Bullet With His Name

by Fritz Leiber

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Before passing judgment, just ask yourself one question: Would you like answering for humanity any better than Ernie Meeker did?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The Invisible Being shifted his anchorage a bit in Earth’s gravitational field, which felt like a push rather than a pull to him, and said, “This featherless biped seems to satisfy Galaxy Center’s requirements. I’d say he’s a suitable recipient for the Gifts.”

His Coadjutor, equally invisible and negatively massed, chewed that over. “Mature by his length and mass. Artificial plumage neither overly gaudy nor utterly drab--indicating median social level, which is confirmed by the size of his bachelor nest. Inward maps of his environment not fantastically inaccurate. Feelings reasonably meshed--at least neither volcanic nor frozen. Thoughts and values in reasonable order. Yes, I agree, a satisfactory test subject. Except...”

“Except what?”

“Except we can never be sure of that ‘reasonable’ part.”

“Of course not! Thank your stars that’s beyond the reach of Galaxy Center’s keenest telepathy, or even ours on the spot. Otherwise you and I’d be out of a job.”

“And have to scheme up some other excuse for free-touring the Cosmos with backtracking permitted.”

“Exactly!” The Being and his Coadjutor understood each other very well and were the best of friends. “Well, how many Gifts would you suggest for the test?”

“How about two Little and one Big?” the Coadjutor ventured.

“Umm ... statistically adequate but spiritually unsatisfying. Remember, the fate of his race hangs on his reactions to them. I’d be inclined to increase your suggestion by one each and add a Great.”

“No--at least I question the last. After all, the Great Gifts aren’t as important, really, as the Big Gifts. Besides...”

“Besides what? Come on, spit it out!” The Invisible Being was the bluff, blunt type.

“Well,” said his less hearty but unswervingly honest companion, “I’m always afraid that you’ll use the granting of a Great Gift as an excuse for some sardonic trick--that you’ll put a sting in its tail.”

“And why shouldn’t I, if I want to? Snakes have stings in their tails (or do they on this planet?) and I’m a sort of snake. If he fails the test, he fails. And aren’t both of us malicious, plaguing spirits, eager to knock holes in the inward armor of provincial entities? It’s in the nature of our job. But we can argue about that in due course. What Little Gifts would you suggest?”

“That’s something I want to talk about. Many of the Little Gifts are already well within his race’s reach, if not his. After all, they’ve already got atomic power.”

“Which as you very well know scores them nothing one way or the other on a Galaxy Center test. We’re agreed on the nature and the number of our Gifts--three Little, two Big, and one Great?”

“Yes,” his Coadjutor responded resignedly.

“And we’re agreed on our subject?”

“Yes to that too.”

“All right, then, let’s get started. This isn’t the only solar system we have to visit on this circuit.”

Ernie Meeker--of Chicago, Illinois, U.S. of A., Occident, Terra, Sol, Starswarm 37, Rim Sector, Milky Way Galaxy--rubbed his chin and slanted across the street to a drugstore.

“Package of blades. Double edge. Five. Cheapest.”

At one point during the transaction, the clerk lost sight of the tiny packet he’d placed on the coin-whitened glass between them. He gave a suspicious look, as if the customer had palmed them.

Ernie blinked. After a moment, he pointed toward the center of the counter.

“There they are,” he said, dropping a coin beside them.

The clerk’s face didn’t get any less suspicious. Customer who could sneak something without your seeing could sneak it back the same way. He rang up the sale and closed the register fast.

Ernie Meeker went home and shaved. Five days--and shaves--later, he pushed the first blade, uncomfortably dull now, through the tiny slot beside the bathroom mirror. He unwrapped the second blade from the packet.

Five shaves later, he cut himself under the chin with the second blade, although he was drawing it as gently through his soaped beard as if it were only his second shave with it, or at most his third. He looked at it sourly and checked the packet. Wouldn’t have been the first time he’d absentmindedly changed blades ahead of schedule.

But there were still three blades in their waxed wrappings.

Maybe, he thought, he’d still had one of the blades from the last packet and shuffled it into this series.

Or maybe--although the manufacturers undoubtedly had inspectors to prevent it from happening--he’d got a decent blade for once.

Two or three shaves later, it still seemed as sharp as ever, or almost so.

“Funny thing,” he remarked to Bill at lunch, “sometimes you get a blade that shaves a lot better. Looks exactly like the others, but shaves better. Or worse sometimes, of course.”

“And sometimes,” his office mate said, “you wear out a blade fast by not soaking your beard enough. For me, one shave with a stiff beard and the blade’s through. On the other hand, if you’re careful to soak your beard real good--four, five minutes at least--have the water steaming hot, get the soap really into it, one blade can last a long time.”

“That’s true, all right,” Ernie agreed, trying to remember how well he had been soaking his beard lately. Shaving was a good topic for light conversation, warm and agreeable, like most bathroom and kitchen topics.

But next morning in the bathroom, looking at the reflection of his unremarkable face, there was something chilly in his feelings that he couldn’t quite analyze. He flipped his razor open and suspiciously studied the bright metal wafer, then flipped it closed with an irritated shrug.

As he shaved, it occurred to him that a good detective-story murder method would be to substitute a very sharp razor blade for one the victim knew was extremely dull. He’d whip it across his throat, putting a lot of muscle into the stroke to get through the tangle, and--urrk!

Ridiculous, of course. Wouldn’t work except with a straight razor. Wouldn’t even work with a straight razor, unless ... oh, well.

He told himself the blade was noticeably duller today.

Next morning, he was still using the freak blade, but with a persistent though very slight uneasiness. Things should behave as you expected them to, in accordance with their flimsy souls, he told himself at the barely conscious level. Men should die, hearts should break, girls should tell, nations perish, curtains get dirty, milk sour ... and razor blades grow dull. It was the comfortable, expected, reassuring way.

He told himself the blade was duller still. Just a bit.

The third morning, face lathered, he flipped open the razor and lifted it out.

“You’re through,” he said to it silently. “I’ve had the experience before of getting bum shaves by trying to save a penny by pretending to myself that a wornout blade was still sharp enough, when it obviously couldn’t be. Or maybe--” he grinned a little wryly--”maybe I’d almost get one more shave out of you and then you’d fall to pieces like the Wonderful One Horse Shay and leave me with a chin full of steel porcupine quills. No, thanks.”

So Ernie Meeker pushed through the little slot beside the mirror and heard tinkle faintly down and away the first of the Little Gifts, the Everlasting Razor Blade. One hundred and fifty thousand years later, it turned up, bright and shining, in the midst of a small knob of red iron oxide excavated by an archeological expedition of multi-brachs from Antares Gamma. Those wise history-mad beings handed it about wonderingly, from tentacle to impatient tentacle.

That day, Ernie felt a little sick, somehow. After dinner, he decided it was the Thuringer sausage he’d eaten at lunch. He hurried up to the bathroom with a spoon, but as he clutched the box of bicarbonate of soda, preparatory to plunging the spoon into it, it seemed to him that the box said distinctly, in a small inward-outward voice:

“No, no, no!”

Ernie sat down suddenly on the toilet seat. The spoon rattled against the porcelain finish of the washbowl as he laid it down. He held the box firmly in both hands and studied it.

Size, shape, materials, blue color, closure, etc., were exactly as they should be. But the white lettering on the blue background read:


Dissociates H_O into hemi-quasi-stable H and O, furnishing a

serviceable fuel-and-oxydizer mix for most motorcycles,

automobiles, trucks, motorboats, airplanes, stationary motors,

torque-twisters, translators, and rockets (exhaust velocity up to

6000 meters per second). Operates safely within and outside of all

normal atmospheres. No special adaptor needed on

oxygenizer-atmosphere motors.

Directions: Place one pinch in fuel tank, fill with water. Add

water as needed.

A-F Catalyst should generally be renewed when objective tests show

fuel quality has deteriorated 50 per cent.

U.S. and Foreign Patents Pending

After reading that several times, with suitable mind-checking and eye-testing in between, Ernie took up a little of the white powder on the end of a nailfile. He had thought of tasting it, but had instantly abandoned the notion and even refrained from sniffing the stuff--after all, the human body is mostly water.

After reducing the quantity several times, he gingerly dumped at most four or five grains on the flat edge of the washbowl and then used the broad end of the nailfile to maneuver a large bead of water over to the almost invisible white deposit. He closed the box, put it and the nailfile carefully on the window ledge, lit a match and touched it to the drop, at the last moment ducking his head a little below the level of the washbowl.

Nothing happened. After a moment, he slowly withdrew the match, shaking it out, and looked. There was nothing to see. He reached out to touch the stupid squashed ovoid of water.

Ouch! He withdrew his fingers much faster than the match, shook them more sharply. Something was there, all right. Heat. Heat enough to hurt.

He cautiously explored the boundaries of the heat. It became noticeable about eighteen inches above the drop and almost an inch to each side--an invisible slim vertical cylinder. Crouching close, eyes level with the top of the washbowl, he could make out the flame--a thin finger of crinkled light.

He noticed that a corner of the drop was seething--but only a corner, as if the heat were sharply bounded in that direction and perhaps as if the catalyst were only transforming the water to fuel a bit at a time.

He reached up and tugged off the light. Now he could see the flame--ghostly, about four inches high, hardly thicker than a string, and colored not blue but pale green. A spectral green needle. He blew at it softly. It shimmied gracefully, but not, he thought, as much as the flame of a match or candle. It had character.

He switched on the light. The drop was more than half gone now; the part that was left was all seething. And the bathroom was markedly warmer.

“Ernie! Are you going to be much longer?”

The knock hadn’t been loud and his widowed sister’s voice was more apologetic than peremptory, but he jumped, of course.

“I am testing something,” he started to say and changed it mid-way. It came out, “I am be out in a minute.”

He turned off the light again. The flame was a little shorter now and it shrank as he watched, about a quarter inch a second. As soon as it died, he switched on the light. The drop was gone.

He scrubbed off the spot with a dry washrag, on second thought put a dab of vaseline on the washrag, scrubbed the spot again with that--he didn’t like to think of even a grain of the powder getting in the drains or touching any water. He folded the washrag, tucked it in his pocket, put the blue box--after a final check of the lettering--in his other coat pocket, and opened the door.

“I was taking some bicarb,” he told his sister. “Thuringer sausage at lunch.”

She nodded absently.

Sleep refused even to flirt with Ernie, his mind was full of so many things, especially calculations involving the distance between his car and the house and the length of the garden hose. In desperation, as the white hours accumulated and his thoughts began to squirm, he grabbed up the detective story he’d bought at the corner newsstand. He had read thirty pages before he realized that he was turning them as rapidly as he could focus just once on each facing page.

He jumped out of bed. My God, he thought, at that rate he’d finish the book under three minutes and here it wasn’t even two o’clock yet!

He selected the thickest book on the shelf, an overpoweringly dull historical treatise in small print. He turned two pages, three, then closed it with a clap and looked at the wall with frightened eyes. Ernie Meeker had discovered, inside the birthday box that was himself, the first of the Big Gifts.

The trouble was that in that wee-hour, lonely bedroom, it didn’t seem like a gift at all. How would he ever keep himself in books, he wondered, if he read them so fast? And think how full to bursting his mind would get--right now, the seven pages of fine-print history were churning in it, vividly clear, along with the first chapters of the new detective story. If he kept on absorbing information that fast, he’d have to be revising all his opinions and beliefs every couple of days at least--maybe every couple of hours.

It seemed a dreadful, literally maddening prospect--his mind would ultimately become a universe of squirming macaroni. Even the wallpaper he was staring at, which imitated the grain of wood, had in an instant become so fully part of his consciousness that he felt he could turn his back on it right now and draw a picture of it correct to the tiniest detail. But who would ever want to do such a thing, or want to be able to?

It was an abnormal, dangerous, temporary sensitivity, he told himself, generated by the excitement of the crazy discovery he’d made in the bathroom. Like the thoughts of a drowning man, riffling an infinity-paneled adventure-comic of his life as he bolts his last rough ration of air. Or like the feeling a psychotic must have that he’s on the verge of visualizing the whole universe, having its ultimate secrets patter down into the palm of his outstretched hand--just before the walls close in.

Ernie Meeker was not a drinking man, then. A pint had stood a week on his closet shelf and only been diminished three shots. But now he did a good job on the sturdy remainder.

Pretty soon the unbearable, edge-of-doom clarity in his mind faded, the universe-macaroni cooked down to a thick white soup uniform as fog, and the words of the detective story were sliding into his mind individually, or at most in strings of three and four. Which, if it wasn’t as it ideally should be in an ambitious man’s mind, was at least darn comfortable.

He had not rejected the Big Gift of Page-at-a-Glance Reading. Not quite. But he had dislocated for tonight at least the imposed nervous field on which it depended.

For want of a better place, Ernie dropped the rubber tube from the bathtub spray into the scrub bucket half full of odorous pink fluid and stared doubtfully at the uncapped gas tank. The tank had been almost empty when he’d last driven his car, he knew, because he’d been waiting until payday to gas up. Now he had used the tube to siphon out what he could of the remainder (he still could taste the stuff!) and he’d emptied the fuel line and carburator, more or less.

Further than that, in the way of engine hygiene, Ernie’s strictly kitchen mechanics did not go, but he felt that a catalyst used in pinches shouldn’t be too particular about contaminants. Besides, the directions on the box hadn’t said anything about cleaning the fuel tank, had they?

He hesitated. At his feet, the garden hose gurgled noisily over the curb into the gutter; it had vindicated his midnight estimate, proving just long enough. He looked uneasily up and down the dawning street and was relieved to find it still empty. He wished fervently, not for the first time this Saturday morning, that he had a garage. Then he sighed, squared his shoulders a little, and lifted the box out of his pocket.

Making to check the directions the umpteenth time, he received a body blow. The white lettering on the box had disappeared. The box didn’t proclaim itself sodium bicarbonate again--there was just no lettering at all, only blue background. He turned it over several times.

Right there died his tentative plan of eventually sharing his secret with some friend who knew more than himself about motors (he hadn’t decided anyway who that would be). It would be just too silly to approach anyone he knew with a more-than-wild story and featureless blue box.

For a moment, he came very close to dropping the box between the wide-set bars of the street drain and pouring the pink gas back in the tank. It had hit him, in a way for the first time, just how crazy this all was, how jarringly implausible even on such hypotheses as practical jokes, secret product perhaps military, or mad inventor (except himself).

For how the devil should the stuff get into his bathroom disguised as bicarb? That circumstance seemed beyond imagination. Green flames ... vanishing letters... “torque-twisters, translators” ... a box that talked...

At that point, simple faith came to Ernie’s rescue: in the same bathroom, he had seen the green flame; it had burned his fingers.

Quickly he dipped up a little of the white powder on the edge of a fifty-cent piece, dumped it in the gas tank without quibbling as to quantity, rapped the coin on the edge of the opening, closed and pocketed the blue box, and picked up the spurting hose and jabbed it into the round hole.

His heart was pounding and his breath was coming fast. That had taken real effort. So he was slow in hearing the footsteps behind him.

His neighbor’s gate was open and Mr. Jones stood open-mouthed a few feet behind him, all ready for his day’s work as streetcar motorman and wearing the dark blue uniform that always made him look for a moment unpleasantly like a policeman.

Ernie swung the hose around, flipping his thumb over the end to make a spray, and nonchalantly began to water the little rectangle of lawn between sidewalk and curb.

The first things he watered were the bottoms of Mr. Jones’s pants legs.

Mr. Jones voiced no complaint. He backed off several steps, stared intently at Ernie, rather palely, it seemed to the latter. Then he turned and made off for the streetcar tracks at a very fast shuffle, shaking his feet a little now and then and glancing back several times over his shoulder without slowing down.

Ernie felt light-headed. He decided there was enough water in the gas tank, capped it, and momentarily continued to water the lawn.

“Ernie! Come on in and have breakfast!”

He heeded his sister’s call, telling himself it would be a good idea “to give the stuff time to mix” before testing the engine.

He had divined her question and was ready with an answer.

“I’ve just found out that we’re supposed to water our lawns only before seven in the morning or after seven in the evenings. It’s the law.”

It was the day for their monthly drive out to Wheaton to visit Uncle Fabius. On the whole, Ernie was glad his sister was in the car when he turned the key in the starter--it forced him to be calm and collected, though he didn’t feel exactly right about exposing her to the danger of being blown up without first explaining to her the risk. But the motor started right up and began purring powerfully. Ernie’s sister commented on it favorably.

Then she went on to ask, “Did you remember to buy gas yesterday?”

“No,” he said without thinking; then, realizing his mistake, quickly added, “I’ll buy some in Wheaton. There’s enough to get us there.”

“You didn’t think so yesterday,” she objected. “You said the tank was nearly empty.”

“I was wrong. Look, the gauge shows it’s half full.”

“But then how ... Ernie, didn’t you once tell me the gauge doesn’t work?”

“Did I?”

“Yes. Look, there’s a station. Why don’t you buy gas now?”

“No, I’ll wait for Wheaton--I know a place there I can get it cheaper,” he insisted, rather lamely, he feared.

His sister looked at him steadily. He settled his head between his shoulders and concentrated on driving. His feeling of excitement was spoiled, but a few minutes of silence brought it back. He thought of the blur of green flashes inside the purring motor. If the passing drivers only knew!

Uncle Fabius, retired perhaps a few years too early and opinionated, was a trial, but he did know something about the automobile industry. Ernie chose a moment when his sister was out of the room to ask if he’d ever heard of a white powder that would turn water into gasoline or some usable fuel.

“Who’s been getting at you?” Uncle Fabius demanded sharply, to Ernie’s surprise and embarrassment. “That’s one of the oldest swindles. They always tell this story about how this man had a white powder or something and demonstrated it once with a pail of water and then disappeared. You’re supposed to believe that Detroit or the big oil companies got rid of him. It’s just another of those malicious legends, concocted--by Russia, I imagine--to weaken your faith in American Industry, like the everlasting battery or the razor blade that never gets dull. You’re looking pale, Ernie--don’t tell me you’ve already put money in this white powder? I suppose someone’s approached you with a proposition, though?”

With considerable difficulty, Ernie convinced his uncle that he had “just heard the story from a friend.”

“In that case,” Uncle Fabius opined, “you can be sure some fuel-powder swindler has been getting at him. When you see him--and be sure to make that soon--tell him from me that--” and Uncle Fabius began an impassioned ninety-minute defense of big business, small business, prosperity, America, money, know-how, and a number of other institutions that defended pretty easily, so that the situation was wholly normal when Ernie’s sister returned.

As soon as the car pulled away from the curb on their way back to Chicago, she reminded him about the gas.

“Oh, I’ve already done that,” he assured her. “Made a special trip so I wouldn’t forget. It was while you were out of the room. Didn’t you hear me?”

“No,” she said, “I didn’t,” and she looked at him steadily, as she had that morning. He similarly retreated to driving.

Stopping for a railroad crossing, he braked too hard and the car stalled. His sister grabbed his arm. “I knew that was going to happen,” she said. “I knew that for some reason you lied to me when--” The motor, starting readily again, cut short her remark and Ernie didn’t press his small triumph by asking her what she was about to say.

To tell the truth, Ernie wasn’t feeling as elated about today’s fifty-mile drive as he’d imagined he would. Now he thought he could put his finger on the reason: It was the completely ... well, arbitrary way in which the white powder had come into his possession.

If he’d concocted it himself, or been given it by a shady promoter, or even seen the box fall out of the pocket of a suspicious-looking man in a trenchcoat, then he’d have felt more able to do something about it, whether in the general line of starting a fuel-powder company or of going to the F.B.I.

But just having the stuff drop into his hands from the sky, so to speak, as if in a crazy dream, and for that same reason not feeling able to talk about it and assure himself he wasn’t going crazy ... oh, it is rough when you can’t share things, really rough; not being able to share depressing news corrodes the spirit, but not being able to share exciting news can sometimes be even more corroding.

Maybe, he told himself, he could figure out someone to tell. But who? And how? His mind shied away from the problem, rather decisively.

When he checked the blue box that night, the original sodium bicarbonate lettering had returned with all its humdrum paragraphs. Not one word about exhaust velocities.

From that moment, the fuel-powder became a trial to Ernie rather than a secret glory. He’d wake in the middle of the night doubting that he had ever really read the mind-dizzying lettering, ever really tested the stuff--perhaps he’d bring from sleep the chilling notion that in the dimness and excitement of Saturday morning he’d put the water in some other car’s gas tank, perhaps Mr. Jones’s. He could usually argue such ideas away, but they kept coming back. And yet he did no more bathroom testing.

Of course the car still ran. He even fueled it once again with the garden hose, sniffing the nozzle to make sure it hadn’t somehow got connected to the basement furnace oil-tank. He picked three o’clock in the morning for the act, but nevertheless as he was returning indoors he heard a window in Mr. Jones’s house slam loudly. It unsettled him. Coming home the next day, he caught his sister and Mr. Jones consulting about something on the latter’s doorsteps, which unsettled him further.

He couldn’t decide on a safe place to keep the box and took to carrying it around with him day and night. Bill spotted it once down at the office and by an unhappy coincidence needed some bicarb just then for a troubled stomach. Ernie explained on the spur of the moment that he was using the box to carry plaster of Paris, which involved him in further lies that he felt were quite unconvincing as well as making him appear decidedly eccentric, even butter-brained. Bill took to calling him “the sculptor.”

Meanwhile, besides the problem of the white powder, Ernie was having other unsettling experiences, stemming (though of course he didn’t know that) from the other Gifts--and not just the Big Gift of Page-at-a-Glance Reading, though that still returned from time to time to shock his consciousness and send him hurrying for a few quick shots.

Like many another car-owning commuter, Ernie found the traffic and parking problems a bit too much for comfort and so used the fast electric train to carry him five times a week to the heart of the city. During those brief, swift, crowded trips Ernie, generally looking steadily out the window at the brown buildings and black stanchions whipping past, enjoyed a kind of anonymity and privacy more refreshing to his spirit than he realized. But now all that had been suddenly changed. People had started to talk to him; total strangers struck up conversations almost every morning and afternoon.

Ernie couldn’t figure out the reason and wasn’t at all sure he liked it--except for Vivian.

She was the sort of girl Ernie dreamed about, improperly. Tall, blonde and knowing, excitedly curved but armored in a black suit, friendly and funny but given to making almost cruelly deflating remarks, as if the neatly furled short umbrella dangling from her wrist might better be a black dog whip.

She worked in an office too, a fancier one than Ernie’s, as he found out from their morning conversations. He hadn’t got to the point of asking her to lunch, but he was prodding himself.

Why such a girl should ever have asked him for a match in the first place and then put up with his clumsy babblings on subsequent mornings was a mystery to him. He finally asked her about it in what he hoped was a joking way, though she seemed to know a lot more about joking than he did.

“Don’t you know?” she countered. “I mean what makes you attractive to people?”

“Me attractive? No.”

“Well, I’ll tell you then, Ernie, and I’ve got to admit it’s something quite out of the ordinary. I’ve never noticed it in anyone else. Ernie, I’m sure your knowledge of romantic novels is shamefully deficient, it’s clear from your manners, but in the earlier ones--not in style now--the hero is described as tall, manly, broad-shouldered, Anglo-Saxon features, etcetera, etcetera, but there’s one thing he always has, something that sounds like poetic over-enthusiasm if you stop to analyze it, a physical impossibility, but that I have to admit you, Ernie, actually have. Flashing eyes.”

“Flashing eyes? Me?”

She nodded solemnly. He thought her long straight lips trembled on the verge of a grin, but he couldn’t be sure.

“How do you mean, flashing eyes?” he protested. “How can eyes flash, except by reflecting light? In that case, I guess they’d seem to ‘flash’ more if a person opened them wide but kept blinking them a lot. Is that what I do?”

“No, Ernie, though you’re doing it now,” she told him, shaking her head. “No, Ernie, your eyes just give a tiny flash of their own about every five seconds, like a lighthouse, but barely, barely bright enough for another person to notice. It makes you irresistible. Of course I’ve never seen you in the dark; maybe they wouldn’t flash in the dark.”

“You’re joking.”

Vivian frowned a little at that remark, as if she were puzzled herself.

“Well, maybe I am and maybe I’m not,” she said. “In any case, don’t get conceited about your Flashing Eyes, because I’m sure you’ll never know how to take advantage of them.”

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