Flatlander (short story)

Flatlander (short story)

Flatlander is an English language science fiction short story written in 1967 by Larry Niven. It is the third in the series of Known Space stories featuring crashlander Beowulf Shaeffer. The short story was originally published in "Worlds of If", March 1967, and reprinted in "Neutron Star", Larry Niven, New York: Ballantine, 1968, pp. 129-171 (ISBN 0-345-29665-6), and "Crashlander", Larry Niven, New York: Ballantine, 1994, pp. 57-101 (ISBN 0-345-38168-8).


Traveling to Earth on the "Lensman" after his trip to the core of the Milky Way galaxy, Shaeffer befriends a gregarious flatlander who calls himself Elephant. They trade stories over cards and enjoy each others company, but Shaeffer decides to split up upon reaching Earth; he's interested in exploring on his own. Shortly after his arriving, however, his pocket is picked. The pickpocket, a woman, is at first irked that his wallet has no address or postage to drop in a mailbox (because pickpocketing is no longer illegal on Earth, as the population has become so high that locating a pickpocket is impossible, especially as they can immediately escape across the globe via transfer booth) but she's kind enough to return it to him, minus the cash, after seeing that he's an outworlder. Realizing he doesn’t know the rules for being on Earth, Shaeffer goes to Elephant’s home for help. As it turns out, Elephant is really Gregory Pelton, the fabulously wealthy descendant of the inventor of the transfer booth. Elephant welcomes Shaeffer into his house with open arms and their friendship is off and running again. They go to see Dianna, a friend of Elephant's, and she calls another friend so they'll have a fourth for bridge who coincidentally turns out to be the woman who picked Shaeffer’s pocket, Sharrol Janss.

Irritated at always being labeled a flatlander even though he's logged many, many hours in space, Elephant decides (at Shaeffer’s suggestion) to visit the most unusual system in the galaxy, and has his agents put in a call to meet with the nearest Outsider vessel. Elephant, Shaeffer, Sharrol and Elephant’s friend Diana then show Shaeffer around Earth for the next few days, and the chance meeting between Shaeffer and Sharrol quickly develops into a romance.

Four days after landing on Earth, Elephant and Shaeffer are back in space in Elephant’s ship, the "Slower Than Infinity", to the edge of known space out beyond Tau Ceti, to meet the Outsiders, ship number 14. The Outsider’s ship is larger in size than a small city, consisting of a seemingly small drive capsule with a light source on a pole two and a half miles long, and a series of about a thousand metal ribbons that swooped around giddily until each end meets at the drive capsule. A party of six Outsiders, resembling black cat-o’-nine-tails with grossly swollen handles, arrived to ferry Bey and Elephant to the ship for their meeting.

Elephant’s request is how to reach the most unusual planet in or within five miles of the sixty-light-year wide region humans called Known Space. The Outsiders question him about who would be traveling there (Elephant himself), what he plans once there (a landing), how he intends to get there (his ship outside) and what his plans afterward will be (he plans only the one visit). The fee for the information is one million stars, and Shaeffer whistles under his breath; the Outsiders never dicker over price. Elephant purchases the information and the Outsiders give him the location and velocity vector of a protostar with one planet a billion and a half miles from it, moving at point eight lights in a shallow chord through known space. Knowing that hyperdrive ships can’t attain that speed, Elephant protests but the Outsider offers to let them hitch a ride, for an additional million stars ferry fee.

Elephant sputters but Shaeffer intervenes, offering to sell the Outsiders information about the Core explosion. The Outsiders already know of the explosion from the puppeteers but are interested in hearing the firsthand information from Shaeffer, and they waive the ferry fee. They also give Bey an eight-digit transfer booth number on Jinx to contact the Regional President of Jinx (which is old news, Shaeffer says, he'd talked to the puppeteers already). Finally, the Outsider offers to sell to Elephant, for an additional two hundred thousand stars, the peculiar nature of the system he is about to visit. When told that he would very likely be able to find out what it was for himself, Elephant declares that he will do just that.

At the system, which Shaeffer had dubbed the "Fast Protosun", Shaeffer and Elephant began trying to unravel the secret of its peculiarity. There were no shortage of them. In short order the following peculiarities were found::* Velocity of the system relative to known space, 0.8c.:* Possible extragalactic origin.:* Only protostar in known space.:* Extremely high radiation levels, which would result in their suit shielding breaking down in 3 days, the extension bubble in 20 hours.:* Very smooth surface of the planet, as if polished.:* The system is relatively clear of meteors:* Protosun too thin for fusion, yet glowing.:* The planet has no lithosphere, it appears to be worn down to the asthenosphere which has hardened in the interstellar cold.:* An asteroid crater was nearly eroded away from interstellar dust, which should be too thin to work so fast.:* There are helium II lifeforms present on the planet.:* The lifeforms are all on the back side of the planet relative to its course through known space, as if they feared the interstellar dust.

Finally naming the planet "Cannonball Express", Shaeffer and Elephant are discussing the reason why Elephant wanted to find such a world in the first place when they experience in semi-spectacular fashion yet another one of the systems "peculiarities":

:* The so-called "indestructible" General Products hulls seem to evaporate while within its vicinity.

They only have just enough time to get their helmets on (Shaeffer had insisted that they suit up, just in case something "peculiar" were to happen). The remainder of the ship, along with the stowed extension bubble, is still intact, because it possesses a redundant internal structure. Insanely, Elephant insists on attempting to land on the planet anyway. Shaeffer is just barely able to convince him that unless he can explain "why" the General Products hull disappeared, they should run for it. Elephant agrees, resentfully, but says that if he were alone he would go down, and damn the hull.

They return to Jinx through hyperspace. This is no easy undertaking since without the hull most of the view is the so-called "Blind Spot" (a visual effect due to faster-than-light travel) that even Shaeffer is not keen to experience for any length of time. Once there, they use the ship’s fusion drive and gravity drag to decelerate to normal speed. Most of the trip is made in silence; Elephant is not happy about running, and if Shaeffer was wrong about doing so a good friendship is out the window. Elephant calls the transfer booth number given to Bey by the Outsiders, 88326770, and announces his name and that his GP hull failed. He gives the puppeteer details about their exploration of the fast protosun and the puppeteer agrees to pay the indemnity, noting that they were unaware that such quantities of antimatter were present anywhere in the galaxy. This is what caused made the system the most distinctive in known space:

:* The system is composed entirely of antimatter.

At Elephant and Shaeffer's stunned reactions the puppeteer blandly explains that the GP hull is an artificially generated molecule with interatomic bonds strengthened by a small power plant, making it proof against any kind of impact, and heat into the hundreds of thousands of degrees. But when antimatter annihilates enough of the atoms of the molecule it naturally falls apart. Elephant, shaken, cuts off the communication without discussing details of the indemnity.

Shaeffer manages not to gloat too much over his decision to run, wanting Elephant to remember two important things about their experience: (1) If you don’t understand it, it’s dangerous; and (2) I Told You So. They make plans to return, with Elephant planning to drop a flag with a UN insignia on it onto the planet from as great a height as Shaeffer could talk him into, and Shaeffer himself with a tridee camera to record the event. As it turns out, neither Shaeffer nor Pelton return to Cannonball Express due to bureaucratic entanglements and Bey’s relationship with Sharrol Janss.

But Elephant finally understands why he's just a "flatlander" – he does not instinctively recognize that the universe is a dangerous place to live.

ee also

*"Neutron Star", the first story in the Beowulf Shaeffer series
*"At the Core", the second story in the series
*"Grendel", the fourth story in the series
*"The Borderland of Sol", the fifth story in the series
*"Procrustes", the sixth story in the series
*"Ghost", the framing story in the collection "Crashlander"
*"Fly By Night", the seventh story in the series, written after "Crashlander"

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