Winthrop Was Stubborn
by William Tenn
That was the trouble right there. That summed it up. Winthrop was stubborn.
Mrs. Brucks stared wildly at her three fellow-visitors from the twentieth century. “But he can’t!” she exclaimed. “He’s not the only one—he’s got to think of us! He can’t leave us stranded in this crazy world!”
Dave Pollock shrugged his shoulders inside the conservative gray suit that clashed so mightily with the decor of the twenty-fifth century room in which they sat. He was a thin, nervous young man whose hands had a tendency to perspire. Right now, they were extremely wet.
“He says we should be grateful. But whether we are or aren’t grateful isn’t important to him. He’s staying.”
“That means we have to stay,” Mrs. Brucks pleaded. “Doesn’t he understand that?”
Pollock spread his moist palms helplessly. “What difference does it make? He’s absolutely set on staying. He likes the twenty-fifth century. I argued with him for two hours; I’ve never seen anyone so stubborn. I can’t budge him, and that’s all I know.”
“Why don’t you talk to him, Mrs. Brucks?” Mary Ann Carthington suggested. “He’s been nice to you. Maybe you could make him act sensible.”
“Hm.” Mrs. Brucks patted her hairdo which, after two weeks in the future, was beginning to get straggly. “You think so? Mr. Mead, you think it’s a good idea?”
The fourth person in the oval room, a stoutish middle-aged man, whose face bore an expression of a cat that might swallow a canary in the interests of Decency, considered the matter for a moment, and nodded. “Can’t do any harm. Might work. And we’ve got to do something.”
“All right. So I’ll try.”
Mrs. Brucks sniffled deep inside her grandmotherly soul. She knew what the others were thinking, weren’t quite saying. To them, Winthrop and she were the “old folks”—both over fifty. Therefore, they should have something in common they should be able to communicate sympathetically.
The fact that Winthrop was ten years her senior meant little to Mr. Mead’s forty-six years, less to Dave Pollock’s thirty-four and in all probability was completely meaningless to Mary Ann Carthington’s even twenty. One of the “old folks” should be able to talk sense to the other, they would feel.
What could they see, from the bubbling distance of youth, of the chasms that separated Winthrop from Mrs. Brucks even more finally than the others? It was unimportant to them that he was a tight and unemotional old bachelor, while she was the warm and gossipy mother of six children, the grandmother of two, with her silver wedding anniversary proudly behind her. She and Winthrop had barely exchanged a dozen sentences with each other since they’d arrived in the future: they had disliked each other deeply from the moment they had met in Washington at the time-travel finals.
But—Winthrop was stubborn. That fact remained. Mr. Mead had roared his best executive-type roars at him. Mary Ann Carthington had tried to jog his senility with her lush, lithe figure and most fluttery voice. Even Dave Pollock, an educated man, a high school science teacher with a master’s degree in something or other, Dave Pollock had talked his heart out to him and been unable to make him budge.
So it was up to her. Someone had to change Winthrop’s mind. Or they’d all be stuck in the future, here in this horrible twenty-fifth century. No matter if she hated it more than anything she’d had to face in a lifetime of troubles—it was up to her.
She rose and shook out the wrinkles in the expensive black dress her proud husband had purchased in Lord Taylor’s the day before the group had left. Try to tell Sam that it was purely luck that she had been chosen, just a matter of fitting the physical specifications in the message from the future! Sam wouldn’t listen: he probably boasted all over the shop, to each and every one of the other cutters with whom he worked, about his wife—one of five people selected in the whole United States of America to make a trip five hundred years into the future. Would Sam still be boasting when the six o’clock deadline passed that night and she didn’t return?
This time the sniffle worked its way through the cushions of her bosom and exploded tinily at her nose.
Mary Ann Carthington crooned back sympathetically. “Shall I ring for the jumper, Mrs. Brucks?”
“I’m crazy?” Mrs. Brucks shot back at her angrily. “A little walk down the hall, I need that headache-maker? A little walk I can walk.”
She started for the door rapidly before the girl could summon the upsetting device which exploded you from one place to another and left you with your head swimming and your stomach splashing. But she paused for a moment and took a last wistful look at the room before leaving it. While it was by no means a cozy five-room apartment in the Bronx, she’d spent almost every minute of her two weeks in the future here, and for all of its peculiar furniture and oddly colored walls, she hated to leave it. At least here nothing rippled along the floor, nothing reached out from the walls; here was as much sanity as you could find in the twenty-fifth century.
Then she swallowed hard, said “Ah-h!” with regretful finality and closed the door behind her. She walked rapidly along the corridor, being careful to stay in the exact middle, the greatest distance possible from the bumpy writhing walls on either side.
At a point in the corridor where one purple wall flowed restlessly around a stable yellow square, she stopped. She put her mouth, fixed in a scowl of distaste, to the square. “Mr. Winthrop?” she inquired tentatively.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Mrs. Brucks!” the square boomed back at her. “Long time no see. Come right in, Mrs. Brucks.”
The patch of yellow showed a tiny hole in the center which dilated rapidly into a doorway. She stepped through gingerly, as if there might be a drop of several stories on the other side.
The room was shaped like a long, narrow isosceles triangle.
There was no furniture in it, and no other exits, except for what an occasional yellow square suggested. Streaks of color chased themselves fluently along the walls and ceilings and floors, shifting the predominant hue of the interior up and down the spectrum, from pinkish grey to a thick, dark ultramarine. And odors came with the colors, odors came and filled the room for a brief spell, some of them unpleasant, some of them intriguing, but all of them touched with the unfamiliar and alien. From somewhere behind the walls and above the ceiling, there was music, its tones softly echoing, gently reinforcing the colors and the odors. The music too was strange to twentieth-century ears: strings of dissonances would he followed by a long or short silence in the midst of which an almost inaudible melody might be heard like a harmonic island in an ocean of sonic strangeness.
At the far end of the room, at the sharp apex of the triangle, an aged little man lay on a raised portion of the floor. Periodically, this raised portion would raise a bit of itself still further or lower a section, very much like a cow trying to find a comfortable position on the grass.
The single garment that Winthrop wore similarly kept adjusting itself upon him. At one moment it would be a striped red and white tunic, covering everything from his shoulders to his thighs; then it would slowly elongate into a green gown that trickled over his outstretched toes; and, abruptly, it would contract into a pair of light brown shorts decorated with a complex pattern of brilliant blue seashells.
Mrs. Brucks observed all this with an almost religious disapproval. A man was meant, she felt dimly, to be dressed approximately the same way from one moment to the next, not to swoop wildly from one garment to another like a montage sequence in the movies.
The shorts she didn’t mind, though her modest soul considered them a hit too skimpy for receiving lady callers. The green gown, well, she didn’t think it went with Winthrop’s sex —as she’d been brought up—but she could go along with it; after all, if he wanted to wear what was essentially a dress, it was his business. Even the red and white tunic which reminded her strongly and nostalgically of her granddaughter Debbie’s sunsuit was something she was willing to be generous about. But at least stick to one of them, show some will-power, some concentration!
Winthrop put the enormous egg he was holding on the floor. “Have a seat, Mrs. Brucks. Take the load off your feet,” he suggested jovially.
Shuddering at the hillock of floor which came into being at her host’s gesture, Mrs. Brucks finally bent her knees and sat, her tentative rear making little more than a tangent to it. “How—how are you, Mr. Winthrop?”
“Fine, just fine! Couldn’t be better, Mrs. Brucks. Say, have you seen my new teeth? Just got them this morning. Look.”
He opened his jaws and pulled his lips back with his fingers.
Mrs. Brucks leaned forward, really interested, and inspected the mouthful of white, shining enamel. “A good job,” she pronounced at last, nodding. “The dentists here made them for you so fast?”
“Dentists!” He spread his bony arms wide in a vast and merry gesture. “They don’t have dentists in 2487 A.D. They grew these teeth for me, Mrs. Brucks.”
“Grew? How grew?”
“How should I know how they did it? They’re smart, that’s all. A lot smarter than us, every way. I just heard about the regeneration clinic. It’s a place where you lose an arm, you go down there, they grow it right back on the stump. Free, like everything else. I went down there, I said ‘I want new teeth’ to the machine that they’ve got. The machine tells me to take a seat, it goes one, two, three—and bingo! there I am, throwing my plates away. You want to try it?”
She shifted uncomfortably on her hillock. “Maybe—but I better wait until it’s perfected.”
Winthrop laughed again. “You’re scared,” he announced. “You’re like the others, scared of the twenty-fifth century. Anything new, anything different, you want to run for a hole like a rabbit. Only me, only Winthrop, I’m the only one that’s got guts. I’m the oldest, but that doesn’t make any difference —I’m the only one with guts.”
Mrs. Brucks smiled tremulously at him. “But Mr. Winthrop, you’re also the only one without no one to go back to. I got a family, Mr. Mead has a family, Mr. Pollock’s just married, a newlywed, and Miss Carthington is engaged. We’d all like to go back, Mr. Winthrop.”
“Mary Ann is engaged?” A lewd chuckle. “I’d never have guessed it from the way she was squirming round that temporal supervisor fellow. That little blondie is on the make for any guy she can get.”
“Still and all, Mr. Winthrop, she’s engaged. To a bookkeeper in her office she’s engaged. A fine, hardworking boy. And she wants to go back to him.”
The old man pulled up his back and the floor-couch hunched up between his shoulder blades and scratched him gently. “Let her go back, then. Who gives a damn?”
“But, Mr. Winthrop—” Mrs. Brucks wet her lips and clasped her hands in front of her. “She can’t go back, we can’t go back—unless we all go back together. Remember what they told us when we arrived, those temporal supervisors? We all have to be sitting in our chairs in the time machine building at six o’clock on the dot, when they’re going to make what they call the transfer. If we aren’t all there on time, they can’t make the transfer, they said. So, if one of us, if you, for instance, doesn’t show up—”
“Don’t tell me your troubles,” Winthrop cut her off savagely. His face was deeply flushed and his lips came back and exposed the brand-new teeth. There was a sharp acrid smell in the room and blotches of crimson on its walls as the place adjusted to its owner’s mood. All around them the music chanced to a staccato, vicious rumble. “Everybody wants Winthrop to do a favor for them. What did they ever do for Winthrop?”
“Umh?” Mrs. Brucks inquired. “I don’t understand you.”
“You’re damn tooting you don’t understand me. When I was a kid, my old man used to come home drunk every night and beat the hell out of me. I was a small kid, so every other kid on the block took turns beating the hell out of me, too. When I grew up, I got a lousy job and a lousy life. Remember the depression and those pictures of the breadlines? Well, who do you think it was on those breadlines, on every damn breadline in the whole damn country? Me, that’s who. And then, when the good times came back, I was too old for a decent job. Night-watchman, berrypicker, dishwasher, that’s me. Cheap flophouses, cheap furnished rooms. Everybody gets the gravy, Winthrop got the garbage.”
He picked up the large egg-shaped object he had been ex-amining when she entered and studied it moodily. In the red glow of the room, his face seemed to have flushed to a deeper color. A large vein in his scrawny neck buzzed bitterly.
“Yeah. And like you said, everybody has someone to go back to, everybody but me. You’re damn tooting I don’t have anyone to go back to. Damn tooting. I never had a friend, never had a wife, never even had a girl that stayed around longer than it took her to use up the loose change in my pocket. So why should I go back? I’m happy here, I get everything I want and I don’t have to pay for it. You people want to go back because you feel different—uncomfort-able, out of place. I don’t. I’m used to being out of place: I’m right at home. I’m having a good time. I’m staying.”
“Listen, Mr. Winthrop,” Mrs. Brucks leaned forward anxiously, then jumped as the seat under her slunk forward. She rose and stood, deciding that on her feet she might enjoy at least minimal control of her immediate environment. “Listen, Mr. Winthrop, everybody has troubles in their life. With my daughter, Annie, I had a time that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. And with my Julius— But because I have troubles, you think I should take it out on other people? I should prevent them from going home when they’re sick and tired of jumper machines and food machines and—I don’t know —machine machines and—”
“Speaking of food machines,” Winthrop perked up, “have you seen my new food phonograph? The latest model. I heard about it last night, I said I wanted one, and sure enough, first thing this morning a brand new one is delivered to my door. No fuss, no bother, no money. What a world!”
“But it’s not your world, Mr. Winthrop. You didn’t make anything in it, you don’t work in it. Even if everything is free, you’re not entitled. You got to belong, to be entitled.”
“There’s nothing in their laws about that,” he commented absent-mindedly as he opened the huge egg and peered inside at the collection of dials and switches and spigots. “See, Mrs. Brucks, double volume controls, double intensity controls, triple vitamin controls. What a set! With this one, you can raise the oil texture of a meal, say, while reducing its sweetness with that doohickey there—and if you press that switch, you can compress the whole meal so it’s no bigger than a mouthful and you’re still hungry enough to try a couple of other compositions. Want to try it? I got it set for the latest number by Unni Oehele, that new Aldebaranian composer: Memories of a Martian Soufflee.”
She shook her head emphatically. “No, by me, a meal is served in plates. I don’t want to try it. Thank you very much.”
“You’re missing something. Believe me, lady, you’re missing something. The first course is a kind of light, fast movement, all herbs from Aldebaran IV mixed with a spicy vinegar from Aldebaran IX. The second course, Consomme Grand, is a lot slower and kind of majestic. Oehele bases it all on a broth made from the white chund, a native rabbity animal they have on Aldebaran IV. See, he uses only native Aldebaranian foods to suggest a Martian dish. Get it? The same thing Kratzmeier did in A Long, Long Dessert on Deimos and Phobos, only it’s a lot better. More modern-like, if you know what I mean. Now in the third course, Oehele really takes off. He—”
“Please, Mr. Winthrop!” Mrs. Brucks begged. “Enough! Too much! I don’t want to hear any more.” She glared at him, trying to restrain her lips from curling in contempt. She’d had far too much of this sort of thing from her son, Julius, years ago, when he’d been running around with a crazy art crowd from City College and been spouting hours of incomprehensible trash at her that he’d picked up from the daily newspaper’s musical reviews and the printed notes in record albums. One thing she’d learned the hard way was how to recognize an esthetic phony.
Winthrop shrugged. “Okay, okay. But you’d think you’d at least want to try it. The others at least tried it. They took a bite of classical Kratzmeier or Gura-Hok, they didn’t like it, they spat it out—fine. But you’ve been living on nothing but that damn twentieth century grub since we arrived. After the first day, you haven’t set foot outside your room. And the way you asked the room to decorate itself—Keerist! It’s so old-fashioned, it makes me sick. You’re living in the twenty-fifth century, lady; wake up!”
“Mr. Winthrop,” she said sternly. “Yes or no? You’re going to be nice or not?”
“You’re in your fifties,” he pointed out. “Fifties, Mrs. Brucks. In our time, you can expect to live what? Ten or fifteen more years. Tops. Here, you might see another thirty, maybe forty. Me, I figure I’m good for at least another twenty. With the medical machines they got, they can do wonders. And no wars to worry about, no epidemics, no depressions, nothing. Everything free, lots of exciting things to do, Mars, Venus, the stars. Why in hell are you so crazy to go back?”
Mrs. Brucks’ already half-dissolved self-control gave way completely. “Because it’s my home,” she sobbed. “Because it’s what I understand. Because I want to be with my husband, my children, my grandchildren. And because I don’t like it here, Mr. Winthrop, I don’t like it here!”
“So go back!” Winthrop yelled. The room which for the last few moments had settled into a pale golden-yellow, turned rose-color again in sympathy. “Go the hell back! There’s not one of you with the guts of a cockroach. Even that young fellow, what’s-his-name, Dave Pollock, I thought he had guts. He went out with me for the first week and he tried everything once. But he got scared too, and went back to his little old comfy room. It’s too dec-a-dent, he says, too dec-a-dent. So take him with you—and go back, all of you!”
“But we can’t go back without you, Mr. Winthrop. Remember they said the transfer has to be complete on both sides? One stays behind, all stay. We can’t go back without you.”
Winthrop smiled and stroked the throbbing vein on his neck. “You’re damn tooting you can’t go back without me. And I’m staying. This is one time that old Winthrop calls the tune.”
“Please, Mr. Winthrop, don’t be stubborn. Be nice. Don’t make us force you.”
“You can’t force me,” he told her with a triumphant leer. “I know my rights. According to the law of twenty-fifth century America, no human being can be forced to do anything. Fact. I tooked it up. You try to gang up on me, carry me out of here, all I do is set up a holler that I’m being forced and one! two! three! a flock of government machines show up and turn me loose. That’s the way it works. Put that in your old calabash and smoke it!”
“Listen,” she said, as she turned to leave. “At six o’clock, we’ll all be in the time machine building. Maybe you’ll change your mind, Mr. Winthrop.”
“I won’t,” he shot after her. “That’s one thing you can be sure of—I won’t change my mind.”
So Mrs. Brucks went back to her room and told the others that Winthrop was stubborn as ever.
Oliver T. Mead, vice-president in charge of public relations for Sweetbottom Septic Tanks, Inc., of Gary, Indiana, drummed impatiently on the arm of the red leather easy chair that Mrs. Brucks’ room had created especially for him. “Ridiculous!” he exclaimed. “Ridiculous and absolutely nonsensical. That a derelict, a vagrant, should be able to keep people from going about their business … do you know that there’s going to be a nationwide sales conference of Sweetbottom retail outlets in a few days? I’ve got to be there. I absolutely must return tonight to our time as scheduled, no ifs, no ands, no buts. There’s going to be one unholy mess, I can tell you, if the responsible individuals in this period don’t see to that.”
“I bet there will he,” Mary Ann Carthington said from behind round, respectful and well-mascaraed eyes. “A big firm like that can really give them what for, Mr. Mead.”
Dave Pollock grimaced at her wearily. “A firm five hundred years out of existence? Who’re they going to complain to—the history books?”
As the portly man stiffened and swung around angrily, Mrs. Brucks held up her hands and said, “Don’t get upset, don’t fight. Let’s talk, let’s think it out, only don’t fight. You think it’s the truth we can’t force him to go back?”
Mr. Mead leaned back and stared out of a nonexistent window. “Could be. Then again, it might not. I’m willing to believe anything—anything!—of 2458 A.D. by now, but this smacks of criminal irresponsibility. That they should invite us to visit their time and then not make every possible effort to see that we return safe and sound at the end of two weeks as scheduled—besides, what about their people visiting in our time, the five with whom we transferred? If we’re stuck here, they’ll be stuck in 1958. Forever. Any government worthy of the name owes protection to its citizens traveling abroad. Without it, it’s less than worthless: a tax-grabbing, boondoggling, inept bureaucracy that’s—that’s positively criminal!”
Mary Ann Carthington’s pert little face had been nodding in time to his fist beating on the red leather armchair. “That’s what I say. Only the government seems to be all machines. How can you argue with machines? The only government man we’ve seen since we arrived was that Mr. Storku who welcomed us officially to the United States of America of 2458.
And he didn’t seem very interested in us. At least, he didn’t show any interest.”
“The Chief of Protocol for the State Department, you mean?” Dave Pollock asked. “The one who yawned when you told him how distinguished he looked?”
The girl made a slight, slapping gesture at him, accompanied by a reproachful smile. “Oh, you.”
“Well, then, here’s what we have to do. One,” Mr. Mead rose and proceeded to open the fingers of his right hand one at a time. “We have to go on the basis of the only human being in the government we’ve met personally, this Mr. Storku. Two, we have to select a qualified representative from among us. Three, this qualified representative has to approach Mr. Storku in his official capacity and lay the facts before him. The facts, complete and unequivocal. How his government managed somehow to communicate with our government the fact that time travel was possible, but only if certain physical laws were taken into consideration, most particularly the law of—the law of —What is that law, Pollock?”
“The law of the conservation of energy and mass. Matter, or its equivalent in energy, can neither be created nor destroyed. If you want to transfer five people from the cosmos of 2458 A.D. to the cosmos of 1958 A.D., you have to replace them simultaneously in their own time with five people of exactly the same structure and mass from the time they’re going to. Otherwise, you’d have a gap in the mass of one space-time continuum and a corresponding surplus in the other. It’s like a chemical equation—”
“That’s all I wanted to know, Pollock. I’m not a student in one of your classes. You don’t have to impress me, Pollock,” Mr. Mead pointed out.
The thin young man grunted. “Who was trying to impress you?” he demanded belligerently. “What can you do for me —get me a job in your septic tank empire? I just tried to clear up something you seemed to have a lot of trouble understanding. That’s at the bottom of our problem: the law of the conservation of energy and mass. And the way the machine’s been set for all five of us and all five of them, nobody can do anything about transferring back unless all of us and all of them are present at both ends of the connection at the very same moment.”
Mr. Mead nodded slowly and sarcastically. “All right,” he said. “All right! Thank you very much for your lesson, but now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to go on, please. Some of us aren’t civil service workers: our time is valuable.”
“Listen to the tycoon, will you?” Dave Pollock suggested with amusement. “His time is valuable. Look, Ollie, my friend, as long as Winthrop goes on being stubborn, we’re all stuck here together. And as long as we’re stuck here, we’re all greenhorns together in 2458 A.D., savages from the savage past. For your information, right now, your time is my time, and vice versa.”
“Sh-h-h!” Mrs. Brucks commanded. “Be nice. Go on talking, Mr. Mead. It’s very interesting. Isn’t it interesting, Miss Carthington?”
The blonde girl nodded. “It sure is. They don’t make people executives for nothing. You put things so—so right, Mr. Mead.”
Oliver T. Mead, somewhat mollified, smiled a slender thanks at her. “Three, then. We lay the facts before this Mr. Storku. We tell him how we came in good faith, after we were selected by a nationwide contest to find the exact opposite numbers of the five people from his time. How we did it partly out of a natural and understandable curiosity to see what the future looks like, and partly out of patriotism. Yes, patriotism! For is not this America of 2458 A.D. our America? Is it not still our native land, however strange and inexplicable the changes in it? As patriots we could follow no other course, as patriots we—”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” the high school teacher exploded. “Oliver T. Mead pledges allegiance to the flag! We know you’d die for your country under a barrage of stock market quotations. You’re no subversive, all right? What’s your idea, what’s your idea?”
There was a long silence in the room while the stout middle-aged man went through a pantomime of fighting for control. The pantomime over, he slapped his hands against the sides of his hand-tailored dark business suit and said: “Pollock, if you don’t want to hear what I have to say, you can always take a breather in the hall. As I was saying, having explained the background facts to Mr. Storku, we come to the present impasse. We come to point four, the fact that Winthrop refuses to return with us. And we demand, do you hear me?—we demand that the American government of this time take the appropriate steps to insure our safe return to our own time even if it involves, well—martial law relative to Winthrop. We put this flatly, definitely, unequivocally to Storku.”
“Is that your idea?” Dave Pollock asked derisively. “What If Storku says no?”
“He can’t say no, if it’s put right. Authority, I think that’s the keynote. It should be put to him with authority. We are citizens—in temporal extension—of America. We demand our rights. On the other hand, if he refuses to recognize our citizenship, we demand to be sent back where we came from. That’s the right of any foreigner in America. He can’t refuse. We explain the risks his government runs: loss of good will, irreparable damage to future contacts between the two times, his government standing convicted of a breach of good faith, that sort of thing. In these things, it’s just a matter of finding the right words and making them good and strong.”
Mrs. Brucks nodded agreement. “I believe. You can do it, Mr. Mead.”
The stout man seemed to deflate. “I?”
“Of course,” Mary Ann Carthington said enthusiastically. “You’re the only one who can do it, Mr. Mead. You’re the only one who can put things so—so right. Just like you said, it has to be said good and strong. That’s the way you can say it.”
“I’d, well—I’d rather not. I don’t think I’m the best one for the job. Mr. Storku and I don’t get along too well. Somebody else, I think, one of you, would be—”
Dave Pollock laughed. “Now, don’t be modest, Ollie. You’ get along with Storku as well as any of us. You’re elected. Besides, isn’t this public relations work? You’re a big man in public relations.”
Mr. Mead tried to pour all the hatred in the universe at him in one long look. Then he shot his cuffs and straightened his shoulders. “Very well. If none of you feel up to the job, I’ll take it on myself. Be back soon.”
“Jumper, Ollie?” Pollock asked as he was leaving the room. “Why not take the jumper? It’s faster.”
“No, thank you,” Mr. Mead said curtly. “I’ll walk. I need the exercise.”
He hurried through the corridor and toward the staircase. Though he went down them at a springy, executive trot, the stairs seemed to feel he wasn’t going fast enough. An escalator motion began, growing more and more rapid, until he stumbled and almost fell.
“Stop, dammit!” he yelled. “I can do this myself!”
The stairs stopped flowing downward immediately. He wiped his face with a large white handkerchief and started down again. After a few moments, the stairs turned into an escalator once more.
Again and again, he had to order them to stop; again and again, they obeyed him, and then sneakily tried to help him along. He was reminded of a large, affectionate St. Bernard he had once had who persisted on bringing dead sparrows and field mice into the house as gifts from an over-flowing heart. When the grisly objects were thrown out, the dog would brine them back in five minutes and lay them on the rug with a gesture that said: “No, I really want you to have it. Don’t worry about the expense and hard work involved. Look on it as a slight expression of my esteem and gratitude. Take it, go on take it and be happy.”
He gave up forbidding the stairs to move finally, and when he reached ground level, he was moving so fast that he shot out of the empty lobby of the building and onto the sidewalk at a tremendous speed. He might have broken a leg or dislocated his back.
Fortunately, the sidewalk began moving under him. As he tottered from right to left, the sidewalk did so too, gently but expertly keeping him balanced. He finally got his footing and took a couple of deep breaths.
Under him, the sidewalk trembled slightly, waiting for him to choose a direction so that it could help.
Mr. Mead looked around desperately. There was no one in sight along the broad avenue in either direction.
“What a world!” he moaned. “What a loony-bin of a world! You’d think there’d be a cop—somebody!”
Suddenly there was somebody. There was the pop-pop of a jumper mechanism in operation slightly overhead and a man appeared some twelve feet in the air. Behind him, there was an orange hedge-like affair, covered with eyes.
A portion of the sidewalk shot up into a mound right under the two creatures. It lowered them gently to surface level.
“Listen!” Mr. Mead yelled. “Am I glad I ran into you! I’m trying to get to the State Department and I’m having trouble. I’d appreciate a little help.”
“Sorry,” the other man said. “Klap-Lillth and I will have to be back on Ganymede in a half-hour. We’re late for an appointment as is. Why don’t you call a government machine?”
“Who is he?” the orange hedge inquired as they began to move swiftly to the entrance of a building, the sidewalk under them flowing like a happy river. “He doesn’t narga to me like one of you.”
“Time traveler,” his companion explained. “From the past. one of the exchange tourists who came in two weeks ago.”
“Aha!” said the hedge. “From the past. No wonder I couldn’t narga him. It’s just as well. You know, on Ganymede we don’t believe in time travel. It’s against our religion.”
The Earthman chuckled and dug the hedge in the twigs. Volt and your religion! You’re as much an atheist as I am, Kalp-Lillth. When was the last time you attended a shkootseem ceremony?”
“Not since the last syzygy of Jupiter and the Sun,” the hedge admitted. “But that’s not the point. I’m still in good standing. What all you humans fail to understand about the Ganymedan religion … ”
His voice trailed off as they disappeared inside the building. Mead almost spat after them. Then he recollected himself. They didn’t have much time to fool around—and, besides, he was in a strange world with customs insanely different from his own. Who knew what the penalties were for spitting?
“Government machine,” he said resignedly to the empty air. “I want a government machine.”
He felt a little foolish, but that was what they had been told to do in any emergency. And, sure enough, a gleaming affair of wires and coils and multicolored plates appeared from nothingness beside him.
“Yes?” a toneless voice inquired. “Service needed?”
“I’m on my way to see Mr. Storku at your Department of State,” Mr. Mead explained, staring suspiciously at the largest coil nearest him. “And I’m having trouble walking on the sidewalk. I’m liable to fall and kill myself if it doesn’t stop moving under me.”
“Sorry, sir, but no one has fallen on a sidewalk for at least two hundred years, and that was a highly neurotic side-walk whose difficulties had unfortunately escaped our attention in the weekly psychological checkup. May I suggest you take a jumper? I’ll call one for you.”
“I don’t want to take a jumper. I want to walk. All you have to do is tell this damn sidewalk to relax and be quiet.”
“Sorry, sir,” the machine replied, “but the sidewalk has its job to do. Besides, Mr. Storku is not at his office. He is taking some spiritual exercise at either Shriek Field or Panic Stadium.”
“Oh, no,” Mr. Mead moaned. His worst fears had been realized. He didn’t want to go to those places again.
“Sorry, sir, but he is. Just a moment, while I check.” There were bright blue flashes amongst the coils. “Mr. Storku is doing a shriek today. He feels he has been over-aggressive recently. He invites you to join him.”
Mr. Mead considered. He was not the slightest bit interested in going to one of those places where sane people became madmen for a couple of hours; on the other hand, time was short, Winthrop was still stubborn.
“All right,” he said unhappily. “I’ll join him.”
“Shall I call a jumper, sir?”
The portly man stepped back. “No! I’ll I’ll walk.”
“Sorry, sir, but you would never get there before the shriek has begun.”
Sweetbottom’s vice-president in charge of public relations put the moist palms of his hands against his face and gently massged it, to calm himself. He must remember that this was no bellhop you could complain to the management about, no stupid policeman you could write to the newspapers about, no bungling secretary you could fire or nervous wife you could tell off—this was just a machine into whose circuits a given set of vocal reactions had been built. If he had art apoplectic fit in front of it, it would not be the slightest tat concerned: it would merely summon another machine, a medical one. All you could do was give it information or receive information from it.
“I don’t-like-jumpers,” he said between his teeth.
“Sorry, sir, but you expressed a desire to see Mr. Storku. If you are willing to wait until the shriek is over, there is no problem, except that you would be well advised to start for the Odor Festival on Venus where he is going next. If you wish to see him immediately, however, you must take a jumper. There are no other possibilities, sir, unless you feel that my memory circuits are inadequate or you’d like to add a new factor to the discussion.”
I’d like to add a— Oh, I give up.” Mr. Mead sagged where he stood. “Call a jumper, call a jumper.”
“Yes, sir. Here you are, sir.” The empty cylinder that suddenly materialized immediately over Mr. Mead’s head caused him to start, but while he was opening his mouth to say, “Hey! I changed—” it slid down over him.
There was darkness. He felt as if his stomach were being gently but insistently pulled out through his mouth. His liver, spleen and lungs seemed to follow suit. Then the bones of his body all fell inward to the center of his now-empty abdomen and dwindled in size until they disappeared. He collapsed upon himself.
Suddenly he was whole and solid again, and standing in a large; green meadow, with dozens of people around him. His stomach returned to its proper place and squirmed back into position. “—anged my mind. I’ll walk after all,” he said, and threw up.
Storku, a tall, genial, yellow-haired young man, was standing in front of him when the spasms had subsided and the tears ceased to leak from his eyes. “It’s such a simple thing really, Mr.Mead. Just a matter of being intently placid during the jump.
“Easy—easy to say,” Mr. Mead gasped, wiping his mouth with his handkerchief. What was the reason Storku always exuded such patronizing contempt toward him? “Why don’t you people—why don’t you people find another way to travel? In my time, comfort in transportation is the keystone, the very keystone of the industry. Any busline, any airline, which doesn’t see to it that their passengers enjoy the maximum comfort en route to their destination is out of business before you can bat an eye. Either that, or they have a new board of directors.”
“Isn’t he intriguing?” a girl near him commented to her escort. “He talks just like one of those historical romances.”
Mr. Mead glanced at her sourly. He gulped. She was nude. For that matter, so was everyone else around him, including Mr. Storku. Who knew what went on at these Shriek Field affairs, he wondered nervously? After all, he had only seen them before from a distance in the grandstand. And now he was right in the middle of these deliberate lunatics.
“Surely you’re being a bit unjust,” Mr. Storku suggested. “After all, if an Elizabethan or a man from the Classic Greek period were to go for a ride in one of your homeless carriages or iron horses—to use your vernacular—he would be extremely uncomfortable and exhibit much more physical strain than you have. It’s purely a matter of adjustment to the unfamiliar. Some adjust, like your contemporary, Winthrop; some don’t, like yourself.”
“Speaking of Winthrop—” Mr. Mead began hurriedly, glad both of the opening and the chance to change the subject.
“Everybody here?” An athletic young man inquired as he bounded up. “I’m your leader for this Shriek. On your feet, everybody, come on, let’s get those kinks out of our muscles. We’re going to have a real fine shriek.”
“Take your clothes off,” the government man told Mr. Mead. “You can’t run a shriek dressed. Especially dressed like that.”
Mr. Mead shrank back. “I’m not going to— I just came here to talk to you. I’ll watch.”
A rich, roaring laugh. “You can’t watch from the middle of Shriek Field! And besides, the moment you joined us, you were automatically registered for the shriek. If you withdraw now, you’ll throw everything off.”
Storku nodded. “Of course. A different quantity of stimuli has to be applied to any different quantity of people, if you want to develop the desired shriek-intensity in each one of them. Take your clothes off, man, and get into the thing. A little exercise of this sort will tone up your psyche magnificently.”
Mr. Mead thought it over, then began to undress. He was embarrassed, miserable and more than a little frightened at the prospect, but he had an urgent job of public relations to do on the yellow-haired young man.
In his time, he had gurgled pleasurably over rope-like cigars given him by politicians, gotten drunk in incredible little stinking bars with important newspapermen and suffered the slings and the arrows of outrageous television quiz shows—all in the interests of Sweetbottom Septic Tanks, Inc. The motto of the Public Relations Man was strictly When in Rome …
And obviously the crowd he had made this trip with from 1958 was composed of barely-employables and bunglers. They’d never get themselves and him back to their own time, back to a world where there was a supply-and-demand distributive system that made sense instead of something that seemed absolutely unholy in the few areas where it was visible and understandable. A world where an important business executive was treated like somebody instead of like a willful two-year-old. A world where inanimate objects stayed inanimate, where the walls didn’t ripple around you, the furniture didn’t adjust constantly under you, where the very clothes on a person’s back didn’t change from moment to moment as if it were being revolved in a kaleidoscope.
No, it was up to him to get everybody back to that world, and his only channel of effective operation lay through Storku. Therefore, Storku had to be placated and made to feel that Oliver T. Mead was one of the boys.
Besides, it occurred to him as he began slipping out of his clothes, some of these girls looked real cute. They reminded him of the Septic Tank Convention at Des Moines back in July. If only they didn’t shave their heads!
“All together, now,” the shriek leader sang out. “Let’s hunch up. All together in a tight little group, all bunched up and milling around.”
Mr. Mead was pushed and jostled into the crowd. It surged forward, back, right, left, being maneuvered into a smaller and smaller group under the instructions and shoving of the Shriek leader. Music sprang up around them, more noise than music, actually, since it had no discernible harmonic relationships, and grew louder and louder until it was almost deafening.
Someone striving for balance in the mass of naked bodies hit Mr. Mead in the stomach with an outflung arm. He said “Oof!” and then “Oof!” again as someone behind him tripped and piled into his back. “Watch out!” a girl near him moaned as he trod on her foot. “Sorry,” he told her, “I just couldn’t—” and then an elbow hit him in the eye and he went tottering away a few steps, until, the group changing its direction again, he was pushed forward.
Round and round he went on the grass, being pushed and pushing, the horrible noise almost tearing his eardrums apart. From what seemed a greater and greater distance he could hear the shriek leader chanting: “Come on, this way, hurry up! No, that way, around that tree. Back into the bunch, you: everybody together. Stay together. Now, backwards, that’s right, backwards. Faster, faster. ”
They went backwards, a great mass of people pushing on Mead, jamming him into the great mass of people immediately behind him. Then, abruptly, they went forwards again, a dozen little cross-currents of humanity at work against each other in the crowd, so that as well as moving forward, he was also being hurled a few feet to the right and then turned around and being sucked back diagonally to his left. Once or twice, he was shot to the outskirts of the group, but, much to his surprise when be considered it later, all he did was claw his way back into the jam-packed surging middle.
It was as if he belonged nowhere else by this time, but in this mob of hurrying madmen. A shaved female head crashing into his chest as the only hint that the group had changed its direction was what he had come to expect. He threw himself backwards and disregarded the grunts and yelps he helped create. He was part of this—this—whatever it was. He was hysterical, bruised and slippery with sweat, but he no longer thought about anything but staying on his feet in the mob.
He was part of it, and that was all he knew.
Suddenly, somewhere outside the maelstrom of running, jostling naked bodies, there was a yell. It was a long yell, in a powerful male voice, and it went on and on, almost drowning out the noise-music. A woman in front of Mr. Mead picked it up in a head-rattling scream. The man who had been yelling stopped, and, after a while, so did the woman.
Then Mr. Mead heard the yell again, beard the woman join in, and was not even remotely surprised to bear his own voice add to the din. He threw all the frustration of the past two weeks into that yell, all the pounding, shoving and bruises of the past few minutes, all the frustrations and hatreds of his lifetime. Again and again the yell started up, and each time Mr. Mead joined it. All around him others were joining it, too, until at last there was a steady, unanimous shriek from the tight mob that slipped and fell and chased itself all over the enormous meadow. Mr. Mead, in the back of his mind, experienced a child-like satisfaction in getting on to the rhythm they were working out—and in being part of working it out.
It went pulse-beat, pulse-beat, shriek-k-k-k, pulse-beat, pulse-beat, shriek-k-k-k, pulse-beat, pulse-beat, shriek-k-k-k.
All together. All around him, all together. It was good!
He was never able to figure out later how long they had been running and yelling, when he noticed that he was no longer in the middle of a tight group. They had thinned out somehow and were spread out over the meadow in a long, wavering, yelling line.
He felt a little confused. Without losing a beat in the shriekrhythm, he made an effort to get closer to a man and woman on his right.
The yells stopped abruptly. The noise-music stopped abruptly. He stared straight ahead where everybody else was staring. He saw it.
A brown, furry animal about the size of a sheep. It had turned its head and thrown one obviously startled, obviously frightened look at them, then it had bent its legs and begun running madly away across the meadow.
“Let’s get it!” the shriek leader’s voice sounded from what seemed all about them. “Let’s get it! All of us, together! Let’s get it!”
Somebody moved forward, and Mr. Mead followed. The shriek started again, a continuous, unceasing shriek, and he twined in. Then he was running across the meadow after the furry brown animal, screaming his head off, dimly and proudly conscious of fellow human beings doing the same on both sides of him.
Let’s get it! his mind howled. Let’s get it, let’s get it!
Almost caught up with, the animal doubled on its tracks abruptly, and dodged back through the line of people. Mr. Mead flung himself at it and made a grab. He got a handful of fur and fell painfully to his knees as the animal galloped away.
He was on his feet without abating a single note of the shriek, and after it in a moment. Everyone else had turned around and was running with him.
Let’s get it! Let’s get it! Let’s get it!
Back and forth across the meadow, the animal ran and they pursued. It dodged and twisted and jerked itself free from converging groups.
Mr. Mead ran with them, ran in the very forefront. Shriek-ing.
No matter how the furry brown animal turned, they turned too. They kept getting closer and closer to it.
Finally, they caught it.
The entire mob trapped it in a great, uneven circle and closed in. Mr. Mead was the first one to reach it. He smashed his fist into it and knocked it down with a single blow. A girl leaped onto the prostrate figure, her face contorted, and began tearing at it with her fingernails. Just before everyone piled on, Mr. Mead managed to close his hand on a furry brown leg. He gave the leg a tremendous yank and it came off in his band. He was remotely astonished at the loose wires and gear mechanisms that trailed out of the torn-off leg.
“We got it!” he mumbled, staring at the leg. We got it, his mind danced madly. We got it, we got it!
He was suddenly very tired, almost faint. He dragged himself away from the crowd and sat down heavily on the grass. He continued to stare at the loose wires that came out of the leg.
Mr. Storku came up to him, breathing hard. “Well,” said Mr. Storku. “Did you have a nice shriek?”
Mr. Mead held up the furry brown leg. “We got it,” he said bewilderedly.
The yellow-haired young man laughed. “You need a good shower and a good sedative. Come on.” He helped Mr. Mead to his feet and, holding on to his arm, crossed the meadow to a dilated yellow square under the grandstand. All around them the other participants in the shriek chattered gaily to each other as they cleansed themselves and readjusted their metabolism.
After his turn inside one of the many booths which filled the interior of the grandstand, Mr. Mead felt more like himself. Which was not to say he felt better.
Something had come out of him in those last few moments as he tore at the mechanical quarry, something he wished infinitely had stayed at the dank bottom of his soul. He’d rather never have known it existed.
He felt vaguely, dismally, like a man who, flipping the pages of a textbook of sexual aberrations, comes upon a particularly ugly case history which parallels his life history in every respect, and understands—in a single, horrified flash—exactly what all those seemingly innocent quirks and nuances of his personality mean.
He tried to remind himself that be was still Oliver T. Mead, a good husband and father, a respected business executive, a substantial pillar of the community and the local church—but it was no good. Now, and for the rest of his life, he was also … this other thing.
He had to get into some clothes. Fast.
Mr. Storku nodded when the driving need was explained. “You probably had a lot saved up. About time you began discharging it. I wouldn’t worry: you’re as sane as anyone in your period. But your clothes have been cleaned off the field along with all the rubbish of our shriek; the officials are already preparing for the next one.”
“What do I do?” Mr. Mead wailed. “I can’t go home like this.”
“No?” the government man inquired with a good deal of curiosity. “You really can’t? Hm, fascinating! Well, just step under that outfitter there. I suppose you’d like twentieth century costume?”
Mr. Mead nodded and placed himself doubtfully under the indicated mechanism as a newly-clad citizen of the twenty-fifth century America walked away from it briskly. “Ye-es. Please make it something sane, something I can wear.”
He watched as his host adjusted some dials rapidly. There WAS a slight hum from the machine overhead: a complete let of formal, black-and-white evening wear sprang into being on the stout man’s body. In a moment, it had changed into another outfit: the shoes grew upwards and became hip-length rubber hoots, the dinner jacket lengthened itself into sou’wester. Mr. Mead was perfectly dressed for the bridge of any whaling ship.
“Slop it!” he begged distractedly as the raincoat began showing distinctive sports shirt symptoms. “Keep it down to one thing.”
You could do it yourself,” Mr. Storku pointed out, “if your subconscious didn’t heave about so much.” Nonetheless, he good-naturedly poked at the machine again, and and Mr Mead’s clothes subsided into the tweed jacket and golf knickers that had been so popular in the 1920’s. They held last at that.
“I -I guess so.” Mr. Mead frowned as he looked down at himself. It certainly was a queer outfit for the vice-president of Sweetbottom Septic Tanks, Inc., to return to his own time in, but at least it was one outfit. And as soon as he got home—
“Now, look here, Storku,” he said, rubbing his hands together briskly and putting aside the recent obscene memories of himself with as much determination as he could call up. “We’re having trouble with this Winthrop fella. He won’t go hack with us.”
They walked outside and paused on the edge of the meadow. In the distance, a new shriek was being organized.
“That so?” Mr. Storku asked with no very great interest. He pointed at the ragged mob of nude figures just beginning to jostle each other into a tight bunch. “You know, two or three more sessions out there and your psyche would be in fine shape. Although, from the looks of you, I’d say Panic Stadium would be even better. Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you go right over to Panic Stadium? One first-rate, screaming, headlong panic and you’d be absolutely—”
“Thank you, but no! I’ve had enough of this, quite enough, already. My psyche is my own affair.”
The yellow-haired young man nodded seriously. “Of course. The adult individual’s psyche is under no other jurisdiction than that of the adult individual concerned.—The Covenant of 2314, adopted by unanimous consent of the entire population of the United States of America. Later, of course, broadened by the international plebiscite of 2337 to include the entire world. But I was just making a personal, friendly suggestion.”
Mr. Mead forced himself to smile. He was distressed to find that when he smiled, the lapels of his jacket stood up and caressed the sides of his chin affectionately. “No offense, no offense. As I’ve said, it’s just that I’ve had all I want of this nonsense. But what are you going to do about a Winthrop?”
“Do? Why nothing, of course. What can we do?”
“You can force him to go back! You represent the government, don’t you? The government invited us here, the government is responsible for our safety.”
Mr. Storku looked puzzled. “Aren’t you safe?”
“You know what I mean, Storku. Our safe return. The government is responsible for it.”
“Not if that responsibility is extended to interference with the desires and activities of an adult individual. I just quoted the Covenant of 2314 to you, my friend. The whole philosophy of government derived from that covenant is based on the creation and maintenance of the individual’s perfect sovereignty over himself. Force may never be applied to a mature citizen and even official persuasion may be resorted to only in certain rare and carefully specified instances. This is certainly not one of them. By the time a child has gone through our educational system, he or she is a well-balanced member of society who can be trusted to do whatever is socially necessary. From that point on, government ceases to take an active role in the individual’s life.”
“Yeah, a real neon lit utopia,” Mr. Mead sneered. “No cops to safeguard life and property, to ask direction of even—Oh, well, it’s your world and you’re welcome to it. But that’s not the point. Don’t you see—I’m certain you can see, if you just put your mind to it—that Winthrop isn’t a citizen of your world, Storku? He didn’t go through your educational system, he didn’t have these psychological things, these readjustment courses, every couple of years, he didn’t—”
“But he came here as our invited guest,” Mr. Storku pointed out. “And, as such, he’s entitled to the full protection of our laws.”
“And we aren’t, I suppose,” Mr. Mead shouted. “He can do whatever he wants to us and get away with it. Do you call that law? Do you call that justice? I don’t. I call it bureaucracy, that’s what I call it. Red-tape and bureaucracy, that’s all it is!”
The yellow-haired young man put his hand on Mr. Mead’s shoulder. “Listen, my friend,” he said gently, “and try to understand. If Winthrop tried to do anything to you, it would be stopped. Not by interfering with Winthrop directly, but by removing you from his neighborhood. In order for us to take even such limited action, he’d have to do. That would be commission of an act interfering with your rights as an individual: what Winthrop is accused of, however, is omission of an act. He refuses to go back with you. Well, now. He has a right to refuse to do anything with his own body and mind. The Covenant of 2314 covers that area in so many words. Would you like me to quote the relevant passage to you?”
No, I would not like you to quote the relevant passage lo me. So you’re trying to say that nobody can do anything, is that it? Winthrop can keep all of us from getting back to our own time, but you can’t do anything about it and we can’t do anything about it. One hell of a note.”
An interesting phrase, that,” Mr. Storku commented. “If only there had only been an etymologist or linguist in your group, I would be interested in discussing it with him. However, your conclusion, at least in regard to this particular situation, is substantially correct. There is only one thing you can do: you can try to persuade Winthrop. Up to the last moment the scheduled transfer, that, of course, always exists as a possible solution.”
Mr. Mead brushed down his overly emotional jacket lapels. “And if we don’t, we’re out of luck? We can’t take him by the scruff of the neck and—and—”
“I’m afraid you can’t. A government machine or manufactured government official would appear on the scene and liberate him. Without any damage to your persons, you understand.”
“Sure. No damage,” Mr. Mead brooded. “Just leaving us stuck in this asylum for the rest of our lives, no ifs, no ands, no buts.”
Mr. Storku looked hurt. “Oh, come now, my friend: I’m certain it’s not that bad! It may be very different from your own culture in many ways, it may be uncomfortably alien in its artifacts and underlying philosophy, but surely, surely, there are compensations. For the loss of the old in terms of family, associates and experiences, there must be a gain in the new and exciting. Your Winthrop has found it so—he’s at Panic Stadium or Shriek Field almost every day, I’ve run into him at seminars and salons at least three times in the past ten days, and I hear from the Bureau of Home Appliances of the Department of Internal Economics that he’s a steady, enthusiastic and thoroughly dedicated consumer. What he can bring himself to do—”
“Sure he gets all those gadgets,” Mr. Mead sneered. “He doesn’t have to pay for them. A lazy relief jack like him couldn’t ask for anything better. What a world—gahhh!”
“My only point,” Mr. Storku continued equably, “is that being, well, ‘stuck in this asylum,’ as you rather vividly picture it, has its positive aspects. And since there seems to be a distinct possibility of this, it would seem logical for you people to begin investigating these positive aspects somewhat more wholeheartedly than you have instead of retreating to the security of each other’s company and such twentieth-century anachronisms as you are able to recreate.”
“We have—all we want to. What we want now, all of us, is to go home and to keep on living the lives we were born into. So what it comes down to is that nobody and nothing can help us with Winthrop, eh?”
Mr. Storku called for a jumper and held up a hand to arrest the huge cylinder in the air as soon as it appeared. “Well, now. That’s rather a broad statement. I wouldn’t quite want to go as far as that without conducting a thorough personal investigation of the matter. It’s entirely possible that someone, something, in the universe could help you if the problem were brought to its attention and if it were sufficiently interested. It’s rather a large, well-populated universe, you know. All I can say definitely is that the Department of State can’t help you.”
Mr. Mead pushed his fingernails deep into his palms and ground his teeth together until he felt the top enamel coming off in flakes and grit. “You couldn’t possibly,” he asked at last, very, very slowly, “be just a little more specific in telling us where to go for help, next? We have less than two hours left—and we won’t be able to cover very much of the galaxy in that time.”
“A good point,” Mr. Storku said approvingly. “A very well-taken point. I’m glad to see that you have calmed down and are at last thinking clearly and resourcefully. Now, who —in this immediate neighborhood—might be able to work out the solution of an insoluble problem? Well, first there’s the Temporal Embassy which handled the exchange and brought you people here in the first place. They have all kinds of connections, the Temporal Embassy people do; they can, if they feel like it, tap the total ingenuity of the human race for the next five thousand years. The trouble is, they take too much of the long view for my taste. Then there are the Oracle Machines which will give you the answer to any question that can be answered. The problem there, of course, is interpreting the answer correctly. Then, on Pluto, there’s a convention this week of vector psychologists. If anyone could figure out a way of persuading Winthrop to change his mind, they can. Unfortunately, the dominant field of interest in vector psychology at the moment is foetal education: I’m afraid they’d find your Winthrop far too mature a specimen. Then, out around Rigel, there’s a race of remarkably prescient fungi whom I can recommend out of my own personal experience. They have a most unbelievable talent for—”
The portly man waggled a frantic hand at him. “That’s enough! That’s enough to go on for a while! We only have two hours—remember?”
“I certainly do. And since it’s very unlikely that you can do anything about it in so short a time, may I suggest that you drop the whole matter and take this jumper with me to Venus? There won’t he another Odor Festival there for sixty-six years: it’s an experience, my friend, that should just not he missed. Venus always does these things right: the greatest odor-emitters in the universe will be there. And I’ll be very happy to explain all the fine points to you. Coming?”
Mr. Mead dodged out of the way of the jumper which Mr. Storku was gesturing down invitingly. “No, thank you! Why is it,” he complained when he had retreated to a safe distance, “that you people are always taking vacations, you’re always going off somewhere to relax and enjoy yourselves? How the hell does any work ever get done in this world?”
“Oh, it gets done,” the yellow-haired young man laughed as the cylinder began to slide down over him. “Whenever there’s a piece of work that only a human being can do, one us—the nearest responsible individual with the applicable training—takes care of it. But our personality goals are different from yours. In the words of the proverb: All play and no work makes Jack a dull boy.”
And he was gone.
So Mr. Mead went back to Mrs. Brucks’ room and told the others that the Department of State, as personified by Mr. Storku, couldn’t help them with Winthrop’s stubbornness.
Mary Ann Carthington tightened the curl of her blonde hair with a business-like forefinger while she considered the matter. “You told him all that you told us, and he still wouldn’t do anything, Mr. Mead? Are you sure he knows who you are?”
Mr. Mead didn’t bother to answer her. He had other things on his mind. Not only was his spirit badly bruised and scratched by his recent experiences, but his golf knickers had just woken into sentiency. And whereas the jacket merely had attempted to express its great affection for his person by trying to cuddle under his chin, the knickers went in more for a kind of patrolling action. Up and down on his thighs they rippled; back and forth across his buttocks they marched. Only by concentrating hard and pressing them tight against his body with his hands was he able to keep away the feeling of having been swallowed by an anaconda.
“Sure he knows who he is,” Dave Pollock told her. “Ollie waved his vice-presidency in his face, but Storku heard that Sweetbottom Septic Tanks Preferred fell to the bottom of the stock market just 481 years ago today, so he wasn’t having any. Hey, Ollie?”
“I don’t think that’s funny, Dave Pollock,” Mary Ann Carthington said and shook her head at him once in a “so, there!” manner. She knew that old beanpole of a school-teacher was just jealous of Mr. Mead, but she wasn’t sure whether it was because he didn’t make as much money or because he wasn’t nearly as distinguished-looking. The only thing, if a big executive like Mr. Mead couldn’t get them out of this jam, then nobody could. And that would be awful, positively and absolutely awful.
She would never get back to Edgar Rapp. And while Edgar might not be everything a girl like Mary Ann wanted, she was quite willing to settle for him at this point. He worked hard and made a good living. His compliments were pale, pedestrian things, true, but at least he could be counted on not to say anything that tore a person into little, worthless bits right before their very eyes. Not like somebody she knew. And the sooner she could leave the twenty-fifth century and be forever away from that somebody, the better.
“Now, Mr. Mead,” she cooed insistently. “I’m sure he told you something we could do. He didn’t just tell you to give up hope completely and absolutely, did he?”
The executive caught the strap end of his knickers as it came unbuckled and started rolling exultantly up his leg. He glared at her out of eyes that had seen just too damn much, that felt things had gone just too damn far.
“He told me something we could do,” he said with careful viciousness. “He said the Temporal Embassy could help us, if we only had the right kind of pull there. All we need is somebody with pull in the Temporal Embassy.”
Mary Ann Carthington almost bit the end off the lipstick she was applying at that moment. Without looking up, she knew that Mrs. Brucks and Dave Pollock had both turned to stare at her. And she knew, deep down to the bottom of her dismayed intestines, just exactly what they were thinking.
“Well, I certainly don’t—”
“Now, don’t be modest, Mary Ann,” Dave Pollock interrupted. “This is your big chance—and right now it looks like our only chance. We’ve got about an hour and a half left. Get yourself into a jumper, skedaddle out there, and girlie, turn on the charm!”
Mrs. Brucks sat down beside her and gave her shoulders the benefit of a heavy maternal arm. “Listen, Miss Carthington, sometimes we have to do things, is not so easy. But what else? Stuck here is better? That you like? So—” she spread her hands—“a touch here with the powder puff, a touch there with the lipstick, a this, a that, and, believe me, he won’t know what to do first for you. Crazy about you he is already—you mean to say a little favor he wouldn’t do, if you asked him?” She shrugged her massive contempt for such a sleeveless thought.
“You really think so? Well—maybe—” The girl began a preen that started at her delicately firm bottom and ended in a couple of self-satisfied wriggles somewhere around her chest.
“No maybes,” Mrs. Brucks informed her after considering the matter with great care. “A sure, yes. A certainly, yes. But maybes, no. A pretty girl like you, a man like him, nothing to maybe about. It’s the way, let me tell you, Miss Carthington, it’s always the way. What a man like Mr. Mead can’t accomplish, a woman has to do all the time. And a pretty girl like you can do it without lifting her little finger.”
Mary Ann Carthington gave a nod of agreement to this rather female view of history and stood up with determination. Dave Pollock immediately called for a jumper. She stepped back as the great cylinder materialized in the room.
“Do I have to?” she asked, biting her lip. “Those awful things, they’re so upsetting.”
He took her arm and began working her under the jumper with a series of gentle, urging tugs. “You can’t walk: we don’t have the time anymore. Believe me, Mary Ann, this is D-day and it-hour. So be a good girl and get under there and— Hey, listen. A good angle with the temporal supervisor might be about how his people will be stuck in our period if Winthrop goes on being stubborn. If anyone around here is responsible for them, he is. So, as soon as you get there—”
“I don’t need you to tell me how to handle the temporal supervisor, Dave Pollock!” she said haughtily, flouncing under the jumper. “After all, he happens to be a friend of mine, not of yours—a very good friend of mine!”
“Sure,” Pollock groaned, “but you still have to convince the man. And all I’m suggesting—” He broke off as the cylinder slid the final distance down to the floor and disappeared with the girl inside.
He turned back to the others who had been watching anxiously. “Well, that’s it,” he announced, flapping his arms with a broad, hopeless gesture. “That’s our very last hope. A Mary Ann!”
Mary Ann Carthington felt exactly like a Last Hope as she materialized in the Temporal Embassy.
She fought down the swimming nausea which always seemed to accompany jumper transportation and, shaking her head rapidly, managed to draw a deep breath.
As a means of getting places, the jumper certainly beat Edgar Rapp’s gurgling old Buick—if only it didn’t make you feel like a chocolate malted. That was the trouble with this time: every halfway nice thing in it had such unpleasant aftereffects!
The ceiling undulated over her head in the great rotunda where she was now standing and bulged a huge purplish lump down at her. It still looked, she decided nervously, like a movie house chandelier about to fall.
“Yes?” inquired the purplish lump politely. “Whom did you wish to see?”
She licked at her lipstick, then squared her shoulders. She’d been through all this before. You had to carry these things off with a certain amount of poise: it just did not do to show nervousness before a ceiling.
“I came to see Gygyo—I mean, is Mr. Gygyo Rablin in?”
“Mr. Rablin is not at size at the moment. He will return in fifteen minutes. Would you like to wait in his office? He has another visitor there.”
Mary Ann Carthington thought swiftly. She didn’t entirely like the idea of another visitor, but maybe it would be for the best. The presence of a third party would be a restraining influence for both of them and would take a little of the inevitable edge off her coming back to Gygyo as a suppliant after what had happened between them.
But what was this about his not being “at size”? These twenty-fifth century people did so many positively weird things with themselves… .
“Yes, I’ll wait in his office,” she told the ceiling. “Oh, you needn’t bother,” she said to the floor as it began to ripple under her feet. “I know the way.”
“No bother at all, Miss,” the floor replied cheerfully and continued to carry her across the rotunda to Rablin’s private office. “It’s a pleasure.”
Mary Ann sighed and shook her head. Some of these houses were so opinionated! She relaxed and let herself be carried along, taking out her compact on the way for a last quick check of her hair and face.
But the glance at herself in the mirror evoked the memory again. She flushed and almost called for a jumper to take her hack to Mrs. Brucks’ room. No, she couldn’t—this was their last chance to get out of this world and back to their own. But damn Gygyo Rablin, anyway—damn and damn him!
A yellow square in the wall having dilated sufficiently, the floor carried her into Rablin’s private office and subsided to flatness again. She looked around, nodding slightly at the familiar surroundings.
There was Gygyo’s desk, if you could call that odd, purring thing a desk. There was that peculiar squirmy couch that—
She caught her breath. A young woman was lying on the couch, one of those horrible bald-headed women that they had here.
“Excuse me,” Mary Ann said in one fast breath. “I had no idea—I didn’t mean to—”
“That’s perfectly all right,” the young woman said, still staring up at the ceiling. “You’re not intruding. I just dropped in on Gygyo myself. Have a seat.”
As if taking a pointed hint, the floor shot up a section of Itself under Mary Ann’s bottom and, when she was securely cradled in it, lowered itself slowly to sitting height.
“You must be that twentieth century—” the young woman paused, then amended rapidly: “the visitor whom Gygyo has been seeing lately. My name’s Flureet. I’m just an old childhood friend—’way back from Responsibility Group Three.”
Mary Ann nodded primly. “How nice, I’m sure. My name is Mary Ann Carthington. And really, if in any way I’m—I mean I just dropped in to—”
“I told you it’s all right. Gygyo and I don’t mean a thing to each other. This Temporal Embassy work has kind of dulled his taste for the everyday female: they’ve either got to be stavisms or precursors. Some kind of anachronism, anyway. And I’m awaiting transformation—major transformation—so you couldn’t expect very strong feelings from my side right now. Satisfied? I hope so. Hello to you, Mary Ann.”
Flureet flexed her arm at the elbow several times in what Mary Ann recognized disdainfully as the standard greeting gesture. Such women! It made them look like a man showing off his muscle. And not so much as a polite glance in the direction of a guest!
“The ceiling said,” she began uncertainly, “that Gyg—Mr. Rablin isn’t at size at the moment. Is that like what we call not being at home?”
The bald girl nodded. “In a sense. He’s in this room, but he’s hardly large enough to talk to. Gygy’s size right now is —let me think, what did he say he was setting it for?—Oh, yes, 35 microns. He’s inside a drop of water in the field of that microscope to your left.”
Mary Ann swung around and considered the spherical black object resting on a table against the wall. Outside of the two eyepieces set flush with the surface, it had little in common with pictures of microscopes she had seen in magazines.
“In—in there? What’s he doing in there?”
“He’s on a micro-hunt. You should know your Gygyo by now. An absolutely incurable romantic. Who goes on micro-hunts anymore? And in a culture of intestinal amebae, of all things. Killing the beasties by hand instead of by routine psycho or even chemo therapy appeals to his dashing soul. Grow up, Gygyo, I said to him: these games are for children and for Responsibility Group Four children at that. Well, that hurt his pride and he said he was going in with a fifteen-minute lock. A fifteen-minute lock! When I heard that, I decided to come here and watch the battle, just in case.”
“Why—is a fifteen-minute lock dangerous?” Mary Ann asked. Her face was tightly set however; she was still thinking of that `you should know your Gygyo’ remark. That was another thing about this world she didn’t like: with all their talk of privacy and the sacred rights of the individual, men like Gygyo didn’t think twice of telling the most intimate matters about people to—to other people.
“Figure it out for yourself. Gygyo’s set himself for 35 microns. 35 Microns is about twice the size of most of the intestinal parasites he’ll have to fight—amebae like Endolimax nano, lodamoeba butschlii and Dientamoeba fragilis. But suppose he runs into a crowd of Endamoeba coli, to say nothing of our tropical dysentery friend, Endamoeba hystolytica? What then?”
“What then?” the blonde girl echoed. She had not the slightest idea. One did not face problems like this is San Francisco.
“Trouble, that’s what. Serious trouble. The colii might be as large as he is, and hystolyticae run even bigger. 36, 37 microns, sometimes more. Now, the most important factor on a micro-hunt, as you know, is size. Especially if you’re fool enough to limit your arsenal to a sword and won’t be seen carrying an automatic weapon even as insurance. Well, under those circumstances, you lock yourself down to smallness, so that you can’t get out and nobody can take you out for a full fifteen minutes, and you’re just asking for trouble. And trouble is just what our boy is having!”
“He is? l mean, is it bad?”
Flureet gestured at the microscope. “Have a look. I’ve adjusted my retina to the magnification, but you people aren’t up to that yet, I believe. You need mechanical devices for everything. Go ahead, have a Iook. That’s Dietamoeba fragilis he’s fighting now. Small, but fast. And very, very vicious.”
Mary Ann hurried to the spherically shaped microscope and stared intently through the eyepieces.
There, in the very center of the field, was Gygyo. A transparent bubble helmet covered his head and he was wearing some sort of thick but flexible one-piece garment over the rest of his body. About a dozen amebae the size of dogs swarmed about him, reaching for his body with blunt, glassy pseudopods. He hacked away at them with a great, two-handed sword in tremendous sweeps that cut in two the most venturesome and persistent of the creatures. But Mary Ann could see from his frantic breathing that he was getting tired. Every once in a while he glanced rapidly over his left shoulder as if keeping watch on something in the distance.
“Where does he get air from?” she asked.
“The suit always contains enough oxygen for the duration of the lock,” Flureet’s voice explained behind her, somewhat surprised at the question. “He has about five minutes to go, and I think he’ll make it. I think he’ll be shaken up enough though, to— Did you see that?”
Mary Ann gasped. An elongated, spindle-shaped creature ending in a thrashing whip-like streak had just darted across the field, well over Gygyo’s head. It was about one and a half times his size. He had gone into a crouch as it passed and the amebae surrounding him had also leaped away. They were back at the attack in a moment, however, once the danger had passed. Very wearily now, he continued to chop at them.
“What was it.”
“A trypanosome. It went by too fast for me to identify it, but it looked like either Trypanosoma gambiense or rho-disiense—the African sleeping sickness protozoans. It was a bit too big to be either of them, now that I remember. It could have been— Oh, the fool, the fool!”
Mary Ann turned to her, genuinely frightened: “Why—what did he do?”
“He neglected to get a pure culture, that’s what he did. Taking on several different kinds of intestinal amebae is wild enough, but if there are trypanosomes in there with him, then there might be anything! And him down to 35 microns!”
Remembering the frightened glances that Gygyo had thrown over his shoulder, Mary Ann swung back to the microscope. The man was still fighting desperately, but the strokes of the sword came much more slowly. Suddenly, another ameba, different from those attacking Gygyo, swam leisurely into the field. It was almost transparent and about half his size.
’That’s a new one,” she told Flureet. “Is it dangerous?”
“No, lodamoeba butschlii is just a sluggish, friendly lump. But what in the world is Gygyo afraid of to his left? He keeps turning his head as if— Oh.”
The last exclamation came out almost as a simple comment, so completely was it weighted with despair. An oval monster—its length three times and its width fully twice Gygyo’s height—shot into the field from the left boundary as if making a stage entrance in reply to her question. The tiny, hair-like appendages with which it was covered seemed to give it fantastic speed.
Gygyo’s sword slashed at it, but it swerved aside and out of the field. It was back in a moment, coming down like a dive bomber. Gygyo leaped away, but one of the amebae which had been attacking him was a little too slow. It disappeared, struggling madly, down the funnel-shaped mouth which indented the forward end of the egg-shaped monster.
“Balantidium Coll,” Flureet explained before Mary Ann could force her trembling lips to frame the question. “100 microns long, 65 microns wide. Fast and deadly and terribly hungry. I was afraid he’d hit something like this sooner or later. Well, that’s the end of our micro-hunting friend. He’ll never be able to avoid it long enough to get out. And he can’t kill a bug that size.”
Mary Ann held quivering hands out to her. “Can’t you do something?”
The bald woman brought her eyes down from the ceiling at last. Making what seemed an intense effort, she focused them on the girl. They were lit with bright astonishment.
“What can I do? He’s locked inside that culture for another four minutes at least; an absolutely unbreakable lock. Do you expect me to—to go in there and rescue him?”
“If you can—of course!”
“But that would be interfering with his sovereign rights ns an individual! My dear girl! Even if his wish to destroy himself is unconscious, it is still a wish originating in an essential part of his personality and must be respected. The whole thing is covered by the subsidiary—rights covenant of—”
“How do you know he wants to destroy himself?” Mary Ann wept. “I never heard of such a thing! He’s supposed to be a—a friend of yours! Maybe he just accidentally got himself into more trouble than he expected, and he can’t get out. I’m positive that’s what happened. Oh—poor Gygyo, while we’re standing here talking, he’s getting killed!”
Flureet considered. “You may have something there. He is a romantic, and associating with you has given him all sorts of swaggering adventuresome notions. He’d never have done anything as risky as this before. But tell me: do you think it’s worth taking a chance of interfering with someone’s sovereign individual rights, just to save the life of an old and dear friend?”
“I don’t understand you,” Mary Ann said helplessly. “Of course! Why don’t you let me—just do whatever you have to and send me in there after him. Please!”
The other woman rose and shook her head. “No, I think I’d he more effective. I must say, this romanticism is catching. And,” she laughed to herself, “just a little intriguing. You people in the twentieth century led such lives!”
Before Mary Ann’s eyes, she shrank down rapidly. Just as she disappeared, there was a whispering movement, like a flame curving from a candle, and her body seemed to streak toward the microscope.
Gygyo was down on one knee, now, trying to present as small an area to the oval monster as possible. The amebea with which he had been surrounded had now either all fled or been swallowed. He was swinging the sword back and forth rapidly over his head as the Balantidium coil swooped down first on one side, then on the other, but he looked very tired. His lips were clenched together, his eyes squinted with desperation.
And then the huge creature came straight down, feinted with its body, and, as he lunged at it with the sword, swerved slightly and hit him from the rear. Gygyo fell, losing his weapon.
Hairy appendages churning, the monster spun around fluently so that its funnel-shaped mouth was in front, and came back rapidly for the kill.
An enormous hand, a hand the size of Gygyo’s whole body, swung into view and knocked it to one side. Gygyo I scrambled to his feet, regained the sword, and looked up unbelievingly. He exhaled with relief and then smiled. Flureet had evidently stopped her shrinkage at a size several times larger than a hundred microns. Her body was not visible in the field of the microscope to Mary Ann, but it was obviously far too visible to the Balantidium Coli which turned end over end and scudded away.
And for the remaining minutes of the lock, there was not a creature which seemed even vaguely inclined to wander into Gygyo’s neighborhood.
To Mary Ann’s astonishment, Flureet’s first words to Gygyo when they reappeared beside her at their full height were an apology: “I’m truly sorry, but your fire-eating friend here got me all excited about your safety, Gygyo. If you want to bring me up on charges of violating the Covenant and interfering with an individual’s carefully prepared plans for self-destruction—”
Gygyo waved her to silence. “Forget it. In the words of the poet: Covenant, Shmovenant. You saved my life, and, as far as I know, I wanted it saved. If I instituted proceedings against you for interfering with my unconscious, in all fairness we’d have to subpoena my conscious mind as a witness in your defense. The case could drag on for months, and I’m far too busy.”
The woman nodded. “You’re right. There’s nothing like a schizoid lawsuit when it comes to complications and verbal quibbling. But all the same I’m grateful to you—I didn’t have to go and save your life. I don’t know quite what got into me.”
“That’s what got into you,” Gygyo gestured at Mary Ann. “The century of regimentation, of total war, of massive eavesdropping. I know: it’s contagious.”
Mary Ann exploded. “Well, really! I never in my life—really I—I—I just can’t believe it! First, she doesn’t want to save your life, because it would be interfering with your unconscious—your unconscious! Then, when she finally does something about it, she apologizes to you—she apologizes! And you, instead of thanking her, you talk as if you’re excusing her for—for committing assault and battery! And then you start insulting me—and—and—”
“I’m sorry,” Gygyo said. “I didn’t intend to insult you, Mary Ann, neither you nor your century. After all, we must remember that it was the first century of modern times, it was the crisis-sickness from which recovery began. And it was in very many ways a truly great and adventuresome period, in which Man, for the last time, dared many things which he has never since attempted.”
“Well. In that case.” Mary Ann swallowed and began to feel better. And at that moment, she saw Gygyo and Flureet exchange the barest hint of a smile. She stopped feeling better. Damn these people! Who did they think they were?
Flureet moved to the yellow square exit. “I’ll have to be going,” she said. “I just stopped in to say good-bye before my transformation. Wish me luck, Gygyo.”
“Your transformation? So soon? Well, all the best of course. It’s been good knowing you, Flureet.”
When the woman had left, Mary Ann looked at Gygyo’s reply concerned face and asked hesitantly: “What does she mean—’transformation?’ And she said it was a major transormation. I haven’t heard of that so far.”
The dark-haired young man studied the wall for a moment. “I’d better not,” he said at last, mostly to himself. “That’s one of the concepts you’d find upsetting, like our active food for instance. And speaking of food—I’m hungry. Hungry, do you hear? Hungry!”
A section of the wall shook violently as his voice rose. It protruded an arm of itself at him. A tray was balanced on the end of the arm. Still standing, Gygyo began to eat from the tray.
He didn’t offer Mary Ann any, which, as far as she was concerned, was just as well. She had seen at a glance that it was the purple spaghetti-like stuff of which he was so terribly fund.
Maybe it tasted good. Maybe it didn’t. She’d never know. She only knew that she could never bring herself to eat anything which squirmed upwards toward one’s mouth and wriggled about cozily once it was inside.
That was another thing about this world. The things these people ate!
Gygyo glanced up and saw her face. “I wish you’d try it just once, Mary Ann,” he said wistfully. “It would add a whole new dimension to food for you. In addition to flavor, texture and aroma, you’d experience motility. Think of it: food not just lying there limp and lifeless in your mouth, but food expressing eloquently its desire to be eaten. Even your friend, Winthrop, culinary esthete that he is, admitted to me the other day that Centaurian libalilil has it all over his favorite food symphonies in many ways. You see, they’re mildly telephatic and can adjust their flavor to the dietary wishes of the person consuming them. That way, you get—”
“Thank you, but please! It makes me absolutely and completely sick even to think of it.”
“All right.” He finished eating, nodded at the wall. The wall withdrew the arm and sucked the tray back into itself. “I give up. All I wanted was to have you sample the stuff before you left. Just a taste.”
“Speaking of leaving, that’s what I came to see you about. We’re having trouble.”
“Oh, Mary Ann! I was hoping you’d come to see me for myself alone,” he said with a disconsolate droop of his head.
She couldn’t tell whether he was being funny or serious; she got angry as the easiest way of handling the situation. “See here, Gygyo Rablin, you are the very last man on Earth —past, present, or future—that I ever want to see again. And you know why! Any man who—who says things to a girl like you said to m-me, and at s-such a time… ”
Against her will, and to her extreme annoyance, her voice broke. Tears burst from her eyelids and itched their way down her face. She set her lips determinedly and tried to shake them away.
Gygyo looked really uncomfortable now. He sat down on a corner of the desk which squirmed under him more erratically than ever.
“I am sorry, Mary Ann. Truly, terribly, sincerely sorry. I should never have made love to you in the first place. Even without our substantial temporal and cultural differences, I’m certain that you know, as well as I do, we have precious little in common. But I found you—well, enormously attractive, overpoweringly attractive. I found you exciting like no woman in my own time, or any woman that I’ve ever encountered in a visit to the future. I just couldn’t resist the attraction. The one thing I didn’t anticipate was the depressing effect your peculiar cosmetics would have upon me. The actual tactile sensations were extremely upsetting.”
“That’s not what you said. And the way you said it! You rubbed your finger on my face and lips, and you went: ‘Greasy! Greasy!’ ” Thoroughly in control of herself now, she mimicked him viciously.
Gygyo shrugged. “I said I’m sorry, and I meant it. But, Mary Ann, if you only know how that stuff feels to a highly educated tactile sense! That smeary red lipstick—and oh that finely-grated nonsense on your cheeks! There’s no excuse for me, that I’ll grant, but I’m just trying to make you understand why I erupted so stupidly.”
“I suppose you think I’d be a lot nicer if I shaved my head like some of these women—like that horrible Flureet!”
He smiled and shook his head. “No, Mary Ann, you couldn’t be like them, and they couldn’t be like you. There are entirely different concepts of womanhood and beauty involved. In your period, the greatest emphasis is on a kind of physical similarity, the use of various artificial props which will make the woman most nearly approach a universally- agreed upon ideal, and an ideal which consists of such items as redness of lips, smoothness of complexion and specific bodily shape. Whereas we place the accent on difference, but most particularly on emotional difference. The more emotions a woman can exhibit, and the more complex they are —the more striking is she considered. That’s the point of the shaved heads: to show suddenly appearing subtle wrinkles that might be missed if the area were covered with hair. And that’s why we call Woman’s bald head her frowning glory.”
Mary Ann’s shoulders slumped and she stared down at the floor which started to raise a section of itself questioningly hut sank back down again as it realized that nothing was required of it. “I don’t understand, and I guess I won’t ever understand. All I know is that I just can’t stay in the same world with you, Gygyo Rablin—the very thought of it makes me feel kind of all wrong and sick inside.”
“I understand,” he nodded seriously. “And whatever comfort it may be—you have the same effect on me. I’d never have done anything as supremely idiotic as going on a locked micro-hunt in an impure culture before I met you. But those exciting stories of your adventuresome friend Edgar Rapp finally crept under my skin. I found I had to prove myself a man, in your terms, Mary Ann, in your terms!”
“Edgar Rapp?” she raised her eyes and looked at him incredulously. “Adventuresome? Exciting? Edgar? The only time he ever gets close to sport is when he sits on his behind all night playing poker with the boys in the payroll department!”
Gygyo rose and ambled about the room aimlessly, shaking his head. “The way you say it, the casual, half-contemptuous way you say it! The constant psychic risks run, the inevitably recurring clashes of personality—subliminal and overt—as hand after hand is played, as hour after hour goes by, with not two, not three, but as many as five, six or even seven different and highly aggressive human beings involved—The bluffs, the raises, the outwitting, the fantastic contest of it! And to you these things are almost nothing, they’re no more than what you’d expect of a masculine man! I couldn’t face. it; in fact, there is not a man in my entire world who’d be able to stand up to fifteen minutes of such complex psychological punishment.”
Her gaze was very soft and tender as she watched him knock unhappily about the room. “And that’s why you went into that awful microscope, Gygyo? To prove that you could be as good a man as Edgar is when he’s playing poker?”
“It’s not just the poker, Mary Ann. That’s hair-raising enough, I grant you. It’s so many things. Take this used car he has, that he drives you around in. Any man who’d drive one of those clumsy, unpredictable power-plants through the kind of traffic and the kind of accident statistics that your world boasts— And every day, as a matter of course: I knew the micro-hunt was a pathetic, artificial affair, but it was the only thing available to me that even came close!”
“You don’t have to prove anything to me, Gygyo.”
“Maybe I don’t,” he brooded. “But I had reached the point where I had to prove it to myself. Which is quite silly when you come to think of it, but that doesn’t make it any less real. And I proved something after all. That two people with entirely different standards for male and female, standards that have been postulated and recapitulated for them since infancy, don’t have a chance, no matter how attractive they find each other. I can’t live with my knowledge of your innate standards, and you—well, you certainly have found mine upsetting. We don’t mesh, we don’t resonate, we don’t go. As you said before, we shouldn’t be in the same world. That’s doubly true ever since—well, ever since we found out how strongly we tend to come together.”
Mary Ann nodded. “I know. The way you stopped making love to me, and—and said—that horrid word, the way you kind of shuddered when you wiped your lips—Gygyo, you looked at me as if I stank, as if I stank! It tore me absolutely and completely to bits. I knew right then I had to get out of your time and out of your universe forever: But with Winthrop acting the way he is—I don’t know what to do!”
“Tell me about it.” He seemed to make an effort to pull himself together as he sat beside her on a section of upraised floor.
By the time she had finished, his recovery was complete, the prodigious leveling effect of mutual emotional involvement was no longer operative. Dismayed, Mary Ann watched him becoming once more a highly urbane, extremely intelligent and slightly supercilious young man of the twenty-fifth century, and felt in her very bone marrow her own awkwardness increase, her garish, none-too-bright primitiveness come thickly to the surface.
“I can’t do a thing for you,” he said. “I wish I could.”
“Not even,” she asked desperately, “with the problems we have? Not even considering how terrible it’ll be if I stay here, if I don’t leave on time?”
“Not even considering all that. I doubt that I could make it dear to you, however much I tried, Mary Ann, but I can’t force Winthrop to go, I can’t in all conscience give you any advice on how to force him—and I can’t think of a thing that would make him change his mind. You see there’s a whole social fabric involved which is far more significant than our personal little agonies, however important they may to us. In my world, as Storku pointed out, one just doesn’t do such things. And that, my sweet, is that.”
Mary Ann sat back. She hadn’t needed the slightly mock-hauteur of Gygyo’s last words to tell her that he was completely in control of himself, that once more he looking upon her as an intriguing but—culturally speaking—extremely distant specimen.
She knew only too well what was happening: she’d been the other end of this kind of situation once or twice herself.
Just two months ago, a brilliantly smooth salesman, who handled the Nevada territory for her company, had taken her out on a date and almost swept her off her feet.
Just as she’d reached the point where the wine in her bran was filled with bubbles of starlight, she’d taken out a cigarette and dreamily, helplessly, asked him for a light. The salesman had clicked a lighter at her in an assured and lordly gesture, but the lighter had failed to work. He had cursed, clicked it futilely a few more times, then had begun picking at the mechanism madly with his fingernails. In the erect few moments as he continued to claw at the lighter, it had seemed to Mary Ann that the glossy surface of his personality developed an enormous fissure along its entire length and all the underlying desperation that was essentially him leaked out. He was no longer a glamorous, successful and warmly persuasive young man, but a pathetically driven creature who was overpoweringly uncertain, afraid that if one item in his carefully prepared presentation missed its place in the schedule, the sale would not take place.
And it didn’t. When he’d looked at her again, he saw the cool comprehension in her eyes; his lips sagged. And no matter how wittily he tried to recapture the situation, how cleverly he talked, how many oceans of sparkling urgency he washed over her, she was his master now. She had seen through his magic to the unhooded yellow light bulbs and the twisted, corroded wires which made it work. She remembered feeling somewhat sorry for him as she’d asked him to take her home—not sorry for someone with whom she’d almost fallen in love, but slight sorrow for a handicapped child (someone else’s handicapped child) who had tried to do something utterly beyond his powers.
Was that what Gygyo was feeling for her now? With brimming anger and despair, Mary Ann felt she had to reach him again, reach him very personally. She had to wipe that smile off his eyelids.
“Of course,” she said, selecting the first arrow that came to hand, “it won’t do you any good if Winthrop doesn’t go back with us.”
He looked at her questioningly. “Me?”
“Well, if Winthrop doesn’t go back, we’ll be stuck here. And if we’re stuck here, the people from your time who are visiting ours will be stuck in the twentieth century; You’re the temporal supervisor—you’re responsible, aren’t you? You might lose your job.”
“My dear little Mary Ann! I can’t lose my job. It’s mine till I don’t want it any more. Getting fired—what a concept! Next you’ll be telling me I’m liable to have my ears cropped!”
To her chagrin, he chuckled all over his shoulders. Well, at least she had put him in a good mood; no one could say that she hadn’t contributed to this hilarity. And My dear little Mary Ann. That stung!
“Don’t you even feel responsible? Don’t you feel anything?”
“Well, whatever I feel, it certainly isn’t responsible. The five people from this century who volunteered to make the trip back to yours were well-educated, extremely alert, highly responsible human beings. They knew they were running certain inevitable risks.”
She rose agitatedly. “But how were they to know that Winthrop was going to be stubborn? And how could we, Gygyo, how could we know that?”
“Even assuming that the possibility entered nobody’s mind,” he pointed out, tugging at her arm gently until she sat down beside him again, “one has to, in all reason, admit that transferring to a period five centuries distant from one’s own must be accompanied by certain dangers. Not being able to return is one of them. Then, one has to further admit that, this being so, one or more of the people making the transfer recognized this danger—at least unconsciously—and wished to subject themselves to its consequences. If this is at all the situation, interference would be a major crime, not only against Winthrop’s conscious desires, but against such people’s unconscious motivations as well—and both have almost equal weight in the ethics of our period. There! That’s about as simple as I can make it, Mary Ann. Do you understand, now?”
“A—a little,” she confessed. “You mean it’s like Flureet nut wanting to save you when you were almost being killed in that micro-hunt, because maybe, unconsciously, you wanted to get yourself killed?”
“Right! And believe me, Flureet wouldn’t have lifted a finger, old friend or no old friend, your romantic twentieth-century dither notwithstanding, if she hadn’t been on the verge of major transformation with the concurrent psychological remove from all normal standards and present-day human frames of reference.”
“What is this major transformation business?”
Gygyo shook his head emphatically. “Don’t ask me that. You wouldn’t understand it, you wouldn’t like it—and it’s not at all important for you to know. It’s a concept and a practice as peculiar to our time as, oh say, tabloid journalism and election night excitement is to yours. What you want to appreciate is this other thing—the way we protect and nurture the individual eccentric impulse, even if it should be suicidal. Let me put it this way. The French Revolution tried to sum itself up in the slogan, Liberty, Egalire, Fraternite; The American Revolution used the phrase, life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. We feel that the entire concept of our civilization is contained in these words: The Utter Sacredness of the Individual and the Individual Eccentric Impulse. The last part is the most important, because without it our society would have as much right to interfere with the individual as yours did; a man wouldn’t even have the elementary freedom of doing away with himself without getting the proper papers filled out by the proper government official. A person who wanted to—”
Mary Ann stood up with determination. “All right! I’m not the least little bit interested in this nonsense. You won’t help us in any way, you don’t care if we’re stuck here for the rest of our natural lives, and that’s that! I might as well go.”
In the name of the covenant, girl, what did you expect me to tell you? I’m no Oracle Machine. I’m just a man.”
“A man?” she cried scornfully. “A man? You call yourself a man? Why, a man would—a man would—a real man would just— Oh, let me get out of here!”
The dark-haired young man shrugged and rose too. He called for a jumper. When it materialized beside them, he gestured toward it courteously. Mary Ann started for it, paused, and held out a hand to him.
“Gygyo,” she said, “whether we stay or leave on time, I’m never going to see you again. I’ve made up my mind on that. But there’s one thing I want you to know.”
As if knowing what she was going to say, he had dropped his eyes. His head was bent over the hand he had taken.
Seeing this, Mary Ann’s voice grew gentler and more tender. “It’s just—just that—oh, Gygyo, it’s that you’re the only man I’ve ever loved. Ever really truly, absolutely and completely loved. I want you to know that, Gygyo.”
He didn’t reply. He was still holding her fingers tightly, and she couldn’t see his eyes.
“Gygyo,” she said her voice breaking. “Gygyo! You’re feeling the same, aren’t—”
At last Gygyo looked up. There was an expression of puzzlement on his face. He pointed to the fingers he had been holding. The nail of each one was colored with a bright; lacquer.
“Why in the world,” he asked, “do you limit it to the fingernail? Most primitive peoples who went in for this so of thing did it on other and larger parts of the body. On would expect that at least you would tattoo the whole hand — Mary Ann! Did I say anything wrong again?”
Sobbing bitterly, the girl darted past him and into the jumper. She went back to Mrs. Brucks’ room, and, when she had been calmed sufficiently, explained why Gygyo Rablin, the temporal supervisor, either could not or would not help them with Winthrop’s stubbornness.
Dave Pollock glared around the oval room. “So we give up? Is that what it comes down to? Not one person in all this brilliant, gimmicky, gadgety future will lift a finger to help us get back to our own time and our own families—and we can’t help ourselves. A brave new world, all right. Real achievement. Real progress.”
“I don’t see what call you have to shoot your mouth off, young man,” Mr. Mead muttered from where he was sitting at the far end of the room. Periodically, his necktie curled upwards and tried to nuzzle against his lips; wearily, petulantly, he slapped it down again. “At least we tried to do something about it. That’s more than you can say.”
“Ollie, old boy, you just tell me something I can do, and I’ll do it. I may not pay a whopping income tax, but I’ve been trained to use my mind. I’d like nothing better than to find out what a thoroughly rational approach to this problem could do for us. One thing I know: it can’t possible come up with less than all this hysteria and emotional hoop-la, this flag-waving and executive-type strutting have managed to date.”
“Listen, a difference it makes?” Mrs. Brucks held her wrist out and pointed to the tiny, gold-plated watch strapped around it. “Only forty-five minutes left before six o’clock, So what can we do in forty-five minutes? A miracle maybe we can manufacture on short notice? Magic we can turn out to order? Go fight City Hall. My Barney I know I won’t see again.”
The thin young man turned on her angrily. “I’m not talking of magic and miracles. I’m talking of logic. Logic and the proper evaluation of data. These people not only have a historical record available to them that extends back to and includes our own time, but they are in regular touch with the future—their future. That means there are also available to them historical records that extend back to and include their time.”
Mrs. Brucks cheered up perceptibly. She liked listening to education. She nodded. “So?”
“Isn’t it obvious? Those people who exchanged with us—our five opposite numbers—they must have known in advance that Winthrop was going to be stubborn. Historical records to that effect existed in the future. They wouldn’t have done it—it stands to reason they wouldn’t want to spend the rest of their lives in what is for them a pretty raw and uncivilized environment—unless they had known of a way out, a way that the situation could be handled. It’s up to us to find that way.”
“Maybe,” Mary Ann Carthington suggested, bravely biting the end off a sniffle, “Maybe the next future kept it a secret from them. Or maybe all five of them were suffering from what they call here a bad case of individual eccentric impulse.”
“That’s not how the concept of individual eccentric impulse works, Mary Ann,” Dave Pollock told her with a contemptuous grimace. “I don’t want to go into it now, but believe me, that’s not how it works! And I don’t think the temporal embassies keep this kind of secret from the people in the period to which they’re accredited. No, I tell you the solution is right here if we can only see it.”
Oliver T. Mead had been sitting with an intent expression on his face, as if he were trying to locate a fact hidden at the other end of a long tunnel of unhappiness. He straightened up suddenly and said: “Storku mentioned that! The Temporal Embassy. But he didn’t think it was a good idea to approach them—they were too involved with long-range historical problems to be of any use to us. But something else he said—something else we could do. What was it now?”
They all looked at him and waited anxiously while he thought. Dave Pollock had just begun a remark about “high surtax memories” when the rotund executive clapped his hands together resoundingly.
“I remember! The Oracle Machine! He said we could ask the Oracle Machine. We might have some difficulty interpreting the answer, according to him, but at this point that’s the least of our worries. We’re in a desperate emergency, and beggars can’t be choosers. If we get any kind of answer, any kind of an answer at all… ”
Mary Ann Carthington looked away from the tiny cosmetics laboratory she was using to repair the shiny damage caused by tears. “Now that you bring it up, Mr. Mead, the temporal supervisor made some such remark to me, too. About the Oracle Machine, I mean.”
“He did? Good! That firms it up nicely. We may still have a chance, ladies and gentlemen, we may still have a chance. Well then, as to who shall do it. I am certain I don’t have to draw a diagram when it comes to selecting the one of us most capable of dealing with a complex piece of futuristic machinery.”
They all stared at Dave Pollock who swallowed hard and inquired hoarsely, “You mean me?”
“Certainly I mean you, young man,” Mr. Mead said sternly. “You’re the long-haired scientific expert around here. You’re the chemistry and physics professor.”
“I’m a teacher, that’s all, a high-school science teacher. And you know how I feel about having anything to do with the Oracle Machine. Even the thought of getting close to i1 makes my stomach turn over. As far as I’m concerned it’s the one aspect of this civilization that’s most horrible, most decadent. Why, I’d rather—”
“My stomach didn’t turn over when I had to go in and have an argument with that crazy Mr. Winthrop?” Mrs. Brucks broke in. “Till then, out of this room I hadn’t taken a step, with all the everything I had positively nothing to do —you think I liked watching one minute a pair of rompers, the next minute, I don’t know what, an evening gown he starts wearing? And that crazy talk he talks—smell this from a Mars, taste this from a Venus—you think maybe, Mr. Pollock, I enjoyed myself? But somebody had to do, so I did. All we’re asking you is a try. A try you can make?”
“And I can assure you,” Mary Ann Carthington came on in swiftly, “that Gygyo Rablin is absolutely and completely the last person on Earth I would go to for a favor. It’s a personal matter, and I’d rather not discuss it now, if you don’t mind, but I would die, positively die, rather than go through that again. I did it though, because there was the teensiest chance it would help us all get home again. I don’t think we’re asking too much of you, I don’t think so one little bit.”
Mr. Mead nodded. “I agree with you, young lady. Storku is a man I haven’t seen eye to eye with since we’ve arrived, and I’ve gone out of my way to avoid him, but to have to get involved in that unholy Shriek Field madness in the bargain—” He brooded for a while over some indigestible mental fragment, then, as his cleated golf shoes began squirming lovingly, about on his feet, shook himself determinedly and went on: “It’s about time you stopped shooting off your mouth, Pollock, and got down to humdrum, specific brass tacks. Einstein’s theory of relativity isn’t going to get us back to good old 1958, and neither is your Ph.D. or M.A. or whatever. What we need now is action, action with a capi-tal A and no ifs, no ands, no buts.”
“All right, all right. I’ll do it.”
“And another thing.” Mr. Mead rolled a wicked little thought pleasurably to and fro in his mind for a moment or two before letting it out. “You take the jumper. You said yourself we don’t have the time to do any walking, and that’s doubly true right now, doubly true, when we’re right up against the dead, dead deadline. I don’t want to hear any whining and any whimpering about it making you sick. If Miss Carthington and I could take the jumper, so can you.”
In the midst of his misery, Dave Pollock rallied. “You think I won’t?” he asked scornfully. “I’ve done most of my traveling here by jumper. I’m not afraid of mechanical progress—just so long as it’s genuine progress. Of course I’ll take the jumper.”
He signaled for one with a microscopic return of his old swagger. When it appeared, he walked under it with squared shoulders. Let them all watch how a rational, scientifically-minded man goes about things, he thought. And anyway, using the jumper wasn’t nearly as upsetting to him as it seemed to be to the others. He could take jumpers in stride.
Which was infinitely more than he could say for the Oracle Machine.
For that reason, he had himself materialized outside the building which housed the machine. A bit of a walk and he might be able to get his thoughts in order.
The only trouble was, the sidewalk had other ideas. Silently, obsequiously; but nonetheless firmly, it began to move under his feet as he started walking around the squat, slightly quivering structure. It rippled him ahead at a pace somewhat faster than the one he set, changing direction as soon as he changed his.
Dave Pollock looked around at the empty streets and smiled with resignation. The sentient, eager-to-serve sidewalks didn’t bother him, either. He had expected something like that in the future, that and the enormously alert servitor houses, the clothes which changed their color and cut at the wearers’ caprice—all more or less, in one form or another, to be anticipated, by a knowledgeable man, of human progress. Even the developments in food—from the wrig-gling, telepathic, please-eat-me-and-enjoy-me stuff all the way up to the more complex culinery compositions on which an interstellarly famous chef might have worked for a year or more—was logical, if you considered how bizarre to an early American colonist, would be the fantastic, cosmopolitan variety of potables and packaged meals available in any twentieth-century supermarket.
These things, the impediments of daily life, all change and modify in time. But certain things, certain things, should not.
When the telegram had arrived in Houston, Texas, informing him that—of all the people in the United States of America—he was most similar in physical composition and characteristics to one of the prospective visitors from 2458 A.D., he had gone almost mad with joy. The celebrity he suddenly enjoyed in the faculty lunchroom was unimportant, as were the Page One stories in local newspapers under the heading: LONE STAR SON GALLOPING FUTUREWARDS.
First and foremost, it was reprieve. It was reprieve and another chance. Family responsibilities, a dying father, a sick younger sister, had prevented him from getting the advanced academic degrees necessary for a university teaching position with all of its accompanying prestige, higher income and opportunities for research. Then, when they had come to an end and he had gone hack to school, a sudden infatuation and too-hasty marriage had thrown him back onto the same treadmill. He had just begun to realize—despite the undergraduate promise he had shown and none-too-minute achievement—how thoroughly he was trapped by the pleasant residential neighborhood and cleanly modern high school between which he shuttled daily, when the telegram arrived, announcing his selection as one of the group to be sent five hundred years ahead. How it was going to help him, what, precisely, he would do with the chance, he did not know—but it had lifted him out of the ruck of anonymity; somehow, someway, it would enable him to become a striking individual at last.
Dave Pollock had not realized the extent of his good fortune until he met the other four in Washington, D. O. He had heard, of course, how the finest minds in the country had bitterly jostled and elbowed each other in a frenzied attempt to get into the group and find out what was going to develop in their speciality half a millenium hence. But not until he had talked with his prospective fellow-tourists—an itinerant worker, a Bronx housewife, a pompous mid-western business executive, a pretty but otherwise very ordinary San Francisco stenographer—did it come to him that he was the only one with any degree of scientific training.
He would be the only one capable of evaulating the amount of major technological advance! He would be the only one to correlate all the bewildering mass of minor changes into something resembling coherence! And thus, above all, he would be the only one to appreciate the essential quality of the future, the basic threads that would run through it from its underlying social fabric to its star-leaping fringes!
He, who had wanted to devote his life to knowledge-seek-ing, would exist for two weeks, unique and intellectually alone, in a five-century-long extrapolation of every laboratory and library in his age!
At first, it had been like that. Everywhere there was glory and excitement and discovery. Then, little, disagreeable things began to creep in, like the first stages of a cold. The food, the clothing, the houses—well, you either ignored it or made other arrangements. These people were extremely hospitable and quite ingenious: they didn’t at all mind providing you with more familiar meals when your intestines had revolted a couple of times. The women, with their glossy baldness and strange attitudes toward relations between the sexes —well, you had a brand-new wife at home and didn’t have to get involved with the women.
But Shriek Field, Panic Stadium, that was another matter. Dave Pollock was proud of being a thoroughly rational person. He had been proud of the future, when he first arrived, taking it almost as a personal vindication that the people in it should be so thoroughly, universally rational, too. His first acquaintance with Shriek Field had almost nauseated him. That the superb intellects he had come to know should willingly transform themselves into a frothing, hysterical pack of screaming animals, and at regular, almost medically-pre-scribed intervals… .
They had explained to him painfully, elaborately, that they could not be such superb intellects, so thoroughly rational, unless they periodically released themselves in this fashion. It made sense, but—still—watching them do it was absolutely horrifying. He knew he would never be able to stand the sight of it.
Still, this one could make acceptable in some corner of the brain. But the chess business?
Since his college days, Dave Pollock had fancied himself as a chess player. He was just good enough to be able to tell himself that if ever he had the time to really concentrate on the game, to learn the openings, say, as they should be learned, he’d be good enough to play in tournaments. He’d even subscribed to a chess magazine and followed all the championship matches with great attention. He’d wondered what chess would be like in the future—surely the royal game having survived for so many centuries would survive another five? What would it be like: a version of three-dimensional chess, or possibly another, even more complex evolution?
The worst of it was the game was almost identical with the one played in the twentieth century.
Almost every human being in 2458 played it; almost every human being in 2458 enjoyed it. But there were no human champions. There were no human opponents.
There were only the chess machines. And they could beat anybody.
“What’s the sense,” he had wailed, “of playing with a machine which has millions of `best moves and countermoves’ built into its memory circuits? That has a selector mechanism able to examine and choose from every chess game ever recorded? A machine which has been designed never to be beaten? What’s the sense—where’s the excitement?
“We don’t play to win,” they had explained wonderingly. “We play to play. It’s the same with all our games: aggressions are gotten rid of in a Shriek or a Panic, games are just for mental or physical exercise. And so, when we play, we want to play against the best. Besides, every once in a while, an outstandingly good player, once or twice in his lifetime, is able to hold the machine to a draw. Now, that is an achievement. That merits excitement.”
You had to love chess as much as he did, Dave Pollock supposed, to realize what an obscenity the existence of these machines made of it. Even the other three in his group, who had become much more restive than he at twenty-fifth century mechanisms and mores, only stared at him blankly when he raged over it. No, if you didn’t love something, you weren’t bothered overmuch when it was degraded. But surely they could see the abdication of human intellect, of human reason, that the chess machines implied?
Of course, that was nothing compared to the way human reason had abdicated before the Oracle Machine. That was the last, disgusting straw to a rational person.
The Oracle Machine. He glanced at his watch. Only twenty-five minutes left. Better hurry. He took one last self-encouraging breath and climbed the cooperative steps of the building.
“My name is Stilia,” a bald-headed, rather pleasant-faced young woman said as she came toward him in the spacious anteroom. “I’m the attendant of the machine for today. Can I help you?”
“I suppose so.” He looked uncomfortably at a distant, throbbing wall. Behind the yellow square on that well, he knew, was the inner brain of the Oracle Machine. How he’d love to kick a hole in that brain.
Instead, he sat down on an upraised hummock of floor and wiped his perspiring hands carefully. He told her about their approaching deadline, about Winthrop’s stubbornness, about the decision to consult the Oracle Machine.
“Oh, Winthrop, yes! He’s that delightful old man. I met him at a dream dispensary a week ago. What wonderful awareness he has! Such a total immersion in our culture! We’re very proud of Winthrop. We’d like to help him every way we possibly can.”
“If you don’t mind, lady,” Dave Pollock said morosely, “we’re the ones who need help. We’ve got to get back.”
Stilia laughed. “Of course. We’d like to help everybody. Only Winthrop is— special. He’s trying hardest. Now, if you’ll just wait here, I’ll go in and put your problem before the Oracle Machine. I know how to do it so that it will activate the relevant memory circuits with the least loss of time.”
She flexed her right arm at him and walked toward the yellow square. Pollock watched it expand in front of her, then, as she went through the opening it made, contract behind her. In a few minutes she returned.
“I’ll tell you when to go in, Mr. Pollock. The machine is working on your problem. The answer you get will be the very best that can be made, given the facts available.”
“Thanks.” He thought for a while. “Tell me something. Doesn’t it seem to take something out of life—out of your thinking life—to know that you can take absolutely any problem, personal problem, scientific problem or working problem, to the Oracle Machine and it will solve it much better than you could?”
Stilia looked puzzled. “Not at all. To begin with, problem-solving is a very small part of today’s thinking life. It would be as logical to say that it took something vital out of life to make a hole with an electric drill instead of a hand drill. In your time, no doubt, there are people who feel just that way, they have the obvious privilege of not using electric drills. Those who use electric drills, however, have their physical energy freed for tasks they regard as more important. The Oracle Machine is the major tool of our culture; it has been designed toward just one end—computing all the factors of a given problem and relating them to the totality of pertinent data that is in the possession of the human race. But even if people consult the Oracle Machine, they may not be able to understand and apply the answer. And, if they do understand it, they may not choose to act on it.”
“They may not choose to act on it? Does that make sense? You said yourself the answers are the very best that can be made, given the facts available.”
“Human activities don’t necessarily have to make sense. That is the prevailing and rather comfortable modern view, Mr. Pollock. There is always the individual eccentric impulse.”
“Yeah, there’s always that,” he growled. “Resign your private, distinct personality by running with a howling mob at Shriek Field, lose all of yourself in an insane crowd—but don’t forget your individual eccentric impulse. Never, never forget your individual eccentric impulse!”
She nodded soberly. “That really sums it up, I must say, in spite of your rather unmistakable sarcasm. Why do you find it so hard to accept? Man is both a herd animal and a highly individualistic animal—what we call a self-realizable animal. The herd instincts must be satisfied at whatever cost, and have been in the past through such mechanisms as warfare, religion, nationalism, partyism and various forms of group chauvinism. The need to resign one’s personality and immerse in something larger than self has been recognized since earliest times: Shriek Fields and Panic Stadiums everywhere on the planet provide for this need and expend it harmlessly.”
“I wouldn’t say it was so harmless from the look of that mechanical rabbit, or whatever it was.”
“I understand that human beings who took the place of the mechanical rabbit in the past looked much worse when a herd of men was through with them,” she suggested, locking eyes with him. “Yes, Mr. Pollock, I think you know what I mean. The self-realizable instincts, on the other hand, must be satisfied, too. Usually, they can be satisfied in terms of one’s daily life and work, as the herd instincts can be fulfilled by normal group relationships and identification with humanity. But occasionally, the self-realizable instincts must be expressed at abnormal strengths, and then we have to have a kind of private Shriek Field—the concept of individual eccentric impulse. The two are opposite poles of exactly the same thing. All we require is that another human being will not be actively interfered with.”
“And so long as that doesn’t happen, anything goes!”
“Exactly. Anything goes. Absolutely anything a person may want to do out of his own individual eccentric impulse is permitted. Encouraged, actually. It’s not only that we consider that some of humanity’s greatest achievements have come out of individual eccentric impulses, but that we feel the greatest glory of our civilization is the homage we pay to such intrinsically personal expression.”
Dave Pollock stared at her with reluctant respect. She was bright. This was the kind of girl he might have married if he’d gone on to his doctorate, instead of Susie. Although Susie— He wondered if he’d ever see Susie again. He was astonished at how bitterly homesick he felt.
“It sounds good,” he admitted. “But living with it is another thing entirely. I guess I’m too much a product of my own culture to ever swallow it down all the way. I can’t get over how much difference there is between our civilizations. We talk the same language but we sure as hell don’t think the same thoughts.”
Stilia smiled warmly and sat back. “One of the reasons your period was invited to exchange visitors with us is because it was the first in which most speech patterns became constant and language shifts came to an end. Your newly-invented speech recording devices were responsible for that. But technological progress continued, and sociological progress actually accelerated. Neither was solidified to any great extent until the invention in the latter part of the twenty-third century—”
A hum began in the distant wall. Stilia broke off and stood up. “The Oracle Machine is ready to give you the answer to your problem. Just go inside, sit down and repeat your question in its simplest form. I wish you well.”
I wish me well, too, Dave Pollock thought, as he went through the dilated yellow square and into the tiny cube of a room. For all of Stilia’s explication, he was supremely uncomfortable in this world of simply satisfied herd instincts and individual eccentric impulses. He was no misfit; he was no Winthrop: he very much wanted out and to return to what was smoothly familiar.
Above all, he didn’t want to stay any longer in a world where almost any question he might think of would be answered best by the blueish, narrow, throbbing walls which surrounded him.
But— He did have a problem he couldn’t solve. And this machine could.
He sat down. “What do we do about Winthrop’s stubbornness?” he asked, idiotically feeling like a savage interrogating a handful of sacred bones.
A deep voice, neither masculine nor feminine in quality, rumbled from the four walls, from the ceiling, from the floor.
“You will go to the time travel bureau in the Temporal Embassy at the proper time. ”
He waited. Nothing more was forthcoming. The walls were still.
The Oracle Machine evidently had not understood.
“It won’t do us any good to be there,” he pointed out. “Winthrop is stubborn, he won’t go back with us. And, unless all five of us go back together, none of us can go. That’s the way the transferring device is set. So, what I want to know is, how do we persuade Winthrop without—”
Again the enormous voice.
“You will go to the time travel bureau in the Temporal Embassy at the proper time. ”
And that seemed to be that.
Dave Pollock trudged out and told Stilia what had happened. “It seems to me,” he commented just a little nastily, “that the machine found the problem was just a bit too much for it and was trying hard to change the subject.”
“Just the same, I would do what it advised. Unless, of course, you find another, subtler interpretation of the answer.”
“Or unless my individual eccentric impulse gets in the way?”
This time the sarcasm was lost on her. She opened her eyes wide. “That would be best of all! Imagine if you should at last learn to exercise it!”
So Dave Pollock went back to Mrs. Brucks’s room and, thoroughly exasperated, told the others of the ridiculous answer the Oracle Machine had given him on the problem of Winthrop’s stubbornness.
At a few minutes to six, however, all four of them—Mrs. Brucks, Oliver T. Mead, Mary Ann Carthington, Dave Pollock—were in the time-travel bureau of the Temporal Embassy, having arrived in varying stages of upset by way of jumper. They didn’t have any particular hopes: there just wasn’t anything else to do.
They sat dispiritedly in their transfer seats and stared at their watches.
At precisely one minute to six, a large group of twenty-fifth century citizens came in to the transfer room. Gygyo Rablin, the temporal supervisor, was among them, as was Stilia the attendant of the Oracle Machine, Flureet, wearing the drawn look of one awaiting major transformation, Mr. Storku, returned temporarily from the Odor Festival on Venus—and many, many others. They carried Winthrop to his proper seat and stood back with reverent expressions on their faces. They looked like people who had seen the fulfillment of a religious ceremony-and they had.
The transfer began.
Winthrop was an old man, sixty-four, to be exact. He had, in the past two weeks, undergone much excitement. He had been on micro-hunts, undersea hunts, teleported jaunts to incredibly distant planets, excursions, numerous and fantastic. He had had remarkable things done to his body, spectacular things done to his mind. He had pounded in pursuit at Shriek Field, scuttled fearfully at Panic Stadium. And, above all, he had eaten plentifully and repeatedly of foods grown in distant stellar systems, of dishes prepared by completely alien entities, of meals whose composition had been totally unsuspected by his metabolism in the period of its maturing. He had not grown up with these things, with this food, as had the people of the twenty-fifth century: it had all been shatter-ingly new to his system.
No wonder they had observed with such pleased astonishment his individual eccentric impulse assert itself. No wonder they had guarded its unfolding so lovingly.
Winthrop was no longer stubborn. Winthrop was dead.