Authors: John Brunner
Tags: #Science fiction
The others nodded; it had been a sensation a few years ago. The new animal had even turned out to be capable of
reproducing its kind, and Ji-Lao’s techniques, people said, would eventually lead to the creation of a whole new species tailored to serve mankind.
“Also,” Mrs. King continued, “my husband encouraged me to paint pictures, and I have become very successful with my water colors. I do not sing”—this with a shy, amused look at Prodshenko—“but I play very badly the Chinese guitar.”
“We are all modest,” said Schneider after a pause. “You were actually responsible for designing the genes which Professor Ji-Lao then developed from his frog spawn, weren’t you?” Without waiting for an answer, he turned to the last member of the group. “Right, Lawrence,” he said. “You are obviously bursting to tell us about yourself.”
The African bounced forward on his chair. “Of course!” he said, grinning. “I am most proud of myself! I am Lawrence Tshekele, which is a sort of South African name which you find in what used to be the Nguni land, but actually I’m from Lagos because my father was a council member of the very first council of the United States of Africa and I was on the way when he was appointed, so I was born there the day the council opened; that makes me age twenty-nine. Nobody has to tell me to be modest, believe me: my father dinned it into me fifty times a day that we in my country had to stand up and blow our own trumpets. So here I blow!” He grinned again in appreciation of his own joke.
“First off, I speak all the African languages pretty well. Then I speak English like you hear, and French and German and Russian and Hindi and Urdu and some Chinese and some Japanese; now I’m learning Spanish. I pick ’em up like a flytrap collects flies. Professionally I’m an adviser to the government of my country, handling public education campaigns, endeavoring to bring the advantages of civilization to depressed areas, attempting to integrate backward people into a city society. In my spare time I write, the results of this effort are
The Harbor Bar
and a couple of others.”
He sat back, and suddenly he was again the same rather ugly nervous-seeming person Joe had seen him to be when he came in. The transformation was almost startling.
There was a short pause. During it, Joe found himself looking at Schneider. Everyone else, suddenly, was also looking
at him. It came to Joe that somehow, without it being clear how, Schneider was dominating this group. It showed, for instance, in the way he had broken the Russian Prodshenko’s defiant mask with a well-chosen remark.
And yet Schneider had said he was worried.
Well, the only logical conclusion was that he worried over very small problems. All the major ones—Joe was certain-were safe in his capable hands.
“Right!” said Schneider thoughtfully. “I’d like you to get a bit better acquainted with one another, to start with. I’m not making that an order—just telling you. We won’t make any demands on your time for a few days yet; it’s up to you what you want to do. You’re at liberty to poke your noses anywhere on the island—except the cybernetics building, though. There’s stuff in there which could be wrecked by a single grain of dust or a single smear of the natural grease from a fingertip. So to save us from having to fit you out with silicone suits, when we could be getting on with the work, please avoid that one building. Anything else you want to know?”
No one spoke. Joe found his eyes moving slowly around the group now. And he was sure that the same thought had come into the others’ minds as had come into his:
So this is the pride of Earth! Well, I dont know why they selected me, in spite of all they’ve said. I only hope someone out of this group has the right talents—
quiet in his room except for the very faint hum of the tape recorder he had borrowed to record his letter to Maggie.
Joe began, “Well, two weeks have gone by here, and I’m getting the weirdest sensation of unreality about the whole affair. When we catch the news broadcasts and hear about the arguments and the rows that go on everywhere about the urgency of the matter, we feel as though it all has to do with other people.
“I’ll try and give you an idea of what it’s like here. We six candidates, except for Schneider who’s also more or less in charge of the whole business, have as much time as we want to rove around the island—what there is of it. The weather is beautiful; you can swim in the little bay, or lounge on the beach, or watch the UN troops exercising, or sit in the recreation room, or in your own room. Maybe I should explain that the UN troops are here for a very good reason; there was that bomb in the plane I arrived in, which Major Gupta’s boys got rid of barely in time, and since then we’ve heard about other sabotage attempts at the project building in New York—obviously, someone is damnably eager to get chosen by eliminating the competition. Anyway, time hangs on our hands.
“They’ve made their choice of us six; presumably it only remains to eliminate five of us. No doubt they’re watching us continually, because there are people like ghosts on this island. They’re in the main canteen, or walking around during the day, but they come and go again and never seem to establish a foothold in the present, if you get me. I think they’re experts—psychologists, presumably—who are just weighing up everything we do, probably eavesdropping by microphone on the entire twenty-four hours of the day.
“Outside the other candidates, only two people really impinge on me: one is Lagenfeld, the Australian cyberneticist who spends most of his time in a sealed hut full of electronic gadgetry, but who emerges in the evenings and sometimes comes and chats with us in the recreation room. I don’t know what he keeps in that hut; presumably, computers to process the data which these ghostly watchers bring in.
“And the other is this Major Gupta, whom I suspect of actually holding a very much higher rank. In fact, I don’t believe Gupta is his real name. He mentioned casually that he used to serve with the UN disarmament inspection teams, which implies that by now he ought to have reached a generalship if only because his superiors had been retired out of his way. He’s in command of the military—specifically, of anti-sabotage work and I imagine also of the Tiger’s Claws missiles, which have disappeared into superbly camouflaged emplacements at each end of the island. Those things worry me, you know; I hope to God they don’t turn out to be
necessary. He has a staff, but they keep to themselves even more than the psychological watchdogs.
“Something else that worries me, you know—that’s the nature of the candidates. If you had to choose someone to represent Earth this way, you’d pick the most versatile people you could imagine. Instead, all of us candidates are specialists. At most, Stepan Prodshenko shines in three different fields, and two of them don’t seem particularly applicable to the problem in hand.
I mentioned that we all get on with one another pretty well. That’s understating it, I guess. I’ve never before met such a really interesting group of people. Of them all, I find now that I like Lawrence Tshekele best. He’s a wonderful talker, and he’s got a gift for making other people take an interest in what interests him—he can make people realize that things are really worth while being interested in.
“Frankly, I’m putting my money on him to be selected. I know it’ll cause a tremendous squawk in the Americas and Australasia, but I honestly believe he’s by far the best bet.
“After him—well, I don’t know. I like Mrs. King a lot—a quiet person, rather placid, who has another kind of gift: she can be emotional and enthusiastic about beautiful things or about people without appearing sentimental. I’m the sort of guy who deprecates such things; usually, the most I say about them is that they’re
. Only the other evening Mrs. King had found a huge flowering shrub up on top of the island and sat down outside the quarters to paint a water color picture of it, and I got started talking with her about it. In the end, you know, she practically had me crying because it was just so painfully beautiful.
“Stepan Prodshenko is a worker. He never lets up. His only relaxation is chess, which he plays fiendishly well—mostly with Rohini Das, who can beat him about once in twenty games. None of the rest of us can stand up to him at all. Stepan sleeps only about five hours a night. Around dawn you see him running down to the beach for a swim; then he exercises on the sand for half an hour, doing handsprings and standing jumps and maybe finishing off with a run around the island. Then you hear him singing in front of the open window of his room. Usually he sings Russian folksongs; there’s one terrific number he does, which he says is about a
birch tree standing in a field, in which he hits notes that practically make the island shiver. But he sings opera, too. Only—and this is what gets me—you can’t feel he does it just because he enjoys it. He seems incapable of enjoying it unless he does it absolutely magnificently, and it’s an affront to his dignity if he doesn’t make a top note properly. He has to go back and start over until he comes close to perfection.
“I’ve had some really good bull sessions with him, though. Rohini Das sits in on some of them when we get to arguing about social evolution and materialism and things like that. He maintains that the real reason for accepting Gyul Kodran’s challenge is to short-cut an otherwise long process of getting out into galactic society; he says that if we fail, we’ll nonetheless get there provided we don’t fall into despair at having failed. I feel that if we don’t make it now, we never will, and when Rohini expresses any opinion at all, she’s inclined to the view that success will only be valuable if it enhances our understanding of fundamental reality. There’s an overtone of mysticism there somewhere which I don’t get at all. In fact, Rohini is the oddball of our collection, I think. When she was eighteen she did this fantastic work in pure math which rivals what Einstein did with his special theory; immediately she lost interest and turned to writing her epic poem. She’s working on another, by the way. If she has a gift of the same kind that Lawrence and Mrs. King have, then it’s a gift for getting inside history. I recall the other night she was telling me what her famous poem was about; well, I didn’t get much out of it as poetry, because it’s florid and highly stylized in the oriental tradition, and I suppose it’s vaguely like Homer’s poems in its way—which doesn’t do anything for me in general. But what I did get was a sense of what it’s like to be rooted in another passage of history. Do you follow me? I mean, I got to feel how it is to have Arjuna and Akbar and Gandhi as the major figures of the history one grows up with and learns about in school, instead of Washington and Patrick Henry and Lincoln.
“I see the tape is running down. One last thing I must say—tomorrow there’s some big kind of test coming up at last, and maybe that will put an end to our hanging around. I gather that it means I won’t be able to send any more news for a while, so this tape will have to do for several letters. I
can see you smiling at me out of the photo Doc Schneider got for me. I tell the photo all the things I wouldn’t like to put on tape because someone else has to hear what I say before it gets mailed. Just remember I love you and I think about you all the time.”
The tape cassette signaled the end of its run; Joe sighed and switched the machine off.
Then he got to his feet and went to the window. Looking out at the clear sky, star-studded, he could hear the plaintive twanging of Mrs. King’s moon guitar, the rush of waves on the beach, a car’s engine accompanied by the whirring of its wheels on the road.
Which star—up there? How many of them light intelligent races?
Which of us is to open the door?
He suddenly felt an aching sense of inadequacy, a sense of having missed out on important things. It seemed a vastly disappointing matter that he could not appreciate and enjoy the oriental modes of Mrs. King’s music, that he could not revel in the lush phrases of Rohini Das’s epic poetry, that he could not re-create in himself the wonder which Lawrence Tshekele had conveyed to him—the wonder of a primitive man from a primitive village at the mastery over matter implicit in a modern city.
How could Gyul Kodran and his Federationers have set such an
task? A man could live a thousand years and not be truly a representative of Earth! Because Earth implied so many different things—differences of culture, of belief, of language, of technology even. What could be the common denominator of a European with two millennia of civilization behind him and an African with two generations of civilization behind him?
VER THE PAST
few days some building activity had been in progress uphill from the quarters toward the crown of the
island. A plain shed had been set up. Bunks had been moved in. Joe had glanced at it in passing and assumed that extra barrack accommodation for the troops had been required. The building was featureless and uninteresting. He thought no more about it.
The following morning, however, it was toward this building that Schneider led the candidates when he had assembled them in the recreation hall. They talked casually as they accompanied him; from what he had been told, Joe knew that all of them had been subjected to the same kinds of tests as he himself had undergone prior to being brought to the island, and were not apprehensive about anything else that might be tried out on them.
The shed had one door—a thick one—and two small windows in the end walls. Briskly Schneider unlocked the door and held it open, indicating that the others should enter. They did so. After the bright sun outside, the interior was very dark; Joe had to blink and wait for some moments before he made out that there was nothing in the hut at all except six wall-mounted bunks, each with a mattress, a sink and toilet, and a table in the centre which could be reached from the lowest tier of the bunks.
Behind him, Schneider could be heard turning a key in the door.
They waited for him to come forward and indicate what was to be done. When he did, he no longer held the key he had used on the door, and his face was seen to be shiny with perspiration. His voice was thicker than usual when he spoke.
“Please be seated,” he said. “It is not comfortable in here. It is deliberately so. You will further observe that privacy is impossible. That too is deliberate. We will remain here for a week.”
Lawrence Tshekele said, “But …!”
“There are no ‘buts’,” said Schneider inexorably. “Please be seated.”
A little dazed, his companions obeyed. Joe was coming to expect the unexpected where the matter of selection was concerned; he reserved judgment and said nothing. Stepan Prodshenko was not so patient. He said, “But what could be the purpose of this game? Here is nothing—hardly room to
move! What shall I do for my daily running if I am not to lose my form?”
“I’m going to explain,” said Schneider with careful mildness. Stepan assumed an aggressive expression, which said better than words that the explanation had better be good; Mrs. King sighed loudly and Rohini Das shrugged as though to say that whatever happened she would let it go by her.
Perched on the edge of one of the bunks, leaning forward on the central table with his elbows, Schneider looked at nothing and began to speak in a barely audible voice.
“It must have occurred to you all—I know it has to some—that the representative from Earth must be a superman. And you have said, “But how can a single individual be representative of Earth?”
“That was what our leaders said, too. And they decided, as we would expect, that no individual can represent the multifaceted nature of humanity. Perhaps the races in the Federation of Worlds are more homogeneous than we are, that they can think in terms of a ‘typical’ human being. We cannot.
“But an answer has been conceived, and an answer that
work. If we have no superman, we must make one.”
“What?” from Lawrence in an incredulous tone.
“Lawrence, you will learn in a moment. You know that I am expert in the physical nature of thought. It was suggested to me that it might now be possible to duplicate and store a conscious personality. I investigated, and found it was possible. I further found that such a personality could be imprinted on the living brain of another individual, so as to be in full communication with its host. Such a transferred personality can, with its host’s permission, temporarily control the bodily organs of its host, and can be permitted to receive all the sense data of its host’s body—can experience sight and sound, hunger and thirst, kinaesthetic and proprioceptic data, equally with the host.”
Mrs. King said unexpectedly, “The capacity of the brain …”
Schneider glanced briefly at her and then resumed his staring into nowhere. “Yes, Mrs. King. The capacity of the brain permits it.”
A sudden invisible wave passed among them. They exchanged
looks of alarm and wonder. In his own face, Joe knew, there was suspicion.
“This is the ultimate nakedness,” said Schneider, and his face was very pale, although his voice had become stronger and more level. “I have myself experimented with this technique. I have entered into the mind and body of my wife—whom after thirty years of marriage I thought I knew as well as I knew myself. I did not. I am trying to be honest when I say that it is like living in a world on the edge of nightmare. It is not nightmare; explanations, reassurances, are always available to satisfy the twinges of unreasoning fear that spring up when one looks, not thinking, in a mirror and sees a stranger’s face. One sees his
face, a stranger’s!
“But here is our only hope.”
A chill pervaded the narrow confines of the stark shed. Joe’s mind was filling with fragmentary thoughts:
In full communication! To open my memories of Maggie that are so rich because they are private things!
And he could read parallel reactions on the unguarded faces of the others.
Stepan drew a deep breath, and suddenly glared belligerently at the others. He said, “If it is the best that can be done, it must be done! We must do it for all mankind!”
It was pompously said. But a moment’s reflection told Joe that it couldn’t be opposed.
Some have greatness thrust upon them
“What—” began Rohini Das, and had to check herself, swallow, and begin again. “What
is going to happen?”
Schneider, folding and unfolding his hands absently, said, “This. Theory suggests that the capacity of the brain might encompass up to twelve discrete personalities, but six—to allow for fifty per cent inefficiency—was the maximum we dared aim for. We have case histories galore of naturally occurring multiple personality, but they have all been pathological; that was why it was necessary to establish that more than one individual could harmoniously inhabit a body. That was why I myself”—he lowered his voice—“had to demonstrate the efficiency of my technique. I have done so, and I am going to ask you to take my word for it.”
“Whose body?” said Stephan Prodshenko in a strangled tone.
Schneider hesitated for a little while. At length he said, “We considered yours, Stepan—and rejected it. You are the fittest and most skillful among us, but there is one skill you have not acquired, through no fault of your own: that’s the skill of adjusting to varying conditions of gravitation. Joe Morea has that skill. It will be Joe’s body.”
Joe’s mind froze over with the words. He barely heard the next part of Schneider’s explanation—how the bodies of the others would be kept in artificial coma, how they would most likely be literally rejuvenated owing to the superior efficiency of the artificial lungs, kidneys and digestive systems which would keep them alive. He knew vaguely, because his eyes were still open, that Stepan was studying him thoughtfully. But he could not think. Only the echo of Schneider’s words went bouncing back and forth in his brain, growing louder instead of softer as time passed.
What would it be like? Like nothing else in human experience, said Schneider. But the closest parallel which anyone could think of was their present situation—to be shut up in a featureless room, with no privacy and only their own resources to fall back upon.
What was the effect on the host, on the passenger? Tiring, said Schneider—incredibly tiring. Because of the need continually to bear in mind what was happening, to remember that it was not insanity which was bringing one unprecedented information. The host and all the passengers were always in full communication, so that although one retained his own selfawareness one was also aware of what the others were thinking. It was like remembering, except that it was in the present rather than the past. It had to be experienced, because nothing in human knowledge equaled it.
How about physical differences? How about emotional orientation? Disturbing, said Schneider, but amazingly, less so than he had expected. Unless the passenger consciously concentrated on physical differences, that part of his or her mind which accepted the continuous nerve reports from bodily organs adjusted with fantastic rapidity, finding one-to-one correspondence and thereafter ignoring them. As to emotional orientation, he believed that at least over a short period no problems at all would arise. The companionship of sharing a brain and a body offered such rich rewards of emotional intimacy
that he believed it would suffice perhaps for years, without the need for external involvements.
“Regard it this way,” he said thoughtfully. “What is the human impulse toward finding love and affection, if it is not a desire for completion of the self? Agreed, many people never achieve such a level of desire; they are interested in titilating or pandering to the self, rather than extending it or completing it.
“But we here are as emotionally mature and as socially adjusted, as any half-dozen people on Earth. I speak without conceit, I think; I have been married thirty years to a woman who has always balanced me, and I her, and hers is the credit. None of us carries a major phobia or neurosis; we have minor ones, but even those are diminishing. None of us is prey to uncontrollable emotional storms. We are fortunate in having found the ability to enrich other people and ourselves with our talents and our accomplishments. It may not seem to be a great achievement to be normal, but I assure you it is—to be normal as well as highly intelligent. Why? Perhaps because the intelligent person is usually frustrated to find so much foolishness in the world.”
“What do you call emotional maturity?” said Lawrence Tshekele in a voice that was uncharacteristically low and tense. “I’m not! I’m not mature, my friend. And I know it!”
Schneider turned his eyes on him. He said gently, “Your saying that proves that you are wrong. Do you understand?”
Stepan Prodshenko moved as though preparing for a heavy job of work—setting back his shoulders, tensing and relaxing his muscles in series. He said aggressively, “What must be done, must be done. I believe this is an extremely clever idea. I do not see how we can hope to succeed otherwise.”
How can he accept it like that?
Into Joe’s grey, frozen mind, the question came as the first new stirring of conscious thought. Behind it, he remembered what he had felt last night—that same sense of disappointment at not being able to share in the experience of oriental music or Indian poetry. That disappointment seemed now more meaningful than ever, and a new aspect was added to it. He was conscious of a lack in himself as compared with the Russian, and that lack was absence of the kind of incredible determination the other displayed in everything he did. Where he himself would be satisfied
with doing something well enough for present needs, Stepan would not give up until he had done it as well as his resources of mind and body would permit him; even after that, he would still want to do better.
Words began to well up, unbidden, in his mind. He found himself uttering them and the others listening. He listened himself, because he didn’t know what he was going to say until he said it; he only knew that he was saying exactly what he felt, without qualification or restraint.
“I don’t like this idea,” he began, “but I’m going to go ahead with it. I’ll tell you why I don’t like it. It’s because I have private memories which mean a lot to me that will be exposed. There’s a girl who brought something new and precious into my life. Further back, there are things that aren’t pleasant—things I’m ashamed of, things I don’t enjoy remembering. All right. But I’m going to do it anyway, because I know that everything is equal in this. As the doc said, this is the ultimate nakedness. I’m putting my trust in a belief that all of us are just people, and for everything I expose—all the private secrets, whether pleasant or unpleasant—I’m going to find a match in your minds. I’m gambling on what I want to be able to believe with my mind as well as my heart, if you like: that you and I are enough alike in what really matters to stand each other under any and all circumstances.
“And if we can’t stand each other, then Gyul Kodran was right, and we’re certain to ruin ourselves sooner or later.”
He looked around, conscious of a certain air of defiance in his words. The others were reacting slowly, but when they did, they nodded and murmured words of approval.
“Joe,” said Schneider after a while, “you’ve made a confession—a confession of faith. I’m going to make another, and you won’t like it. Maggie happens to be Dr. Margaret Reynolds, one of my collaborators. You didn’t know, but she made your acquaintance on purpose.”
Sudden jealous alarm snatched Joe back from the state of tranquility he had somehow achieved a minute earlier. He said, “You mean it was faked?”
Horror and despair rang in his tone. Schneider winced and bowed his head. He said in a low tone, “No. It wasn’t faked, Joe. If you like, I set Maggie to you, just to report on you. I gave her hypnotic injunctions against getting emotionally involved
with you. I don’t know what you did to her, but when she came back, there was an unequaled radiance in her eyes when she spoke of you. There is a small confession of guilt, and I hope also a promise of happiness. It was that glow in her eyes which made me certain about you.”
He looked around. “We are making offerings,” he said, “to each other, and yet not to each other. We are committed to a grand scheme of deceit. We are doing it because we do not feel it fair to humanity to allow it to be judged on a single individual’s thoughts and actions. Nonetheless, it is deceit, and we must redeem ourselves if we can by honorable sacrifice. For the present, it is we who are man; personified in us, man is going to do the best he can.
At first it seemed to Joe that the little room was intolerably narrow and confining; he itched to go out and walk in the sun, he ached to return to the room he had left where he could sleep without hearing five other breathing rhythms in the still night. Yet, as time passed, the confines of his surroundings began to trouble him less and less. Interests sprang up in what Mrs. King had to say about the philosophy of music, in what Lawrence could tell about the conflict between new and old in Africa, in what Stepan said about the concept of victory.