Asleep in Armageddon is alternately titled, Perchance to Dream. The story was first published in Planet Stories (1948), and reprinted in Avon Fantasy Reader #11 (1949). We are thankful to Mr. Bradbury for sharing many of his works in the public domain, and feature this one in our collection of Dystopian Stories and The Unreliable Narrator.
“To die, to sleep – to sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub, for in this sleep of death what dreams may come…” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)
YOU DON’T WANT death and you don’t expect death. Something goes wrong, your rocket tilts in space, a planetoid jumps up, blackness, movement, hands over the eyes, a violent pulling back of available power in the fore-jets, the crash…
The darkness. In the darkness, the senseless pain. In the pain, the nightmare.
He was not unconscious.
Your name? asked hidden voices. Sale, he replied in whirling nausea. Leonard Sale. Occupation, cried the voices. Spaceman! he cried, alone in the night. Welcome, said the voices. Welcome, welcome. They faded.
He stood up in the wreckage of his ship. It lay like a folded, tattered garment around him.
The sun rose and it was morning.
Sale pried himself out the small airlock and stood breathing the atmosphere. Luck. Sheer luck. The air was breathable. An instant’s checking showed him that he had two months’ supply of food with him. Fine, fine! And this—he fingered at the wreckage. Miracle of miracles! The radio was intact.
He stuttered out the message on the sending key. CRASHED ON PLANETOID 787. SALE. SEND HELP. SALE. SEND HELP.
The reply came instantly: HELLO, SALE. THIS IS ADDAMS IN MARSPORT. SENDING RESCUE SHIP LOGARITHM. WILL ARRIVE PLANETOID 787 IN SIX DAYS. HANG ON.
Sale did a little dance.
It wis simple as that. One crashed. One had food. One radioed for help. Help came. La! He clapped his hands.
The sun rose and was warm. He felt no sense of mortality. Six days would be no time at all. He would eat, he would read, he would sleep. He glanced at his surroundings. No dangerous animals; a tolerable oxygen supply. What more could one ask. Beans and bacon, was the answer. The happy smell of breakfast filled the air.
After breakfast he smoked a cigarette slowly, deeply, blowing out. He nodded contentedly. What a life! Not a scratch on him. Luck. Sheer luck.
His head nodded. Sleep, he thought.
Good idea. Forty winks. Plenty of time to sleep, take it easy. Six whole long, luxurious days of idling and philosophizing. Sleep.
He stretched himself out, tucked his arm under his head, and shut his eyes.Insanity came in to take him. The voices whispered.
Sleep, yes, sleep, said the voices. Ah, sleep, sleep.
He opened his eyes. The voices stopped. Everything was normal. He shrugged. He shut his eyes casually, fitfully. He settled his long body.
Eeeeeeeeeeee, sang the voices, far away.
Ahhhhhhh, sang the voices.
Sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sang the voices.
Die, die, die, die, die, sang the voices.
Ooooooooooooooo, cried the voices.
Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, a bee ran through his brain.
He sat up. He shook his head. He put his hands to his ears. He blinked at the crashed ship. Hard metal. He felt the solid rock under his fingers. He saw the real sun warming the blue sky.
Let’s try sleeping on our back, he thought. He adjusted himself, lyingback down. His watch ticked on his wrist. The blood burned in bis veins.
Sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sang the voices.
Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, sang the voices.
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, sang the voices.
Die, die, die, die, die. Sleep, sleep, die, sleep, die, sleep, die! Oohhh. Ahhhhh. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
Blood tapped in his ears. The sound of the wind rising.
Mine, mine, said a voice. Mine, mine, he’s mine!
No, mine, mine, said another voice. No, mine, mine; he’s mine!
No, ours, ours, sang ten voices. Ours, ours, he’s ours!
His fingers twitched. His jaws spasmed. His eyelids jerked.
At last, at last, sang a high voice. Now, now. The long time, the waiting. Over, over, sang the high voice. Over, over at last!
It was like being undersea. Green songs, green visions, green time. Bubbled voices drowning in deep liquors of sea tide. Far away choruses chanting senseless rhymes. Leonard Sale stirred in agony.
Mine, mine, cried a loud voice. Mine, mine! shrieked another. Ours, ours! shrieked the chorus.
The din of metal, the crash of sword, the conflict, the battle, the fight, the war. All of it exploding, his mind fiercely torn apart!
He leaped up, screaming. The landscape melted and flowed. A voice said, “I am Tylle of Rathalar. Proud Tylle, Tylle of the Blood Mound and the Death Drum. Tylle of Rathalar, Killer of Men!”
Another spoke, “I am Iorr of Wendillo, Wise Iorr, Destroyer of Infidels!”
The chorus chanted. “And we the warriors, we the steel, we the warriors, we the red blood rushing, the red blood falling, the red blood Steaming the sun—”
Leonard Sale staggered under the burden. “Go away!” he cried. “Leave me, in God’s name, leave me!”
Eeeeeeeeeee, shrieked the high sound of steel hot on steel.
He stood with the sweat boiling out of him. He was trembling so violently he could not stand. Insane, he thought. Absolutely insane. Raving insane. Insane.
He jerked the food kit open, did something to a chemical packet. Hot coffee was ready in an instant. He mouthed it, spilled gushes of it down his shirt. He shivered. He sucked in raw gulps of breath.
Let’s be logical, he thought, sitting down heavily. The coffee seared his tongue. No record of insanity in the family for two hundred years. All healthy, well-balanced. No reason for insanity now. Shock? Silly. No shock. I’m to be rescued in six days. No shock to that. No danger. Just an ordinary planetoid. Ordinary, ordinary place. No reason for insanity. I’m sane.
Oh? cried a small metal voice within. An echo. Fading.
“Yes!” he cried, beating his fists together. “Sane!”
Hahahahahahahahahah. Somewhere a vanishing laughter.
He whirled about. “Shut up, you!” he cried.
We didn’t say anything, said the mountains. We didn’t say anything, said the sky. We didn’t say anything, said the wreckage.
“All right then,” he said, swaying. “See that you don’t.”
Everything was normal.The pebbles were getting hot. The sky was big and blue. He looked at his fingers and saw the way the sun burned on every black hair. He looked at his boots and the dust on them. Suddenly he felt very happy because he made a decision. I won’t go to sleep, he thought. I’m having nightmares, so why sleep. There’s your solution.
He made a routine. From nine o’clock in the morning, which was this minute, until twelve, he would walk around and see the planetoid. He would write on a pad with a yellow pencil everything he saw. Then he would sit down and open a can of oily sardines and some canned fresh bread with good butter on it. From twelve-thirty until four he would read nine chapters of War and Peace. He took the book from the wreckage, and laid it where he might find it later. There was a book of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, too. That might be nice.
Supper would come at five-thirty and then from six until ten he would listen to the radio from Earth. There would be a couple of bad comedians telling jokes and a bad singer singing some song, and the latest news flashes, signing off at midnight with the UN anthem.
He felt sick.
I’ll play solitaire until dawn, he thought. I’ll sit up and drink hot black coffee and play solitaire, no cheating, until sunrise.
Ho, ho, he thought.
“What did you say?” he asked himself.
“I said, ‘Ha ha,’ ” he replied. “Some time, you’ll have to sleep.”
“I’m wide awake,” he said.
“Liar,” he retorted, enjoying the conversation.
“I feel fine,” he said.
“Hypocrite,” he replied.
“I’m not afraid of the night, or sleep, or anything,” he said.
“Very funny,” he said.
He felt bad. He wanted to sleep. And the fact that he was afraid of sleep made him want to lie down all the more and shut his eyes and curl up. “Comfy-cozy?” asked his ironic censor.
“I’ll just walk and look at the rocks and the geological formations and think how good it is to be alive,” he said.
“Ye gods,” cried his censor. “William Saroyan!”
You’ll go on, he thought, maybe one day, maybe one night, but what about the next night and the next, and the next? Can you stay awake all that time, for six nights? Until the rescue ship comes? Are you that good, that strong?
The answer was no.
What are you afraid of? I don’t know. Those voices. Those sounds. But they can’t hurt you, can they?
They might, You’ve got to face them some time. Must I? Brace up to it, old man. Chin up. and all that rot.
He sat down on the hard ground. He felt very much like crying. He felt as if life was over and he was entering new and unknown territory. It was such a deceiving day, with the sun warm; physically, he felt able and well, one might fish on such a day as this, or pick flowers or kiss a woman or anything. But in the midst of a lovely day, what did one get?
Well, hardly that.
Death, he insisted.
He lay down and closed his eyes. He was tired of messing around. All right, he thought, if you are death, come get me. I want to know what all this damned nonsense is about.
* * * * * *
Eeeeeeeeeeee, said a voice.
Yes, I know, said Leonard Sale, lying there. But what else?
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, said a voice.
I know that, also, said Leonard Sale, irritably. He turned cold. His mouth hung open wildly.
“I am Tylle of Rathalar, Killer of Men!”
“I am Iorr of Wendillo, Destroyer of Infidels!”
What is this place? asked Leonard Sale, struggling against horror.
“Once a mighty planet!” said Tylle of Rathalar.
“Once a place of battles!” said Iorr of Wendillo.
“Now dead,” said Tylle.
“Now silent,” said Iorr.
“Until you came,” said Tylle.
“To give us life again,” said Iorr.
You’re dead, insisted Leonard Sale, flesh writhing. You’re nothing but empty wind.
“We live, through you.” “And fight, through you!” So that’s it, thought Leonard Sale. I’m to be a battleground, am I? Are you friends?
“Enemies!” cried Iorr.
“Foul enemies!” cried Tylle.Leonard smiled a rictal smile. He felt ghastly. How long have you waited? he demanded.
“How long is time?” Ten thousand years? “Perhaps.” Ten million years? “Perhaps.”
What are you? Thoughts, spirits, ghosts? “All of those, and more.”
Intelligences? “Precisely.” How did you survive?
Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, sang the chorus, far away.
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, sang another army, waiting to ﬁght.
“Once upon a time, this was fertile land, a rich planet. And there were two nations, strong nations, led by two strong men. I, Iorr. And he, that one who calls himself Tylle. And the planet declined and gave way to nothingness. The peoples and the armies languished in the midst of a great war which had lasted ﬁve thousand years. We lived long lives and loved long loves, drank much, slept much, fought much. And when the planet died, our bodies withered, and, only in time, and with much science, did we survive.”
Survive, wondered Leonard Sale. But there is nothing of you!
“Our minds, fool, our minds! What is a body without a mind?”
What is a mind without a body, laughed Leonard Sale. I’ve got you there. Admit it, I’ve got you!
“True,” said the cruel voice. “One is useless lacking the other. But survival is survival even when unconscious. The minds of our nations, through science, through wonder, survived.”
But without senses, lacking eyes, ears, lacking touch, smell, and the rest? “Lacking all those, yes. We were vapors, merely. For a long time. Until today.”
And now I am here, thought Leonard Sale. “You are here,” said that voice. “To give substance to our mentalities. To give us our needed body
I’m only one, thought Sale. “Nevertheless, you are of use.”
I’m an individual, thought Sale. I resent your intrusion.
“He resents our intrusion! Did you hear him, Iorr? He resents!”
“As if he had a right to resent!”
Be careful, warned Sale. I’ll blink my eyes and you’ll be gone, phantoms! I’ll wake up and rub you out!
“But you’ll have to sleep again, some time!” cried Iorr. “And when yol do, we’ll be here, waiting, waiting, waiting. For you.”
What do you want? “Solidity. Mass. Sensation again.” You can’t both have it. “We’ll fight that out between us.”
A hot clamp twisted his skull. It was as if a spike had been thrust and beaten down between the bivalvular halves of his brain.
Now it was terribly clear. Horribly, magniﬁcently clear. He was their universe. The world of his thoughts, his brain, his skull, divided into camps, that of Iorr, that of Tylle. They were using him!
Pennants ﬂung up on a pink mind sky! Brass shields caught the sun. Grey animals shifted and came rushing in bristling tides of sword a plume and trumpet.
Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! The rushing.
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! The roaring.
Nowwwwwwwwwwwwww! The whirling.
Ten thousand men hurtled across the small hidden stage. Ten thousand men ﬂoated on the shellacked inner ball of his eye. Ten thousand javelins hissed between the small bone hulls of his head. Ten thousand jeweled guns exploded. Ten thousand voices chanted in his ears. Now his body was riven and extended, shaken and rolled, he Was screaming, writhing, the plates of his skull threatened to burst asunder. The gabbling, the shrilling, as across bone plains of mind and continent of inner marrow, through gullies of vein, down hills of artery, over rivers of melancholy, came armies and armies, one army, two armies, swords ﬂashed in the sun, bearing down upon each other, ﬁfty thousand minds snatching, scrabbling, cutting at him, demanding, using. In a moment, the hard collision, one army on another, the rush, the blood, the sound, the fury, the death, the insanity!
Like cymbals, the armies struck!
He leaped up, raving. He ran across the desert. He ran and ran and did not stop running.
He sat down and cried. He sobbed until his lungs ached. He cried very hard and long. Tears ran down his cheeks and into his upraised, trembling ﬁngers. “God, God, help me, oh God, help me,” he said.
All was normal again.It was four o’clock in the afternoon. The rocks were baked by the sun. He managed, after a time, to cook himself a few hot biscuits, which he ate with strawberry jam. He wiped his stained fingers on his shirt, blindly, trying not to think.
“At least I know what I’m up against,” he thought. “Oh, Lord, what a world. What an innocent looking world, and what a monster it really is. It’s good no one ever explored it before. Or did they?” He shook his aching head. Pity them, who ever crashed here before, if any ever did. Warm sun, hard rocks, not a sign of hostility. A lovely world.
Until you shut your eyes and relaxed your mind.
And the night and the voices and the insanity and the death padded in on soft feet.
“I’m all right now, though,” he said, proudly. “Look at that!” He displayed his hand. By a supreme effort of will, it was no longer shaking. “I’ll show you who in hell’s ruler here,” he announced to the innocent sky. “I am.” He tapped his chest.
To think that thought could live that long! A million years, perhaps, all these thoughts of death and disorder and conquest, lingering in the innocent but poisonous air of the planet, waiting for a real man to give them a channel through which they might issue again in all their senseless virulence.
Now that he was feeling better, it was all silly. All I have to do, he thought, is stay awake six nights. They won’t bother me that way. When I’m awake, I’m dominant. I’m stronger than those crazy monarchs and their silly tribes of sword-flingers and shield-bearers and horn-blowers. I’ll stay awake.
But can you? he wondered. Six whole nights? Awake?
There’s coffee and medicine and books and cards.
But I’m tired now, so tired, he thought. Can I hold out?
Well, if not. There’s always the gun.
Where will these silly monarchs be if you put a bullet through their stage? All the,world’s a stage? No. You, Leonard Sale, are the small stage. And they the players. And what if you put a bullet through the wings, tearing down scenes, destroying curtains, ruining lines! Destroy the stage, the players, all, if they aren’t careful!
First of all, he must radio through to Marsport, again. If there was any way they could rush the rescue ship sooner, then maybe he could hang on. Anyway, he must warn them what sort of planet this was, this so innocent-seeming spot of nightmare and fever vision—
He tapped on the radio key for a minute. His mouth tightened. The radio was dead.
It had sent through the proper rescue message, received a reply, and then extinguished itself.
The proper touch of irony, he thought. There was only one thing to do. Draw a plan.
This he did. He got a yellow pencil and delineated his six-day plan of escape.
Tonight, he wrote, read six more chapters of War and Peace. At four in the morning have hot black coffee. At four-fifteen take cards from pack and play ten games of solitaire. This should take until six-thirty when—more coffee. At seven o’clock, listen to early morning programs from Earth, if the receiving equipment on the radio works at all. Does it?
He tried the radio receiver. It was dead.Well, he wrote, from seven o’clock until eight, sing all the songs you remember, make your own entertainment. From eight until nine think about Helen King. Remember Helen. On second thought, think about Helen right now.
He marked that out with his pencil.
The rest of the days were set down in minute detail.
He checked the medical kit. There were several packets of tablets that would keep you awake. One tablet an hour every hour for six-days. He felt quite confident.
“Here’s mud in your evil eye, Iorr, Tylle!”
He swallowed one of the stay-wake tablets with a scalding moutñ of black coffee.
Well, with one thing and another it was Tolstoy or Balzac, gin-rummy, coffee, tablets, walking, more Tolstoy, more Balzac, more gin-rummy, more solitaire. The first day passed, as did the second and the third.
On the fourth day he lay quietly in the shade of a rock, counting to a thousand by fives, then by tens, to keep his mind occupied and awake. His eyes were so tired he had to bathe them frequently in cool water. He couldn’t read, he was bothered with splitting headaches. He was so exhausted he couldn’t move. He was numb with medicine. He resembled a waxen dummy, stuffed with things to preserve him in a state of horrified wakefulness. His eyes were glass, his tongue a rusted pike, his fingers felt as if they were gloved in needles and fur.
He followed the hand of his watch. One second less to wait, he thought. Two seconds, three seconds, four, five, ten, thirty seconds. A whole minute. Now an hour less time to wait. Oh, ship, hurry on thy appointed round!
He began to laugh softly.
What would happen if he just gave up, drifted off into sleep? Sleep, ah, sleep; perchance to dream. All the world a stage… What if he gave up the unequal struggle, lapsed down?
Eeeeeeeeeee, the high, shrill warning sound of battle metal.
He shivered. His tongue moved in his dry, burry mouth.
Iorr and Tylle would battle out their ancient battle.
Leonard Sale would become quite insane.
And whichever won the battle would take this ruin of an insane man, the shaking, laughing wild body, and wander it across the face of this world for ten, twenty years, occupying it, striding in it, pompous, holding court, making grand gestures, ordering heads severed, calling on inward unseen dancing girls. Leonard Sale, what remained of him, would be led off to some hidden cave, there to be infested with wars and worms of wars for twenty insane years, occupied and prostituted by old and outlandish thoughts.
When the rescue ship arrived it would find nothing. Sale would be hidden somewhere by a triumphant army in his head. Hidden in some cleft of rock, placed there like a nest for Iorr to lie upon in evil occupation.
The thought of it almost broke him in half.
Twenty years of insanity. Twenty years of torture, doing what you don’t want to do. Twenty years of wars raging and being split apart, twenty years of nausea and trembling.
His head sank down between his knees. His eyes snapped and cracked and made soft noises. His eardrums popped tiredly.
Sleep, sleep, sang soft sea voices.
I’ll—I’ll make a proposition with you, listen, thought Leonard Sale. You, Iorr, you, too, Tylle! Iorr, you can occupy me on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tylle, you can take me over on Sundays, Tuesdays and Saturdays. Thursday is maid’s night out. Okay?
Eeeeeeeeeeeeee, sang the sea tides, seething in his brain.
Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, sang the distant voices softly, soft.
What’ll you say, is it a bargain, Iorr, Tylle?
No, said a voice.
No, said another.
Greedy, both of you, greedy! complained Sale. A pox on both your houses!
He slept.He was Iorr, jeweled rings on his hands. He arose beside his rocket and held out his fingers, commanding blind armies. He was Iorr, ancient ruler of jeweled warriors.
He was Tylle, lover of women, killer of dogs!
With some hidden bit of awareness, his hand crept to the holster at his hip. The sleeping hand withdrew the gun there. The hand lifted, the gun pointed.
The armies of Tylle and Iorr gave battle.
The gun exploded.
The bullet tore across Sale’s forehead, wakening him.
He stayed awake for another six hours, getting over his latest siege. He knew it to be hopeless now. He washed and bandaged the wound he had given himself. He wished he had aimed straighter and it was all over. He watched the sky. Two more days. Two more. Come on, ship, come on. He was heavy with sleeplessness.
No use. At the end of six hours he was raving badly. He took the gun up and put it down and took it up again, put it against his head, tightened his hand on the trigger, changed his mind, looked at the sky again.
Night settled. He tried to read, threw the book away. He tore it up and burned it, just to have something to do.So tired. In another hour, he decided. If nothing happens, I’ll kill myself. This is for certain now. I’ll do it, this time.