Authors: John Brunner
Tags: #Science fiction
came into Schneider’s office with a look of satisfaction. Schneider did not at first notice her entry; he was at the far end of the room studying a wriggling trace-pattern on the face of a cathode ray tube. After a few moments, however, he sighed and turned around. His thin mouth curved into a smile, and he automatically brushed back his white hair with a sharp gesture, as though making a concession to conventional tidiness.
He said, “Good afternoon, Maggie. How is it with you?” He spoke English with a blur of German accent, but fluently.
“He’ll do,” said Maggie, dropping into a chair beside Schneider’s desk and sliding her brief case on to its polished top.
“Are you sure?” Schneider came forward, opened a box on the desk, and took out a cigar which he clamped between his teeth.
“As sure as I’ll ever be. We’ve lived practically in each other’s pockets for the past ten days; I’ve seen him in just about every conceivable circumstance. He’s the one.”
Schneider, having lit his cigar, sat down chuckling behind the desk. “You enjoyed yourself?”
“That too, that too. In fact, if it wasn’t for the way you armored me up to here with post-hypnotics, I could see myself getting very fond of him. He’s a nice guy, Fritz. Extremely well-adjusted socially, sexually, every way. And bright.”
Schneider perched silver-rimmed glasses on his nose and sought out documents from a pile on his desk. He said, “About that, of course, there is no doubt possible at all. We have here
all the reports from the starship assembly station, from Malik his chief, from the men with whom he was working. He is good. He is probably the most original engineer on the whole project. He has gifts for looking at problems and turning them upside down so they lose their difficulty.”
“I can imagine.”
“So then we send for him. They will be sorry to lose him at the starship station.” Schneider put his cigar aside absently and went on re-reading his papers. “This is a hell of a responsibility, hey, Maggie?”
“You’re not kidding,” said Maggie with phony brightness. “I think you’d better take my word for it and get him called in right away before I start having second thoughts.”
Schneider gave her a sharp stare. “You expect to have second thoughts?”
“Probably. But by then you’ll have had a chance to confirm my estimate, and they won’t bother me.”
“I see,” grunted Schneider. “Well, that makes sense—of a twisted kind. We will then take necessary steps. It will be his body, you understand, if it is agreed he is suitable.”
Maggie repressed a slight shiver. “I wonder what he’ll be like—afterwards,” she said.
, that depends on what happens out there at the Federation capitol,” shrugged Schneider. “We have no doubt in our ability to restore the individual psyche afterwards; it is a matter of careful recording, of hypnosis and electrical transference.”
“What will happen to the other bodies, by the way?”
“They will be kept. It is not hard to preserve them for a mere month or two. They may indeed be better, less aged, for the superior efficiency of the artificial metabolism, when the owners reclaim them.” He broke off, picking up his cigar again.
“You worry in spite of your protestations of confidence, Maggie. What is wrong—do you know?”
Maggie gave a faint smile and nodded. “I know very well. It’s only thinking about how much hangs on this gamble. There’s always the risk that the Federationers might find out and decide that we were cheating.”
“We have the answer to that,” said Schneider. “It is un-fair—we
maintain and declare—to ask that a race be judged on a single individual.”
“Especially a race as cranky and ornery as ours,” Maggie put in.
“Precisely so. With races more homogeneous, more uniform in their reactions and emotions, and their skills, yes, perhaps. In our case—we being as Gyul told us unique—we are not so to be judged. Let them reason it out if they discover. We are at least their intellectual equals, we believe.”
His manner grew brisk. “You would perhaps like to tell him yourself that he has been selected?”
“Much rather not,” said Maggie. “For a variety of reasons. Mainly, I think he might take it amiss if he knew that what he assumed to be a pleasant, casual furlough affair was actually part of the plot. In fact, probably it would be best if that could be kept from him altogether.”
Schneider gave her a thoughtful look. “The hypnotic armor had holes,” he said.
Maggie shrugged. “I guess it probably did. I
fond of him. I’d really welcome the opportunity to meet him again afterwards on a—uh—on a more conventional footing. I think he likes me enough to want it to go on, too.”
“Then as you say we will be well advised to keep the truth of your meeting from him.” Schneider scribbled a note, using the hand that held his cigar and spilling ash all over the paper with the rapidity of his movements. He didn’t look up as he said, “And that is why you are disturbed at the idea of what may happen to him—out there?”
“Not so much about that. I think he’d probably make out pretty well just as he is—but maybe I’ve got prejudices now. I realize that’s unreasonable. No, it’s more the problem of what effect the—the treatment will have.”
“The effect will be far graver on those who go with him,” said Schneider soberly. “I know. I am myself still disturbed from my original trials, although I understood perfectly everything that happened.”
Maggie nodded. A faraway look came into her eyes. She said, “I wonder how it feels to see another face than one’s own come back from the mirror.”
“Disturbing,” said Schneider. He thrust his cigar back between his teeth. “Very much disturbing!”
When Maggie had gone, Schneider sat quietly, alone in his office in the middle of the project building, thinking. One hundred and thirty-eight days to go. And by a miracle, that was going to be sufficient.
The human element permitting, of course.
He turned his cigar between his fingers, thinking of the effort that had already been invested in the plan. He remembered the sense of astonishment and wonder that had possessed him when he was called to the UN—to the secretary-general himself—and was given Ksesshinsky’s original memorandum on the subject. In common with almost every other intelligent person on Earth, Schneider had then for days been beating out his brains over the choice of the representative who should go to the Federation capitol.
The problem called for a superman. And there was not a superman. Solution:
the superman. It was as simple as that.
They had asked the computers dozens of questions. What will our representative need to accomplish during his stay? What qualities will enable him to accomplish them? Where can these qualities be found? Have the possessors of these qualities any serious disadvantages?
After the computers, they asked the people themselves—covertly, as Maggie had asked Joe Morea. Watching, searching, spying, weighing factor against factor, they met disappointment after disappointment. The world’s greatest mathematician is subject to epilepsy—
. Too much of a risk. The world’s most brilliant biologist is tetchy and antisocial; he might overcome his tendencies for the time being, but then again he might not. Too great a risk. The world’s leading psychologist has a monumental understanding of other people’s problems, but on close inspection it turns out that his work is an attempt to solve his own problems, caused by the combination of an IQ of 173 with an unhappy child-hood. Too great a risk.
But most of this Schneider had not seen at first hand. He was too preoccupied with the development of the actual manufacturing techniques to be employed in creating the superman. The techniques existed, but only in embryo; he knew where to look, but not what he would find.
Slowly, success began to seem less remote. Still spewing
forth data, the computers proposed investigating a biologist in China who had not only done remarkable and original work but was also highly regarded for her delicately beautiful water color paintings. They checked. Well balanced. Socially adjusted. Amazing. Success began to loom larger yet.
In Africa a social engineer, linguist and anthropologist, whose work in assimilating people from a tribal society to a city society had given him material for four distinguished novels and a famous screenplay. They checked. Score two.
In India, a mathematician who had provided some of the fundamental equations used in the design of the hyperphotonic engines now being assembled in
the age of eighteen. At the age of twenty, an epic in Hindi which people compared with the traditional epics and did not find wanting. They checked. Score three.
In Russia, a physicist who had contributed several original papers to scientific journals on the nature of matter and energy, and who was also an Olympic running medalist. They checked. Score four, with slight reservations.
Right in the middle of the project itself, a psychologist and cyberneticist who had actually passed through the first trials of his own technique and emerged unscathed. A man with invaluable experience, therefore. Score five. The idea made Schneider more than somewhat apprehensive. Yet it was remorselessly logical to choose him; his work on the project had put him the equivalent of ten years ahead of anyone else in understanding the physical basis of human thought processes.
And now, with Maggie’s news: score six. That was probably the absolute limit; theory indicated that up to twelve might be possible, but in such a radically new technique one had to allow for at least fifty per cent inefficiency.
Schneider looked again at Joe Morea’s documents. They were all here—reports from the starship project about his technical ability, revealing that he had a rare gift for seeing the concealed possibilities in a new device; medical and psychological reports, indicating that he was in excellent health and mentally very stable indeed; reports from friends, acquaintances, former employers, relations, childhood doctors, schoolteachers, everyone.
Schneider put out his cigar. He went through the papers
another time yet, trying to construct out of the cold words on the page a picture of the living human being to whom he was soon going to be closer than hands or feet. Schneider looked towards the blank wall of his office and conjured up a vision of Joe Morea. “Hi, Joe,” he said as if to an old friend. “I hope we get along.”
Not for the first time, a cold shiver overtook him as he reflected on all that hung on this desperate gamble. He spoke aloud again to reassure himself.
“Well,” he said musingly, “at any rate we’re giving them six of the best. And we can’t do more.”
ETTER FOR YOU,
honey,” said maggie, coming from the kitchen to the bedroom with a tray loaded with breakfast. Her voice betrayed the slightest hint of tension, but Joe failed to notice, for he was fuzzy with sleep. He grinned, his head sunk deeply back into the plump white pillow.
“You look terrific in that housecoat,” he said. Maggie pulled a face at him and placed a tray on the bedside table.
“You’ve got a letter,” she repeated. She picked it up and held it out; he waved it aside and caught her other hand, trying to pull her towards him. She detached the hand from his grip gently.
“Look, you’d better open it,” she said. “It’s official. It has the UN frank on it, and the return address is in the UN district of New York.”
Joe came alert suddenly. “Not my recall!” he said, jerking to a sitting position. “Here—gimme!” He began to tear the envelope open, and stopped in mid-movement. His forehead creased with a frown.
“That’s odd,” he said.
“What is, honey?”
“It’s addressed directly to me here. Not ‘care of’ you, or anything. Not forwarded from my box at the post office either—though
they wouldn’t forward anything. How’d they know where I was staying?”
There was a bad blunder. Maggie covered her taut alarm by pouring fruit juice into glasses and adding ice cubes. She said, “Let’s face it, honey, I haven’t been exactly trying to conceal your presence here—and believe me, some of the neighbors are beginning to wonder about that!”
Joe hesitated. At length he shrugged and took out the letter. It was a single sheet of printed letterhead, with a brief but pointed message. The heading was “United Nations Selection Project, Office of the Board of Control”—which meant nothing to Joe at first sight. He read on:
Dear Mr. Morea
You have been selected as a candidate for the task of representing this planet at the capitol of the Federation of Worlds. Accordingly, I would request you to present yourself at this office at your earliest convenience. I would remind you that this falls under the category of “extraordinary special services” which is referred to in Clause Eighteen of your contract with the United Nations Star-ship Project, and is therefore semi-mandatory
I look forward to making your acquaintance
The signature, bold and black, was “Fritz Schneider, for the Board of Control.”
“What is it, honey?” Maggie said in a voice she had to keep steady by main force.
Joe didn’t answer for a moment—just went on staring at the paper. After a while, he snorted and thrust it towards her. “A hoax, probably,” he said. “Either that, or someone at the UN has gone out of his mind.”
Maggie took the letter and studied it for long enough to give the impression that she was reading it. Then she said, “But Joe! That’s absolutely wonderful! Goodness, you must be so proud!”
“Proud of what?” said Joe shortly. “I think it’s probably a hoax. That’s why it was sent directly here, instead of to my box address.”
“But that doesn’t have to be right,” Maggie objected. “If they’ve been considering you as a candidate, then they’ve probably been keeping a watch on you pretty closely. Naturally they’d know where you were. And besides, this signature—he
really is one of the Board of Control. Fritz Schneider, I mean.”
“How do you know?”
“Why, his picture was in the papers a few weeks ago! Joe, this is wonderful! I’m so proud!” She dropped the letter on the breakfast tray and caught his hands affectionately.
“Well, I’m afraid you’d better prepare yourself for a big disappointment,” sighed Joe. “Look, if Schneider’s name and picture were really in all the papers, then anyone could know about him.”
“But—oh, Joe, who’d go to such lengths? Look, why don’t you just call the number given on the letter? That’d tell you at once if it was right or not.”
Joe shook his head. “I don’t want to,” he said reluctantly. “Honey, I—I just don’t want to.”
She looked at him, not saying anything.
“Besides,” Joe went on in a low tone after a long pause, “I don’t think they’d consider me if they actually knew I was living here, would they?”
Maggie stared at him blankly. After a moment she threw her head back and went off into peals of laughter. “Lord above, honey! Lord above! Is there some worry about the code of morals my neighbors subscribe to bothering you? Sweetie, I don’t think it’s a hoax, and in fact I think it shows that the people on this selection project have a hell of a lot of good sense. I think I’ve gotten to know you a lot better in a short time than anyone else I’ve ever met, and for my money you’ll do perfectly. You’re kind, you’re well-adjusted, you’re easy to get on with, you’re generous, you enjoy being alive—”
“Are you trying to talk me into this?” broke in Joe.
“Well—” Maggie bit her lip. “All right, I guess I am. I happen to have met you, I happen to know that you’d do a hell of a good job if they pick you. And—well, okay, there’s some vanity involved, too. I’d like to think that if you did it, and came back, you might consider coming back to me.”
She felt herself flushing, and failed to control it.
“Well, I’ll be—” said Joe slowly. “Give me that letter!” He snatched for it, and picked up the phone at the side of the bed.
All the way to New York, he felt that he was basking in
warm sunlight. In spite of everything—in spite of the overwhelming apprehension he felt at what lay before him, in particular—he felt good. He felt terrific. Nothing like Maggie had ever happened to him in his life before; there had never been that sensation of clicking with a woman, as though his personality and hers had matched with Johanssen-block precision. And most especially his mind kept running over and over what had happened in the brief time available before his plane left. It was as though she were giving him a gift—a very personal, intimate gift, which could never be lost or stolen, but would stay in his memory and bloom there like an everlasting flower. That too was new. Very new. Unique to him. Unique to them.
When his mind wandered away from that memory, it was to the now obvious fact that the reason for him being sent to Earth must have been so that he would be available if the computers decided on him as a candidate. They must have had their eyes on him for some time, as Maggie had suggested.
Somehow, by the evening, hardly having thought about what he was doing, he found himself entering Schneider’s office, having been obsequiously brought through the elevators and corridors of the project building under the guidance of a silent youth who might or might not have known why he had come.
“Professor Schneider,” said the silent youth; and he closed the door.
Schneider proved to be thin-lipped, white-haired, aged about fifty, with sharp china-blue eyes. For a long time he kept those eyes on Joe’s face, scrutinizing him, like a specimen in the field of a microscope.
At length, when Joe was beginning to feel uncomfortable, Schneider relaxed magically, laughed, and waved him to a chair.
“I apologize for the long stare, Mr. Morea,” he said. “But you will understand that I was most interested to see in person someone about whom I feel I already know so much. Will you smoke?” He opened and offered his box of cigars.
“Thanks, I don’t. We can’t, up there at
, so I quit.”
“Yes, of course. Well, anyway.” Schneider leaned back
and folded his hands. “I gather that this was a surprise to you?”
“You’re not kidding. I didn’t believe it at first. I guess I still don’t—not really.”
Schneider chuckled. “Yes, you called here to find out if it was true or a
, yes? I regret I did not answer your call personally; I was in conference with Señor Briaros, the secretary-general.”
Joe shifted a little on his chair, unable to be comfortable. He felt as though he had suddenly been turned into a boy again, an uncertain teenager facing an examiner at the oral for his engineering diploma or some other such test. He said, having to lick dry lips, “But I still don’t see what makes me even a candidate, as you said in your letter, let alone a choice for the actual job itself.”
“You may be assured, Mr. Morea, that we know what we are doing. At least, we know what we have to base our choice on. I dare not say more than that. But as you say, you are at present no more than a candidate, and in fact we have altogether some
candidates, whom you will of course meet if you, and they, pass our most stringent tests. You may refuse, naturally; I only hope you will not, because you are definitely among the very best possible selections.”
“On what grounds?”
“On all grounds.” Schneider made a casual gesture. “Original mind. Adaptable to various kinds of company and environment. Sociable. Well-liked. Capable. In excellent health. But the rest you will discover.” He drew himself forward and leaned both elbows on the desk.
“Mr. Morea, what we must ask you to do is this. We wish to establish by various tests—psychological and physical—that you in fact match the information on record about you. Some of the testing may not be pleasant; it will be designed to find out if you have irrational fears from childhood, which we can eliminate, or not. Then we will bring you together with the other candidates, to establish your sociability beyond doubt. We think it will be very good; we have chosen with care. And then, ultimately, it will be a choice.”
“Who are the others?” Joe felt his throat remain dry in spite of his best efforts to relax.
“You will discover if they are also passed by our testers.”
There was a pause. Schneider consulted some notes on his desk. “You will be assigned accommodation here—rather like hospital accommodation, I regret, but necessarily so, for the observation will have to last the clock around. The tests may last about a week; then you will be informed of the result and meet your colleagues.”
Joe shrugged and said confessedly, “I suppose I ought to feel this as a great honor. I must say I don’t. I feel it as a load of unwanted responsibility.”
Schneider gave him a thoughtful stare. “Yes,” he said. “So do we all. Not us alone, on the project itself, but the whole human race. We resent the arbitrary way in which Gyul Kodran and the others responsible for the dreadful decision presented to us. We may feel confident of doing our best, but we have no way of knowing that our best will be good enough.
“But, rationally regarding the problem, we realize that we can do no more than our best. Accordingly, we decide by consulting our best sources of knowledge what we must do. And we are driven by pure logic—which is all we can trust in this matter, for logic must be shared by thinking beings, where emotion or intuition must necessarily differ with different metabolism, different sexual orientation, different environments—we are driven, as I say, to some conclusions which we may not
instinctively to be right but which our intelligence advises us to accept. You, Mr. Morea, are such a conclusion.”
He got to his feet and extended his hand across the desk. “I wish you luck,” he said, “as a sop to the intuitions and superstitions we cannot altogether discard.”
Joe managed a smile in response, and shook the hand. “I feel superstitious right now,” he said. “I’ll cross my fingers, too.”