/ Language: English / Genre:sf

Survivor #1

Harlan Ellison


Survivor #1

by Henry Slesar and Harlan Ellison

What would have been called a nose on anyone else, on the green man would have been called a blob.

Its shape was not remarkable for its definition, but rather for its lack of it. The nostrils seemed to dash startledly from the sides of the putty-blob, as though they were tunnels dug without destinations in mind.

Aside from the nose, and the Kelly-green skin color, there was nothing particularly outstanding about the visitor.

It was to Milt Klowitz’s everlasting credit that the sight of the green man, sitting with legs neatly crossed and trouser creases neatly pulled up, did not throw him completely off stride.

He finished closing the door to his apartment and removed his hat. He dropped it on the floor, instead of the closet shelf, without noticing what he had done, and moved a step closer. It might be said that Milt Klowitz had the look of his rough Hungarian countenance of a Salk peering through a microscope at a bacillus with earmuffs.

“You’re green,” he stated matter-of-factly, and unnecessarily.

The green man seemed pleased by his accuracy and lack of surprise. “Quite right,” he said cheerfully. “We assumed you wouldn’t become hysterical at the fact, it was one of your chief attractions.” He waved a green hand toward the bookshelves glutted with science fiction magazines and novels.

Milt Klowitz struggled to maintain the poise with which he had been credited. He lowered himself into the opposite chair and frankly stared.

“It was our belief that an Earthman steeped in the fantastic literature of your era would be most easily approached. Judging from your reaction, I would say that our confidence was justified.”

“Where?” Milt said. The strangled word was only the beginning of his question, but the green man seemed to comprehend.

“From a world whose name you wouldn’t know, a world not in your solar system or astronomical tables. A world, I might add, which has become increasingly concerned with your behavior.”

“Me?” Milt said, looking injured.

“Oh, not you personally. Your species. We have been sending envoys to survey the situation with some regularity. Their reports have determined our decision.”

“Decision about what?”

The green man recrossed his legs. “About whether or not your dabblings in atomic energy constitute any sort of threat to our safety. Our people get very nervous about that sort of thing.”

“And what,” Milt said, swallowing a boulder, “have you decided?”

“That you are a threat.”

“Are what?”

“A threat. A very considerable threat. Not in your own short life span, perhaps, but within our own. For that reason, our Council of Elders has wisely decided to eliminate the threat before it becomes reality. We think of it as a sort of vaccination; a preventative measure.”

“But how?”

“Simple. By destroying your planet. In a matter of six hyppecs…I’m sorry,” the green man added apologetically, “reckoned in Earth time, that would be exactly two weeks.”

Milt felt his spine turn into a lemon popsicle. Was this possible? Could this conceivably be happening? To him? To Milt Klowitz, who had never in his wildest…

He knew he had to say something: it was his turn. It was only a croak, but it started him going. “Th-th-this is pretty old stuff, y’know.”

The green man looked concerned. “Oh?”

Milt felt at home now. This was his depth, his strata… “Greystroke was the first to use that idea. Back in the 1700s, along in there. And there was Maurois and Verne, roughly speaking, and Wells, and oh, all the modern boys use it regularly. It’s a cliché by now. Why even—”

The green man cut him off with a facing palm.

“I take it,” he said stiffly, “that you are trying to tell me that the concept of your planet being dealt with in such a manner has been explored in your tribal literature?”

Milt nodded slowly, no longer sure of himself.

“I’m really quite surprised at you, Mr. Klowitz. From our report, you were labeled a definite subject for this; very low surprise threshold and all. But your incredulity seems to negate our findings. Perhaps I’d better move along…” He began to rise.

“Wait a second,” Milt began.

“I was going to offer you the opportunity to be survivor number one,” the green man tossed off regretfully, heading for the door, “but you seem to prefer to perish with the rest of your race. Well, there are three other possibilities on my list.”

His hand was on the doorknob.

“Hey! Stop! I want to talk to you!” Milt pleaded, seeing his life going out the door.

The green man paused. “Wait? What for?”

“Well, I mean, gee, I mean, can’t a guy find it a little weird to have a man from some other planet in his living room, and—”

“Some other island universe,” the green man corrected incisively.

“Yeah, sure, that’s what I mean,” Milt mumbled. “Look, why don’t you give me another chance. You understand. I was a little rocked, that’s all—”

The green man hesitated, and pursed his full lips.

“Well. Now you sound more like the man in the report.” He took his chair again, withdrew an odd metal card and tapped it with an even odder stylus. “Now,” he said, as if examining a grocery list, “if we can arrange for you and your mate to be at the appointed place—”

“What’s that?”

“I said, if we can arrange for your mate and yourself to arrive at the rendezvous point where our vessel can pick you up—”

“What mate? I’m a bachelor.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“A bachelor. Single. Free. Unfettered. I’m not married.”

“I don’t understand.” The green man’s eyes blinked, and the blob of a nose quivered. “I understood from our envoys that the entire species was paired. Two sexes: one man, one woman. It is your breeding technique.”

‘That’s true, all right. Only I don’t have any mate, not yet. Maybe never. So we don’t have to worry about that.”

The green man sighed from the depths of his body. He shook his head slowly, and began to rise to his feet with an expressive frown of displeasure and melancholy.

“Where are you going?”

“I wish I could have avoided this, but I see that I cannot. I naturally assumed you would have a mate; we believed it was the universal principle on your planet. And I am under strict orders to bring back a pair.”

“But wait a minute—”

“I’m sorry. The Council was most specific. One pair of Earthlings, male and female. I cannot, as you might say, break up the set.”

He started for the door, and again Milt saw the end of the world in his gesture. He grabbed for the green man’s arm and pulled him back into the room.

“You can’t mean that! You can’t just walk out of here this way—”

“I have my orders,” the visitor said gravely.

“But I’ll get a mate. I promise! I’ll get one soon!”

“I hardly think—”

“So help me I will!” Milt let the hysteria take over; he was tired of holding it down. “I’ll get a mate right away. You’ll see. A genuine Earth-type mate—”

“I’m afraid there’s hardly enough time. If you will excuse me.”

“Just give me a chance. A week—a few days—”

The green man hesitated, and the hesitation gave Milt hope. “A few days?” the visitor said mildly. “Exactly how many days?”

“Five!”

The green man frowned. “Four. Three.”

“You believe you can accomplish this in three days?”

“I’m sure of it!”

“I’m behind schedule as it is—”

“I promise you! In three days, I’ll be ready!”

The visitor looked doubtful, and then the stony green countenance relaxed.

“Very well,” he said gently. “In three days I will return. If you succeed, all will be well. If not—”

He shrugged, opened the door, and left.

It had to be Naomi Winkler. Not because Naomi was the woman he had dream-envisioned himself spending the rest of his natural life with on some far-off planet, but simply because she was the only female Milt had been seeing.

Milt Klowitz had not quite been a Mama’s boy, but things had been so secure, so regulated, living with Mama, that until her death at the age of seventy-four Milt had lived on in the old house without a thought of the outside world. Least of all, marriage.

With his science fiction, his undemanding job in the advertising agency, and his Mama’s gugelhopf, Milt’s life had been cozily comfortable. But when Mama died, the old place became oppressive, and Milt had sold it to take this smaller, compact bachelor apartment.

He had met Naomi in the traffic department of the agency, when she had been sent up as a replacement from the typing pool. They had dated only casually. Although he had fumblingly kissed her on three occasions, there was never a thought of marriage. Marriage was totally outside his interests.

Now, it was his sole interest.

Consequently, it had to be Naomi Winkler.

“Hello, Naomi? Milt. I was, uh, wondering if you’d like to have dinner with me tonight? Yeah, I know it’s Saturday and all that, but I was just thinking if we could get together—”

Milt had never known he could talk so long or so convincingly. But with the final gasp and the plunk of the receiver, he had made the dinner date.

He shaved with extreme care, and used more aftershave lotion than usual.

“This really is a lovely place, Milt. Are you sure you can afford it? I mean, it looks so expensive—”

She wasn’t really a homely girl, when you looked at her three-quarter view in the flickering light of the candle stuck in the Chianti bottle. Her hair was a rather lively chestnut, and her eyes were wide, brown and sparkling. Her features were a bit irregular, and her nose a bit too large, but at this juncture Milt was not looking for Raquel Welch. Merely a mate.

“Just leave the finances to me, Naomi. Tonight is something special. If a guy can’t spend a few bucks on the girl he loves, then—”

The word did it. Her expression was startled. Now he had to follow it up quickly, before the arrival of the veal parmesan spoiled the moment.

“It’s true, Naomi. I’ve kept this thing buried too long already. I’m in love with you—”

She blurted: “You—”

“I want to marry you! Right away!”

Her face froze in astonishment.

“Don’t say it!” he said. “Don’t say you hardly know me. That doesn’t matter, Naomi. I love you enough for the both of us. Just give me the chance to show you—”

“But we—”

Milt went on doggedly, dragging air into his lungs as he plunged along, halting her every word, deluging her with sweet nothings, frenziedly couched in logical plans for the future, their happiness together, for the children, the two car garage, the backyard barbecues…

“Now wait a minute!” She thumped the table with alarming force and the water glasses did a mambo. “I like you a lot, Milt, and if I knew you a little better, I might consider it. Just consider it, you understand—”

Milt almost chortled. She was weakening. He grasped her rather chubby hands and squeezed them with manly ardor. She pulled away and said:

“Well, at least you can let me think about it, Milt. For a little while.”

“I’ll call you in the morning,” Milt said hungrily.

He brought her home at twelve, and planted what should have been a passionate kiss, midway between her nose and mouth.

In the morning, Milt telephoned at eight. Her voice was thick with sleep, and her answer abrupt.

“No.”

“No?”

“No, Milt. I think we should wait. After all, there really isn’t any hurry—

“Isn’t there?” Milt groaned. “If you only knew!”

“Knew what?”

“How much I love you, Naomi, I can’t live without you!” He said it as if he meant it, which indeed was true.

“Let me think some more,” Naomi said.

She thought. She thought until nine that evening. Then the telephone jangled and Naomi Winkler said the sweetest, most wonderful word in the English language.

“Yes,” Naomi said. “The only thing I ask though—”

“Anything!” Milt said joyously. “Ask me anything!”

“Well, I don’t want to get married until the fall. I just don’t have any summer clothes at all, Milt, so if you don’t mind—”

“The fall? But that’s months from now. We can’t wait that long, Naomi. We just can’t!”

“But why not? Why rush? You haven’t even met my folks yet—”

“We can’t wait,” Milt crooned, albeit a trifle hysterically. “We just can’t wait, Naomi. You must believe me. We have to get married right now. Tonight. Tomorrow at the latest—”

“You mean elope? I couldn’t do that, Milt!”

“But you must!” He almost shrieked it.

“Well, I really don’t understand your attitude,” she said primly. There was a pause. Then, “I’ll think about it,” Naomi said.

She thought about it. Another day passed.

Then, the evening before the third day, Naomi appeared at the door of his apartment carrying an overnight bag.

It was the shortest honeymoon on or off the record. At the door of the South Pleasure Ridge Park Motel, Cabin #15, Milt feverishly bussed Naomi through her veil, set the overnight bag inside the door, and told her: “I’ll be back as soon as I can, darling. I’ve, uh, got something terribly important to do. A matter of, uh, life or death. I’ll be back in a little while.”

He took a dash, and was fifteen feet down the drive before he remembered to take the car.

The green man showed up at the stroke of midnight. Nothing spectacular, no down-the-chimney about it. He just walked through the door, and closed it behind him.

Milt was beaming like an arsonist at the Great Chicago Fire. “All set. Everything’s all taken care of. Mated and everything, even legal.” He held up the marriage license.

The green man took the paper from Milt’s fingers and looked it over carefully. His blobby nose twitched with some unnamed emotion. He nodded his head, and handed the paper back.

“Well, when do we go?” Milt demanded. The green man thumbed the side of his huge nose. “Well, you see—”

Milt’s joy turned to moth’s wings in his mouth. His face crumpled slowly, and his voice grew syrupy with dread.

“Hey, wait a minute! You promised. You said I could be survivor number one. All I had to do was get mated. So I got mated; look!” He waved the license beneath the green man’s prominent proboscis.

The visitor placated him. “Now take it easy, Mr. Klowitz. Something’s come up. When I went to make my report to the Council of Elders, I discovered that there had been a change in plans. You might call it a postponement.”

“You can’t do this to me!” Milt said. “You can’t just leave me here to die. You can’t you can’t you—”

“Mr. Klowitz, please! You’re not listening to me. You don’t have to die. No Earthling has to die. The Council has decided to extend the clean-up date another ten thousand Earth-years. It’s possible that future developments will cause us to decide not to eliminate your race at all. You will be—”

By this time Milt’s habit of interruption was ingrown. “You mean you aren’t going to destroy the Earth?”

“Precisely.”

Milt sank onto the sofa with a strangled gasp. It was as though the lid had been lifted from the pressure cooker in which he had been steaming for three days.

“Thank God,” he murmured, head in hands. The green man went to the door.

“I trust you not to mention this affair,” he said. “You’re not liable to encounter much belief. So for your own sake, I hope you will be discreet.”

Milt nodded at the floor.

“It’s been a pleasure knowing you,” the green man said. And he was gone.

It was only natural that the episode would effect a change in Milt’s nature. Naomi approved of his deepened maturity, and so did Naomi’s parents, who met her new husband a week later. Milt found them pleasant, agreeable people. Mrs. Winkler was a splendid cook, and Mr. Winkler shared his interest in the literature of science fiction.

The only thing that bothered Milt Klowitz was the vague notion that he had met Naomi’s father before. There was something familiar about the man. Something about the nose.