Mission From Arcturus
Reviewed date: 2022 Dec 16
Published in the March 1943 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly, available here.
In June 1953 an alien spacecraft lands in a cornfield near Marceline, Missouri (population 4216, the story helpfully tells us. It's a small town.) The spaceship is protected by a forcefield, a fact painfully discovered by local farmer E. E. Horner when he puts his hand into the field. His hand instantly shrivels and dies.
The aliens make no contact. Scientists analyze the spectrum of light emitted from the ship's windows. Surmising that the aliens would reproduce the same quality of light that comes naturally from their own sun, the scientists compare the light to those of known stars and find a match: the visitors are from Arcturus.
Note: I loved that bit of scientific deduction. Very clever writing.
The US Army and Air Force attack the alien spacecraft with all they've got, to no effect. This being a 1943 story, all they've got is conventional weapons--no nukes. They try various forms of assault--aerial bombardment, artillery, machine guns, missiles, mines, and even infantry. In one infantry assault twelve soldiers who are sneaking up on the spacecraft vanish into thin air.
The military keeps up the assault, ramping up the intensity until it's a continuous assault of bombs and missiles. Finally the Arcturian vessel lashes out with a death ray and kills 81 soldiers. Then the ship's screen fails and it's destroyed.
Corporal Walter Clark, one of the twelve vanished soldiers, reappears, but crippled. He explains what happened. The Arcturians stopped on Earth to repair their broken spaceship, not to invade. When they realized they could not repair their craft before it would succumb to the power of the US military, the Arcturians decided to exact justice in advance for their deaths. The Arcturian law is "A death for a death. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Based on comparative intelligence the Arcturians calculated the value of their seventy lives to equal "ninety-two and four-tenths Earthmen."
The Arcturians explained this all to Corporal Clark, and told him that they would kill his eleven comrades, plus 81 others, and then maim him to "make up the fractional difference." They intended to paralyze him from the waist down. Clark reminded them of Horner, the farmer who lost his arm to the force-field, and the Arcturians agreed to count that as one-tenth. They will only mete out a three-tenths justice to Clark, paralyzing only his legs.
And that's it. The Arcturians exact their justice in advance: they kill 92 Earthmen, cripple Clark's legs and then teleport him to a safe place in a nearby field, and then lower their force screens and die under the military bombardment. The scales of justice are precisely balanced. "Justice is served!"
I like this story. It's a shame it has never been reprinted.