“The Covenant” is a five-part round-robin novelette published in the July 1960 issue of Fantastic Science Fiction Stories and, as of March 2011, available as an ebook on eReader.com. It was the brain-child of editor Cele Goldsmith (who is also responsible for “What Is This Thing Called Love?”). She lined up five authors with very different approaches and styles, then handed them a suitably vague painting of of a very old man with a long beard, ragged clothing, a rusted rifle, and a flashlight.
Poul Anderson starts the story off. Ban is a soldier in a human city fighting a losing war against Cloud People who are invading and absorbing the humans’ territory. Ban seeks for help from a Prophetess who tells him that the Cloud People master Time as the humans master Space. The only hope is for someone to go to their stronghold alone and in secret. This task Ban takes on himself, but as he penetrates the fog surrounding the territory of the Cloud People, he finds himself aging mysteriously, his clothing falling apart, and his rifle rusting. (He must have really terrific batteries in his flashlight, though.) Memory and strength both fail him and he is desperate to give up and sleep, when…
…Isaac Asimov takes over. Ban is caught and held aloft by two of the younger Cloud People, a boy and a girl, who keep him from “falling” and continuing to age rapidly. Ban struggles to understand them and how they can move themselves and him forward and backward in time, making him older and younger at a whim. They are trying to teach him to do the same, when their Knower shows up and dismisses them. The Knower insists that the Cloud Children drop Ban and let him “fall,” but Ban senses a link between the Knower and his Prophetess and begs for help—only none is forthcoming. Ban tries desperately to get back to his City with what little information he has on the Cloud People before he falls so far that he dies himself of old age.
Robert Sheckley comes next. Ban, desperate, tries to move himself through Time to halt the aging process, but the results are disastrous. Different parts of his body exist at different ages, from early childhood to extreme old age. The Knower and Prophetess tell him he must (literally) pull himself together until he’s back in his original state, or else the results will be disastrous and not just for Ban. His fate is now inexorably intertwined with that of others. For example, there is a crab on a planet called Hiallo killing itself because it’s been rejected by the brood queen. A Roman soldier ambushed by Germans is trying desperately to report what’s happened to his unit. And a pair of shape-shifters have crashed on a planet and intend to colonize it. They build a machine to help them decide which is to be the female and bear their children, but the machine vanishes. All these are of crucial importance to Ban and his people. Ban starts to pull himself together, but it’s too late and the Knower and Prophetess both cry out in despair.
Now it’s time for Murray Leinster. Ban can now see time and space simuntaneously and the doom that awaits both his people and the Cloud People. He understands how his failure to bring himself entirely into one time is threatening all of existence. Ban will have to sacrifice himself, sacrifice himself so thoroughly that he will never have even existed, in order to prevent this horrible fate. He’s willing to to do so, until he realizes that if is kept from even existing, then his people will still be left in their precarious position, and this he cannot allow. Desperate, he fights to keep himself from dissolution…
Finally, Robert Bloch wraps it all up. The machine built by the two explorers vanished because it sensed a danger to everything and must protect the survival of its builders by protecting the universe in which they exist. It goes searching for the center of the threat, first finding the crab, then the Roman soldier, and finally Ban. It heals the breach Ban has caused, finds a different universe for the Cloud People to inhabit, and gives Ban the opportunity to resume a normal existence.
A round-robin story is obviously going to have some problems, even if the authors are trying to cooperate, and these five are definitely not cooperating. As Asimov puts it, each of the first four was trying to end his section with a “real mess” for his successor to clean up. Poor Robert Bloch was saddled with the job of trying to make sense of it all. None of the authors, morever, really made an effort to integrate their approach to fiction with any of the others’. What we’re left with more an exercise in ingenuity than a real story, a patchwork only really useful to sell one issue of one magazine. Even if the story were a rousing success, it would be unlikely to ever find a home in any anthology simply because of the practical issues involved in getting permissions.
And doubt it not, the story is anything but a rousing success. None of the five writers does a bad job, particularly, but none of them is really doing his best, either, and the plot is really incoherent and difficult to follow. Asimov himself regarded the result so slightly that he mentions it only in a footnote in In Joy Still Felt and wryly notes, “I think any one of the five authors could have written a better story if he had done it all himself.”
If I were to pick a favorite piece, however, it would have to be Asimov’s simply because of his playful use of language. For example, when one of the Cloud Children tries to express how easy it is to move Ban through time, Ban hears it come out as, “He’s not very timevy.” Whatever faults the story may have, you gotta love that word.