Authors: John Brunner
Tags: #Science fiction
is—where did we fall down?”
There was a ragged edge to the voice of Ward, President of the United States of America, who uttered the question.
He sat in a deep, comfortable arm-chair in Briaros’s apartment, in a block close to the United Nations building, where the great men of Earth had come together informally at the secretary-general’s invitation to try and relax sufficiently to consider the problem facing them. They had almost all seized the suggestion as a brilliant idea; it did not seem, on the face of it, that any rational conclusion could be reached by the normal procedure of arguing through conferences and diplomatic channels. Consequently the apartment was now crowded with the most important persons on the planet. It was a measure of the shaking mankind had had.
Ward had spoken in English; everyone present spoke the language more or less well. In response, heads shook. Grave expressions were on every face.
Briaros—as host, he was to speak first—regarded the fine glass between his hands thoughtfully. He said, “Maybe we couldn’t have done any better. Maybe Gyul Kodran is quite right.”
“Only too possible,” said Heirach, Prime Minister of Israel. He tried not to glance across the room at Ibn Mostaq of the UAR, and failed. “After all, our history is as he said: marked with intolerance and violence for petty and stupid reasons.”
Ibn Mostaq flushed a little under his sallow Arab skin. He said half-defensively, “But it’s no good raking up the dirt of the past, is it?”
“On the contrary,” said the slightly lisping voice of Wang Tong, President of China. “As I see it, Briaros, we were naturally wrong because our bad conscience brought us to show Gyul Kodran that we were better than we had been. We went out of our way to show him the steps we have had to take to rid ourselves of the plague of war and intolerance.
to take; I stress that particularly.” He glanced at Pandit Chandramurti. “I think our honored colleague from India will bear me out.”
“Indeed yes!” said Chandramurti emphatically. “It is a matter of bad conscience. It has always been said—that Hinduism is the most tolerant religion evolved by man, and one points to the ceremony which was formerly current for re-receiving into the Hindu faith those who had adopted Christianity for motives of gain. Likewise the other great religion, Buddhism, which was born on our subcontinent, preaches
tolerance and self-denial. Yet we in India had a bad conscience—hatred of Islam preys on us yet!”
“I also feel guilty,” sighed Briaros. “Not that the thing is actually my fault … Yet I feel it unfortunate that a Chilean should have occupied my position at the time when Gyul Kodran came to us. For after all my country’s territorial limits were established by one of the very few entirely successful wars of aggression in human history.”
“If you will pardon my saying so,” put in the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Mrs. Marchbanks, in her dry, rather soft voice, “I think we’re just throwing words about. I think we should frankly admit that we are all scared stiff.”
Briaros glanced at her. She seemed to have put her finger on a vitally important point, for people began to nod and after a covert glance at one another they relaxed noticeably.
Heinrich von Heusinger, of the German Union, grunted. He said, “Yes, we are scared! But how are we to face the problem? How to eliminate this fear? How are we to even begin to select the man—or woman,” with a glance at Mrs. Marchbanks, “on whom our future will depend?”
Briaros hesitated. He turned at length, rather reluctantly, to Solomon Katinga, Council Chairman of the United States of Africa, and addressed him diffidently.
“I hope you won’t take this amiss, Mr. Katinga,” he said. “But it seems to me that whoever is selected will be in the position of a primitive brought suddenly into a great modern city—a Bakongo in New York, say. And possibly you might be equipped to guide us on the point.”
Katinga answered self consciously, as everyone turned to look at him with deep attention and interest. “No, Mr. Secretary, I don’t take it amiss. You see, I was that kind of man; I was twenty before I was at an airport, and I was twelve before I wore shoes. I think I know maybe better than all of you what the feelings are like of a man brought suddenly into a new and terribly strange world.”
“Let’s face it—there’s the one problem that our man won’t have. That’s the problem like of people deliberately grinding him down. We can guess that these Federationers would rather have us with them than not, so we’ll get help and the benefit of the doubt, right? But then there’s the rest of the problem. I mean, like simply staying alive. I nearly walked
under cars a dozen times when I was first in a city. I couldn’t but more than slightly read, too, and I couldn’t find my way about. I got on wrong buses and wrong trains, and I was always being late for appointments because I wasn’t geared to clocks.”
“What we do then is this,” said von Heusinger indicating approval. “We find as many people as we can who’ve done as Mr. Katinga did—who know the problems facing the outsider, as one says. And we then make our choice of the man best suited to represent us.”
“All respect,” said Wang Tong softly. They turned to him; they always heard Wang Tong out of regard for his awe-inspiring intellect. No other country except China, with its age long tradition of worshipping wisdom, would ever have elected a philosopher to its highest office; that China had done so was the world’s good fortune, and people admitted the fact.
“This is good,” said Wang Tong. “But it is not enough. I also know the feeling of coming out of the old world to the new, for I was born one of eight children on an under-mechanized farm, and when I was five years old I knew better how to plant rice in a paddy than how to speak my language. But I say it is not enough. We must also weigh other factors. There is—for one example—civilized behavior. There is etiquette. There is language. There is the question of the social graces. These are the things which make men tolerable to one another. They are not superficial; they are the insulation which we have to prevent us from knocking against others and doing damage by which anger and revenge may be called forth.”
Briaros nodded. He said, “I think we have an impossible task, friends. I do not know of anyone on Earth who is fit to be chosen. Except possibly—yourself.”
“You flatter me,” said Wang Tong. “And, I may say, you are also in error. Forgive the bluntness of an old man. But I am old, and I have grown blunt and intolerant by my own standards. How then shall I pass the exacting test of those in the Federation of Worlds?”
“Don’t underestimate the importance of simple survival,” said Prince Naborit of Thailand suddenly. “After all, Gyul
Kodran did mention that as the prime qualification our representative must possess.”
Ksesshinsky of the USSR chuckled into the silence that followed the Prince’s dampening remark. He said, “I apologize for ill-timed laughter. But it has just occurred to me what my predecessors might have said on this subject—that of course any citizen of the post-state society would be fit to undertake this task. Indeed, what we are looking for is the man defined as the end-product of Marxist evolution.”
Ward, who had not spoken since his question launched the discussion, unexpectedly cracked an answering smile. “And I’m pretty sure that
predecessors would also have had an answer,” he said. “They’d have insisted upon our selecting one with the indomitable pioneering spirit and the urge to get ahead.”
The relaxation was spreading. Mrs. Marchbanks said, “Without wishing to usurp any place in the sun for my own people, I’d venture to suggest that if our Chinese colleague is right, an English type would be ideal—with his stiff upper lip, his lack of emotion and his formal manners. Of course,” she added, “you could make out an equally good case for Mr. Katinga, who has had the right kind of experience, or for anyone here at all.”
“I keep worrying about another point Gyul Kodran made,” said Duleira of Brazil. “Prince Naborit has reminded us that survival ability is at a premium, in Gyul Kodran’s opinion. He also told us, though, that the nature of our choice would indicate a good deal to the Federationers about us.
“A good point,” said Briaros. “Let us then try and stress what we are rather than what we have been. What are the achievements we regard as our highest, aside from the reforms we’ve made in our social order?”
People looked dubious. “The matter of medicine?” suggested Mrs. Marchbanks. “Specifically, the regrowth of lost limbs and the use of prosthetic organs?” “Biology, then,” said Briaros, making a note on a pad.
“I beg your pardon” said Wang Tong softly. “But these prosthetic organs are rather a triumph of engineering than of medicine.”
“How about the building of our starship?” Ward proposed. “I think that’s important; Gyul Kodran said it would
probably be successful.”
“Engineering, then,” Briaros said.
“Not just engineering,” said Ksesshinsky. “It’s applied physics, that starship. More to the point, perhaps, they say that pure mathematics is the highest creative activity of our intelligence.”
“Physics and pure mathematics, then,” agreed Briaros.
“I don’t think we can altogether sidestep our social reforms,” said Heirach. “We must admit that our advances in this respect are due to our growing knowledge of ourselves. Of psychology in all its forms.” “Psychology,” agreed Briaros.
“And another point to which Gyul Kodran attached a great deal of importance,” said Duleira. “Language. You recall his selection of Esperanto and his one-man evolution of it into a higher language than any other we have? I’d say it was a cardinal point to learn very quickly the local language and use it well, which will involve understanding of the mores of its speakers.”
Briaros looked at his list glumly. “So we apparently require someone who’s brilliant in all these fields: engineering; biology; physics; mathematics; psychology and I suppose anthropology and linguistics and ethnology and social engineering and everything associated therewith. Friends, the man we’re looking for does not exist.”
The Russian struggled to form words, and it was obvious that his difficulty was due to uncontrollable excitement. He said eventually, the words pouring over one another, “No! Maybe he is not existing now but why not when we have all the people like this—there must be the finest of all these among us somewhere and we must find them!”
“But we can only send one man!” objected Prince Naborit.
“Yes! Yessss!” The Russian’s eyes were gleaming. “We can send only one man
Briaros said feebly, “But we only have a year!”
“A year!” almost shouted Ksesshinsky. “A year is time enough for miracles! I’m a materialist, friend! What man can think of, man can do!”
Slowly, as they saw what Ksesshinsky meant, the others began to nod.
“All we can do is try,” said Mrs. Marchbank. “So—we try.
already fallen by seven-thirty. Joe Morea had to use his headlamps in the quiet suburban street to locate Maggie’s number; he had only been to the house once before, by daylight. He was driving cautiously. It was strange to be back in a vehicle operating in two dimensions instead of three, strange to have his weight pressing down continually on the seat cushions instead of only when he gunned the power. He had just come back to Earth from the orbit where they were assembling the hull of
He left the car standing by the roadside and went to the door of the house. He rang and was admitted by the doorbot on simply announcing his name. Obviously it had been set to recognize him. A recorded message in Maggie’s pleasant contralto came from it, saying, “I won’t keep you a moment, Joe. I’m almost ready. Sit down in the lounge.”
He nodded absently and went through into the lounge, glad to drop his heavy-seeming body into the comfort of a deep chair. From the doorbot came a postscript to the invitation to enter: “Dial yourself a drink while you’re waiting, if you like.”
The liquor console was within arm’s reach; he dialed a Tom Collins because he hadn’t had a Tom Collins since leaving Earth for orbit, and sipped it when it was delivered. He tried to maintain a sense of relaxation, and failed. He ought to have been glad of the unrequested furlough; he ought to be glad that he was here, in a comfortable Earthside house, drinking a Tom Collins and waiting to take a pretty girl to dinner.
Frowning, drawing his bushy brown eyebrows together on his handsome though lantern-jawed face, Joe cradled the glass in his large capable hands and stared at it, past and through it.
Why was he here, anyway? It had been the shock of his life when Chief Engineer Malik called him to his office three
days back and put the question to him bluntly: “How’s about a short furlough Earthside, Joe?”
Startled, Joe’s answer had been automatic. “You kidding? I’d love it!”
“Okay,” Malik had said. “There’s space on the shuttle tomorrow. Your section is almost fifteen days ahead of schedule, thanks to that dodge of yours. We’ll get along without you.”
And Joe hadn’t stopped then to ask any more questions; he’d been too afraid the furlough might turn out to be imagination. The worry came later. It was just ridiculous that he should have been given this furlough for no other reason than that space was vacant on the shuttle ship. He’d signed on for a full twelve-month tour, and he was satisfied to look forward to his three months’ leave afterward. The dodge he’d worked out for hull-plate assembly—the one which, as Malik had said, had put his section fifteen days ahead of schedule on their job—was something anyone might have come up with; it was superior to welding or even to Johannsen-block mating, because it produced an intra-crystalline bond. But it was no more than a special application of the same principle that lifted the shuttle ships—polarization of gravity. You just polarized the molecular binding forces of the surface to be joined, brought them together under pressure so that as it were the crystals of the metal slid into and between one another, and then switched off the power so that they stayed interpenetrated. It was that simple.
Or so Joe felt. Other people had smacked their foreheads and called him a genius. It made him uncomfortable to be called a genius; for his money, geniuses couldn’t really prove their claim to the title till they were at least forty, and he was only twenty-eight.
So why had he been sent back to Earth?
His reflection was cut short by Maggie’s entrance, looking like a pin-up come to life: her dark hair dusted with gold, her figure displayed to perfection by a red dress which was only by courtesy formal, and clung in some important places and fell in graceful folds in others, contriving to hint that these were still more interesting. Joe’s mind emptied at once of practically everything except her.
He hauled himself to his feet—still finding it hard work,
because his muscles were adjusted to free-fall movement after his months in orbit—and said delightedly, “Maggie, you look terrific.”
She grinned impishly and came over for a kiss. “I know,” she said. “I thought you deserved it.”
She perched on the arm of his chair and put one delicately manicured finger on the dial of the liquor console. “Don’t hurry to finish your drink,” she said. “There’s time enough. What are you having?”
“A Tom Collins.”
“I’ll join you.” She dialed, picked up the glass when it was filled, and raised it to him. “To a long and happy acquaintance,” she said.
“Agreed. I wish I knew how long. They didn’t set a limit to my furlough, and it’ll only be ten days or so at most, I imagine.” He dropped back into the chair.
Maggie sipped her drink, and then set it down on her knee with a thoughtful look. “I’m awfully glad I met you, Joe,” she said. “I’ve often thought about your people up there in orbit, working on the starship. Like a kind of defiant gesture, isn’t it?”
Joe blinked. “I’m not with you,” he said after a pause.
“No?” She turned large, liquid eyes on him. “Oh, but surely! I mean, some people would just have chucked their hands in after Gyul Kodran’s ultimatum—”
“Oh, do we have to talk about that?” Joe broke in. “I was hoping to get away from it! That’s about all we ever talk about, up there with
. Whether the Federationers can really keep their word, and how they’ll keep it, if our representative doesn’t pass their test.”
“I’m sorry,” said Maggie. “But I’m afraid that’s about all anyone talks about down here nowadays. Haven’t you seen the papers, for example?”
“I haven’t taken time to look at one since I landed yesterday.”
“Well, practically every paper has a big red box on the top of page one now, with the number of days remaining before the Federation ship comes to take our representative. It’s about a hundred and forty-eight days now, I think. And there’s still no news. Nothing!”
Joe sipped his drink. He said, “Well, one wouldn’t expect them to announce their decision in advance anyway, because everyone would be able to think of a reason for not sending the person they selected.”
“But there’s a storm of complaint about not having any news at all, which is probably worse.”
She glanced at him. “Tell me, how do people feel about this—up there with
, as you said?
“As to what we think about it all—” Joe sighed. He had not really expected to start the evening with Maggie talking about this of all subjects, but it was understandable, he supposed. After all, this was probably the most crucial single problem ever to have faced the human race.
“You’re just determined to go ahead and be damned to Gyul Kodran and his ultimatum, I guess,” suggested Maggie.
“Not exactly. We are going ahead, true. But the way we see it, we’re not qualified to even begin to think of who ought to go as our representative to the Federation capitol. So all we can do is put our trust in the people who are—the psychologists and the sociologists and the other experts.”
“But who’s an expert when it comes to this?” Maggie demanded. “It’s never happened before! You know, a lot of people are saying that when the Federation ship comes back we should go out and tell it to go to hell, and we’ll come to the Federation capitol under our own power when we’re good and ready.”
“I think that’s absurd,” said Joe heatedly. “Were you watching Gyul Kodran when he made his last speech at the UN?”
“Wasn’t everybody?” countered Maggie with a sarcastic smile.
“Right, then you’ll remember how he disappeared—literally and physically disappeared. How was that trick worked? We’ve beaten our brains out over that one a hundred times, up at the station, and the best conclusion we’ve come to is that the Federationers could probably do exactly that with any ship we try to send to them. They could ship it back where it started from. It’d take power, but it looks as though they could do it.”
“I think they’re damnably highhanded,” said Maggie with a sigh, and emptied her glass. “Shall we go?”
They went. But somehow they continued to talk about the same subject over dinner; there just wasn’t any other subject of comparable interest. And it began to be borne in on Joe that people were worried. He caught snatches of talk from adjacent tables in the restaurant where they ate, which indicated that the subject of conversation was the same there.
And outside the hall where they went to dance afterwards, when they emerged, there was a man on a speaker-platform haranguing a crowd in fanatical tones.
“What on earth is this?” Joe demanded of Maggie, startled.
“Him? Oh, he’s a One-Worlder. There are a lot of them about. Their idea is that since the Federation doesn’t welcome us on our terms, we ought to tell them they can have their galaxy and we’ll carry on our own way. It’s sort of sour grapes.”
To judge from the eighty to a hundred people who had gathered about the One-Worlder’s platform, and who were nodding and muttering in sympathy or agreement with him, there were quite a few people sharing that point of view. Joe shouldered his way closer to hear more clearly what the man was saying.
“Gyul Kodran comes and preaches to us about our lack of tolerance then he turns right round and tells us
not going to tolerate us! How could you trust someone like that? We can’t trust him!”
“How do you know that?” countered Joe. Several people in the crowd turned menacing looks on him; he ignored them.
“Why, I just proved it!”
“You haven’t proved anything yet, ’cept that you’re afraid our representative will fail the test. In fact you’ve made up your mind in advance that he’s going to fail. Mister, you sound like a traitor to the human race—you don’t believe we’re good enough to stand up to the Federationers. I say we are!”
The menacing looks faded towards puzzlement, and Joe shouldered his way back towards Maggie at the fringe of the crowd. Behind him, he heard another questioner take up the point he had left festering, and he gave Maggie a mirthless grin.
“Let ’em chew that one over!” he said. “Shall we go on home?”
Maggie looked at him thoughtfully. “I like that idea,” she said finally. “You know, you’re making me believe it, too.”