The Dead Astronaut – J.G. Ballard

Cape KENNEDY has gone now, its gantries rising from the deserted dunes. Sand has come in across the Banana River, filling die creeks and turning the old space complex into a wilder­ness of swamps and broken concrete. In the summer, hunters build their blinds in the wrecked staff cars; but by early November, when Judith and I arrived, the entire area was abandoned. Beyond Cocoa Beach, where I stopped the car, the ruined motels were half hidden in the saw grass. The launching towers rose into the evening air like the rusting ciphers of some forgotten algebra of the sky.

“The perimeter fence is half a mile ahead,” I said. “We’ll wait here until it’s dark. Do you feel better now?”

Judith was staring at an immense funnel of cerise cloud that seemed to draw the day with it below the horizon, taking the light from her faded blonde hair. The previous afternoon, in the hotel in Tampa, she had fallen ill briefly with some unspecified complaint.

“What about the money?” she asked. “They may want more, now that we’re here.”

“Five thousand dollars? Ample, Judith. These relic hunters are a dying breed—few people are interested in Cape Kennedy any longer. What’s the matter?”

Her thin fingers were fretting ai the collar of her suede jacket. “I . . . it’s just that perhaps I should have worn black.”

“Why? Judith, this isn’t a funeral. For heaven’s sake, Robert died twenty years ago. I know all he meant to us, but. . . .”

Judith was staring at the debris of tires and abandoned cars, her pale eyes be­calmed in her drawn face. “Philip, don’t you understand, he’s coming back now. Someone’s got to be here. The memorial service over the radio was a horrible travesty —my God, that priest would have had a shock if Robert had talked back to him. There ought to be a full-scale committee, not just you and I and these empty night clubs.”

In a firmer voice, I said: “Judith, there would be a committee—if we told the NASA Foundation what we know. The remains would be interred in the NASA vault at Arlington, there’d be a band— even the President might be there. There’s still time.”

I waited for her to reply, but she was watching the gantries fade into the night sky. Fifteen years ago. when the dead astronaut orbiting the earth in his burned-out capsule had been forgotten. Judith had constituted herself a memori­al committee of one. Perhaps, in a few days, when she finally held the last relics of Robert Hamilton’s body in her own hands, she would come to terms with her obsession.

“Philip, over there! Is that —?

High in the western sky, between the constellations Cepheus and Cassiopeia, a point of white light moved toward us, like a lost star searching for its zodiac. Within a few minutes, it passed over head, its faint beacon setting behind the cirrus over the sea.

“It’s all right, Judith.” I showed her the trajectory timetables penciled into my diary. “The relic hunters read these orbits of the sky better than any com­puter. They must have been watching the pathways for years.”

“Who was it?”

“A Russian woman pilot—Valentina Prokrovna. She was sent up from a site near the Urals twenty-five years ago to work on a television relay system.”

“Television? I hope they enjoyed the program.”

This callous remark, uttered by Judith as she stepped from the car, made me realize once again her special motives for coming to Cape Kennedy. I watched the capsule of the dead woman disappear over the dark Atlantic stream, as always moved by the tragic but serene spectacle of one of these ghostly voyagers coming back after so many years from the tide­-ways of space. All I knew of this dead Russian was her code name: Seagull. Yet. for some reason. I was glad to be there as she came down. Judith, on the other hand, felt nothing of this. During all the years she had sat in the garden in the cold evenings, too tired to bring her­self to bed, she had been sustained by her concern for one only of the 12 dead astronauts orbiting the night sky.

As she waited, her back to the sea, I drove the car into the garage of an aban­doned night club 50 yards from the road. From the trunk I took out two suit­cases. One, a light travel case, contained clothes for Judith and myself. The other, fitted with a foil inlay, reinforcing straps and a second handle, was empty.

We set off north toward the perimeter fence, like two late visitors arriving at a resort abandoned years earlier.

It was 20 years now since the last rockets had left their launching platforms at Cape Kennedy. At the time, NASA had already moved Judith and me—I was a senior flight program­mer—-to the great new Planetary Space Complex in New Mexico. Shortly after our arrival, we had met one of the trainee astronauts, Robert Hamilton. After two decades, all I could remember of this overpolite but sharp-eyed young man was his albino skin, so like Judith’s pale eyes and opal hair, the same cold gene that crossed them both with its arctic pallor. We had been close friends for barely six weeks. Judith’s infatuation was one of those confused sexual impulses that well-brought-up young women express in their own naive way; and as I watched them swim and play tennis to­gether, I felt not so much resentful as concerned to sustain the whole passing illusion for her.

A year later, Robert Hamilton was dead. He had returned to Cape Kennedy for the last military flights before the launching grounds were closed. Three hours after lift-off. a freak meteorite collision ruptured his oxygen support system. He had lived on in his suit for another five hours. Although calm at first, his last radio transmissions were an inco­herent babble Judith and I had never been allowed to hear.

A dozen astronauts had died in orbital accidents, their capsules left to revolve through the night sky like the stars of a new constellation: and at first, Judith had shown little response. Later, after her miscarriage, the figure of this dead astronaut circling the sky above us re-emerged in her mind as an obsession with time. For hours, she would stare at the bedroom clock, as if waiting for something to happen.

Five years later, after I resigned from NASA, we made our first trip to Cape Kennedy. A few military units still guarded the derelict gantries, but already the former launching site was being used as a satellite graveyard. As the dead capsules lost orbital velocity, they honied onto the master radio beacon. As well as the American vehicles, Russian and French satellites in the joint Euro American space projects were brought down here, the burned-out hulks of the capsules exploding across the cracked concrete.

Already, too, the relic hunters were at Cape Kennedy, scouring the burning saw grass lot instrument panels and living suits and—most valuable of all— the mummified corpses of the dead astronauts.

These blackened fragments of collarbone and shin, kneecap and ribs were the unique relics of the space age, as treasured as the saintly ones of medieval shrines. After the first fatal accidents in space, public outcry demanded that these orbiting biers be brought down to earth. Unfortunately, when a returning moon rocket crashed into the Kalahari Desert aboriginal tribesmen broke into the vehi­cle. Believing the crew to be dead gods, they cut off the eight hands and vanished into the bush. It had taken two years to track them down. From then on, the capsules were Ieft in orbit to burn out on re-entry.

Whatever remains survived the crash landings in the satellite graveyard were scavenged by the relic hunters of Cape Kennedy. This band of nomads had lived for years in the wrecked cars and motels, stealing their icons under the feet of the wardens who patrolled the concrete decks. In early October, when a former NASA colleague told me that Robert Hamilton’s satellite was becoming unstable, I drove down to Tampa and began to inquire about the purchase price of Robert’s mortal remains. Five thousand dollars was a small price to pay for laying his ghost to rest in Judith’s mind.

Eight hundred yards from the road, we crossed the perimeter fence. Crushed by the dunes, long sections of the 20 foot high palisade had collapsed, the saw glass growing through the steel mesh. Below us, the boundary road passed a derelict guardhouse: and divided into two paved tracks. As we waited at this rendezvous, the head lamps of the ward­ens’ half-tracks flared across the gantries near the beach.

Five minutes later, a small dark-fated man climbed from the rear seat of a car buried in the sand 50 yards away Head down, he scuttled over to us.

“Mr. and Mrs. Groves?” After a pause to peer into our faces, he introduced himself tersely: “Quinton. Sam Quinton.”

As he shook hands, his clawlike fingers examined the bones of my wrist and forearm. His sharp nose made circles in the air. He had the eyes of a nervous bird, forever searching the dunes and grass. An Army webbing belt hung around his patched black denims, he moved his hands restlessly in the air, as if conducting a chamber ensemble hid­den behind the sand hills, and I noticed his badly starred palms. Huge weals formed pale stars in the darkness.

For a moment, he seemed disappointed by us, almost reluctant to move on. Then he set off at a brisk pace across the dunes, now and then leaving us to blunder about helplessly. Half an hour later, when we entered a shallow basin near a farm of alkali settling beds. Judith and I were exhausted, dragging the suitcases over the broken tires and barbed wire.

A group of cabins had been dismantled from their original sites along the beach and re-erected in the basin. Isolat­ed rooms tilted on the sloping sand, man­telpieces and flowered paper decorating the outer walls. The basin was full of salvaged space material: sections of capsules, heat shields, antennas and parachute canisters. Near the dented hull of a weather satellite, two sallow-faced men in sheepskin jackets sat on a car seat. The older wore a frayed Air Force cap over his eyes. With his scarred hands, he was polishing the steel visor of a space helmet. The other, a young man with a faint beard hiding his mouth, watched us approach with the detached and neutral gaze of an undertaker.

We entered the largest of the cabins, two rooms taken of the rear of a beach-house. Quinton lit a paraffin lamp. He pointed around the clingy interior. “You’ll be . . . comfortable.” he said without conviction. As Judith stared at him with unconcealed distaste, he added pointedly: “We don’t get many visitors.”

I put the suitcases on the metal bed. Judith walked into the kitchen and Quinton began to open the empty case.

“It’s in here?”

I look the two packets of SI00 bills front my jacket. When I had handed them to him. I said: “The suitcase is for the . . . remains. Is it big enough?”

Quinton peered at me through the ruby light, as if baffled by our presence there. ‘ You could have spared yourself the trouble. They’ve been up there a long time. Mr. Groves. After the impact” —for some reason, he cast a lewd eye in Judith’s direction— “there might be enough for a chess set.”

When he had gone. I went into the kitchen, Judith stood by the stove, hands on a carton of canned food. She was staring through the window at the metal salvage, refuse of the sky that still carried Robert Hamilton in its rusty centrifuge. For a moment. I had the feeling that the entire landscape of the earth was covered with rubbish and that here at Cape Kennedy, we had found its source.

I held her shoulders, “Judith, is there any point in this? Why don’t we go back to Tampa? I could drive here in ten days’ time when it’s all over.”

She turned from me, her hands rub­bing the suede where I had marked it. “Philip. I want to be here—no matter how unpleasant. Can’t you understand?”

At midnight, when I finished making a small meal for us, she was standing on the concrete wall of the settling tank. The three relic hunters sitting on their car seats watched her without moving, scarred hands like flames in the darkness.

. . .

At three o’clock that morning, as we lay awake on the narrow bed. Valentina Prokrovna came down from the sky. Enthroned on a bier of burning aluminum 300 yards wide, she soared past on her final orbit. When I went out into the night air, the relic hunters had gone.

From the rim of the settling tank. I watched them race away among the duties, leaping like hares over the tires and wire.

I went back to the cabin. “Judith, she’s coming down. Do you want to watch?”

Her blonde hair tied with a white towel. Judith lay on the bed. staring at the clacked plasterboard ceiling. Shortly alter four o’clock, as I sat beside her, a phosphorescent light filled the hollow. There was the distant sound of explosions, muffled by the high wall of the dunes. Lights flared, followed by the noise of engines and sirens.

At dawn the relic hunters returned, scarred hands wrapped in makeshift bandages, dragging their booty with them.

After this melancholy rehearsal, Ju­dith entered a period of sudden and unexpected activity. As if preparing the cabin for some visitor, she rehung the curtains and swept out the two rooms with meticulous care, even bringing herself to ask Quinton for a bottle of clean­er. For hours she sat at the dressing table, brushing and shaping her hair, trying out first one style and then anoth­er. I watched her feel the hollows of her cheeks, searching for the contours of a face that had vanished years ago. As she spoke about Robert Hamilton, she almost seemed worried that she would appear old to him. At other times, she referred to Robert as if he were a child, the son she and I had never been aide to conceive since her miscarriage. These different roles followed one another like scenes in some private psychodrama. However, without knowing it. for years Judith and I had used Robert Hamilton for our own reasons. Waiting for him to land, and well aware that after this Ju­dith would have no one to turn to except myself. I said nothing.

Meanwhile, the relic hunters winked on the fragments of Valentina Prokovna’s capsule: the blistered beat shield, the chassis of the radiotelemetry unit and several cans of film that recorded her collision and act of death (these, if still intact, would letch the highest prices, films of horrific and dreamlike violence played in the underground cinemas of Los Angeles. London and Moscow). Pass­ing the next cabin. I saw a tattered silver space suit spread eagled on two automobile seats. Quinton and the relic hunters knelt beside it. their arms deep inside the legs and sleeves, gaping at me with the rapt and sensitive eyes of jewelers.

An hour before dawn, I was awakened by the sound of engines along the heath. In the darkness, the three relic hunters crouched by the settling tank, their pinched laces lit by the head lamps. A long convoy of trucks and half-tracks was moving into the launching ground. Soldiers jumped down from the tail­boards, unloading tents and supplies.

“What are they doing?” I asked Quin­ton. Are they looking for us?”

The old man cupped a scarred hand over his eyes. “It’s the Army,” he said uncertainly “Maneuvers, maybe. They haven’t been here before like this.”

‘What about Hamilton?” I gripped his bony arm. “Are you sure?”

He pushed me away with a show of nervous temper. “We’ll get him first. Don’t worry, he’ll be coming sooner than they think.”

Two nights later, as Quinton proph­esied. Robert Hamilton began bis final descent. From the dunes near the set­tling tanks, we watched him emerge from the stars on his last run. Reflected in the windows of the buried cars, a thousand images of the capsule flared in the saw grass around us. Behind the satellite, a wide fan of silver spray opened in a phantom wake.

In the Army encampment by the gantries, there was a surge of activity. A blaze of head lamps crossed the concrete lanes. Since the arrival of these military units, it had become plain to me, if not to Quinton, that far from being on maneu­vers, they were preparing for the landing of Robert Hamilton’s capsule. A dozen half-tracks had been churning around the dunes, setting fire to the abandoned cabins and crushing the old car bodies. Platoons of soldiers were repairing the perimeter fence and replacing the sections of metaled road that the relic hunters had dismantled.

Shortly after midnight, at an elevation of 12 degrees in the northwest, between Lyra and Hercules, Robert Hamilton ap­peared for the last time. As Judith stood up and shouted into the night air. an im­mense blade of light cleft the sky. The expanding corona sped toward us like a gigantic signal flare, illuminating every fragment of the landscape.

“Mrs. Groves.” Quinton darted alter Judith and pulled her down into the grass as she ran toward the approaching satellite. Three hundred yards away, the silhouette of a half-track stood out on an isolated dune, its feeble spotlights drowned by the glare.

With a low metallic sigh, the burning capsule of the dead astronaut soared over our heads, the vaporizing metal pouring from its hull. A few seconds lat­er, as I shielded my eyes, an explosion of detonating sand rose from the ground be­hind me. A curtain of dust lilted into the darkening air like a vast specter of powdered bone. The sounds of the impact rolled across the dunes. Near the launching gantries, fires flickered where fragments of the capsule had landed. A pall of phosphorescing gas hung in the air, particles within it treading and winking.

Judith had gone, running after the relic hunters through the swerving spotlights. When I caught up with them, the last fires of the explosion were dying among the gantries. The capsule had landed near the old Atlas launching pads, forming a shallow crater 50 yards in diameter. The slopes were scattered with glowing particles, sparkling like fading eyes. Judith ran distraughtly up and clown, searching the fragments of smoldering metal.

Someone struck my shoulder. Quinton and his men, hot ash on their scarred hands, ran past like a troop of madmen, eyes wild in the crazed night. As we darted away through the flaring spotlights, I looked back at the beach. The gantries were enveloped in a pale-silver sheen that hovered there and then moved away like a dying wraith over the sea.

  • • •

At dawn, as the engines growled among the dunes, we collected the last remains of Robert Hamilton. The old man came into our cabin. As Judith watched from the kitchen, drying her hands on a towel, he gave me a card­board shoe box.

I held the box in my bands. “Is this all you could get?”

“It’s all there was. look at them, if you want.”

“That’s all right. We’ll be leaving in half an hour.”

He shook his head. “Not now. They’re all around. II you move, they’ll find us.”

He waited for me to open the shoe box. then grimaced and went out into the pale light.

  • • •

We stayed for another four days, as the Army patrols searched the sur­rounding dunes. Day and night, the half­tracks lumbered among the wrecked cars and cabins. Once, as I watched with Quinton from a fallen water lower, a half-track and two jeeps came within 400 yards of the basin, held back only by the stench from the settling beds and the tracked concrete causeways.

During this lime. Judith sat in the cabin, the shoe box on her lap. She said nothing to me. as if she had lost all in­terest in me and the salvage-filled hol­low at Cape Kennedy. Mechanically, she combed her hair, making and remaking her face.

On the second day, I came in after helping Quinton bury the cabins to their windows in the sand. Judith was standing by the table.

The shoe box was open. In the center of the table lay a pile of charred sticks, as if she had tried to light a small fire. Then I realized what was there. As she stirred the ash with her fingers, gray flakes fell from the joints, revealing the bony points of a clutch of ribs, a right hand and shoulder blade.

She looked at me with puzzled eyes. “They’re black.” she said.

Holding her in my arms, I lay with her on the bed. A loud-speaker reverberated among the dunes, fragments of the amplified commands drumming at the panes.

When they moved away, Judith said: “We can go now.”

“In a little while, when it’s clear. What about these?”

“Bury them. Anywhere, it doesn’t matter.” She seemed calm at last, giving me a brief smile, as if to agree that this grim charade was at last over.

Yet, when I had packed the bones into the shoe box, scraping up Robert Hamil­ton’s ash with a dessertspoon, she kept it with her, carrying it into the kitchen while she prepared our meals.

It was on the third day that we fell ill.

After a long, noise filled night. I found Judith sitting in front of the mirror, combing thick clumps of hair front her scalp. Her mouth was open, as if her lips were stained with acid. As she dusted the loose hair from her lap, I was struck by the leprous whiteness of her face.

Standing up with an effort. I walked listlessly into the kitchen and stared at the saucepan of cold coffee. A sense of indefinable exhaustion had come over me, as if the bones in my body had softened and lost their rigidity. On the lapels of my jacket, loose hair lay like spinning waste.

“Philip. . . .” Judith swayed toward me. “Do you feel —-  What is it?”

“The water.” I poured the coffee into the sink and massaged my throat. “It must he fouled.”

“Can we leave?” She put a hand up to her forehead. Her brittle nails brought down a handful of frayed ash hair. “Phil­ip, for God’s sake—I’m losing all my hair!”

Neither of us was able to eat. After forcing myself through a few slices of cold meat. I went out and vomited behind the cabin.

Quinton and his men were crouched by the wall of the settling tank. As I walked toward them, steadying myself against the hull of the weather satellite. Quinton came clown. When I told him that the water supplies were contaminat­ed, he stared at me with his hard bird’s eyes.

Half an hour later, they were gone.

  • • •

The next day, our last there, we were worse. Judith lay on the bed, shivering in her jacket, the shoe box held in one hand. I spent hours searching for fresh water in the cabins. Exhausted, I could barely cross the sandy basin. The Army patrols were closer. By now, I could hear the hard gear changes of the half-tracks. The sounds from the loud-speakers drummed like fists on my head.

Then, as I looked down at Judith front the cabin doorway, a few words stuck for a moment in my mind.

“. . . contaminated area . . . evacuate . . . radioactive. . .”

I walked forward and pulled the box front Judith’s hands.

”Philip. . . .” She looked up at me weakly. “Give it back to me.”

Her face was a puffy mask. On her wrists, white decks were forming. Her left hand reached toward me like the claw of a cadaver.

I shook the box with blunted anger. The bones rattled inside. “For Cod’s sake, it’s him! Don’t you see—why we’re ill?”

“Philip—where are the others? The old man. Get them to help you.”

“They’ve gone. They went yesterday, I told you.” I let the box fall onto the ta­ble. The lid broke off, spilling the ribs tied together like a bundle of firewood. “Quinton knew what was happening— why the Army is here. They’re trying to warn us.”

“What do you mean?” Judith sat up. the focus of her eves sustained only by a continuous effort. “Don’t let them take Robert. Bury him here somewhere. We’ll come back later.”

“Judith!” I bent over the bed and shouted hoarsely at her. “Don’t you realize—there was a bomb on board! Robert Hamilton was carrying an atomic weap­on!” I pulled hack the curtains from the window. “My Cod. what a joke. For twenty years. I put up with him because I couldn’t ever be really sure. . . .”

“Philip. . . .”

“Don’t worry. I used him—thinking about him was the only thing that kept us going. And all the time, he was waiting up there to pay us back!”

There was a tumble of exhaust out­side. A half-track with red crosses on its doors and hood had reached the edge of the basin. Two men in vinyl suits jumped down, counters raised in front of them.

“Judith, before we go. tell me … I never asked you ”

Judith was sitting up, touching the hair on her pillow. One half of her scalp was almost bald. She stared at her weak hands with their silvering skin. On her face was an expression I had never seen before, the dumb anger of betrayal.

As she looked at me, and at the bones scattered on the table, I knew my answer.


Your appointment will be yesterday – Phillip K. Dick

Sunlight ascended and a pen­etrating mechanical voice de­clared, “All right, Lehrer. Time to get up and show ’em who you are and what you can do. Big man, that Niehls Lehrer; every­body acknowledges it — I hear them talking. Big man, big talent, big job. Much admired by the public at large. You awake now?”
Lehrer, from his bed, said, “Yes.” He sat up, batted the sharp-voiced alarm clock at his
bedside into nullification. “Good morning,” he said to the silent apartment. “Slept well; I hope you did, too.”
A press of problems tumbled about his disordered mind as he got grouchily from the bed, wan­dered to the closet for clothing adequately dirty. Supposed to nail down Ludwig Eng, he said to himself. The tasks of tomorrow become the worse tasks of today. Reveal to Eng that only one copy of his great-selling book is left in all the world; the time is com­ing soon for him to act, to do the job only he can do. How would Eng feel? After all, sometimes inventors refused to sit still and do their job. Well, he decided, that actually consisted of a syn­dicate-problem; theirs, not his. He found a stained, rumpled red shirt; removing his pajama top he got into it. The trousers were not so easy; he had to root through the hamper.
And then the packet of whis­kers.
My ambition, Lehrer thought as he padded to the bathroom with the whisker packet, is to cross the W.U.S. by streetcar. Whee. At the bowl he washed his face, then lathered on foam-glue, opened the packet and with adroit slappings managed to convey the whiskers evenly to his chin, jowls, neck; in a moment he had ex­pertly gotten the whiskers to ad­here. I’m fit now, he decided as he reviewed his countenance in the mirror, to take that streetcar ride; at least as soon as I process my share of sogum.
Switching on the sogum pipe he accepted a good masculine bundle, sighed contentedly as he glanced over the sports section of the San Francisco Chronicle, then at last walked to the kitchen and began to lay out soiled dishes. In no time at all he faced a bowl of soup, lambchops, green peas, Martian blue moss with egg sauce and a cup of hot coffee. These he ga­thered up, slid the dishes from be­neath and around them —of course checking the windows of the room to be sure no one saw him—and briskly placed the as­sorted foods in their proper re­ceptacles which he placed on shelves of the cupboard and in the refrigerator. The time was eight-thirty; he still had fifteen minutes to get to work. No need to kill himself hurrying; the People’s Topical Library section B would be there when he arrived.
It had taken him years to work up to B. He did not perform routine work any longer, not at a section B desk, and he most certainly did not have to arrange for the cleaning of thousands of identical copies of a work in the early stages of eradication. In fact strictly speaking he did not have to participate in eradication at all; minions employed wholesale by the library took care of that coarse duty. But he did have to deal tete- a-tete with a vast variety of irri­table, surly inventors who balked at their assigned—and according to the syndicate mandatory—final cleaning of the sole-remaining typescript copy of whatever work their name had become linked with—linked by a process which neither he nor the assorted in­ventors completely understood. The syndicate presumably under­stood why a particular given in­ventor received a particular as­signment and not some other as­signment entirely. For instance, Eng and HOW I MADE MY OWN SWABBLE OUT OF CONVEN­TIONAL HOUSEHOLD OBJECTS IN MY BASEMENT DURING MY SPARE TIME. Lehrer reflected as he glanced over the remainder of the newspaper. Think of the responsibility. After Eng fin­ished, no more swabbles in all the world, unless those untrustwor­thy rogues in the F.N.M. had a couple illicitly tucked away. In fact, even though the ter-cop,the terminal copy, of Eng’s book still remained, he already found it difficult to recall what a swabble did and what it looked like. Square? Small? Or round and huge? Hmmm. He put down the newspaper and rubbed his fore­head while he attempted to re­call – tried to conjure up an ac­curate mental image of the de­vice while it was still possible to do so. Because as soon as Eng reduced the ter-cop to a heavily inked silk ribbon, half a ream of bond paper and a folio of fresh carbon paper there existed abso­lutely no chance for him or for anyone else to recall either the book or the mechanism which the book described.
That task, however, would prob­ably occupy Eng the rest of the year. Cleaning of the ter-cop had to progress line by line, word by word; it could not be handled as were the assembled printed cop­ies. So easy, up until the terminal typescript copy, and then… well, to make it worth it to Eng, to compensate him for the long, ar­duous work, a really huge bill would be served on him: the task would cost Eng something on the order of twenty-five thousand poscreds. And since eradication of the swabble book would make Eng a poor man, the task. . . .
By his elbow on the small kit­chen table the receiver of the phone hopped from its mooring onto the table, and from it came a distant tiny shrill voice.”Good­bye, Niehls.” A woman’s voice.
Lifting the receiver to his ear he said, “Goodbye.”
“I love you, Niehls,” Charise McFadden stated in her breath­less, emotion-saturated voice. “Do you love me?”
“Yes, I love you, too,” he said. “When have I seen you last? I hope it won’t be long. Tell me it won’t be long.”
“Most probably tonight” Char­ise said. “After work. There’s someone I want you to meet, a virtually unknown inventor who’s desperately eager to get official eradication for his thesis on, ahem, the psychogenic origins of death by meteor-strike. I said that because you’re in section B—”
“Tell him to eradicate his thesis himself.”
“There’s no prestige in that.” Earnestly, Charise pleaded, “It’s really a dreadful piece of theoriz­ing, Niehls; it’s as nutty as the day is long. This boy, this Lance Arbuthnot-”
“That’s his name?” It almost persuaded him. But not quite. In the course of a single day he received many such requests, and every one, without exception came represented as a crank piece by a crank inventor with a crank name. He had held his chair at section B too long to be easily snared. But still—he had to in­vestigate this; his ethical struc­ture insisted on it. He sighed.
“I hear you groaning,” Charise said brightly.
Lehrer said, “As long as he’s not from the F.N.M.”
“Well —he is.” She sounded guilty. “I think they threw him out, though. That’s why he’s here and not there.”
But that, Lehrer realized, proved nothing. Arbuthnot—pos­sibly—did not share the fanatical,militant convictions of the ruling elite of the Free Negro Munici­pality; possibly he was too mod­erate, too balanced for the Bards of the republic carved out of quon­dam Tennessee, Kentucky, Ar­kansas and Missouri. But then again he perhaps had too fanatical a view. One never knew; not until one met the person, and some­times not even then. The Bards, being from the East, had managed to dribble a veil over the faces of three-fifths of mankind, a veil which successfully obscured mo­tive, intention and god knew what else.
“And what is more,” Charise continued, “he personally knew Anarch Peak before Peak’s sad shrinking.”
“Sad!” Lehrer bristled. “Good riddance.” There: that had been the foremost eccentric and idiot of the world. All Lehrer needed was the opportunity to rub shoul­ders with a follower of the newly parasitic Anarch. He shivered, re­calling from his professional ec­lectic books-examining at the li­brary the accounts of mid-twen­tieth century race violence; out of the riots, lootings and killings of those days had come Sebastian Peak, originally a lawyer, then a master spellbinder, at last a re­ligious fanatic with his own de­vout following… a following which extended over the planet, although operating primarily in the F.N.M. environs.
“That could get you in trouble with God,” Charise said.
“I have to get to work now,” Lehrer said. “I’ll phone you dur­ing my coffee break; meanwhile I’ll do some research on Arbuth not in the files. My decision as regards his nut-head theory of psychosomatic meteor-strike deaths will have to wait until then. Hello.” He hung up the phone, then, and rose swiftly to his feet. His soiled garments gave off a truly gratifying odor of must as he made his way from his apart­ment to the elevator; satisfaction as to his grooming made him brighten. Possibly—despite Charise and this, her newest fad, the inventor Arbuthnot—today might be a good day after all.
But, underneath, he doubted it.
When Niehls Lehrer arrived at his section of the library, he found his slim blonde-haired secretary Miss Tomsen trying to rid her­self -and him, too—of a tall, slop­pily-dressed middle-aged gentle­man with a briefcase under his arm.
“Ah, Mr. Lehrer” the individ­ual said in a dry, hollow voice as he made out Lehrer, obviously re­cognizing him at once; he ap­proached Niehls, hand extended. “How nice to meet you, sir. Good­bye, goodbye. As you people say out here.” He smiled a flashbulb instantly-vanishing smile at Niehls, who did not return it. “I’m quite a busy man,” Niehls said, and continued on past Miss Tomsen’s desk to open the in­ner door to his private suite. “If you wish to see me, you’ll have to make a regular appointment. Hello.” He started to shut the doorafter him.
“This concerns the Anarch Peak,” the tall man with the brief­case said. “Whom I have reason to believe you’re interested in.”
“Why do you say that?” He paused, irritated. “I don’t recall ever expressing any interest in anyone of Peak’s sort.”
“You must recall. But that’s so. You’re under Phase, here. I’m oriented in the opposite, normal time-direction; therefore what for you will soon happen is for me an experience of the immediate past. My immediate past. May I take a few minutes of your time? I could well be of great use to you, sir.” The man chuckled.” ‘Your time.’ Well-put, if I do say so. Yes, decidedly your time, not mine. Just consider that this visit by myself took place yester­day.” Again he smiled his mech­anical smile — and mechanical it was; Niehls now perceived the small but brilliant yellow stripe sewed on the tall man’s coat-sleeve. This person was a robot, required by law to wear the iden­tifying swath so as not to de­ceive. Realizing this, Niehls’ irri­tation grew; he had a strict, deep­ly-imbedded prejudice against ro­bies which he could not rid him­self of; which he did not want to rid himself of, as a matter of fact.
“Come in,” Niehls said, holding the door to his lavish suite open. The roby represented some hu­man principal; it had not dis­patched itself: that was the law. He wondered who had sent it. Some functionary of the syndi­cate? Possibly. In any case, better to hear the thing out and then tell it to leave.
Together, in the main work-chamber of the library suite, the two of them faced each other.
“My card,” the roby said, ex­tending its hand.
He read the card, scowling.
Carl Gantrix Attorney At Law W.U.S.
“My employer,” the roby said. “So now you know my name. You may address me as Carl; that would be satisfactory.” Now that the door had shut, with Miss Tomsen on the other side, the roby’s voice had acquired a sudden and surprising authorita­tive tone.
“I prefer,” Niehls said cautious­ly, “to address you in the more familiar mode as Carl Junior. If that doesn’t offend you.” He made his own voice even more authoritative. “You know, I sel­dom grant audiences to robots. A quirk, perhaps, but one con­cerning which I am consistent.”
“Until now,” the robot Carl Junior murmured; it retrieved its card and placed it back in its wallet. Then, seating itself, it began to unzip its briefcase. “Be­ing in charge of section B of the library, you are of course an ex­pert on the Hobart Phase. At least so Mr. Gantrix assumes. Is he correct, sir?” The robot glanced up keenly.
“Well, I deal with it constant­ly.” Niehls affected a vacant, ca­valier tone; it was always better to show a superior attitude when dealing with a roby. Constantly necessary to remind them in this particular fashion — as well as in countless others — of their place.
“So Mr. Gantrix realizes. And it is to his credit that via such a realization he has inferred that you have, over the years, become something of an authority on the advantages, uses and manifold disadvantages of the Hobart re­verse-time field. True? Not true? Choose one.”
Niehls pondered. “I choose the first. Although you must take into account the fact that my knowledge is practical, not theo­retical. But I can correctly deal with the vagaries of the Phase without explaining it. You see, I am innately an American; hence pragmatic.”
“Certainly.” The roby Carl Jun­ior nodded its plastic humanoid head. “Very good, Mr. Lehrer. Now down to business. His Might­iness, the Anarch Peak, has be­come infantile and will soon shrivel up entirely into a hom­unculus and re-enter a nearby womb. Correct? It is only a mat­ter of time — your time, once again.”
“I am aware,” Niehls said, “that the Hobart Phase obtains inmost of the F.N.M. I am aware that His Mightiness will be within a handy nearby womb in no more than a matter of months. Frankly, this pleases me. His Mightiness is deranged. Beyond doubt; clinically so, in fact. The world, both that on Hobart Time and on Stand­ard Time, will benefit. What more is there to say?
“A lot more,” Carl Junior an­swered gravely. Leaning forward he deposited a host of documents on Niehls’ desk. “I respectfully insist that you examine these.”
Carl Gantrix, by means of the video circuit of the robot’s sys­tem, treated himself to a leisurely inspection of the top librarian Niehls Lehrer as that individual ploughed through the wearying stack of deliberately obscure pseu­do documents which the robot had presented.
The bureaucrat in Lehrer had been ensnared by the bait; his attention distracted, the librarian had become oblivious to the robot and to its actions. Therefore, as Lehrer read, the robot expertly slid its chair back and to the left side, close to a reference card case of impressive proportions.
Lengthening its right arm, the robot crept its manual grippers of fingeroid shape into the nearest file of the case; this Lehrer did of course not see, and so the robot continued with its assigned task. It placed a miniaturized nest of embryonic robots, no larger than pinheads, within the card file, then a tiny find-circuit trans­mitter behind a subsequent card, then at last a potent detonating device set on a three-day com­mand circuit.
Watching, Gantrix grinned. Only one construct remained in the robot’s possession, and this now appeared briefly as the ro­bot, eying Lehrer sideways and cautiously, edged its extensor once more toward the file, trans­ferring this last bit of sophisti­cated hardware from its posses­sion to the library’s.
“Purp,” Lehrer said, without raising his eyes.
The code signal, received by the aud chamber of the file, activated an emergency release; the file closed in upon itself in the man­ner of a bivalve seeking safety. Collapsing, the file retreated into the wall, burying itself out of sight. And at the same time it ejected the constructs which the robot had placed inside it; the objects, expelled with electronic neatness, bounced in a trajectory which deposited them at the ro­bot’s feet, where they lay exposed in clear view.
Good heavens, the robot said involuntarily, taken aback.
Lehrer said, “Leave my office immediately.” He raised his eyes from the pseudo documents, and his expression was cold. As the robot reached down to retrieve the now-exposed artifacts he added, “And leave those items here; I want them subjected to lab analysis regarding purpose and source.” He reached into the top drawer of his desk, and when his hand emerged it held a weapon.
In Carl Gantrix’s ears the phone-cable voice of the robot buzzed. “What should I do, sir?”
“Leave presently.” Gantrix no longer felt amused; the fuddy-duddy librarian was equal to the probe, was capable in fact of nullifying it. The contact with Lehrer would have to be made in the open, and with that in mind Gantrix reluctantly picked up the receiver of the vidphone closest to him and dialed the library’s exchange.
A moment later he saw, through the video scanner of the robot, the librarian Niehls Lehrer pick­ing up his own phone in answer.
“We have a problem,” Gantrix said. “Common to us both. Why, then, shouldn’t we work to­gether?”
Lehrer answered, “I’m aware of no problem.” His voice held ultimate calmness; the attempt by the robot to plant hostile hard­ware in his work-area had not
ruffled him. “If you want to work together,’’ he added, “you’re off to a bad start.’’
“Admittedly,’’ Gantrix said. “But we’ve had difficulty in the past with you librarians.’’ Your exalted position, he thought. But he did not say it. “This has to do with the Anarch Peak. My superiors believe that there has been an attempt made to obliter­ate the Hobart Phase in regard to him — a clear violation of law, and one posing a great danger to society…in that, if successfully done, it would in effect create an immortal person by manipulation of known scientific laws. While we do not oppose the continual attempt to bring about an im­mortal person by use of the Ho­bart Phase, we do feel that the Anarch is not the person. If you follow.’’
“The Anarch is virtually re­absorbed.’’ Lehrer did not seem too sympathetic; perhaps, Gantrix decided, he doesn’t believe me. “I see no danger.’’ Coolly he stu­died the robot Carl Junior facing him. “If there is a menace it appears to me to lie — “Nonsense. I’m here to help you; this is for the library’s bene­fit, as well as my own.’’
“Who do you represent?’’ Leh­rer demanded.
Gantrix hesitated, then said, “Bard Chai of the Supreme Clear­ness Council. I am following his orders.’’
“That puts a different light on matters.’’ The librarian’s voice had darkened; and, on the vid-screen, his expression had become harder. “I have nothing to do with the Clearness Council; my responsibility goes to the Erads entirely. As you certainly know.’’ “But are you aware — ’’
“I am aware only of this.’’ Reaching into the drawer of his desk librarian Lehrer brought out a square gray box, which he opened; from it he produced a typed manuscript which he dis­played for Gantrix’s attention. “The sole extant copy of HOW I MADE MY OWN SWABBLE OUT OF ORDINARY HOUSE­HOLD OBJECTS IN MY BASE­MENT DURING MY SPARE TIME. Eng’s masterpiece, which borders on the eradicated. You see?’’
Gantrix said, “Do you know where Ludwig Eng is, at the moment?*’
“I don’t care where he is; I only care where he’ll be at two-thirty yesterday afternoon —we have an appointment, he and I. Here in this office at section B of the library.’’
“Where Ludwig Eng will be at two-thirty yesterday,’’ Gantrix said meditatively, half to him­self, “depends a good deal on where he is right now.’’ He did not tell the librarian what he knew: that at this moment Lud­wig Eng was somewhere in the
Free Negro Municipality, possibly trying to obtain audience with the Anarch.
Assuming that the Anarch, in his puerile, diminished state, could still grant audience to any­one.
The now-tiny Anarch, wearing jeans and purple sneakers and a many-times-washed T-shirt, sat on the dusty grass studying in­tently a ring of marbles. His attention had become so com­plete that Ludwig Eng felt ready to give up; the boy opposite him no longer seemed conscious of his presence. All in all, the sit­uation depressed Eng; he felt more helpless than before he had come.
Nevertheless, he decided to try to continue. “Your Mightiness,” he said, “I only desire a few more moments of your time.”
With reluctance the boy looked up. “Yes sir,” he said in a sullen, muted voice.
“My position is difficult,” Eng said, repeating himself; he had over and over again presented the childified Anarch with the identi­cal material, and each time in vain. “If you as Anarch could telecast an appeal throughout the Western United States and the F.N.M. for people to build several swabbles here and there while the last copy of my book still sur­vives — ”
“That’s right,” the boy mur­mured.
“Pardon?” Eng felt a flicker of hope; he watched the small smooth face fixedly. Something had formed there.
Sebastian Peak said, “Yes sir,
I hope to become Anarch when I grow up. I’m studying for that right now.”
“You are the Anarch. You were the Anarch.” He sighed, feeling crushed. It was clearly hopeless. No point in going on—and today was the final day, because yester­day he would meet with an of­ficial from the People’s Topical Library and that would be that.
The boy brightened. He seemed, all at once, to take interest in what Eng had to say. “No kid­ding?”
“God’s truth, son.” Eng nodded solemnly. “In fact, legally speak­ing you still hold the office.” He glanced up at the lean Negro with the overly-massive side arm who currently constituted the Anarch’s bodyguard. “Isn’t that so, Mr. Plaut?”
“True, your Mightiness,” the Negro said to the boy. “You possess the power to arbitrate in this case, having to do with this gentleman’s manuscript.” Squat­ting on his lank haunches the bodyguard sought to engage the boy’s wandering attention. “Your Mightiness, this man is the in­ventor of the swabble.”
“What’s that?” The boy glanced from one to the other of them, scowling with suspicion. “How much does a swabble cost? I only have fifty cents; I got it as my allowance. Anyhow I don’t think I want a swabble. I want some gum, and I’m going to the show.” His expression became fixed, rig­idly in place. “Who cares about a swabble?” he said with disdain.
“You have lived one hundred and sixty years,” the bodyguard Plaut told him. “Because of this man’s invention. From the swab­ble the Hobart Phase was inferred and finally established experi­mentally. I know that means noth­ing to you, but — ’’ The body­guard clasped his hands together earnestly, rocking on his hocks as he tried to keep the boy’s constantly dwindling attention fo­cussed. “Pay attention to me, Sebastian; this is important. If you could sign a decree… while you can still write. That’s all. A public notice for people to —”
“Aw, go on; beat it.” The boy glared at him with hostility. “I don’t believe you; something’s the matter.”
Something is wrong, all right, Eng thought to himself as he rose stiffly to his feet. And there appears to be next to nothing that we can do about it. At least without your help. He felt de­feated.
“Try him again later,” the body­guard said, also rising; he looked decidedly sympathetic.
“He’ll be even younger,” Eng said bitterly. And anyhow there was no time; no later existed. He walked a few steps away, then, overcome with gloom.
On a tree branch a butterfly had begun the intricate, myster­ious process of squeezing itself into a dull brown cocoon, and Eng paused to inspect its slow, labored efforts. It had its task, too, but that task, unlike his, was not hopeless. However the butterfly did not know that; it continued mindlessly, a reflex machine obeying the urgings pro­grammed into it from the remote future. The sight of the insect at work gave Eng something to ponder, he perceived the moral in it, and, turning, walked back to confront the child who squatted on the grass with his circle of gaily-colored luminous marbles.
“Look at it this way,” he said to the Anarch Peak; this was prob­ably his last try, and he meant to bring in everything available. “Even if you can’t remember what a swabble is or what the Hobart Phase does, all you need to do is sign; I have the docu­ment here.” Reaching into his in­side coat pocket he brought the envelope out, opened it. “When you’ve signed this, it will appear on world-wide TV, at the six p.m. news in each time zone. I tell you what I’ll do. If you’ll sign this, I’ll triple what you’ve got in the way of money. You say you have fifty cents? I’D give you an additional dollar,genuine paper one. What do you say? And I’ll pay your way to the movies once a week, at the Sat­urday matinee for the balance of the year. Is it a deal?”
The boy studied him acutely. He seemed almost convinced. But something — Eng could not fa­thom what — held him back.
“I think,” the bodyguard said softly, “he wants to ask his dad’s permission. The old gentleman is now alive; his components mi­grated into a birth-container about six weeks ago, and he is currently in the Kansas City General Hos­pital’s birth ward undergoing re­vivification. He is already con­scious, and His Mightiness has spoken with him several times. Is that not so, Sebastian?” He smiled gently at the boy, then grimaced as the boy nodded. “So that is it,” he said to Eng, then. “I was right. He’s afraid to take any initiative, now that his fa­ther’s alive. It’s very bad luck as far as you’re concerned, Mr. Eng; he’s just plain dwindled too much to perform his job. And everybody knows it as a fact.” “I refuse to give up,” Eng said. But the truth of the matter was that purely and simply he had already given up; he could see that the bodyguard, who spent all his waking time with the Anarch, was correct. It had become a waste of time. Had this meeting taken place two years from now, how­ever. . . .
To the bodyguard he said heav­ily, “I’ll go away and let him play with his marbles.” He placed the envelope back in his pocket, started off; then, pausing, he add­ed, “I’ll make one final try yes­terday morning. Before I’m due at the library. If the boy’s sche­dule permits it.”
“It surely does,” the bodyguard said. He explained, “Hardly any­body consults him any more, in view of his — condition.” His tone was sympathetic, and for that Eng felt appreciation.
Turning wearily he trudged off, leaving the one-time Anarch of half the civilized world to play mindlessly in the grass.
The previous morning, he real­ized. My last chance. Long time to wait and do nothing.
In his hotel room he placed a phone call to the West Coast, to the People’s Topical Library. Pre­sently he found himself facing one of the bureaucrats with whom, of late, he had had to deal so much. “Let me talk directly to Mr. Lehrer,” he grunted. Might as well go directly to the source, he decided; Lehrer had final au­thority in the matter of his book — now decayed to a mere type­written manuscript.
“Sorry,” the functionary told him, with a faint trace of dis­dain. “It is too early; Mr. Lehrer has already left the building.” “Could I catch him at home, do you think?”
“He is probably having break­fast. I suggest you wait until late yesterday. After all, Mr. Lehrer needs some time for seclusive recreation; he has many heavy and difficult responsibilities to weigh him down.” Clearly, the minor functionary had no inten­tion of cooperating.
Dully depressed, Eng hung up without even saying hello. Well, perhaps it was for the better, undoubtedly Lehrer would refuse to grant him additional time. After all, as the library bureaucrat had said, Lehrer had pressures at work on him, too: in particular the Erads of the syndicate… those mysterious entities who saw to it that destruction of human inven­tions be painstakingly carried out. As witness his own book. Well, time to give up and head back west.
As he started from his hotel room, he paused at the mirror of the vanity table to see whether his face had, during the day, ab­sorbed the packet of whiskers which he had foam-glued onto it. Peering at his reflection, he rub­bed his jowls. . . .
And screamed.
All along his jaw-line the dark stubble of newly-grown facial hair could be seen. He was growing a beard; stubble was coming in — not being absorbed.
What this meant he did not know. But it terrified him; he stood gaping, appalled now by
the fright collected within his reflected features. The man in the mirror did not look even vaguely familiar; some ominous underly­ing deformity of change had at­tacked it. But why? And – how?
Instinct told him not to leave the hotel room.
He seated himself. And waited. For what, he did not know. But one thing he did know. There would be no meeting with Niehls Lehrer of the People’s Topical Library at two-thirty yesterday afternoon. Because –
He scented it, grasped it in­tuitively from the one single glance in the mirror of his hotel room’s vanity table. There would be no yesterday; not for him, anyhow.
Would there be for anyone else?
I’ve got to see the Anarch again, he said haltingly to himself. The hell with Lehrer, I don’t have any intention of trying to make that or any other appointment with him now. All that matters is seeing Sebastian Peak once more; in fact as soon as it’s possible. Perhaps earlier today.
Because once he saw the An­arch he would know whether what he guessed were true. And if it were true, then his book, all at once, lay outside jeopardy. The syndicate with their inflexible program of eradication no longer menaced him—possibly. At least he hoped so.
But only time would tell. Time.
The entire Hobart Phase. It was somehow involved.
And—possibly—not just for him.
To his superior Bard Chai of the Clearness Council, Gantrix said, “We were right.” He re­cycled the tape recorder with shak­ing hands. “This is from our phone tap, video, to the library; the inventor of the swabble, Lud­wig Eng, attempted to reach Lehrer and failed. There was there­fore no conversation.”
“Hence nothing to record,” the Bard purred cuttingly. His round green face sagged in pouting dis­appointment.
“Not so. Look. It is Eng’s image that’s significant. He has spent the day with the Anarch — and as a consequence his age-flow has doubled back upon itself. See with your own eyes.”
After a moment, in which he scrutinized the video image of Eng, the Bard leaned back in his chair, said, “The stigma. Heavy infestation of beard-stubble; cer­tain index in a male, especially of the Cauc persuasion.”
“Shall we rebirth him now?” Gantrix said. “Before he reaches Lehrer?” He had in his posses­sion a superbly made gun which would dwindle any person in a matter of minutes — dwindle him directly into the nearest womb, and for good.
“In my opinion,” Bard Chai said, “he has become harmless. The swabble is nonexistent; this will not restore it.” But within, Bard Chai felt doubt, if not con­cern. Perhaps Gantrix, his subor­dinate, correctly perceived the situation; he had done so in the past, on several critical occasions … which explained his current value to the Clearness Council.
“But if the Hobart Phase has been cancelled out for Eng.” Gan­trix said doggedly, “then the de­velopment of the swabble will start up again. After all, he pos­sesses the original typed manu­script; his contact with the Anarch has taken place before the Eradicators of the syndicate induced the final stage of destruct.”
That certainly was true; Bard Chai pondered and agreed. And yet despite this knowledge he had trouble taking Ludwig Eng seriously; the man did not look dangerous, bearded or otherwise. He turned to Gantrix, began to speak—and then abruptly ceased.
“Your expression strikes me as unusual,” Gantrix said, with pal­pable annoyance. “What’s wrong?” He seemed uneasy, as the Bard’s stare continued. Con­cern replaced displeasure.
“Your face,” Bard Chai said, keeping his composure with the greatest of effort.
“What about my face?” Gantrix’s hand flew to his chin; he massaged briefly, then blinked. “My god.”
“And you have not been near the Anarch. So that does not explain your condition.” He won­dered, then, about himself; had the reversal of the Hobart Phase extended to his own person as well? Swiftly he explored his own jawline and dewlap. And distinct­ly felt burgeoning bristle. Per­plexing, he thought wildly to himself. What can account for this? The reversal of the Anarch’s time-path might be only an effect of some prior cause involving them all. This put a new light on the Anarch’s situation; perhaps it had not been voluntary.
“Can it be,” Gantrix said re­flectively, “that the disappearance of Eng’s device could explain this? Except for mention in the typewritten manuscript there is no longer any reality connected with the swabble. Actually, we should have anticipated this, since the swabble is intimately asso­ciated with the Hobart Phase.”
“I wonder,” Bard Chai said, still rapidly pondering. But the swabble had not strictly speaking created the Hobart Phase; it served to direct it, so that cer­tain regions of the planet could evade the Phase entirely—where­as others had become completely mired in it. Still, the disappear­ance of the swabble from con­temporary society must diffuse the Hobart Phase equally over everyone; and an outgrowth of this might be a diminution to beneath the level of effectiveness for those—such as himself and Carl Gantrix—who had partici­pated in the Phase fully.
“But now,” Gantrix said thoughtfully, “the inventor of the swabble, and first user of it, has returned to normal time; hence the development of the swabble has again manifested it­self. We can expect Eng to build his first working model of the device at any time, now.”
The difficulty of Eng’s situation had now become apparent to Bard Chai. As before, use of the man’s mechanism would spread throughout the world. But — as soon as Eng built and placed in operation his pilot swabble, the Hobart Phase would resume; once more Eng’s direction would re­verse itself. The swabbles would then be abolished by the syndi­cate until, once again, all that remained was the original type­written manuscript —|at which point normal time would reestab­lish itself.
It appeared to Bard Chai that Eng had gotten himself trapped in a closed loop. He would oscil­late within a distinct small inter­val: between possessing only a theoretical account of the swab­ble and in actuality constructing and operating a functioning mod­el. And tagging along with him would go a good portion of Ter­ra’s population.
We are caught with him, Bard Chai realized gloomily. How do we escape? What is our solution?
“We must either force Eng back into complete obliteration of his manuscript, including the idea for the construct,” Gantrix said, “or ____ ”
But that is impossible,” Bard Chai broke in impatiently. “At this point the Hobart Phase weak­ens automatically, since no work­ing swabbles exist to sustain it. How, in their absence, can Eng be forced backward in time a single step farther?”
It constituted a valid—and unanswerable — query; both men realized that, and neither spoke for a time. Gantrix morosely con­tinued to rub his jaw, as if he could perceive the steady growth of beard-stubble. Bard Chai, on the other hand, had withdrawn into an intensive introverted state; he pondered and repondered the problem.
No answer came. At least not yet. But, given time —
“This is extremely difficult,” the Bard said, with agitation. “Eng will probably throw to­gether his first swabble at any moment. And once more we will be cycled in a retrograde direc­tion.” What worried him now was one terrible, swift insight. This would occur again and again, and each time the interval would be shortened further. Until, he rumi­nated, it becomes a stall within a single microsecond; no time-progression in either direction
will be able to take place.
A morbid prospect indeed. But one redemptive factor existed. Eng undoubtedly would perceive the problem, too. And he would seek a way out. Logically, it could be solved by him in at least one way: he could voluntarily abstain from inventing the swabble. The Hobart Phase, then, would never assert itself, at least not effectively ___
But such a decision lay with Ludwig Eng alone. Would he cooperate, if the idea were pre­sented to him?
Probably not. Eng had always been a violent and autistic man; no one could influence him. This, of course, had helped him be­come an original personality; without this Eng would not have amounted to anything as an in­ventor, and the swabble, with its enormous effect on contemporary society, would never have come into existence.
Which would have been a good thing, the Bard thought morosely. But until now we could not ap­preciate this.
He appreciated it now.
The solution which Gantrix had proposed, that of rebirthing Eng, did not appeal to him. But it looked more and more to his eyes as the only way out. And a way out had to be found.
With profound irritation the li­brarian Niehls Lehrer inspected the clock on his desk, then his appointment book. Eng had not shown up; two-thirty had arrived, and Lehrer sat alone in his office. Carl Gantrix had been correct.
While pondering the meaning of this he heard, dimly, the phone ringing. Probably Eng, he decided as he reached for the receiver. A long way off, phoning in to say that he can’t make it. I’ll have trouble with this; the syndicate won’t like it. And I’ll have to alert them; I have no choice.
Into the phone he said, “Good­bye.”
“I love you, Niehls.” A breath­less feminine voice; this was not the call which he had anticipated. “Do you love me?”
“Yes, Charise,” he said.”I love you, too. But dammit, don’t call me during business hours; I thought you knew that.”
Contritely, Charise McFadden said, “Sorry, Niehls. But I keep thinking about poor Lance. Did you do the research on him that you promised? I bet you didn’t.”
As a matter of fact he had; or more accurately he had instructed a minor employee of the library to do the task for him. Reaching into the top desk drawer he brought out Lance Arbuthnot’s folio. “Here it is,” he informed Charise. “I know all there is to know about this crank. All I care to know, more correctly.” He leafed among the sheets of paper within the file. “There’s not much here, actually. Arbuthnot hasn’t done much. You un­derstand I can only take time to go into this matter because a major library client has failed — so far —to keep his two-thirty appointment. If he does show up, I’ll have to terminate this conversation.”
“Did Arbuthnot know the Anarch Peak?”
“That part of his account is true.”
“And he is a genuine crank. So eradicating his thesis would be a distinct gain for society. It’s your duty.” Over the vid portion of the phone she batted her long lashes coaxingly. “Come on Niehls,dear. Please.”
“But,” Lehrer continued inflex­ibly, “there is nothing here sug­gesting that Arbuthnot spent any time concocting a paper dealing with the psychosomatic aspects of death by meteopstrike,”
She colored, hesitated, then said in a low voice, “I, um, made that up.”
After a pause, Charise said falteringly, “Well, h-h-he’s—the fact is, I’m his mistress.”
“The fact is,” Lehrer said, bor­ing ahead with ruthless vigor, “you don’t really know what his thesis is about. It may be perfect­ly rational. A significant contri­bution to our society. Correct?” He did not wait for her reply; reaching, he started to break the phone circuit.
“Wait.” She swallowed rapidly, ducked her head, then plunged on as his fingers touched the trip switch of the phone. “All right, Niehls; I admit it. Lance refuses to tell me what his thesis is about. He won’t tell anybody. But if you’ll undertake to eradicate it— don’t you see? He’ll have to re­veal it to you; your analysis of it is required before the syndi­cate accepts it. Isn’t that so? And then you’ll tell me what it’s all about. I know you will.” Lehrer said, “What do you care what it’s about?”
“I think,” Charise said, hesi­tating, “it has to do with me. Honest. There’s something strange about me, and Lance no­ticed it. I mean, that’s not so unusual when you consider how, um, close we two are; we see so much -if you’ll excuse the ex­pression—of each other.”
“I find this a dull topic,” Lehrer said frigidly. At this point, he said to himself, I wouldn’t accept Arbuthnot’s thesis at any cost to me. Even if they debited me to the tune of ten thousand poscreds. I’ll talk to you some other time,” he said, and broke the phone circuit.
“Sir,” his secretary, Miss Tomsen said over the desk intercom, “there’s this man out here who’s been waiting since six this even­ing. He says he only wants a second or two of your time, and Miss McFadden led him to under­stand that you’d be glad to—”
“Tell him I died in office,” Lehrer said harshly.
“But you can’t die, sir. You’re under the Hobart Phase. And Mr. Arbuthnot knows that, because he mentioned it. He’s been sitting out here doing a Hobart type horoscope on you, and he pre­dicts that great things have hap­pened to you during the previous year. Frankly he makes me ner­vous; some of his predictions sound so accurate.”
“Fortune-telling about the past doesn’t interest me,” Lehrer said. “In fact, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a hoax. Only the future is knowable.” The man is a crank, all right, Lehrer realized. Charise told me the truth in that respect. Imagine maintaining in all ser­iousness that what has already happened, what has vanished into the limbo of nebulous yesterday, can be predicted. There’s one killed every minute, as P.T. Barnum phrased it.
Maybe I should see him, he re­flected. Charise is right; ideas like this ought to be eradicated for the good of mankind, if not for my own peace of mind.
But that was not all. Now a measure of curiosity overcame him. It would be interesting, in a feeble way, to hear the idiot out. See what he predicted, especially for the recent few weeks. And then accept his thesis for eradica­tion. Be the first person he casts
a Hobart type of horoscope for.
Undoubtedly, Ludwig Eng did not intend to show up. The time Lehrer said to himself, must be two o’clock by now. He glanced at his wristwatch.
And blinked.
The watch hands semaphored two-forty.
“Miss Tomsen,” Lehrer said into the intercom, “What time do you have?”
“Leaping J. Lizards,” Miss Tom­sen said. “It’s earlier than I thought. I distinctly recall it be­ing two-twenty just a moment ago. My watch must have stopped.”
“You mean it’s later than you thought. Two-forty is later than two-thirty.”
“No sir, if you don’t resent my disagreeing with you. I mean, it’s not my place to tell you what’s what, but I am right. You can ask anybody. I’ll ask this gentle­man out here. Mr. Arbuthnot, isn’t two-forty earlier than two- twenty?”
Over the intercom speaker came a masculine voice, dry and con­trolled. “I’m only interested in seeing Mr. Lehrer, not in hold­ing academic discussions. Mr. Lehrer, if you will see me, I guarantee you’ll find my thesis the most flagrant piece of out­right trash you’ve ever had brought to your attention; Miss McFadden will not mislead you.” “Send him in,” Lehrer reluc­tantly instructed Miss Tomsen. He felt perplexed. Something weird had begun to happen, some­thing which was connected with the orderly flow of time. But he could not make out precisely what.
A dapper young man, in the first stages of baldness, entered the office, a briefcase under his arm. He and Lehrer briefly shook and then Arbuthnot seated him­self facing the desk.
So this is the man Charise is having an affair with, Lehrer said to himself. Well, so it goes. I’ll give you ten minutes,” he stated. “And then you’re out of here. You understand?”
“I have concocted here,” Ar­buthnot said, unzipping his brief case, “the most outrageously im­possible concept imaginable to my mind. And I think official eradi­cation is absolutely essential, here, if this idea is to be kept from taking root and doing ac­tual outright harm. There are people who pick up and act on any idea, no matter how contrary to rational good sense. You’re the only person I’ve shown this to, and I show it to you with grave
reservations.” Arbuthnot then, in one brisk and spasmodic mo­tion, dropped his typewritten work on the surface of Niehls Lehrer’s desk. And sat back, wait­ing.
With professional caution, Leh­rer surveyed the title of the paper, then shrugged. “This is nothing more than an inversion of Ludwig Eng’s famous work.” He slid his castered chair back from the desk, disavowing the manuscript; rais­ing both hands he gestured in dis­missal. “This is not so prepos­terous; it’s logically thinkable to reverse Eng’s title – anybody could do it at any time.” Arbuthnot said grimly, “But no one has. Until now. Read it once again and think out the implica­tions.”
Unimpressed, Lehrer once more examined the thick bundle of pages.
“The implications,” Arbuthnot continued in a low, quiet, but tense voice, “of the eradication of this manuscript.”
The title, still unimpressive to Lehrer, read:
HOW I DISASSEMBLED MY SWABBLE INTO ORDINARY HOUSEHOLD OBJECTS IN MY BASEMENT DURING MY SPARE TIME “So?” Lehrer said. “Anyone can disassemble a swabble; in fact it’s being done. In fact, thou­sands of swabbles are being era­dicated; it’s the pattern. In fact, I doubt whether a single swabble is now to be found anywhere in — ” “When this thesis is eradi­cated,” Arbuthnot said, “as I am certain it has been, and re­cently, what will the negation consist of? Think it out, Lehrer. You know the implications of cleaning out of existence Eng’s premise; it means the end of the swabble and therefore the Ho­bart Phase. In fact, we’ll see a return to normal time-flow throughout the Western United States and the Free Negro Mu­nicipality within the past forty-eight hours … as Eng’s manu­script nears syndicate jurisdic­tion. The eradication of my work, then, if you follow the same line of reasoning—” He paused. “You see what I’ve done, don’t you? I’ve found the way to preserve the swabble. And to maintain the now-disintegrating Hobart Phase. Without my thesis we’ll gradually lose all that the swabble has brought us. The swabble, Lehrer, eliminates death; the case of the Anarch Peak is only the begin­ning. But the only way to keep the cycle alive is to balance Eng’s paper with mine; Eng’s paper moves us in one direction; my paper reverses it, and then Eng’s becomes operative once more. Forever, if we want it. Unless— and I can’t imagine this happen­ing, although admittedly it is theoretically possible—a hopeless fusion of the two time-flows re­sults.”
“You’re a crank,” Lehrer said thickly.
“Exactly.” Arbuthnot nodded. “And that’s why you’ll accept my paper for official syndicate eradication. Because you don’t believe me. Because you think
this is absurd.” He smiled slight­ly, his eyes gray, intelligent and penetrating.
Pressing the on-button of his intercom, Lehrer said, “Miss Tomsen, notify the local outlet of the syndicate that I’d like an Erad sent to my office as soon as possible. I have some junk here that I want him to rule on. So we can begin the business of ter­minal copy extinction.”
“Yes, Mr. Lehrer,” Miss Tomsen’s voice came.
Leaning back in his chair, Leh­rer surveyed the man seated across from him. “Does that suit you?”
Still smiling, Arbuthnot said, “Perfectly.”
“If I thought there was any­thing in your concept—”
“But you don’t,” Arbuthnot said patiently. “So I’m going to get what I want; I’ll be success­ful. Sometime tomorrow or at the latest the day after.”
“You mean yesterday,” Lehrer said. “Or the day before.” He ex­amined his wrist watch. “The ten minutes are up,” he informed the crank inventor. “I’ll ask you now to leave.” He placed his hand on the bundle of papers. “This stays here.”
Rising, Arbuthnot moved to­ward the door of the office. “Mr. Lehrer,” he said, pausing, “don’t be alarmed by this, but with all due respects, sir, you need a shave.”I haven’t shaved in twenty-three years,” Lehrer said. “Not since the Hobart Phase first took effect in my area of Los Angeles.” “You will by this time tomor­row,” Arbuthnot said. And left the office; the door shut after him.
After a moment of reflection, Lehrer touched the button of the intercom. “Miss Tomsen, don’t send anyone else inhere; I’m cancelling my appointments for the balance of the day.”
“Yes sir.” Hopefully, Miss Tom­sen said, “He was a crank, wasn’t he? I thought so; I can always tell. You’re glad you saw him.” “Will see him,” he corrected. “I think you’re mistaken, Mr. Lehrer. The past tense—”
“Even if Ludwig Eng shows up,” Lehrer said, “I don’t feel like seeing him. I’ve had enough for today.” Opening his desk drawer he carefully deposited Arbuthnot’s manuscript within it, then shut it once more. He reached toward the ash tray on the desk, selected the shortest —and hence best—cigarette butt, dabbed it against the ceramic surface until it began to burn, then lifted it to his lips. Puffing shreds of tobacco into it, he sat staring fixedly out the office win­dow at the poplar trees that lined the walk to the parking lot.
The wind, rushing about, gath­ered up a quantity of leaves, swirled them onto the branches of the trees, adhered them in a neat arrangement which decidedly added to the beauty of the trees.
Already, some of the brown leaves had turned green. In a short while autumn would give way to summer, and summer to spring.
He watched appreciatively. As he waited for the Erad sent out by the syndicate. Due to the crank’s deranged thesis, time had once more returned to normal. Except—
Lehrer rubbed his chin. Bris­tles. He frowned.
“Miss Tomsen,” he said into the intercom, “will you step in here and tell me whether or not I need a shave?”
He had a feeling that he did. And soon.
Probably within the previous half hour.

The Monster Show – Charles Beaumont

“Is it sock?” tilt Big Man inquired nervously, flicking a tablet into his mouth.

“It is sock,” the Official Coordinator of TV’ Production replied. “It is wham and boff. I give you my word.”

“I give it back to you. Words mean nothing. It’s pictures that count. Flap?” “Sure: flap, flap.” the Official Coordinator said, and slipped a small needle into a large vein. “But I tell you. B. P.. there is nothing to worry about. We have got thirty cameras regular and sixty in reserve. For every actor, two stand-ins. In fact, we have even got stand-ins for the stand-ins. Nothing can go wrong. Nothing-O.”

The Big Man collapsed into a chair and moved a handkerchief rhythmically across his neck. “I don’t know,” he said.

”I am worried.”

“What you should do. B. P..” the Official Coordinator said, “is, you should relax.”

The Big Man belched a picture off the wall. “Relax!” he shouted. “The most expensive TV production in history and he tells me to relax!”

“B. P., flap this. Everything is scatty-boo, A through Z. We absotively and posilutely cannot miss.”

“I just don’t know,” the Big Man said, shaking his head.

The Official Coordinator removed a red pellet from an onyx case and tossed it into his mouth. “Boss, listen to me for a double-mo. Listen. Close the eyes. Now: You are no longer the Chief and Commander of Production of the World’s Largest TV Studio — ”
The Big Man trembled slightly.

“You are, instead, Mr. Average World Family. 1976 A. D. Flap?”

“Flap, Hap.”

“Kay. You are sitting in front of your two-thirds-paid-for 150-inch non-curved wall TV Viewer. You are in your undershirt. The missus has poured you a beer and you are munching Cheese Drackles. Reety-O. Suddenly you see that it is two minutes to eight. You jab the auto-ray and switch channels right away, if you are sucker enough to be on another channel, which, thanks to those lousy feebs at OBC, maybe you are. But not for long! Because for six months you have been hearing about it. The biggest, the greatest, the most spectacular, the most expensive production ever to hit the screen. Said I biggest? Said I greatest? Said I most spectacular? Father-O, this is a veritybohble monster of a show! So what do we call it? Naicheroonv: The Monster Show! ‘EVERYBODY WILL BE WATCHING IT. WILL YOU?’ These words. Mr. Average World Family, are stamped into your brain. You’ve seen them everywhere: billboards, leaflets, skywriting, magazine ads, the regular 15-minute daily cominersh; and you’ve heard them everywhere, too: in busses and planes and cars, from your children — ”

“Meant to tell you.” the Big Man interrupted, “getting at the children was a good move.”

“What about the parrots?”

“The parrots was also a good move.”

“I blush, B. P. But hearken O: There you are. Are you there?”

“Proceed on. I am ears.”

“Kay. It is one minute to eight. You are shaking with excitement, just like all the rest of the Folks everywhere else. In the bars, in the theatres, in the homes. Some with two-foot curvo screens, some with modest 40-inchers, some even — like the cops anti all — with nothing but their wrist-peeps. But they’re with ya: you know that. Get the image, B. P. All over the world, everything stopped, everybody staring at their sets, waiting, waiting . . .”

“What about the competition?”

The Official Coordinator stuck his hands in his pockets and did a sort of dance. “B. P., Unde-O — there isn’t any!” He grinned widely. “And that is my surprise.”

The Big Man opened his eyes. He clutched the arms of the chair. “How’s that, how’s that?”

“You tell me no stories. I’ll tell you no untruths,” the Official Coordinator smirked. “Baby, they have scratched themselves. Us they do not choose to buck. They are offering to the folks in place of their usual maloop a kitty of our own show — which I got a hefty slap for which. Mother-O . . .”

“Now, now.” said the Big Man, smiling slyly, “you did not muscle the OBC boys a little. I hope?”

“Truth-O, Uncle. Nay. They plain quit. The eight spot is ours!” The Official Coordinator slapped his hands together. “And who’s to blame them? What The Monster Show has not got you can mount on the sharp end of an isotope. Flap this: We begin with a two-hour commerrial round-up, advertising the products of our 57 sponsors: General Turbines, Sleep-Neat Capsules. Chewey-Flakes, the Komfy-Kool TV Furniture line and ek-cetera. But are these ordinary commershes? Noo. We have them tricked out so they look prezactly like the show. Excavate?”


“Kay. Then; into the show. And what a show! I ask you. Mr. Average World Family, at night when you’re all blasted out and ready for the old air-matt do you like to get spooned a lot of maloop you have got to think about, or do you like to get round?”

The Big Man made a solemn circle with his finger.

“And what is the roundest? Something long and complex and all drawn out? Nay. Variety: that’s what is the roundest. So we give you a variety show. Starting things off with a kronch, we have a half-hour trained dog art. Then right into fifteen minutes of old Western movie footage, with the middle reel of a British mystery for the capper. Then a full hour of wrestling, male and female. Ears?”


“A mere startcroo. B. P. We punch ’em with twenty minutes of hillbilly-style Used Car coinmersh, and then we really start fighting. A right cross with Rev. Vincent Bell on How to Live Up to the Hilt: a left jab with the first installment of a new detergent-opera. Jill Jackson. Jet-Wife: an uppercut to the jaw with Who’s Zoo — keep moving; don’t give ’em a chance to think, see — followed by a flurry of lightning blows to the face and body: Chef Gaston Escargot’s School of Cookery’. Mike Tomelrist, Private Op! A Ten-Year Roundup of Sloth Turbo and Jaloppy Racing! A musical remake of the old motion picture Waterloo Bridge, now called London Derriere!” The Official Coordinator was warming to his topic: his eyes were wide and his lower lip moist. “Do we swing?”

The Big Man nodded. “Speaking as Mr. Average World Family.” he said, “I am getting slightly interested. Wing on.”

“Well, we got ’em dizzy now. flap? Kay. We ease off with a handcream commersh: you know, the voodoo dance routine? Thirty minutes. Then, quos! Right in the old schwanzola!”

“What do we do. what do we do?” the Big Man asked.

“We let ’em have it. POW!” The Official Coordinator needled a vein ecstatically, and exploded:    “The old haymaker. The slamboreeno. Twenty of the world’s greatest comedians onstage, going through their most famous routines, all at the same time!”

There was a pregnant pause.

Then the Big Man shot from his chair, extruded a hirsute hand and laid it gently on the Official Coordinator’s shoulder. “One thing,” he said, with genuine concern.

“Yes?” the Official Coordinator quavered.

“Do we have enough?”

“B. P., I think we do. I really and truly think we do.” The Coordinator quickly rolled three pellets into his mouth and grimaced.

“Then,” said the Big Man, “I feel that we ought to be mighty proud. And, Flap me, mighty humble, too. Because we are giving the world public the thing they want and need most: Entertainment.” He winked gravely. “Also, we are making for ourselves a few drachmae. Excavate?”

The Official Coordinator brushed a tear of satisfaction from his check. “Boss.” he said, in cathedral tones, “I promise you this. This I promise you. Everybody on Earth is going to be watching The Monster Show tonight. It is going to be an experience no one will forget. In fact, I will far-enough-go to say that it will be the most important moment in history!”
The Big Man squeezed the Coordinator’s fleshly digits and smiled. “Screech.” he said. “You’ve done poo-goo. Now powder: the mind must rest.” The Coordinator nodded, tugged at his forelock, and exited through the bullet-proof sliding door.

When it was firmly shut, the Big Man went over and locked it; then he removed from his pocket a flat disc with three knobs. He twiddled the knobs. There was a humming.

“As planned.” the Big Man said, and put the triple-knobbed disc back into his pocket.

His face was curiously devoid of expression. There was perhaps a trace of amusement about the mouth-ends as he went to the chromium bar and poured himself a shot of amber; perhaps not. He tilted the glass, swallowed, hiccoughed, set the glass down and punched the interoffice audiobox. “Miss Dove-coat,” he said, “please flap me good. I will see no one between now and the show. Out?”

“And over,” the voice of Miss Dove-coat crackled.

The Big Man sat in the chair, silent and unmoving, expressionless as a barracuda for four and a half hours.

At ten minutes to eight he pressed seventeen levers on his desk and listened to seventeen yessirs.

“Report?” he barked.

“Scatoreeny, sir,” came the answer like a celestial choir somewhat off-key. “Sure?”

“Absotive and posilute.”

“Everything moving?”

“With an ‘o’. With a ‘k’.”

“Unbad, gentlemen.”

“You snap the whip, we’ll take the voyage.”

“Ears out, now. Coverage?” “One-hundred-percent.”

“100% one-hundred-percent?”

“100% one-hundred-percent 100%!” “Kay. Gentlemen: Proceed on.”

The Big Man turned off all the levers and touched a concealed desk button. The three walls of the room seemed to shimmer and reshape themselves into a perfect curve; then they became clear. The image of a man fifty feet tall appeared. He was smiling and pouring a hundred gallons of beer into a gigantic glass.

“ … so gel those taste buds unlimbered, folksies, and treat yourselves to the world’s favorite brew: Rocky Mountain! Yes! That’s absotively right! I said Rocky Mountain! And…”

In moments the giant man faded, and there was a portentous pause.

Then, the sound of a thousand trumpets, and an aerial shot of 70 handpicked chorus girls, so arranged as to spell out:




The Big Man waited a moment, until the Emcee had come on-stage, then he snapped the concealed button and the walls became walls again.

He removed the triple-knobbed disc.

“Now.” he said, and slumped into a chair.

Hours passed, but he did not move.

Finally, there was a sharp knock at the bullet-proof sliding door.

The Big Man went to the door and opened it, cautiously. Eight lavender creatures with slimy skin and no noses at all were at the threshold.

“Well?” the Big Man said. “How did it go?”

One of the creatures, slightly more lavender than the rest, stepped forward. “Extremely well,” it said. “In fact, perfectly. The Earth people are all dead. Thanks, Volshak, to you.”

“Nonsense,” the Big Man said, turning into a lavender creature with slimy skin and no nose at all. “I have had quite enough idolatry. I prefer to think of myself merely as an agent who tried to do his job.”

“Volshak. Volshak,” the creature hissed, “such modesty is touching, and a credit to our race; but there is no getting around it. You are a hero. Why, if there had been the slightest resistance, we would have failed. We had few weapons, a bare handful of warriors — frankly, we were very nearly ready to descend into The Great Abyss. But even the gulfs are full of vanquished invaders: we did not have, so to speak, a pit to pass in. But now we may revel in the sunlight and enjoy the blessings of propagation on a new world without having lost a single thrimp.” The creature put a boneless tentacle forward. “How did you manage it? Volshak. how did you manage to put all the Earth people to sleep at the same time?”

But Volshak was blushing. He turned his unprohoscidean face to the wall and muttered, in a small, proud voice: It was easy.”

The Nail and the Oracle – Theodore Strugeon

Despite the improvements, the Pentagon in 1970 was still the Pentagon, with more places to walk than places to sit. Not that Jones had a legitimate gripe. The cubical cave they had assigned to him as an office would have been more than adequate for the two-three days he himself had estimated. But by the end of the third week it fit him like a size-6 hat and choked him like a size-12 collar. Annie’s phone calls expressed eagerness to have him back, but there was an edge to the eagerness now which made him anxious. His hotel manager had wanted to shift his room after the first week and he had been stubborn about it; now he was marooned like a rock in a mushroom patch, surrounded by a back-to-rhythm convention of the Anti-Anti-Population Explosion League. He’d had to buy shirts, he’d had to buy shoes, he’d needed a type-four common-cold shot, and most of all, he couldn’t find what was wrong with oracle.

Jones and his crew had stripped oracle down to its mounting bolts, checked a thousand miles of wiring and a million solid-state elements, everything but its priceless and untouchable memory banks. Then they’d rebuilt the monster, meticulously cross-checking all the way. For the past four days they had been running the recompleted computer, performance-matching with crash-priority time on other machines, while half the science boys and a third of the military wailed in anguish. He had reported to three men that the machine had nothing wrong with it, that it never had had anything wrong with it, and that there was no reason to believe there ever would be anything wrong with it. One by one these three had gone (again) into oracle’s chamber, and bolted the door, and energized the privacy field, and then one by one they had emerged stern and disappointed, to tell Jones that it would not give them an answer: an old admiral, an ageless colonel and a piece of walking legend whom Jones called to himself the civilian.

Having sent his crew home—for thus he burned his bridges—having deprived himself of Jacquard the design genius and the 23 others, the wiring team, all the mathematicians, everyone, Jones sighed in his little office, picked up the phone again and called the three for conference. When he put the instrument down again he felt a little pleased. Consistencies pleased Jones, even unpleasant ones, and the instant response of all three was right in line with everything they had done from the time they had first complained about oracle’s inability to answer their questions, all through their fiddling and diddling during every second of the long diagnostic operation. The admiral had had an open line installed to Jones’ office, the colonel had devised a special code word for his switchboard, the civilian had hung around personally, ignoring all firm, polite hints until he had turned his ankle on a cable, giving Jones a reason to get him out of there. In other words, these three didn’t just want an answer, they needed it. They came, the admiral with his old brows and brand-new steel-blue eyes, the colonel with starch in his spine and skin like a postmaneuver proving grounds, the civilian limping a bit, with his head tilted a bit, turned a bit, a captivating mannerism which always gave his audiences the feeling that history cared to listen to them. Jones let them get settled, this admiral whose whole career had consisted of greater and greater commands until his strong old hand was a twitch away from the spokes of the helm of the ship of state; this colonel who had retained his lowly rank as a mark of scorn for the academy men who scurried to obey him, whose luxurious quarters were equipped with an iron barracks bed; and this civilian with the scholarly air, with both Houses and a Cabinet rank behind him, whose political skills were as strong, and as deft, and as spiked as a logroller’s feet.

“Gentlemen,” said Jones, “this may well be our last meeting. There will, of course, be a written report, but I understand the—uh—practicalities of such a situation quite well, and I do not feel it necessary to go into the kind of detail in the report that is possible to us in an informal discussion.” He looked at each face in turn and congratulated himself. That was just right. This is just between us boys. Nobody’s going to squeal on you.

“You’ve dismissed your crew,” said the civilian, causing a slight start in the admiral and a narrowing of the colonel’s eyes and, in Jones, a flash of admiration. This one had snoopers the services hadn’t even dreamed up yet. “I hope this is good news.”

“Depends,” said Jones. “What it means primarily is that they have done all they can. In other words, there is nothing wrong with oracle in any of their specialties. Their specialties include everything the computer is and does. In still other words, there’s nothing wrong with the machine.”

“So you told us yesterday,” gritted the colonel, “but I got no results. And—I want results.” The last was added as an old ritual which, apparently, had always gotten results just by being recited.

“I followed the procedures,” said the admiral, intoning this as a cardinal virtue. “and also got no results.” He held up a finger and suspended operations in the room while he performed some sort of internal countdown. “Had I not done so, oracle would have responded with an ‘insufficient data’ signal. Correct?”

“Quite correct,” said Jones.

“And it didn’t.”

“That was my experience,” said the civilian, and the colonel nodded.

“Gentlemen,” said Jones, “neither I nor my crew—and there just is not a better one—have been able to devise a question that produced that result.”

“It was not a result,” snapped the colonel.

Jones ignored him. “Given the truth of my conclusion—that there is nothing wrong with the machine—and your reports. which I can have no reason to doubt, there is no area left to investigate but one, and that is in your hands, not mine. It’s the one thing you have withheld from me.” He paused. Two of them shifted their feet. The colonel tightened his jaw.

The admiral said softly, but with utter finality, “I can not divulge my question.”

The colonel and the civilian spoke together; “Security ” and “This is a matter ” and then both fell silent.

“Security.” Jones spread his hands. To keep from an enemy, real or potential, matters vital to the safety of the nation, that was security. And how easy it was to wrap the same blanket about the use of a helicopter to a certain haven, the presence of a surprising little package in a Congressional desk, the exact relations between a certain officer and his argh!

This, thought Jones, has all the earmarks of, not our security, but of three cases of my security . . . I’ll try just once more.

“Thirty years ago, a writer named William Tenn wrote a brilliant story in which an Air Force moon landing was made, and the expedition found an inhabited pressure dome nearby. They sent out a scout, who was prepared to die at the hands of Russians or even Martians. He returned to the ship in a paroxysm, gentlemen, of laughter. The other dome belonged to the U. S. Navy.”

The admiral projected two loud syllables of a guffaw and said, “Of course.” The colonel looked pained. The civilian, bright-eyed, made a small nod which clearly said, One up for you, boy.

Jones put on his used-car-salesman face. “Honestly, gentlemen, it embarrasses me to draw a parallel like that. I believe with all my heart that each of you has the best interests of our nation foremost in his thoughts. As for myself—security? Why, I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been cleared all the way back to Pithecanthropus erectus.

“So much for you. so much for me. Now, as for oracle, you know as well as I do that it is no ordinary computer. It is designed for computations, not of math, specifically, nor of strictly physical problems, though it can perform them, but for the distillation of human thought. For over a decade the contents of the Library of Congress and other sources have poured into that machine—everything: novels, philosophy, magazines, poetry, textbooks, religious tracts, comic books, even millions of personnel records.

There’s every shade of opinion, every quality of writing—anything and everything that an army of over a thousand microfilming technicians have been able to cram into it. As long as it’s printed and in English, German, Russian, French or Japanese, oracle can absorb it. Esperanto is the funnel for a hundred Oriental and African languages. It’s the greatest repository of human thought and thought-directed action the world has ever known, and its one most powerful barrier against error in human affairs is the sheer mass of its memory and the wide spectrum of opinion that has poured into it.

“Add to this its ability to extrapolate— to project the results of hypothetical acts —and the purposely designed privacy structure—for it’s incapable of recording or reporting who asked it what question— and you have oracle, the one place in the world where you can get a straight answer based, not in terms of the problem itself, but on every ideological computation and cross-comparison that can be packed into it.”

“The one place I couldn’t get a straight answer,” said the civilian gently.

“To your particular question, Sir, if you want that answer, you have got to give me that question.” He checked a hopeful stir in the other two by adding quickly, “and yours. And yours. You see, gentlemen, though I am concerned for your needs in this matter, my prime concern is oracle. To find a way to get one of the answers isn’t enough. If I had all three, I might be able to deduce a common denominator. I already have, of course, though it isn’t enough: you are all high up in national affairs, and very close to the center of things. You are all of the same generation” (translation: near the end of the road) “and, I’m sure, equally determined to do the best you can for your country” (to get to the top of the heap before you cash in). “Consider me,” he said, and smiled disarmingly. “To let me get this close to the answer I want; namely, what’s wrong with oracle, and then to withhold it—isn’t that sort of cruel and unusual punishment?”

“I feel for you,” said the civilian, not without a twinkle. Then, sober with a coldness that would freeze helium into a block, he said, “But you ask too much.”

Jones looked at him, and then at the others, sensing their unshakable agreement. “OK,” he said, with all the explosive harshness he could muster, “I’m done here. I’m sick of this place and my girl’s sick of being by herself, and I’m going home. You can’t call in anyone else, because there isn’t anyone else: my company built Oracle and my men were trained for it.”

This kind of thing was obviously in the colonel’s idiom. From far back in his throat, he issued a grinding sound that came out in words: “You’ll finish the job you were ordered to do, mister, or you’ll take the consequences.”

Jones shouted at him, “Consequences? What consequences? You couldn’t even have me fired, because I can make a damn good case that you prevented me from finishing the job. I’m not under your orders either. This seems a good time to remind you of the forgotten tradition that with this”—he took hold of the narrow lapel of his own sports jacket—“I outrank any uniform in this whole entire Pentagon.” He caught the swift smile of the civilian, and therefore trained his next blast on him. “Consequences? The only consequence you can get now is to deny yourself and your country the answer to your question. The only conclusion I can come to is that something else is more important to you than that. What else?” He stood up. So did the officers.

From his chair, the civilian said sonorously, “Now, now . . . gentlemen. Surely we can resolve this problem without raising our voices. Mr. Jones, would the possession of two of these questions help you in your diagnosis? Or even one?”

Breathing hard, Jones said, “It might.”

The civilian opened his long white hands. “Then there’s no problem after all. If one of you gentlemen ___”

“Absolutely not,” said the admiral instantly.

“Not me,” growled the colonel. “You want compromise, don’t you? Well, go ahead—you compromise.”

“In this area,” said the civilian smoothly, “I possess all the facts, and it is my considered judgment that the disclosure of my question would not further Mr. Jones’ endeavors.” (Jones thought, the admiral said the same thing in two words.) “Admiral, would you submit to my judgment the question of whether or not security would be endangered by your showing Mr. Jones your question?”

“I would not.”

The civilian turned to the colonel. One look at that rock-bound countenance was sufficient to make him turn away again, which, thought Jones, puts the colonel two points ahead of the admiral in the word-economy business.

Jones said to the civilian, “No use. sir, and by my lights, that’s the end of it. The simplest possible way to say it is that you gentlemen have the only tools in existence that would make it possible for me to repair this gadget, and you won’t let me have them. So fix it yourself, or leave it the way it is. I’d see you out,” he added, scanning the walls of the tiny room, “but I have to go to the john.” He stalked out, his mind having vividly and permanently photographed the astonishment on the admiral’s usually composed features, the colonel’s face fury-twisted into something like the knot that binds the lashes of a whip, and the civilian grinning broadly.

Grinning broadly?

Ah well, he thought, slamming the men’s-room door behind him—and infuriatingly, it wouldn’t slam. Ah well, we all have our way of showing frustration. Maybe I could’ve been just as mad more gently.

The door moved, and someone ranged alongside at the next vertical bathtub. Jones glanced, and then said aloud. “Maybe I could’ve been just as mad more gently.”

“Perhaps we all could have,” said the civilian, and then with his free hand he did four surprising things in extremely rapid succession. He put his finger to his lips, then his hand to the wall and then to his ear. Finally he whisked a small folded paper out of his breast pocket and handed it to Jones. He then finished what he was doing and went to wash up.

Shh. The walls have ears. Take this.

“All through history,” said the civilian from the sink, his big old voice booming in the tiled room, “we read about the impasse, and practically every time it’s mentioned, it’s a sort of preface to an explanation of how it was solved. Yet I’ll bet history’s full of impasses that just couldn’t be solved. They don’t get mentioned because when it happens, everything stops. There just isn’t anything to write down in the book anymore. I think we’ve just seen such an occasion, and I’m sorry for each of us.”

The old son of a gun! “Thanks for that much, anyway, sir,” Jones said, tucking the paper carefully away out of sight. The old man, wiping his hands, winked once and went out.

• • •

Back in his office, which seemed three limes larger than it had been before the conference, Jones slumped behind his desk and teased himself with the small folded paper, not reading it, turning it over and over. It had to be the old man’s question. Granted that it was, why had he been so willing to hand it over now, when three minutes earlier his refusal had been just about as adamant as—adamant? So, Jones, quit looking at the detail and get on the big picture. What was different in those three minutes?

Well, they were out of one room and into another. Out of one room that was damn well not bugged and into one which, the old man’s pantomime had informed him, may well be. Nope—that didn’t make sense. Then—how about this? In the one room there had been witnesses. In the second, none—not after the finger on the lips. So if a titan concluded that the civilian probably never had had an objection to Jones’ seeing and using the question, but wanted it concealed from anyone else—maybe specifically from those other two . . . why, the man had the big picture.

What else? That the civilian had not said this, therefore would not bring himself to say it in so many words, and would not appreciate any conversation that might force him to talk it over. Finally, no matter how reluctant he might be to let Jones see the paper, the slim chance Jones offered him of getting an answer outweighed every other consideration— except the chance of the other two finding out. So another part of the message was: I’m sitting on dynamite, Mr. Jones, and I’m handing you the detonator. Or: I trust you, Mr. Jones.

Sobeit, old man. I’ve got the message.

He closed his eyes and squeezed the whole situation to see if anything else would drip out of it. Nothing . . . except the faint conjecture that what worked on one might work on the other two. And as if on cue, the door opened and a blandfaced major came in a pace, stopped, said “Beg pardon, sir. I’m in the wrong room,” and before Jones could finish saying “That’s all right,” he was gone. Jones gazed thoughtfully at the door. That major was one of the colonel’s boys. That “wrong room” bit had a most unlikely flavor to it. So if the man hadn’t come in for nothing, he’d come in for something. He hadn’t taken anything and he hadn’t left anything, so he’d come in to find something out. The only thing he could find out was whether Jones was or was not here. Oh! and whether he was or was not alone.

All Jones had to do to check that out was to sit tight. You can find out if a man is alone in a room for now, but not for ten minutes from now, or five.

In two minutes the colonel came in.

He wore his ”I don’t like you, mister” expression. He placed his scarred brown hands flat on Jones’ desk and rocked forward over him like a tidal wave about to break.

“It’s your word against mine, and I’m prepared to call you a liar.” grated the colonel. “I want you to report to me and no one else.”

“All right,” said Jones, and put out his hand. The colonel locked gazes with him for a fair slice of forever, which made Jones believe that the Medusa legend wasn’t necessarily a legend after all. Then the officer put a small folded paper into Jones’ outstretched palm. “You get the idea pretty quick. I’ll say that, mister”, he straightened, about faced and marched out.

Jones looked at the two scraps of folded paper on the desk and thought, I will be damned.

And one to go.

He picked up the papers and dropped them again, feeling like a kid who forces himself to eat all the cake before he attacks the icing. He thought, maybe the old boy wants to but just doesn’t know how.

He reached for the phone and dialed for the open line, wondering if the admiral had had it canceled yet.

He had not, and he wasn’t waiting for the first ring to finish itself. He knew who was calling and he knew Jones knew, so he said nothing, just picked up the phone.

Jones said, “It was kind of crowded in here.”

“Precisely the point,” said the admiral with the grudging approval the colonel had shown. There was a short pause, and then the admiral said. “Have you called anyone else?”

Into four syllables Jones put all the outraged innocence of a male soprano accused of rape. “Certainly not.”

“Good man.”

The Britishism amused Jones, and he almost said Gung ho. what?; but instead he concentrated on what to say next. It was easy to converse with the admiral if you supplied both sides of the conversation. Suddenly it came to him that the admiral wouldn’t want to come here—he had somewhat farther to travel than the colonel had—nor would he like the looks of Jones’ visiting him at this particular moment. He said, “I wouldn’t mention this, but as you know. I’m leaving soon and may not see you. And I think you picked up my cigarette lighter.”

“Oh,” said the admiral.

“And me out of matches,” said Jones ruefully. “Well—I’m going down to oracle now. Nice to have known you. sir.” He hung up, stuck an unlit cigarette in his mouth, put the two folded papers in his left pants pocket, and began an easy stroll down the catacombs called corridors in the Pentagon.

Just this side of oracle’s dead-end corridor, and not quite in visual range of its security post, a smiling young ensign, who otherwise gave every evidence of being about his own business, said, “Light, sir?”

“Why, thanks.”

The ensign handed him a lighter. He didn’t light it and proffer the flame: he handed the thing over. Jones lit his cigarette and dropped the lighter into his pocket. “Thanks.”

“That’s all right,” smiled the ensign, and walked on.

At the security post, Jones said to the guard, “Whoppen?”

“Nothing and nobody, Mr. Jones.”

“Best news I’ve had all day.” He signed the book and accompanied the guard down the dead end. They each produced a key and together opened the door. “It shouldn’t take too long.”

“All the same to me.” said the guard, and Jones realized he’d been wishfully thinking out loud. He shut the door, hit the inner lock switch, and walked through the little foyer and the swinging door which unveiled what the crew called oracle’s “temple.”

He looked at the computer, and it looketl back at him. “Like I told you before,” he said conversationally, “for something that causes so much trouble, you’re awful little and awful homely.”

Oracle did not answer, because it was not aware of him. Oracle could read and do a number of more complex and subtle things, but it had no ears. It was indeed homely as a wall, which is what the front end mostly resembled, and the immense size of its translators, receptors and the memory banks was not evident here. The temple—other people called it Suburbia Delphi—contained nothing but that animated wall, with its one everblooming amber “on” light (for the machine never teased gulping its oceans of thought), a small desk and chair, and the mechanical typewriter with the modified Bodoni type face which was used for the reader. The reader itself was nothing more than a clipboard (though with machined guides to hold the paper exactly in place) with a large push button above it placed on a strut which extended from the front of the computer, and lined up with a lens set flush into it. It was an eerie experience to push that button after placing your query, for oracle scanned so quickly and “thought” so fast that it was rapping away on its writer before you could get your thumb off the button.


Jones sat at the desk, switched on the light and took out the admiral’s lighter. It was a square one, with two parts which telescoped apart to get to the tank. The tight little roll of paper was there, sure enough, with the typescript not seriously blurred by lighter fluid. He smoothed it out, retrieved the other two, unfolded them, stacked them all neatly; and then, feeling very like Christmas morning, said gaily to the unresponsive oracle:


Seconds later, he was breathing hard. A flood of profanity welled upward within him—and dissipated itself as totally inadequate.

Wagging his head helplessly, he brought the three papers to the typewriter and wrote them out on fresh paper, staying within the guidelines printed there, and adding the correct code symbols for the admiral, the colonel and the civilian. These symbols had been assigned by oracle itself, and were crosschecked against the personnel records it carried in its memory banks. It was the only way in which it was possible to ask a question including that towering monosyllable “I.”

Jones clipped the first paper in place, held his breath and pushed the button.

There was a small flare of light from the hood surrounding the lens as the computer automatically brought the available light to optimum. A relay clicked softly as the writer was activated. A white tongue of paper protruded. Jones tore it off. It was blank.

He grunted, then replaced the paper with the second, then the third. It seemed that on one of them there was a half-second delay in the writer relay, but it was insignificant: the paper remained blank.

“Stick your tongue out at me. will you?” he muttered at the computer, which silently gazed back at him with its blank single eye. He went back to the typewriter and copied one of the questions, but with his own code identification symbols. It read:


He clipped the paper in place and pushed the button. The relay clicked, the writer rattled and the paper protruded. He tore it off. It read (complete with quotes):


“A wise guy,” Jones growled. He returned to the typewriter and again copied one of the queries with his own code;


Wryly, oracle answered: don’t eat a bite until your execution.

It actually took Jones a couple of seconds to absorb that one, and then he uttered an almost hysterical bray of laughter.

The third question he asked, under his own identification, was:


The answer was a flat no, and Jones did not laugh one bit. “And you don’t find anything funny about it either.” he congratulated the computer, and actually, physically shuddered.

For Henny—the Honorable Oswaldus Deeming Henny—was an automatic nightmare to the likes of Jones. His weather-beaten saint’s face, his shoulder-length white hair (oh, what genius of a public relations man put him onto that?), his diapason voice, but most of all, his “Plan for Peace” had more than once brought Jones up out of a sound sleep into a told sweat. Now, there was once a mail who entranced a certain segment of the population with a slogan about the royalty in every man, but he could not have taken over the country, because a slogan is not a political philosophy. And there was another who was capable of turning vast numbers of his countrymen —for a while—against one another and toward him for protection: and he could not have taken over the country, because the manipulation of fear is not an economic philosophy. This Henny, however, was the man who had both, and more besides. His appearance alone gave him more nonthinking, vote-bearing adherents than Rudolph Valentino plus Albert Schweitzer. His advocacy of absolute isolation brought in the right wing, his demand for unilateral disarmament brought in the left wing, his credo that science could, with a third of munitions-size budgets, replace foreign trade through research, invention and ersatz, brought in the tech segment, and his dead certainty of lowering taxes had a thick hook in everyone else. Even the the most battle-struck of the war wanters found themselves shoulder to shoulder with the peace-at-any-price extremists, because of the high moral tone of    his disarmament plan, which was to turn our weapons on ourselves and present any aggressor with nothing but slag and cinders—the ultimate deterrent. It was the most marvelous blend of big bang and beneficence, able to cut chance and challenge together with openhanded Gandhiism, with an answer for everyone and a better life for all.

“All of which,” complained Jones to the featureless face of the computer, “doesn’t help me find out why you wouldn’t answer those three guys, though I must say. I’m glad you didn’t.” He went and got the desk chair and put it down front and center before the computer. He sat down and folded his arms and they stared silently at each other.

At length he said. “If you were a people instead of a thing, how would I handle you? A miserable, stubborn, intelligent snob of a people?”

Just how do I handle people? he wondered. I do—I know I do. I always seem to think of the right thing to say, or to ask. I’ve already asked Oracle what’s wrong, and Oracle says nothing is wrong. The way any miserable, stubborn, intelligent snob would.

What I do, he told himself, is to empathize. Crawl into their skins, feel with their fingertips, look out through their eyes.

Look out through their eyes.

He rose and got the admiral’s query— the one with the admiral’s own identification on it—clipped it to the board, then hunkered down on the floor with his back to the computer and his head blocking the lens.

He was seeing exactly what the computer saw.

Clipboard. Query. The small bare chamber, the far wall. The . . .

He stopped breathing. After a long astonished moment he said, when he could say anything, and because it was all he could think of to say: “Well I’ll. . . be . . . damned . . .”

• • •

The admiral was the first in. Jones had had a busy time of it for the 90 minutes following his great discovery, and he was feeling a little out of breath, but at the same time a little louder and quicker than the other guy, as if he had walked into the reading room after a rubdown and a needle-shower.

“Sit down. Admiral.”

“Jones, did you ___”

“Please, sir—sit down.”

“But surely ___”

“I’ve got your answer, Admiral. But there’s something we have to do first.” He made waving gestures. “Bear with me.”

He wouldn’t have made it, thought Jones, except for the colonel’s well-timed entrance. Boy oh boy, thought Jones, look at him, stiff as tongs. You come on the battlefield looking just like a target. On the other hand, that’s how you made your combat reputation, isn’t it? The colonel was two strides into the room before he saw the admiral. He stopped, began an about-face and said over his left epaulet, “I didn’t think ___”

“Sit down. Colonel,” said Jones in a pretty fair imitation of the man’s own brass gullet. It reached the officer’s muscles before it reached his brain and he sat. He turned angrily on the admiral, who said instantly. “This wasn’t my idea.” in a completely insulting way.

Again the door opened and old living history walked in, his head a little to one side, his eyes ready to see and understand and his famous mouth to smile, but when he saw the tableau, the eyes frosted over and the mouth also said: “I didn’t think ___”

“Sit down, sir,” said Jones, and began spieling as the civilian was about to refuse, and kept on spieling while he changed his mind, lowered himself guardedly onto the edge of a chair and perched his old bones on its front edge as if he intended not to stay.

“Gentlemen.” Jones began. “I’m happy to tell you that I have succeeded in finding out why Oracle was unable to perform for you—thanks to certain unexpected cooperation I received.” Nice touch. Jones. Each one of ’em will think he turned the trick, singlehandedly But not for long. “Now I have a plane to catch, and you all have things to do. and I would appreciate it if you would hear me out with as little interruption as possible.” Looking at these bright eager angry sullen faces. Jones let himself realize for the first time why detectives in whodunits assemble all the suspects and make speeches. Why they personally do it— why the author has them do it. It’s because it’s fun.

“In this package”—he lifted from beside his desk a brown paper parcel a yard long and 15 inches wide—“is the cause of all the trouble. My company was founded over a half century ago. and one of these has been an appurtenance of every one of the company’s operations, each of its major devices and installations, all of its larger utility equipment—cranes, trucks, bulldozers, everything. You’ll find them in every company office and in most company cafeterias.” He put the package down flat on his desk and fondled it while he talked. “Now. gentlemen. I’m not going to go into any part of the long argument about whether or not a computer can be conscious of what it’s doing, because we haven’t time and we’re not here to discuss metaphysics. I will, however, remind you of a childhood chant. Remember the one that runs: ‘For want of a nail the shoe was lost: for want of a shoe the horse was lost: for want of a horse the message was lost; for want of the message the battle was lost; for want of the battle the kingdom was lost—and all for the want of a horseshoe nail.’ ”

“Mr. Jones.” said the admiral, I—we —didn’t come here to ___”

“I just said that,” Jones said smoothly, and went right on talking until the admiral just stopped trying. “This”—he rapped the package—”is Oracle’s horseshoe nail. If it’s no ordinary nail, that’s because Oracle’s no ordinary computer, it isn’t designed to solve problems in their own context: there are other machines that do that, Oracle solves problems the way an educated man solves them—by bringing everything he is and has to bear on them. Lacking this one part”— he thumped the package again—”it can then answer your questions, and it accordingly did.” He smiled suddenly. “I don’t think oracle was designed this way,” he added musingly. “I think it . . . became . . . this way . . .” He shook him self. “Anyway. I have your answers.”

Now he could afford to pause, because he had them. At that moment, the only way any of them could have been removed was by dissection and haulage.

Jones lined up his sights on the colonel and said. “In a way, your question was the most interesting, Colonel. To me professionally, I mean. It shows to what detail oracle can go in answering a wide theoretical question. One might even make a case for original creative thinking, though that’s always arguable. Could a totally obedient robot think if you flatly ordered it to think? When does a perfect imitation of a thing become the thing itself?”

“You’re not going to discuss my question here.” said the colonel as a matter of absolute, incontrovertible fact.

“Yes I am,” said Jones, and raised his voice. “You listen to me. Before you stick that trigger finger of yours inside that tunic. Colonel. I’m in a corny mood right now and so I’ve done a corny thing. Two copies of a detailed report of this whole affair are now in the mail, and, I might add, in a mailbox outside this building. One goes to my boss, who is a very big wheel and a loyal friend, with as many contacts in business and government as there are company machines operating, and that puts him on the damn moon as well as all over the world. The other goes to someone else, and when you find out who that is it’ll be too late, because in two hours he can reach every paper, every wire service, every newscasting organization on earth. Naturally, consistent with the corn, I’ve sent these out sealed with orders to open them if I don’t phone by a certain time—and I assure you it won’t be from here. In other words, you can’t do anything to me and you’d better not delay me. Sit down, Admiral,” he roared.

“I’m certainly not going to sit here and ___”

“I’m going to finish what I started out to do whether you’re here or not.” Jones waved at the other two. “They’ll be here. You want that?”

The admiral sat down. The civilian said, in a tolling of mighty sorrow. “Mr. Jones, I had what seemed to be your faithful promise ___”

“There were overriding considerations,” said Jones. “You know what an overriding consideration is, don’t you, sir?” and he held up the unmistakable Oracle query form. The civilian subsided.

“Let him finish,” gritted the colonel. “We can—well, let him finish.”

Jones instantly, like Oracle, translated: We can take care of him later. He said to the colonel, “Cheer up. You can always deny everything, like you said.” He fanned through the papers before him and dealt out the colonel’s query. He read it aloud:


The colonel’s face could have been shipped out, untreated, and installed on Mount Rushmore. The civilian gasped and put his knuckles in his mouth. The admiral’s slitted eyes went round.

“The answer,” said Jones, “makes that case for creative thinking I was talking about, Oracle said: ‘DETONATE ONE BOMB WITHIN UNDERGROUND H. Q. SPEND YOUR SUBSEQUENT TENURE LOOKING FOR OTHERS.’ ”

Jones put down the paper and spoke past the colonel to the other two. “Get the big picture, gentlemen? ‘underground h. q.’ could only mean the centralized control for government in the mountains. Whether or not the President —or anyone else—was there at the time is beside the point. If not, he’d find another way easily enough. After that happened, our hero here would take the posture of the national savior, the only man competent to track down a second bomb, which could be anywhere. Imagine the fear, the witchhunts, the cordons, the suspicion, the ‘Emergency’ and ‘For the Duration’ orders and regulations.” Suddenly savage, Jones snarled, “I’ve got just one more thing to say about this warrior and his plans. All his own strength, and the entire muscle behind everything he plans for himself, derives from the finest esprit de corps the world has ever known. I told you I’m in a corny mood, so I’m going to say it just the way it strikes me. That kind of esprit is a bigger thing than obedience or devotion or even faith, it’s a species of love. And there’s not a hell of a lot of that to go around in this world. Butchering the President to make himself a little tin god is a minor crime compared to his willingness to take a quality like that and turn it into a perversion.”

The civilian, as if unconsciously, hitched his chair a half inch away from the colonel. The admiral trained a firing-squad kind of look at him.

“Admiral,” said Jones, and the man twitched, “I’d like to call your attention to the colonel’s use of the word ‘eliminate’ in his query. You don’t, you know, you just don’t eliminate a live President.” He let that sink in, and then said, “I mention it because you, too, used it, and it’s a fair conjecture that it means the same thing. Listen: “WHAT SINGLE MAN CAN I ELIMINATE TO BECOME PRESIDENT?”’

“There could hardly be any one man,” said the civilian thoughtfully, gaining Jones’ great respect for his composure. Jones said, “Oracle thinks so. It wrote your name, sir.”

Slowly the civilian turned to the admiral. “Why, you sleek old son of a bitch,” he enunciated carefully, “I do believe you could have made it.”

“Purely a hypothetical question,” explained the admiral, but no one paid the least attention.

“As for you,” said Jones, rather surprised that his voice expressed so much of the regret he felt, “I do believe that you asked your question with a genuine desire to see a world at peace before you passed on. But, sir—it’s like you said when you walked in here just now—and the colonel said it. too: ‘I didn’t think . . .’ You are sitting next to two certifiable first-degree murderers; no matter what their overriding considerations, that’s what they are. But what you planned is infinitely worse.”

He read, ” ‘CAN MY SUPPORT OF HENNY BING PEACE?’ You’ll be pleased to know —oh, you already know; you were just checking, right?—that the answer is Yes. Henny’s position is such right now that your support would bring him in. But— you didn’t think. That demagog can’t do what he wants to do without a species of thought policing the like of which the ant-heap experts in China never even dreamed of. Unilateral disarmament and high morality scorched-earth! Why, as a nation we couldn’t do that unless we meant it, and we couldn’t mean it unless every man, woman and child thought alike—and with Henny running things, they would. Peace? Sure we’d have peace! I’d rather take on a Kodiak bear with boxing gloves than take my chances in that kind of a world. These guys,” he said carelessly, “are prepared to murder one or two or a few thousand. You,” said Jones, his voice suddenly shaking with scorn, “are prepared to murder every decent free thing this country ever stood for.”

Jones rose. “I’m going now. All your answers are in the package there. Up to now it’s been an integral part of Oracle —it was placed exactly in line with the reader, and has therefore been a part of everything the machine has ever done. My recommendation is that you replace it, or Oracle will be just another computer, answering questions in terms of themselves. I suggest that you make similar installations in your own environment . . . and quit asking questions that must be answered in terms of yourselves. Questions which in the larger sense would be unthinkable.”

The civilian rose, and did something that Jones would always remember as a decent thing. He put out his hand and said. “You are right. I needed this, and you’ve stopped me. What will stop them?”

Jones took the hand. “They’re stopped. I know, because I asked Oracle and Oracle said this was the way to do it.” He smiled briefly and went out. His last glimpse of the office was the rigid backs of the two officers, and the civilian behind his desk, slowly unwrapping the package. He walked down the endless Pentagon corridors, the skin between his shoulder blades tight all the way: Oracle or not, there might be overriding considerations. But he made it, and got to the first outside phone booth still alive. Marvelously, wonderfully alive.

He heard Ann’s voice and said, “It’s a real wonderful world, you know that?”

“Jones, darling! . . . you certainly have changed your tune. Last time I talked to you it was a horrible place full of evil intentions and smelling like feet.”

“I just found out for sure three lousy kinds of world it’s not going to be,” Jones said. Ann would not have been what she was to him if she had not been able to divine which questions not to ask. She said, “Well, good,” and he said he was coming home.

“Oh, darling! You fix that gadget?”

“Nothing to it,” Jones said. “I just took down the THINK sign.”

She said, “I never know when you’re kidding.”

The Witch Door – Ray Bradbury

It was a pounding on a door, a furious, frantic, insistent pounding, born of hysteria and fear and a great desire to be heard, to be freed, to be let loose, to escape. It was a wrenching at hidden paneling, it was a hollow knocking, a rapping, a testing, a clawing. It was a scratching at hollow boards, a ripping at bedded nails. It was a muffled shouting, demanding, a call to be noticed, followed by silence.

The silence was the most empty and terrible of all.

Robert and Martha Webb sat up in their bed.

“Did you hear it?”

“Yes, again.”

“ Downstairs.”

Now, whatever it was that had pounded and rapped and wrenched and clawed had drawn into silence. Listening to hear if the cries and drumming had summoned help.

The winter night lay through the house, silence snowing into every room, drifting over tables and floors, banking up the stairwell.

Then the pounding started again. And then a sound of soft crying.


“Someone’s in the house.”

“Lotte, do you think? The front door’s unlocked.”

“She would have knocked.”

“She’s the only one it could be. She phoned.”

They both glanced at the phone. It was dead. All the phones had died days ago with the riots in the towns and cities. Now in the receiver you heard only your own heartbeat. “Can you put me up?” Lotte had cried, from 600 miles away in the last phone call, just overnight?”

But before they could answer her, the phone had filled itself with long miles of silence.


“That might be her!” said Martha Webb.

“No,” said Robert Webb. “Dear God.”

They lay in their cold room in this farmhouse in the Massachusetts wilderness, back from the main roads, away from the towns, near a bleak river and a black forest. It was the frozen middle of December. The white smell of snow cut the air.

They arose. With an oil lamp lit they sat on the edge of the bed as if dangling their legs over a precipice.

“Whoever it is sounds frightened.”

“We’re all frightened, damn it. That’s why we came out here, to be away from cities, riots, all that damned foolishness. Now when we find peace at last, people call and upset us. And tonight, this. Christ!” He glanced at his wife. “You afraid?”

“I don’t know. I don’t believe in ghosts. I’m sane. Or like to think I am. Where’s your gun?”

“We won’t need it. Don’t ask me why, but we won’t.”

They picked up the oil lamp. In another month the small power plant in the white barn behind the house would be finished and there would be power to spare. But now they came and went with dim lamps or candles.

They stood at the stairwell. The crying, the sadness and the plea came from below.

“She sounds so damned sad,” said Robert. “God, I’m sorry for her, whoever she is. Come on.”

They went downstairs.

As if someone had heard their footsteps, the crying grew louder. There was a dull thudding against a panel somewhere.

“The witch door,” said Martha, at last.

“Can’t be.”


They stood in the long hall looking at the place under the stairs where the panels trembled faintly. But now the cries faded, as if the crier were exhausted, or as if something had diverted her. Or perhaps their voices had startled her and she was listening for them to speak again. Now the house was silent and the man and woman waited, with the oil lamp quietly fuming in their hands.

Robert stepped to the witch door and touched it, probing for the hidden button, the secret spring. “There can’t be anyone in there,” he said. “My God, we’ve been here six months, and that’s just a cubby, isn’t that what the real estate agent said? No one could hide in there and we’d not know it. We ____   ”


They listened.


“She’s gone, it’s gone, whatever it was, hell, that door hasn’t been opened in our lifetimes. Everyone’s forgotten where the spring is that unlocks it. I don’t think there is a door, only a loose panel and rats’ nests, that’s all. The walls, scratching. Why not?” He turned to look at his wife, who was staring at the panel.

“Rats don’t cry,” she said. “That was a voice, asking to be saved. Lotte, I thought. Now I know it wasn’t Lotte, but someone else in trouble.”

Martha reached out and trembled her fingertips along the beveled edge of ancient maple. “Can’t  we open it?” “With a crowbar and hammer, first thing tomorrow’.”

“Oh Robert.”

“Don’t ‘Oh Robert’ me, I’m tired.”

“You can’t leave her in there to ____   ”

“She’s quiet now”. Christ, I’m exhausted. I’ll come down at the crack of dawn and knock the damned thing apart, OK?”

“All right,” she said, and tears came to her eyes.

“Women,” said Robert. “Oh my God, you and Lotte, Lotte and you. If she gets here, if she makes it, I’ll have a houseful of lunatics.”

“Lotte’s fine!”

“Sure, but she should keep her mouth shut. It doesn’t pay now to say you’re socialist. Democrat, libertarian, pro-life, abortionist, Sinn Fein, fascist. Commie, any damn thing. The towns are bombed out. People are looking for scapegoats and Lotte shoots from the hip, gets herself smeared and now!, hell, she’s on the run.”

“They’ll jail her if they catch her. Or kill her, yes, kill her. We’re lucky to be here with food. Thank God we planned ahead, we saw it coming, the starvation, the massacres. We helped ourselves. Now we’ll help Lotte if she makes it through.”

He turned to the stairs. “I’m dead on my feet. I’m tired of saving anyone. Even Lotte. But, hell, if she gets through the front door, she’s saved.”


They went up the stairs, the lamp advancing in an aura of a trembling white glow. The house was as silent as snow falling. “God,” he whispered to himself. “Damn, I don’t like women crying like that.”

It had sounded like the whole world crying, he thought The whole world dying, needing help and lonely. But what can you do? Live like this? Far off the main highway, away from all the stupidity and death? What can you do?
They left the lamp lit and drew the covers over their bodies and lay listening to the wind hit the house and creak the beams and parquetry.

A moment later there was a cry from downstairs, a splintering crash, the sound of a door flung wide, a bursting out of air, footsteps echoing in all the rooms, sobbing almost in exultation. Then the front door banged open, the winter wind blowing wildly in. while footsteps rapped across the front porch and were gone.

With the lamp, they ran downstairs. Wind smothered their faces as they turned toward the witch door, open wide, still on its hinges, then toward the front door where they held the lamp out upon a snowing white and darkness, with no moon. Snowflakes fell from the sky to the mattressed yard. “Gone,” she whispered.


“We’ll never know, unless she comes back.”

“She won’t. Look.”

They moved the lamplight toward the white earth and the tiny footprints going off, across the softness, toward the dark forest.

“It was a woman, then. But why?” “God knows. Why anything?”

They stood looking at the footprints a long while until, shivering, they moved back through the hall to the open witch door. They poked the lamp into the hollow under the stairs.

“Lord, it’s just a cell, hardly a closet, and look ____   ”

Inside were a small rocking chair, a braided rug, a used candle in a copper holder and an old, worn Bible. The place smelled of must and moss and dead flowers.

“Is this where they used to hide people?”

“Yes. A long time back they hid the women people called witches. Trials, witch trials. They hanged or burned some of them.”

“Yes, yes,” they both murmured, staring into the tiny cell.

“And the witches hid here while the hunters searched the house and gave up and left?”

“Yes, oh my God, yes,” he whispered. “Rob?”


She bent forward. Her face was pale as she stared at the small worn rocking chair and the faded Bible.

“Rob? How old? This house, how old?”

“Maybe 300 years.”

“That old?”


“Crazy. Stupid.”


“Houses, old like this. All the years.

And more years and more after that. God, feel! If you put your hand in, yes? Would you feel it change? What if I sat in that rocking chair and shut the door, what? That woman, how long was she in there? From way, way back. Wouldn’t it be strange?”


“But if you wanted to run away badly enough, wished for it, prayed for it, and people ran after you and someone hid you in a place like this, a witch behind a door, and you heard the searchers run through the house, closer and closer, wouldn’t you want to get away? Anywhere? To another place? Why not another time? And then, in a house like this, a house so old nobody know’s, wouldn’t it be—if you wanted and asked for it enough—you could run to another time. Maybe,” she paused, “here?”

“No,” he said. “That’s stupid!”

But still, some quiet motion within the closeted space caused both, at almost the same instant, to hold their hands out in the air, curious, like people testing invisible waters. The air seemed to move one way and then another, now warm, now cold, with a pulsation of light and a sudden turning toward dark. All this they thought but could not say. There was weather here, now a quick touch of summer and then a winter cold, which could not be, of course, but there it was. Passing along their fingertips, but unseen by their eyes, a stream of shadows and sun ran as invisible as time itself, clear as crystal, but clouded by a shifting dark. Both felt that if they were to thrust their hands deep, they might be drawn in to drown in a storm of seasons within an incredibly small space. All this, too, they thought or almost felt but could not say.

They seized their frozen but sunburned hands back, to stare down and hold them against their breasts.

“Damn,” whispered Robert. “Oh damn!”

He backed off and went to open the front door again and look at the snowing night where the footprints had almost vanished.

“No,” he said. “No, no.”

Just then the yellow flash of headlights on the road braked in front of the house.

“Lotte!” cried Martha. “It must be! Lotte!”

The car lights went out. They ran to meet the running woman halfway up the front yard.


The woman, wild-eyed, hair wind-blown, threw herself at them.

“Martha, Bob! God, I thought I’d never find you! Lost! I’m being followed. Let’s get inside. Oh, I didn’t mean to get you up in the middle of the night. It’s good to see you! Jesus! Hide the car! Here are the keys!”

Robert ran to drive the car behind the house. When he came back around he saw that the heavy snowfall was already covering its tracks. Then the three of them were inside the house, talking, holding on to one another. Robert kept glancing at the front door.

“I can’t thank you enough,” cried Lotte, huddled in a chair. “You’re at risk! I won’t stay long, a few hours. Until it’s safe. Then ____  ”

“Stay as long as you want.”

“No. They’ll follow. In the cities, the fires, the murders, everyone starving, I stole gas. Do you have more? Enough to get me to Greenborough? I ____   ”

“Lotte?” said Robert.

“Yes?” Lotte stopped, breathless.

“Did you see anyone on your way up here? A woman? Running on the road?” “What? I was driving so fast. A woman? Yes! I almost hit her. Then, she was gone! Why?”

“Well ____   ’’

“She’s not dangerous?”

“No, no.”

“It is all right my being here?”

“Yes, fine, fine. Sit down. We’ll fix some coffee.”

“Wait! I’ll check!” Before they could stop her Lotte ran to the front door, opened it a crack and peered out. They stood with her and saw distant headlights flourish over a low hill and dip into a valley. “They’re coming,” said Lotte. “They might search here.”

Martha and Robert glanced at each other. No, no, thought Robert. God, no! Preposterous, unimaginable. No, none of this! Get off, circumstance! Come back, Lotte, in ten years, five years, maybe a year, a month, a week. Even tomorrow! But don’t come with coincidence in each hand like idiot children and ask, only half an hour after one terror, one miracle, to test our disbelief! “What’s wrong?” said Lotte.

“I ____   ” said Robert.

“No place to hide me?”

“Yes,” he said. “We have a place.”

“You do?”

“Here.” He turned slowly away, stunned.

They walked down the hall to the halfopen paneling.

“This?” Lotte said. “Secret? Did you ____   ?”

“No, it’s been here since the house was built long ago.”

Lotte touched and moved the door on its hinges. “Does it work? Will they know where to look and find it?”

“No. It’s beautifully made. Shut, you can’t tell it’s there.”

Outside in the winter night cars rushed closer, their beams flashing up the road, across the house windows.

Lotte peered into the witch door as if down a deep, lonely well.

A filtering of dust moved about her. The small rocking chair trembled.

Moving in silently, Lotte touched the half-burned candle.

“Why, it’s still warm!”

Martha and Robert said nothing. They held on to the witch door, smelling the odor of warm tallow.

Lotte stood rigidly in the little space, bowing her head beneath the beamed ceiling.

A horn blew in the snowing night. Lotte took a deep breath and said, “Shut the door.”

They shut the witch door. There was no way to tell that a door was there.

They blew out the lamp and stood in the cold dark house, waiting.

The cars rushed down the road, their noise loud, and their yellow headlights bright in the falling snow. The wind stirred the footprints in the yard, one pair going out, another coming in, and they watched the tracks of Lotte’s car, fast vanishing, and at last, gone.

“Thank God,” whispered Martha.

The cars, honking, whipped around the last bend and down the hill and stopped, waiting, looking in at the dark house. Then, at last, they started up away into the snow and the hills.

Soon their lights were gone and the sound gone with them.

“We were lucky,” said Robert.

“But she’s not.”


“That woman, whoever she was, ran out of here. They’ll find her. Somebody’ll find her.”

“Christ, that’s right.”

“She has no ID, no proof of herself. She doesn’t know’ what has happened to her. When she tells them who she is and where she came from ____  ”

“Yes, yes.”

“God help her.”

They looked into the snowing night but saw nothing. Everything was still. “You can’t escape,” she said. “No matter what you do, you can’t escape.”


They moved away from the window and down the hall to the witch door and touched it.

“Lotte,” they called.

The witch door did not tremble or move.

“Lotte, you can come out now.”

There was no answer, not a breath nor a whisper.

Robert tapped the door. “Hey, in there.”


He knocked at the paneling, agitated.


“Open it!”

“I’m trying, damn it!”

“Lotte, we’ll get you out, wait!    Everything’s all right!”

He beat with both fists, cursing. Then he shouted, “Watch out,” took a step back, raised his leg and kicked once, twice, three times, vicious kicks at the paneling that crunched holes and crumbled wood into kindling. He reached in and yanked the entire paneling free. “Lotte!”

They leaned together into the small place under the stairs. The candle flickered on the small table. The Bible was gone. The small rocking chair moved quietly back and forth, in little arcs, and then stood still.


They stared at the empty room. The candle flickered.

“Lotte,” they said.

“You don’t believe?”

“I don’t know. Old houses are old . . . old.”

“You think Lotte . . . she ____?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know.”

“Then she’s safe at least, safe! Thank God!”

“Safe? Where’s she gone? You really think that? A woman in new clothes, with red lipstick, high heels, short skirt, perfume, plucked brows, diamond rings and pantyhose, safe? Safe!” he said, staring deep into the open frame of the witch door.

“Why not?”

He drew a deep breath.

“A woman of that description who was lost in a town called Salem in the year 1692?”

He reached over and shut the splintered witch door.

They sat waiting by it for the rest of the long cold night.

Hitch Your Spaceship To A Star -Donald E. Westlake

Breakfast on the Hopeful consisted of ocher juice, parabacon, toastettes, mock omelet, papjacks, sausage (don’t ask) and Hester’s coffee. It was called Hester’s coffee because Hester made it and Hester drank it; the others had to draw the line somewhere.

This morning, all hands had gathered for the prelanding meal. At the head of the round table sat Captain Standforth himself, under the glassy eyes of nearly two score defunct birds mounted on the walls, the stuffing of which was his only true vocation. Descended from those Standforths, the ones who had so routinely over the past seven generations covered themselves with glory in the service of the Galactic Patrol, the captain had been compelled by both family and destiny to enlist when his turn came, just as the patrol had been compelled by family and history to take him, inadvertently and unhappily proving that sometimes neither nature nor nurture may create character. Taxidermy? A Standforth? Regrettably, yes.

Gathered around, scoffing down the fabrifood, were the rest of the expendable captain’s expendable crew, plus his lone expendable passenger, Councilman Morton Luthguster, as plump and pompous as a pouter pigeon crossed with a blimp. The crew consisted of second-in-command Lieutenant Billy Shelby, young and idealistic but not too awfully bright: Astrogator Pam Stokes, very bright and very beautiful but a stranger to passion; Knsign Kybee Benson, whose encyclopedic knowledge of human societies did not keep him from being personally antisocial; and stockily blunt Chief Engineer Hester (of the coffee) Hanshaw, proud mistress of the engine room.

The captain wiped his lips on a toastette, then ate it. “Well,” he said to his murky band, “we’ll be landing soon.” His mild eyes gleamed with visions of this unknown new planet and the unimaginable new birds he would soon disembowel.

Councilman Luthguster, swirling a forkful of papjack in pseudolco, said, “What is this place we’re coming to, Ensign Benson? What are its characteristics?”

“No one knows for sure about this one, Councilman,” the ensign told him. “The old records simply say the colonists were a group of like-minded people whose goal was a simple life free of surprises.”

“Well, we’ll be a surprise,” the council man said.

Jim Downey and Hank Carpenter stood gazing up into the clear green sky, where the sun—good old Ptolemy, nicknamed sun after the good old Sol from which their forebears had so long ago departed— poised midway up its morning arc. “They’re late,” Jim said.

“They’ll get here,” Hank assured him.

Councilman Luthguster said, “What’s the name of the place, Ensign Benson? I’ve noticed that the name the colonists give their settlement frequently offers a clue to their social structure.”

“It’s called Figulus,” Ensign Benson said.


Blank looks around the table. Billy Shelby said, “Wasn’t he one of the founders of ancient Rome? Figulus and Venus.”

“No, Billy,” said Ensign Benson.

Jim frowned skyward. “You don’t suppose they got the coordinates wrong? Landed someplace else on Figgy?” Behind them, on the knoll where they stood, the pleasant town dreamily awaited.

“They’re dawdling over their breakfast, like as not,” Hank replied. “In fact, there they come yonder.”

“Publius Nigidius Figulus,” Ensign Benson said. “He was the most learned Roman of his age, a writer and a statesman, died circa forty-five b.c.”

Billy looked sad. “Died at the circus?

That’s awful.”

“Terrible,” the ensign agreed. “Figulus was most noted for his books on religion and _____   ”

“We’re,” Pam Stokes said, her ancestral slide rule moving like a live thing in her slender-fingered hands, a subtle alteration simultaneously taking place in the faint aura of engine hum all about them, “here.”

Everyone jumped up to go look out the view ports at Figulus, third often planets in orbit around the Sollike star called Ptolemy. Only Ensign Benson remained at the table, draining his vial of ocher juice.

“And astrology,” he finished.

“People of Figulus _____”

“Hi, Senator,” Jim said.

Councilman Luthguster frowned across the top of his P.A.-system microphone at the two locals at the foot of the extruded stairs. He was on the platform at the top.

Both were middle-aged, mild-mannered,

Jim with a gray cardigan and a pipe, Hank with eyeglasses and a tweed jacket. All four elbows sported leather patches. “I am a councilman,” he informed them.

“Ha!” said flank. “That’s a five-buck you owe me, Jim.”

Jim scratched his head. “I would have sworn a plenipotentiary from Earth would be at least a senator.”

Councilman Luthguster stared. “I haven’t told you that yet,” he told the world through the P.A. system.

Just inside the ship where the others waited, Ensign Benson frowned and said, “What’s going on out there?” He edged closer to the open hatch, where he could hear both sides of the conversation.

“Well, in any event,” Hank was saying, while his pal Jim sadly produced a five-buck from his wallet and handed it over,

The councilman is not the one we have to talk to here. No, we want the man in charge.”

“You mean the captain?”

Hank said, “No, no, he’s just some sort of hobbyist along for the ride. We want the—what will you call him? Social scientist. Anthropologist.”

“Sociologist,” Jim suggested. “Ethnologist.”

Ensign Benson stepped out into the light. “Social engineer,” he said.

“How do you do, sir.” Hank said, smiling behind his glasses, coming up the ladder with hand outstretched. “I’m Hank Carpenter, mayor of Centerville.”

Back on the ground, Jim made a dang-it gesture with his pipe. “I knew he’d be a Scorpio! Dang it, that’s what we should have bet on.”

Ensign Benson accepted Hank’s firm but friendly handclasp. “Centerville?” “Well, sir,” Hank said, “it happens that this is the center of the universe. May not look like much, but that’s what it is and why our forebears came here. But let’s quit jawing. You and the councilman and the four inside the ship, come on to town and meet the folks.”

Ensign Benson held tight to the stair rail. “Four inside?”

“Well, there’s your captain,” Hank said. “Tall, skinny, distracted fella. A Pisces. And his number two, a nice young boy but not too quick upstairs—probably a Moon Child. Moony, anyway.”

“Show-off,” Jim said. He was still smarting over his fiver.

Hank went on, pretending not to notice. “Then there’s your navigator _____”


“Same thing, just gussied up. A highly motivated young person, probably female.”

“Not yet,” Ensign Benson muttered.

“But definitely Virgo.”

“That I’ll go along with.”

“Now, your engineer,” Hank went on, “a solid Taurus, but we just can’t decide if it’s a man or a woman.”

“Nobody can,” Ensign Benson said.

“I heard that,” Hester said, coming out onto the platform to shake a wrench at the ensign. “I’m a woman, and don’t you forget it.”

“Why not?”

“Come on, folks,” Hank said, gesturing toward town. “You’ve had a long, hard journey; come along and relax.”

The captain, the lieutenant and the astrogator joined the three other Earthlings on the platform and they all looked off toward town. A pretty little place with peaked roofs, a traditional white steeple and a sports ground alive with running, yelling children, it nestled in a setting of low hills where neat farms mingled with elm groves, the whole area very much like certain bits of Devon and Kent—the parts beyond commuting distance from London. “What a nice place,” Pam said, her slide rule for one instant forgotten.

“You’ll learn to love it,” Hank assured them, “in time.”

“Chick, chick, Nero,” Jim said as Hank explained to the Earthers, “Our energy sources are really very slender. No oil, no coal. Hydropower and solar power give us enough electricity to run our homes and businesses, but there was no way we could keep powered transportation. Fortunately, there were several indigenous animals capable of domestication, including the like of old Nero here.”

Nero, a gray-and-white creature that might very well pass for a horsy steed in the dusk with the light behind it, was apparently quite strong; without effort it pulled this ten-seater surrey and its eight passengers along the gently up-and-down crushed-stone road toward town. A farmer in a nearby field, plowing behind another Nero, waved; Hank and Jim and Billy and Hester waved back.

“Have many birds here?” the captain asked.

“Oh, all sorts.”

Ensign Benson had been deeply frowning, intensely brooding, acutely staring into the middle distance, but now, all at once he nodded and said, “Hyperradio.” Jim frowned around his pipe. “Say what?”

“You must be in hyperradio contact with one of the colonies we already visited.” “Not us,” Jim said. “Never heard of hyperradio.”

“Then someone else has come here from off planet. Recently.”

“No, sir.” Jim shook his head and Nero’s reins.

Hank said, “You’re our first visitors in five hundred years. You’ll be starting the guestbook.”

Ensign Benson gave him the old gimlet eye. “You knew we were coming. You knew how many of us and where we were from and our mission. Somebody had to tell you all that.”

“Easy,” Hank said, grinning. “The stars told us.”

The town was small but busy, with a bustling, shop-filled main street, Nero-powered surreys and wagons everywhere, and an aura of prosperity and contentment.

“What’s that?” the captain asked as they made their way around a white-stone obelisk in its own little center-of-the-street garden.

“The peace memorial,” Hank said. “We’ve never had anybody to have a war with, but the town plan called for a memorial there—our ancestors’ original town back on Earth had one at that spot—so about a hundred years ago, they just went ahead and put up a peace memorial.”

People waved as they went by, and a dressed-up reception committee waited out front of the Grange hall. “I know you’ve all had breakfast,” Hank said, “but you could probably tuck into some real food. Come on.”

Everybody climbed out of the surrey. Billy Shelby, a happy and innocent smile on his face, said to Ensign Benson. “Golly, Kybee, isn’t this place nice?”

“I’m not so sure,” the ensign muttered, glowering at all those happy people. “Keep your eyes open, Billy. There’s something wrong here.”

It was a gala breakfast, laid on just for the visitors and with nearly 50 of the most prominent local citizens in attendance. The Terrans were introduced to, among many others, the principals of both high schools, three ministers, one priest, four doctors, both judges, the police chief, the editors of both newspapers. . . . Oh, the list went on and on. Then they all sat at long trencher tables under crepe-paper decorations of umber and sienna—Earth colors—and happy chitchat filled the hall as the food came out.

Real eggs. Real homemade bread with real butter. Real bacon. “Hester,” Councilman Luthguster said, “this is what coffee tastes like.”

“Not my coffee,” said Hester.

“I know,” said the councilman.

“How do you like breakfast?” Hank asked.

“Fine,” said Ensign Benson, though, in fact, it was all as ashes in his mouth. Looking up, he noticed the designs painted high on the walls, just under the ceiling, 12 on each side, six along each end. Beginning at the front left, three designs incorporated rams’ heads, three involved bulls, then… “Thezodiac,” Ensign Benson said.

“You know it, then.” Hank Carpenter seemed pleased.

“Astrology. Publius Nigidius Figulus wrote on astrology.”

“One of the great early scholars in the science.”

Ensign Benson raised such a skeptical brow: “Science?”

Hank offered such an indulgent chuckle: “You’re from Earth, of course,” he said, “where it doesn’t operate as efficiently.”

“Oh, really?”

“If you were to take an ordinary chemistry-lab experiment,” Hank suggested, “and try it underwater, the results wouldn’t please you. Would that disprove the science or reflect the surroundings?”

“So what makes this place better surroundings than Earth?”

“To begin with,” Hank said, “our being at the center of the universe means there’s no distortion. Then, our year is precisely three hundred sixty days long, so we don’t have to keep eternally adjusting things. And Ptolemy’s system includes ten planets, and our planet has two moons. That means that from here, we can observe nine planets, two moons and our sun; twelve. One heavenly body per house.”

“Oh. but you can’t seriously _____”

“As the bumblebee said to the physicist,” Hank said. “ ‘All I know is, it works.’ ”

The extremely beautiful blonde girl to Billy’s left said, “Hi. I’m Linda. What’s your sign?”


“Billy? No, that’s your name. When were you born?”

“About three-thirty in the morning,” Billy said. “Mom said everybody’s born at three-thirty in the morning. Can that be right?”

Linda thought about that. She had beautiful violet eyes. “You were born in July,” she decided and turned to talk to the person on her other side.

Ensign Benson ate toast, eggs, bacon, waffles; but he did not, in fact, taste a thing. He was thinking too hard. “If astrology works,” he said, “it rules out free will.”

“Not at all.” said Hank. “The heavens don’t say certainly thus and so will happen, or everybody born at the same time in the same general area would be identical. Astrology deals in probabilities. For instance, the astral alignment so strongly suggested that Earth would make fresh contact with its Lost Colonies now that we pretty well discounted any other possibility, but as to the exact make-up of the crew, there were some details we couldn’t be sure of.”

“Still,” Ensign Benson said, “you’re telling me you people can read the future.”

“The probabilities,” Hank corrected.

“Of course,” Pam Stokes said, an actual real piece of bacon in one hand and her ever-present slide rule in the other, “there are many ways to define the center of the universe.” She bit off a piece of crunchy bacon.

“Oh, sure,” Jim Downey agreed. “And they all work out to be right here.”
Pam frowned. “This doesn’t taste like bacon.”

“Something wrong?”

“No, it’s _____. Actually, it’s better.”

Putting the slide rule down, she picked up a fork and had at the scrambled eggs.

Pointing, Jim said. “What is that little stick, anyway?”

“This slide rule? It’s a sort of calculator, used before the computer came in.”

“Like the abacus?” Jim picked it up, pushed the inner pieces back and forth, watched the little lines and numbers join and separate.

“I guess so,” Pam said, reaching for the toast, pausing in amazement when the toast flexed. “It was my mother’s,” she explained, “and my mother’s mother’s, and my mother’s mother’s mother’s, and my mo _____”

“Very interesting,” Jim said and put it down.

Ensign Benson, lost in thought, had stopped eating. “If you’re done,” Hank said, “we’ll show you to your house.”

The ensign looked at him. “My house?”

“You and your friends. We thought you’d probably all want to live together at first until you get to know the town, make friends, find employment _____”

“Wait, wait a minute.” Ensign Benson was almost afraid to phrase the question. “How long do you expect us to stay?”

“I’m sorry,” Hank said. “You haven’t read your chart, of course. You’ll be here forever.”

Give Councilman Morton Luthguster a crowd, he’ll make you a speech. “Earth can do much for the people of Figulus,” he declaimed to the local citizens assembled at his table. “Technology, trade agreements. A chicken in every pot; a, a, a, a horse thingy in every stable. Peace, prosperity _____”

“We’ve got all that,” said a citizen.

And a stable buck,” said another.

Councilman Luthguster paused in mid-flight. “Buck? A stable buck?” Visions of deer, all with symmetrical antlers, leaped in his head.

“That’s our unit of currency,” a citizen explained. “We have the quarter-buck, half-buck, buck, five-buck, sawbuck, all the way up to the C-buck and the grand-buck.”

“And it’s stable,” another said. “Been a long time since there was a drop in the buck.”

“It’s entered the language idiomatically,” said a citizen who happened to be a high school principal. “Pass the buck, for instance, meaning to pay a debt.”

“Buck the tide.” offered another.

“That’s to throw good money after bad.”

“Buck and wing.”

“To buy your way out of a difficult situation.”

The councilman stared, popeyed. “But that’s all wrong!.”
A friendly citiecness patted his hand.

“You’ll learn them,” she assured him.

“Won’t take long—a strong-willed Leo like you.”

Ig “Oh, no.” The councilman was firm on that. “How happy I am I’ll never have to learn such gibberish.”

His audience just smiled.

“If your stars tell you we’re staying here,” Ensign Benson said, “they’re crazy.”

“Look, friend,” Hank said. “What if the billions and billions of human beings scattered across the Galaxies were to learn that right here, smack in the middle of it all, was a place where they could find out almost everything about the future? What would happen?”

“You could do a great mail-order business.”

“They would come here,” Hank said. “In their billions. Our town would be destroyed; our way of life would simply come to an end.”

Reluctantly, Ensign Benson nodded. “It could get difficult.”

“And that’s why the stars say you’ll remain here and never expose us to the rest of the human race.”

“Sorry,” the ensign said. “I understand your feelings, but we have our own jobs to do. We just can’t stay.”

“But you will,” Hank said apologetically but firmly. “You see, there’s an armed guard at your ship right now, and there will be for the rest of your lives.”

Odd how easily the next month flowed by. Billy Shelby got a paper route and a job delivering for the supermarket. Pam became a substitute math teacher at one of the high schools, where the male students could never figure out what she was talking about but flocked to her class anyway. Captain Standforth, roaming the countryside with his stun gun, brought back many strange and—to him—interesting new birds to stuff Councilman Luthguster took to hanging around down at city hall, and Hester Hanshaw became a sort of unofficial apprentice at the neighborhood smithy.

Socially, the local belief that “those who sign together combine together” made it easy to meet folks of similar interests. Herds of hefty Taurians took Hester away for camping trips, Billy joined a charitable organization called Caring Cancers, a Piscean gardening-and-water-polo club enrolled Captain Standforth, Pam linked up with the Friends of the Peace Memorial (an organization devoted to maintaining the patch of flowers and lawn around said memorial) and Councilman Luthguster joined the local branch of Lions Club Intergalactical.

Only Ensign Kybee Benson failed to make the slightest adjustment. Only he sat brooding on the porch of their nice white-clapboard house with the green shutters. Only he resisted the overtures of his sign’s organization (the Scorpio Swinging Singles Club). Only he failed to learn the local idioms, take an interest in the issues raised by the morning and evening newspapers (which gave the following day’s weather with perfect accuracy), involve himself in the community. Only he refused to accept the reality of the local saying that meant the end of negotiation, parley, haggling: The buck stops here.

“Buck up. Kybee,” Billy said, coming up the stoop.

“What?” Ensign Benson, in his rocking chair on the porch, glared red-eyed at the returning delivery boy. “What is that supposed to mean in this miserable place?”

“Gee, Kybee,” Billy said, backing away a little, “the same as it does on Earth. It means ‘Be cheerful; look on the sunny side.’”

“What sunny side? We’re trapped here, imprisoned in this small town for the rest of our  _____”

“It’s really not that bad, Kybee,” Billy told him. “The folks are real nice. And I do like my jobs. I’m not making big bucks yet, but  _____ ”

“Garr-rraaaghhh!” Ensign Benson announced, leaped to his feet and chased Billy three times around the block before his wind gave out.

Somehow, the second month was less fun. The area round about Centerville had shown to Captain Standforth its full repertory of birds; the board of aldermen would let Councilman Luthguster neither deliver a speech to them nor (as a noncitizen) run for office against them; the high school boys, having grown used to Pam’s useless beauty and having realized none of them would ever either claim her or understand her, now flocked away from her classes; at the supermarket, Billy was passed over for promotion to assistant produce manager; and a Nero kicked Hester in the rump down at the smithy, causing her to limp.

On the social side, things weren’t much better. Hester found her hiking Taurians too bossy and quit. Caring Cancers met every week in a different member’s home to discuss, over milk and gingersnaps, possible recipients for its good works but so far hadn’t found any, which made Billy feel silly. The captain’s gardening-and-water-polo club kept postponing its meetings, necessitating constant rounds of messages and plan reshufflings. No two Friends of the Peace Memorial, including Pam, could agree on a flower arrangement. And Councilman Luthguster, after a hard-fought campaign in which he had taken an extremely active part, had been blackballed at the Lions Club.

More and more, the former space rovers hung around the house, vaguely fretful. The bilious green sky, the nasty sun (color of ocher juice), the two mingy little marble moons in their eccentric orbits all pressed down on the landscape, on the town, on their own little gabled house, with its squeaking floors and doors that stuck. The local citizens had brought from the Hopeful all their personal possessions— clothes, tools, video camera and monitor, the captain’s birds, Pam’s sky charts, Billy’s collection of The Adventures of Space Cadet Hooper and His Pals Fatso and Chang, Ensign Benson’s folders of Betelgeusean erotica, the bound cassettes of Councilman Luthguster’s speeches to the Galactic Council (with the boos edited out), even Hester’s coffee mug—but all these things simply reminded them of their former lives, made their present stale less rather than more bearable.

Centerville was a small town in no nation. Distractions were few and local. No movies or video, only the Morning Bugle and the Afternoon Independent for reading matter, very little variety in clothing or food (all good, all stolid) and no real use for any of their skills or talents. In 500 years, the population had grown from the original 63 to just over 11,000, but 11,000 people aren’t very many when that’s all there are.

Even the news that both high school bands would march in next month’s Landing Day parade didn’t lift their spirits a hell of a lot. That’s how bad things were.

Ensign Benson brooded alone in his rocking chair on the front porch, watching the world (hah!) go by, when a bit of the world in the person of Mayor Hank Carpenter came up onto the stoop to say, “Hidy, Kybee.”

The ensign gave him a look from under lowered brows. Hank cleared his throat, a bit uncomfortable. “We’re sending an ambulance,” he said.

“You’re what?”

“Sorry,” Hank said, looking truly sorry, “but we’ll be taking the captain over to the hospital for a while.”

“What for?”

“Well, uh, he’s about to try to commit suicide.”

Ensign Benson stared. He knew these people now; they didn’t lie and weren’t wrong. But the captain? He said, “I thought I’d be the first to snap.”

“Oh, no,” Hank assured him. “In fact, you’ll, uh, be the last.”

“That’s it,” Ensign Benson said. Rising, he pointed a stem finger at Hank. “Keep your ambulance. We’ll take care of our owrn.”

“Well, if you’re sure you  _____”

But the ensign had gone into the house and slammed the door.

He found the captain upstairs in his room, fooling with a rope. “Come down-224 stairs,” he said. “Now.”

In the kitchen, Billy and Hester were making cofFee—separately, in different pots. The ensign and the captain entered and the ensign said, “Watch him. If he starts drinking anything funny, stop him.”

Billy said, “You mean, like Hester’s coffee?” But the ensign was gone.

Soon he was back, with Pam and the councilman. “It’s time.” he told them all, “to quit fooling around and get out of here.”

“But, Kybee,” Billy said, “we can’t. These people know the future, and they say we’ll never leave.”

“Probabilities,” the ensign corrected him. “The future is not fixed, remember? There’s still free will. The probabilities are caused by our narrowing free will. Things will probably happen in this way or that way because we are who we are, not because the stars force us into anything.” Hester said, “I don’t see how that helps.”

“We have to break out of the probabilities. Somehow or other—I don’t see it clearly yet, but somehow or other—if we do what we wouldn’t do, we’ll get out of here.”

Pam said, “But what wouldn’t we do?” The ensign gave her a jaundiced look. “I know what you wouldn’t do,” he said. “But I would do it, so that’s that. No, we need something that’s so far from the probabilities that, that…”

The others watched him. Ensign Benson seemed to be reaching down far inside himself, willing a solution where there was none. “Take it easy, Kybee,” Billy said.

Hester said, “Do you want some coffee? Billy’s coffee.”

Slowly, the ensign exhaled; it had been some time since he’d breathed. “I know what w’e’re going to do.” he said.

“No!” said the captain. “I won’t!” “That’s the point,” Ensign Benson said. Hester said, “There’s no way you’re going to get me to do a thing like that.” Pam said, “Kybee, this is just a scheme of yours; I can tell.”

“Gosh, Kybee,” said Billy.

“My dignity,” said the councilman. “Precisely!” Ensign Benson said. “Your dignity is what keeps the probabilities all lined up in a neat and civilized and predictable row. It’s the only way we’re ever going to get back onto the Hopeful. Think about it.”

They thought about it. They hated it. But that, of course, was the whole point.

“Hidy, Kybee. The captain feeling better?”

“Oh, we all adapt. Hank.”

“What’s that you’re watching?”

“Just a little video I made of the captain shooting birds. Never saw one of these machines?”

“No, sir, can’t say I have.”

“They’re easy to operate. Come here. I’ll show you.”

One nice thing about knowing the future, you never have to worry about a rain date for your big parade. The sun shone bright, the bands and the marchers were resplendent, and this year, thanks to the Earthpeople, there would be a permanent record of the whole affair! Hank Carpenter, armed with the video camera, stood atop a wagon right down by the peace memorial, ready to tape the whole show.

And a real nice show it was. The South Side High School band led off, in uniforms of scarlet and white, and the North Side High School band, in blue and gold, brought up the rear. In between were contingents of the Four-H, the Grange, the police department, bowling leagues, volunteer firemen, a giggle of beauty-contest winners in a bedecked surrey; oh, all sorts of interesting things.

Including the crew of the Hopeful. Naked.

“Keep taping!” Ensign Benson yelled at Hank Carpenter. “Tape! Tape!” And he did, and they all looked at the tape later, and it was still impossible to believe.

What an array of uncomfortable-looking people. What a variety of flesh was here on display. What an embarrassment all the way around.

Captain Standforth and Hester appeared first, side by side but determinedly separate. The captain sort of vaguely squinted and blinked, pretending to do difficult math problems in his head, while Hester marched along like an angry rhinoceros, daring anyone to tell her she was naked. The captain in the buff looked more mineral than animal: an angular, gawky armature, a scarecrow that wouldn’t scare a wren, an espalier framework for no known tree. Hester, on the other hand, merely became more Hester: chunky, blocky, squared-off.

A rosy astrogator came next: Pam Stokes blushing from nipple to eyebrow, accompanied by an ashen legislator. Councilman Luthguster, shaped very much like the balloons being carried by some of the younger spectators, appeared to have been drained by a vampire before leaving the house that morning. Upon this pallid sausage casing, the hobnails of embarrassed perspiration stood out in bold relief. Would he faint, or would he make it to Main Street? He suffered from the loss of his pomposity much more severely than from the simple loss of his clothes.

Pam suffered from the loss of clothes. She was beautiful, but she didn’t want to be beautiful; she was graceful, but she didn’t want to be graceful; she was a treat, but the last thing on Earth—or Figulus—that Pam Stokes wanted to be was a treat. Her expression was like that sometimes seen in dentists’ offices.

Finally there came Billy and the ensign, and here the mark of the ensign’s determination really showed itself. Although it would certainly be embarrassing for him or for Billy to appear naked in public, it wouldn’t, in truth, be quite the horror it clearly was for the others, so for himself and Billy the ensign had escalated the attack.

They were dancing.

Arm in arm, the ensign leading, Billy following pretty well, they turned and turned in great loops, waltzing to John Philip Sousa’s The Thunderer—not impossible but not easy.

Nobody stopped them; nobody knew what to do but stand and gape. For two blocks past the astounded populace, down Broadway from Elm past Church to Main—that being the reach of the video camera—the captain paced, the chief engineer plodded, the councilman trudged, the astrogator inadvertently and unwillingly promenaded and the lieutenant and the ensign waltzed. At Main, surrounded by a populace still immobilized by disbelief, they broke and ran for it, around behind the crowd, through back yards and alleys and away. With many a hoarse cry and broken gasp, this unlikely herd thundered all the way home, up the stoop, across the porch, into the house and slammed the door.

Knock, knock.

“Who’s there?”

“Hank Carpenter, Miss Hanshaw. You folks all right in there?”

“Go away.”

“It’s been five days; you can’t just    ”

“Then wait a minute.”

Hank waited. He went over and sat on the porch railing and looked out at the sunny day. The rubbernecks who had filled this street at first had given up by now, and everything was back to normal. But what had it all been about, anyway?

This was one of those rare moments when the charts didn’t help. If it were simple madness, of course, that would explain a lot, since insanity can play merry hob with your probabilities, but somehow’ Hank didn’t believe lunacy was the answer.

The front door opened and Ensign Benson came out, carrying a thin folder. He shut the door behind himself, gave Hank a quick, nervous smile, then frowned out at the street.

“They’re all gone,” Hank assured him.

“I didn’t know it would be quite that bad,” the ensign said. “It does something to your nervous system to be naked in front of that many people.” He had a twitchy look to him and didn’t quite meet Hank’s eye.

“What we can’t figure out is why you did it.”

“So you could let us go, of course.”

Hank smiled in confusion. “You mean, we’d take pity on you because you lost your minds?”

“We didn’t lose our minds, just our clothes. You’ve got it all on tape, right?”

“I don’t know’ why you’d want such a thing,” Hank said, “but yes, we do.”

“Look at this,” Ensign Benson said, extending the folder.

Hank took it, opened it, found himself reading a report to the Galactic Council about the lost colony known as Figulus. “Says here, the settlement was abandoned. Colonists long dead. Some unanticipated poison in the atmosphere.”

“Not suited for human life,” the ensign said. “As soon as we’re aboard ship, that’s the report we’ll send.”


“You’re keeping us here because you’re afraid we’ll spread the news about you and a lot of people will show up to learn all about the future.”

Hank nodded. “Destroying our future in the process.”

“If anybody did arrive,” the ensign said, “you’d blame us. You’d probably be mad enough to show that tape.”

“I’m beginning to see the light,” Hank said. “You were looking for a way to bust loose from the probabilities.”

“That’s right. What could we do that we wouldn’t do?”

“Walk down Broadway at high noon, naked, with a brass band.”

“As long as you have that tape,” Ensign Benson said, “we’ll do anything— anything—to keep the rest of the human race away from here.” Wanly he smiled. “And if this doesn’t work,” he said, “if you still won’t let us go, we’ll just have to get more improbable.”

“How?” Hank asked, a bit wide-eyed.

“I don’t know’ yet,” the ensign told him. “I hope I never know. How about you?”

Out, out, out across the illimitable void soared the Hopeful. Its crew, garbed in every piece of clothing they owned and not looking one another in the eye, had left Figulus without even having their charts done. They knew nothing of the future.

Just as well.

Burnt Toast – Mack Reynolds

“We have here a table bearing thirteen cocktails,” the demon said. “And now into one I add a touch from this vial.”
“What tat?”
“Poison. Now I switch the glasses about. Truly, you couldn’t remember into which glass I emptied the vial, could you?”
“What’s the gag, buddy?”
“The proposition,” the demon said, “is quite simple. You take your pick and drink it. For your first choice I give you exactly one hundred dollars.”
Alan Sheriff shook his head in an attempt to clear away the fog. “You said, minute ago, you put poison . .
“In just one. There are thirteen in all. You choose a glass, you drink it and I award you with a hundred dollars. If you wish to try again, you receive two hundred, next award is four hundred, and so on.. If you lose, the forfeit is your life and your . . . soul.”
It took a long moment to assimilate that. “Let’s see the century,” Sheriff muttered.
The demon brought forth a wallet and selected a bill which he laid on the table then looked at the other in anticipation.
Sheriff said thickly, “Nothing to lose anyway.” He took up the nearest glass, fished the olive out and threw it aside.
The demon smiled politely.
“Bottoms up!” Sheriff said, tossing it off with the practiced stiff-wristed motion of the drinker. He put the glass down, stood swaying in silence.
“Not bad liquor,” he said finally. “I needed that.”
“The hundred dollars is yours. Would you like to try for two hundred?”
Sheriff looked at the bill. “This is good, eh?”
The demon shifted his shoulders in impatience. “Of course.”
Sheriff said, “Suppose I could ask you what this is all about, but the hell with it. So long, sucker.”
“I’ll still be here tomorrow. Alan Sheriff.”

• • •

There was a knock and the demon said, “Come in.”
Sheriff closed the door behind him. His blood-veined eyes went about the barren hotel room: magnet-drawn, they came to the small table. Twelve cocktail glasses, sweated with cold, sat upon it.
He said tentatively, “I was tight last night . .
“The night before last,” the demon corrected.
“. . . but I wasn’t that tight. I couldn’t have dreamed it, especially the hundred bucks.”
“Already gone, I assume,” the demon said. “You came to try again?”
“Why’d you give me that hundred? Listen, you haven’t got a drink around the place have you?”
The other seated himself in the room’s sole chair, put the tips of his fingers together. “You won the hundred dollars on a wager. As far as a drink is concerned, I am afraid all I have is there.” He indicated the table with its burden of twelve glasses.
Sheriff’s eyes went from him to the table, back again. He hadn’t shaved since last he had been here and the pallor and odor of long weeks of alcohol were on him. He wavered. “I don’t remember too well.”
“Briefly,” the demon said, ”I represent interests that desire your immortal soul.” He made again the proposition of the previous evening while Sheriff stared at him. When he was finished, his visitor’s eyes went again to the table with its twelve glasses.
“Let’s see your money,” Sheriff said, shaky and unbelieving.
The demon brought forth his wallet, extracted two bills.
Sheriff stepped to the table, reached for a drink. “Prosit!” he grunted, bolting it. He waited, then with satisfaction, “Wrong one.”
The demon shrugged.
Sheriff said, “If I take another one, how much do I get?”
“Four hundred dollars. You wish to try again?”
“There’s eleven glasses left. One poison, eh?”
“That is correct. The odds are with you.”
Sheriff grinned sourly, two broken front teeth becoming evident. “Best odds I ever had.” He reached out quickly, took up another glass, held it in his hand for a moment then drank it as he had the other one with one quick motion. “Four hundred more,” he demanded. and received it.
“And now for eight?” the demon prodded.
“Not till I get this spent,” Sheriff chortled. “Then I’ll be back, sucker.” He held up the six hundred dollars he had    won, stared at it unbelievingly, clenched it in his fist and stumbled from the room.
The demon looked after him.

• • •

“Eight hundred this time,” the demon said, the sum ready in his hand, “and the odds are one in ten.”
“Here’s to glory!” Sheriff toasted.

• • •

When Alan Sheriff returned, four days later, he was shaven, bathed, attired in gray flannel, his teeth had known a dentist’s attention and the shaking of his hands was all but imperceptible.
“You’re sober.” the demon said.
Sheriff looked at him. The other was medium sized, dressed conservatively. Sheriff said, “You don’t look like the devil.”
“How am I supposed to look?” Sheriff scowled at him. “Listen, I sobered myself up, but it’s temporary.
Jfust long enough to find out what the hell’s going on. What’d you give me that money for?”
The demon explained, still again, the wagers they had made.
Afterward Sheriff said, wonderingly, “My soul, eh? Tell the truth, I didn’t think there was any such thing.”
“It has been greatly debated,” the demon agreed.
“What I can’t understand,” Sheriff said, “is all this trouble you’re going to. You picked me out of the gutter. You would’ve got my . . . soul . . . anyway.” “You underestimate the efforts of our opposition,” the demon sighed. “And you must realize victory is never absolutely assured until the last second of life. Ten minutes after I approached you. you might have decided upon reform.” He twisted his mouth sardonically.
Sheriff shook his head while saying. “I still don’t get this . . . this system of trying to get my . . . soul.”
The demon had seated himself in the arm chair, now he shrugged. “Each person in his time is confronted with his decision. Most, admittedly, not quite so directly as this.”
“But all that dough for a down and out bum. Already I’ve got fifteen hundred. and the next chance more than doubles it.”
The demon nodded. “Your next try is for one thousand, six hundred. But the amount is meaningless. The, ah. commodity cannot be evaluated in terms of money. One of our most prized specimens cost but thirty pieces of silver.” He added absently, “In that particular case he didn’t know it was his soul he was selling.”
Alan Sheriff looked down at the table. There were nine glasses remaining He said. “For sixteen hundred bucks, eh?”
The demon nodded, his eyes shining. Sheriff’s hand snaked out. took up a glass and brought it half way to his lips. His eyes went to the demon’s.
The other smiled.
Alan Sheriff put the glass down quickly, took up another. He held it for a moment. The demon still smiled.
Sheriff’s mouth tightened. “Salud!” he said, bolting the cocktail. He dosed his eyes and waited. When he opened them, the other was extending a sheaf of bills.
Sheriff said, “You’ll still lie here later in the week?”
“For you I shall always be here, night or day. There are eight glasses left. Your next wager will involve three thousand, two hundred.”
Sheriff said flatly, “I gave up two weeks ago. Lots of dough for liquor, good food, gambling, makes the going easier but I’m not changing my mind about calling life quits. I’ll be bark when I’ve spent this.”
“Very sound judgement.” the demon nodded. “Until then.”

• • •

“So soon?” the demon said. “However, the wager is now three thousand, two hundred.”
Sheriff said, “This is the last time.”
“This time I’m using the dough for a new start. I’m getting a job.”
“Admirable motive, I understand — from the human viewpoint. However, we shall see.” The demon changed the subject. “If I understand correctly the Laws of Chance, this is your crucial test.”
“How’s that?” Sheriff’s eyes came up from the glasses to the other’s face.
“When we began, there were thirteen glasses, one of which was poisoned. However, we are nearly half through now and your good luck cannot last forever. Taking the averages, you should miss this time.”
Sheriff shook his head. “Each time is a separate time. You don’t use up your luck, there is no such thing. The odds aren’t as good as they were, but they’re still seven to one in my favor.”
“Very well, let us see.”
Alan Sheriff, sweat on his forehead, reached out slowly for one of the Martinis. “Here’s looking at you,” he said.

• • •

The demon answered the door and smiled to see his visitor. “Alan Sheriff! But I thought your last visit was to be just that.”
Sheriff’s face was tight. “I’m not here for myself, damn you. It’s for somebody else.”
“Somebody else?” the demon said. “I don’t understand.”
“A girl,” Sheriff snapped. “It’s none of your business. You wouldn’t ever have seen me again except for Muriel. She needs five thousand; medical bills for her old lady, sanitarium. Never mind. The thing is I’ll take another one of those drinks.”
The demon pinched his lip thoughtfully. “I don’t know.”
“Damn it, what difference does it make what I want the dough for?”
“Ummm. Your motive for taking the wager disturbs me. Some centuries ago a somewhat similar case precipitated a cause celebre. Chap named Johann Faust. Matter had to be taken to the, ah. higher authorities. However, let us see what develops. There are seven glasses and your odds are six to one with the prize amounting to exactly six thousand, four hundred dollars.”
Sheriff took up a glass at random, toasted defiantly, “Here’s lo the ladies!”
“Very sentimental,” the demon nodded.

• • •

Sheriff banged on the door heavily, and. before it could be answered, banged again.
The demon opened it, his face quizzical. “Ah, our Alan Sheriff.”
Sheriff lurched to the table. The Martini glasses stood as before, six of them remaining. They appeared chill and as fresh as the first time he had seen them, months ago.
“What’s the bet now?” he slurred.
“The wager is twelve thousand, eight hundred against your life and soul.” The demon’s voice was soft.
“Okay. Here’s how!”
The demon nodded pleasantly.
“Beat you again,” Sheriff sneered. “Give me the dough. I’m on my way to show up a wise guy. Show him what a real spender can do for a girl.” The alcohol was heavy on his breath. “What’d he a classy present for Muriel? Show her what a real guy does for a dame . .
The demon ran a thoughtful thumbnail along his trimmed mustache. “I understand mink is highly thought of.” he murmured.

• • •

“Ah,” the demon said. “Here we are, once again.”
Sheriff looked about the room, unchanged from the last time he had been here except there were but five glasses on the small table. He wondered vaguely what had happened to the eight glasses he had emptied in turn.
“You know,” he said, “each time I come here I have to be convinced all over again that it’s true.”’
“Indeed? As I recall, on your last visit you were in the midst of a somewhat feverish romantic situation. Did you take my advice as to the desirability of mink?”
Sheriff was gazing in fascination at the glasses. He said. “What? Oh. yeah. This here wise guy boy friend of hers, old high school sweetheart kind of crap, was trying to beat my time.” He chuckled thickly. “But I gave her the old rush job, wound up in Miami Beach for a week. Quite a town.”
“Isn’t it though? And where is Muriel these days?”
Sheriff was tired of the subject. “She’s around somewhere. Got on my nerves finally. What’s the bet now? I’m thinking of going into the restaurant business — with my kid brother, he needs the dough to get started.”
“Twenty-five thousand, six hundred,” the demon said briefly.
“Well, here’s mud in your eye” Sheriff said.

• • •

“Fifty-one thousand, two hundred,” the demon said. “The new business doesn’t seem to prosper?”
“The kid doesn’t realize there’s angles to every business. He’s too slow for me. We need this dough to put in a bar and maybe a few tables and some slots in the back, maybe some rooms upstairs where a guy can take a dame or maybe throw a little reefer party.”
“There are now four glasses,” the demon said.

• • •

The demon opened the door at the knock and admitted the burly, heavy faced man. “It’s been a long time,” he said simply.
“Yeah,” Sheriff said. He looked about the small room. “But you haven’t changed much. Neither has this room. I wasn’t sure it’d still be here.”
“Some things are changeless.” the demon said.
“Three glasses left, eh? My luck’s really been with me so far. You know, it’s been so long since I been here. What’s the bet now?”
“You would win one hundred and two thousand, four hundred dollars, my friend.”
“Two chances out of three. It’s still a good percentage and I’m branching out into new territory and need the dough.” He stared down at the identical glasses, still retaining their appearance of chill freshness.
“And how is your brother these days?”
“Bill? The hell with him. I had to bounce him out. Too square for the business I’m in. You know,” he bragged. “I’m a pretty big shot in some of the rackets these days.”
“Ah? I see.”
Sheriff took up one of the glasses, looked over its edge at his opponent. “Well, first one today with this hand.” he muttered, downing it. He waited fora moment then took up the money, stuffed it into his overcoat pocket and left without a backward glance.

• • •

The knock at the door was hurried, anxious.
The demon opened it and said, “Yes?”
Sheriff hastened in. looked about quickly. “I’m safe here?”
The demon chuckled. “Really. Alan Sheriff !”
“They’re after me. The cops . . .”
Sheriff’s eyes went to the small table. “Two glasses left.” he muttered. “I could hire Liber for a lawyer, grease a few palms. With more than two hundred grand I could beat this rap, or, for that matter, I could go on down to Mexico, live there the rest of my life.”
“It’s been done,” the demon agreed.
“Fifty-fifty chance.” Sheriff hissed in sudden decision. He lifted one of the glasses from the table, said “Cheers,” clowned it and stood back to wait, his face empty and white. Nothing happened.
He turned to the other. “Give me the money.” he said triumphantly. “You know what, sucker? It’s like you once said. It’s never too late to change. I beat you all the way down the line, but I know when I’ve pushed my luck as far as it’ll go. After I’ve got myself out of this jam. I’m going to straighten up, see?”
“I doubt it.” the demon murmured.
“Yes I am. buster. You’ve lost this boy.”
The demon said, “I suggest you drink the other Martini.”
The other stared at him. “That’s the one with the poison.”
The demon shook his head gently. “I suggest you take the thirteenth glass, Alan Sheriff. It might help you somewhat in the tribulations that lie ahead. After all’, it is the very best of gin anti vermouth.”
Sheriff chuckled his contempt. “Give me my dough, sucker. I’m getting out.” The demon said, “What gave you the impression that the poison was a quick acting one, Alan Sheriff?”
Sheriff blinked at him. “Huh?”
“I don’t remember informing you that death was to be instantaneous following your choice of the wrong glass.””I … I don’t get it . .
“But of course you got it,” the demon said smoothly. “The poison was odorless and tasteless and you got it on your eighth try. Since then your life and soul have been mine to collect at will. The fact that I haven’t done so sooner was my own whim — and excellent business, as it developed. Surely in the past few years you have done more for the, ah, cause I serve than you would have had I collected my wager immediately.” After a long moment Sheriff picked up the last glass. “Maybe you’re right. I might be needing this, and they are good Martinis.
“One for the road,” he toasted with attempted bravado.
“Down the hutch,” the demon corrected.