The Custodians
by James H. Schmitz
 

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Analog, December 1968

collected in —

The Best of James H. Schmitz
Agent of Vega & Other Stories

November 2012

  

"The Custodians" is an unusually negative novelet by James H. Schmitz, yet it's a suspenseful adventure. This is a standalone story, not part of Schmitz's Agent of Vega or Federation of the Hub series. In what ways negative? Well, the general tone of those series is quite pleasant amidst their suspense; their deep backgrounds, although often scary and realistically chaotic, allow us to nurture a reasonable good hope for the long future of humanity.

In contrast, Gage, the ship's navigator who is the protagonist of "The Custodians" seems to be ethically compromised, at least in his past. The captain and crew of Gage's human-manned ship have been descending from interstellar trade toward piracy. As for deep background, we aren't given much, but both the Terrestrial and Galactic environments and prospects look rather bleak.

Schmitz provides one of his more horrific species of alien, with an innate biological weapon which I won't share here. It's not apparent to others until it's too late, anyway. The story opens:

McNulty was a Rilf. He could pass for human if one didn't see him undressed; but much of the human appearance of the broad, waxy-pale face and big hands was the result of skillful surgery. Since the Rilf surgeons had only a vague notion of what humans considered good looks, the face wasn't pleasant, but it would do for business purposes.
  

Captain Hiskey has an idea for an unobtrusive stepping-stone for his ship's contingent of Rilf passengers on their way to their expected lucrative mercenary work on Earth:

"Did your tapes tell you anything about Earthsystem's asteroid estates?"

"Yes ..." McNulty said. "I gathered their inhabitants retain only tenuous connections with the planetary culture and do not engage in belligerent projects. I concluded that they were of no interest to us."

"Well, start getting interested," Hiskey told him. "Each of those asteroids is a little world to itself. They're completely independent of both Earthplanet and Earthsystem. They got an arrangement with Earthsystem which guarantees their independent status as long as they meet certain conditions, From what Gage's sister told him, the asteroid she's on is a kind of deluxe spacegoing ranch. It belongs to a Professor Alston ... a handful of people, some fancy livestock, plenty of supplies."

This private asteroid is the setting for a perilous battle, as the navigator Gage finds himself in the way of the Rilfs' takeover of the asteroid and their intended "exercise" of killing the inhabitants and their livestock.

Although "The Custodians" is rather dark for Schmitz, its adventure is striking; and as for the background, perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel. I've increasingly appreciated the story in re-readings over the years.

  

  
© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
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