There are going to be spoilers in this post. I’ll put them below the Read More cutoff, but be advised they’re there.
Edmond Hamilton wrote in his introduction to The Best of Leigh Brackett that the narrator of this story, Steve Vance, was modeled on Humphrey Bogart. This was pure speculation on Hamilton’s part because Brackett wasn’t saying. I’ve been a big Bogart fan ever since we watched Casablanca in sophomore English in high school, and it’s still my favorite film. It’s not hard to hear Bogart’s voice when you read this story. Hamilton said he did every time he read it.
From this point on there are spoilers.
Steve Vance was one of the crew of the first expedition to Jupiter. But that was 300 years ago, when he was still human. Now he works for some aliens who were banished from their own dimension long ago. He lures ships passing through the asteroid belt into something called The Veil. It’s a luminous energy in which ships disappear. Sort of like a Bermuda Triangle in space, only Brackett wrote the stor y before The Bermuda Triangle became a thing.
Vance is wandering through a red light district on Mars before the ship he’s about to take to the Veil departs when he encounters two young passengers, a young married couple, from his ship. For a moment he thinks that the woman is his long-dead wife, the resemblance is so strong. But he knows she’s been dead for centuries.
They talk, and the woman shows him a locket that had been passed down in her family. It was given to an ancestor by her husband, a husband that never returned from the initial Jupiter expedition. The locket contains a picture of the woman’s ancestor and the man who was lost in space. Except for the white hair, the man in the picture could be Steve.
He realizes his wife had been pregnant but never told him because she knew how important it was to him to go on the expedition.
Now Steve Vance is taking his multiple times great granddaughter to her death.
The rest of the story, which I won’t spoil, concerns the choices he makes once he realizes who the woman is.
Vance isn’t the most reliable of narrators, especially at the end, when he tries to explain away what he’s done. He tries to deny certain feelings, but his actions say otherwise. The last page, and the last line, are some pretty powerful writing. Steve Vance is the quintessential Brackett protagonist: not exactly heroic, somewhat bitter and cynical, yet deeply wounded at heart. In a lot of ways he resembles some of the characters Bogart played in the movies.
“The Veil of Astellar” has been reprinted multiple times and is currently available in electronic format in Martian Quest from Baen Books.