The age-old question about alien existence and human contact is explored in a new way in this collection of six novellas, previously anthologized in Analog magazine. When disillusioned aerospace engineer Adrian Mast buys a book at a remainder sale, the last things he expects to find in its appendix are alien spacecraft designs.
With the help of the bookstore owner, Adrian tracks down the author—only to find him in a mental institution anguishing over the intentions of the aliens who sent the designs to him. By bluffing a bureaucrat intent on thwarting their progress, the two friends continue their quest for the stars and go ahead with the spacecraft designs. Having successfully launched their ship 15 years later, the questions that remain are: What were the intentions of the aliens? and Is mankind ready to face what’s out there?
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Part One THE GIFTIE
IT ALL STARTED AT THE LITTLE BOOKSTORE where Adrian liked to browse when he had the time. Browsing in the chain superstores wasn't the same. In the superstores you could find almost any kind of book you wanted, and anything you couldn't find could be located by computer and made available a day or so later. That was assuming you knew what you wanted, or could find it in the current maze of instant literature. But there were so many books that you couldn't browse in an eclectic jumble of old and new. Anyway, the superstores didn't smell right. They smelled like, well, like department stores with air recirculating every thirty seconds. Bookstores should smell like old leather and good paper and printer's ink and maybe a little dust.
The book was on a table labeled "Remainders — Cults, New Age, UFOs." The books had once been stacked neatly — the proprietor of the Book Nook, a Mrs. Frances Farmstead of elderly years, but with a youthful devotion to books nourished by some sixty years of reading and handling, liked them arranged so that all the bindings could be read at a glance — but now they were jumbled in a heap as if someone else had already rummaged through them.
That honed Adrian's edge of irritation over his inability to get any closer to the goal he had been pursuing since childhood, ever since he had looked up at the stars and, like John Carter, had wished him-self among them. The feeling of irritation had been growing in recent months. His ambition to be an astronaut had been grounded by the inarguable fact that he was physically unimposing, and his poor hand- eye coordination had always made him last to be chosen at pick-up games. But he had a nimble and inquiring mind, and he had settled for the next best thing: aerospace engineering.
He had worked his way through university, joined a major aerospace firm after graduation, and resigned after a dozen years of routine assignments that got him no closer to his goal of reaching the stars, through surrogates if not in person. He had set up a consulting business, and was able to pick and choose assignments that appealed to him and seemed to get humanity closer to freedom from Earth's gravity. But even second-hand space adventuring was hung up on chemical propulsion and obsolete vehicles. His own ambition, like the space program itself, was drifting. Humanity needed something totally new. The irritation had brought him into the Book Nook time and again; browsing had proved, over the years, a treatment if not a cure. But now someone else might have found the one text the book gods had intended for him, for which their mysterious hands had guided him into the store. These remainders were all one of a kind, and once one was removed it was gone forever. Ordinarily he would not have chosen this particular table — he had a skeptic's fondness for books whose naive pretensions or paranoid conspiracies he could ridicule to his friends or even to himself — but he was not in the mood for such cynical amusements. The jumble attracted him, however, and he worked his way through the pile, restacking them neatly on the table, binding up, in the way Mrs. Farmstead would have done herself. The UFO Conspiracy, UFOs: The Final Answer, UFO: The Complete Sightings, and Cosmic Voyage, along with The Secret Doctrine of the Rosicrucians, The Truth in the Light, Psychic Animals, and other annals of magic and the occult. Adrian could feel Mrs. Farmstead's approving gaze from the antique wooden desk at the front of the store.
He held a book in his hand, turning it this way and that. The book had lost its dust jacket, if it ever had one, but it had a pleasant feel to it, and the title was catchy: Gift from the Stars. Perhaps it was a Von Daniken clone; he always enjoyed their innocent credulity. He opened it. The book had a frontispiece, unusual in a cheap text like this. It showed the vast metal bowl of the radio telescope at Arecibo, with the focusing mechanism held aloft by cables strung from three pylons. The title page listed a publisher he had never heard of, but that wasn't unusual: fringe publishers were common in the cult field. The copyright page said that the book had been published half a dozen years earlier. Adrian glanced at the first page. It was the usual stuff: have we been visited? Are there aliens among us?
He leafed through the book, half decided to put it down, when he came across an appendix filled with diagrams. Not diagrams of cryptic incisions on arid plateaus in Peru or carved around the entrances to ancient tombs. These seemed to be designs for some kind of ship. Not "some kind of ship," he decided with the gathering excitement he recognized as the eureka feeling, but a spaceship, and not the sketchy drawings of some putative crashed UFO concealed in a hangar in New Mexico or Dayton, but engineering drawings such as Adrian worked with almost every day. He took it to the desk.
"Found something you like, Mr. Mast?" Mrs. Farmstead asked. She was old but cheerful about it, with a plump, grandmotherly face and gray hair braided and wound into a knot pinned on top of her head with an oversized barrette.
"Enough to pay good money for it," Adrian said. Mrs. Farmstead didn't accept charge cards, but she had been known to run an account for someone short on cash who had fallen in love with a book. "Any idea where it came from?"
"Of course I do," Mrs. Farmstead said. She maintained careful records that kept her in the shop, Adrian suspected, long after the time of its official closing. "But you don't expect me to look them up for a three- fifty remaindered title, do you, Mr. Mast?" Her sharp glance over plastic-rimmed glasses dared him to ask for special service.
"Not this time, Mrs. Farmstead," he said, paid his money, and took his hand-written receipt and his newfound treasure and walked out of the store, feeling no longer irritated but elated, almost trembling, as if what he had found there would change his life forever.
Nobody was dependent on him except those space travelers not yet liberated from the surly bonds of the Solar System, perhaps not yet born; for a dream he had sacrificed hopes for wife and family. Who was he kidding? His problem was that the women he was interested in weren't interested in him, and the ones who were interested in him he found less exciting than his work. Ordinarily, then, there was nothing to draw him back to his one-bedroom apartment, but now a curious anticipation hastened his step.
He delayed gratification by changing into comfortable sweat pants, getting a cold can of beer from the refrigerator and a bottle of peanuts from the pantry, and settled into his easy chair in the living room opposite the television set he turned on only for the news, the science channels and the sci-fi series. Only then did he open his Gift from the Stars.
The first chapter was titled "Where Are They?" Although it seemed to be a discussion of aliens and the possibility that they might have visited the earth in ages past and even might be keeping track of us now, Adrian recognized a subtext the ordinary reader would never have noticed. A conclusion seemed to say that evidence of alien visitation may have been deliberately concealed by nameless government agencies, but that other alien contacts had occurred, or were yet to happen, that anyone with an eye to the sky or a mind to understand could be aware of. Read with greater sophistication, however, the chapter suggested that the evidence for alien visitation was not only thin but probably nothing more than the connecting of random dots; that aliens were the modern equivalent of angels and demons; and that belief in alien visitation and abduction was a substitute for antiquated religions, whose answers no longer seemed appropriate to contemporary questions.
Between the lines, however, Adrian detected an argument for the existence of aliens. Logic said that with all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, a good number of them would nourish life and a good number of those would develop technological civilizations capable of interstellar travel. Good scientists had agreed on all that. Surely there must be aliens older, wiser, and more advanced than humanity. But, as Fermi asked, where are they? Why aren't they here by now?
The UFO believers, of course, thought they were here, observing us, maybe abducting people for their experiments, maybe having accidents that left their spaceship wreckage and alien bodies strewn across remote areas of the world to be hidden by government agencies concerned about popular panic or paranoid about alien takeovers, or committed to their own research and fearful of the release of dangerous information. ... But Gift from the Stars suggested, subtly, that aliens had their own reasons for not visiting Earth, reasons that we could never know, unless, perhaps, we should go visit them.
The question Adrian had to answer was more immediate: why should the book he held in his hands be titled and written in such a way that it was virtually indistinguishable from a hundred, maybe a thousand, other books on UFOs and aliens? The only reason he could think of was that the author wanted to hide a message that would be found only by someone capable of noticing and understanding it. Like concealing a diamond in a heap of glass imitations. What better hiding place for obscure revelations than among the books that the only people who would take seriously were the people that nobody took seriously?
Unable to restrain his impatience any longer, he turned to the appendix. Here were the drawings he remembered. They could be for any kind of vehicle, a submarine, say, or an airplane without wings, but the design had non-aerodynamic extensions as if intended for use where fluid resistance was non-existent. The drawings were curiously uneven as if they had been prepared by some gross process different from the customary draftsman lines. Gaps in the drawings seemed to indicate details yet to be added or filled in according to individual preferences. But Adrian identified what was clearly a propulsion system based upon the reaction mass being expelled through nozzles at the rear of the vessel. The storage space for fuel seemed too small, however, and the reaction chamber itself seemed oddly shaped and also curiously small.
Adrian turned more pages. The book had a second appendix in which he discovered the design for an engine in which two substances would be combined and the energy obtained used to accelerate another substance through oddly shaped nozzles and past some kind of magnetic fields until it was released. A final sketch made sense of the limited storage space and the engine. It was a design for a container in which the substance within would never touch the sides. The substance was a plasma contained by magnetic fields maintained by some kind of permanent magnets built into the vessel, or perhaps the vessel itself was magnetic. A companion design showed how solar energy could be transformed into — what else could it be? — antimatter. Its combination with matter — perhaps hydrogen encountering anti- hydrogen — would convert the mass of both entirely into energy and provide the means by which humanity could reach the stars.
Would it work? Somehow he doubted it. It was all too pat, like a science-fiction gadget. But maybe that's what all advanced technology looked like — not magic but obvious. And, like a cultist's scenario, it all made sense, granted the premise, and was not that much different from imaginative concepts discussed in aerospace engineering circles. The difference was that these looked as if they were working designs, not concepts, and even, somehow, as if they were antiquated, like museum pieces or redesigns of historic airships such as the Wright brothers' first craft. It would work, all right, probably better than the original, but it hinted at the existence of methods far more effective. Were those beyond the understanding or the technological capabilities of less-advanced species?
Adrian shook his head. He was allowing his imagination to take him into theories as weird as those of any UFO true believer. But that was what the book had done to him: he had picked it up as a minor contribution to a neurotic belief system and it had evolved into a document addressing his deepest needs. And, although the text did not say so, the title suggested that somehow these designs had come from somewhere else, perhaps from aliens. Perhaps they were, indeed, a gift from the stars.
Adrian showed the book to Mrs. Farmstead. "You said you could tell me where this came from."
"Yes," she said, peering up at him owlishly over her glasses, her plump face framed in coils of gray. "But surely one of these is enough." She looked at his face as if reading his need. "Oh, all right, since it's you, Mr. Mast." She ran a hand-held optical scanner across the ISBN number on the title page and then punched a couple of keys on her computer. "It arrived six months ago in a box of remainders from a jobber. Cheap."
"All cult books?"
"Most of them, I expect."
"Could we find out who wrote it?"
She pointed at the name on the title page: George Winterbotham.
"Could you find an address for him?" Adrian asked. He apologized. "I know this is a lot of trouble."
Mrs. Farmstead seemed about to say something but instead turned back to the computer and called up Books in Print. Nothing. She tried several library databases, including the Library of Congress. Nothing. She laughed. "This may be the only copy in existence."
Adrian grimaced. "That may be more accurate than you think."
She looked at him. "What are we doing here, Mr. Mast? Is it illegal?"
"It may be dangerous," he replied, only half in jest, "but it's not illegal unless it is illegal to publish a book revealing information that some people might want withheld."
"Trade secrets?" she asked. "In that?"
He had hoped to keep Mrs. Farmstead out of it. Something about this situation had a wrongness to it — the information that should not be in a book like this, the accidental way it came into his hands, the curious anonymity of its author. He flipped the book open to its appendices. "There are these," he said. "They're spaceship designs."
"How do you know?"
"You know books. I know spaceships," he said. "I don't think I've ever introduced myself: I'm an aerospace engineer. I work in designs like these."
"How very odd," she said and leafed through the appendices. Her expression told him they meant nothing to her. "I'll take your word for it."
"I'd like to find the author and ask him where he got the designs."
"I see," Mrs. Farmstead said. "But why would he publish them in a book like this?"
"Exactly," Adrian said. "It suggests that he wanted someone to find them, someone who would understand what they were —"
"Like you, Mr. Mast?"
He nodded. "And nobody else would know they were there, particularly nobody who might want to keep them from the public."
"And that nobody, or even a group of nobodies, might be dangerous to someone who found out what they didn't want found out."
"I'm afraid so, Mrs. Farmstead."
"Well," she said and turned back to her computer. "I don't like people who want to keep things from being published." She tapped several keys. "We can look up the publisher."
The publisher, at least, was listed on the Internet. He had two books under his name, both UFO texts. Neither one was Gift from the Stars. Before Adrian could stop Mrs. Farmstead, she had typed in a telephone number. Somewhere a phone started ringing.
"Hello?" she said into a speaker so that Adrian could hear. "Is this Joel Simpson? The publisher?"
"Yes," came the hesitant reply. "Who's calling?"
"I have a customer who is trying to find another copy of a book published by you half a dozen years ago."
"I've only published two books," Simpson said.
Mrs. Farmstead raised her eyebrows at Adrian as if to say, "He's lying."
"Gift from the Stars."
"There must be some mistake. I never published a book by that title," the voice on the other end said. "Who is calling?"
"Sorry for the trouble," Mrs. Farmstead said. "It must have been another publisher with the same name." She pressed a button that closed the connection. "Well, Mr. Mast? You may be right."
"I wish you hadn't made that call," Adrian said. "I have a feeling that somebody got to Mr. Simpson and scared him into suppressing the book and reporting anybody who inquired about it. Maybe this is the only copy."
"I never told him my name."
"There's such a thing as caller ID and even tapped telephone lines."
"I never thought of that," she said. "The way you talk about it, it sounds like some kind of conspiracy."
"I hope I'm wrong," he said. "I hope I haven't been reading too many of those cult conspiracy books."
Excerpted from "Gift From The Stars"
Copyright © 2005 James Gunn.
Excerpted by permission of Reputation Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part One The Giftie,
Part Two P'wer,
Part Three The Abyss,
Part Four The Rabbit Hole,
Part Five Uncreated Night,
Part Six Strange Shadows,