Measure for a Loner

by Jim Harmon

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: You can measure everything these days--heat, light, gravity, reflexes, force-fields, star-drives. And now I know there even is a.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

So, General, I came in to tell you I’ve found the loneliest man in the world for the Space Force.

How am I supposed to rate his loneliness for you? In Megasorrows or Kilofears? I suspect I know quite a library on the subject, but you know more about stripes and bars. Don’t try to stop me this time, General.

Now that you mention it, I’m not drunk. I had to have something to back me up so I stopped off at the dispensary and stole a needle.

I want you to get off my back with that kind of talk. I’ve got enough there--it bends me over like I had bad kidneys. It isn’t any of King Kong’s little brothers. They over rate the stuff. It isn’t the way you’ve been riding me either. Never mind what I’m carrying. Whatever it is--and believe me, it is--I have to get rid of it.

Let me tell it, for God’s sake.

Then for Security’s sake? I thought you would let me tell it, General.

I’ve been coming in here and giving you pieces of it for months but now I want to let you be drenched in the whole thing. You’re going to take it all.

There were the two of them, the two lonely men, and I found them for you.

You remember the way I found them for you.

The intercom on my blond desk made an electronic noise at me and the words I had been arranging in my mind for the morning letters splattered into alphabet soup like a printer dropping a prepared slug of type.

I made the proper motion to still the sound.

“Yes,” I grunted.

My secretary cleared her throat on my time.

“Dr. Thorn,” she said, “there’s a Mr. Madison here to see you. He lays claim to be from the Star Project.”

He could come in and file his claim, I told the girl.

I rummaged in the wastebasket and uncrumpled the morning’s facsimile newspaper. It was full of material about the Star Project.

We were building Man’s first interstellar spaceship.

A surprising number of people considered it important. Flipping from the rear to page one, Wild Bill Star in the comics who had been blasting all the way to forty-first sub-space universe for decades was harking back to the good old days of Man’s first star flight (which he had made himself through the magic of time travel), the editor was calling the man to make the jaunt the Lindbergh of Space, and the staff photographer displayed a still of a Space Force pilot in pressure suit up front with his face blotted out by an air-brushed interrogation mark.

Who was going to be the Lindbergh of Space?

We had used up the Columbus of Space, the Magellan of Space, the Van Reck of Space. Now it was time for the Lone Eagle, one man who would wait out the light years to Alpha Centauri.

I remembered the first Lindbergh.

I rode a bus fifty miles to see him at an Air Force Day celebration when I was a dewy-eared kid. It’s funny how kids still worship heroes who did everything before they were even born. Uncle Max had told me about standing outside the hospital with a bunch of boys his own age the evening Babe Ruth died of cancer. Lindbergh seemed like an old man to me when I finally saw him, but still active. Nobody had forgotten him. When his speech was over I cheered him with the rest just as if I knew what he had been talking about.

But I probably knew more about what he meant then as a boy than I did feeling the reality of the newspaper in my hands. Grown-up, I could only smile at myself for wanting to go to the stars myself.

Madison rapped on my office door and breezed in efficiently.

I’ve always thought Madison was a rather irritating man. Likable but irritating. He’s too good looking in an unassuming masculine way to dress so neatly--it makes him look like a mannequin. That polite way of his of using small words slowly and distinctly proves that he loves his fellow man--even if his fellow always does have less brains or authority than Madison himself. That belief would be forgivable in him if it wasn’t so often true.

Madison folded himself into the canary yellow client’s chair at my direction, and took a leather-bound pocket secretary from inside his almost-too-snug jacket.

“Dr. Thorn,” he said expansively, “we need you to help us locate an atavism.”

I flicked professional smile No. Three at him lightly.

“I’m a historical psychologist,” I told him. “That sounds in my line. Which of your ancestors are you interested in having me analyze?”

“I used the word ‘atavism’ to mean a reversion to the primitive.”

I made a pencil mark on my desk pad. I could make notes as well as he could read them.

“Yes, I see,” I murmured. “We don’t use the term that way. Perhaps you don’t understand my work. It’s been an honest way to make a living for a few generations but it’s so specialized it might sound foolish to someone outside the psychological industry. I psychoanalyze historical figures for history books (of course), and scholars, interested descendants, what all, and that’s all I do.”

“All you have done,” Madison admitted, “but your government is certain that you can do this new work for them--in fact, that you are one of the few men prepared to locate this esoteric--that is, this odd aberration since I understand you often have to deal with it in analyzing the past. Doctor, we want you to find us a lonely man.”

I laid my chrome yellow pencil down carefully beside the cream-colored pad.

“History is full of loneliness--most of the so-called great men were rather neurotic--but I thought, Madison, that introspection was pretty much of a thing of the, well, past.”

The government representative inhaled deeply and steepled his manicured fingers.

“Our system of childhood psycho-conditioning succeeds in burying loneliness in the subconscious so completely that even the records can’t reveal if it was ever present.”

I cleared my throat in order to stall, to think.

“I’m not acquainted with contemporary psychology, Madison. This comes as news to me. You mean people aren’t really well-adjusted today, that they have just been conditioned to act as if they were?”

He nodded. “Yes, that’s it. It’s ironic. Now we need a lonely man and we can’t find him.”

“To pilot the interstellar spaceship?”

“For the Evening Star, yes,” Madison agreed.

I picked up my pencil and held it between my two index fingers. I couldn’t think of a damned thing to say.

“The whole problem,” Madison was saying, “goes back to the early days of space travel. Men were confined in a small area facing infinite space for measureless periods in freefall. Men cracked--and ships, they cracked up. But as space travel advanced ships got larger, carried more people, more ties and reminders of human civilization. Pilots became more normal.”

I made myself look up at the earnest young man.

“But now,” I said, “now you want me to find you an abnormal pilot who is used to being alone, who can stand it, maybe even like it?”


I constructed a genuine smile for him for the first time.

“Madison, do you really think I can find your man when evidently all the government agencies have failed?”

The government representative pocketed his notebook deftly and then spread his hands clumsily for an instant.

“At least, Doctor,” he said, “you may know it if you do find him.”

It was a lonely job to find a lonely man, General, and maybe it was a crooked job to walk a crooked mile to find a crooked man.

I had to do it alone. No one else had enough experience in primitive psychology to recognize the phenomenon of loneliness, even as Madison had said.

The working conditions suited me. I had to think by myself but I had a comfortable staff to carry out my ideas. I liked my new office and the executive apartment the government supplied me. I had authority and respect and I had security. The government assured me they would find further use for my services after I found them their man. I knew this was to keep me from dragging my tracks. But nevertheless I got right down to work.

I found Gordon Meyverik exactly five weeks from the day Madison first visited me in my old office.

“Of course, I planned the whole thing, Dr. Thorn,” Gordon said crisply.

I knew what he meant although I hadn’t guessed it before. He could tell it to me himself, I decided.

“Doesn’t seem much to brag about,” I said. “Anybody who can make up a grocery list should be able to figure out how to isolate himself on Seal Island.”

He sat forward, a lean Viking with a hot Latin glance, very confident of himself.

“I reckoned on you locating me, on you hustling me back to pilot the Evening Star. That’s why I holed in there.”

“I can’t accept your story,” I lied cheerfully. “Nobody is going to maroon himself on an island for three years because of a wild possibility like that.”

Meyverik smiled and his sureness swelled out until it almost jabbed me in the stomach.

“I took a broad gamble,” he said, “but it hit the wire, didn’t it?”

I didn’t reply, but he had his answer.

Instead I scanned the report Madison had given me from Intelligence concerning the man’s unorthodox behavior.

Meyverik had quit his post-graduate studies and passed by the secured job that had been waiting for him eighteen months in a genial government office to barricade himself in an old shelter on Seal Island. It was hard to know what to make of it. He had brought impressive stores of food with him, books, sound and vision tapes but not telephone or television. For the next three years he had had no contact with humanity at all.

And he said he had planned it all.

“Sure,” he drawled. “I knew the government was looking for somebody to steer the interstellar ship that’s been gossip for decades. That job,” he said distinctly, “is one I would give a lot to settle into.”

I looked at him across my unlittered brand new desk and accepted his irritating blond masculinity, disliked him, admired him, and continued to examine him to decide on my final evaluation.

“You’ve given three years already,” I said, examining the sheets of the report with which I was thoroughly familiar.

He twitched. He didn’t like that, not spending three years. It was spendthrift, even if a good buy. He was planning on winding up somewhere important and to do it he had to invest his years properly.

“You are trying to make me believe you deliberately extrapolated the government’s need for a man who could stand being alone for long periods, and then tried to phoney up references for the work by staying on that island?”

“I don’t like that word ‘phoney’,” Meyverik growled.

“No? You name your word for it.”

Meyverik unhinged to his full height.

“It was proof,” he said. “A test.”

“A man can’t test himself.”

“A lot you know,” the big blond snorted.

“I know,” I told him drily. “A man who isn’t a hopeless maniac depressive can’t consciously create a test for himself that he knows he will fail. You proved you could stay alone on an island, buster. You didn’t prove you could stay alone in a spaceship out in the middle of infinity for three years. Why didn’t you rent a conventional rocket and try looking at some of our local space? It all looks much the same.”

Meyverik sat down.

“I don’t know why I didn’t do that,” he whispered.

Probably for the first time since he had got clever enough to beat up his big brother Meyverik was doubting himself, just a little, for just a time.

I don’t know whether it was good or bad for him--contemporary psychology isn’t in my line--but I knew I couldn’t trust a cocky kid.

But I had to find out if he could still hit the target uncocked.

Stan Johnson was our second lonely man, remember, General?

He was stubborn.

I questioned him for a half hour the first day, two hours the second and on the third I turned him over to Madison.

Then as I was having my lunch I suddenly thought of something and made steps back to my office.

I got there just in time to grab Madison’s bony wrist.

The thing in his fist was silver and sharp, a hypodermic needle. Johnson’s forearm was tanned below the torn pastel sleeve. Two sad-faced young men were holding him politely by the shoulders in the canvas chair. Johnson met my glance expressionlessly.

I tugged on Madison’s arm sharply.

“What’s in that damned sticker?”

“Polypenthium.” Madison’s face was as blank as Johnson’s--only his body seemed at once tired and taut.

“What’s it for?” I rasped.

“You’re the psychologist,” he said sharply.

I met his eyes and held on but it was impossible to stare him down.

“I don’t know about physical methods, I told you. I’ve been dealing with people in books, films, tapes all my life, not living men up till now, can’t you absorb that?”

“Apparently I’ve had more experience with these things than you then, Doctor. Shall I proceed?”

“You shall not,” I cried omnisciently. “I know enough to understand we can’t get the results the government wants by drugs. You going to put that away?”

Madison nodded once.

“All right,” he said.

I unshackled my fingers and he put the shiny needle away in its case, in his suitcoat pocket.

“You understand, Thorn,” he said, “that the general won’t like this.”

I turned around and looked at him.

“Did he order you to drug Johnson?”

The government agent shook his head.

“I didn’t think so.” I was beginning to understand government operations. “He only wanted it done. Get out.”

Madison and his assistants marched out in orthodox Euclidian triangle formation.

The doors hissed shut.

“You know what?” The words jerked out from Johnson. “I think the bunch of you are crazy. Crazy.

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