Thursday, March 27, 2014
"He hated meeting something he couldn't beat."
"Cube from Space" was first published in the August 1942 issue of Super Science Stories. I've read a lot of Leigh Brackett's stories in the past, but this is the first time I've happened to read this particular one.
It has instantly become one of my favorites. The main character is Red--that's the only name he's ever had. Red has had a miserable life. He was born aboard a tramp interplanetary freighter and apparently abandoned immediately. His childhood was spent in what was essentially slavery as he was sold from to different freighters. ("I never set foot on any ground until I was sixteen," he tells us at one point.) He eventually got into smuggling and piracy, working alone because he never met anyone he didn't have good reason to hate.
When the story opens, Red is having a particularly miserable day. He was chased into the Asteroid Belt by patrol ships, crashed, ejected into space and was now drifting towards Jupiter, with his suit running out of air.
But then a very odd-looking space ship drifts by and he enters an airlock. Inside, he discovers the remnants of a race that comes from outside the Solar System.
What follows is a situation that drips with Nightmare Fuel. The aliens--called the Rakshi--number just three hundred. They once enslaved a human race on an alien planet. A human hero--using a sword forged from a unique metal--had destroyed the power source of this ship and sent the surviving aliens drifting aimlessly across light years.
All but ten of the Rakshi were kept alive as disembodied brains. Human slaves provided the biological material needed to constantly replace the bodies of the remaining ten, who operated the ship as best they could. This all happened many thousands of years ago.
Oh, and that human hero that defeated them? He's still aboard the ship as well, kept alive while being chained down for centuries with his sword hanging over him--allowed to live so that he could eternally "meditate on my sins."
The Rakshi pump Red for information and decide that Mercury is the best place to set up shop and get some more human slaves for labor and culture vat materials. They also introduce the possibility of Red working for them--power and money in exchange for being their human agent.
The cube--already in poor shape--crashes upon landing near a human colony in the Twilight era. In the ensuing confusion, Red manages to meet up with some of the colonists. Here's where things become confusing for the criminal. The colonists treat him with compassion, which is something he's never encountered before. Now he's not sure what to do--help the colonists when there's nothing in it for him or go for the power and money.
And is there's anything he can do? The Rakshi move very fast and have these nasty hand weapons that can kill, burn or blind depending on the sadistic whims of the aliens. They soon have most of the humans rounded up. Is there anything the colonists can do to stop them?
It's a well-constructed and truly exciting story, with a creepy and original premise that makes this as much a horror story as a science fiction adventure. It really is one of my favorite in Brackett's canon.
That leaves us with just one Brackett story set on the planet Mercury. I'll get to that one soon.