[originally posted here at Castalia House]
Captain Midas by Alfred Coppel, Jr. appeared in the Fall 1949 issue of Planet Stories.
Captain Midas is another ‘tough’ story of the hard, grizzled men of space, but without some of the silliness of Ordeal in Space. Let me start off by saying this would’ve made a great episode of The Outer Limits.
The story starts with the narrator doing the whole badass cynical ‘man of the sea’ bit, telling the story from old spacemen’s home. He makes a point of noting that he’s old and dying, waiting for death to take him at last:
“My hair is gray and my face…my face is a mask. The flesh hangs on my bones like a yellow cloth on a rickety frame. I am old, old. And I wait for the weight of years I’ve never lived to drag me under and let me forget the awful things my eyes have seen.”
Now that bold part is going to be important later.
After some cryptic sea-dog ranting, the captain finally dives into the tale of the fate of his ship, the Martian Maid. His crew of space salvagers come upon a giant derelict out in space, and from its size and build they can tell two things for certain – it was meant for interstellar travel and was nothing built by human hands. The thing will be worth a fortune hauled in, whether for scrap or analysis. Rather than let any teams of scientists jump on their claim, the captain’s determined to bring it in with a prize crew.
The captain and his crew make a startling discovery that the ship is made of some metallic substance unlike anything known to man. While inspecting a chunk of the stuff in his office, the captain is startled to find that whatever the metal had been, it has turned into solid gold! Just as the captain makes this discovery, one of his officers, Spinelli, enters. He warns Spinelli not to say a word about the gold to the rest of the crew, but the officer confides in one of his fellow crewmen. The captain splits up the two officers, keeping Spinelli with him on the Maid and sending the other as part of the prize crew with his two other officers who don’t know about the gold in hopes of keeping him in check.
Spinelli loses it when the prize crew drops contact with the Martian Maid and the derelict drifts off course and prepares to open fire. The captain is forced to take Spinelli down, but realizes he’s killed him. Feeling sapped and noticing that he’s physically aged, the captain panics. He pulls the Maid alongside the derelict and hurries to find his crew:
“They huddled almost naked in a corner, skeletal things with skull-like faces that leered at me with the vacuous obscenity of old age. Even their voices were raw and cracked with the rusty decay of years. They babbled stupidly, caressing the walls with claw-like hands. They were old, old!
I understand then. I knew what my wrinkled aged hands meant. That devil-metal from beyond the stars had drawn the energy it needed from… us!
My laughter was a crazy shriek inside my helmet. I looked wildly at the gleaming walls that had sucked the youth and strength from these men. The walls were stable, at rest. They were purest gold…gold…gold!”
The captain concludes his story explaining that despite his appearance of a man in his 80, he’s only 32, the laughing stock of spacemen and a secret shame of the Foundation despite being acquitted in Admiralty Court.
“They laugh and call me my nickname. Have you heard it?”
This was a really good story, and I recommend it, but a part of me is beginning to notice that a bit of cynicism has crept in where it hadn’t been before. It could just be this particular issue or a reflection of change in sub-editors, but there’s a shift in tone to darker stories in PS that I didn’t find in the 1947 and earlier issue I’ve read. Humanity destroys itself, space cops are corrupt, and I’m not sure what the deal is with the story I’m half-way through now where the illustration is someone about to put a cigarette out in another guy’s face, but something’s up! And, with the exception of Brackett’s cover story, no dames! I’ll be interested to see if this shift away from blue-collar space adventure and Raygun Romance to more grim and gritty fare is part of some larger post-war trend for the publication. Even a throw-back rag like Planet Stories couldn’t escape the shadow of the Cold War!
“There wasn’t a man on board who wouldn’t have traded his immortal soul for a few solar dollars, and I don’t claim that I was any different. That’s the kind of men that opened up the spaceways, too. Don’t believe all this talk about the noble pioneering spirit of man. That’s tripe. There never has been such a thing as a noble pioneer. Not in space or anywhere else. It is the malcontent and the adventuring mercenary that pushes the frontier outward.”
This sort of thing in isolation makes for some great badass spaceman soliloquizing, but in the greater context of Pulp SFF, it’s in stark contrast to the sort of attitudes and stories one would’ve been used to seeing just a few years prior, at least in the pages of Planet Stories.