Signal Red by Henry Guth appeared in the Fall 1949 issue of Planet Stories.
Signal Red is not a bad story; it’s just, much like the other stories I’ve read in this issue, not what I’d gotten used to from Planet Stories from just a few years earlier.
Humanity has outposts and travel throughout the Solar system, from bases on Mercury to mines on Pluto, however Uranus is at war with the inner planets and their fleets raid and skirmish the vessels travelling between those worlds. Shano, a dying man whose lungs have been gummed up with crud from his days in the vanium mines of Pluto, makes it onto the last flight out of Mercury bound for Earth just before the general warning of a possible impending attack from Uranian raiders. Those who go out into space during a Signal Red do so at their own risk, but Shano doesn’t care; he just wants to make it back to Earth to see his homeworld one last time before he dies.
A pretty exciting and tense space battle ensues, and Shano manages to root out and kill a Uranian sleeper agent in the crew who’s trying to sabotage the ship. A crippling hit wrecks the engineering room, damaging the drive and filling the room with deadly gas; the selector valve rods have to be operated manually to keep the valves working and keeping the drive fed with fuel because the control pins have melted, but a man would die in a matter of seconds from the “toxia” gas.
Lucky for everyone, Shano’s crapped up lungs makes him uniquely qualified to keep the drive operating – while a healthy man would die moments after exposure, the vanium gum blocks enough of the toxins that Shano will have a good several hours before he dies an agonizing death, long enough to get the ship to Venus. He won’t get to see Earth, but he’ll die a hero.
The story spends a lot of time on Shano’s decrepitude; too much, perhaps, considering that the virtues and strengths of most SF Romance heroes aren’t typically recounted and expounded upon to such lengths. He’s an atypical hero, which is really the point of the story, but there’s a sort of fatalism and tone to the story that doesn’t quite feel right; I feel like had it been written just two or three years earlier, it would’ve been strikingly different. Or not. It hasn’t been any single story in this issue that would’ve been out of place, but the overall tone of this issue has been stark – in previous issues, even when mankind has been driven to primitive barbarism by evil alien invaders, there was always hope, love and triumph; Shano’s going out like Casey Jones is about the most ‘triumphant’ ending in the Fall 1949 issue. As I said before, I’m hoping this isn’t a trend, but I’m afraid it might be.
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