Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


The Old Space Ranger


    The Old Space Ranger came from a small planet where everyone thought alike.  The Old Space Ranger left his planet and traveled around the Nashuite Empire.  They say that after his experiences on the planet of Livermore -- "the planet where anything can happen" -- the mind of the Old Space Ranger was subtly altered and thereafter he became incapable of thinking or acting like anyone else.

    After his adventures, when he returned to his planet to live, people did not know what to make of him.  Some thought that he was a charlatan and had never been off-world.  Some thought that he had been driven space-bonkers and pointed him out as an example of what happens to those foolish enough to leave home.  Others, however, felt that he might be learned from.

    Some of these persons approached the Old Space Ranger.  They said, "Old Space Ranger, speak to us of where you have been and what you have seen.  Tell us of the reputed wider universe."

    "Very well," said the Old Space Ranger.  "Do you know what I am going to tell you about?"

    "No," said the people.  "That's why we're asking."

    The Old Space Ranger said, "Well, if you don't know, then I can't tell you."  And he went back inside his house.

    Somewhat dismayed, the people decided to try again.  They went to the Old Space Ranger and asked him once again to share his wisdom.  Again he asked them, "Do you know what I am going to tell you?"

    "Yes," they said.  "Yes, we do."

    "In that case," the Old Space Ranger said, "there is no need to say more."  And he went inside his house.

    Once again they approached him, those who felt that eventually he must trip himself up and those who thought there might be something to be learned from him.  As before, the Old Space Ranger asked, "Do you know what I am going to tell you, or don't you?"

    His listeners said, "Some of us do and some of us don't."

    "Splendid!" said the Old Space Ranger, brightening.  "Let those who know tell those who don't."

    When he returned home to his planet, the Old Space Ranger claimed to have been to the center of the empire, the planet Nashua itself.  Everyone was impressed.  They gathered around to hear him.

    "I'll be brief," he said.  "I'll say no more than that my greatest moment was when the Emperor spoke to me."

    The people were amazed that such a thing should happen to one of their own.  They recognized a momentous portent, and  they went their way to discuss what it might mean for them.  One driveling idiot hung around.  He went up to the Old Space Ranger and asked: "What did the Emperor say to you?"

    The Old Space Ranger said:  "Plain as plain, where everyone could hear him, he said to me, 'Get out of my way.'"

    The Old Space Ranger went to the planetary vibro-culture center for a shake-up.  Because he was dressed like a common trudger, the attendants treated him like one.  They put him in a decertified vibro-chamber, and they left him to his own devices.  They didn't even tickle his belly.  When he left, the Old Space Ranger didn't complain.  Instead he handed the attendants a tip of a royal each.  "Wow!" they said to each other.  "Just think what he would have flipped us if we had given him a proper buzz-and-polish!"

    The next time the Old Space Ranger came in for a shake-up, he was shown the utmost deference.  He could not have been  better treated if he were the Emperor himself.  They gave him the best vibro-chamber in the hospice, and not only did they get his belly this time, they got him all over.  When he was buffed to a fare-thee-well and ready to leave,  the Old Space Ranger handed the attendants a minim each.  "But what is this?" they said, looking at the paltriness.

    "This is for the last time," the Old Space Ranger said.  "The royals were for this time."

    Once the Old Space Ranger was traveling between the stars when he saw a fleet of spaceships coming toward him. Imaginings began to churn in his mind.  He saw himself taken by pirates or inspected by the Navy and found wanting.  He panicked and ran.  He went to ground on the local graveyard planet.  Puzzled at this strange behavior, those in the spaceships--a convoy of honest wayfarers--followed the Old Space Ranger.   They found him cowering and quivering in a pit.

    "Are you in trouble?" they asked.  "What are you doing in this hole?"

    The Old Space Ranger now realized what had happened.

    "A simple question doesn't necessarily have a simple answer," he said.  "It all depends on how you look at things.  If you must know, however, I am here because of you, and you are here because of me."

    The Old Space Ranger offered to teach anyone who could bring him a something that was nothing, and a nothing that was everything.

    One day the Old Space Ranger called up Catalog Central on his planet.

    "Do you have bubble forms?"

    "This is Catalog Central. If it is listed in your computer, we have it."

    "What about life support systems?

    "Oh, yes.

    "An engine. Do you have that?"


    "Guidance systems?"


    "In that case," said the Old Space Ranger, "why don't you build a spaceship?"

    Most people were discouraged by the behavior of the Old Space Ranger, or were bewildered by him.   But still there were rumors that he was living and operating on another plane than the ordinary.   One young man decided to watch him, to see how he lived, and to learn his secrets if that was possible.   He followed the Old Space Ranger down to the river and saw him sit by a tree.  The Old Space Ranger put his hand out, and out of nothingness took a cake, which he ate.  And another.  And another.  Then he reached out again and picked up a glass and drank.  The youth was beside himself.  He rushed up to the Old Space Ranger and seized his sleeve.

    "Tell me how you perform these marvels and I will do anything you ask of me," he said.

    "Certainly," said the Old Space Ranger.  "But if you wish to annihilate space and time and receive dainties from the  hand of the Emperor's servitor, you must be in the right state of mind."

    "No problem," said the young man.  "Tell me what to think and I'll think it."

    "I can only tell you one thing at a time.  Do you want to start with the easy exercise, or the difficult one?"

    "I'll take the hard one."

    "Your first mistake," said the Old Space Ranger.  "You have to start with the easy one. But now you've chosen and that's that.  The difficult exercise is this:  Make a hole in your fence large enough for your flock of vreebles to get into your neighbor's yard to peck--that large.  But the hole must also be so small that your neighbor's vreebles can't get into your yard to peck."

    The young man was unable to solve this problem.  And when he came to tell people about what he had seen the Old Space Ranger do, they thought he was crazy.

    "A start, a start," said the Old Space Ranger. "Someday you'll find a teacher."

More Tales of the Old Space RangerHow to Crack Eggs from the Inside

Other Related Material  -  Return to Contents

For speculations on the true meaning of Catalog Central, see the entry "Why Don't You Build a Spaceship?" at Cory Panshin's blog.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Written 1978.  Posted November 2000.

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Divider courtesy of  Dreamcatcher Graphics