The Project Gutenberg eBook of A Little Knowledge

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Title: A Little Knowledge

Author: R. R. Winterbotham

Illustrator: Ed Emshwiller

Release date: May 26, 2019 [eBook #59616]

Language: English

Credits: Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at


a little knowledge


Earthmen were considered
stupid. But they knew something
that the alien didn't—and
about his own planet!

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, December 1956.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Even with modern conveniences, Caesar could never have staged such a triumph, and in the face of world history-making, he wouldn't have reason to. Olbu's visit to the earth was certainly a bigger deal for the archives than anything Caesar ever did.

"No one can say you aren't a good sport," commended Ralph Rodkey of the Interstate Broadcasting Network. "You had plenty of reason to be annoyed, especially when the mob tried to tear your clothes off. But, the people meant no harm; they just adore you."

Olbu had learned English overnight and mastered it. He hardly had an accent: "I was a little disturbed, you might say."

"Well, our people are hero worshippers," Rodkey explained. "And you're certainly a hero, being the first man from off the Earth to land on the Earth, you might say. And then too, given an opportunity to celebrate, an Earthman will take full advantage of the slightest excuse."

"Rather barbaric," said Olbu. "But then this is a barbaric planet."

"Uh? Oh, yes. Just joking, of course. Now we're about ready for our telecast with Cecil Burroughs, the greatest commentator in the business. You'll appear with one of our leading scientists."

"I hope he can understand the things I shall talk about."

"We may not know much about space flight, but we know a lot of things, my boy," said Rodkey.

"You say you don't travel in space as yet?"

"No, and you're the first visitor from space we've had. You see, no planets of this solar system are inhabited by intelligent forms of life."

"You can say that again," said Olbu.

"With the exception of the Earth, of course." Rodkey laughed. "We were very thrilled to have someone drop in on us."

"How strange!"

"In fact, many of our people figured that Man was unique. They thought he couldn't exist anywhere but here."

"It would be nice if such were the case," said Olbu. "But I'm afraid the galaxy is not so fortunate. Many planets have men. Some are more like men than others, if you understand what I mean. But they all have his chief faults and good points."

Rodkey had arranged for the interview in the Presidential suite of the Claremont Hotel and in the next room electricians were busy setting up the equipment. Presently the door opened and a man of about 50, clean shaven and slightly bald, paused in the doorway. He looked at the confusion for a moment, hesitated as if he were checking an impulse to flee, then spotted Rodkey through the bedroom door.

"Dr. Bruber!" exclaimed Rodkey.

Dr. Alymir Bruber beamed, extended his hand and strode forward.

He tripped over a cable, but caught himself on the doorframe with nothing worse than a bumped shoulder.

Rodkey pumped his hand enthusiastically. "It's been a long time, Doctor!" he said, slapping him on the shoulder. "Remember, we met when I interviewed you on the nervous electron factor of your diatomic equivalent energy principle back in '96."

"Oh," said Bruber. "Yes, I remember you well." He turned his head toward Olbu. One glance would have convinced anyone that Olbu was from space—or at least another planet. He had an unusually large head, small neck, skinny arms and legs and a pot belly. Everyone knows that people from other planets have all of these things. The only thing wrong with Olbu was that his eyes were just like anyone's eyes, a little slanted, perhaps, but not more so than the average oriental, and of course Olbu had no feelers extending from his forehead. But those things weren't absolutely necessary in a man who looked the part, as Olbu did.

"This must be our visitor!" Once more Dr. Bruber extended his hand and this time he tripped over the rug, but Rodkey was handy to catch him.

"My glasses," explained Dr. Bruber. "They're only bifocals, and I have trouble adjusting to middle distances."

"Olbu," said Rodkey, "allow me to present Dr. Bruber, the world's greatest living scientist."

Dr. Bruber laughed nervously and shook hands with Olbu. "I'm afraid Mr. Rodkey is being extravagant. Actually I'm not the greatest. Only the greatest in my field. I'm second greatest in three others though."

"Dr. Bruber is too modest," said Rodkey. "There's practically nothing that he doesn't know."

"No one knows nothing," said Olbu.

Dr. Bruber blinked as he tried to figure that one out. It doubtless hinged on a lingual difference to start with and so he gave up.

"Well, gentlemen," said Rodkey, "our broadcast will start in thirty minutes. Perhaps we can go over briefly what topics we should talk upon. You know we don't want to get into anything too deep for our viewers to understand, yet we don't want to be too trivial, you know. Give them something interesting, I always say. Then if we have any time left, we might touch on some topics that go a little beyond that."

"Did you have a nice trip?" asked Dr. Bruber.

"It was beastly," said Olbu. "Thirty-two light years of space and not even an interesting meteor."

"We're on the verge of making an interplanetary flight here on Earth," Dr. Bruber said. "The trouble is, no one that wants a flight has any money and those that have the money don't care about space flight."

"You're probably better off all around," said Olbu.

"Come now, gentlemen," said Rodkey. "We can do better than that. You can cut loose with a few scientific terms now and then. It gives the interview an authentic flavor. Ask Olbu his opinion of the quantum jump, Dr. Bruber."

Dr. Bruber turned toward the director and blinked through his heavy glasses. "I'd rather ask our distinguished visitor why he came."

"Yes, Dr. Bruber. Please do," said Olbu.

"All right. Why did you come here?"

"We wanted to decide whether to wipe out the solar system or not."

For a moment it was silent in the room, except for the sound of the electricians outside the door. "Goddamit," said an electrician. "You can't use that hookup on the Y-circuit. You'll cut out the monitors."

Ralph Rodkey tiptoed to the bedroom door and closed it.

"Surely you're joking," said Dr. Bruber. "Quite a sense of humor. Ha-Ha."

"No, I'm not. We discovered there was at least one habitable planet here—and where there are habitable planets, there are likely to be human beings. Human beings are dangerous."

Rodkey cleared his throat. "Gentlemen. Far be it from me to interfere in a scientific discussion like this, but if I were you I'd try another tack. A large number of our viewers might not understand it."

"You think it would be better, perhaps, if we killed them all without warning?" Olbu said, turning toward the director.

"Really, Mr. Olbu," said Rodkey. "You don't intend to blot us out, do you?"

"That decision is hardly mine to make," said Olbu. "I'll have to report to my superiors. If you're dangerous, you'll have to be erased, and there's nothing that can be done about it."

"Excuse me a moment." Rodkey rose, went to the phone and ordered liquor sent up to the room. He hung up the receiver. "I think it's best that we make your stay here a pleasant one, Olbu."

"If you intend to bribe me, I'm afraid you'll have no success," said Olbu. "I was chosen because I am impeccable."

"I'm quite sure of it," said Dr. Bruber. "And perhaps there is something in your premise that not all human beings are desirable. I should like to know how Earth is making out."

Olbu shrugged his shoulders. "So far I've seen nothing worth saving," he said. "You're a vain lot. You're trivial. You have no respect for the dignity of Man. And your worst fault is ambition. I suppose you have wars?"

"Not for a long time. Two or three years anyhow," said Rodkey.

"How long is a year? Ah yes, I forgot. It is the period of the planet on its journey around the sun. And how long does that take? One year. The usual nonsensical way you have of defining things. You don't even know how to measure time."

"How very interesting!" exclaimed Dr. Bruber. "Actually it never occurred to me that there might be an absolute method of measuring time. What is it?"

"It's the Mpto. Forty-three and a third Mptos make an Anup, and twelve million Anups make a Zorex. It's a lot simpler than seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and so on."

"Yes, I see," said Dr. Bruber. "But getting back to our topic. Just what should we have that would make us worth saving?"

"Stability," said Olbu. "Earthmen lack stability."

"Don't you think you should talk more about your trip?" Rodkey asked. "How did Saturn look when you passed it?"

"Saturn wasn't in the right place to be seen at all," Dr. Bruber said. "But you did see Pluto. How did it look?"

"There was nothing about it and it looked awful," said Olbu.

"I hate to be injecting my own personal ideas into this conversation," said Rodkey, "because after all, I know nothing about science. But don't you suppose it would please our viewers if we talked more about space flight than about the destruction of the human race?"

"You see," said Olbu to Dr. Bruber. "That's what I mean. No stability."

"After all, the poor man doesn't want to lose his job," Bruber explained. "I'd say that was a desire to be stable."

"If he's going to be dead, which he will be when I get word from my superiors, he'll lose his job whether he wants to or not," said Olbu.

"I'll go along with a joke as well as anyone," said Rodkey, "but gentlemen, we've only got twelve minutes till we go on the air. Now let's cut out this nonsense about destroying Earth and talk about something pleasant."

"Certainly," said Dr. Bruber. "What planet did you come from?"

"Xvik," said Olbu. "It's the fourth planet of a star you call GC1242."

"Good old GC1242!" said Dr. Bruber.

"Oh, you know that star?"

"Yes, it's a minor variable loosely attached to Lyra."

"There's nothing loose about my star," said Olbu.

"I'm sure Dr. Bruber didn't mean it that way," said Rodkey hastily. He looked nervously at Dr. Bruber. "Did you, doctor?"

"That's one of the things I don't know," he said, wiping his glasses on his handkerchief. "Tell me, Olbu, if you should decide we aren't worth saving, how would you communicate with your superiors, considering they're 32 light years away. Wouldn't it take 64 years—thirty-two going and thirty-two coming—to get a message through?"

"Oh, no! I communicate by instantaneous telepathy," said Olbu. "It's much faster than energy forms of communication."

"I wish you'd talk about something else," said Rodkey. "Only ten minutes to go."

Dr. Bruber disregarded the request. "I don't know why people on a planet 32 light years away should consider Earth dangerous."

"Oh, Earth isn't. It's only the people on it," said Olbu.

"How do you know about the people?"

"We have a method of enlarging telescopic photos to bring out every detail. We know all about Man, we've watched you from the days when your ancestors lived in caves."

"Goodness! You know more about us than we know ourselves."

"Why don't you tell our viewers about that!" exclaimed Rodkey.

"Yes," went on Olbu, who also seemed to have forgotten the existence of Rodkey, "we saw your ancestors fight with sticks and stones. We saw them use spears, then gunpowder. Then we saw the atom bomb and the Council decided to send me to see if anything could be salvaged."

"But the bomb was 200 years ago," said Dr. Bruber.

"Twelve Zorax," corrected Olbu. "I've been on the way here for twelve Zorax—or if you will—thirty-two light years, two hundred time years."

"Surely the atom bomb can't affect your existence when we don't even have space flight," said Dr. Bruber.

"My race has developed a type of logic that can look into the future," said Olbu. "We know that certain patterns develop from past events. In your case, you'll follow the Atom bomb with the Hydrogen bomb, and the Hydrogen bomb with the Cobalt bomb—"

"We have them both."

"Ah! You see. Our logical foresight is infallible," said Olbu. "Next you'll wipe out nations; when only one is left, you'll fight neighboring planets. Since you haven't any inhabited near neighbors, you'll have to invade Alpha Centauri. After that you'll battle with other stars, until you've conquered the cluster, then the galaxy, finally the universe. It's a very unstable state of affairs."

Slowly Dr. Bruber nodded. "You're right. I never realized where science was taking us. You have something ready to wipe us out with?"

"Yes," said Olbu. "Just beyond the moon, circling the Earth and the moon as a satellite, is a missile which I can bring here by instantaneous telepathy, as soon as I have my orders from my superior."

"I trust you'll postpone the fateful message until after our telecast?"

Olbu smiled graciously. "A dying man is usually granted his last request."

"Gentlemen," said Rodkey, wiping his brow with a damp handkerchief, "they're waiting for us in the next room. We're on in a minute." He opened the door, allowed Olbu to pass through first, and then whispered to Dr. Bruber. "I guess my job doesn't matter now. At least we'll scoop the other networks on the end of the world."

"Tish, tosh, old man," said Dr. Bruber. "Your job's safe and so is the world. But if I should resort to murder in the next fifteen minutes, I hope you'll testify in my behalf."

Dr. Bruber walked through the door, tripped over a cable and sprawled in front of the television cameras. Rodkey helped him to his feet and steered him to a seat to the left of the distinguished news commentator, Cecil Burroughs. On the right of the commentator sat Olbu, bobbing his huge head and smiling.

Rodkey barely got out of camera range in time to give the signal.

Burroughs gave the commercial, which had nothing to do with interplanetary flight, or anything else of interest. "NOW, ladies and gentlemen," said Burroughs, "our two distinguished scientists have a great deal to tell us about two widely separated points in the universe."

Dr. Bruber smiled into the camera. "Just before we went on the air, Mr. Burroughs," he said, "Ambassador Olbu and I had an interesting discussion about the merits of Earth. He contends that it is unstable—"

"You are twisting my words around, doctor," interpolated Olbu. "I made it clear that it was not the planet itself, but the people who are objectionable."

"The people spoil the planet?"

"In a sense. The people are dangerous, the planet is not."

"Would it be possible for a planet to spoil the people?"

Olbu seemed to digest the words in his mind before he spoke: "That is a rather weak effort to shift the blame from the shoulders of those responsible for a sad state of affairs, doctor. You are trying to say there is something in the air, or the water, that makes Earthmen what they are."

"No, I was hinting that there might be something wrong with your planet, Mr. Olbu."

"Nonsense! Nothing is wrong with my planet. My people would not be affected even if the air and water were bad. We, the children of Xvik, are the highest expression of the human race."

"It's easy to see that," said Dr. Bruber. "You were pointing out to me that Earth's pattern of existence doesn't offer much hope for the future."

"That is right," said Olbu. "Earth's future is not much to look forward to."

"But the planet is worth saving?"


"Yet the people are a part of the planet."

"You should study logic, Dr. Bruber. You're trying to make me say things that are not logical."

"Okay, let's forget logic and look at what Earth is likely to do if it follows its 'natural' trend. You say it will destroy itself."

"If someone else doesn't do it first," said Olbu. "It will continue to have wars till it exhausts all opportunities for it on the planet. Then it will war in the skies, with other planets, with other stars, finally with other galaxies. Man has a thirst for power, and that thirst is never satisfied. On the other hand, knowledge leads to contentment. If the Earth should seek knowledge, it would forget war."

"Perhaps war is necessary for survival," suggested Dr. Bruber.

"War is seldom fought for survival. It is a result of a struggle for supremacy. And, might I ask, supremacy of what? After you've conquered all the galaxies, what do you have?"

"Olbu seems to have a point there," said Burroughs. "It is now time for a brief message from our sponsor."

The message had nothing to do with war, or knowledge.

"Now, Olbu," began Burroughs, "we were talking about wars, knowledge, power and survival. Do you have anything else to add?"

"Only that Earth has brought this on itself," said Olbu.

"I don't quite understand—" Cecil Burroughs wrinkled his massive brow.

"What our distinguished visitor is trying to say," said Dr. Bruber, "is that a planet is only as stable as its people. And a star system is only as stable as its planets. Isn't that it, Ambassador?"

"You have a round-about method of stating nothing at all," said Olbu. "What I'm trying to tell you is that sometimes worlds must come to an end."

"Exactly," said Dr. Bruber. "I've made a study of GC1242 for many years and I'm quite familiar with it. This star, as many scientists know, became a super nova about fifteen years ago."

"What?" Olbu's eyes grew less slanting and more round.

"It was an unstable star," said Dr. Bruber. "The Earth, with all its faults, is stable. It may be young, impulsive, inclined to play with fire—atomic fire no less—but it will grow up some day."

"My star, my planet—gone?"

"You haven't been in contact with your home base since you arrived?" Dr. Bruber asked.

"I was not supposed to contact my base," said Olbu, "until—" He stopped abruptly, and those with him were aware of the fact that he was using his mental powers to call his superiors.—The lengthening silence seemed to give proof to Bruber's words.

"Since you have no world to go to," interrupted the Dr. gently, "I hope you'll be our guest. Perhaps you can teach us something about space flight and your mental powers."

"Oh yes!" said Olbu eagerly. "And if I have by any chance cast reflections on your planet...."

"My dear Mr. Olbu, science has never suffered when scientists have dealt frankly with problems at hand."

"I'm afraid our time is up," put in Cecil Burroughs. "Thank you gentlemen, and I hope our viewers will tune in again next week when we will have two interesting personalities, Sam Katchum, who tames rattlesnakes, and Joe Wattles, who stuffs cobras. Glad we could be together."

Ralph Rodkey shook Dr. Bruber's hand as he emerged from the broadcast room. "You saved my life; you saved my job!"

"Think nothing of it, Ralph. It was nothing I wouldn't have done for myself."

"But if you hadn't known about GC1242 becoming a super nova—"

"You don't think the loss of GC1242 was accidental, do you?"

"Good Lord, Bruber. I don't know anything about those things."

"As our friend Olbu said, Man develops along certain patterns ... first his own planet, then neighboring planets, then star systems."

"You don't think—?"

"I do, Rodkey. I do. Somebody else was just a little more advanced than GC1242 and did to them what they wanted to do to us."