum.
The third slipped off in my hands and clattered over the side of the ship onto the rocks.
I was almost afraid to look through the “glass” beneath. I needn’t have been. I could see absolutely nothing. It was space-black inside.
I went back to Rene’s ship for a flashlight. He was unimpressed by my discovery.
“Even if you could break the glass, which you can’t,” he said, “you still couldn’t get through that little porthole. Here’s the flash. You won’t be able to see anything.”
He came with me this time. Not because he was interested, but because he wanted another cigarette and never smoked in the ship.
He was right. I couldn’t see a darned thing in the ship with the flashlight. But I found something—a little lead object that looked like a coin. It had rolled into a corner of the port.
Now I don’t like adventure. I don’t like strange planets. All I’ve ever asked of life was my little four-by-six cubby in the Brooklyn Bloc and my job. A job I know inside out. It’s a comfortable, happy, harmless way to live and I test 10:9 on job adjustment.
All the same, it was a thrill to discover a clue that Rene would have thrown away if he’d been the one looking.
I tossed it casually in the air and showed it to Rene.
“Know what that is?” I asked.
“Slug for a halfdec slot machine?”
“Nope. Know what I can do with it?”
He didn’t say.
“I’m going to open Uncle Izzy’s ship from the inside.”
Rene lighted a fresh cigarette from the old one and let the smoke out of his nose. It gave rather the impression of a bull resting between picadors.
“Can you show me, on the outside, approximately where the button is that you push on the inside to unseal the ship?” I inquired casually.
“I can show you exactly.”
He pointed to a spot next to the entrance port. I wet my finger and made a mark in the dust so I could get it just right. Then I found a sharp stone and cut around the edges of the lead. As I slipped off the back half of the coinlike affair, I clapped it over the finger mark.
The entrance port swung open.
If I’d had a feather, I would have taken great pleasure in knocking Rene over with it.
“It’d be worth a million dollars,” he breathed, “to know how you did that.”
“Oh, a lot less than that,” I said airily.
“Uncle Isadore had it set up,” I told him, using the same patiently impatient tone he used on me. “He knew I’d recognize that lead coin. There was a cuff link in it.”
“A cuff link!”
“A studs and neck clasp man has to know about cuff links, too. This happens to be an expensive cuff link, but worth only about a year’s salary, not a million dollars. They’re held together by a jazzed-up electromagnetic force rather than by a clasp. This force is so strong it would take a derrick to pull them apart. The idea is to keep you from losing one. If you drop it to the floor, you just wave the mate around a little and it pops up through the air.”
“How do you get them apart?”
“Just slip them sideways, like a magnet. You can sheathe them in lead, like the one I found, to cut down the attraction. This is how they’re packaged. You don’t know about them because they’re not advertised—that keeps them a luxury item, you know.”
“So your Uncle Isadore pasted one of them on the port button.”
“He didn’t have to paste. All he had to do was stick it on. All I had to do was line up the mate to it and the attractive force pushed the button.”
“That’s very neat,” Rene said. “But why the hell didn’t he just leave the port open? He’d hardly do this sort of thing with his dying gasp.”
“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “As a matter of fact, I wonder why he radared me if he really wanted to be rescued. He had plenty of friends who could rescue him more reliably.”
I had an inkling of what had been on Uncle Isadore’s mind. Although Uncle Izzy had had three—or was it four?—wives, he’d very carefully had no children. And it had occurred to him at an advanced age to take an interest in me.
He’d sent me through two years of general studies and reluctantly let me specialize in studs and neck clasps.
“You were a grilch hop expert in Middle School,” he had told me. “How come you’re getting so stuffy?”
“Because I can’t be an adolescent all my life, Uncle Isadore,” I had replied stiffly. “I would like to get into some solid line of work and be a good citizen.”
“Phooey!” he’d said. But he had let me do what I’d wanted. It was because of this that I had felt duty bound to answer his call for help.
I’d not felt duty bound to take all the opportunities he’d tried to force on me when I got out of school. Mining the semi-solid seas of Alphard kappa. Fur trading on Procyon beta. And a hundred others, all obviously doomed to failure unless there was one lucky chance.
“But I’m happy here with my little room and my little job,” I kept telling Uncle Isadore.
“You only think you’re happy because you don’t know any better,” he kept telling me.
Only, now that he was dead, he seemed to have me where he wanted me. Now that nothing could matter to him any longer.
“Maybe he was getting senile,” Rene suggested.
“Uncle Izzy always said he’d rather die than—he did die,” I replied, suddenly recalling myself to the present and the open outside port of the ship. I realized how reluctant I was to go in. It was one thing to admit Uncle Izzy was dead—I cherished no great affection for him—but it was something else to have to face his dead body.
“Would you mind going in first?” I asked Rene.
He shrugged and shouldered the inside door open.
He came out, his face a study in perplexity. “Not here!” he said. “This is the first time I’ve been wrong in fifteen years!”
“That’s because it’s the first time you’ve been up against Uncle Izzy. He must have closed the port behind him the same way I opened it.”
I climbed through the door, feeling immensely relieved. I realized then what had really been worrying me. If the gods had abandoned Isadore at the last, what did they have in mind for the rest of us mere mortals?
I kicked at my mind irritably, knowing these were young thoughts. But then I am young, I explained to myself.
The inside of the ship was neat and empty. Stuck on the instrument panel with a vaccup was a note, in Uncle Izzy’s flowery script.
My boy. I have died of boredom. Do not look for the remains. I have hidden my body to avoid the banality of a decent burial. I bequeath you my entire fortune. Find it.
Rene groaned. “I suppose now you want to look for the body.”
“No. If he says it’s hidden, it’s hidden. But it would be a little silly to go off without finding his fortune, wouldn’t it?”
“Looking for buried treasure wasn’t in the contract,” Rene pointed out. “You’ll have to make it worth my while.”
“Another five thousand,” I said.
“Make it ten. Payable if I find it.”
“Suppose I find it?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’d be a fool to take two steps on this planet without me.”
He was right, of course. And if we left, I wouldn’t get anything. I thought of Mother living by the bells at a Comfort Park. “All right,” I said.
“What form was his fortune in?” Rene asked. “Money? Bonds? Polarian droplets? It would help to know what I’m looking for.”
“I have no idea,” I confessed. “Ordinarily it would take a computer to figure out Uncle Isadore’s financial affairs. But he’d have been perfectly capable of selling out everything and taking his entire fortune along with him for some new project.”
Rene had skillfully unscrewed the instrument panel and he lifted it off and began poking inside and removing mysterious bits of machinery. “That makes it harder. You don’t know whether he sold out or not?”
“I have no idea. He might have all his money piled in the locker of the Whist Club of Sirius beta. In that case, we look for a key. Or he might have a block of Eretrevium buried somewhere. Your guess is as good as mine.”
“If he’s dug up the ground,” Rene said, “I’ll recognize the spot. But that’ll mean walking over every inch of ground for a day’s journey around. Or more, if he did any overnight traveling.”
“Not Uncle Izzy,” I said. “He wouldn’t be at all likely to spend a freezing night out on Alvarla, even for a good joke.”
“Radar equipment’s in perfect shape,” Rene said, shifting his activities to another segment of the ship’s equipment. “I wonder why he didn’t leave it on so we could locate him easier. Not that we had any trouble. Or why he didn’t continue broadcasting for help until he died…. Mind if I take some of the equipment?”
“You haven’t been exactly generous with me.”
“I intend to subtract its value from the cost of supplies and mileage on my ship. I never said I was generous, but, by God, I’m honest.”
Rene slid out the compartment of lunch packages, dumped them on the floor.
“All unopened,” he was saying disgustedly. Then he picked up a heavy, square object with sharp corners, open on three sides. “What the hell is this?”
“A book,” I informed him.
Rene opened it “Hey! A real, antique book! Must be worth at least a thousand! Look at the size of that print! You can read it with the naked eye, like an instrument panel! Well, here’s a little piece of your fortune.”
He tossed it to me and went on examining the lunch packages. He didn’t trust me to help him because I wouldn’t be able to tell if they’d been opened and something inserted.
I hung the book by the covers and let the pages flip open. Nothing fell out. I sighed. I’d have to go through the whole damn thing.
“I’m going back to your ship and read in comfort,” I told Rene.
“You’re no help here anyway,” he said, putting the lunch packages in a large plastic bag he’d found somewhere. “No use letting these go to waste.”
I didn’t tell him I had the clue to Uncle Isadore’s fortune in my hand. He didn’t know Uncle Isadore, so he wouldn’t have believed me.
Nothing is more uncomfortable than reading an antique book. There is no way to lie back and flash it on a screen or run the tape over your reading glasses while you lie prone and relax. You have to hold it. If you try to hold it lying down, your arms get tired. If you put it down on a table to read, your neck gets tired from bending over. And the pages keep flipping and make you lose your place.
Still, I read it all the way through. It wasn’t too bad. Not like Edgar Guest, of course, who was the only ancient author I liked in General Studies. But I found there was a sort of Grilch Hop beat to it that reminded me of the Footlooses I used to go to in Middle School. I grinned. It was funny to think of now.
I found no clues in the book. The only thing to do was read it again, more carefully.
I noticed there was one poem with a real Grilch Hop beat. I thought suddenly of Sally, my regular partner at the Footlooses. She was very blonde and she affected a green crestwave in her hair, pulled over her forehead with a diamond clip. She was a beauty, all right. But she was a little silly. And she had that tendency to overdress.
No, I sighed, she wouldn’t have done for a studs and neck clasp man. But I couldn’t help wondering where she was now and what she was like now. Did she remember me, and did she think about me when she heard that song we used to dance to, because it was about a girl named Sally?
Once I knew a girl named Sally
Met her at a Footloose rally
I began humming the Grilch Hop tune to the ancient poem in Uncle Algy’s book. It was fantastic how closely it fitted, though, of course, the words in the poem were plain silly.
But imagine finding a poem with a perfect Grilch Hop beat before anybody even knew what a grilch was! Before Venus was even discovered. Jump on both feet. Hop three times on the left foot. Jump. Hop three times on the right foot. The rhythm was correct, right down to the breakaway and four-step at the end of each run.
It was while I was singing this poem to a Grilch Hop tune that I noticed the clue. The poem was named “The Dodo.” And the rhyming was very smooth until I came to the lines:
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven,
Thou,” I said, “art like a Raven
Ghastly, grim, and ancient Dodo,
Wandering from the Nightly shore;
Tell me what thy lordly name is
On the Night’s Plutonian shore.”
Quoth the Dodo, “Isadore.”
Now the author had gone to a lot of trouble in the previous verse not to break the Grilch Hop rhyme scheme. He made “thereat is” rhyme with “lattice” and “that is.” Why did he follow “shaven” and “raven” with “Dodo”?
Furthermore, it had not struck me the first time I read the poem quickly that there was anything odd about a bird being named “Isadore.” People who keep pet grilches frequently name them after famous Reed players and Isadore is a common name.
On the other hand, it was my Uncle’s name. And the word “Dodo” didn’t rhyme as it should.
I got out a magnifying glass to examine the ancient print. Sure enough, it had been tampered with. The print looked so odd to me, anyway, I hadn’t noticed the part that had been changed. But it was obvious under the glass that “Dodo” had been substituted for a word of almost equal length. The same with “Isadore.”
I went over the whole poem now, carefully, to see which words had been changed. There weren’t many. “White” in a couple of places. “Dodo” and “Isadore” wherever they occurred. An “o” in the line “Perfume from an unseen censor.” “S” in the line “‘Wretch,’ I cried, ‘Isadore hath sent thee….'”
Sitting back, I thought about what I had read. It made no sense at all. Was I to look for a white bird, “grim, ungainly, ghastly”? And what if I found him? Why was he like a raven? What was this perfume from an unseen censor? I could picture the ghost of Uncle Isadore, knowing his financial imagination, as the “unseen censor” because he always criticized me. Was I to look for perfume? Did he have a fortune in perfume stowed somewhere? It seemed to me it would take an awful lot of even the most expensive perfume to comprise a fortune.
I decided to start with the bird. I went outside Rene’s ship and looked around. No birds.
“Rene!” I called. He was still looking through Uncle Izzy’s ship. “Have you seen an ungainly white bird around?”
“What!” he snapped, sticking an indignant face out of the door.
“I guess you haven’t. Can your woodsy lore tell if there are birds on this planet?”
“Obviously,” Rene said. “I don’t know why you can’t find your own spoor. I noticed the droppings immediately.”
“Where are the birds?”
“How the hell would I know?” But he couldn’t contain his special knowledge. “They’re probably night birds,” he said.
“Oh, yes.” It checked. “Wandering from the Night’s Plutonian shore.”
He looked at me suspiciously. “You ever had a nervous breakdown?”
“I have not. I test 10:9 on job adjustment and 10:8 on life adjustment.”
“Some people crack on alien planets,” he said. “I have a padded room in my ship. You’d be surprised how often I have to use it.”
I told him about the poem I found in Uncle Izzy’s book. “We look for a white bird,” I said. “Or perfume.”
“You’re nuts,” he pointed out with some justice, because he hadn’t known Uncle Isadore. “How do you know these changes weren’t made by somebody else a long time ago? Maybe this ancient printer printed it wrong and had to change it afterward.”
“I don’t think they were that primitive back then.”
But I didn’t know what “back then” meant or how primitive ancient printing was. All I knew for sure was that, as the poem stood, it sounded as if somebody had loused up a perfect Grilch Hop rhyme. And Uncle Izzy knew I was a Grilch Hop expert in Middle School and this was the only real Grilch Hop rhythm in the book. What’s more, Uncle Izzy could depend on me to go over that book in painstaking detail because a studs and neck clasp man has to be good on details.
“All right,” I said. “You look your way and I’ll look my way.”
“We’re not looking any more any way today,” Rene said, emerging from Uncle Isadore’s ship loaded down with removings. “It’ll be night and below freezing in half an hour.”
“What do you think,” I asked, “a dodo would like to eat?”
“The birds. I want to put something out to attract them. Crackers or something?”
“I think you’re crazy. If you have any idea of sitting outside to wait for them, you’ll freeze to death. Not only that, there’s no moon. You wouldn’t be able to see your hand in front of your face.”
“How do the birds see?”
“Maybe they aren’t night birds. Maybe they migrated somewhere else.”
“And if I use a light, it might scare them away,” I mused. “Well, maybe I’m not supposed to wait outside, anyway.”
Rene went in and switched on the heat and lights.
“Leave the outside port open,” I said.
“So the birds can knock.”
“Well, it’s possible,” I said defensively. “It won’t hurt anything to leave it open.”
“All right,” he consented, curving his mouth around unpleasantly, “just to show you what a jackass you are.”
Rene had the heat turned low, for sleeping, and the lights off, as soon as we had eaten and fed the converter. I hydrated a package of crackers so that they were full-sized but not soggy, broke them into pieces and tossed them out.
I admit I felt a little embarrassed.
I sat there in the chill quiet, on this ugly, alien world, reading “The Dodo” by the light of a miniature flash, so as not to disturb Rene.
Pretty soon I began to feel creepy. “The Dodo” is a ghastly poem. There’s an insidious morbidity about it. It had sounded merely funny the first time I read it.
Now, the more I read it, the more I began to hear strange, impossible creakings and sighs, which might or might not be due to temperature changes.
The night outside was a deep, cold cup of darkness where no human thing moved.
There was a knock at the door.
I dropped the book and flashlight. Rene was up like a cat. He didn’t turn on the light.
“Who’s there?” he shouted.
There was a scratching noise at the door. Then a voice croaked, “My name is Isadore Summers.”
I reached a trembling hand for the door.
“Wait, you fool!” Rene cried. He picked up the flash and got his gun. “Stand behind me and keep your hands off your gun. I know when to shoot and when not to shoot. You don’t.”
“If it’s Uncle Isadore….”
“I tell you you’ve got to leave it up to me, if you want to get off this planet alive. Now stand back and keep your mouth shut, no matter what happens.”
He kicked the door open and stood back and to one side of it. “Come in with your arms up!”
There was a sort of rustling sound and in walked a huge, white, wingless bird.
“My name,” the dodo repeated, somewhat plaintively this time, with a glance toward the lunch compartment, “is Isadore Summers.”
I couldn’t help it. I rolled all over the ship with laughter. Rene looked a little shamefaced, tossed his gun onto the rack and punched the lighting on.
Obviously the dodo recognized our lunch compartment from familiarity with Uncle Izzy’s ship. Then he looked at the alcohol tap that led from the fuel conversion. “Nepenthe?” he begged.
I hesitated. “Isn’t there something,” I asked Rene, “about corrupting the natives of a primitive planet?”
But Rene was sitting on his bunk, his jaw slack. “This is the first time I’ve ever been made a fool of by an alcoholic bird.”
“If it’s just a bird, of course. Like a parrot….”
I addressed the bird. “Sir,” I began, and caught myself, “or perhaps madam, can you say anything else?”
“Nepenthe,” the bird said firmly.
I shrugged and drew a cup. The dodo lifted the cup and drained it in one smooth gesture. This, as it turned out, was the only thing it seemed to do smoothly.