/ Language: English / Genre:sf


W Tenn

Child’s Play

by William Tenn

After the man from the express company had given the door an untipped slam, Sam Weber decided to move the huge crate under the one light bulb in his room. It was all very well for the messenger to drawl, “I dunno. We don’t send ’em; we just deliver ’em, mister”—but there must be some sensible explanation.

With a grunt that began as an anticipatory reflex and ended on a note of surprised annoyance, Sam shoved the box forward the few feet necessary. It was heavy enough; he wondered how the messenger had carried it up the three flights of stairs.

He straightened and frowned down at the garish card which contained his name and address as well as the legend—“Merry Christmas, 2353.”

A joke? He didn’t know anyone who’d think it funny to send a card dated over four hundred years in the future. Unless one of the comedians in his law school graduating class meant to record his opinion as to when Weber would be trying his first case. Even so—

The letters were shaped strangely, come to think of it, sort of green streaks instead of lines. And the card was a sheet of gold!

Sam decided he was really interested. He ripped the card aside, tore off the flimsy wrapping material—and stopped.

There was no top to the box, no slit in its side, no handle anywhere in sight. It seemed to be a solid, cubical mass of brown stuff. Yet he was positive something had rattled inside when it was moved.

He seized the corners and strained and grunted till it lifted. The underside was as smooth and innocent of openings as the rest. He let it thump back to the floor.

“Ah, well,” he said, philosophically, “it’s not the gift; it’s the principle involved.”

Many of his gifts still required appreciative notes. He’d have to work up something special for Aunt Maggie. Her neckties were things of cubistic horror, but he hadn’t even sent her a lone handkerchief this Christmas. Every cent had gone into buying that brooch for Tina. Not quite a ring, but maybe she’d consider that under the circumstances—

He turned to walk to his bed, which he had drafted into the additional service of desk and chair. He kicked at the great box disconsolately. “Well, if you won’t open, you won’t open.”

As if smarting under the kick, the box opened. A cut appeared on the upper surface, widened rapidly and folded the top back and down on either side like a valise. Sam clapped his forehead and addressed a rapid prayer to every god whose name he could think of. Then he remembered what he’d said.

“Close,” he suggested.

The box closed, once more as smooth as a baby’s bottom.


The box opened.

So much for the sideshow, Sam decided. He bent down and peered into the container.

The interior was a crazy mass of shelving on which rested vials filled with blue liquids, jars filled with red solids, transparent tubes showing yellow and green and orange and mauve and other colors which Sam’s eyes didn’t quite remember. There were seven pieces of intricate apparatus on the bottom which looked as if tube-happy radio hams had assembled them. There was also a book.

Sam picked the book off the bottom and noted numbly that while all its pages were metallic, it was lighter than any paper book he’d ever held.

He carried the book over to the bed and sat down. Then he took a long, deep breath and turned to the first page. “Gug,” he said, exhaling his long, deep breath.

In mad, green streaks of letters:

Bild-A-Man Set #3. This set is intended solely for the use of children between the ages of eleven and thirteen. The equipment, much more advanced than Bild-A-Man Sets 1 and 2, will enable the child of this age-group to build and assemble complete adult humans in perfect working order. The retarded child may also construct the babies and mannikins of the earlier kits. Two disassembleators are provided so that the set can be used again and again with profit. As with Sets 1 and 2, the aid of a Census Keeper in all disassembling is advised. Refills and additional parts maybe acquired from The Bild-A-Man Company, 928 Diagonal Level, Glunt City, Ohio. Remember—only with a Bild-A-Man can you build a man!

Weber squeezed his eyes shut. What was that gag in the movie he’d seen last night? Terrific gag. Terrific picture, too. Nice technicolor. Wonder how much the director made a week? The cameraman? Five hundred? A thousand?

He opened his eyes warily. The box was still a squat cube in the center of his room. The book was still in his shaking hand. And the page read the same.

“Only with a Bild-A-Man can you build a man!” Heaven help a neurotic young lawyer at a time like this!

There was a price list on the next page for “refills and additional parts.” Things like one liter of hemoglobin and three grams of assorted enzymes were offered for sale in terms of one slunk fifty and three slunks forty-five. A note on the bottom advertised Set #4: “The thrill of building your first live Martian!”

Fine print announced pat. pending 2348.

The third page was a table of contents. Sam gripped the edge of the mattress with one sweating hand and read:

Chapter I—A child’s garden of biochemistry.

Chapter II—Making simple living things indoors and out.

Chapter III—Mannikins and what makes them do the world’s work.

Chapter IV—Babies and other small humans.

Chapter V—Twins for every purpose: twinning yourself and your friends.

Chapter VI—What you need to build a man.

Chapter VII—Completing the man.

Chapter VIII—Disassembling the man.

Chapter IX—New kinds of life for your leisure moments.

Sam dropped the book back into the box and ran for the mirror. His face was still the same, somewhat like bleached chalk, but fundamentally the same. He hadn’t twinned or grown himself a mannikin or devised a new kind of life for his leisure moments. Everything was snug as a bug in a bughouse.

Very carefully he pushed his eyes back into the proper position in their sockets.

“Dear Aunt Maggie,” he began writing feverishly. “Your ties made the most beautiful gift of my Christmas. My only regret is—”

My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my Christmas present. Who could have gone to such fantastic lengths for a practical joke? Lew Knight? Even Lew must have some reverence in his insensitive body for the institution of Christmas. And Lew didn’t have the brains or the patience for a job so involved.

Tina? Tina had the fine talent for complication, all right. But Tina, while possessing a delightful abundance of all other physical attributes, was badly lacking in funny-bone.

Sam drew forth the leather wallet she’d given him and caressed it. Tina’s perfume seemed to cling to the surface and move the world back into focus.

The metallic greeting card glinted at him from the floor. Maybe the reverse side contained the sender’s name. He picked it up, turned it over.

Nothing but blank gold surface. He was sure of the gold; his father had been a jeweler. The very value of the sheet was rebuttal to the possibility of a practical joke. Besides, again, what was the point?

“Merry Christmas, 2353.” Where would humanity be in four hundred years? Traveling to the stars, or beyond—to unimaginable destinations? Using little mannikins to perform the work of machines and robots? Providing children with—

There might be another card or note inside the box. Weber bent down to remove its contents. His eye noted a large grayish jar and the label etched into its surface: Dehydrated Neurone Preparation, for human construction only.

He backed away and glared. “Close!”

The thing melted shut. Weber sighed his relief at it and decided to go to bed.

He regretted while undressing that he hadn’t thought to ask the messenger the name of his firm. Knowing the delivery service involved would be useful in tracing the origin of this gruesome gift.

“But then,” he repeated as he fell asleep, “it’s not the gift—it’s the principle! Merry Christmas, me.”

The next morning when Lew Knight breezed in with his “Good morning, counselor,” Sam waited for the first sly ribbing to start. Lew wasn’t the man to hide the light of his humor under a bushel. But Lew buried his nose in The New York State Supplement and kept it there all morning. The other five young lawyers in the communal office appeared either too bored or too busy to have Bild-A-Man sets on their conscience. There were no sly grins, no covert glances, no leading questions.

Tina walked in at ten o’clock, looking like a pinup girl caught with her clothes on.

“Good morning, counselors,” she said.

Each in his own way, according to the peculiar gland secretions he was enjoying at the moment, beamed, drooled or nodded a reply. Lew Knight drooled. Sam Weber beamed.

Tina took it all in and analyzed the situation while she fluffed her hair about. Her conclusions evidently involved leaning markedly against Lew Knight’s desk and asking what he had for her to do this morning.

Sam bit savagely into Hackleworth On Torts. Theoretically, Tina was employed by all seven of them as secretary, switchboard operator and receptionist. Actually, the most faithful performance of her duties entailed nothing more daily than the typing and addressing of two envelopes with an occasional letter to be sealed inside. Once a week there might be a wistful little brief which was never to attain judicial scrutiny. Tina therefore had a fair library of fashion magazines in the first drawer of her desk and a complete cosmetics laboratory in the other two; she spent one third of her working day in the ladies’ room swapping stocking prices and sources with other secretaries; she devoted the other two thirds religiously to that one of her employers who as of her arrival seemed to be in the most masculine mood. Her pay was small but her life was full.

Just before lunch, she approached casually with the morning’s mail. “Didn’t think we’d be too busy this morning, counselor—” she began.

“You thought incorrectly, Miss Hill,” he informed her with a brisk irritation that he hoped became him well; “I’ve been waiting for you to terminate your social engagements so that we could get down to what occasionally passes for business.”

She was as startled as an uncushioned kitten. “But—but this isn’t Monday. Somerset Ojack only send you stuff on Mondays.”

Sam winced at the reminder that if it weren’t for the legal drudgework he received once a week from Somerset Ojack he would be a lawyer in name only, if not in spirit only. “I have a letter, Miss Hill,” he replied steadily. “Whenever you assemble the necessary materials, we can get on with it.”

Tina returned in a head-shaking moment with stenographic pad and pencils.

“Regular heading, today’s date,” Sam began. “Address it to Chamber of Commerce, Glunt City, Ohio. Gentlemen: Would you inform me if you have registered currently with you a firm bearing the name of the Bild-A-Man Company or a firm with any name at all similar? I am also interested in whether a firm bearing the above or related name has recently made known its intention of joining your community. This inquiry is being made informally on behalf of a client who is interested in a product of this organization whose address he has mislaid. Signature and then this P.S.—My client is also curious as to the business possibilities of a street known as Diagonal Avenue or Diagonal Level. Any data on this address and the organizations presently located there will be greatly appreciated.”

Tina batted wide blue eyes at him. “Oh, Sam,” she breathed, ignoring the formality he had introduced, “oh, Sam, you have another client. I’m so glad. He looked a little sinister, but in such a distinguished manner that I was certain—”

“Who? Who looked a little sinister?”

“Why, your new client.” Sam had the uncomfortable feeling that she had almost added “stupid.” “When I came in this morning, there was this terribly tall old man in a long black overcoat talking to the elevator operator. He turned to me—the elevator operator, I mean—and said, ‘This is Mr. Weber’s secretary. She’ll be able to tell you anything you want to know.’ Then he sort of winked, which I thought was sort of impolite, you know, considering. Then this old man looked at me hard and I felt distinctly uncomfortable and he walked away muttering ‘Either disjointed or predatory personalities. Never normal. Never balanced.’ Which I didn’t think was very polite, either, I’ll have you know, if he is your new client!” She sat back and began breathing again.

Tall, sinister old men in long, black overcoats pumping the elevator operator about him. Hardly a matter of business. He had no skeletons in his personal closet. Could it be connected with his unusual Christmas present? Sam hummed mentally.

“—but she is my favorite aunt, you know,” Tina was saying. “And she came in so unexpectedly.”

The girl was explaining about their Christmas date. Sam felt a rush of affection for her as she leaned forward.

“Don’t bother,” he told her. “I knew you couldn’t help breaking the date. I was a little sore when you called me, but I got over it; never-hold-a-grudge-against-a-pretty-girl-Sam, I’m known as. How about lunch?”

“Lunch?” She gestured distractedly. “I promised Lew, Mr. Knight, that is—But he wouldn’t mind if you came along.”

“Fine. Let’s go.” This would be helping Lew to a spoonful of his own medicine.

Lew Knight took the business of having a crowd instead of a party for lunch as badly as Sam hoped he would. Unfortunately, Lew was able to describe details of his forthcoming case, the probable fees and possible distinction to be reaped thereof. After one or two attempts to bring an interesting will he was rephrasing for Somerset Ojack into the conversation, Sam subsided into daydreams. Lew immediately dropped Rosenthal v. Rosenthal and leered at Tina conversationally.

Outside the restaurant, snow discolored into slush. Most of the stores were removing Christmas displays. Sam noticed construction sets for children, haloed by tinsel and glittering with artificial snow. Build a radio, a skyscraper, an airplane. But “Only with a Bild-A-Man can you—”

“I’m going home,” he announced suddenly. “Something important I just remembered. If anything comes up, call me there.”

He was leaving Lew a clear field, he told himself, as he found a seat on the subway. But the bitter truth was that the field was almost as clear when he was around as when he wasn’t. Lupine Lew Knight, he had been called in law school; since the day when he had noticed that Tina had the correct proportions of dress-filling substance, Sam’s chances had been worth a crowbar at Fort Knox.

Tina hadn’t been wearing his brooch today. Her little finger, right hand, however, had sported an unfamiliar and garish little ring. “Some got it,” Sam philosophized. “Some don’t got it. I don’t got it.”

But it would have been nice, with Tina, to have got it.

As he unlocked the door of his room he was surprised by an unmade bed telling with rumpled stoicism of a chambermaid who’d never come. This hadn’t happened before—Of course! He’d never locked his room before. The girl must have thought he wanted privacy.

Maybe he had.

Aunt Maggie’s ties glittered obscenely at the foot of the bed. He chucked them into the closet as he removed his hat and coat. Then he went over to the washstand and washed his hands, slowly. He turned around.

This was it. At last the great cubical bulk that had been lurking quietly in the corner of his vision was squarely before him. It was there and it undoubtedly contained all the outlandish collection he remembered.

“Open,” he said, and the box opened.

The book, still open to the metallic table of contents, was lying at the bottom of the box. Part of it had slipped into the chamber of a strange piece of apparatus. Sam picked both out gingerly.

He slipped the book out and noticed the apparatus consisted mostly of some sort of binoculars, supported by a coil and tube arrangement and bearing on a flat green plate. He turned it over. The underside was lettered in the same streaky way as the book. Combination Electron Microscope and Workbench.

Very carefully he placed it on the floor. One by one, he removed the other items, from the Junior Biocalibrator to the Jiffy Vitalizer. Very respectfully he ranged against the box in five multi-colored rows the phials of lymph and the jars of basic cartilage. The walls of the chest were lined with indescribably thin and wrinkled sheets; a slight pressure along their edges expanded them into three-dimensional outlines of human organs whose shape and size could be varied with pinching any part of their surface—most indubitably molds.

Quite an assortment. If there was anything solidly scientific to it, that box might mean unimaginable wealth. Or some very useful publicity. Or—well, it should mean something!

If there was anything solidly scientific to it.

Sam flopped down on the bed and opened to A Child’s Garden of Biochemistry.

At nine that night he squatted next to the Combination Electron Microscope and Workbench and began opening certain small bottles. At nine forty-seven Sam Weber made his first simple living thing.

It wasn’t much, if you used the first chapter of Genesis as your standard. Just a primitive brown mold that, in the field of the microscope, fed diffidently on a piece of pretzel, put forth a few spores and died in about twenty minutes. But he had made it. He had constructed a specific life-form to feed on the constituents of a specific pretzel; it could survive nowhere else.

He went out to supper with every intention of getting drunk. After just a little alcohol, however, the dei-ish feeling returned and he scurried back to his room.

Never again that evening did he recapture the exultation of the brown mold, though he constructed a giant protein molecule and a whole slew of filterable viruses.

He called the office in the little corner drugstore which was his breakfast nook. “I’ll be home all day,” he told Tina.

She was a little puzzled. So was Lew Knight, who grabbed the phone. “Hey, counselor, you building up a neighborhood practice? Kid Blackstone is missing out on a lot of cases. Two ambulances have already clanged past the building.”

“Yeah,” said Sam. “I’ll tell him when he comes in.”

The weekend was almost upon him, so he decided to take the next day off as well. He wouldn’t have any real work till Monday when the Somerset Ojack basket would produce his lone egg.

Before he returned to his room, he purchased a copy of an advanced bacteriology. It was amusing to construct—with improvements!—unicellular creatures whose very place in the scheme of classification was a matter for argument among scientists of his own day. The Bild-A-Man manual, of course, merely gave a few examples and general rules; but with the descriptions in the bacteriology, the world was his oyster.

Which was an idea: he made a few oysters. The shells weren’t hard enough, and he couldn’t quite screw his courage up to the eating point, but they were most undeniably bivalves. If he cared to perfect his technique, his food problem would be solved.

The manual was fairly easy to follow and profusely illustrated with pictures that expanded into solidity as the page was opened. Very little was taken for granted; involved explanations followed simpler ones. Only the allusions were occasionally obscure—“This is the principle used in the phanphophlink toys,” “When your teeth are next yokekkled or demortoned, think of the Bacterium cyanogenum and the humble part it plays,” “If you have a rubicular mannikin around the house, you needn’t bother with the chapter on mannikins.”

After a brief search had convinced Sam that whatever else he now had in his apartment he didn’t have a rubicular mannikin, he felt justified in turning to the chapter on mannikins. He had conquered completely this feeling of being Pop playing with Junior’s toy train: already he had done more than the world’s top biologists ever dreamed of for the next generation and what might not lie ahead—what problems might he not yet solve?

“Never forget that mannikins are constructed for one purpose and one purpose only.” I won’t, Sam promised. “Whether they are sanitary mannikins, tailoring mannikins, printing mannikins or even sunevviarry mannikins, they are each constructed with one operation of a given process in view. When you make a mannikin that is capable of more than one function, you are committing a crime so serious as to be punishable by public admonition.”

“To construct an elementary mannikin—”

It was very difficult. Three times he tore down developing monstrosities and began anew. It wasn’t till Sunday afternoon that the mannikin was complete—or rather, incomplete.

Long arms it had—although by an error, one was slightly longer than the other—a faceless head and a trunk. No legs. No eyes or ears, no organs of reproduction. It lay on his bed and gurgled out of the red rim of a mouth that was supposed to serve both for ingress and excretion of food. It waved the long arms, designed for some one simple operation not yet invented, in slow circles.

Sam, watching it, decided that life could be as ugly as an open field latrine in midsummer.

He had to disassemble it. Its length—three feet from almost boneless fingers to tapering, sealed-off trunk—precluded the use of the tiny disassembleator with which he had taken apart the oysters and miscellaneous small creations. There was a bright yellow notice on the large diassembleator, however—“To be used only under the direct supervision of a Census Keeper. Call formula A76 or unstable your id.”

“Formula A76” meant about as much as “sunevviarry,” and Sam decided his id was already sufficiently unstabled, thank you. He’d have to make out without a Census Keeper. The big disassembleator probably used the same general principles as the small one.

He clamped it to a bedpost and adjusted the focus. He snapped the switch set in the smooth underside.

Five minutes later the mannikin was a bright, gooey mess on his bed.

The large disassembleator, Sam was convinced as he tidied his room, did require the supervision of a Census Keeper. Some sort of keeper anyway. He rescued as many of the legless creature’s constituents as he could, although he doubted he’d be using the set for the next fifty years or so. He certainly wouldn’t ever use the disassembleator again; much less spectacular and disagreeable to shove the whole thing into a meat grinder and crank the handle as it squashed inside.

As he locked the door behind him on his way to a gentle binge, he made a mental note to purchase some fresh sheets the next morning. He’d have to sleep on the floor tonight.

Wrist-deep in Somerset Ojack minutiae, Sam was conscious of Lew Knight’s stares and Tina’s puzzled glances. If they only knew, he exulted! But Tina would probably just think it “marr-vell-ouss!” and Lew Knight might make some crack like “Hey! Kid Frankenstein himself.” Come to think of it, though, Lew would probably have worked out some method of duplicating, to a limited extent, the contents of the Bild-A-Man set and marketing it commercially. Whereas he—well, there were other things you could do with the gadget. Plenty of other things.

“Hey, counselor,” Lew Knight was perched on the corner of his desk, “what are these long weekends we’re taking? You might not make as much money in the law, but does it look right for an associate of mine to sell magazine subscriptions on the side?”

Sam stuffed his ears mentally against the emery-wheel voice. “I’ve been writing a book.”

“A law book? Weber On Bankruptcy?”

“No, a juvenile. Lew Knight, The Neanderthal Nitwit”

“Won’t sell. The title lacks punch. Something like Knights, Knaves and Knobheads is what the public goes for these days. By the way, Tina tells me you two had some sort of understanding about New Year’s Eve and she doesn’t think you’d mind if I took her out instead. I don’t think you’d mind either, but I may be prejudiced. Especially since I have a table reservation at Cigale’s where there’s usually less of a crowd of a New Year’s Eve than at the Automat.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Good,” said Knight approvingly as he moved away. “By the way, I won that case. Nice juicy fee, too. Thanks for asking.”

Tina also wanted to know if he objected to the new arrangements when she brought the mail. Again, he didn’t. Where had he been for over two days? He had been busy, very busy. Something entirely new. Something important.

She stared down at him as he separated offers of used cars guaranteed not to have been driven over a quarter of a million miles from caressing reminders that he still owed half the tuition for the last year of law school and when was he going to pay it?

Came a letter that was neither bill nor ad. Sam’s heart momentarily lost interest in the monotonous round of pumping that was its lot as he stared at a strange postmark: Glunt City, Ohio.

Dear Sir:

There is no firm in Glunt City at the present time bearing any name similar to “Bild-A-Man Company” nor do we know of any such organization planning to join our little community. We also have no thoroughfare called “Diagonal”; our north-south streets are named after Indian tribes while our east-west avenues are listed numerically in multiples of five.

Glunt City is a restricted residential township; we intend to keep it that. Only small retailing and service establishments are permitted here. If you are interested in building a home in Glunt City and can furnish proof of white, Christian, Anglo-Saxon ancestry on both sides of your family for fifteen generations, we would be glad to furnish further information.

Thomas H. Plantagenet, Mayor.

P.S. An airfield for privately owned jet and propeller-driven aircraft is being built outside the city limits.

That was sort of that. He would get no refills on any of the vials and bottles even if he had a loose slunk or two with which to pay for the stuff. Better go easy on the material and conserve it as much as possible. But no disassembling!

Would the “Bild-A-Man Company” begin manufacturing at Glunt City some time in the future when it had developed into an industrial metropolis against the constricted wills of its restricted citizenry? Or had his package slid from some different track in the human time stream, some era to be born on an other-dimensional Earth? There would have to be a common origin to both, else why the English wordage? And could there be a purpose in his having received it, beneficial—or otherwise?

Tina had been asking a question. Sam detached his mind from shapeless speculation and considered her quite-the-opposite features.

“So if you’d still like me to go out with you New Year’s Eve, all I have to do is tell Lew that my mother expects to suffer from her gallstones and I have to stay home. Then I think you could buy the Cigale reservations from him cheap.”

“Thanks a lot, Tina, but very honestly I don’t have the loose cash right now. You and Lew make a much more logical couple anyhow.”

Lew Knight wouldn’t have done that. Lew cut throats with carefree zest. But Tina did seem to go with Lew as a type.

Why? Until Lew had developed a raised eyebrow where Tina was concerned, it had been Sam all the way. The rest of the office had accepted the fact and moved out of their path. It wasn’t only a question of Lew’s greater success and financial well-being: just that Lew had decided he wanted Tina and had got her.

It hurt. Tina wasn’t special; she was no cultural companion, no intellectual equal; but he wanted her. He liked being with her. She was the woman he desired, rightly or wrongly, whether or not there was a sound basis to their relationship. He remembered his parents before a railway accident had orphaned him: they were theoretically incompatible, but they had been terribly happy together.

He was still wondering about it the next night as he flipped the pages of “Twinning yourself and your friends.” It would be interesting to twin Tina.

“One for me, one for Lew.”

Only the horrible possibility of an error was there. His mannikin had not been perfect: its arms had been of unequal length. Think of a physically lopsided Tina, something he could never bring himself to disassemble, limping extraneously through life.

And then the book warned: “Your constructed twin, though resembling you in every obvious detail, has not had the slow and guarded maturity you have enjoyed. He or she will not be as stable mentally, much less able to cope with unusual situations, much more prone to neurosis. Only a professional carnuplicator, using the finest equipment, can make an exact copy of a human personality. Yours will be able to live and even reproduce, but cannot ever be accepted as a valid and responsible member of society.”

Well, he could chance that. A little less stability in Tina would hardly be noticeable; it might be more desirable.

There was a knock. He opened the door, guarding the box from view with his body. His landlady.

“Your door has been locked for the past week, Mr. Weber. That’s why the chambermaid hasn’t cleaned the room. We thought you didn’t want anyone inside.”

“Yes.” He stepped into the hall and closed the door behind him. “I’ve been doing some highly important legal work at home.”

“Oh.” He sensed a murderous curiosity and changed the subject.

“Why all the fine feathers, Mrs. Lipanti—New Year’s Eve party?

She smoothed her frilly black dress self-consciously. “Y-yes. My sister and her husband came in from Springfield today and we were going to make a night of it. Only… only the girl who was supposed to come over and mind their baby just phoned and said she isn’t feeling well. So I guess we won’t go unless somebody else, I mean unless we can get someone else to take care… I mean, somebody who doesn’t have a previous engagement and who wouldn’t—” Her voice trailed away in assumed embarrassment as she realized the favor was already asked.

Well, after all, he wasn’t doing anything tonight. And she had been remarkably pleasant those times when he had to operate on the basis of “Of course I’ll have the rest of the rent in a day or so.” But why did any one of the Earth’s two billion humans, when in the possession of an unpleasant buck, pass it automatically to Sam Weber?

Then he remembered Chapter IV on babies and other small humans. Since the night when he had separated the mannikin from its constituent parts, he’d been running through the manual as an intellectual exercise. He didn’t feel quite up to making some weird error on a small human. But twinning wasn’t supposed to be as difficult.

Only by Gog and by Magog, by Aesculapius the Physician and Kildare the Doctor, he would not disassemble this time. There must be other methods of disposal possible in a large city on a dark night. He’d think of something.

“I’d be glad to watch the baby for a few hours.” He started down the hall to anticipate her polite protest. “Don’t have a date tonight myself. No, don’t mention it, Mrs. Lipanti. Glad to do it.”

In the landlady’s apartment, her nervous sister briefed him doubtfully. “And that’s the only time she cries in a low, steady way so if you move fast there won’t be much damage done. Not much, anyway.”

He saw them to the door. “I’ll be fast enough,” he assured the mother. “Just so I get a hint.”

Mrs. Lipanti paused at the door. “Did I tell you about the man who was asking after you this afternoon?”

Again? “A sort of tall, old man in a long, black overcoat?”

“With the most frightening way of staring into your face and talking under his breath. Do you know him?”

“Not exactly. What did he want?”

“Well, he asked if there was a Sam Weaver living here who was a lawyer and had been spending most of his time in his room for the past week. I told him we had a Sam Weber—your first name is Sam?—who answered to that description, but that the last Weaver had moved out over a year ago. He just looked at me for a while and said, ‘Weaver, Weber—they might have made an error,’ and walked out without so much as a goodbye or excuse-me. Not what I call a polite gentleman.”

Thoughtfully Sam walked back to the child. Strange how sharp a mental picture he had formed of this man! Possibly because the two women who had met him thus far had been very impressionable, although to hear their stories the impression was there to be received.

He doubted there was any mistake: the man had been looking for him on both occasions; his knowledge of Sam’s vacation from foolscap this past week proved that. It did seem as if he weren’t interested in meeting him until some moot point of identity should be established beyond the least shadow of a doubt. Something of a legal mind, that.

The whole affair centered around the “Bild-A-Man” set, he was positive. This skulking investigation hadn’t started until after the gift from 2353 had been delivered—and Sam had started using it.

But till the character in the long, black overcoat paddled up to Sam Weber personally and stated his business, there wasn’t very much he could do about it.

Sam went upstairs for his Junior Biocalibrator.

He propped the manual open against the side of the bed and switched the instrument on to full scanning power. The infant gurgled thickly as the calibrator was rolled slowly over its fat body and a section of metal tape unwound from the slot with, according to the manual, a completely detailed physiological description.

It was detailed. Sam gasped as the tape, running through the enlarging viewer, gave information on the child for which a pediatrician would have taken out at least three mortgages on his immortal soul. Thyroid capacity, chromosome quality, cerebral content. All broken down into neat subheads of data for construction purposes. Rate of skull expansion in minutes for the next ten hours; rate of cartilage transformation; changes in hormone secretions while active and at rest.

This was a blueprint; it was like taking canons from a baby.

Sam left the child to a puzzled contemplation of its navel and sped upstairs. With the tape as a guide, he clipped sections of the molds into the required smaller sizes. Then, almost before he knew it consciously, he was constructing a small human.

He was amazed at the ease with which he worked. Skill was evidently acquired in this game; the mannikin had been much harder to put together. The matter of duplication and working from an informational tape simplified his problems, though.

The child took form under his eyes.

He was finished just an hour and a half after he had taken his first measurements. All except the vitalizing.

A moment’s pause, here. The ugly prospect of disassembling stopped him for a moment, but he shook it off. He had to see how well he had done the job. If this child could breathe, what was not possible to him! Besides he couldn’t keep it suspended in an inanimate condition very long without running the risk of ruining his work and the materials.

He started the vitalizer.

The child shivered and began a low, steady cry. Sam tore down to the landlady’s apartment again and scooped up a square of white linen left on the bed for emergencies. Oh well, some more clean sheets.

After he had made the necessary repairs, he stood back and took a good look at it. He was in a sense a papa. He felt as proud.

It was a perfect little creature, glowing and round with health.

“I have twinned,” he said happily.

Every detail correct. The two sides of the face correctly inexact, the duplication of the original child’s lunch at the very same point of digestion. Same hair, same eyes—or was it? Sam bent over the infant. He could have sworn the other was a blonde. This child had dark hair which seemed to grow darker as he looked.

He grabbed it with one hand and picked up the Junior Biocalibrator with the other.

Downstairs, he placed the two babies side by side on the big bed. No doubt about it. One was blonde; the other, his plagiarism, was now a definite brunette.

The biocalibrator showed other differences: Slightly faster pulse for his model. Lower blood count. Minutely higher cerebral capacity, although the content was the same. Adrenalin and bile secretions entirely unalike.

It added up to error. His child might be the superior specimen, or the inferior one, but he had not made a true copy. He had no way of knowing at the moment whether or not the infant he had built could grow into a human maturity. The other could.

Why? He had followed directions faithfully, had consulted the calibrator tape at every step. And this had resulted. Had he waited too long before starting the vitalizer? Or was it just a matter of insufficient skill?

Close to midnight, his watch delicately pointed out. It would be necessary to remove evidences of baby-making before the sisters Lipanti came home. Sam considered possibilities swiftly.

He came down in a few moments with an old tablecloth and a cardboard carton. He wrapped the child in the tablecloth, vaguely happy that the temperature had risen that night, then placed it in the carton.

The child gurgled at the adventure. Its original on the bed gooed in return. Sam slipped quietly out into the street.

Male and female drunks stumbled along tootling on tiny trumpets. People wished each other a hic Happy New Year as he strode down the necessary three blocks.

As he turned left, he saw the sign: “Urban Foundling Home.” There was a light burning over a side door. Convenient, but that was a big city for you.

Sam shrank into the shadow of an alley for a moment as a new idea occurred to him. This had to look genuine. He pulled a pencil out of his breast pocket and scrawled on the side of the carton in as small handwriting as he could manage: Please take good care of my darling little girl. I am not married.

Then he deposited the carton on the doorstep and held his finger on the bell until he heard movement inside. He was across the street and in the alley again by the time a nurse had opened the door.

It wasn’t until he walked into the boarding house that he remembered about the navel. He stopped and tried to recall. No, he had built his little girl without a navel! Her belly had been perfectly smooth. That’s what came of hurrying! Shoddy workmanship.

There might be a bit of to-do in the foundling home when they unwrapped the kid. How would they explain it?

Sam slapped his forehead. “Me and Michelangelo. He adds a navel, I forget one!”

Except for an occasional groan, the office was fairly quiet the second day of the New Year.

He was going through the last intriguing pages of the book when he was aware of two people teetering awkwardly, near his desk. His eyes left the manual reluctantly: “New kinds of life for your leisure moments” was really fascinating!

Tina and Lew Knight.

Sam digested the fact that neither of them was perched on his desk.

Tina now wore the little ring she’d received for Christmas on the third finger of her left hand; Lew was experimenting with a sheepish look and finding it difficult.

“Oh, Sam. Last night, Lew… Sam, we wanted you to be the first—Such a surprise, like that, I mean! Why I almost—Naturally we thought this would be a little difficult… Sam, we’re going, I mean we expect—”

“—to be married,” Lew Knight finished in what was almost an undertone. For the first time since Sam had known him he looked uncertain and suspicious of life, like a man who finds a newly hatched octopus in his breakfast orange juice.

“You’d adore the way Lew proposed,” Tina was gushing. “So roundabout. And so shy. I told him afterward that I thought for a moment he was talking of something else entirely. I did have trouble understanding you, didn’t I, dear?”

“Huh? Oh yeah, you had trouble understanding me.” Lew stared at his former rival. “Much of a surprise?”

“Oh, no. No surprise at all. You two fit together so perfectly that I knew it right from the first.” Sam mumbled his felicitations, conscious of Tina’s searching glances. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s something I have to take care of immediately. A special sort of wedding present.”

Lew was disconcerted. “A wedding present. This early?”

“Why, certainly,” Tina told him. “It isn’t very easy to get just the right thing. And a special friend like Sam naturally wants to get a very special gift.”

Sam decided he had taken enough. He grabbed the manual and his coat and dodged through the door.

By the time he came to the red stone steps of the boarding house, he had reached the conclusion that the wound, while painful, had definitely missed his heart. He was in fact chuckling at the memory of Lew Knight’s face when his landlady plucked at his sleeve.

“That man was here again today, Mr. Weber. He said he wanted to see you.”

“Which man? The tall, old fellow?”

Mrs. Lipanti nodded, her arms folded complacently across her chest. “Such an unpleasant person! When I told him you weren’t in, he insisted I take him up to your room. I said I couldn’t do that without your permission and he looked at me fit to kill. I’ve never believed in the evil eye myself—although I always say where there is smoke there must be fire—but if there is such a thing as an evil eye, he has it.”

“Will he be back?”

“Yes. He asked me when you usually return and I said about eight o’clock, figuring that if you didn’t want to meet him it would give you time to change your clothes and wash up and leave before he gets here. And, Mr. Weber, if you’ll excuse me for saying this, I don’t think you want to meet him.”

“Thanks. But when he comes in at eight, show him up. If he’s the right person, I’m in illegal possession of his property. I want to know where this property originates.”

In his room, he put the manual away carefully and told the box to open. The Junior Biocalibrator was not too bulky and newspaper would suffice to cover it. He was on his way uptown in a few minutes with the strangely shaped parcel under his arm.

Did he still want to duplicate Tina, he pondered? Yes, in spite of everything. She was still the woman he desired more than any he had ever known; and with the original married to Lew, the replica would have no choice but himself. Only—the replica would have Tina’s characteristics up to the moment the measurements were taken; she might insist on marrying Lew as well.

That would make for a bit of a mad situation. But he was still miles from that bridge. It might even be amusing—

The possibility of error was more annoying. The Tina he would make might be off-center in a number of ways: reds might overlap pinks; like an imperfectly reproduced color photograph, she might, in time, come to digest her own stomach; there could very easily be a streak of strange and incurable insanity implicit in his model which would not assert itself until a deep mutual affection had flowered and borne fruit. As yet, he was no great shakes as a twinner and human mimeographer; the errors he had made on Mrs. Lipanti’s niece demonstrated his amateur standing.

Sam knew he would never be able to dismantle Tina if she proved defective. Outside of the chivalrous concepts and almost superstitious reverence for womankind pressed into him by a small-town boyhood, there was the unmitigated horror he felt at the idea of such a beloved object going through the same disintegrating process as—well, the mannikin. But if he overlooked an essential in the construction, what other recourse would there be?

Solution: nothing must be overlooked. Sam grinned bitterly as the ancient elevator swayed up to his office. If he only had time for a little more practice with a person whose reactions he knew so exactly that any deviation from the norm would be instantly obvious! But the strange old man would be calling tonight, and, if his business concerned “Bild-A-Man” sets, Sam’s experiments might be abruptly curtailed. And where would he find such a person—he had few real friends and no intimate ones. And, to be at all valuable, it would have to be someone he knew as well as himself.


“Floor, sir.” The elevator operator was looking at him reproachfully. Sam’s exultant shout had caused him to bring the carrier to a spasmodic stop six inches under the floor level, something he had not done since that bygone day when he had first nervously reached for the controls. He felt his craftsmanship was under a shadow as he morosely closed the door behind the lawyer.

And why not himself? He knew his own physical attributes better than he knew Tina’s; any mental instability on the part of his reproduced self would be readily discernible long before it reached the point of psychosis or worse. And the beauty of it was that he would have no compunction in disassembling a superfluous Sam Weber. Quite the contrary: the horror in that situation would be the continued existence of a duplicate personality; its removal would be a relief.

Twinning himself would provide the necessary practice in a familiar medium. Ideal. He’d have to take careful notes so that if anything went wrong he’d know just where to avoid going off the track in making his own personal Tina.

And maybe the old geezer wasn’t interested in the set at all. Even if he were, Sam could take his landlady’s advice and not be at home when he called. Silver linings wherever he looked.

Lew Knight stared at the instrument in Sam’s hands. “What in the sacred name of Blackstone and all his commentaries is that? Looks like a lawn mower for a window box!”

“It’s uh, sort of a measuring gadget. Gives the right size for one thing and another and this and that. Won’t be able to get you the wedding present I have in mind unless I know the right size. Or sizes. Tina, would you mind stepping out into the hall?”

“Nooo.” She looked dubiously at the gadget. “It won’t hurt?”

It wouldn’t hurt a bit, Sam assured her. “I just want to keep this a secret from Lew till after the ceremony.”

She brightened at that and preceded Sam through the door. “Hey, counselor,” one of the other young lawyers called at Lew as they left. “Hey, counselor, don’t let him do that. Possession is nine points, Sam always says. He’ll never bring her back.”

Lew chuckled weakly and bent over his work.

“Now I want you to go into the ladies’ room,” Sam explained to a bewildered Tina. “I’ll stand guard outside and tell the other customers that the place is out of order. If another woman is inside, wait until she leaves. Then strip.”

“Strip?” Tina squealed.

He nodded. Then very carefully, emphasizing every significant detail of operation, he told her how to use the Junior Biocalibrator. How she must be careful to kick the switch and set the tape running. How she must cover every external square inch of her body. “This little arm will enable you to lower it down your back. No questions now. Git.”

She was back in fifteen minutes, fluffing her dress into place and studying the tape with a rapt frown. “This is the strangest thing—According to the spool, my iodine content—”

Sam snaffled the Biocalibrator hurriedly. “Don’t give it another thought. It’s a code, kind of. Tells me just what size and how many of what kind. You’ll be crazy about the gift when you see it.”

“I know I will.” She bent over him as he kneeled and examined the tape to make certain she had applied the instrument correctly. “You know, Sam, I always felt your taste was perfect. I want you to come and visit us often after we’re married. You can have such beautiful ideas! Lew is a bit too… too business-like, isn’t he? I mean it’s necessary for success and all that, but success isn’t everything. I mean you have to have culture, too. You’ll help me keep cultured, won’t you, Sam?”

“Sure,” Sam said vaguely. The tape was complete. Now to get started! “Anything I can do—glad to help.”

He rang for the elevator and noticed the forlorn uncertainty with which she watched him. “Don’t worry. Tina. You and Lew will be very happy together. And you’ll love this wedding present.” But not as much as I will, he told himself as he stepped into the elevator.

Back in his room, he emptied the machine and undressed. In a few moments he had another tape on himself. He would have liked to consider it for a while, but being this close to the goal made him impatient. He locked the door, cleaned his room hurriedly of accumulated junk—remembering to grunt in annoyance at Aunt Maggie’s ties: the blue and red one almost lighted up the room—ordered the box to open—and he was ready to begin.

First the water. With the huge amount of water necessary to the human body, especially in the case of an adult, he might as well start collecting it now. He had bought several pans and it would take his lone faucet some time to fill them all.

As he placed the first pot under the tap, Sam wondered suddenly if its chemical impurities might affect the end product. Of course it might! These children of 2353 would probably take absolutely pure H2O as a matter of daily use; the manual hadn’t mentioned the subject, but how did he know what kind of water they had available? Well, he’d boil this batch over his chemical stove; when he got to making Tina he could see about getting aqua completely pura.

Score another point for making a simulacrum of Sam first.

While waiting for the water to boil, he arranged his supplies to positions of maximum availability. They were getting low. That baby had taken up quite a bit of useful ingredients; too bad he hadn’t seen his way clear to disassembling it. That meant if there were any argument in favor of allowing the replica of himself to go on living, it was now invalid. He’d have to take it apart in order to have enough for Tina II. (Or Tina prime?)

He leafed through Chapters VI, VII and VIII on the ingredients, completion and disassembling of a man. He’d been through this several times before; but he’d passed more than one law exam on the strength of a last-minute review.

The constant reference to mental instability disturbed him. “The humans constructed with this set will, at the very best, show most of the superstitious tendencies, and neurosis-compulsions of medieval mankind. In the long run they are not normal; take great care not to consider them such.” Well, it wouldn’t make too much difference in Tina’s case—and that was all that was important.

When he had finished adjusting the molds to the correct sizes, he fastened the vitalizer to the bed. Then—very, very slowly and with repeated glances at the manual, he began to duplicate Sam Weber. He learned more of his physical limitations and capabilities in the next two hours than any man had ever known since the day when an inconspicuous primate had investigated the possibilities of ground locomotion upon the nether extremities alone.

Strangely enough, he felt neither awe nor exultation. It was like building a radio receiver for the first time. Child’s play.

Most of the vials and jars were empty when he had finished. The damp molds were stacked inside the box, still in their three-dimensional outline. The manual lay neglected on the floor.

Sam Weber stood near the bed looking down at Sam Weber on the bed.

All that remained was vitalizing. He daren’t wait too long or imperfections might set in and the errors of the baby be repeated. He shook off a nauseating feeling of unreality, made certain that the big disassembleator was within reach and set the Jiffy Vitalizer in motion.

The man on the bed coughed. He stirred. He sat up.

“Wow!” he said. “Pretty good, if I do say so myself!”

And then he had leaped off the bed and seized the disassembleator. He tore great chunks of wiring out of the center, threw it to the floor and kicked it into shapeless-ness. “No Sword of Damocles going to hang over my head,” he informed an open-mouthed Sam Weber. “Although, I could have used it on you, come to think of it.”

Sam eased himself to the mattress and sat down. His mind stopped rearing and whinnied to a halt. He had been so impressed with the helplessness of the baby and the mannikin that he had never dreamed of the possibility that his duplicate would enter upon life with such enthusiasm. He should have, though; this was a full-grown man, created at a moment of complete physical and mental activity.

“This is bad,” he said at last in a hoarse voice. “You’re unstable. You can’t be admitted into normal society.”

“I’m unstable?” his image asked. “Look who’s talking! The guy who’s been mooning his way through his adult life, who wants to marry an overdressed, conceited collection of biological impulses that would come crawling on her knees to any man sensible enough to push the right buttons—”

“You leave Tina’s name out of this,” Sam told him, feeling acutely uncomfortable at the theatrical phrase.

His double looked at him and grinned. “OK, I will. But not her body! Now, look here, Sam or Weber or whatever you want me to call you, you can live your life and I’ll live mine. I won’t even be a lawyer if that’ll make you happy. But as far as Tina is concerned, now that there are no ingredients to make a copy—that was a rotten escapist idea, by the way—I have enough of your likes and dislikes to want her badly. And I can have her, whereas you can’t. You don’t have the gumption.”

Sam leaped to his feet and doubled his fists. Then he saw the other’s entirely equal size and slightly more assured twinkle. There was no point in fighting—that would end in a draw, at best. He went back to reason.

“According to the manual,” he began, “you are prone to neurosis—”

“The manual! The manual was written for children of four centuries hence, with quite a bit of selective breeding and scientific education behind them. Personally, I think I’m a—”

There was a double knock on the door. “Mr. Weber.”

“Yes,” they both said simultaneously. Outside, the landlady gasped and began speaking in an uncertain voice.

“Th-that gentleman is downstairs. He’d like to see you. Shall I tell him you’re in?”

“No, I’m not at home,” said the double.

“Tell him I left an hour ago,” said Sam at exactly the same moment.

There was another, longer gasp and the sound of footsteps receding hurriedly.

“That’s one clever way to handle a situation,” Sam’s facsimile exploded. “Couldn’t you keep your mouth shut? The poor woman’s probably gone off to have a fit.”

“You forget that this is my room and you are just an experiment that went wrong,” Sam told him hotly. “I have just as much right, in fact more right… hey, what do you think you’re doing?”

The other had thrown open the closet door and was stepping into a pair of pants. “Just getting dressed. You can wander around in the nude if you find it exciting, but I want to look a bit respectable.”

“I undressed to take my measurements… or your measurements. Those are my clothes, this is my room—”

“Look, take it easy. You could never prove it in a court of law. Don’t make me go into that cliché about what’s yours is mine and so forth.”

Heavy feet resounded through the hall. They stopped outside the room. Cymbals seemed to clash all around them and there was a panic-stricken sense of unendurable heat. Then shrill echoes fled into the distance. The walls stopped shuddering.

Silence and a smell of burning wood.

They whirled in time to see a terribly tall, terribly old man in a long black overcoat walking through the smoldering remains of the door. Much too tall for the entrance, he did not stoop as he came in; rather, he drew his head down into his garment and shot it up again. Instinctively, they moved close together.

His eyes, all shiny black iris without any whites, were set back deep in the shadow of his head. They reminded Sam Weber of the scanners on the Biocalibrator: they tabulated, deduced, rather than saw.

“I was afraid I would be too late,” he rumbled at last in weird, clipped tones. “You have already duplicated yourself, Mr. Weber, making necessary unpleasant rearrangements. And the duplicate has destroyed the disassembleator. Too bad. I shall have to do it manually. An ugly job.”

He came further into the room until they could almost breathe their fright upon him. “This affair has already dislocated four major programs, but we had to move in accepted cultural grooves and be absolutely certain of the recipient’s identity before we could act to withdraw the set. Mrs. Lipanti’s collapse naturally stimulated emergency measures.”

The duplicate cleared his throat. “You are—”

“Not exactly human. A humble civil servant of precision manufacture. I am Census Keeper for the entire twenty-ninth oblong. You see, your set was intended for the Thregander children who are on a field trip in this oblong. One of the Threganders who has a Weber chart requested the set through the chrondromos which, in an attempt at the supernormal, unstabled without carnuplicating. You therefore received the package instead. Unfortunately, the unstabling was so complete that we were forced to locate you by indirect methods.”

The Census Keeper paused and Sam’s double hitched his pants nervously. Sam wished he had anything—even a fig leaf—to cover his nakedness. He felt like a character in the Garden of Eden trying to build up a logical case for apple-eating. He appreciated glumly how much more than “Bild-A-Man” sets clothes had to do with the making of a man.

“We will have to recover the set, of course,” the staccato thunder continued, “and readjust any discrepancies it has caused. Once the matter has been cleared up, however, your life will be allowed to resume its normal progression. Meanwhile, the problem is, which of you is the original Sam Weber?”

“I am,” they both quavered—and turned to glare at each other.

“Difficulties,” the old man rumbled. He sighed like an arctic wind. “I always have difficulties! Why can’t I ever have a simple case like a carnuplicator?”

“Look here,” the duplicate began. “The original will be—”

“Less unstable and of better emotional balance than the replica,” Sam interrupted. “Now, it seems—”

“That you should be able to tell the difference,” the other concluded breathlessly. “From what you see and have seen of us, can’t you decide which is the more valid member of society?”

What a pathetic confidence, Sam thought, the fellow was trying to display! Didn’t he know he was up against someone who could really discern mental differences? This was no fumbling psychiatrist of the present; here was a creature who could see through externals to the most coherent personality beneath.

“I can, naturally. Now, just a moment.” He studied them carefully, his eyes traveling with judicious leisure up and down their bodies. They waited, fidgeting, in a silence that pounded.

“Yes,” the old man said at last. “Yes. Quite.”

He walked forward.

A long thin arm shot out.

He started to disassemble Sam Weber.

“But listennnnn—” began Weber in a yell that turned into a high scream and died in a liquid mumble.

“It would be better for your sanity if you didn’t watch,” the Census Keeper suggested.

The duplicate exhaled slowly, turned away and began to button a shirt. Behind him the mumbling continued, rising and falling in pitch.

“You see,” came the clipped, rumbling accents, “it’s not the gift we’re afraid of letting you have—it’s the principle involved. Your civilization isn’t ready for it. You understand.”

“Perfectly,” replied the counterfeit Sam Weber, knotting Aunt Maggie’s blue and red tie.


“Child’s Play” was my second published story and what might possibly be called my first science-fiction “success.” John Campbell accepted it for Astounding the day he received it; Ted Sturgeon asked to be my agent when I showed him the story’s carbon copy; it was the first piece by me to be anthologized (science-fiction anthologies were very rare birds in the 1940s) and it was to be anthologized many more times; finally, and almost miraculously, Clifton Fadiman went out of his way to say something nice about the story in the book review section of The New Yorker.

I started “Child’s Play” while I was a purser on a cargo ship, early in 1946. My brother had sent me the May issue of Astounding, containing my first published story, “Alexander the Bait,” and when it arrived in the port of Antwerp, Belgium, I showed it around quite proudly. My fellow officers, however, wondered why I made such a fuss over a printed tale by someone called William Tenn; again and again, I had to explain the concept of a pen name.

After many explanations they seemed to accept the idea, and the first mate suggested we go into Antwerp that night and have “a beer or two” to celebrate. I felt I had to agree, even though I had been warned by the radio operator that from the beginning of the voyage the three mates had been arguing over just how drunk they could get the Jewish purser.

I don’t know which of them won, but we all got back to the ship utterly, thoroughly, overwhelmingly soused. The first mate carried me up the Jacob’s ladder upside down with my legs locked around his neck and the rest of me over his shoulders. He took me to the purser’s cabin and dumped me in a chair in front of my typewriter desk. “If you are really William Tenn and can write stories that get published,” he said, waving a wobbly forefinger in the air, “prove it. Write one now.”

With the immense dignity of total drunkenness, I said, “I’ll do that. You just sit down here and just watch me do it.” He sat on my bunk and bleared at me.

I typed four pages and had to go to the toilet. When I came back he was sound asleep on my bunk, fully clothed, occupying all of it. He was an enormous Norwegian and there was no chance of moving him even a little. I staggered back to the chair, cradled my arms around the typewriter, and went out cold.

He was gone when I woke up the next morning.

But the captain was there, with a briefcase under his arm. “Get up, Purser,” he said. “We have to go to the custom house and officially enter the ship. I hear you tied a big one on last night. You must have a hell of hangover.”

I rolled over, sat up, stood up. I felt my head. “No,” I said, relieved and astonished. “Can’t say that I do. I feel fine.”

The captain stared at me. “You’re a wonder,” he said. “After what you drank! Are all Jews like that?”

What do you say to such a question? “Most,” I told him.

We got a taxi and went into Antwerp. It was a very hot day, and by the time we had finished the paperwork on entering the ship we were both perspiring heavily.

There was a cafe, L’americain, across the street from the custom house with a sign in its window advertising cold beer. “That’s what I want,” the captain said. “Could you go for one, too?”

I shrugged. We went into the cafe and ordered two small beers. The captain swallowed his and ordered another one. I sipped mine slowly, tilting my head back as I reached the bottom of the glass.

And then I found I couldn’t tilt my head forward any more. The glass slipped from my hand and smashed. I began following it to the floor, my back arching behind me.

Fortunately, the captain caught me as I fell. He and a waiter grabbed me and pulled me up and spread me out on top of the bar. I lay there, completely paralyzed, able to hear what was going on around me, feeling the night before’s spree return through every cell in my body.

That single glass of beer had brought my alcohol level up to optimum again. The barmaid, however, knew nothing of my nocturnal activities.

“Une biere! Une biere!” she chanted to everyone who came in, pointing to where I lay prone on the bar. “Settlement une biere!”

And everyone who came in explained it to everyone else who came in. They stood around me and marveled.

Eventually, the captain got me back to the ship and into my bunk—where I lay, unable to move, for six hours. When I was mobile again, I had a real hangover. I sat at my desk, I remember, holding my head between my hands and reading the totally unfamiliar manuscript in my typewriter.

I liked it. I liked it very much. I recognized it, of course. It was the beginning of a story by one of my very favorite science-fiction writers, Lewis Padgett. (I did not know at the time that Lewis Padgett was the joint pen name of the writing couple, Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore.)

Padgett’s work, to me, was like intellectual candy—I’d never been able to get enough of it. And I had started an honest-to-God Padgett story! If I could finish it, I would have the pleasure of reading a Lewis Padgett piece as it appeared in front of me, paragraph by paragraph, page by page.

The hell with the ship’s business! To hell with my hangover! I began writing.

Written 1946 / Published 1947