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ISFDB.org Magazine Entry



IF Worlds of Science Fiction March 1953.

The Black Tide

by Arthur Stangland

It filled all the ebony depths of space. Twirling slowly in awesome majesty, the meteor scintillated like a massive black diamond. And with its onrush came a devastating sense of doom. He looked everywhere. To the front, to the side, and below—there was no escape. Transfixed, he stared at the great rock flashing in the fire of myriad suns as it—

Bill Staker, passenger rocket captain for Interplanetary Lines, came fully awake in his New York hotel room. For a minute, he lay unmoving on his bed, savoring the delicious sensation of weight. No queazy stirring in the pit of his belly for lack of gravity, no forced squinting because of muscular re-orientation.

With a muttered curse he unwound himself from his covers and sat up. For a moment he rested his head in his hands, thinking, only a nightmare, thank God, only a nightmare.

He lifted his head, and found cold sweat on his hands. Then sighing in relief he swung his feet over the edge of his bed.

A glance at the clock showed 10:45 p.m. Monday, June 10th, 2039. Heavily, he clumped across the room in the peculiar flat-footed gait of a spaceman accustomed to magnetic contact shoes. Cigarette in hand he sank into a heavy chair, touched a button on the arm, then sat back to watch the telescreen.

It was a rehash of the day's news. In nasal tones a senator was accusing the Republicrats of raising taxes. Then followed scenes from a spectacular fire. Suddenly, Bill's drooping eyelids popped open.

A commentator was saying, "... the two rockets of the Staker Space Mining Company, ready for a scouting trip to the asteroid Beta Quadrant."

A close-up of Tom Staker followed. Tall, rangy, with blond hair like straw in the wind. Bill laid his cigarette in a tray and with critical interest leaned forward to look at his brother.

"We figure to find uranium," Tom was saying, with a glance toward the vertical rockets, "all through the Beta Quadrant. Our departure is waiting on the return of my brother, Bill, from his Mars-to-Earth run."

A reporter asked Tom, "Private enterprise is unique in these days of virtual monopolies. What's the story behind it?"

"Well, our great-grandfather, George Staker, believed passionately in private enterprise," Tom began. "Somewhere around 1952 or 1953 he established a trust fund for his third generation descendants to finance any project they think worthwhile. And he got an ironclad guarantee from the government that the trust fund for private enterprise would be honored in the future. You see, my ancestor was quite a romanticist. In one of his books entitled 'The Philosophy of Science' he says 'People of this dawning Atomic Age little realize they are living in a vast dream. A dream that is slowly taking objective shape. A tool here, a part there, a plan on some drafting table. Men of ideas are pointing the way, structuring the inner dream world of a generation. Even today's science fiction literature contains important ideas for the dreams-become-reality of tomorrow.'" Tom finished up, "With our Project Venture, Bill and I are going to bring a dream into reality—making a little on the side, of course!"

The commentator ended his interview with: "And so, we await with great interest the carrying out of George Staker's dream, a man whose Twentieth Century ideas of private enterprise have blown a breath of fresh air into an age of dull dreams and little imagination."

Bill Staker pressed the control button, darkening the screen. "Dream boy. Tom, you damned fool." He got up and scuffed into the bathroom to stare into the mirror. Twenty-five years old, and already lines were grooving both sides of his nostrils. Tousled black hair like brush hanging over a high bank, and ridged creases in his forehead. Little lumps of flesh bulging over the corners of his mouth from constant tension. The tension of outwitting space on each trip 'tween the planets. But worst of all was the look in his gray eyes. The look that never went away anymore. The look of a man who has spent too much time staring into the enigma of the Universe and—thinking.

"I'm scared—scared as hell!" he blurted at his reflection. "And if I don't get hold of myself, I'm through—washed up!"

Space was no place for a man with imagination—too much imagination. You stared into the empty blackness here, you stared into the inky blackness there, behind you the Earth a tiny pinpoint, the Earth that meant rock solid footing, the caress of wind and land in all directions. But out there in the aching void you raced for Mars like a mouse scuttling across a lighted floor. Raced because of what you couldn't see, couldn't fathom. Yet, you knew It was out there, staring back inscrutably.

He rubbed the flat of his hand across his right cheek, sighing from emotional weariness. Then he scuffed back into the room. On the way he collected a bottle of bourbon, mixer and glass, and dropped into the big chair.

As he worked on the bottle, all the anxiety and apprehension in him faded. Once he stared at the bottom of his empty glass. Funny how a guy could panic all of a sudden. He remembered it clearly now. Riding into town yesterday from the rocket port, he started brooding over details of Project Venture. Suddenly, an overwhelming black tide of fear worse than he had ever experienced conf...

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