Too Many Long Boxes!

End of Summer

Who was the First Star Rover?

by Chaim Mattis Keller

"Excuse me?"

As one, Karel Sorensen, Homer Glint and Rick Purvis turned their heads toward a nine-year-old boy holding out an autograph book. Rick chuckled and took it from his hand to sign it. "Sorry, guys," he said to his two companions, whose conversation with him was being interrupted by the intruder. "I guess a famous athlete like yours truly can't help but attract attention in a public cafe." He handed the booklet back to the boy.

"Actually, Mister Purvis, I wanted to get all of your signatures," said the boy. "You three Star Rovers have been my heroes since I was a little kid."

Karel smiled. "And you're such a big boy now, right?" she asked indulgently, taking the autograph book from him. "What's your name?"

"Boyd, Miss Sorensen. Boyd Clements."

"Well then," said Karel, "I'll just inscribe this 'To Boyd, the newest Star Rover.' What do you think, Homer?"

"Sounds aces to me," he said, adding his signature.

Boyd took back his book. "Miss Sorensen, if I'm the newest Star Rover, who's the oldest?"

"Well that's easy, kid," said Homer. "I'm older than either Karel or Rick."

"I don't mean older, Mister Glint. I mean, which one of you was the first Star Rover?"

"Well, that would still be me," said Homer.

"In your dreams, Glint," said Rick. "I did it before you."

"I started my project before either of you two did," Karel protested.

"So that's how it's gonna be, eh?" said Homer. "How about we tell our stories to young Mister Clements here, and he'll decide. What do you think about that, Boyd?"

"Sounds neat!" he said enthusiastically. "If Miss Sorensen and Mister Purvis don't mind."

The other two agreed, and Homer began his tale:

I remember quite well that day back in 2151, when the big news hit the papers that the eccentric recluse, Sir Xerxes Xanthus, was on his deathbed and that he wished to offer the public a chance at acquiring his considerable fortune.

"I am the last surviving member of the Exploders Club," said the will that was printed in the newspaper. "I do not wish the Club to die with me. To that end, whoever will be the first to come forward and prove him or her self to be worthy of membership will claim my fortune."

As a dedicated exotic animal hunter, I had always been hoping for the opportunity to travel the stars myself and hunt down animals that no one else has even heard of. Without my own spaceship, I was limited to commercially-run safaris where everyone was after the same kind of creature. Even if it was a rare creature, there was too much competition - I needed the freedom. If I could win that prize, I'd finally be able to own my own spaceship and realize my dream.

So I tried to look up the Exploders Club, but there was no listing for it in any contact directory. I tried digging through books on chemistry, demolition, and military history... no mention of any sort of club by that name.

I was almost ready to give up when one day, while I was at a hunting lodge, I overheard someone talk about the legendary phoenix. I then remembered that there had been a discovery of a bird on a planet in the Leo cluster that doesn't immolate itself, but rather blows itself up, leaving its young behind. There had been several attempts to capture an adult Leonid Phoenix for study, but I knew of no one who was ever able to capture the creature before it exploded. Perhaps there was some exclusive club of hunters who have captured this bird, which could certainly be considered an "exploder"!

I managed to get a ride to that planet to study the Leonid Phoenix. I spoke to the natives, who told me about how the birds would explode themselves when threatened with capture, killing their would-be bagger. Their senses were apparently so good that they could hear or smell someone trying to sneak up on them from fifty feet away.

I made my way to a site where one of the birds had exploded itself recently. The residue from the explosion contained plenty of carbon - which led me to believe that the explosion process was achieved through ordinary combustion. I armed myself with one hundred pounds of dry ice. From a distance of more than fifty feet away, I put on an oxygen mask and bombarded the bird with a barrage of dry ice chunks that surrounded it in a virtual bubble of carbon dioxide. With the creature unable to spark a flame, I slipped a customized, tight-fitting oxygen mask over its beak and trapped it inside a hermetically sealed cage filled with more dry ice.

With the bird in my hands, I made my way back to Earth, arriving at the home of Xerxes Xanthus...

"...before either of you two," Homer concluded.

"So you beat me to Xanthus by a few minutes," said Karel. "Big deal. I still say I was the first Star Rover, and here's why:"

I also saw that article in the newspaper. Like Homer, I wanted to be able to own my own spaceship so that I could find new and exotic ways that my sharpshooting skills could be applied. However, I knew exactly what I needed to do in order to qualify to receive the man's fortune. Sure, I couldn't find an actual "Exploders Club," but surely what could it mean other than a club of people accomplished at exploding things?

So I studied. I was already a champion markswoman and knew quite a bit about weapons and ballistics. But guns don't make a large explosion, and surely were too commonplace to qualify their users as members of an exclusive club. I turned my attention to larger and more notable explosions. Building-leveling charges. City-flattening nuclear bombs. Energy-releasing anti-matter reactions. But when would I ever get the chance to blow up something like that? And why would this club let me in?

Still and all, I searched for opportunities. I joined a union that always had job postings for explosive technicians, and took every unusual request I found. But none of them ever seemed big enough... until one day, a request came in that was right up my alley.

"Urgent danger in Orion Beta sector. Comet calculated to be carrying uranium directly on course to collide with moon of fifth planet, explosion could render planet below uninhabitable."

I immediately applied for the job. "There's no way to turn that comet away," the Orionian scientist told me. "There's no way to keep that moon from its natural orbit. If the two collide, the result will be a radioactive fallout cloud surrounding our planet's atmosphere and eventually poisoning the planet within."

I understood immediately. "So you need someone to destroy that moon."

"That's right," he replied. "If the moon is destroyed, there will be darkness and dust, but those things can be dealt with - they won't be radioactive. Then the comet will pass by harmlessly, and the planet will still be livable."

"I'll do it," I said. Surely blowing up a whole moon would be enough to earn me membership in the Exploders Club!

So I packed my bags for Orion Beta. When I got there, the fifth planet's scientists showed me all their data about the moon I was supposed to destroy. We designed and quickly assembled rigs that would carry anti-matter charges and would be fitted with drills to bore their way deep down into the moon. Unfortunately, there was one additional problem. The anti-matter charges emitted electromagnetic interference that would not allow us to trigger them by radio wave. We had to use physical, not virtual wiring to detonate them. We outfitted all the rigs with wires that reached the moon's surface, and we then connected the wires together by hand in order to allow them to be triggered at the flip of a single switch.

But who could possibly throw the switch and get far enough away in time to not get killed?

Fortunately, there was one person who could pull that off: me. With my steady hands and expert sense of timing, I could fire a shot at the detonator from aboard a spaceship far above the doomed satellite. We calculated the proper orbit for our ship and I fired. My bullet hit its target, and the resulting explosion, which we captured in holo-vid, was nothing short of spectacular. Bearing the recording of my explosion, I went to the home of Xerxes Xanthus, where I found Homer Glint already waiting.

"Sorry to disappoint you, beauty queen, but I've beaten you," were the first words I heard from this man who eventually became a friend. "With my exploder bird right here, I'm certain that I will qualify for the club."

"Well, maybe in some matters age comes before beauty," I retorted. "But not here. I've actually caused a massive explosion, recorded right on this disk. Surely my exploding something counts for more with these club members than your not exploding something."

"So," Karel concluded, "I was the first of us three to actually know exactly what to do to earn the fortune. I started the months-long process of setting up that moon to explode before either of you boys commenced your projects."

"So you started first," said Rick. "Big deal. I, not you or Homer, was the first Star Rover. I remember that day well..." he began.

I must have been some sight, swathed in bandages from head to toe, being carried into Xerxes Xanthus's home on a floating medical chair. I think that's the only time in my long acquaintance with them that I ever saw Homer and Karel recoil in horror. "What in the world happened to you?" Homer gasped.

"And for that matter, who are you?" asked Karel.

"I, dear madam, am the next member of the Exploders Club. And the answer to your question, old man, is that I, of course, exploded." I smiled smugly. "Unlike either of you two," I added.

"Must have been some job putting you back together," Homer commented.

"A mere trifle," I told them. "Basic treatment for third-degree burns... I made sure, before I embarked on this venture, to leave enough live skin cells in a cell bank so that my skin could be completely regrown."

You see, when I saw the words "Exploders Club" one thought entered my mind - a person who actually explodes. Now, naturally, it's impossible for human beings to actually blow themselves to bits and survive. But I've seen enough circuses to know that one job subjects a person to explosive force - being a human cannonball! Surely, I thought, this club must be made up of members of this profession. And surely a finely trained athlete such as I could learn to fire himself from a cannon.

So I set my goal to interview these circus performers. Unfortunately, I was wrong about two things. First of all, none of them had ever heard of any kind of "Exploders Club." Secondly, they don't really propel themselves by using explosives. They are actually propelled by what's essentially a catapult, and the explosion the audience sees are some pyrotechnics added for show.

Nonetheless, I was convinced that launching myself by explosive blast was the way to go if I wanted to prove myself worthy of that club, wherever its members were hiding. I had already won titles in many sports, and I wanted to try and compete in exotic events that Earthmen had not yet ever entered. The only way to do that was to get the money to buy my own spaceship and search for such things myself.

So I became a member of a space-traveling circus, using my gymnastic skills to good effect as an acrobat. On other planets, I went scouting the local talent at rival circuses and carnival sideshows. Eventually, I found a planet in the Cygnus system where some local daredevils actually did practice such an art, but they refused to divulge their trade secrets.

So, when my circus left, I stayed behind on Cygnus to learn their secrets. With much sneaking around, I found that they processed the seeds of a plant native only to their planet to extract a fireproofing chemical. They would rub this on their skin, and this would afford them protection from the blast and the air friction of their flight.

But the natives were very protective of this plant and its extract, and refused to sell any of it to me. So I scavenged around their places of employment for discarded bottles that had held the substance. Once I had collected a number of the bottles, I left the planet and found a chemist on Earth to help me synthesize the substance based on trace amounts in the bottles.

I rejoined the circus and rubbed my entire body with the substance to perform this spectacular act - the first of its kind that had ever been seen on Earth! I got into a real cannon, a clown lit the fuse, and BOOM! I sailed through the air, propelled by the gunpowder explosion.

"The explosion burnt me so bad, that I couldn't relax my body properly, and I fell awkwardly, breaking quite a few bones. I was in the hospital for months before I was able to leave at all. But I had done my explosion before either of them."

"But if you had the fireproofing stuff, why did your skin burn off?" Boyd asked.

Rick Purvis turned slightly red. "I later found out that the Cygnian exploders apply that stuff to their skin for years before they ever explode themselves. I had some protection, but not enough."

"So," asked Homer, "which of us was the first Star Rover?"

"Well," the young lad replied, "that would be whoever Mister Xanthus said earned the fortune. What happened with that?"

The three Star Rovers looked at each other with amusement. "Well, here's what happened," Karel began.

There we were, arguing over which of us was worthy of joining the club, when suddenly a door opens, and Xerxes Xanthus walks in. "What are you three doing here?" he asked. One by one, we told him our stories.

And he laughed. He laughed long and hard, until tears came out of his eyes.

"Exploders Club?" he said, giggling. "Is that really what they printed in the newspaper?"

When he regained his composure, he said to us, "I'm really sorry to inform you folks of this, but there isn't any 'Exploders Club.' The newspaper folks made a typo. It's supposed to say 'Explorers Club.' The Explorers Club was founded in the early twentieth century to celebrate those who dared the unknown for the sake of broadening the knowledge of the human race. Sadly, as the human race has expanded into space, new things were discovered so often that people stopped being interested. Eventually, my fellow Explorers died off, leaving just me."

"So I did this to myself for nothing?" asked Rick from behind his bandages.

"So this exploding bird means nothing to you?" wondered Homer.

"Oh, I'm hardly saying that, my good man," he replied. "This bird is just the sort of thing that the Explorers were interested in. Or that interesting culture amongst the cannon-performers of Cygnus. Or the Uranium comet. Not because of explosions, but because it's something new to learn about the universe!"

"Still," he continued, "you did try to follow the printed instructions in good faith. But your roving around the stars presents more of a thirst for adventure than for knowledge. I'm going to let you three split the fortune equally. But there is no longer going to be an Explorers Club. The name, from now on, will be the Star Rovers... and the membership will include you three. And someday, I hope, others will join you in your adventurous explorations."

"And when Xerxes Xanthus died almost a year later, each of us inherited enough money to buy our own personal spacecraft. And almost immediately, we Star Rovers began adventuring through the galaxy," Karel concluded.

"So what's your answer, kid?" asked Rick.

"I think it's obvious," said Boyd, "that none of you is correct."

"As usual," smiled Rick.

"Xerxes Xanthus was the last member of the Explorers Club, and before he died or admitted you to it, he changed the name. Technically, he was the first Star Rover."

The three adventurers looked at each other in astonishment - and agreement.

Two weeks later, Homer Glint, Karel Sorensen and Rick Purvis, with their fan Boyd Clements in tow, went to visit the grave of Xerxes Xanthus. On his headstone, under the line "The Last Explorer," the three Star Rovers added "and the First Star Rover."

Secrets behind the Origins:

Homer Glint, Karel Sorensen and Rick Purvis first appeared in Mystery in Space # 66, although it wasn't until their second and third appearances that the name "Star Rovers" was, in some form or another, applied to them. Throughout their nine appearances in the pages of Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures, their stories (for the most part) followed a unique blueprint - three independent parallel adventures which would lead the three to different conclusions about a question posed in the story's title, the true answer only revealed when the three of them combined efforts... often proving all three completely wrong. No doubt they'd been that way from the very beginning...

Letters Editor Chaim Mattis Keller, aka Legion-Reference-File Lad, is a computer programmer who lives in New York City with his wife and four children.

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