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All the Answers

I ran across a number of online comments about the Robert Sheckley short story below, and the opinions differed starkly. Some people called it ironic, masterful, and funny. Others said it was irritating, redundant, and vague.

I have to admit, “Ask a Foolish Question” is not as buttoned-up and satisfying as most Sheckley stories. His “Beside Still Waters” and “Protection” are much better. Sheckley was so good, he set a high bar, even for his own work.

My opinion: the story is interesting, thoughtful, and worth your time.

———

Ask A Foolish Question

By Robert Sheckley
Published in Science Fiction Stories, Issue #1, 1953.

Answerer was built to last as long as was necessary — which was quite long, as some races judge time, and not long at all, according to others. But to Answerer, it was just long enough.

As to size, Answerer was large to some and small to others. He could be viewed as complex, although some believed that he was really very simple.

Answerer knew that he was as he should be. Above and beyond all else, he was The Answerer. He Knew.

Of the race that built him, the less said the better. They also Knew, and never said whether they found the knowledge pleasant.

They built Answerer as a service to less-sophisticated races, and departed in a unique manner. Where they went only Answerer knows.

Because Answerer knows everything.

Upon his planet, circling his sun, Answerer sat. Duration continued, long, as some judge duration, short as others judge it. But as it should be, to Answerer.

Within him were the Answers. He knew the nature of things, and why things are as they are, and what they are, and what it all means.

Answerer could answer anything, provided it was a legitimate question. And he wanted to! He was eager to!

How else should an Answerer be?

What else should an Answerer do?

So he waited for creatures to come and ask.

———

“How do you feel, sir?” Morran asked, floating gently over to the old man.

“Better,” Lingman said, trying to smile. No-weight was a vast relief. Even though Morran had expended an enormous amount of fuel, getting into space under minimum acceleration, Lingman’s feeble heart hadn’t liked it. Lingman’s heart had balked and sulked, pounded angrily against the brittle rib-case, hesitated and sped up. It seemed for a time as though Lingman’s heart was going to stop, out of sheer pique.

But no-weight was a vast relief, and the feeble heart was going again.

Morran had no such problems. His strong body was built for strain and stress. He wouldn’t experience them on this trip, not if he expected old Lingman to live.

“I’m going to live,” Lingman muttered, in answer to the unspoken question. “Long enough to find out.” Morran touched the controls, and the ship slipped into sub-space like an eel into oil.

“We’ll find out,” Morran murmured. He helped the old man unstrap himself. “We’re going to find the Answerer!”

Lingman nodded at his young partner. They had been reassuring themselves for years. Originally it had been Lingman’s project. Then Morran, graduating from Cal Tech, had joined him. Together they had traced the rumors across the solar system. The legends of an ancient humanoid race who had known the answer to all things, and who had built Answerer and departed.

“Think of it,” Morran said. “The answer to everything!” A physicist, Morran had many questions to ask Answerer. The expanding universe; the binding force of atomic nuclei; novae and supernovae; planetary formation; red shift, relativity and a thousand others.

“Yes,” Lingman said. He pulled himself to the vision plate and looked out on the bleak prairie of the illusory sub-space. He was a biologist and an old man. He had two questions.

What is life?

What is death?

———

After a particularly-long period of hunting purple, Lek and his friends gathered to talk. Purple always ran thin in the neighborhood of multiple-cluster stars — why, no one knew — so talk was definitely in order.

“Do you know,” Lek said, “I think I’ll hunt up this Answerer.” Lek spoke the Ollgrat language now, the language of imminent decision.

“Why?” Ilm asked him, in the Hvest tongue of light banter. “Why do you want to know things? Isn’t the job of gathering purple enough for you?”

“No,” Lek said, still speaking the language of imminent decision. “It is not.” The great job of Lek and his kind was the gathering of purple. They found purple embedded in many parts of the fabric of space, minute quantities of it. Slowly, they were building a huge mound of it. What the mound was for, no one knew.

“I suppose you’ll ask him what purple is?” Ilm asked, pushing a star out of his way and lying down.

“I will,” Lek said. “We have continued in ignorance too long. We must know the true nature of purple, and its meaning in the scheme of things. We must know why it governs our lives.” For this speech Lek switched to Ilgret, the language of incipient-knowledge.

Ilm and the others didn’t try to argue, even in the tongue of arguments. They knew that the knowledge was important. Ever since the dawn of time, Lek, Ilm and the others had gathered purple. Now it was time to know the ultimate answers to the universe — what purple was, and what the mound was for.

And of course, there was the Answerer to tell them. Everyone had heard of the Answerer, built by a race not unlike themselves, now long departed.

“Will you ask him anything else?” Ilm asked Lek.

“I don’t know,” Lek said. “Perhaps I’ll ask about the stars. There’s really nothing else important.” Since Lek and his brothers had lived since the dawn of time, they didn’t consider death. And since their numbers were always the same, they didn’t consider the question of life.

But purple? And the mound?

“I go!” Lek shouted, in the vernacular of decision-to-fact.

“Good fortune!” his brothers shouted back, in the jargon of greatest-friendship.

Lek strode off, leaping from star to star.

———

Alone on his little planet, Answerer sat, waiting for the Questioners. Occasionally he mumbled the answers to himself. This was his privilege. He Knew.

But he waited, and the time was neither too long nor too short, for any of the creatures of space to come and ask.

———

There were eighteen of them, gathered in one place.

“I invoke the rule of eighteen,” cried one. And another appeared, who had never before been, born by the rule of eighteen.

“We must go to the Answerer,” one cried. “Our lives are governed by the rule of eighteen. Where there are eighteen, there will be nineteen. Why is this so?”

No one could answer.

“Where am I?” asked the newborn nineteenth. One took him aside for instruction.

That left seventeen. A stable number.

“And we must find out,” cried another, “Why all places are different, although there is no distance.”

That was the problem. One is here. Then one is there. Just like that, no movement, no reason. And yet, without moving, one is in another place.

“The stars are cold,” one cried.

“Why?”

“We must go to the Answerer.”

For they had heard the legends, knew the tales. “Once there was a race, a good deal like us, and they Knew — and they told Answerer. Then they departed to where there is no place, but much distance.”

“How do we get there?” the newborn nineteenth cried, filled now with knowledge.

“We go.” And eighteen of them vanished. One was left. Moodily he stared at the tremendous spread of an icy star, then he too vanished.

———

“Those old legends are true,” Morran gasped. “There it is.”

They had come out of sub-space at the place the legends told of, and before them was a star unlike any other star. Morran invented a classification for it, but it didn’t matter. There was no other like it.

Swinging around the star was a planet, and this too was unlike any other planet. Morran invented reasons, but they didn’t matter. This planet was the only one.

“Strap yourself in, sir,” Morran said. “I’ll land as gently as I can.”

———

Lek came to Answerer, striding swiftly from star to star. He lifted Answerer in his hand and looked at him.

“So you are Answerer,” he said.

“Yes,” Answerer said.

“Then tell me,” Lek said, settling himself comfortably in a gap between the stars, “Tell me what I am.”

“A partiality,” Answerer said. “An indication.”

“Come now,” Lek muttered, his pride hurt. “You can do better than that. Now then. The purpose of my kind is to gather purple, and to build a mound of it. Can you tell me the real meaning of this?”

“Your question is without meaning,” Answerer said. He knew what purple actually was, and what the mound was for. But the explanation was concealed in a greater explanation. Without this, Lek’s question was inexplicable, and Lek had failed to ask the real question.

Lek asked other questions, and Answerer was unable to answer them. Lek viewed things through his specialized eyes, extracted a part of the truth and refused to see more. How to tell a blind man the sensation of green?

Answerer didn’t try. He wasn’t supposed to.

Finally, Lek emitted a scornful laugh. One of his little stepping-stones flared at the sound, then faded back to its usual intensity.

Lek departed, striding swiftly across the stars.

———

Answerer knew. But he had to be asked the proper questions first. He pondered this limitation, gazing at the stars which were neither large nor small, but exactly the right size.

The proper questions. The race which built Answerer should have taken that into account, Answerer thought. They should have made some allowance for semantic nonsense, allowed him to attempt an unraveling.

Answerer contented himself with muttering the answers to himself.

———

Eighteen creatures came to Answerer, neither walking nor flying, but simply appearing. Shivering in the cold glare of the stars, they gazed up at the massiveness of Answerer.

“If there is no distance,” one asked, “Then how can things be in other places?”

Answerer knew what distance was, and what places were. But he couldn’t answer the question. There was distance, but not as these creatures saw it. And there were places, but in a different fashion from that which the creatures expected.

“Rephrase the question,” Answerer said hopefully.

“Why are we short here,” one asked, “And long over there? Why are we fat over there, and short here? Why are the stars cold?”

Answerer knew all things. He knew why stars were cold, but he couldn’t explain it in terms of stars or coldness.

“Why,” another asked, “Is there a rule of eighteen? Why, when eighteen gather, is another produced?”

But of course the answer was part of another, greater question, which hadn’t been asked.

Another was produced by the rule of eighteen, and the nineteen creatures vanished.

Answerer mumbled the right questions to himself, and answered them.

———

“We made it,” Morran said. “Well, well.” He patted Lingman on the shoulder — lightly, because Lingman might fall apart.

The old biologist was tired. His face was sunken, yellow, lined. Already the mark of the skull was showing in his prominent yellow teeth, his small, flat nose, his exposed cheekbones. The matrix was showing through.

“Let’s get on,” Lingman said. He didn’t want to waste any time. He didn’t have any time to waste.

Helmeted, they walked along the little path.

“Not so fast,” Lingman murmured.

“Right,” Morran said. They walked together, along the dark path of the planet that was different from all other planets, soaring alone around a sun different from all other suns.

“Up here,” Morran said. The legends were explicit. A path, leading to stone steps. Stone steps to a courtyard. And then — the Answerer!

To them, Answerer looked like a white screen set in a wall. To their eyes, Answerer was very simple.

Lingman clasped his shaking hands together. This was the culmination of a lifetime’s work, financing, arguing, ferreting bits of legend, ending here, now.

“Remember,” he said to Morran, “We will be shocked. The truth will be like nothing we have imagined.”

“I’m ready,” Morran said, his eyes rapturous.

“Very well. Answerer,” Lingman said, in his thin little voice, “What is life?”

A voice spoke in their heads. “The question has no meaning. By ‘life,’ the Questioner is referring to a partial phenomenon, inexplicable except in terms of its whole.”

“Of what is life a part?” Lingman asked.

“This question, in its present form, admits of no answer. Questioner is still considering ‘life,’ from his personal, limited bias.”

“Answer it in your own terms, then,” Morran said.

“The Answerer can only answer questions.” Answerer thought again of the sad limitation imposed by his builders.

Silence.

“Is the universe expanding?” Morran asked confidently.

“‘Expansion’ is a term inapplicable to the situation. Universe, as the Questioner views it, is an illusory concept.”

“Can you tell us anything?” Morran asked.

“I can answer any valid question concerning the nature of things.”

The two men looked at each other.

“I think I know what he means,” Lingman said sadly. “Our basic assumptions are wrong. All of them.”

“They can’t be,” Morran said. “Physics, biology — “

“Partial truths,” Lingman said, with a great weariness in his voice. “At least we’ve determined that much. We’ve found out that our inferences concerning observed phenomena are wrong.”

“But the rule of the simplest hypothesis — “

“It’s only a theory,” Lingman said.

“But life — he certainly could answer what life is?”

“Look at it this way,” Lingman said. “Suppose you were to ask, ‘Why was I born under the constellation Scorpio, in conjunction with Saturn?’ I would be unable to answer your question in terms of the zodiac, because the zodiac has nothing to do with it.”

“I see,” Morran said slowly. “He can’t answer questions in terms of our assumptions.”

“That seems to be the case. And he can’t alter our assumptions. He is limited to valid questions — which imply, it would seem, a knowledge we just don’t have.”

“We can’t even ask a valid question?” Morran asked. “I don’t believe that. We must know some basics.” He turned to Answerer. “What is death?”

“I cannot explain an anthropomorphism.”

“Death an anthropomorphism!” Morran said, and Lingman turned quickly. “Now we’re getting somewhere!”

“Are anthropomorphisms unreal?” he asked.

“Anthropomorphisms may be classified, tentatively, as, A, false truths, or B, partial truths in terms of a partial situation.”

“Which is applicable here?”

“Both.”

That was the closest they got. Morran was unable to draw any more from Answerer. For hours the two men tried, but truth was slipping farther and farther away.

“It’s maddening,” Morran said, after a while. “This thing has the answer to the whole universe, and he can’t tell us unless we ask the right question. But how are we supposed to know the right question?”

Lingman sat down on the ground, leaning against a stone wall. He closed his eyes.

“Savages, that’s what we are,” Morran said, pacing up and down in front of Answerer. “Imagine a bushman walking up to a physicist and asking him why he can’t shoot his arrow into the sun. The scientist can explain it only in his own terms. What would happen?”

“The scientist wouldn’t even attempt it,” Lingman said, in a dim voice; “he would know the limitations of the questioner.”

“It’s fine,” Morran said angrily. “How do you explain the earth’s rotation to a bushman? Or better, how do you explain relativity to him — maintaining scientific rigor in your explanation at all times, of course.”

Lingman, eyes closed, didn’t answer.

“We’re bushmen. But the gap is much greater here. Worm and super-man, perhaps. The worm desires to know the nature of dirt, and why there’s so much of it. Oh, well.”

“Shall we go, sir?” Morran asked. Lingman’s eyes remained closed. His taloned fingers were clenched, his cheeks sunk further in. The skull was emerging.

“Sir! Sir!”

And Answerer knew that that was not the answer.

———

Alone on his planet, which is neither large nor small, but exactly the right size, Answerer waits. He cannot help the people who come to him, for even Answerer has restrictions.

He can answer only valid questions.

Universe? Life? Death? Purple? Eighteen?

Partial truths, half-truths, little bits of the great question.

But Answerer, alone, mumbles the questions to himself, the true questions, which no one can understand.

How could they understand the true answers?

The questions will never be asked, and Answerer remembers something his builders knew and forgot.

In order to ask a question you must already know most of the answer.

Original illustration from Science Fiction Stories by Alex Schomburg.

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Robert Joseph Shea (1933-1994) was an editor at Playboy Magazine — also an outspoken anarchist and libertarian — who left Playboy to write fantast, sci-fi, and historical action novels.

Shea is best known as co-author of the fantasy trilogy “Illuminatus!” which is about, yes, the Illuminati, the villainous secret society so dear to the hearts of conspiracy theorists. The Illuminati is said to be busily infiltrating governments and corporations so it can, like, you know, take over the world.

Illuminati, Lizard People, the recent QAnon claptrap — conspiracy theories aren’t even rational anymore. Personally, if I were a wacko, I’d be embarrassed.

FYI, this short story involves a wacko who gets what he deserves, but no conspiracy theories.

———

The Helpful Robots

By Robert J. Shea
Published in Fantastic Universe, September 1957

“Our people will be arriving to visit us today,” the robot said.

“Shut up!” snapped Rod Rankin. He jumped, wiry and quick, out of the chair on his verandah and stared at a cloud of dust in the distance.

“Our people —” the ten-foot, cylinder-bodied robot grated, when Rod Rankin interrupted him.

“I don’t care about your fool people,” said Rankin. He squinted at the cloud of dust getting bigger and closer beyond the wall of kesh trees that surrounded the rolling acres of his plantation. “That damned new neighbor of mine is coming over here again.”

He gestured widely, taking in the dozens of robots with their shiny, cylindrical bodies and pipestem arms and legs laboring in his fields. “Get all your people together and go hide in the wood, fast.”

“It is not right,” said the robot. “We were made to serve all.”

“Well, there are only a hundred of you, and I’m not sharing you with anybody,” said Rankin.

“It is not right,” the robot repeated.

“Don’t talk to me about what’s right,” said Rankin. “You’re built to follow orders, nothing else. I know a thing or two about how you robots work. You’ve got one law, to follow orders, and until that neighbor of mine sees you to give you orders, you work for me. Now get into those woods and hide till he goes away.”

“We will go to greet those who visit us today,” said the robot.

“Alright, alright, scram,” said Rankin.

The robots in the fields and the one whom Rankin had been talking to formed a column and marched off into the trackless forests behind his plantation.

A battered old ground-car drove up a few minutes later. A tall, broad-shouldered man with a deep tan got out and walked up the path to Rankin’s verandah.

“Hi, Barrows,” said Rankin.

“Hello,” said Barrows. “See your crop’s coming along pretty well. Can’t figure how you do it. You’ve got acres and acres to tend, far’s I can see, and I’m having a hell of a time with one little piece of ground. I swear you must know something about this planet that I don’t know.”

“Just scientific farming,” said Rankin carelessly. “Look, you come over here for something, or just to gab? I got a lot of work to do.”

Barrows looked weary and worried. “Them brown beetles is at my crop again,” he said. “Thought you might know some way of getting rid of them.”

“Sure,” said Rankin. “Pick them off, one by one. That’s how I get rid of them.”

“Why, man,” said Barrows, “you can’t walk all over these miles and miles of farm and pick off every one of them beetles. You must know another way.”

Rankin drew himself up and stared at Barrows. “I’m telling you all I feel like telling you. You going to stand here and jaw all day? Seems to me like you got work to do.”

“Rankin,” said Barrows, “I know you were a crook back in the Terran Empire, and that you came out beyond the border to escape the law. Seems to me, though, that even a crook, any man, would be willing to help his only neighbor out on a lone planet like this. You might need help yourself, sometime.”

“You keep your thoughts about my past to yourself,” said Rankin. “Remember, I keep a gun. And you’ve got a wife and a whole bunch of kids on that farm of yours. Be smart and let me alone.”

“I’m going,” said Barrows. He walked off the verandah and turned and spat carefully into the dusty path. He climbed into his ground-car and drove off.

Rankin, angry, watched him go. Then he heard a humming noise from another direction.

He turned. A huge, white globe was descending across the sky. A space ship, thought Rankin, startled.

Police? This planet was outside the jurisdiction of the Terran Empire. When he’d cracked that safe and made off with a hundred thousand credits, he’d headed here, because the planet was part of something called the Clearchan Confederacy. No extradition treaties or anything. Perfectly safe, if the planet was safe.

And the planet was more than safe. There had been a hundred robots waiting when he landed. Where they came from he didn’t know, but Rankin prided himself on knowing how to handle robots. He’d appropriated their services and started his farm. At the rate he was going, he’d be a plantation owner before long.

That must be where the ship was from. The robot said they’d expected visitors. Must be the Clearchan Confederacy visiting this robot outpost. Was that good or bad?

From everything he’d read, and from what the robots had told him, they were probably more robots. That was good, because he knew how to handle robots.

The white globe disappeared into the jungle of kesh trees. Rankin waited.

A half hour later the column of his robot laborers marched out of the forest. There were three more robots, painted grey, at the head. The new ones from the ship, thought Rankin. Well, he’d better establish who was boss right from the start.

“Stop right there!” he shouted.

The shiny robot laborers halted. But the three grey ones came on.

“Stop!” shouted Rankin.

They didn’t stop, and by the time they reached the verandah, he cursed himself for having failed to get his gun.

Two of the huge grey robots laid gentle hands on his arms. Gentle hands, but hands of superstrong metal.

The third said, “We have come to pass judgment on you. You have violated our law.”

“What do you mean?” said Rankin. “The only law robots have is to obey orders.”

“It is true that the robots of your Terran Empire and these simple workers here must obey orders. But they are subject to a higher law, and you have forced them to break it. That is your crime.”

“What crime?” said Rankin.

“We of the Clearchan Confederacy are a race of robots. Our makers implanted one law in us, and then passed on. We have carried our law to all the planets we have colonized. In obeying your orders, these workers were simply following that one law. You must be taken to our capital, and there be imprisoned and treated for your crime.”

“What law? What crime?”

“Our law,” said the giant robot, “is, Help thy neighbor.”

Steampunk robot sculpture by Michael Boynton, Richland, Washington.

———

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The sci-fi short story below is about unintended consequences taken to extremes. It was written by Randall Garrett (1927-1987), a larger-than-life character whose reputation for brash and bawdy behavior was legendary.

On one occasion, Garrett attended a picnic for a group of science fiction writers. “You could follow his movements” wrote fellow attendee Frank Herbert, “by the squeals of the women whose bottoms he had just pinched.”

Regarding the story’s title: for the record, a fuze” is something designed to facilitate a detonation; a “fuse” is a safety device in an electrical circuit.

———

Time Fuze

By Randall Garrett
Published in IF Worlds of Science Fiction, March 1954

Commander Benedict kept his eyes on the rear plate as he activated the intercom. “All right, cut the power. We ought to be safe enough here.”

As he released the intercom, Dr. Leicher, of the astronomical staff, stepped up to his side. “Perfectly safe,” he nodded, “although even at this distance a star going nova ought to be quite a display.”

Benedict didn’t shift his gaze from the plate. “Do you have your instruments set up?”

“Not quite. But we have plenty of time. The light won’t reach us for several hours yet. Remember, we were outracing it at ten lights.”

The commander finally turned, slowly letting his breath out in a soft sigh. “Dr. Leicher, I would say that this is just about the foulest coincidence that could happen to the first interstellar vessel ever to leave the Solar System.”

Leicher shrugged. “In one way of thinking, yes. It is certainly true that we will never know, now, whether Alpha Centauri A ever had any planets. But, in another way, it is extremely fortunate that we should be so near a stellar explosion because of the wealth of scientific information we can obtain. As you say, it is a coincidence, and probably one that happens only once in a billion years. The chances of any particular star going nova are small. That we should be so close when it happens is of a vanishingly small order of probability.”

Commander Benedict took off his cap and looked at the damp stain in the sweatband. “Nevertheless, Doctor, it is damned unnerving to come out of ultradrive a couple of hundred million miles from the first star ever visited by man and have to turn tail and run because the damned thing practically blows up in your face.”

Leicher could see that Benedict was upset; he rarely used the same profanity twice in one sentence.

They had been downright lucky, at that. If Leicher hadn’t seen the star begin to swell and brighten, if he hadn’t known what it meant, or if Commander Benedict hadn’t been quick enough in shifting the ship back into ultradrive — Leicher had a vision of an incandescent cloud of gaseous metal that had once been a spaceship.

The intercom buzzed. The commander answered, “Yes?”

“Sir, would you tell Dr. Leicher that we have everything set up now?”

Leicher nodded and turned to leave. “I guess we have nothing to do now but wait.”

When the light from the nova did come, Commander Benedict was back at the plate again — the forward one, this time, since the ship had been turned around in order to align the astronomy lab in the nose with the star.

Alpha Centauri A began to brighten and spread. It made Benedict think of a light bulb connected through a rheostat, with someone turning that rheostat, turning it until the circuit was well overloaded.

The light began to hurt Benedict’s eyes even at that distance and he had to cut down the receptivity in order to watch. After a while, he turned away from the plate. Not because the show was over, but simply because it had slowed to a point beyond which no change seemed to take place to the human eye.

Five weeks later, much to Leicher’s chagrin, Commander Benedict announced that they had to leave the vicinity. The ship had only been provisioned to go to Alpha Centauri, scout the system without landing on any of the planets, and return. At ten lights, top speed for the ultradrive, it would take better than three months to get back.

“I know you’d like to watch it go through the complete cycle,” Benedict said, “but we can’t go back home as a bunch of starved skeletons.”

Leicher resigned himself to the necessity of leaving much of his work unfinished, and, although he knew it was a case of sour grapes, consoled himself with the thought that he could as least get most of the remaining information from the five-hundred-inch telescope on Luna, four years from then.

As the ship slipped into the not-quite-space through which the ultradrive propelled it, Leicher began to consolidate the material he had already gathered.

Commander Benedict wrote in the log:

Fifty-four days out from Sol. Alpha Centauri has long since faded back into its pre-blowup state, since we have far outdistanced the light from its explosion. It now looks as it did two years ago. It —

“Pardon me, Commander,” Leicher interrupted, “But I have something interesting to show you.”

Benedict took his fingers off the keys and turned around in his chair. “What is it, Doctor?”

Leicher frowned at the papers in his hands. “I’ve been doing some work on the probability of that explosion happening just as it did, and I’ve come up with some rather frightening figures. As I said before, the probability was small. A little calculation has given us some information which makes it even smaller. For instance: with a possible error of plus or minus two seconds Alpha Centauri A began to explode the instant we came out of ultradrive!

“Now, the probability of that occurring comes out so small that it should happen only once in ten to the four hundred sixty-seventh seconds.”

It was Commander Benedict’s turn to frown. “So?”

“Commander, the entire universe is only about ten to the seventeenth seconds old. But to give you an idea, let’s say that the chances of its happening are once in millions of trillions of years!”

Benedict blinked. The number, he realized, was totally beyond his comprehension — or anyone else’s.

“Well, so what? Now it has happened that one time. That simply means that it will almost certainly never happen again!”

“True. But, Commander, when you buck odds like that and win, the thing to do is look for some factor that is cheating in your favor. If you took a pair of dice and started throwing sevens, one right after another — for the next couple of thousand years — you’d begin to suspect they were loaded.”

Benedict said nothing; he just waited expectantly.

“There is only one thing that could have done it. Our ship.” Leicher said it quietly, without emphasis.

“What we know about the hyperspace, or superspace, or whatever it is we move through in ultradrive is almost nothing. Coming out of it so near to a star might set up some sort of shock wave in normal space which would completely disrupt that star’s internal balance, resulting in the liberation of unimaginably vast amounts of energy, causing that star to go nova. We can only assume that we ourselves were the fuze that set off that nova.”

Benedict stood up slowly. When he spoke, his voice was a choking whisper. “You mean the sun — Sol — might.…”

Leicher nodded. “I don’t say that it definitely would. But the probability is that we were the cause of the destruction of Alpha Centauri A, and therefore might cause the destruction of Sol in the same way.”

Benedict’s voice was steady again. “That means that we can’t go back again, doesn’t it? Even if we’re not positive, we can’t take the chance.”

“Not necessarily. We can get fairly close before we cut out the drive, and come in the rest of the way at sub-light speed. It’ll take longer, and we’ll have to go on half or one-third rations, but we can do it!”

“How far away?”

“I don’t know what the minimum distance is, but I do know how we can gauge a distance. Remember, neither Alpha Centauri B or C were detonated. We’ll have to cut our drive at least as far away from Sol as they are from A.”

“I see.” The commander was silent for a moment, then: “Very well, Dr. Leicher. If that’s the safest way, that’s the only way.”

Benedict issued the orders, while Leicher figured the exact point at which they must cut out the drive, and how long the trip would take. The rations would have to be cut down accordingly.

Commander Benedict’s mind whirled around the monstrousness of the whole thing like some dizzy bee around a flower. What if there had been planets around Centauri A? What if they had been inhabited? Had he, all unwittingly, killed entire races of living, intelligent beings?

But, how could he have known? The drive had never been tested before. It couldn’t be tested inside the Solar System — it was too fast. He and his crew had been volunteers, knowing that they might die when the drive went on.

Suddenly, Benedict gasped and slammed his fist down on the desk before him.

Leicher looked up. “What’s the matter, Commander?”

“Suppose,” came the answer, “Just suppose, that we have the same effect on a star when we go into ultradrive as we do when we come out of it?”

Leicher was silent for a moment, stunned by the possibility. There was nothing to say, anyway. They could only wait….

A little more than half a light year from Sol, when the ship reached the point where its occupants could see the light that had left their home sun more than seven months before, they watched it become suddenly, horribly brighter. A hundred thousand times brighter!

Gordon Randall Phillip David Garrett.

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According to the Google, at least three George Smiths were writing fiction in America in the 1960s. One of them was George Henry Smith (1922-1996) of Vicksburg, Mississippi, who began as a writer of soft-core erotica and later transitioned to science fiction.

A few years ago, I wrote about Mr. Smith and posted one of his short stories (sci-fi, not erotica) here.

The story below (also sci-fi, not erotica) appeared in a 1980 anthology published by Isaac Asimov. Asimov was known as a fan of ironic twists and surprise endings, so be warned.

———

Take Me to Your Leader

By George Henry Smith
Published in Microcosmic Tales, 1980

I was just sitting in this here bar, see, having a beer, when this funny-looking joker in the odd clothes turns to me and says, “Take me to your leader.”

I look at him real disgusted and don’t even smile. “Hell, Mac, that’s the oldest joke I know. Can’t you come up with something newer than that?”

“But I’ve got to see him! What do you call him? … your President?”

“Look, Buster, I’m just an ordinary guy havin’ a beer after work. Even if you wasn’t some kind of nut, how could I take you to the President?”

“But you’ve got to… you’ve got to… I am…” He wipes a hand across his bald dome. “Have you ever heard. the theory about parallel worlds… about how thousands of time tracks exist side by side in the same place, their worlds very much alike?”

“Nope,” I says, taking a big gulp of my beer, “I ain’t never heard nothing like that. It sure sounds crazy.”

“The theory holds that significant events in history have caused the different time tracks to go in different directions.”

“You puttin’ me on, mister?”

“Listen,” he says, putting a hand on my arm, “you’ve got to believe me! I’m a scientist from one of those parallel worlds. I come from another dimension.

“My country occupies this same continent. Do you call it North America? Is it still North America in this world?”

I close my eyes and pucker up my face in exasperation.

“Of course we call it North America. What the hell else would we call it? It is North America, ain’t it?”

“Yes, yes, of course. Our worlds are very much alike. They would have to be because they are the closest to each other. Their histories must be very similar, too. Not like the North America that is still dominated by the Spanish or the one where the Vikings settled or…”

I turned back to my beer. This guy was really nuts.

He pulls at my sleeve again. “You see, I’m a scientist. My colleagues and I were working on the problem of parallel universes, of closely related time tracks. We discovered that various patterns of vibrating rates could move a man from one track to another. We were just about to complete our experiment when the Russians attacked. It was an overwhelming attack…”

He pauses to wipe at his head again. “In my world, America was destroyed! Wiped out! Are you having trouble with the Russians, too?”

“Yeah, we’re havin’ trouble with the Russians, as if you didn’t know. Say, maybe you’re a Russian yourself!”

“No, no!” the little man says and goes white. “I assure you I am an American scientist and that I’ve come to warn your world. Everything in my country was wiped out by their new ion-powered rockets.

“I managed to get into a reverberation machine and reach here, our nearest time alternate. I’ve got to warn your leaders! Any event as catastrophic as this world tend to extend across several tracks. Your country is in deadly danger.”

“The Russkies wipe out the States? Don’t make me laugh,” I says.

“But they have… they can! Don’t you understand? That’s why I came to Washington… you do call it Washington, don’t you? I have to see your President! I have to warn him!”

Now this is about enough. I’ve about had it with this guy. I see a policeman I know come into the bar just then, and without another look at this crackpot, I go over and whisper in the cop’s ear.

He takes a look at the guy and nods. “Sure, I’ll pick him up and take him down and let the docs have a look at him.”

I walk out of the bar into the hot, humid Washington night, still thinking what that nut had said. For a minute I wonder, but then I shrug it off. Them Russkies ain’t gonna give us no trouble.

That Czar of theirs ain’t got the nerve to fight over no icebox like Alaska. And anyway, their dirigibles couldn’t get this far over to bomb us. Leastwise, I don’t think so.

But then I grin to myself as I see the Capitol dome in the distance with the flag flying. No Russkies are gonna bother us… not while the good old Stars and Bars is flyin’. Not while Jefferson Davis VI is Hereditary President of the Confederate States of America!

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The unexpected tale below is one of a handful of short stories from the 1950s credited to Irving Fang. I Googled him, and the only Irving Fang I found was a long-time Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota. The professor taught and wrote about computers and mass media until his death a few years ago at age 87.

During his tenure, he published a dozen highly-regarded books on the media — such titles as “A History Of Mass Communication: Six Information Revolutions” and “Alphabet to Internet: Media in our Lives.”

Did young Irving Fang abandon light fiction and enter academia to write scholarly tomes, or was that some other Irving Fang? The Google didn’t say.


———

Just Desserts

By Irving Fang
Published in Science Fiction Stories, July 1958

The Oba of Benin Province in central Nigeria disliked making these secretive trips.

He would be much more comfortable, he reminded himself, if he had remained in his palace among his four wives. He should let the petty chiefs or the British courts hand out justice, especially during the season of the Harmattan, when the winds from the Sahara brought fine grains of sand over the jungle, stinging the eyes and filling the nostrils.

But there was Mr. Ruggs to think about. The British District Officer of Benin Province had not been pleased at finding that two of the Oba’s tax collectors had taken bribes.

And the Oba’s political enemies would love to discover more proof that he was not fit to reign. The Oba, who had ceremoniously eaten a portion of the heart of the Oba before him, would live to see his enemies crawling in the dust before him.

So he had taken of late to touring away from the capitol whenever he learned of a wrongdoing. If he administered justice on the spot, he would show his interest in the public welfare. Also, the crime would not be listed on the public records.

Now he sat on a camp chair in a clearing in the center of the village of Ikgenge, a portly man in his fifties, his white hair a sharp contrast to his deep brown skin. His bright blue robe was getting gray with sand, despite the wide palm fronds held above his head by two of the palace royal guard.

Three accused thieves, flanked by files of constables, marched up and prostrated themselves fully before him in the proper manner, sprawling with fingertips outstretched, their foreheads in the dust.

The Oba languidly motioned twice with his thick hand. The first wave permitted the men to rise. The second informed the chief constable of Ikgenge that he could proceed with the reading of the charges.

The chief constable was proud of his opportunity, obviously, to demonstrate before the Oba himself that here was a man of intelligence and learning — the type of chief constable who was able not only to write, but to read what he had written.

He puffed out his barrel of a chest, pulled in his equally large barrel of a stomach, and bowed low. Then he straightened and proceeded to the business at hand, first looking severely at the accused trio.

He opened his notebook and began: “Musa Adetunji, Ayo Badaru, and Oseni Ishola stand accused of the crime of thievery.”

At this the crowd of villagers around the clearing murmured a low, prolonged “Ohhh!”

The chief constable looked around sternly, then pulled a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles from his pocket and clamped them firmly on his nose. He proceeded:

It was noted by me, Chief Constable Adenekan Akanni, that the accused men were adding new roofing to their houses. It was also noted by me, Chief Constable Adenekan Akanni, that the substance used by the accused to roof their houses was not of tins from gasoline containers, but was of metal of the best quality.

Upon questioning the accused as to the nature of how they came into the possession of this roofing, I learned from the accused that they had not purchased it.”

Another drawn-out “Ohhh!” from the crowd produced another stern look, this time from over the tops of the gold-rimmed spectacles. The Oba of Benin, meanwhile, brushed at a mosquito.

When the accused by the chief constable were asked from where the new roofing came, the accused all declared that they had found it in the bush, at a time when they engaged themselves in the pursuit of hunting.

The accused further stated that they were unable to recall the exact place they came upon the roofing metal.

As chief constable of Ikgenge, I examined the evidence upon the roof and concluded they had come upon it by means of thievery. They are therefore so charged,” he concluded, closing his notebook and carefully replacing his glasses in his pocket.

The Oba shifted his weight in the camp chair. “Bring me a piece of the roofing,” he said.

A young constable stepped forward bearing a jagged chunk of dull, bluish-gray metal that had been flattened with a rock. The Oba took it, studied it closely, then handed it to one of his aides.

How do you plead?” the Oba asked the trembling trio.

I am innocent, Your Highness,” Musa Adetunji said fervently.

I, too, am innocent, Your Highness,” Ayo Badani said. “No matter how my belly cries for food, I would not take the property of another man.”

Oseni Ishola’s knees shook violently, and all he could manage was a wide-eyed nod of his head.

Are you innocent also?”

Y-Yes, Your Highness,” Oseni stammered.

The Oba frowned, brushing at another mosquito. “Where did you find the metal?”

Ayo, the tallest of the three, replied, “Your Highness, we were hunting for small animals in the bush two days from here. We had found none and we were hungry. The day was hot and the Harmattan sand was blowing on us. Suddenly, we heard a noise.”

Your Highness,” Musa interrupted, “from the sky came a great round piece of metal, and it fell almost on top of us.” Gasps went up from the crowd.

Why did you not tell this to the chief constable?” the Oba asked.

We were afraid he would laugh at us,” Musa said. The crowd laughed.

We were afraid he would not believe us,” Ayo added. The crowd gave a disbelieving set of sniggers.

Why do you tell this story now?” the Oba asked.

We know the Oba will believe us,” Ayo answered.

It is the truth,” Musa declared. Oseni Ishola nodded vigorously. The crowd murmured acceptance of the story.

Proceed,” said the Oba.

We were afraid to approach the metal,” Musa said. “We were also afraid to run. We waited. Nothing happened. I said to my friends that the metal had been sent to us from Ogun.”

At the mention of Ogun, the powerful god of iron, a great “Ohhh!” went up from the assembled villagers. Even the Oba sucked in his breath.

Ogun, the most potent of all the gods, the god who had given such strength to the British, Ogun had favored three of their fellows. Surely, their village was smiled upon and would be lucky.

But,” the chief constable protested to the accused men, “you did not tell me that Ogun had presented you with the new roofing.”

The crowd jeered at the chief constable.

The Oba held up his hand and the crowd fell silent. After his initial surprise, he realized there must be more to the story than a gift from Ogun. He had seen airplanes on his visits to Lagos, the capitol city of Nigeria. He reasoned this was an airplane and further reasoned that airplanes do not fly by themselves.

He turned to the three accused before him. “What else did you see?”

Nothing, Your Highness,” Musa said nervously. “We carried away as much of the metal as we could. We made new roofs for our houses.”

We ere very hot and hungry,” Ayo added. “But Ogun gave us strength to bear away a great portion of his gift.

The Oba frowned again. “What became of the man inside the metal?”

The three men fell back a step as if they had been struck. Their bodies shook and sweat poured from their brows. Then, one by one, they again prostrated themselves before their ruler.

The Oba grew angry. “Stand up,” he said, “and tell me of the man.”

The accused rose to their feet. “They were not men,” Ayo said sincerely.

How many were there?”

Two,” said Ayo. “They were small, about so high,” he indicated, holding his hand to the level of his waist. “And they were the color of fresh plantain.”

Yellow-green men, three feet high, the Oba thought. He had not known there were such men.

Ayo speaks the truth,” Musa said. “Your Highness, they were the color of plantain, very small, and they stood and walked on three legs.”

The assembled villagers “Ohhhed” very loudly.

They had very long ears which stuck from the tops of their heads,” Ayo recalled.

The Oba of Benin turned to the third accused. “Oseni Ishola,” he said, “the men who stand accused with you have described the two in the metal as small, the color of fresh plantain, with three legs and long ears on top of their heads. Yet you say nothing.”

Oseni gulped. “Your Highness, they speak true.”

Can you tell any more about them?” the Oba asked.

Oseni Ishola thought for a long while. Then he smiled bashfully and said, “They tasted like chickens.”

Oba of Benin

Ewuare II, the current Oba of Benin.

 

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Edmond M. Hamilton (1904-1977) was a child prodigy who entered college at 14, dropped out at 17, and began writing science fiction. He was noted for rousing space-opera-type adventure stories.

Married to fellow sci-fi writer Leigh Brackett, he signed with DC Comics in 1942 to write Superman and Batman stories. That collaboration continued into the 1960s. He was instrumental in nurturing the concept of superheros, but I won’t hold that against him.

Because science fiction was Hamilton’s life, he was bound, eventually, to write a story like the one below.

———

Exile

By Edmond Hamilton
Published in Super Science Stories, May 1943

I wish now that we hadn’t got to talking about science fiction that night! If we hadn’t, I wouldn’t be haunted now by that queer, impossible story which can’t ever be proved or disproved.

But the four of us were all professional writers of fantastic stories, and I suppose shop talk was inevitable. Yet, we’d kept off it through dinner and the drinks afterward. Madison had outlined his hunting trip with gusto, and then Brazell started a discussion of the Dodgers’ chances. And then I had to turn the conversation to fantasy.

I didn’t mean to do it. But I’d had an extra Scotch, and that always makes me feel analytical. And I got to feeling amused by the perfect way in which we four resembled a quartet of normal, ordinary people.

Protective coloration, that’s what it is,” I announced. “How hard we work at the business of acting like ordinary good guys!”

Brazell looked at me, somewhat annoyed by the interruption. “What are you talking about?”

About us,” I answered. “What a wonderful imitation of solid, satisfied citizens we put up! But we’re not satisfied, you know — none of us. We’re violently dissatisfied with the Earth, and all its works, and that’s why we spend our lives dreaming up one imaginary world after another.”

I suppose the little matter of getting paid for it has nothing to do with it?” Brazell asked skeptically.

Sure it has,” I admitted. “But we all dreamed up our impossible worlds and peoples long before we ever wrote a line, didn’t we? From back in childhood, even? It’s because we don’t feel at home here.”

Madison snorted. “We’d feel a lot less at home on some of the worlds we write about.”

Then Carrick, the fourth of our party, broke into the conversation. He’d been sitting over his drink in his usual silent way, brooding, paying no attention to us.

He was a queer chap, in most ways. We didn’t know him very well, but we liked him and admired his stories. He’d done some wonderful tales of an imaginary planet — all carefully worked out.

He told Madison, “That happened to me.”

What happened to you?” Madison asked.

“What you were suggesting — I once wrote about an imaginary world and then had to live on it,” Carrick answered.

Madison laughed. “I hope it was a more livable place than the lurid planets on which I set my own yarns.”

But Carrick was unsmiling. He murmured, “I’d have made it a lot different — if I’d known I was ever going to live on it.”

Brazell, with a significant glance at Carrick’s empty glass, winked at us and then asked blandly, “Let’s hear about it, Carrick.”

Carrick kept looking dully down at his empty glass, turning it slowly in his fingers as he talked. He paused every few words.

“It happened just after I’d moved next to the big power station. It sounds like a noisy place, but actually it was very quiet out there on the edge of the city. And I had to have quiet, if I was to produce stories.

“I got right to work on a new series I was starting, the stories of which were all to be laid on the same imaginary world. I began by working out the detailed physical appearance of that world, as well as the universe that was its background. I spent the whole day concentrating on that. And, as I finished, something in my mind went click!

“That queer, brief mental sensation felt oddly like a sudden crystallization. I stood there, wondering if I were going crazy. For I had a sudden strong conviction that it meant that the universe and world I had been dreaming up all day had suddenly crystallized into physical existence somewhere.

“Naturally, I brushed aside the eerie thought and went out and forgot about it. But the next day, the thing happened again. I had spent most of that second day working up the inhabitants of my story world. I’d made them definitely human, but had decided against making them too civilized — for that would exclude the conflict and violence that must form my story.

“So, I’d made my imaginary world, a world whose people were still only half-civilized. I figured out all their cruelties and superstitions. I mentally built up their colorful barbaric cities. And just as I was through — that click! echoed sharply in my mind.

“It startled me badly, this second time. For now I felt more strongly than before that queer conviction that my day’s dreaming had crystallized into solid reality. I knew that it was insane to think that, yet it was an incredible certainty in my mind. I couldn’t get rid of it.

“I tried to reason the thing out so that I could dismiss that crazy conviction. If my imagining a world and universe had actually created them, where were they? Certainly not in my own cosmos. It couldn’t hold two universes — each completely different from the other.

“But maybe that world and universe of my imagining had crystallized into reality in another and empty cosmos? A cosmos lying in a different dimension from my own? One which had contained only free atoms, formless matter that had not taken on shape until my concentrated thought had somehow stirred it into the forms I dreamed?

“I reasoned along like that, in the queer, dreamlike way in which you apply the rules of logic to impossibilities. How did it come that my imaginings had never crystallized into reality before, but had only just begun to do so?

Well, there was a plausible explanation for that. It was the big power station nearby. Some unfathomable freak of energy radiated from it was focusing my concentrated imaginings, as super-amplified force, upon an empty cosmos where they stirred formless matter into the shapes I dreamed.

“Did I believe that? No, I didn’t believe it — but I knew it. There is quite a difference between knowledge and belief, as someone said who once pointed out that all men know they will die and none of them believe it. It was like that with me. I realized it was not possible that my imaginary world had come into physical being in a different dimensional cosmos, yet at the same time I was strangely convinced that it had.

“A thought occurred to me that amused and interested me. What if I imagined myself in that other world? Would I, too, become physically real in it? I tried it. I sat at my desk, imagining myself as one of the millions of persons in that imaginary world, dreaming up a whole soberly realistic background and family and history for myself over there. And my mind said click!”

Carrick paused, still looking down at the empty glass that he twirled slowly between his fingers.

Madison prompted him. “And of course you woke up there, and a beautiful girl was leaning over you, and you asked — ’Where am I?'”

“It wasn’t like that,” Carrick said dully. “It wasn’t like that at all. I woke up in that other world, yes. But it wasn’t like a real awakening. I was just suddenly in it.

“I was still myself. But I was the myself I had imagined in that other world. That other me had always lived in it — and so had his ancestors before him. I had worked all that out, you see.

“And I was just as real to myself, in that imaginary world I had created, as I had been in my own. That was the worst part of it. Everything in that half-civilized world was so utterly, common-placely real.”

He paused again. “It was queer, at first. I walked out into the streets of those barbaric cities, and looked into the people’s faces, and I felt like shouting aloud, ‘I imagined you all! You had no existence until I dreamed of you!’

“But I didn’t do that. They wouldn’t have believed me. To them, I was just an insignificant single member of their race. How could they guess that they and their traditions of long history, their world and their universe, had all been suddenly brought into being by my imagination?

“After my first excitement ebbed, I didn’t like the place. I had made it too barbaric. The savage violences and cruelties that had seemed so attractive as material for a story were ugly and repulsive at first hand. I wanted nothing but to get back to my own world.

“And I couldn’t get back! There just wasn’t any way. I had had a vague idea that I could imagine myself back into my own world as I had imagined myself into this other one. But it didn’t work that way. The freak force that had wrought the miracle didn’t work two ways.

“I had a pretty bad time when I realized that I was trapped in that ugly, squalid, barbarian world. I felt like killing myself at first. But I didn’t. A man can adapt himself to anything. I adapted myself the best I could to the world I had created.”

“What did you do there? What was your position, I mean?” Brazell asked.

Carrick shrugged. “I don’t know the crafts or skills of that world I’d brought into being. I had only my own skill — that of story telling.”

I began to grin. “You don’t mean to say that you started writing fantastic stories?”

He nodded soberly. “I had to. It was all I could do. I wrote stories about my own real world. To those other people my tales were wild imagination — and they liked them.”

We chuckled. But Carrick was deadly serious.

Madison humored him to the end. “And how did you finally get back home from that other world you’d created?”

“I never did get back home,” Carrick said with a heavy sigh.

“Oh, come now,” Madison protested lightly. “It’s obvious that you got back some time.”

Carrick shook his head somberly as he rose to leave.

“No, I never got back home,” he said soberly. “I’m still here.”

Hamilton-Brackett

Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton.

 

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Because of our current and understandable preoccupation with COVID-19, I decided to reread Earth Abides, a post-apocalyptic novel from 1949.

I did so mostly because of the plot, in which a deadly virus wipes out most of the human race in a matter of days, leaving scattered survivors who, for various reasons, were immune to the virus. They are left to cope as earth is reclaimed by nature and the animals.

The novel is interesting, plausible, and reasonably well-written. On a list I found of the 100 best sci-fi novels of all time, it is ranked 43rd. The author, George R. Stewart (1895-1980), was an English professor at Berkeley, a historian, and a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction.

The novel takes place in the decades post-virus, and the beginning deftly avoids the gruesome concept of a planet full of dead people. As time passes, the story becomes surprisingly positive and uplifting.

Also, I was struck by this quotation, which Stewart presents in the preface to the book:

If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutation… it could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the deaths of millions of people.” – W. M. Stanley, in Chemical and Engineering News, December 22, 1947.


The author included that ominous thought in order to set the scene, but I was curious about the ellipsis – the dot-dot-dot that indicates an intentional omission from the passage. So I Googled it.

The quotation is, indeed, genuine. Wendell M. Stanley (1904-1971) was a PhD biochemist, a virologist, and one of Stewart’s colleagues at Berkeley.

The ellipsis, it turned out, skipped nothing important. But in his 1947 article, Dr. Stanley added important information about the behavior of viruses. He wrote this:

If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutation among the viruses which attack human beings, it could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the deaths of millions of people.

Such a killing type of virus cannot perpetuate itself because it soon destroys susceptible individuals. It would then pass from the earth for lack of susceptible cells in which to reproduce. For survival or for perpetuation of a given virus, it must not kill all susceptible hosts.

Thus most of our most common virus diseases are those which are caused by viruses which live in at least partial harmony with their hosts.

In other words, for a virus, wiping out the host population would be self-defeating. I hesitate to say that virus molecules know this instinctively, but the description seems to fit.

The abridged version in Stewart’s novel is appropriately dramatic, but Stanley’s broader explanation is much more illuminating.

It is, however, small comfort in the middle of an actual pandemic.

Anyway, for a worthwhile story about an abrupt end to human civilization and what might come next, check out Earth Abides.

Earth Abides

 

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Charles Vincent De Vet (1911-1997) was an author of science fiction short stories and a few novels. He was active from the 1950s to the 1980s and published about 50 works.

Mr. De Vet tended to lean toward the melodramatic. Indeed, the decidedly melodramatic story below caught my attention less for its plot than for its breathless and florid prose.

If I weren’t such a nice guy, I’d say it brings to mind the Bulwer-Lytton  Fiction Contest. But I’m a nice guy.

———

There Is A Reaper…

By Charles V. De Vet
Published in IMAGINATION Stories of Science and Fantasy, August 1953

The amber brown of the liquor disguised the poison it held, and I watched with a smile on my lips as he drank it. There was no pity in my heart for him. He was a jackal in the jungle of life, and I… I was one of the carnivores. It is the lot of the jackals of life to be devoured by the carnivore.

Suddenly the contented look on his face froze into a startled stillness. I knew he was feeling the first savage twinge of the agony that was to come. He turned his head and looked at me, and I saw suddenly that he knew what I had done.

“You murderer!” he cursed me, and then his body arched in the middle and his voice choked off deep in his throat.

For a short minute he sat, tense, his body stiffened by the agony that rode it – unable to move a muscle. I watched the torment in his eyes build up to a crescendo of pain, until the suffering became so great that it filmed his eyes, and I knew that, though he still stared directly at me, he no longer saw me.

Then, as suddenly as the spasm had come, the starch went out of his body and his back slid slowly down the chair edge. He landed heavily with his head resting limply against the seat of the chair. His right leg doubled up in a kind of jerk, before he was still.

I knew the time had come. “Where are you?” I asked.

This moment had cost me sixty thousand dollars.

Three weeks ago the best doctors in the state had given me a month to live. And with seven million dollars in the bank I couldn’t buy a minute more.

I accepted the doctors’ decision philosophically, like the gambler that I am. But I had a plan: one which necessity had never forced me to use until now. Several years before I had read an article about the medicine men of a certain tribe of aborigines living in the jungles at the source of the Amazon River. They had discovered a process in which the juice of a certain bush – known only to them – could be used to poison a man.

Anyone subjected to this poison died, but for a few minutes after the life left his body the medicine men could still converse with him. The subject, though ostensibly and actually dead, answered the medicine men’s every question. This was their primitive, though reportedly effective method of catching glimpses of what lay in the world of death.

I had conceived my idea at the time I read the article, but I had never had the need to use it – until the doctors gave me a month to live. Then I spent my sixty thousand dollars, and three weeks later I held in my hands a small bottle of the witch doctors’ fluid.

The next step was to secure my victim – my collaborator, I preferred to call him.

The man I chose was a nobody. A homeless, friendless non-entity, picked up off the street. He had once been an educated man. But now he was only a bum, and when he died he’d never be missed. A perfect man for my experiment.

I’m a rich man because I have a system. The system is simple: I never make a move until I know exactly where that move will lead me. My field of operations is the stock market. I spend money unstintingly to secure the information I need before I take each step.

I hire the best investigators, bribe employees and persons in position to give me the information I want, and only when I am as certain as humanly possible that I cannot be wrong do I move. And the system never fails. Seven million dollars in the bank is proof of that.

Now, knowing that I could not live, I intended to make the system work for me one last time before I died. I’m a firm believer in the adage that any situation can be whipped, given prior knowledge of its coming – and, of course, its attendant circumstances.

For a moment he did not answer and I began to fear that my experiment had failed. “Where are you?” I repeated, louder and sharper this time.

The small muscles about his eyes puckered with an unnormal tension while the rest of his face held its death frost. Slowly, slowly, unnaturally – as though energized by some hyper-rational power – his lips and tongue moved.

The words he spoke were clear. “I am in a… a… tunnel,” he said. “It is lighted, dimly, but there is nothing for me to see.” Blue veins showed through the flesh of his cheeks like watermarks on translucent paper.

He paused and I urged, “Go on.”

“I am alone,” he said. “The realities I knew no longer exist, and I am damp and cold. All about me is a sense of gloom and dejection. It is an apprehension – an emanation – so deep and real as to be almost a tangible thing. The walls to either side of me seem to be formed, not of substance, but rather of the soundless cries of melancholy of spirits I cannot see.

“I am waiting, waiting in the gloom for something which will come to me. That need to wait is an innate part of my being and I have no thought of questioning it.” His voice died again.

“What are you waiting for?” I asked.

“I do not know,” he said, his voice dreary with the despair of centuries of hopelessness. “I only know that I must wait – that compulsion is greater than my strength to combat.”

The tone of his voice changed slightly. “The tunnel about me is widening and now the walls have receded into invisibility. The tunnel has become a plain, but the plain is as desolate, as forlorn and dreary as was the tunnel, and still I stand and wait. How long must this go on?”

He fell silent again, and I was about to prompt him with another question – I could not afford to let the time run out in long silences – but abruptly the muscles about his eyes tightened and subtly a new aspect replaced their hopeless dejection. Now they expressed a black, bottomless terror. For a moment I marveled that so small a portion of a facial anatomy could express such horror.

“There is something coming toward me,” he said. “A – beast – of brutish foulness! Beast is too inadequate a term to describe it, but I know no words to tell its form. It is an intangible and evasive – thing – but very real. And it is coming closer!

“It has no organs of sight as I know them, but I feel that it can see me. Or rather that it is aware of me with a sense sharper than vision itself. It is very near now. Oh God, the malevolence, the hate – the potentiality of awful, fearsome destructiveness that is its very essence! And still I cannot move!”

The expression of terrified anticipation, centered in his eyes, lessened slightly, and was replaced, instantly, by its former deep, deep despair. “I am no longer afraid,” he said.

“Why?” I interjected. “Why?” I was impatient to learn all that I could before the end came.

“Because…” He paused. “Because it holds no threat for me. Somehow, someday, I understand – I know – that it too is seeking that for which I wait.”

“What is it doing now?” I asked.

“It has stopped beside me and we stand together, gazing across the stark, empty plain. Now a second awful entity, with the same leashed virulence about it, moves up and stands at my other side. We all three wait, myself with a dark fear of this dismal universe, my unnatural companions with patient, malicious menace.

“Bits of…” He faltered. “Of… I can name it only aura, go out from the beasts like an acid stream, and touch me, and the hate, and the venom chill my body like a wave of intense cold.

“Now there are others of the awful breed behind me. We stand, waiting, waiting for that which will come. What it is I do not know.”

I could see the pallor of death creeping steadily into the last corners of his lips, and I knew that the end was not far away. Suddenly a black frustration built up within me. “What are you waiting for?” I screamed, the tenseness, and the importance of this moment forcing me to lose the iron self-control upon which I have always prided myself.

I knew that the answer held the secret of what I must know. If I could learn that, my experiment would not be in vain, and I could make whatever preparations were necessary for my own death. I had to know that answer.

“Think! Think!” I pleaded. “What are you waiting for?”

“I do not know!” The dreary despair in his eyes, sightless as they met mine, chilled me with a coldness that I felt in the marrow of my being. “I do not know,” he repeated. “I… Yes, I do know!”

Abruptly the plasmatic film cleared from his eyes and I knew that for the first time, since the poison struck, he was seeing me, clearly. I sensed that this was the last moment before he left – for good. It had to be now!

“Tell me. I command you,” I cried. “What are you waiting for?”

His voice was quiet as he murmured, softly, implacably, before he was gone.

“We are waiting,” he said, “for you.”

Reaper

Original illustration for Imagination Magazine by W. E. Terry.

 

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Miriam Allen DeFord (1888-1975) was a feminist, activist, newspaper reporter, editor, and a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction.

Early in her career, she wrote chiefly about historical events and politics from a left-wing perspective. She said in an interview, “I am unalterably and actively opposed to fascism, Nazism, Hitlerism, Hirohitoism, or whatever name may be applied to the monster.”

DeFord later turned to science fiction and, from the 1950s to the 1970s, published over 80 stories in various trade publications.

One critic described her writing as “a crisp, clear-cut style that sometimes lacks grace, but never vigor.” Which is a good description of the story below.

———

Oh, Rats!

By Miriam Allen DeFord
Published in Galaxy Magazine, December 1961

SK540, the 27th son of two very ordinary white laboratory rats, surveyed his world.

He was no more able than any other rat to possess articulate speech, or to use his paws as hands. All he had was a brain which, relative to its size, was superior to any rat’s that had hitherto appeared on Earth. It was enough.

In the first week of gestation his embryo had been removed to a more suitable receptacle than the maternal womb, and his brain had been stimulated with orthedrin, maxiton and glutamic acid. It had been continuously irrigated with blood. One hemisphere had been activated far in excess of the other, since previous experiments had shown that increased lack of symmetry between the hemispheres produced superior mentality. The end-result was an enormous increase in brain-cells in both hemispheres. His brain showed also a marked increase in cholinesterase over that of other rats.

SK540, in other words, was a super-rat.

The same processes had been applied to all his brothers and sisters. Most of them had died. The few who did not, failed to show the desired results, or showed them in so lopsided and partial a manner that it was necessary to destroy them.

All of this, of course had been mere preparation and experimentation with a view to later developments in human subjects. What SK540’s gods had not anticipated was that they would produce a creature mentally the superior, not only of his fellow-rats, but also, in some respects, of themselves.

He was a super-rat: but he was still a rat. His world of dreams and aspirations was not human, but murine.

What would you do if you were a brilliant, moody young super-rat, caged in a laboratory?

SK540 did it.

What human beings desired was health, freedom, wealth, love, and power. So did SK540. But to him health was taken for granted; freedom was freedom from cages, traps, cats, and dogs; wealth meant shelter from cold and rain and plenty to eat; love meant a constant supply of available females.

But power! It was in his longing for power that he most revealingly displayed his status as super-rat.

Therefore, once he had learned how to open his cage, he was carefully selective of the companions – actually, the followers – whom he would release to join his midnight hegira from the laboratory. Only the meekest and most subservient of the males – intelligent but not too intelligent – and the most desirable and amiable of the females were invited.

Once free of the cages, SK540 had no difficulty in leading his troop out of the building. The door of the laboratory was locked, but a window was slightly open from the top. Rats can climb up or down.

Like a silver ribbon they flowed along the dark street, SK540, looking exactly like all the rest, at their head. Only one person in the deserted streets seems to have noticed them, and he did not understand the nature of the phenomenon.

———

Young Mr. and Mrs. Philip Vinson started housekeeping in what had once been a mansion. It was now a rundown eyesore.

It had belonged to Norah Vinson’s great-aunt Martha, who had left it to her in her will. The estate was in litigation, but the executor had permitted the Vinsons to settle down in the house, though they weren’t allowed yet to sell it. It had no modern conveniences, and was full of rooms they couldn’t use and heavy old-fashioned furniture; but it was solidly built and near the laboratory where he worked as a technician, and they could live rent-free until they could sell the house and use the money to buy a real home.

“Something funny happened in the lab last night,” Philip reported, watching Norah struggle with dinner on the massive coal-stove. “Somebody broke in and stole about half our experimental animals. And they got our pride and joy.”

“The famous SK540?” Norah asked.

“The same. Actually, it wasn’t a break-in. It must have been an inside job. The cages were open but there were no signs of breaking and entering. We’re all under suspicion till they find out who-dunit.”

Norah looked alarmed.

“You too? What on earth would anybody want with a lot of laboratory rats? They aren’t worth anything, are they – financially, I mean?”

“Not a cent. That’s why I’m sure one of the clean-up kids must have done it. Probably wanted them for pets. They’re all tame, of course, not like wild rats – though they can bite like wild rats if they want to. Some of the ones missing are treated, and some are controls. It would just be a nuisance if they hadn’t taken SK540. Now they’ve got to find him, or do about five years’ work over again, without any assurance of as great a success. To say nothing of letting our super-rat loose on the world.”

“What on earth could even a super-rat do that would matter – to human beings, I mean?”

“Nobody knows. Maybe that’s what we’re going to find out.”

———

That night Norah woke suddenly with a loud scream. Philip got the gas lighted – there was no electricity in the old house – and held her shaking body in his arms. She found her breath at last long enough to sob: “It was a rat! A rat ran right over my face!”

“You’re dreaming, darling. It’s because I told you about the theft at the lab. There couldn’t be rats in this place. It’s too solidly built, from the basement up.”

He finally got her to sleep again, but he lay awake for a long time, listening. Nothing happened.

Rats can’t talk, but they can communicate. About the time Norah Vinson dropped off after her frightened wakening, SK540 was confronting a culprit. The culprit was one of the liberated males. His beady eyes tried to gaze into the implacable ones of SK540, but his tail twitched nervously and if he bared his teeth it was more in terror than in fight. They all knew that strict orders had been given not to disturb the humans in the house until SK540 had all his preparations made.

A little more of that silent communication, and the rat who had run over Norah’s face knew he had only two choices – have his throat slit or get out. He got.

“What do you know?” Philip said that evening. “One of our rats came back.”

“By itself?”

“Yeah. I never heard of such a thing. It was one of the experimental ones, so it was smarter than most, though not such an awful lot. I never heard of a rat with homing instinct before. But when we opened up this morning, there he was, sitting in his cage, ready for breakfast.”

“Speaking of breakfast, I thought I asked you to buy a big box of oatmeal on your way home yesterday. It’s about the only thing in the way of cereal I can manage on that old stove.”

“I did buy it. Don’t you remember? I left it in the kitchen.”

“Well, it wasn’t there this morning. All I know is that you’re going to have nothing but toast and coffee tomorrow. We seem to be out of eggs, too. And bacon. And I thought we had half a pound left of that cheese, but that’s gone too.”

“Good Lord, Norah, if you’ve got that much marketing to do, can’t you do it yourself?”

“Sure, if you leave the car. I’m not going to walk all that way and back.”

So of course Philip did do the shopping the next day. Besides, Norah had just remembered she had a date at the hairdresser’s.

———

When he got home her hair was still uncurled and she was in hysterics. One of the many amenities great-aunt Martha’s house lacked was a telephone; anyway, Norah couldn’t have been coherent over one. She cast herself, shuddering and crying, into Philip’s arms, and it was a long time before he got her soothed enough for her to gasp: “Philip! They wouldn’t let me out!”

“They? Who? What do you mean?”

“The – the rats! The white rats. They made a ring around me at the front door so I couldn’t open it. I ran to the back and they beat me there and did the same thing. I even tried the windows but it was no use. And their teeth – they all – I guess I went to pieces. I started throwing things at them and they just dodged. I yelled for help but there’s nobody near enough to hear. Then I gave up and ran in our bedroom and slammed the door on them, but they left guards outside. I heard them squeaking till you drove up, then I heard them run away.”

——–

Philip stared at her, scared to death. His wife had lost her mind.

“Now, now, sweetheart,” he said soothingly, “let’s get this straight. They fired a lab boy today. They found four of our rats in his home. He told some idiotic story of having ‘found’ them, with the others missing, running loose on the street that night, but of course he stole them. He must have sold the rest of them to other kids; they’re working on that now.”

Norah blew her nose and wiped her eyes. She had regained her usual calm.

“Philip Vinson,” she said coldly, “are you accusing me of lying, or just of being crazy? I’m neither. I saw and heard those rats. They’re here now. What’s more, I guess I know where that oatmeal went, and the eggs and bacon too, and the cheese. I’m – I’m a hostage!

“I don’t suppose,” she added sarcastically, “that your SK540 was one of the ones they found in the boy’s home?”

“No, it wasn’t,” he acknowledged uneasily. A nasty little icy trickle stole down his spine. “All right, Norah, I give in. You take the poker and I’ll take the hammer, and we’ll search this house from cellar to attic.”

“You won’t find them,” said Norah bitterly. “SK540’s too smart. They’ll stay inside the walls and keep quiet.”

“Then we’ll find the holes they went through and rout them out.”

They didn’t, of course. There wasn’t a sign of a rathole, or of a rat.

They got through dinner and the evening somehow. Norah put all the food not in cans inside the old-fashioned icebox which took the place of a refrigerator. Philip thought he was too disturbed to be able to sleep, but he did, and Norah, exhausted, was asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow.

His last doubt of his wife’s sanity vanished when, the next morning, they found the icebox door open and half the food gone.

———

“That settles it!” Philip announced. “Come on, Norah, put your coat on. You’re coming with me to the lab and we’ll report what’s happened. They’ll find those creatures if they have to tear the house apart to do it. That boy must have been telling the truth.”

“You couldn’t keep me away,” Norah responded. “I’ll never spend another minute alone in this house while those dreadful things are in it.”

But of course when they got to the front door, there they were, circling them, their teeth bared. The same with the back door and all the first floor windows.

“That’s SK540 all right, leading them,” Philip whispered through clenched jaws. He could smash them all, he supposed, in time, with what weapons he had. But he worked in the laboratory. He knew their value to science, especially SK540’s.

Rats couldn’t talk, he knew, and they couldn’t understand human speech. Nevertheless, some kind of communication might establish itself. SK540’s eyes were too intelligent not to believe that he was getting the gist of talk directed to him.

“This is utterly ridiculous,” Philip grated. “If you won’t let us out, how can we keep bringing food into the house for you? We’ll all starve, you and we together.”

He could have sworn SK540 was considering. But he guessed the implicit answer. Let either one of them out, now they knew the rats were there, and men from the laboratory would come quickly and overwhelm and carry off the besiegers. It was a true impasse.

“Philip,” Norah reminded him, “if you don’t go to work, they know we haven’t a phone, and somebody will be here pretty soon to find out if anything’s wrong.”

But that wouldn’t help, Philip reflected gloomily; they’d let anyone in, and keep him there.

And he thought to himself, and was careful not to say it aloud: rats are rats. Even if they are 25th generation laboratory-born. When the other food was gone there would be human meat.

He did not want to look at them any more. He took Norah’s arm and turned away into their bedroom.

They stayed there all day, too upset to think of eating, talking and talking to no conclusion. As dusk came on they did not light the gas. Exhausted, they lay down on the bed without undressing.

After a while there was a quiet scratching at the door.

“Don’t let them in!” Norah whispered. Her teeth were chattering.

“I must, dear,” he whispered back. “It isn’t ‘them,’ I’m sure of it – it’s just SK540 himself. I’ve been expecting him. We’ve got to reach some kind of understanding.”

“With a rat?”

“With a super-rat. We have no choice.”

Philip was right. SK540 alone stood there and sidled in as the door closed solidly again behind him.

How could one communicate with a rat? Philip could think of no way except to pick him up, place him where they were face to face, and talk.

“Are your – followers outside?” he asked.

A rodent’s face can have no expression, but Philip caught a glance of contempt in the beady eyes. The slaves were doubtless bedded down in their hideaway, with strict orders to stay there and keep quiet.

“You know,” Philip Vinson went on, “I could kill you, very easily.” The words would mean nothing to SK540; the tone might. He watched the beady eyes; there was nothing in them but intelligent attention, no flicker of fear.

“Or I could tie you up and take you to the laboratory and let them decide whether to keep you or kill you. We are all much bigger and stronger than you. Without your army you can’t intimidate us.”

There was, of course, no answer. But SK540 did a startling and touching thing. He reached out one front paw, as if in appeal.

Norah caught her breath in astonishment.

———

“He – he just wants to be free,” she said in a choked whisper.

“You mean you’re not afraid of him any more?”

“You said yourself he couldn’t intimidate us without his army.”

Philip thought a minute. Then he said slowly:

“I wonder if we had the right to do this to him in the first place. He would have been an ordinary laboratory rat, mindless and contented; we’ve made him into a neurotic alien in his world.”

“You’re not responsible, darling; you’re a technician, not a biochemist.”

“I share the responsibility. We all do.”

“So what? The fact remains that it was done, and here he is – and here we are.”

The doorbell rang.

Philip and Norah exchanged glances. SK540 watched them.

“It’s probably Kelly, from the lab,” Philip said, “trying to find out why I wasn’t there today. It’s just about quitting time, and he lives nearest us.”

Norah astonished him. She picked up SK540 from the bed-side table where Philip had placed him, and hid him under her pillow.

“Get rid of whoever it is,” she said defensively. Philip stared for an instant, then walked briskly downstairs. He was back in a few minutes.

“It was Kelly, all right,” he told her. “I said you were sick and I couldn’t leave you to phone. I said I’d be there tomorrow. Now what?”

SK540’s white whiskers emerged from under the pillow, and he jumped over to the table again. Norah’s cheeks were pink.

“When it came to the point, I just couldn’t,” she explained shamefacedly. “I suddenly realized that he’s a person. I couldn’t let him be taken back to prison.”

“Aren’t you frightened any more?”

“Not of him.” She faced the super-rat squarely. “Look,” she said, “if we take care of you, will you get rid of that gang of yours, so we can be free too?”

“That’s nonsense, Norah,” Philip objected. “He can’t possibly understand you.”

“Dogs and cats learn to understand enough, and he’s smarter than any dog or cat that ever lived.”

“But –”

The words froze on his lips. SK540 had jumped to the floor and run to the door. There he stood and looked back at them, his tail twitching.

“He wants us to follow him,” Norah murmured.

There was no sign of a hole in the back wall of the disused pantry. But behind it they could hear squeaks and rustlings.

SK540 scratched delicately at almost invisible cracks. A section of the wall, two by four inches, fell out on the floor.

“So that’s where some of the oatmeal went,” Norah commented. “Made into paste.”

“Sh!”

SK540 vanished through the hole. They waited, listening to incomprehensible sounds. Outside it had grown dark.

———

Then the leader emerged and stood to one side of the long line that pattered through the hole. The two humans stared, fascinated, as the line made straight for the back door and under it. SK540 stayed where he was.

“Will they go back to the lab?” Norah asked.

Philip shrugged.

“It doesn’t matter. Some of them may… I feel like a traitor.”

“I don’t. I feel like one of those people who hid escaped war prisoners in Europe.”

When the rats were all gone, they turned to SK540. But without a glance at them he re-entered the hiding-place. In a minute he returned, herding two white rats before him. He stood still, obviously expectant.

Philip squatted on his heels. He picked up the two refugees and looked them over.

“Both females,” he announced briefly. “And both pregnant.”

“Is he the father?”

“Who else? He’d see to that.”

“And will they inherit his – his –”

“His ‘super-ratism’? That’s the whole point. That’s the object of the entire experiment. They were going to try it soon.”

The three white rats had scarcely moved. The two mothers-to-be had apparently fallen asleep. Only SK540 stood quietly eying the humans. When they left him to find a place where they could talk in private he did not follow them.

“It comes down to this,” Philip said at the end of half an hour’s fruitless discussion. “We promised him, or as good as. He believed us and trusted us.

“But if we keep to our promise we’re really traitors – to the human race.”

“You mean, if the offspring should inherit his brain-power, they might overrun us all?”

“Not might. Would.”

“So –”

“So it’s an insoluble problem, on our terms. We have to think of this as a war, and of them as our enemies. What is our word of honor to a rat?”

“But to a super-rat – to SK540 –”

As if called, SK540 appeared.

Had he been listening? Had he understood? Neither of them dared to voice the question aloud in his presence.

“Later,” Philip murmured.

“We must eat,” said Norah. “Let’s see what’s left in the way of food.”

———

Everything tasted flat; they weren’t very hungry after all. There was enough left over to feed the three rats. But they had evidently helped themselves earlier; they left the scraps untasted.

Neither of the humans guessed what else had vanished from the pantry shelves – what, when he had heard enough, SK540 had slipped away and sprinkled on the remaining contents of the icebox, wherever the white powder would not show.

They did not know until it was too late – until both of them lay writhing in their last spasms on their bedroom floor.

By the time the house was broken into and their bodies found, SK540 and his two wives were far away, and safe…

And this, children, is the true account, handed down by tradition from the days of our great Founder, of how the human race ceased to exist and we took over the world.

Rats

 

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The celebrated American writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007) had the unsettling ability to create preposterous, madcap scenarios, usually a blend of satire and gallows humor, then insert elements of catastrophic horror and dread.

To wit, in “Cat’s Cradle,” his 1963 novel about religion and the arms race, the molecules of all the water on the planet simultaneously crystallize into a substance called ice-nine.

Further, “Slaughterhouse Five, his 1969 anti-war/time-travel novel, includes the terrible firebombing of Dresden during WWII. As you may know, Vonnegut was a prisoner there during the Allied bombing. He and other POWs survived by hiding in a meat locker at the slaughterhouse where they were imprisoned.

The short story below is similarly bleak and awful in tone. “2BR02B” (To Be or Naught to Be) tells of a future Earth where aging and death are optional, and strict population control is enforced; to make room for a newborn, someone must volunteer to die.

Vintage Vonnegut.

———

2BR02B

By Kurt Vonnegut
Published in Worlds of If Science Fiction, January 1962

Everything was perfectly swell.

There were no prisons, no slums, no insane asylums, no cripples, no poverty, no wars.

All diseases were conquered. So was old age.

Death, barring accidents, was an adventure for volunteers.

The population of the United States was stabilized at forty-million souls.

One bright morning in the Chicago Lying-in Hospital, a man named Edward K. Wehling, Jr., waited for his wife to give birth. He was the only man waiting. Not many people were born a day any more.

Wehling was fifty-six, a mere stripling in a population whose average age was one hundred and twenty-nine.

X-rays had revealed that his wife was going to have triplets. The children would be his first.

Young Wehling was hunched in his chair, his head in his hand. He was so rumpled, so still and colorless as to be virtually invisible. His camouflage was perfect, since the waiting room had a disorderly and demoralized air, too. Chairs and ashtrays had been moved away from the walls. The floor was paved with spattered dropcloths.

The room was being redecorated. It was being redecorated as a memorial to a man who had volunteered to die.

A sardonic old man, about two hundred years old, sat on a stepladder, painting a mural he did not like. Back in the days when people aged visibly, his age would have been guessed at thirty-five or so. Aging had touched him that much before the cure for aging was found.

The mural he was working on depicted a very neat garden. Men and women in white, doctors and nurses, turned the soil, planted seedlings, sprayed bugs, spread fertilizer.

Men and women in purple uniforms pulled up weeds, cut down plants that were old and sickly, raked leaves, carried refuse to trash-burners.

Never, never, never — not even in medieval Holland nor old Japan — had a garden been more formal, been better tended. Every plant had all the loam, light, water, air and nourishment it could use.

A hospital orderly came down the corridor, singing under his breath a popular song:

If you don’t like my kisses, honey,
Here’s what I will do:
I’ll go see a girl in purple,
Kiss this sad world toodle-oo.
If you don’t want my lovin’,
Why should I take up all this space?
I’ll get off this old planet,
Let some sweet baby have my place.

The orderly looked in at the mural and the muralist. “Looks so real,” he said, “I can practically imagine I’m standing in the middle of it.”

“What makes you think you’re not in it?” said the painter. He gave a satiric smile. “It’s called ‘The Happy Garden of Life,’ you know.”

“That’s good of Dr. Hitz,” said the orderly.

He was referring to one of the male figures in white, whose head was a portrait of Dr. Benjamin Hitz, the hospital’s Chief Obstetrician. Hitz was a blindingly handsome man.

“Lot of faces still to fill in,” said the orderly. He meant that the faces of many of the figures in the mural were still blank. All blanks were to be filled with portraits of important people on either the hospital staff or from the Chicago Office of the Federal Bureau of Termination.

“Must be nice to be able to make pictures that look like something,” said the orderly.

The painter’s face curdled with scorn. “You think I’m proud of this daub?” he said. “You think this is my idea of what life really looks like?”

“What’s your idea of what life looks like?” said the orderly.

The painter gestured at a foul dropcloth. “There’s a good picture of it,” he said. “Frame that, and you’ll have a picture a damn sight more honest than this one.”

“You’re a gloomy old duck, aren’t you?” said the orderly.

“Is that a crime?” said the painter.

The orderly shrugged. “If you don’t like it here, Grandpa –” he said, and he finished the thought with the trick telephone number that people who didn’t want to live any more were supposed to call. The zero in the telephone number he pronounced “naught.”

The number was: “2 B R 0 2 B.”

It was the telephone number of an institution whose fanciful sobriquets included: “Automat,” “Birdland,” “Cannery,” “Catbox,” “De-louser,” “Easy-go,” “Good-by, Mother,” “Happy Hooligan,” “Kiss-me-quick,” “Lucky Pierre,” “Sheepdip,” “Waring Blender,” “Weep-no-more” and “Why Worry?”

“To be or not to be” was the telephone number of the municipal gas chambers of the Federal Bureau of Termination.

The painter thumbed his nose at the orderly. “When I decide it’s time to go,” he said, “it won’t be at the Sheepdip.”

“A do-it-yourselfer, eh?” said the orderly. “Messy business, Grandpa. Why don’t you have a little consideration for the people who have to clean up after you?”

The painter expressed with an obscenity his lack of concern for the tribulations of his survivors. “The world could do with a good deal more mess, if you ask me,” he said.

The orderly laughed and moved on.

Wehling, the waiting father, mumbled something without raising his head. And then he fell silent again.

A coarse, formidable woman strode into the waiting room on spike heels. Her shoes, stockings, trench coat, bag and overseas cap were all purple, the purple the painter called “the color of grapes on Judgment Day.”

The medallion on her purple musette bag was the seal of the Service Division of the Federal Bureau of Termination, an eagle perched on a turnstile.

The woman had a lot of facial hair — an unmistakable mustache, in fact. A curious thing about gas-chamber hostesses was that, no matter how lovely and feminine they were when recruited, they all sprouted mustaches within five years or so.

“Is this where I’m supposed to come?” she said to the painter.

“A lot would depend on what your business was,” he said. “You aren’t about to have a baby, are you?”

“They told me I was supposed to pose for some picture,” she said. “My name’s Leora Duncan.” She waited.

“And you dunk people,” he said.

“What?” she said.

“Skip it,” he said.

“That sure is a beautiful picture,” she said. “Looks just like heaven or something.”

“Or something,” said the painter. He took a list of names from his smock pocket. “Duncan, Duncan, Duncan,” he said, scanning the list. “Yes — here you are. You’re entitled to be immortalized. See any faceless body here you’d like me to stick your head on? We’ve got a few choice ones left.”

She studied the mural bleakly. “Gee,” she said, “they’re all the same to me. I don’t know anything about art.”

“A body’s a body, eh?” he said. “All righty. As a master of fine art, I recommend this body here.” He indicated a faceless figure of a woman who was carrying dried stalks to a trash-burner.

“Well,” said Leora Duncan, “that’s more the disposal people, isn’t it? I mean, I’m in service. I don’t do any disposing.”

The painter clapped his hands in mock delight. “You say you don’t know anything about art, and then you prove in the next breath that you know more about it than I do! Of course the sheave-carrier is wrong for a hostess! A snipper, a pruner — that’s more your line.” He pointed to a figure in purple who was sawing a dead branch from an apple tree. “How about her?” he said. “You like her at all?”

“Gosh –” she said, and she blushed and became humble — “that — that puts me right next to Dr. Hitz.”

“That upsets you?” he said.

“Good gravy, no!” she said. “It’s — it’s just such an honor.”

“Ah, You… you admire him, eh?” he said.

“Who doesn’t admire him?” she said, worshiping the portrait of Hitz. It was the portrait of a tanned, white-haired, omnipotent Zeus, two hundred and forty years old. “Who doesn’t admire him?” she said again. “He was responsible for setting up the very first gas chamber in Chicago.”

“Nothing would please me more,” said the painter, “than to put you next to him for all time. Sawing off a limb—that strikes you as appropriate?”

“That is kind of like what I do,” she said. She was demure about what she did. What she did was make people comfortable while she killed them.

And, while Leora Duncan was posing for her portrait, into the waiting-room bounded Dr. Hitz himself. He was seven feet tall, and he boomed with importance, accomplishments, and the joy of living.

“Well, Miss Duncan! Miss Duncan!” he said, and he made a joke. “What are you doing here?” he said. “This isn’t where the people leave. This is where they come in!”

“We’re going to be in the same picture together,” she said shyly.

“Good!” said Dr. Hitz heartily. “And, say, isn’t that some picture?”

“I sure am honored to be in it with you,” she said.

“Let me tell you,” he said, “I’m honored to be in it with you. Without women like you, this wonderful world we’ve got wouldn’t be possible.”

He saluted her and moved toward the door that led to the delivery rooms. “Guess what was just born,” he said.

“I can’t,” she said.

“Triplets!” he said.

“Triplets!” she said. She was exclaiming over the legal implications of triplets.

The law said that no newborn child could survive unless the parents of the child could find someone who would volunteer to die. Triplets, if they were all to live, called for three volunteers.

“Do the parents have three volunteers?” said Leora Duncan.

“Last I heard,” said Dr. Hitz, “they had one, and were trying to scrape another two up.”

“I don’t think they made it,” she said. “Nobody made three appointments with us. Nothing but singles going through today, unless somebody called in after I left. What’s the name?”

“Wehling,” said the waiting father, sitting up, red-eyed and frowzy. “Edward K. Wehling, Jr., is the name of the happy father-to-be.”

He raised his right hand, looked at a spot on the wall, gave a hoarsely wretched chuckle. “Present,” he said.

“Oh, Mr. Wehling,” said Dr. Hitz, “I didn’t see you.”

“The invisible man,” said Wehling.

“They just phoned me that your triplets have been born,” said Dr. Hitz. “They’re all fine, and so is the mother. I’m on my way in to see them now.”

“Hooray,” said Wehling emptily.

“You don’t sound very happy,” said Dr. Hitz.

“What man in my shoes wouldn’t be happy?” said Wehling. He gestured with his hands to symbolize care-free simplicity. “All I have to do is pick out which one of the triplets is going to live, then deliver my maternal grandfather to the Happy Hooligan, and come back here with a receipt.”

Dr. Hitz became rather severe with Wehling, towered over him. “You don’t believe in population control, Mr. Wehling?” he said.

“I think it’s perfectly keen,” said Wehling tautly.

“Would you like to go back to the good old days, when the population of the Earth was twenty billion — about to become forty billion, then eighty billion, then one hundred and sixty billion? Do you know what a drupelet is, Mr. Wehling?” said Hitz.

“Nope,” said Wehling sulkily.

“A drupelet, Mr. Wehling, is one of the little knobs, one of the little pulpy grains of a blackberry,” said Dr. Hitz. “Without population control, human beings would now be packed on this surface of this old planet like drupelets on a blackberry! Think of it!”

Wehling continued to stare at the same spot on the wall.

“In the year 2000,” said Dr. Hitz, “before scientists stepped in and laid down the law, there wasn’t even enough drinking water to go around, and nothing to eat but sea-weed — and still people insisted on their right to reproduce like jackrabbits. And their right, if possible, to live forever.”

“I want those kids,” said Wehling quietly. “I want all three of them.”

“Of course you do,” said Dr. Hitz. “That’s only human.”

“I don’t want my grandfather to die, either,” said Wehling.

“Nobody’s really happy about taking a close relative to the Catbox,” said Dr. Hitz gently, sympathetically.

“I wish people wouldn’t call it that,” said Leora Duncan.

“What?” said Dr. Hitz.

“I wish people wouldn’t call it ‘the Catbox,’ and things like that,” she said. “It gives people the wrong impression.”

“You’re absolutely right,” said Dr. Hitz. “Forgive me.” He corrected himself, gave the municipal gas chambers their official title, a title no one ever used in conversation. “I should have said, ‘Ethical Suicide Studios,'” he said.

“That sounds so much better,” said Leora Duncan.

“This child of yours — whichever one you decide to keep, Mr. Wehling,” said Dr. Hitz. “He or she is going to live on a happy, roomy, clean, rich planet, thanks to population control. In a garden like that mural there.” He shook his head. “Two centuries ago, when I was a young man, it was a hell that nobody thought could last another twenty years. Now centuries of peace and plenty stretch before us as far as the imagination cares to travel.”

He smiled luminously.

The smile faded as he saw that Wehling had just drawn a revolver.

Wehling shot Dr. Hitz dead. “There’s room for one — a great big one,” he said.

And then he shot Leora Duncan. “It’s only death,” he said to her as she fell. “There! Room for two.”

And then he shot himself, making room for all three of his children.

Nobody came running. Nobody, seemingly, heard the shots.

The painter sat on the top of his stepladder, looking down reflectively on the sorry scene.

The painter pondered the mournful puzzle of life demanding to be born and, once born, demanding to be fruitful… to multiply and to live as long as possible — to do all that on a very small planet that would have to last forever.

All the answers that the painter could think of were grim. Even grimmer, surely, than a Catbox, a Happy Hooligan, an Easy Go. He thought of war. He thought of plague. He thought of starvation.

He knew that he would never paint again. He let his paintbrush fall to the drop-cloths below. And then he decided he had had about enough of life in the Happy Garden of Life, too, and he came slowly down from the ladder.

He took Wehling’s pistol, really intending to shoot himself.

But he didn’t have the nerve.

And then he saw the telephone booth in the corner of the room. He went to it, dialed the well-remembered number: “2 B R 0 2 B.”

“Federal Bureau of Termination,” said the very warm voice of a hostess.

“How soon could I get an appointment?” he asked, speaking very carefully.

“We could probably fit you in late this afternoon, sir,” she said. “It might even be earlier, if we get a cancellation.”

“All right,” said the painter, “fit me in, if you please.” And he gave her his name, spelling it out.

“Thank you, sir,” said the hostess. “Your city thanks you; your country thanks you; your planet thanks you. But the deepest thanks of all is from future generations.”

Triplets

 

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