Authors: John Brunner
Tags: #Science fiction
Now I know what it feels like to be a focus
The thought ran through Joe Morea’s mind a dozen times a day in the course of the following week. It was as though he had been transported into a sealed universe in which he was the only object worthy of attention. There were other people with him in this universe, but they existed there only because of him. They were serious-faced, intent men and women, so much alike in their physical characteristics that he took to tabbing them by minute differences of behavior rather than by name.
The days began to acquire a rhythm like music—a sort of smooth but not uniform rise and fall, from examination to trial to examination again.
White-coated like the others, a young man with glasses came to the comfortable but stark accommodation they had provided for him. He said, “Please come with me.”
Obediently Joe followed him through featureless corridors and through swinging doors till he halted before another door like that through which they had started. He indicated that Joe should precede him.
Joe reached for the handle, pressed it, slid the door back and hurled himself backwards into the corridor, gasping.
The room beyond the door had no floor. It seemed to drop like an elevator shaft, sixty or seventy feet straight down into a kind of bluish twilight. Joe lashed out at his companion angrily. “What’s the idea?” he demanded. “You want me to break my neck? I thought I was supposed to be a valuable piece of property.”
The young man with glasses, who wore about his neck on a sling a tape recorder with a mike taped to his vocal cords, recorded a comment and then spoke aloud. He said mildly, “We shall have to do something about that panic reaction in face of heights.”
The young man smiled faintly and gestured through the door. “Go across the room, please.”
Bewildered, Joe looked again. He dropped on one knee
and felt to find out whether the drop beyond the threshold was an illusion or real. It was real. His groping arm encountered nothing solid.
Frowning, he rose to his feet again and looked about him. The room was not a room. It was just a shaft. The light—bluish, even—revealed a door opposite the one where he was standing. It also revealed rings like a gymnasium’s, hung on ropes from the ceiling. If he jumped, he could probably make the nearest ring with one hand. Then he could swing along the line of rings till he got a footing on a plank about six or eight inches wide, cantilevered out from the far wall. He could walk along the plank for twenty feet and come within arm’s reach of the other door.
He took a deep breath, poised himself, trying to remember that he was subject to gravity of thirty-two feet per second squared—in free orbit, he wouldn’t have thought twice about a journey like this—and sprang.
Grimly, he caught the first ring; the second; the third, and by then his muscles were complaining. How long was it going to take him to readjust completely to gravity? He finished his swinging, and found that hanging from the last ring he was still three inches away from the plank.
He swung; dropped; wrapped his arms around the plank and levered himself up to a shaky balance. He walked forward, as though he were following a line on level ground, ignoring the sixty feet of air beneath him.
He leaned one hand on the wall and pressed the door handle with the other hand. The door opened. At the same moment the bluish light in the shaft dimmed. Beyond the newly opened door there was darkness. In the darkness there was a sound of breathing—wet breathing, with a sucking edge to it. Something large and dry rustled. A hairy touch brushed across the back of his hand.
He shivered involuntarily. From across the shaft the voice of the young man came to him, level and casual.
“What does that bring to mind, Joe?”
Joe cursed under his breath. He said sharply, “Spiders!”
“You don’t like spiders?”
“Not in the dark. In the light, I don’t care.” Joe felt the hairy touch on his hand again; then something sticky and
thick wrapped itself around his wrist. He snatched free, and felt sweat trickle on his forehead.
“Any idea why not?” the calm, questioning voice went on.
Joe took a deep breath, pushed himself away from the wall and the door, and balanced in darkness on the narrow plank. He said as steadily as he could, “Yes, as a matter of fact I do know. When I was just a kid, I was put out in the garden under a tree in a carriage, and a spider came and spun a web across my face.”
“We’ll clear that one out easily enough,” said the young man with glasses briskly. Joe thought how crazy the situation was—discussing phobias on a six-inch plank above a drop like an elevator shaft.
“Go through the door,” directed the young man from behind him. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
Cautiously, Joe stepped into the opening. It was clear now. The rustling sound and the heavy wet breathing had faded into silence. He stood where he was. After a moment there was light, and he found himself in a featureless corridor again, facing the young man with glasses.
There were fangs three inches long thrusting down the young man’s lower lip. The front of his white coat was soaked red with fresh blood. The sickly smell came clearly to Joe’s nostrils.
He said after a moment, “Very funny. Good gag.”
The young man recorded another comment, moved his arms upwards across his body and face, and threw the disguise aside into a corner. He said, “You have no reaction to blood as far as you know?”
“My reaction is to reach for bandages,” said Joe.
“Fair enough.” The young man repeated his faint smile. “I imagine by now you’re thinking this is some kind of ghost train you’re riding.”
“Approximately,” agreed Joe after a fractional pause.
“Why do you think we’re fooling around this way?”
“You’ve already made it clear to me. You’re trying to trip me into revealing any phobias I carry around with me.”
“Correct. So there’s more to come, I’m afraid. We have to take an elevator for the next test. That door there, marked in red.”
Joe glanced around. It was an ordinary elevator door,
with five floor-signal buttons on a panel beside it. “Which floor?” he said.
Joe pushed the button. The door slid open. He stepped into the car.
Behind him the door shut with a click. He had half turned before the lights went out. When he did turn, he saw luminous lettering on the door.
YOU HAVE TWELVE HOURS TO WAIT.
After a little while, the letters faded. They were hardly more than mist at their brightest, not bright enough for him to read the hands of his watch before they vanished.
The elevator car was about seven feet high, five feet wide and five deep. It was just long enough in the diagonal for him to stretch out at full length. His first resolution was to do so. He was certainly being watched.
How to occupy his mind for twelve hours? He thought of Maggie, staring into the darkness. He spent what seemed a very long time thinking of Maggie.
His eyes began to draw pictures for him on the darkness. He began to pick out individual sounds he had hardly realized were there. A susurrus of air—air-conditioning, for sure. The tumult of blood in his own ears. His heart beating. The noise of breath in his windpipe and lungs.
He began to recognize hunger. Once it had impinged upon his mind, it could not be dislodged. The sourness in the pit of his stomach indicated that his digestion was operating on nothing.
He was getting irregular colored patterns before his eyes. He tried to organize them into some formal design—a chessboard occurred to him, and then the idea of playing an imaginary game. He struggled to visualize opening moves. But his mind distracted itself after a few minutes, and he lost track.
Misty luminous letters drifted into his field of vision. It was a long time before he realized they were really there, not supplied by his imagination.
YOU HAVE ELEVEN HOURS TO WAIT.
One hour gone?
A disturbing quiver of alarm drifted through his mind. He
felt that much more than an hour had passed. It was nearer three, surely?
By the time the luminous letters had informed him that he still had five hours to wait, he was sure that the lettering was only a trick of his eyes, wishful thinking on the part of his imagination, and that actually they hadn’t been there and any moment now the elevator car door would open and he would get clumsily to his feet and walk out.
The last hour went like a glacier. Reason informed him that time could not stop. But he could feel that it had limped down to a slow crawl. He counted his pulse beats, wondering if he was on his average of sixty-six beats a minute. Then he fancied he detected irregularities, a speeding up and a slowing down, which would render his pulse useless as a way of tracking time.
The door of the car slid back, and he jumped to his feet expecting to see the young man with glasses in the corridor outside.
There was no one. The corridor was empty.
Cautiously, he left the car and stared about him.
door, he knew, led to the room with the rings and the plank and the sixty-foot drop. There was another door. He tried it.
That door opened into a herpetarium. A boa eight feet long reared up before his incautious feet; he stepped back hastily but without panic and went further down the corridor.
There was one other door; he slid that back two inches and received an electric shock that made him shake from head to foot. Beyond the door was a foul, eye-tearing gas; he slammed the door again, heedless of a second shock, and stood in the corridor trying to calm himself with deep breaths.
There must be a way out.
He tried the other direction. But that was a dead end. On impulse, he tried the door leading to the shaft, but he found it was locked. How to find a way out?
Suddenly he cracked his fingers, appalled at his own stupidity, and went back to the elevator. He pressed the stud on the panel for the ground floor.
They were waiting for him when he came out of the car.
They gave him two hours of physical and mental examinations.
It went on like that for more than a week without stopping.
Darling Maggie, this is literally the first time they’ve left me alone for more than ten minutes since I got here. I don’t see how anything that happens up there, where whoever it is that’s chosen finally goes, can be much worse than what they’ve dreamed up to put me through
You know, it’s finally getting to seem real. At first and for a long time it was just like I was fooling myself, and pretty soon I expected Schneider to call me and say, Thanks, Joe, but it’s not going to work after all, so you can go along home. That’s the way I wanted it to work out, of course
Only things go along here at such a breakneck pace I’m certain that if they were going to flunk me they’d have done it by now. So I’m on the roller coaster, and I don’t know whether to be proud or scared
There was the hesitant knock on the door which Joe had learned to identify as Schneider’s. He sighed, put down his stylo and said, “Come in.”
The interrupter said, “I came to tell you the news.”
Joe felt his nerves suddenly tauten to their limit, like strings on a fiddle being wound up to pitch. He said, “News, doc?”
“Yes, we’re flying you out to the Pacific tonight.”
For a long moment Joe digested the information. He said eventually, “You mean I’ve been selected?”
“That’s right. You’re on the short list. So are all the others we picked. We just have to tidy up one or two loose ends—like your spider phobia, for instance, because how can we tell that Gyul Kodran’s closest friend isn’t spider-shaped?—but aside from that, you’re perfect.”
“Don’t I get any time out before I go?”
Schneider shook his head, regretfully. He said, “Whom are you writing to? A girl-friend?”
“The lady you were staying with when I wrote to you to come to the project, perhaps?”
“Yes.” Joe felt himself flushing, which startled him. Schneider chuckled.
“That is good, then. We of course had to investigate her, and I think you have very good taste in women, Joe. I hope you get back safely to her.”
“If I’m chosen,” said Joe. Schneider gave him a thoughtful look.
“Yes, if you are the one who is chosen,” he agreed. “I know that all our six candidates are good ones—with one possiible exception.”
“When will I be meeting the candidates?”
Schneider hesitated. Then he said carefully, “You can meet the first one now.”
“Yes, I. It was not what I wished, but—” He shrugged.
Joe shook his head slowly from side to side, staring at Schneider. “I can’t think what anyone would select me for,” he burst out at last. “Why? What have I got that’s special?”
“I’ll tell you,” said Schneider calmly. “You have a gift for escaping from patterns of ordinary thinking. For example, no one but you had thought of employing this polarized-gravity device for welding metals—yet you say it was obvious, and doubtless it was, to you.”
Schneider settled himself a little more comfortably in his chair and began to use his cigar as a sort of conductor’s baton, directing the course of his little lecture.
“You have heard it said, I am sure, that our representative at the capitol of the Federation of Worlds will be like a savage in New York, yes? Our savage will see it in terms of what he is used to, and not consider other possibilities. You have this gift for visualizing unfamiliar possibilities. You will without doubt need it.”
Joe felt a frown begin to crease his forehead. He said again, but less dogmatically this time, “If I am the one chosen to go—?”
“But—are the other candidates being chosen on similar
grounds? I mean, are they all people with this so-called gift? Have you got it?”
Schneider shook his head. Suddenly he glanced at his watch and got to his feet. “I cannot stay longer,” he said. “I must go to an appointment with the secretary-general. I will give you time to finish your letter; then at nine o’clock tonight you will be taken to the airplane and you will be tomorrow morning in the middle of the Pacific, where the final testing station has been established, far from anywhere else.”
“Will my letter get to her?” said Joe stonily, not moving.
Schneider met his eyes. He nodded. “I will myself see to that,” he promised.
When Schneider had left the room, Joe sat meditating for a few minutes. His frown grew more and more pronounced. At last he picked up his stylo and began to write on.
Schneider just broke in on me to tell me I’ve passed; I’m on the short list of candidates. He says he’s another of the candidates—the first I’ve met
There’s something fishy here. I’m sure of it
Then he started to put down what he felt about Maggie, and the frown faded into a reminiscent smile.
In his palatial apartment, Briaros waited, turning one of his precious wineglasses around and around in his hands. It was some minutes after the appointed time that the doorbot announced the arrival of Schneider.
The white-haired psychologist came in without ceremony when the door opened, and dropped himself into an armchair. He said, “We have your six candidates, Sr. Briaros.”
Briaros nodded, waiting.
“That’s including myself,” added Schneider. “About that, I am unhappy!”
“Why?” said Briaros. He put aside the cut glass on a table and leaned forward.
“I will tell you this,” said Schneider, “not, believe me, because I do not think I will be valuable, nor from lack of courage to face the unknown. If I had lacked courage I could have borrowed from the candidates who do not know what is in store. They have much confidence. They are anxious, but reasonably anxious, that is all. They are tough, mentally, resilient, readily able to adjust to—anything?” He uttered
the last word on a faintly questioning note, as though momentarily losing trust in his own powers of judgment.
“No, it is not unwillingness or timidity,” Schneider reaffirmed after a pause. “It is something deep and beyond my control. You know, Sr. Briaros, that I was the first person on whom I tried my little trick?”
“I wouldn’t call it a little trick,” said Briaros soberly. “It’s more like a small miracle.”
“I give you that. No matter. But listen. I had thought and believed that I and my wife were as close after thirty years of marriage as any two people could be. Our friends have said sometimes that we are telepathic now, because we think alike, we sometimes do not have to say to each other what we want. So! Good! My wife being willing, we tested the trick—the miracle—as you will.”
Briaros frowned. “You reported that it was successful,” he began. Schneider cut him short.
“Successful! Yes! Physically and technically it was a success. We achieved this transfer of the delicate physical counterpart of personality, and its restoration, and here I am and talk to you. But—there are diffiulties. I hardly know how to explain to you. You realize you are what you are?”
“You mean that I—” Briaros bit his lip. “You mean I am the physical I? But obviously!”
“No, no!” said Schneider impatiently. “I speak this badly. Realize that you are subject to your glands, your digestion, your tiredness, your muscle tone or lack of it, your eyes, everything. Your personality includes your subconscious—as though in the back of your mind there was always a hum, a carrier wave, all the nerve signals from the involuntary muscles and the organs of the body. Do you see? But we cannot carry that to another body! Personality, yes, memory, yes, learned skills, yes. Assume that you have lived till now in this body; to change to another is to shift the house of your life to another foundation, perhaps irregular. There will then be cracks in the walls through subsidence. There will be weakenings. You understand?”
“You mean that there’s a risk of insanity in the candidates? During the test?”
Schneider shook his head and spoke in a voice of forced optimism. He said, “I think not. Not in the others, that is
to say. They are very stable. The short period of a month on the other foundation will not weaken them much. It is only I about whom I worry.”
Briaros said slowly, “This sounds ominous.”
“I do not try to make it so. Imagine, though: imagine that after more than fifty years of life in this body, feeling its muscles, knowing its ways, I look suddenly to the mirror and I—and I!—see the face of a woman. That face is more familiar than my own; it is my wife’s, so close to me. Yet I am inside it! And not the face alone. The body, you understand? The physical difference is incredibly minor; the mind makes substitutions automatically, and finds the counterparts of what it is used to. But that is a strain. I am not certain beyond doubt that I can stand the strain a second time.”
He finished, and looked at Briaros with an air of dignity.
“Why do you bring this to me?” said Briaros at last.
“To whom else could I bring it?” said Schneider calmly.
Briaros rose abruptly to his feet and began to pace the carpet. After two passes, he halted and swung to face the psychologist.
“Do you wish to withdraw?” he snapped.
“I have committed the blunder of making myself indispensable,” said Schneider in a voice little above a whisper.
“That’s not a blunder. It’s a foregone conclusion.” Briaros’s forehead showed a little shiny with perspiration. “But do you want to withdraw?”
“Do you honestly think it would be better for the success of the project if you did?”
Schneider spread his hands helplessly. “I cannot tell!” he said. “I know—you understand? I know—that it would take as long again for someone else to learn, to accept with his insides, the things I have learned in developing my miracle. I must stay. Yet I am afraid that I will break.”
“Because of the strain you talked about?”
“Because of age,” Schneider said. “We do not call men of fifty and sixty old, not today. But after fifty years, the personality has been so shaped and formed by its accustomed “carrier waves,” as I called them, in its own brain in its own body, that the change finds it too rigid to adjust. The other candidates are all young, none over thirty-six. They will flex,
perhaps, yield enough to absorb the impact of the shock. But a second time might destroy me.”
Briaros said at long last, “Don’t let it, Fritz. Whatever you can do to prevent it, do it! On you more than on anyone else hangs the future fate of this planet Earth!”