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by Fredric Brown

Diplomatic dealings with other humans can be complicated enough, but this encounter with the extraterrestrial equivalent was recomplicated and re-recomplicated. And anyone representing the human race should always choose his words very carefully.


Fredric Brown (1906-1972) was a writer with towering reputations in both the science fiction and mystery fields. After writing many short stories for the mystery pulps of the 1940s, he won the Edgar Award of the Mystery Writers of America in 1947 for his first mystery novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint. He also wrote many stories for the SF magazines of the 1940s, and was a fixture of Astounding Science-Fiction’s “Golden Age.” He was a master craftsman in both fields, with a wide range of characterization, a lean hard-boiled style, and a sneaky touch of humor. In particular, he was the unchallenged master of the short-short story, a story so short it would take up only one or two pages, yet would have a tightly-controlled plot, and usually a surprise ending—often not a happy one. His sardonic sense of humor was displayed in such SF novels as What Mad Universe and Martians Go Home, but he also wrote deadly serious novels such as The Lights in the Sky Are Stars and The Mind Thing. His short story, “Arena,” was adapted into one of Star Trek’s first season episodes (though there was an episode of The Outer Limits a couple of years earlier which had a suspicious resemblance to the same story, but didn’t acknowledge any debt to Brown). He inserted into a story of more than usual length two lines which have become known as the shortest horror story ever told: “The last man on Earth sat in a room. There was a knock on the door.” While this story isn’t one of his short-shorts, it concisely tells its tale with brisk economy and makes its concluding point in just a few well-chosen words.


Horror came to Cherrybell at a little after noon on a blistering hot day in August.

Perhaps that is redundant; any August day in Cherrybell, Arizona, is blistering hot. It is on Highway 89 about forty miles south of Tucson and about thirty miles north of the Mexican border. It consists of two filling stations, one on each side of the road to catch travelers going in both directions, a general store, a beer-and-wine-license-only tavern, a tourist-trap type trading post for tourists who can’t wait until they reach the border to start buying serapes and huaraches, a deserted hamburger stand, and a few ’dobe houses inhabited by Mexican-Americans who work in Nogales, the border town to the south, and who, for God knows what reason, prefer to live in Cherrybell and commute, some of them in Model T Fords. The sign on the highway says “Cherrybell, Pop. 42,” but the sign exaggerates. Pop died last year—Pop Anders, who ran the now-deserted hamburger stand—and the correct figure is 41.

Horror came to Cherrybell mounted on a burro led by an ancient, dirty and gray bearded desert rat of a prospector who later—nobody got around to asking his name for a while—gave the name of Dade Grant. Horror’s name was Garth. He was approximately nine feet tall but so thin, almost a stick-man, that he could not have weighed over a hundred pounds. Old Dade’s burro carried him easily, despite the fact that his feet dragged in the sand on either side. Being dragged through the sand for, as it later turned out, well over five miles hadn’t caused the slightest wear on the shoes—more like buskins, they were—which constituted all that he wore except for a pair of what could have been swimming trunks, in robin’s-egg blue. But it wasn’t his dimensions that made him horrible to look upon; it was his skin. It looked red, raw. It looked as though he had been skinned alive, and the skin replaced upside down, raw side out. His skull, his face, were equally narrow or elongated; otherwise in every visible way he appeared human—or at least humanoid. Unless you counted such little things as the fact that his hair was a robin’s-egg blue to match his trunks, as were his eyes and his boots. Blood red and light blue.

Casey, owner of the tavern was the first one to see them coming across the plain, from the direction of the mountain range to the east. He’d stepped out of the back door of his tavern for a breath of fresh, if hot, air. They were about a hundred yards away at that time, and already he could see the utter alienness of the figure on the lead burro. Just alienness at that distance, the horror came only at closer range. Casey’s jaw dropped and stayed down until the strange trio was about fifty yards away, then he started slowly toward them. There are people who run at the sign of the unknown, others who advance to meet it. Casey advanced, however slowly, to meet it.

Still in the wide open, twenty yards from the back of the little tavern, he met them. Dade Grant stopped and dropped the rope by which he was leading the burro. The burro stood still and dropped its head. The stick-man stood up simply by planting his feet solidly and standing, astride the burro. He stepped one leg across it and stood a moment, leaning his weight against his hands on the burro’s back, and then sat down in the sand. “High-gravity planet,” he said. “Can’t stand long.”

“Kin I get water for my burro?” the prospector asked Casey. “Must be purty thirsty by now. Hadda leave water bags, some other things, so it could carry—” He jerked a thumb toward the red-and-blue horror.

Casey was just realizing that it was a horror. At a distance the color combination seemed a bit outré, but close— The skin was rough and seemed to have veins on the outside and looked moist (although it wasn’t) and damn if it didn’t look just like he had his skin peeled off and put back upside down. Or just peeled off, period. Casey had never seen anything like it and hoped he wouldn’t ever see anything like it again.

Casey felt something behind him and looked over his shoulder. Others had seen now and were coming, but the nearest of them, a pair of boys, were ten yards behind him. “Muchachos,” he called out. “Aqua por el burro. Un pazal. Pronto.

He looked back and said, “What—? Who—?”

“Name’s Dade Grant,” said the prospector, putting out a hand, which Casey took absently. When he let got of it, it jerked back over the desert rat’s shoulders, thumb indicating the thing that sat on the sand. “His name’s Garth, he tells me. He’s an extra something or other, and he’s some kind of minister.”

Casey nodded at the stick-man and was glad to get a nod in return instead of an extended hand. “I’m Manuel Casey,” he said. “What does he mean, an extra something?”

The stick-man’s voice was unexpectedly deep and vibrant. “I am an extraterrestrial. And a minister plenipotentiary.”

Surprisingly, Casey was a moderately well-educated man and knew both of those phrases; he was probably the only person in Cherrybell who would have known the second one. Less surprisingly, considering the speaker’s appearance, he believed both of them. “What can I do for you, sir?” he asked. “But first, why not come in out of the sun?”

“No, thank you. It’s a bit cooler here than they told me it would be, but I’m quite comfortable. This is equivalent to a cool spring evening on my planet. And as to what you can do for me, you can notify your authorities of my presence. I believe they will be interested.”

Well, Casey thought, by blind luck he’s hit the best man for his purpose within at least twenty miles. Manuel Casey was half-Irish, half-Mexican. He had a half brother who was half-Irish and half-assorted American, and the half brother was a bird colonel at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. He said, “Just a minute, Mr. Garth. I’ll telephone. You, Mr. Grant, would you want to come inside?”

“Naw, I don’t mind sun. Out in it all day every day. An’ Garth here, he ast me if I’d stick with him till he was finished with what he’s gotta do here. Said he’d gimme something purty vallable if I did. Something’—a ’lectronic—”

“An electronic battery-operated portable ore indicator,” Garth said. “A simple little device, indicates presence of a concentration of ore up to two miles, indicates kind, grade, quantity and depth.”

Casey gulped, excused himself, and pushed throught the gathering crowd into his tavern. He had Colonel Casey on the phone in one minute, but it took him another four minutes to convince the colonel that he was neither drunk not joking.

Twenty-five minutes after that there was a noise in the sky, a noise that swelled and then died as a four-man helicopter sat down and shut off its rotors a dozen yards from an extraterrestrial, two men and a burro. Casey alone had had the courage to rejoin the trio from the desert; there were other spectators, but they still held well back.

Colonel Casey, a major, a captain and a lieutenant who was the helicopter’s pilot all came out and ran over. The stick-man stood up, all nine feet of him; from the effort it cost him to stand, you could tell that he was used to a much lighter gravity than Earth’s. He bowed, repeated his name and identification of himself as an extraterrestrial and a minister plenipotentiary. Then he apologized for sitting down again, explained why it was necessary, and sat down.

The colonel introduced himself and the three who had come with him. “And now, sir, what can we do for you?”

The stick-man made a grimace that was probably intended as a smile. His teeth were the same light blue as his hair and eyes. “You have a cliché, ‘take me to your leader.’ I do not ask that. In fact, I must remain here. Nor do I ask that any of your leaders be brought here to me. That would be impolite. I am perfectly willing for you to represent them, to talk to you and let you questions me. But I do ask one thing.

“You have tape recorders. I ask that, before I talk or answer questions, you have one brought. I want to be sure that the message your leaders eventually receive is full and accurate.”

“Fine,” the colonel said. He turned to the pilot. “Lieutenant, get on the radio in the whirlybird and tell them to get us a tape recorder faster than possible. It can be dropped by para— No, that’d take longer, rigging it for a drop. Have them send it by another helicopter.” The lieutenant turned to go. “Hey,” the colonel said. “Also fifty yards of extension cord. We’ll have to plug it in inside Manny’s tavern.”

The lieutenant sprinted for the helicopter.

The others sat and sweated a moment and then Manuel Casey stood up. “That’s a half an hour wait,” he said, “and if we’re going to sit here in the sun, who’s for a bottle of cold beer? You, Mr. Garth?”

“It is a cold beverage, is it not? I am a bit chilly. If you have something hot—?”

“Coffee, coming up. Can I bring you a blanket?”

“No, thank you. It will not be necessary.”

Casey left and shortly returned with a tray with half a dozen bottles of cold beer and a cup of steaming coffee. The lieutenant was back by then. Casey put down the tray and first served the stick-man, who sipped the coffee and said, “It is delicious.”

Colonel Casey cleared his throat. “Serve our prospector friend next, Manny. As for us—well, drinking is forbidden on duty, but it was a hundred and twelve in the shade in Tucson, and this is hotter and also is not in the shade. Gentlemen, consider yourselves on official leave for as long as it takes you to drink one bottle of beer, or until the tape recorder arrives, whichever comes first.”

The beer was finished first, but by the time the last of it had vanished, the second helicopter was within sight and sound. Casey asked the stick-man if he wanted more coffee. The offer was politely declined. Casey looked at Dade Grant and winked and the desert rat winked back, so Casey went in for two more bottles, one apiece for the civilian terrestrials. Coming back he met the lieutenant coming with the extension cord and returned as far as the doorway to show him where to plug it in.

When he came back, he saw that the second helicopter had brought its full complement of four, besides the tape recorder. There were, besides the pilot who had flown it, a technical sergeant who was skilled in the operation of the tape recorder and who was now making adjustments on it, and a lieutenant-colonel and a warrant officer who had come along for the ride or because they had been made curious by the request for a tape recorder to be rushed to Cherrybell, Arizona, by air. They were standing gaping at the stick-man and whispered conversations were going on.

The colonel said, “Attention” quietly, but it brought complete silence. “Please sit down, gentlemen. In a rough circle. Sergeant, if you rig your mike in the center of the circle, will it pick up clearly what any one of us may say?”

“Yes, sir. I’m almost ready.”

Ten men and one extraterrestrial humanoid sat in a rough circle, with the microphone hanging from a small tripod in the approximate center. The humans were sweating profusely; the humanoid shivered slightly. Just outside the circle, the burro stood dejectedly, its head low. Edging closer, but still about five yards away, spread out now in a semicircle, was the entire population of Cherrybell who had been at home at the time; the stores and the filling stations were deserted.

The technical sergeant pushed a button and the tape recorder’s reel started to turn. “Testing . . . testing,” he said. He held down the rewind button for a second and then pushed the playback button. “Testing . . . testing,” said the recorder’s speaker. Loud and clear. The sergeant pushed the rewind button, then the erase one to clear the tape. Then the stop button. “When I push the next button, sir,” he said to the colonel, “we’ll be recording.”

The colonel looked at the tall extraterrestrial, who nodded and then the colonel nodded at the sergeant. The sergeant pushed the recording button.

“My name is Garth,” said the stick-man, slowly and clearly. “I am from a planet of a star which is not listed in your star catalogs, although the globular cluster in which it is one of ninety thousand stars, is known to you. It is, from here, in the direction of the center of the galaxy at a distance of a little over four thousand light-years.

“However, I am not here as a representative of my planet or my people, but as minister plenipotentiary of the Galactic Union, a federation of the enlightened civilizations of the galaxy, for the good of all. It is my assignment to visit you and decide, here and now, whether or not you are to be welcomed to join our federation.

“You may now ask questions freely. However, I reserve the right to postpone answering some of them until my decision has been made. If the decision is favorable, I will then answer all questions, including the ones I have postponed answering meanwhile. Is that satisfactory?”

“Yes,” said the colonel. “How did you come here? A spaceship?”

“Correct. It is overhead right now, in orbit twenty-two thousand miles out, so it revolves with the Earth and stays over this one spot. I am under observation from it, which is one reason I prefer to remain here in the open. I am to signal it when I want it to come down to pick me up.”

“How do you know our language so fluently? Are you telepathic?”

“No, I am not. And nowhere in the galaxy is any race telepathic except among its own members. I was taught your language, for this purpose. We have had observers among you for many centuries—by we, I mean the Galactic Union, of course. Quite obviously I could not pass as an Earthman, but there are other races who can. Incidentally, they are not spies, or agents; they have in no way tried to affect you; they are observers and that is all.”

“What benefits do we get from joining your union, if we are asked and if we accept?”

“First, a quick course in the fundamental social sciences which will end your tendency to fight among yourselves and end or at least control your aggressions. After we are satisfied that you have accomplished that and it is safe for you to do so, you will be given space travel, and many other things, as rapidly as you are able to assimilate them.”

“And if we are not asked, or refuse?”

“Nothing. You will be left alone; even our observers will be withdrawn. You will work out your own fate—either you will render your planet uninhabited and uninhabitable within the next century, or you will master social science yourselves and again be candidates for membership and again be offered membership. We will check from time to time and if and when it appears certain that you are not going to destroy yourselves, you will again be approached.”

“Why the hurry, now that you’re here? Why can’t you stay long enough for our leaders, as you call them, to talk to you in person?”

“Postponed. The reason is not important but it is complicated, and I simply do not wish to waste time explaining.”

“Assuming your decision is favorable, how will we get in touch with you to let you know our decision? You know enough about us, obviously, to know that I can’t make it.”

“We will know your decision through our observers. One condition of acceptance is full and uncensored publication in your newspapers of this interview, verbatim from the tape we are now using to record it. Also of all deliberations and decisions of your government.”

“And other governments? We can’t decide unilaterally for the world.”

“Your government has been chosen for a start. If you accept we shall furnish the techniques that will cause the others to fall in line quickly—and these techniques do not involve force or the threat of force.”

“They must be some techniques,” said the colonel wryly, “if they’ll make one certain country I don’t have to name fall into line quickly, without even a threat.”

“Sometimes the offer of reward is more significant than the use of threat. Do you think the country you do not wish to name would like your country colonizing planets of far stars before they even reach Mars? But that is a minor point, relatively. You may trust the techniques.”

“It sounds almost too good to be true. But you said that you are to decide, here and now, whether or not we are to be invited to join. May I ask on what factors you will base your decision?”

“One is that I am—was, since I already have—to check your degree of xenophobia. In the loose sense in which you use it, that means fear of strangers. We have a word that has no counterpart in your vocabulary: it means fear of and revulsion toward aliens. I—or at least a member of my race—was chosen to make the first overt contact with you. Because I am what you could call roughly humanoid—as you are what I would call roughly humanoid—I am probably more horrible, more repulsive to you than many completely different species would be. Because to you, I am a caricature of a human being, I am more horrible to you than a being who bears no remote resemblance to you.

“You may think you do feel horror at me, and revulsion, but believe me, you have passed that test. There are races in the galaxy who can never be members of the federation, no matter how they advance otherwise, because they are violently and incurably xenophobic; they could never face or talk to an alien of any species. They would either run screaming from him or try to kill him instantly. From watching you and these people”—he waved a long arm at the civilian population of Cherrybell not far outside the circle of the conference—“I know you feel revulsion at the sight of me, but believe me it is relatively slight and certainly curable. You have passed that test satisfactorily.”

“And are there other tests?”

“One other. But I think it is time that I—” Instead of finishing the sentence, the stick-man lay back flat on the sand and closed his eyes.

The colonel started to his feet. “What in hell?” he said. He walked quickly around the mike’s tripod and bent over the recumbent extraterrestrial, put an ear to the bloody-appearing chest.

As he raised his head, Dade Grant, the grizzled prospector, chuckled. “No heartbeat, Colonel, because no heart. But I may leave him as a souvenir for you and you’ll find much more interesting things inside than heart and guts. Yes, he is a puppet whom I have been operating—as your Edgar Bergen operated his—what’s his name?—oh yes, Charlie McCarthy. Now that he has served his purpose, he is deactivated. You can go back to your place, Colonel.”

Colonel Casey moved back slowly. “Why?” he asked.

Dade Grant was peeling off his beard and wig. He rubbed a cloth across his face to remove makeup and was revealed as a handsome young man. He said, “what he told you, or what you were told through him, was true as far as it went. He is only a simulacrum, yes, but he is an exact duplicate of a member or one of the intelligent races of the galaxy, the one toward whom you would be disposed—if you were violently and incurably xenophobic—to be most horrified by, according to our psychologists. But we did not bring a real member of his species to make first contact because they have a phobia of their own, agoraphobia—fear of space. They are highly civilized and members in good standing of the federation, but they never leave their own planet.

“Our observers assure us you don’t have that phobia. But they were unable to judge in advance the degree of your xenophobia and the only way to test it was to bring along something in lieu of someone to test it against, and presumably to let him make the initial contact.”

The colonel sighed audibly. “I can’t say this doesn’t relieve me in one way. We could get along with humanoids, yes, and will when we have to. But I’ll admit it’s a relief to hear that the master race of the galaxy is, after all, human instead of only humanoid. What is the second test?”

“You are undergoing it now. Call me—” He snapped his fingers. “What’s the name of Bergen’s second-string puppet, after Charlie McCarthy?”

The colonel hesitated, but the tech sergeant supplied the answer, “Mortimer Snerd.”

“Right. So call me Mortimer Snerd, and now I think it is time that I—” He lay back flat on the sand and closed his eyes just as the stick-man had done a few minutes before.

The burro raised its head and put it into the circle over the shoulder of the tech sergeant. “That takes care of the puppets, Colonel,” it said. “And now what’s this bit about it being important that the master race be human or at least humanoid? What is a master race?”

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