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I'd like to find a short story from one of the SF magazines — possibly Astounding/Analog— probably before 1965. I saw it a few years ago while flicking through second-hand magazines in a bookshop, and don't remember many details. However, I am certain that it involved a region of space with artificially altered properties. This was almost certainly inside a spaceship, and probably part of the propulsion system. The bit I am most certain of is that there were two "demarcation lines" between this altered space and the normal space of the ship's interior. "Demarcation line" was the actual phrase used. I am also pretty sure of the spatial distortion a crew member undergoes when inside the altered space, see next paragraph. Those are two key points that I remember. The third is a sense of threat or foreboding about passing a demarcation line.

I cannot remember where the ship was going, the names of the people on it, whether it was a research vessel, etc. I am reasonably sure that it wasn't a warship and wasn't in a war. What I do remember is that in order to solve a technical problem with the system, one of the crew has to enter the altered space by passing the first demarcation line, and then get through to the demarcation line at the other end. His experiences in the altered space are probably the main theme of the story. Once inside it, he deforms. Not so much that he dies, but I seem to recall him feeling as though his body has stretched to an enormous length. Despite this, he solves the problem and reaches the exit. It's possible that the space was inside some kind of tube or cylinder: I have a vague image of this being about the distance between one floor of a building and the next, and perhaps periscope-shaped.

This was a short story, probably less than 10 pages. I don't recall any illustrations, but may just have forgotten it or them. I've dated the story between 1950-1965 on the grounds that I usually remember if a magazine is pre-1950, and that I think the magazine was most likely Astounding/Analog but the cover wasn't a post-1965 style. I have never seen the story anywhere else, and attempts to trace it by Googling for likely phrases have failed.

Tha author definitely wasn't Asimov, Clarke or Heinlein. The story probably didn't have the level of scientific rigour that I've encountered in e.g. Asimov's "Billiard Ball" or Clarke's "Superiority". On the other hand, there was some attempt to justify the physics. Although the concept sounds like a wormhole, I don't think the words "wormhole" (or "Einstein-Rosen bridge", "black hole", "singularity" etc.) were used. Moreover, the spatial distortion, though daunting, was not enough to kill the person experiencing it, and I don't remember any mention of extreme quantities such as billions of gravities, body-rending tidal forces, or entry points only a few nanometers in diameter.

The magazine was in a bookbox that included a copy of Science Fantasy 48 (August 1961). I identified that by remembering that it contained John Brunner's short story "The Analysts", which I then confirmed via the covers shown at The Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Weird Fiction Magazine Index. So it's possible that my story was from around the same time.

This is consistent with me thinking that it was in an Analog with the title in all lower case. From the covers at Luminist's Analog covers page, that would set it between December 1961 and March 1965.

Having said that, I could be wrong about the period and the magazine. Judging by P. F. Woods's (Barrington Bayley's) "The Radius Riders" and Colin Kapp's "Lambda 1", the concept and style would not be out of place in, for example, Science Fiction Adventures or John Carnell's New Worlds. And as far as period goes, Wikipedia's Wormholes in fiction tells me that Jack Williamson used the idea of spatial distortion as early as 1931.

  • Great question, very detailed! I'm sure someone will be able to find this for you. The only thing you missed was the story-identification tag, which should go on all questions asking to identify a story. (I've now added that to your question.) – Rand al'Thor May 9 at 12:45
  • You could improve this question by going through the checklists here and editing in any relevant info you can think to add. – Valorum May 9 at 13:40
  • I've tried, thanks, and edited accordingly, but there's little that I can add. – Phil van Kleur May 9 at 20:10
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"Achilles' Heel", a short story by Christopher Anvil, first published in Astounding Science Fiction, February 1958, available at the Internet Archive. If you were in the UK you may have seen it in the British edition, Astounding Science Fiction, May 1958 (UK), also available at the Internet Archive. It was reprinted in Christopher Anvil's 2006 collection The Trouble with Aliens.

"Access corridor," said Martell. "We have to be able to get at the inside of this thing somehow. And at these cables overhead." Martell wound his way expertly among the narrow branching corridors, and Lindt followed closely. The corridor they followed widened, and the overhead cables and wires increased in number. They stepped out into a room where big branching ducts led to a single giant conduit that passed into the wall. "Recognize it?" asked Martell.

"It's out of my line," said Lindt, "but of course it must be the subspace manifold."

"Right." Martell began carefully working at a section of the largest conduit, which was about five feet in diameter. "You know what's in here?" he asked.

Lindt said, "The micro-angle mechanism, whatever that may be."

"Exactly," said Martell. "And now I'll tell you. Wait—" The section of conduit, a rectangular piece about two feet by three, suddenly came loose, and Martell set it down with a grunt and a clang. "Inspection plate," he said. "We usually do the inspecting with a mirror or a stick, or an X ray on the overhead trolley. Some brave souls go in. When I was a brash youth, a friend of mine in Section A used to toss wadded-up messages along the floor of the conduit, and twenty feet away in Sector B III, I would fish them out."

Lindt blinked. "Twenty feet—?"

Martell nodded. "Twenty feet. The micro-angle conduit is a tube of normal space twisted around on itself and bent through subspace. 'Micro-angle' refers to the sharp curve of space in the cross-section of the tube."

"Why don’t we use these things for supplies, transport of personnel—"

"Too expensive for supplies, and when you get in there, you'll see why we don’t use it for personnel," said Martell, stepping back. "You go first. Cling to that big thick cable in the center. Just keep your mind on moving steadily ahead. When you come to a junction, go any way at all. I'll follow right behind you."

Lindt frowned, took hold of the edge of the rectangular inspection opening, put his leg over and got in. The conduit stretched out before him, dimly lighted. Lindt felt uncomfortable but not uneasy. He moved forward, slowly, bent sideways, with an arm on the thick cable.

The awkward part was that of moving ahead through a five-foot pipe with roughly a two-foot cable taking up the center. A little ahead, he noticed that the wall of the tunnel seemed made of a different material. He reached that point.

Gravity went.

Lindt seemed to be falling. Not down. Not up. But in on himself.

His head was shrinking. His limbs spread in all directions like the arms of a starfish. He was collapsing like a balloon with a stone tossed on the center. His legs and hands were enormous.

"Keep moving," said Martell, his voice coming at Lindt from all directions at once, like the rays of the sun going backwards, and not all striking home at the same time.

Lindt pulled on the cable. Tugged and pulled in an automatic motion he remembered from sometime, but that had nothing to do with him now, except that he knew he had to try to do something.

His legs and arms were enormous, long and stretching longer. His body somehow was spread out around his head like a flapjack around a pat of butter. And stretching farther, thin and—

Snap

His legs were touching each other, all their feet together. His head in its finite but unbounded size rimmed the edge of eternity.

He kept his hands moving.

Snap

His heads were flying apart, his arms around each head like wheel spokes, his long thin bodies pinwheeling out and away from his distant feet. His hands groping along the cable wall around him.

Snap

Like a thousand-mile-long cable himself, equipped with a pin-size head and two stubby arms at one end, and tiny feet far out of sight at the other end, he crept like a stretched-out dachshund toward a faraway forgotten goal, past a strange wavy line of demarcation in the wall of the endless tunnel he was in, and—

Snap

He was himself.

Hanging to a two-foot thick cable in a five-foot conduit, in a dim light, with his memories coming back thick and strong.

The noise Lindt made brought the technician who let them out of the conduit.

"That," said Martell, "is why we don't use the conduit for personnel transport."

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  • 1
    Wow. That must be it. Thanks very much! – Phil van Kleur May 11 at 9:13
  • You're welcome! – user14111 May 11 at 10:04

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