by Walter M. Miller
from Fantastic Universe September 1955
A wayfarer's return from a far country to his wife and family
be a shining experience, a kind of second honeymoon. Or it may
shadowed by Time's relentless tyranny that the changes which
occurred in his absence can lead only to tragedy and despair.
rarely discerning, warmly human story by a brilliant newcomer
science fantasy field is told with no pulling of punches, and
adroit unfolding will astound you.
by ... Walter M. Miller, Jr.
A space rover has no business with a family. But what can a man
in the full vigor of youth doif his heart cries out for a home?
They all knew he was a spacer because of the white goggle marks on
his sun-scorched face, and so they tolerated him and helped him. They
even made allowances for him when he staggered and fell in the aisle of
the bus while pursuing the harassed little housewife from seat to seat
and cajoling her to sit and talk with him.
Having fallen, he decided to sleep in the aisle. Two men helped him
to the back of the bus, dumped him on the rear seat, and tucked his gin
bottle safely out of sight. After all, he had not seen Earth for nine
months, and judging by the crusted matter about his eyelids, he
couldn't have seen it too well now, even if he had been sober.
Glare-blindness, gravity-legs, and agoraphobia were excuses for a lot
of things, when a man was just back from Big Bottomless. And who could
blame a man for acting strangely?
Minutes later, he was back up the aisle and swaying giddily over the
little housewife. How! he said. Me Chief Broken Wing. You wanta
The girl, who sat nervously staring at him, smiled wanly, and shook
Quiet li'l pigeon, aren'tcha? he burbled affectionately, crashing
into the seat beside her.
The two men slid out of their seats, and a hand clamped his
shoulder. Come on, Broken Wing, let's go back to bed.
My name's Hogey, he said. Big Hogey Parker. I was just kidding
about being a Indian.
Yeah. Come on, let's go have a drink. They got him on his feet,
and led him stumbling back down the aisle.
My ma was half Cherokee, see? That's how come I said it. You wanta
hear a war whoop? Real stuff.
He cupped his hands to his mouth and favored them with a
blood-curdling proof of his ancestry, while the female passengers
stirred restlessly and hunched in their seats. The driver stopped the
bus and went back to warn him against any further display. The driver
flashed a deputy's badge and threatened to turn him over to a
I gotta get home, Big Hogey told him. I got me a son now, that's
why. You know? A little baby pigeon of a son. Haven't seen him yet.
Will you just sit still and be quiet then, eh?
Big Hogey nodded emphatically. Shorry, officer, I didn't mean to
make any trouble.
When the bus started again, he fell on his side and lay still. He
made retching sounds for a time, then rested, snoring softly. The bus
driver woke him again at Caine's junction, retrieved his gin bottle
from behind the seat, and helped him down the aisle and out of the bus.
Big Hogey stumbled about for a moment, then sat down hard in the
gravel at the shoulder of the road. The driver paused with one foot on
the step, looking around. There was not even a store at the road
junction, but only a freight building next to the railroad track, a
couple of farmhouses at the edge of a side-road, and, just across the
way, a deserted filling station with a sagging roof. The land was Great
Plains country, treeless, barren, and rolling.
Big Hogey got up and staggered around in front of the bus, clutching
at it for support, losing his duffle bag.
Hey, watch the traffic! The driver warned. With a surge of
unwelcome compassion he trotted around after his troublesome passenger,
taking his arm as he sagged again. You crossing?
Yah, Hogey muttered. Lemme alone, I'm okay.
The driver started across the highway with him. The traffic was
sparse, but fast and dangerous in the central ninety-mile lane.
I'm okay, Hogey kept protesting. I'm a tumbler, ya know?
Gravity's got me. Damn gravity. I'm not used to gravity, ya know? I
used to be a tumblerhuk!only now I gotta be a hoofer. 'Count
of li'l Hogey. You know about li'l Hogey?
Yeah. Your son. Come on.
Say, you gotta son? I bet you gotta son.
Two kids, said the driver, catching Hogey's bag as it slipped from
his shoulder. Both girls.
Say, you oughta be home with them kids. Man oughta stick with his
family. You oughta get another job. Hogey eyed him owlishly, waggled a
moralistic finger, skidded on the gravel as they stepped onto the
opposite shoulder, and sprawled again.
The driver blew a weary breath, looked down at him, and shook his
head. Maybe it'd be kinder to find a constable after all. This guy
could get himself killed, wandering around loose.
Somebody supposed to meet you? he asked, squinting around at the
Huk!who, me? Hogey giggled, belched, and shook his head.
Nope. Nobody knows I'm coming. S'prise. I'm supposed to be here a week
ago. He looked up at the driver with a pained expression. Week late,
ya know? Marie's gonna be sorewoo-hoo!is she gonna be sore!
He waggled his head severely at the ground.
Which way are you going? the driver grunted impatiently.
Hogey pointed down the side-road that led back into the hills.
Marie's pop's place. You know where? 'Bout three miles from here.
Gotta walk, I guess.
Don't, the driver warned. You sit there by the culvert till you
get a ride. Okay?
Hogey nodded forlornly.
Now stay out of the road, the driver warned, then hurried back
across the highway. Moments later, the atomic battery-driven motors
droned mournfully, and the bus pulled away.
Big Hogey blinked after it, rubbing the back of his neck. Nice
people, he said. Nice buncha people. All hoofers.
With a grunt and a lurch, he got to his feet, but his legs wouldn't
work right. With his tumbler's reflexes, he fought to right himself
with frantic arm motions, but gravity claimed him, and he went
stumbling into the ditch.
Damn legs, damn crazy legs! he cried.
The bottom of the ditch was wet, and he crawled up the embankment
with mud-soaked knees, and sat on the shoulder again. The gin bottle
was still intact. He had himself a long fiery drink, and it warmed him
deep down. He blinked around at the gaunt and treeless land.
The sun was almost down, forge-red on a dusty horizon. The
blood-streaked sky faded into sulphurous yellow toward the zenith, and
the very air that hung over the land seemed full of yellow smoke, the
omnipresent dust of the plains.
A farm truck turned onto the side-road and moaned away, its driver
hardly glancing at the dark young man who sat swaying on his duffle bag
near the culvert. Hogey scarcely noticed the vehicle. He just kept
staring at the crazy sun.
He shook his head. It wasn't really the sun. The sun, the real sun,
was a hateful eye-sizzling horror in the dead black pit. It painted
everything with pure white pain, and you saw things by the reflected
pain-light. The fat red sun was strictly a phoney, and it didn't fool
him any. He hated it for what he knew it was behind the gory mask, and
for what it had done to his eyes.
* * * * *
With a grunt, he got to his feet, managed to shoulder the duffle
bag, and started off down the middle of the farm road, lurching from
side to side, and keeping his eyes on the rolling distances. Another
car turned onto the side-road, honking angrily.
Hogey tried to turn around to look at it, but he forgot to shift his
footing. He staggered and went down on the pavement. The car's tires
screeched on the hot asphalt. Hogey lay there for a moment, groaning.
That one had hurt his hip. A car door slammed and a big man with a
florid face got out and stalked toward him, looking angry.
What the hell's the matter with you, fella? he drawled. You
soused? Man, you've really got a load.
Hogey got up doggedly, shaking his head to clear it. Space legs,
he prevaricated. Got space legs. Can't stand the gravity.
The burly farmer retrieved his gin bottle for him, still
miraculously unbroken. Here's your gravity, he grunted. Listen,
fella, you better get home pronto.
Pronto? Hey, I'm no Mex. Honest, I'm just space burned. You know?
Yeah. Say, who are you, anyway? Do you live around here?
It was obvious that the big man had taken him for a hobo or a tramp.
Hogey pulled himself together. Goin' to the Hauptman's place. Marie.
You know Marie?
The farmer's eyebrows went up. Marie Hauptman? Sure I know her.
Only she's Marie Parker now. Has been, nigh on six years. Say He
paused, then gaped. You ain't her husband by any chance?
Hogey, that's me. Big Hogey Parker.
Well, I'll be! Get in the car. I'm going right past John
Hauptman's place. Boy, you're in no shape to walk it.
He grinned wryly, waggled his head, and helped Hogey and his bag
into the back seat. A woman with a sun-wrinkled neck sat rigidly beside
the farmer in the front, and she neither greeted the passenger nor
They don't make cars like this anymore, the farmer called over the
growl of the ancient gasoline engine and the grind of gears. You can
have them new atomics with their loads of hot isotopes under the seat.
Ain't safe, I sayeh, Martha?
The woman with the sun-baked neck quivered her head slightly. A car
like this was good enough for Pa, an' I reckon it's good enough for
us, she drawled mournfully.
Five minutes later the car drew in to the side of the road. Reckon
you can walk it from here, the farmer said. That's Hauptman's road
just up ahead.
He helped Hogey out of the car and drove away without looking back
to see if Hogey stayed on his feet. The woman with the sun-baked neck
was suddenly talking garrulously in his direction.
It was twilight. The sun had set, and the yellow sky was turning
gray. Hogey was too tired to go on, and his legs would no longer hold
him. He blinked around at the land, got his eyes focused, and found
what looked like Hauptman's place on a distant hillside. It was a big
frame house surrounded by a wheatfield, and a few scrawny trees. Having
located it, he stretched out in the tall grass beyond the ditch to take
a little rest.
Somewhere dogs were barking, and a cricket sang creaking monotony in
the grass. Once there was the distant thunder of a rocket blast from
the launching station six miles to the west, but it faded quickly. An
A-motored convertible whined past on the road, but Hogey went unseen.
When he awoke, it was night, and he was shivering. His stomach was
screeching, and his nerves dancing with high voltages. He sat up and
groped for his watch, then remembered he had pawned it after the poker
game. Remembering the game and the results of the game made him wince
and bite his lip and grope for the bottle again.
He sat breathing heavily for a moment after the stiff drink.
Equating time to position had become second nature with him, but he had
to think for a moment because his defective vision prevented him from
seeing the Earth-crescent.
Vega was almost straight above him in the late August sky, so he
knew it wasn't much after sundownprobably about eight o'clock. He
braced himself with another swallow of gin, picked himself up and got
back to the road, feeling a little sobered after the nap.
He limped on up the pavement and turned left at the narrow drive
that led between barbed-wire fences toward the Hauptman farmhouse, five
hundred yards or so from the farm road. The fields on his left belonged
to Marie's father, he knew. He was getting closeclose to home and
woman and child.
He dropped the bag suddenly and leaned against a fence post, rolling
his head on his forearms and choking in spasms of air. He was shaking
all over, and his belly writhed. He wanted to turn and run. He wanted
to crawl out in the grass and hide.
What were they going to say? And Marie, Marie most of all. How was
he going to tell her about the money?
Six hitches in space, and every time the promise had been the same:
One more tour, baby, and we'll have enough dough, and then I'll quit
for good. One more time, and we'll have our stakeenough to open a
little business, or buy a house with a mortgage and get a job.
And she had waited, but the money had never been quite enough until
this time. This time the tour had lasted nine months, and he had signed
on for every run from station to moon-base to pick up the bonuses. And
this time he'd made it. Two weeks ago, there had been forty-eight
hundred in the bank. And now ...
Why? he groaned, striking his forehead against his
forearms. His arm slipped, and his head hit the top of the fencepost,
and the pain blinded him for a moment. He staggered back into the road
with a low roar, wiped blood from his forehead, and savagely kicked his
It rolled a couple of yards up the road. He leaped after it and
kicked it again. When he had finished with it, he stood panting and
angry, but feeling better. He shouldered the bag and hiked on toward
They're hoofers, that's alljust an Earth-chained bunch of hoofers,
even Marie. And I'm a tumbler. A born tumbler. Know what that means? It
meansGod, what does it mean? It means out in Big Bottomless, where
Earth's like a fat moon with fuzzy mold growing on it. Mold, that's all
you are, just mold.
A dog barked, and he wondered if he had been muttering aloud. He
came to a fence-gap and paused in the darkness. The road wound around
and came up the hill in front of the house. Maybe they were sitting on
the porch. Maybe they'd already heard him coming. Maybe ...
He was trembling again. He fished the fifth of gin out of his coat
pocket and sloshed it. Still over half a pint. He decided to kill it.
It wouldn't do to go home with a bottle sticking out of his pocket. He
stood there in the night wind, sipping at it, and watching the reddish
moon come up in the east. The moon looked as phoney as the setting sun.
He straightened in sudden determination. It had to be sometime. Get
it over with, get it over with now. He opened the fence-gap, slipped
through, and closed it firmly behind him. He retrieved his bag, and
waded quietly through the tall grass until he reached the hedge which
divided an area of sickly peach trees from the field. He got over the
hedge somehow, and started through the trees toward the house. He
stumbled over some old boards, and they clattered.
Shhh! he hissed, and moved on.
The dogs were barking angrily, and he heard a screen door slam. He
Ho there! a male voice called experimentally from the house.
One of Marie's brothers. Hogey stood frozen in the shadow of a peach
Anybody out there? the man called again.
Hogey waited, then heard the man muttering, Sic 'im, boy, sic 'im.
The hound's bark became eager. The animal came chasing down the
slope, and stopped ten feet away to crouch and bark frantically at the
shadow in the gloom. He knew the dog.
Hooky! he whispered. Hooky boyhere!
The dog stopped barking, sniffed, trotted closer, and went
Rrrooff! Then he started sniffing suspiciously again.
Easy, Hooky, here boy! he whispered.
The dog came forward silently, sniffed his hand, and whined in
recognition. Then he trotted around Hogey, panting doggy affection and
dancing an invitation to romp. The man whistled from the porch. The dog
froze, then trotted quickly back up the slope.
Nothing, eh, Hooky? the man on the porch said. Chasin' armadillos
The screen door slammed again, and the porch light went out. Hogey
stood there staring, unable to think. Somewhere beyond the window
lights werehis woman, his son.
What the hell was a tumbler doing with a woman and a son?
After perhaps a minute, he stepped forward again. He tripped over a
shovel, and his foot plunged into something that went squelch
and swallowed the foot past the ankle. He fell forward into a heap of
sand, and his foot went deeper into the sloppy wetness.
He lay there with his stinging forehead on his arms, cursing softly
and crying. Finally he rolled over, pulled his foot out of the mess,
and took off his shoes. They were full of mudsticky sandy mud.
The dark world was reeling about him, and the wind was dragging at
his breath. He fell back against the sand pile and let his feet sink in
the mud hole and wriggled his toes. He was laughing soundlessly, and
his face was wet in the wind. He couldn't think. He couldn't remember
where he was and why, and he stopped caring, and after a while he felt
The stars were swimming over him, dancing crazily, and the mud
cooled his feet, and the sand was soft behind him. He saw a rocket go
up on a tail of flame from the station, and waited for the sound of its
blast, but he was already asleep when it came.
It was far past midnight when he became conscious of the dog licking
wetly at his ear and cheek. He pushed the animal away with a low curse
and mopped at the side of his face. He stirred, and groaned. His feet
were burning up! He tried to pull them toward him, but they wouldn't
budge. There was something wrong with his legs.
For an instant he stared wildly around in the night. Then he
remembered where he was, closed his eyes and shuddered. When he opened
them again, the moon had emerged from behind a cloud, and he could see
clearly the cruel trap into which he had accidentally stumbled. A pile
of old boards, a careful stack of new lumber, a pick and shovel, a
sand-pile, heaps of fresh-turned earth, and a concrete mixerwell, it
He gripped his ankles and pulled, but his feet wouldn't budge. In
sudden terror, he tried to stand up, but his ankles were clutched by
the concrete too, and he fell back in the sand with a low moan. He lay
still for several minutes, considering carefully.
He pulled at his left foot. It was locked in a vise. He tugged even
more desperately at his right foot. It was equally immovable.
He sat up with a whimper and clawed at the rough concrete until his
nails tore and his fingertips bled. The surface still felt damp, but it
had hardened while he slept.
He sat there stunned until Hooky began licking at his scuffed
fingers. He shouldered the dog away, and dug his hands into the
sand-pile to stop the bleeding. Hooky licked at his face, panting love.
Get away! he croaked savagely.
The dog whined softly, trotted a short distance away, circled, and
came back to crouch down in the sand directly before Hogey, inching
Hogey gripped fistfuls of the dry sand and cursed between his teeth,
while his eyes wandered over the sky. They came to rest on the sliver
of lightthe space stationrising in the west, floating out in Big
Bottomless where the gang wasNichols and Guerrera and Lavrenti and
Fats. And he wasn't forgetting Keesey, the rookie who'd replaced him.
Keesey would have a rough time for a whilerough as a cob. The pit
was no playground. The first time you went out of the station in a
suit, the pit got you. Everything was falling, and you fell, with it.
Everything. The skeletons of steel, the tire-shaped station, the
spheres and docks and nightmare shapesall tied together by umbilical
cables and flexible tubes. Like some crazy sea-thing they seemed,
floating in a black ocean with its tentacles bound together by drifting
strands in the dark tide that bore it.
* * * * *
Everything was pain-bright or dead black, and it wheeled around you,
and you went nuts trying to figure which way was down. In fact, it took
you months to teach your body that all ways were down and that
the pit was bottomless.
He became conscious of a plaintive sound in the wind, and froze to
It was a baby crying.
It was nearly a minute before he got the significance of it. It hit
him where he lived, and he began jerking frantically at his encased
feet and sobbing low in his throat. They'd hear him if he kept that up.
He stopped and covered his ears to close out the cry of his firstborn.
A light went on in the house, and when it went off again, the infant's
cry had ceased.
Another rocket went up from the station, and he cursed it. Space was
a disease, and he had it.
Help! he cried out suddenly. I'm stuck! Help me, help me!
He knew he was yelling hysterically at the sky and fighting the
relentless concrete that clutched his feet, and after a moment he
The light was on in the house again, and he heard faint sounds. The
stirring-about woke the baby again, and once more the infant's wail
came on the breeze.
Make the kid shut up, make the kid shut up ...
But that was no good. It wasn't the kid's fault. It wasn't Marie's
fault. No fathers allowed in space, they said, but it wasn't their
fault either. They were right, and he had only himself to blame. The
kid was an accident, but that didn't change anything. Not a thing in
the world. It remained a tragedy.
A tumbler had no business with a family, but what was a man going to
do? Take a skinning knife, boy, and make yourself a eunuch. But that
was no good either. They needed bulls out there in the pit, not steers.
And when a man came down from a year's hitch, what was he going to do?
Live in a lonely shack and read books for kicks? Because you were a
man, you sought out a woman. And because she was a woman, she got a
kid, and that was the end of it. It was nobody's fault, nobody's at
He stared at the red eye of Mars low in the southwest. They were
running out there now, and next year he would have been on the long
long run ...
But there was no use thinking about it. Next year and the years
after belonged to little Hogey.
He sat there with his feet locked in the solid concrete of the
footing, staring out into Big Bottomless while his son's cry came from
the house and the Hauptman menfolk came wading through the tall grass
in search of someone who had cried out. His feet were stuck tight, and
he wouldn't ever get them out. He was sobbing softly when they found