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Authors: Alfred Bester

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BOOK: The Starcomber
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“Parbleu! God damn!” the robot grated. “It is true I framed Jeff Halsyon. Ouch! Flux de bouche. I was the space-pirate who space-hijacked the space-freighter. God damn. Ouch! The space-bartender in the Spaceman's Saloon was my accomplice. When Jackson wrecked the space-cab I went to the space-garage and X-beamed the sonic
before
Tantial murdered O'Leary. Aux armes. Jeez. Ouch!”

“There you have the confession, Halsyon,” General Balorsen grated. He was tall, gaunt, bitter. “By God. Ars est celare artem. You are innocent.”

“I falsely condemned you, old faithful,” Judge Field grated. He was tall, gaunt, bitter. “Can you forgive this God damn fool? We apologize.”

“We wronged you, Jeff,” Judith whispered. “How can you ever forgive us? Say you forgive us.”

“You're sorry for the way you treated me,” Halsyon grated. “But it's only because on account of a mysterious mutant strain in my makeup which it makes me different, I'm the one man with the one secret that can save the galaxy from the Grssh.”

“No, no, no, old gin and tonic,” General Balorsen pleaded. “God damn. Don't hold grudges. Save us from the Grssh.”

“Save us, faute de mieux, save us, Jeff,” Judge Field put in. “Oh please, Jeff, please,” Judith whispered. “The Grssh are everywhere and coming closer. We're taking you to the U. N. You must tell the council how to stop the Grssh from being in two places at the same time.” The starship came out of overdrive and landed on Governor's Island where a delegation of world dignitaries met the ship and rushed Halsyon to the General Assembly room of the U. N. They drove down the strangely rounded streets lined with strangely rounded buildings which had all been altered when it was discovered that the Grssh always appeared in comers. There was not a comer or an angle left on all Terra.

The General Assembly was filled when Halsyon entered. Hundreds of tall, gaunt, bitter diplomats applauded as he made his way to the podium, still dressed in convict plasti-clothes. Halsyon looked around resentfully.

“Yes,” he grated. “You all applaud. You all revere me now; but where were you when I was framed, convicted and jailed . . . an innocent man? Where were you then?”

“Halsyon, forgive us. God damn!” they shouted.

“I will not forgive you, I suffered for seventeen years in the Grssh mines. Now it's your turn to suffer.”

“Please, Halsyon!”

“Where are your experts? Your professors? Your specialists? Where are your electronic calculators? Your super thinking machines? Let them solve the mystery of the Grssh.”

“They can't, old whiskey and soda. Entre nous. They're stopped cold. Save us, Halsyon. Auf wiedersehen.”

Judith took his arm. “Not for my sake, Jeff,” she whispered. “I know you'll never forgive me for the injustice I did you. But for the sake of all the other girls in the galaxy who love and are loved.”

“I still love you, Judy.”

“I've always loved you, Jeff.”

“Okay. I didn't want to tell them but you talked me into it.” Halsyon raised his hand for silence. In the ensuing hush he spoke softly. “The secret is this, gentlemen. Your calculators have assembled data to ferret out the secret weakness of the Grssh. They have not been able to find any. consequently you have assumed that the Grssh have no secret weakness.
That was a wrong assumption
.”

The General Assembly held its breath.

“Here is the secret.
You should have assumed there was something wrong with the calculators
.”

“God damn!” the General Assembly cried. “Why didn't we think of that? God damn!”


And I know what's wrong!

There was a deathlike hush.

The door of the General Assembly burst open. Professor Deathhush, tall, gaunt, bitter, tottered in. “Eureka!” he cried. “I've found it. God damn. Something wrong with the thinking machines. Three comes
after
two, not before.” The General Assembly broke into cheers. Professor Deathhush was seized and pummeled happily. Bottles were opened. His health was drunk. Several medals were pinned on him. He beamed.

“Hey!” Halsyon called. “That was my secret. I'm the one man who on account of a mysterious mutant strain in my—”

The ticker-tape began pounding: ATTENTION. ATTENTION. HUSHENKOV IN MOSCOW REPORTS DEFECT IN CALCULATORS. 3 COMES AFTER 2 AND NOT BEFORE, REPEAT: AFTER (UNDERSCORE) NOT BEFORE.

A postman ran in. “Special delivery from Doctor Lifehush at Caltech. Says something's wrong with the thinking machines. Three comes after two, not before.”

A telegraph boy delivered a wire: THINKING MACHINE WRONG STOP TWO COMES BEFORE THREE STOP NOT AFTER STOP. VON DREAMHUSH, HEIDELBERG.

A bottle was thrown through the window. It crashed on the floor revealing a bit of paper on which was scrawled:
Did you ever stopp to thinc that maibe the nomber 3 comes after 2 insted of in front? Down with the Grish. Mr. Hush-Hush.

Halsyon buttonholed Judge Field. “What the hell is this?” he demanded. “I thought I was the one man in the world with that secret.”

“HimmelHerrGott! “ Judge Field replied impatiently. “You are all alike. You dream you are the one men with a secret, the one men with a wrong, the one men with an injustice, with a girl, without a girl, with or without anything. God damn. You bore me, you one-man dreamers. Get lost.”

Judge Field shouldered him aside. General Balorsen shoved him back. Judith Field ignored him. Balorsen's robot sneakily tripped him into a comer of the crowd where a Grssh, also in a crowded comer on Neptune, appeared, did something unspeakable to Halsyon and disappeared with him, screaming, jerking and sobbing into a horror that was a delicious meal for the Grssh but a plasti-nightmare for Halsyon . . .

From which his mother awakened him and said, “This'll teach you not to sneak peanut-butter sandwiches in the middle of the night. Jeffrey.”

“Mama?”

“Yes. It's time to get up, dear. You'll be late for school.”

She left the room. He looked around. He looked at himself. It was true. True! The glorious realization came upon him. His dream had come true. He was ten years old again, in the flesh that was his ten-year-old body, in the home that was his boyhood home, in the life that had been his life in the nineteen thirties. And within his head was the knowledge, the experience, the sophistication of a man of thirty-three.

“Oh joy!” he cried. “It'll be a triumph. A triumph!”

He would be the school genius. He would astonish his parents, amaze his teachers, confound the experts. He would win scholarships. He would settle the hash of that kid Rennahan who used to bully him. He would hire a typewriter and write all the successful plays and stories and novels he remembered. He would cash in on that lost opportunity with Judy Field behind the memorial in Isham Park. He would steal inventions and discoveries, get in on the ground floor of new industries, make bets, play the stock-market. He would own the world by the time he caught up with himself.

He dressed with difficulty. He had forgotten where his clothes were kept. He ate breakfast with difficulty. This was no time to explain to his mother that he'd gotten into the habit of starting the day with Irish coffee. He missed his morning cigarette. He had no idea where his school-books were. His mother had trouble starting him out.

“Jeff's in one of his moods,” he heard her mutter. “I hope he gets through the day.”

The day started with Rennahan ambushing him at the Boy's Entrance. Halsyon remembered him as a big tough kid with a vicious expression. He was astonished to discover that Rennahan was skinny and harassed, and obviously compelled by some bedevilments to be omnivorously aggressive.

“Why, you're not hostile to me,” Halsyon exclaimed. “You're just a mixed-up kid who's trying to prove something.”

Rennahan punched him.

“Look, kid,” Halsyon said kindly. “You really want to be friends with the world. You're just insecure. That's why you're compelled to fight.”

Rennahan was deaf to spot analysis. He punched Halsyon harder. It hurt.

“Oh leave me alone,” Halsyon said. “Go prove yourself on somebody else.”

Rennahan, with two swift motions, knocked Halsyon's books from under his arm and ripped his fly open. There was nothing for it but to fight. Twenty years of watching films of the future Joe Louis did nothing for Halsyon. He was thoroughly licked. He was also late for school. Now was his chance to amaze his teachers.

“The fact is,” he explained to Miss Ralph of the fifth grade. “I had a run-in with a neurotic. I can speak for his left hook but I won't answer for his compulsions.” Miss Ralph slapped him and sent him to the principal with a note, reporting unheard-of insolence.

“The only thing unheard of in this school,” Halsyon told Mr. Snider, “is psychoanalysis. How can you pretend to be competent teachers if you don't—”

“Dirty little boy!” Mr. Snider interrupted angrily. He was tall, gaunt, bitter. “So you've been reading dirty books, eh?”

“What the hell's dirty about Freud?”

“And using profane language, eh? You need a lesson, you filthy little animal.”

He was sent home with a note requesting an immediate consultation with his parents regarding the withdrawal of Jeffrey Halsyon from school as a degenerate in desperate need of correction and vocational guidance.

Instead of going home he went to a newsstand to check the papers for events on which to get a bet down. The headlines were full of the pennant race. But who the hell won the pennant in 1931? And the series? He couldn't for the life of him remember. And the stock market? He couldn't remember anything about that either. He'd never been particularly interested in such matters as a boy. There was nothing planted in his memory to call upon.

He tried to get into the library for further checks. The librarian, tall, gaunt, and bitter, would not permit him to enter until children's hour in the afternoon. He loafed on the streets. Wherever he loafed he was chased by gaunt and bitter adults. He was beginning to realize that ten-year-old boys had limited opportunities to amaze the world.

At lunch hour he met Judy Field and accompanied her home from school. He was appalled by her knobby knees and black corkscrew curls. He didn't like the way she smelled either. But he was rather taken with her mother who was the image of the Judy he remembered. He forgot himself with Mrs. Field and did one or two things that indeed confounded her. She drove him out of the house and then telephoned his mother, her voice shaking with indignation.

Halsyon went down to the Hudson River and hung around the ferry docks until he was chased. He went to a stationery store to inquire about typewriter rentals and was chased. He searched for a quiet place to sit, think, plan, perhaps begin the recall of a successful story. There was no quiet place to which a small boy would be admitted.

He slipped into his house at 4:30, dropped his books in his room, stole into the living room, sneaked a cigarette and was on his way out when he discovered his mother and father inspecting him. His mother looked shocked. His father was gaunt and bitter.

“Oh,” Halsyon said. “I suppose Snider phoned. I'd forgotten about that.”


Mister Snider
,” his mother said.

“And Mrs. Field,” his father said.

“Look,” Halsyon began. “We'd better get this straightened out. Will you listen to me for a few minutes? I have something startling to tell you and we've got to plan what to do about it. I—”

He yelped. His father had taken him by the ear and was marching him down the hall. Parents did not listen to children for a few minutes. They did not listen at all.

“Pop . . . Just a minute . . . Please! I'm trying to explain. I'm not really ten years old. I'm thirty-three. There's been a freak in time, see? On account of a mysterious mutant strain in my makeup which—”

“Damn you! Be quiet!” his father shouted. The pain of his big hands, the suppressed fury in his voice silenced Halsyon. He suffered himself to be led out of the house, down four blocks to the school, and up one flight to Mr. Snider's office where a public school psychologist was waiting with the principal. He was a tall man, gaunt, bitter, but sprightly.

“Ah yes, yes,” he said. “So this is our little degenerate. Our Scarface Al Capone, eh? Come, we take him to the clinic and there I shall take his journal in time. We will hope for the best. Nisi prius. He cannot be all bad.” He took Halsyon's arm. Halsyon pulled his arm away and said, “Listen, you're an adult, intelligent man. You'll listen to me. My father's got emotional problems that blind him to the—”

His father gave him a tremendous box on the ear, grabbed his arm and thrust it back into the psychologist's grasp. Halsyon burst into tears. The psychologist led him out of the office and into the tiny school infirmary. Halsyon was hysterical. He was trembling with frustration and terror.

“Won't anybody listen to me?” he sobbed. “Won't anybody try to understand? Is this what we're all like to kids? Is this what all kids go through?”

“Gently, my sausage,” the psychologist murmured. He popped a pill into Halsyon's mouth and forced him to drink some water.

“You're all so damned inhuman,” Halsyon wept. “You keep us out of your world, but you keep barging into ours. If you don't respect us why don't you leave us alone?”

“You begin to understand, eh?” the psychologist said. “We are two different breeds of animal, childrens and adults. God damn. I speak to you with frankness. Les absents ont toujours tort. There is no meetings of the minds. Jeez. There is nothing but war. It is why all childrens grow up hating their childhoods and searching for revenges. But there is never revenges. Pari mutuel. How can there be? Can a cat insult a king?”

“It's . . . S'hateful,” Halsyon mumbled. The pill was taking effect rapidly. “Whole world's hateful. Full of conflicts'n'insults ‘at can't be r'solved . . . or paid back. . . . S'like a joke somebody's playin' on us. Silly joke without point. Isn't?”

BOOK: The Starcomber
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