A PAIL OF AIR ***
Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
A Pail of Air
By FRITZ LEIBER
Illustrated by ED ALEXANDER
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction December 1951.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The dark star passed, bringing with it
eternal night and turning history into
incredible myth in a single generation!
Pa had sent me out to get an extra pail of air. I'd just about scooped
it full and most of the warmth had leaked from my fingers when I saw
You know, at first I thought it was a young lady. Yes, a beautiful
young lady's face all glowing in the dark and looking at me from the
fifth floor of the opposite apartment, which hereabouts is the floor
just above the white blanket of frozen air. I'd never seen a live young
lady before, except in the old magazines - Sis is just a kid and Ma is
pretty sick and miserable - and it gave me such a start that I dropped
the pail. Who wouldn't, knowing everyone on Earth was dead except Pa
and Ma and Sis and you?
Even at that, I don't suppose I should have been surprised. We all
see things now and then. Ma has some pretty bad ones, to judge from
the way she bugs her eyes at nothing and just screams and screams and
huddles back against the blankets hanging around the Nest. Pa says it
is natural we should react like that sometimes.
When I'd recovered the pail and could look again at the opposite
apartment, I got an idea of what Ma might be feeling at those times,
for I saw it wasn't a young lady at all but simply a light - a tiny
light that moved stealthily from window to window, just as if one
of the cruel little stars had come down out of the airless sky to
investigate why the Earth had gone away from the Sun, and maybe to hunt
down something to torment or terrify, now that the Earth didn't have
the Sun's protection.
I tell you, the thought of it gave me the creeps. I just stood there
shaking, and almost froze my feet and did frost my helmet so solid on
the inside that I couldn't have seen the light even if it had come out
of one of the windows to get me. Then I had the wit to go back inside.
Pretty soon I was feeling my familiar way through the thirty or so
blankets and rugs Pa has got hung around to slow down the escape of
air from the Nest, and I wasn't quite so scared. I began to hear the
tick-ticking of the clocks in the Nest and knew I was getting back
into air, because there's no sound outside in the vacuum, of course.
But my mind was still crawly and uneasy as I pushed through the last
blankets - Pa's got them faced with aluminum foil to hold in the
heat - and came into the Nest.
* * * * *
Let me tell you about the Nest. It's low and snug, just room for the
four of us and our things. The floor is covered with thick woolly
rugs. Three of the sides are blankets, and the blankets roofing it
touch Pa's head. He tells me it's inside a much bigger room, but I've
never seen the real walls or ceiling.
Against one of the blanket-walls is a big set of shelves, with tools
and books and other stuff, and on top of it a whole row of clocks. Pa's
very fussy about keeping them wound. He says we must never forget time,
and without a sun or moon, that would be easy to do.
The fourth wall has blankets all over except around the fireplace, in
which there is a fire that must never go out. It keeps us from freezing
and does a lot more besides. One of us must always watch it. Some of
the clocks are alarm and we can use them to remind us. In the early
days there was only Ma to take turns with Pa - I think of that when she
gets difficult - but now there's me to help, and Sis too.
It's Pa who is the chief guardian of the fire, though. I always think
of him that way: a tall man sitting cross-legged, frowning anxiously
at the fire, his lined face golden in its light, and every so often
carefully placing on it a piece of coal from the big heap beside it. Pa
tells me there used to be guardians of the fire sometimes in the very
old days - vestal virgins, he calls them - although there was unfrozen
air all around then and you didn't really need one.
He was sitting just that way now, though he got up quick to take the
pail from me and bawl me out for loitering - he'd spotted my frozen
helmet right off. That roused Ma and she joined in picking on me. She's
always trying to get the load off her feelings, Pa explains. He shut
her up pretty fast. Sis let off a couple of silly squeals too.
Pa handled the pail of air in a twist of cloth. Now that it was inside
the Nest, you could really feel its coldness. It just seemed to suck
the heat out of everything. Even the flames cringed away from it as Pa
put it down close by the fire.
Yet it's that glimmery white stuff in the pail that keeps us alive.
It slowly melts and vanishes and refreshes the Nest and feeds the
fire. The blankets keep it from escaping too fast. Pa'd like to seal
the whole place, but he can't - building's too earthquake-twisted, and
besides he has to leave the chimney open for smoke.
Pa says air is tiny molecules that fly away like a flash if there isn't
something to stop them. We have to watch sharp not to let the air run
low. Pa always keeps a big reserve supply of it in buckets behind
the first blankets, along with extra coal and cans of food and other
things, such as pails of snow to melt for water. We have to go way down
to the bottom floor for that stuff, which is a mean trip, and get it
through a door to outside.
You see, when the Earth got cold, all the water in the air froze first
and made a blanket ten feet thick or so everywhere, and then down on
top of that dropped the crystals of frozen air, making another white
blanket sixty or seventy feet thick maybe.
Of course, all the parts of the air didn't freeze and snow down at the
First to drop out was the carbon dioxide - when you're shoveling for
water, you have to make sure you don't go too high and get any of that
stuff mixed in, for it would put you to sleep, maybe for good, and make
the fire go out. Next there's the nitrogen, which doesn't count one way
or the other, though it's the biggest part of the blanket. On top of
that and easy to get at, which is lucky for us, there's the oxygen that
keeps us alive. Pa says we live better than kings ever did, breathing
pure oxygen, but we're used to it and don't notice. Finally, at the
very top, there's a slick of liquid helium, which is funny stuff.
All of these gases in neat separate layers. Like a pussy caffay, Pa
laughingly says, whatever that is.
* * * * *
I was busting to tell them all about what I'd seen, and so as soon as
I'd ducked out of my helmet and while I was still climbing out of my
suit, I cut loose. Right away Ma got nervous and began making eyes at
the entry-slit in the blankets and wringing her hands together - the
hand where she'd lost three fingers from frostbite inside the good one,
as usual. I could tell that Pa was annoyed at me scaring her and wanted
to explain it all away quickly, yet could see I wasn't fooling.
"And you watched this light for some time, son?" he asked when I
I hadn't said anything about first thinking it was a young lady's face.
Somehow that part embarrassed me.
"Long enough for it to pass five windows and go to the next floor."
"And it didn't look like stray electricity or crawling liquid or
starlight focused by a growing crystal, or anything like that?"
He wasn't just making up those ideas. Odd things happen in a world
that's about as cold as can be, and just when you think matter
would be frozen dead, it takes on a strange new life. A slimy stuff
comes crawling toward the Nest, just like an animal snuffing for
heat - that's the liquid helium. And once, when I was little, a bolt of
lightning - not even Pa could figure where it came from - hit the nearby
steeple and crawled up and down it for weeks, until the glow finally
"Not like anything I ever saw," I told him.
He stood for a moment frowning. Then, "I'll go out with you, and you
show it to me," he said.
Ma raised a howl at the idea of being left alone, and Sis joined
in, too, but Pa quieted them. We started climbing into our outside
clothes - mine had been warming by the fire. Pa made them. They have
plastic headpieces that were once big double-duty transparent food
cans, but they keep heat and air in and can replace the air for a
little while, long enough for our trips for water and coal and food and
Ma started moaning again, "I've always known there was something
outside there, waiting to get us. I've felt it for years - something
that's part of the cold and hates all warmth and wants to destroy the
Nest. It's been watching us all this time, and now it's coming after
us. It'll get you and then come for me. Don't go, Harry!"
Pa had everything on but his helmet. He knelt by the fireplace and
reached in and shook the long metal rod that goes up the chimney and
knocks off the ice that keeps trying to clog it. Once a week he goes up
on the roof to check if it's working all right. That's our worst trip
and Pa won't let me make it alone.
"Sis," Pa said quietly, "come watch the fire. Keep an eye on the air,
too. If it gets low or doesn't seem to be boiling fast enough, fetch
another bucket from behind the blanket. But mind your hands. Use the
cloth to pick up the bucket."
Sis quit helping Ma be frightened and came over and did as she was
told. Ma quieted down pretty suddenly, though her eyes were still kind
of wild as she watched Pa fix on his helmet tight and pick up a pail
and the two of us go out.
* * * * *
Pa led the way and I took hold of his belt. It's a funny thing, I'm not
afraid to go by myself, but when Pa's along I always want to hold on to
him. Habit, I guess, and then there's no denying that this time I was a
You see, it's this way. We know that everything is dead out there. Pa
heard the last radio voices fade away years ago, and had seen some of
the last folks die who weren't as lucky or well-protected as us. So we
knew that if there was something groping around out there, it couldn't
be anything human or friendly.
Besides that, there's a feeling that comes with it always being night,
_cold_ night. Pa says there used to be some of that feeling even in the
old days, but then every morning the Sun would come and chase it away.
I have to take his word for that, not ever remembering the Sun as being
anything more than a big star. You see, I hadn't been born when the
dark star snatched us away from the Sun, and by now it's dragged us out
beyond the orbit of the planet Pluto, Pa says, and taking us farther
out all the time.
I found myself wondering whether there mightn't be something on the
dark star that wanted us, and if that was why it had captured the
Earth. Just then we came to the end of the corridor and I followed Pa
out on the balcony.
I don't know what the city looked like in the old days, but now it's
beautiful. The starlight lets you see it pretty well - there's quite a
bit of light in those steady points speckling the blackness above. (Pa
says the stars used to twinkle once, but that was because there was
air.) We are on a hill and the shimmery plain drops away from us and
then flattens out, cut up into neat squares by the troughs that used to
be streets. I sometimes make my mashed potatoes look like it, before I
pour on the gravy.
Some taller buildings push up out of the feathery plain, topped
by rounded caps of air crystals, like the fur hood Ma wears, only
whiter. On those buildings you can see the darker squares of windows,
underlined by white dashes of air crystals. Some of them are on a
slant, for many of the buildings are pretty badly twisted by the quakes
and all the rest that happened when the dark star captured the Earth.
Here and there a few icicles hang, water icicles from the first days
of the cold, other icicles of frozen air that melted on the roofs and
dripped and froze again. Sometimes one of those icicles will catch the
light of a star and send it to you so brightly you think the star has
swooped into the city. That was one of the things Pa had been thinking
of when I told him about the light, but I had thought of it myself
first and known it wasn't so.
He touched his helmet to mine so we could talk easier and he asked me
to point out the windows to him. But there wasn't any light moving
around inside them now, or anywhere else. To my surprise, Pa didn't
bawl me out and tell me I'd been seeing things. He looked all around
quite a while after filling his pail, and just as we were going inside
he whipped around without warning, as if to take some peeping thing
I could feel it, too. The old peace was gone. There was something
lurking out there, watching, waiting, getting ready.
Inside, he said to me, touching helmets, "If you see something like
that again, son, don't tell the others. Your Ma's sort of nervous these
days and we owe her all the feeling of safety we can give her. Once - it
was when your sister was born - I was ready to give up and die, but your
Mother kept me trying. Another time she kept the fire going a whole
week all by herself when I was sick. Nursed me and took care of the two
of you, too."
* * * * *
"You know that game we sometimes play, sitting in a square in the Nest,
tossing a ball around? Courage is like a ball, son. A person can hold
it only so long, and then he's got to toss it to someone else. When
it's tossed your way, you've got to catch it and hold it tight - and
hope there'll be someone else to toss it to when you get tired of being
His talking to me that way made me feel grown-up and good. But it
didn't wipe away the thing outside from the back of my mind - or the
fact that Pa took it seriously.
* * * * *
It's hard to hide your feelings about such a thing. When we got back in
the Nest and took off our outside clothes, Pa laughed about it all and
told them it was nothing and kidded me for having such an imagination,
but his words fell flat. He didn't convince Ma and Sis any more than
he did me. It looked for a minute like we were all fumbling the
courage-ball. Something had to be done, and almost before I knew what
I was going to say, I heard myself asking Pa to tell us about the old
days, and how it all happened.
He sometimes doesn't mind telling that story, and Sis and I sure like
to listen to it, and he got my idea. So we were all settled around the
fire in a wink, and Ma pushed up some cans to thaw for supper, and Pa
began. Before he did, though, I noticed him casually get a hammer from
the shelf and lay it down beside him.
It was the same old story as always - I think I could recite the main
thread of it in my sleep - though Pa always puts in a new detail or two
and keeps improving it in spots.
He told us how the Earth had been swinging around the Sun ever so
steady and warm, and the people on it fixing to make money and wars and
have a good time and get power and treat each other right or wrong,
when without warning there comes charging out of space this dead star,
this burned out sun, and upsets everything.
You know, I find it hard to believe in the way those people felt,
any more than I can believe in the swarming number of them. Imagine
people getting ready for the horrible sort of war they were cooking up.
Wanting it even, or at least wishing it were over so as to end their
nervousness. As if all folks didn't have to hang together and pool
every bit of warmth just to keep alive. And how can they have hoped to
end danger, any more than we can hope to end the cold?
Sometimes I think Pa exaggerates and makes things out too black. He's
cross with us once in a while and was probably cross with all those
folks. Still, some of the things I read in the old magazines sound
pretty wild. He may be right.
* * * * *
The dark star, as Pa went on telling it, rushed in pretty fast and
there wasn't much time to get ready. At the beginning they tried
to keep it a secret from most people, but then the truth came out,
what with the earthquakes and floods - imagine, oceans of _unfrozen_
water! - and people seeing stars blotted out by something on a clear
night. First off they thought it would hit the Sun, and then they
thought it would hit the Earth. There was even the start of a rush to
get to a place called China, because people thought the star would hit
on the other side. But then they found it wasn't going to hit either
side, but was going to come very close to the Earth.
Most of the other planets were on the other side of the Sun and didn't
get involved. The Sun and the newcomer fought over the Earth for a
little while - pulling it this way and that, like two dogs growling
over a bone, Pa described it this time - and then the newcomer won and
carried us off. The Sun got a consolation prize, though. At the last
minute he managed to hold on to the Moon.
That was the time of the monster earthquakes and floods, twenty times
worse than anything before. It was also the time of the Big Jerk, as Pa
calls it, when all Earth got yanked suddenly, just as Pa has done to
me once or twice, grabbing me by the collar to do it, when I've been
sitting too far from the fire.
You see, the dark star was going through space faster than the Sun, and
in the opposite direction, and it had to wrench the world considerably
in order to take it away.
The Big Jerk didn't last long. It was over as soon as the Earth
was settled down in its new orbit around the dark star. But it was
pretty terrible while it lasted. Pa says that all sorts of cliffs and
buildings toppled, oceans slopped over, swamps and sandy deserts gave
great sliding surges that buried nearby lands. Earth was almost jerked
out of its atmosphere blanket and the air got so thin in spots that
people keeled over and fainted - though of course, at the same time,
they were getting knocked down by the Big Jerk and maybe their bones
broke or skulls cracked.
We've often asked Pa how people acted during that time, whether they
were scared or brave or crazy or stunned, or all four, but he's sort of
leery of the subject, and he was again tonight. He says he was mostly
too busy to notice.
You see, Pa and some scientist friends of his had figured out part of
what was going to happen - they'd known we'd get captured and our air
would freeze - and they'd been working like mad to fix up a place with
airtight walls and doors, and insulation against the cold, and big
supplies of food and fuel and water and bottled air. But the place
got smashed in the last earthquakes and all Pa's friends were killed
then and in the Big Jerk. So he had to start over and throw the Nest
together quick without any advantages, just using any stuff he could
lay his hands on.
I guess he's telling pretty much the truth when he says he didn't have
any time to keep an eye on how other folks behaved, either then or
in the Big Freeze that followed - followed very quick, you know, both
because the dark star was pulling us away very fast and because Earth's
rotation had been slowed in the tug-of-war, so that the nights were ten
old nights long.
Still, I've got an idea of some of the things that happened from the
frozen folk I've seen, a few of them in other rooms in our building,
others clustered around the furnaces in the basements where we go for
In one of the rooms, an old man sits stiff in a chair, with an arm and
a leg in splints. In another, a man and woman are huddled together in
a bed with heaps of covers over them. You can just see their heads
peeking out, close together. And in another a beautiful young lady is
sitting with a pile of wraps huddled around her, looking hopefully
toward the door, as if waiting for someone who never came back with
warmth and food. They're all still and stiff as statues, of course, but
just like life.
Pa showed them to me once in quick winks of his flashlight, when
he still had a fair supply of batteries and could afford to waste
a little light. They scared me pretty bad and made my heart pound,
especially the young lady.
* * * * *
Now, with Pa telling his story for the umpteenth time to take our minds
off another scare, I got to thinking of the frozen folk again. All of a
sudden I got an idea that scared me worse than anything yet. You see,
I'd just remembered the face I'd thought I'd seen in the window. I'd
forgotten about that on account of trying to hide it from the others.
What, I asked myself, if the frozen folk were coming to life? What
if they were like the liquid helium that got a new lease on life
and started crawling toward the heat just when you thought its
molecules ought to freeze solid forever? Or like the electricity that
moves endlessly when it's just about as cold as that? What if the
ever-growing cold, with the temperature creeping down the last few
degrees to the last zero, had mysteriously wakened the frozen folk to
life - not warm-blooded life, but something icy and horrible?
That was a worse idea than the one about something coming down from the
dark star to get us.
Or maybe, I thought, both ideas might be true. Something coming down
from the dark star and making the frozen folk move, using them to do
its work. That would fit with both things I'd seen - the beautiful young
lady and the moving, starlike light.
The frozen folk with minds from the dark star behind their unwinking
eyes, creeping, crawling, snuffing their way, following the heat to the
I tell you, that thought gave me a very bad turn and I wanted very
badly to tell the others my fears, but I remembered what Pa had said
and clenched my teeth and didn't speak.
We were all sitting very still. Even the fire was burning silently.
There was just the sound of Pa's voice and the clocks.
And then, from beyond the blankets, I thought I heard a tiny noise. My
skin tightened all over me.
Pa was telling about the early years in the Nest and had come to the
place where he philosophizes.
"So I asked myself then," he said, "what's the use of going on? What's
the use of dragging it out for a few years? Why prolong a doomed
existence of hard work and cold and loneliness? The human race is done.
The Earth is done. Why not give up, I asked myself - and all of a sudden
I got the answer."
Again I heard the noise, louder this time, a kind of uncertain,
shuffling tread, coming closer. I couldn't breathe.
"Life's always been a business of working hard and fighting the cold,"
Pa was saying. "The earth's always been a lonely place, millions of
miles from the next planet. And no matter how long the human race might
have lived, the end would have come some night. Those things don't
matter. What matters is that life is good. It has a lovely texture,
like some rich cloth or fur, or the petals of flowers - you've seen
pictures of those, but I can't describe how they feel - or the fire's
glow. It makes everything else worth while. And that's as true for the
last man as the first."
And still the steps kept shuffling closer. It seemed to me that the
inmost blanket trembled and bulged a little. Just as if they were
burned into my imagination, I kept seeing those peering, frozen eyes.
"So right then and there," Pa went on, and now I could tell that he
heard the steps, too, and was talking loud so we maybe wouldn't hear
them, "right then and there I told myself that I was going on as if
we had all eternity ahead of us. I'd have children and teach them all
I could. I'd get them to read books. I'd plan for the future, try to
enlarge and seal the Nest. I'd do what I could to keep everything
beautiful and growing. I'd keep alive my feeling of wonder even at the
cold and the dark and the distant stars."
But then the blanket actually did move and lift. And there was a bright
light somewhere behind it. Pa's voice stopped and his eyes turned to
the widening slit and his hand went out until it touched and gripped
the handle of the hammer beside him.
* * * * *
In through the blanket stepped the beautiful young lady. She stood