[originally posted here at Castalia House]
Softie by Noel Loomis appeared in the October 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.
Thrilling Wonder Stories dips its toes into some space adventure with Softie, and despite being a comic short rather than a srs biz space opera, it delivered some worthwhile stealables. You could maybe try to run Softie as a one-off, but because of its twist that players likely would not foresee, it would almost certainly end in a “you shot the barrel!” TPK.
The galactic patrol cruiser Parsec is an immense space warship (“so immense that a man could die in one end and be buried in space, and those on the other end wouldn’t know it until they read it in their Daily Space Traveler”) that is on a ten year mission to patrol “the Pass”—three years there, four years patrolling, three years back.
The unfortunate Lt. Braniff left behind a wife and a daughter that he’s never met. It’s only three years into the mission, and he’s already deeply homesick. He desperately hopes that he’ll merit a Captain’s promotion that could land him a desk job and let him stay with his family. Of course, they don’t just hand out promotions like candy, especially not when your heart’s obviously not in it, and he’s gotta compete with the likes of Lt. Stevens; plus Admiral Gorthy, a known hardass, already doesn’t think he’s cut out for it.
Part of the Parsec’s mission is to track down and stop Zhute, a sentient robot smuggler who’s been upsetting the stability of the universe. The crew of the Parsec manage to down Zhute’s ship on a rogue planet, and Lt.s Braniff and Stevens are there to lead the inspection with orders to shoot to kill if need be. Braniff ends up feeling bad for Zhute, whom he takes prisoner, and doesn’t zap him with the omega ray, but in a squabble with Stevens, the robot runs off. The Admiral gives Braniff a dressing down for his failure, tells him he’s too soft for the life of a spacer; it’s a mistake for anyone with family to take on the long-haul missions… why, he had loved ones of his own, once, but…
The Admiral prepares to give the order to blow up Zhute’s ship, everything and everone in it. Braniff pleads on behalf of Zhute’s Phaddian crewmen, but Gorthy brushes him off. Just before giving the command to fire, he asks Braniff off-hand what the cargo was; Braniff informs him it’s a highly explosive radioactive element, which if zapped, would blow up the entire planetoid, the Parsec with it. Not only that, it would be worth a fortune. Not being blown across the galaxy stirs some sentiment in the heart of the old Admiral, who gives Braniff a field promotion and a special assignment to haul the cargo back to Earth where he can be reunited with his wife and kid.
This was not a perfect, a great, or even a significantly above average space adventure pulp story, but it did a lot of stuff right. Though fairly simple and straight-forward with its characterization, Softie didn’t fall into the “Captain So and So, Lieutenant That Guy, Ensign The Other One“ trap I’ve seen several Mil-SF-veneered pulp stories fall into. Everyone was distinct. It also managed to cram in some real treats. Though it’s a short story with not a lot of meat to it or character development, there’s a lot of really great background color in the setting of Softie that would be ideal to lift for your space game.
Probably the best example comes from the explanation who or what Zhute is:
“Zhute’s a renegade robot from somewhere. Nobody even knows what galaxy produced him. Nobody knows what he looks like. All we know is that he’s done some of the neatest wholesale smuggling that’s ever been done in this section. They know he’s the one who runs those multiple-armed Stenorians through the Pass from the I Supergalaxy to the Fox-men of Fomelhaut in our galaxy.”
“Who are the Fox-men of Fomelhaut?”
Lt. Stevens considered. “Well, I suppose out of the forty billion constellations in the galaxy, you couldn’t learn about all the worlds. These Fox-men are on Fomelhaut Twenty-One, a world about the size of Jupiter. That is, that’s their original world. Since then, they’ve taken over all the worlds in their system, and as that was before the galactic federation, nobody can squawk. But there are trillions of them; they’re highly developed mentally, but they’re carnivorous and they’re deadly and practically devoid of sentiment. If they could ever get enough weapons they could raise the devil with the whole galaxy. Luckily, they haven’t developed an opposed thumb.”
“How do they make trouble, then?”
Stevens pulled on his boots. “They never got very far until they enslaved the reptilian citizens on Fomelhaut Eleven. Now of course the reptiles are freed, and the foxes are on their won, but do know that from somewhere they get periodic shipments of these ten-armed fellows from Stenor, over in the I Supergalaxy, in spite of intergalactic regulations and in spite of the fact that by smuggling alone they could start a war between galaxies.”
There is a perfect space adventure tabletop RPG world RIGHT THERE. The adventurers find a world ruled by sentient Fox-men who have enslaved a race of Lizardmen with the help of 10 armed alien servants being supplied by a 10 foot tall robot pirate from another universe. How cool is that?!
Noel Loomis got two stories in this issue, by way of his Orig Prem time travelling journalist story under the Benj Miller Pseud. While I can’t say that he’s a consummate storyteller or a master of the craft, both pieces were worthwhile and offered some choice moments. He published several stories from the mid 40s through the mid 50s, so there will be plenty to check out.