The Last Letter

by Fritz Leiber

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Who or what was the scoundrel that kept these couriers from the swift completion of their handsomely appointed rondos?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

On Tenthmonth 1, 2457 A.D., at exactly 9 A.M. Planetary Federation Time--but with a permissible error of a millionth of a second either way--in the fifth sublevel of NewNew York Robot Postal Station 68, Black Sorter gulped down ten thousand pieces of first-class mail.

This breakfast tidbit did not agree with the mail-sorting machine. It was as if a robust dog had been fed a large chunk of good red meat with a strychnine pill in it. Black Sorter’s innards went whirr-klunk, a blue electric glow enveloped him, and he began to shake as if he might break loose from the concrete.

He desperately spat back over his shoulder a single envelope, gave a great huff and blew out toward the sorting tubes a medium-size snowstorm consisting of the other nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine pieces of first-class mail chewed to confetti. Then, still convulsed, he snapped up a fresh ten thousand and proceeded to chomp and grind on them. Black Sorter was rugged.

The rejected envelope was tongued up by Red Subsorter, who growled deep in his throat, said a very bad word, and passed it to Yellow Rerouter, who passed it to Green Rerouter, who passed it to Brown Study, who passed it to Pink Wastebasket.

Unlike Black Sorter, Pink Wastebasket was very delicate, though highly intuitive--the machine equivalent of a White Russian countess. She was designed to scan in 3,137 codes, route special-delivery spacemail to interplanetary liners by messenger rocket, and distinguish 9s from upside-down 6s.

Pink Wastebasket haughtily inhaled the offending envelope and almost instantly turned a bright crimson and began to tremble. After a few minutes, small atomic flames started to flicker from her mid-section.

White Nursemaid Seven and Greasy Joe both received Pink Wastebasket’s distress signal and got there as fast as their wheels would roll them, but the high-born machine’s malady was beyond their simple skills of oilcan and electroshock.

They summoned other machine-tending-and-repairing machines, ones far more expert than themselves, but all were baffled. It was clear that Pink Wastebasket, who continued to tremble and flicker uncontrollably, was suffering from the equivalent of a major psychosis with severe psychosomatic symptoms. She spat a stream of filthy ions at Gray Psychiatrist, not recognizing her old friend.

Meanwhile, the paper blizzard from Black Sorter was piling up in great drifts between the dark pillars of the sublevel, and flurries had reached Pink Wastebasket’s aristocratic area. An expedition of sturdy machines, headed by two hastily summoned snowplows, was dispatched to immobilize Black Sorter at all costs.

Pink Wastebasket, quivering like a demented hula dancer, was clearly approaching a crisis. Finally Gray Psychiatrist--after consulting with Green Surgeon, and even then with an irritated reluctance, as if he were calling in a witch-doctor--summoned a human being.

The human being walked respectfully around Pink Wastebasket several times and then gave her a nervous little poke with a rubber-handled probe.

Pink Wastebasket gently regurgitated her last snack, turned dead white, gave a last flicker and shake, and expired. Black Coroner recorded the immediate cause of death as tinkering by a human being.

The human being, a bald and scrawny one named Potshelter, picked up the envelope responsible for all the trouble, stared at it incredulously, opened it with trembling fingers, scanned the contents briefly, gave a great shriek and ran off at top speed, forgetting to hop on his perambulator, which followed him making anxious clucking noises.

The nearest human representative of the Solar Bureau of Investigation, a rather wooden-looking man named Krumbine, also bald, recognized Potshelter as soon as the latter burst gasping into his office, squeezing through the door while it was still dilating. The human beings whose work took them among the Top Brass, as the upper-echelon machines were sometimes referred to, formed a kind of human elite, just one big nervous family.

“Sit down, Potshelter,” the SBI Man said. “Hold still a second so the chair can grab you. Hitch onto the hookah and choose a tranquilizer from the tray at your elbow. Whatever deviation you’ve uncovered can’t be that much of a danger to the planets. I imagine that when you leave this office, the Solar Battle Fleet will still be orbiting peacefully around Luna.”

“I seriously doubt that.”

Potshelter gulped a large lavender pill and took a deep breath. “Krumbine, a letter turned up in the first-class mail this morning.”

“Great Scott!”

“It is a letter from one person to another person.”

“Good Lord!”

“The flow of advertising has been seriously interfered with. At a modest estimate, three hundred million pieces of expensive first-class advertising have already been chewed to rags and I’m not sure the Steel Helms--God bless ‘em!--have the trouble in hand yet.”

“Judas Priest!”

“Naturally the poor machines weren’t able to cope with the letter. It was utterly outside their experience, beyond the furthest reach of their programming. It threw them into a terrible spasm. Pink Wastebasket is dead and at this very instant, if we’re lucky, three police machines of the toughest blued steel are holding down Black Sorter and putting a muzzle on him.”

“Great Scott! It’s incredible, Potshelter. And Pink Wastebasket dead? Take another tranquilizer, Potshelter, and hand over the tray.”

Krumbine received it with trembling fingers, started to pick up a big pink pill but drew back his hand from it in sudden revulsion at its color and swallowed two blue oval ones instead. The man was obviously fighting to control himself.

He said unsteadily, “I almost never take doubles, but this news you bring--Good Lord! I seem to recall a case where someone tried to send a sound-tape through the mails, but that was before my time. Incidentally, is there any possibility that this is a letter sent by one group of persons to another group? A hive or a therapy group or a social club? That would be bad enough, of course, but--”

“No, just one single person sending to another.” Potshelter’s expression set in grimly solicitous lines. “I can see you don’t quite understand, Krumbine. This is not a sound-tape, but a letter written in letters. You know, letters, characters--like books.”

“Don’t mention books in this office!” Krumbine drew himself up angrily and then slumped back. “Excuse me, Potshelter, but I find this very difficult to face squarely. Do I understand you to say that one person has tried to use the mails to send a printed sheet of some sort to another?”

“Worse than that. A written letter.”

“Written? I don’t recognize the word.”

“It’s a way of making characters, of forming visual equivalents of sound, without using electricity. The writer, as he’s called, employs a black liquid and a pointed stick called a pen. I know about this because one hobby of mine is ancient means of communication.”

Krumbine frowned and shook his head. “Communication is a dangerous business, Potshelter, especially at the personal level. With you and me, it’s all right, because we know what we’re doing.”

He picked up a third blue tranquilizer. “But with most of the hive-folk, person-to-person communication is only a morbid form of advertising, a dangerous travesty of normal newscasting--catharsis without the analyst, recitation without the teacher--a perversion of promotion employed in betraying and subverting.”

The frown deepened as he put the blue pill in his mouth and chewed it. “But about this pen--do you mean the fellow glues the pointed stick to his tongue and then speaks, and the black liquid traces the vibrations on the paper? A primitive non-electrical oscilloscope? Sloppy but conceivable, and producing a record of sorts of the spoken word.”

“No, no, Krumbine.” Potshelter nervously popped a square orange tablet into his mouth. “It’s a hand-written letter.”

Krumbine watched him. “I never mix tranquilizers,” he boasted absently. “Hand-written, eh? You mean that the message was imprinted on a hand? And the skin or the entire hand afterward detached and sent through the mails in the fashion of a Martian reproach? A grisly find indeed, Potshelter.”

“You still don’t quite grasp it, Krumbine. The fingers of the hand move the stick that applies the ink, producing a crude imitation of the printed word.”

“Diabolical!” Krumbine smashed his fist down on the desk so that the four phones and two-score microphones rattled. “I tell you, Potshelter, the SBI is ready to cope with the subtlest modern deceptions, but when fiends search out and revive tricks from the pre-Atomic Cave Era, it’s almost too much. But, Great Scott, I dally while the planets are in danger. What’s the sender’s code on this hellish letter?”

“No code,” Potshelter said darkly, proferring the envelope. “The return address is--hand-written.”

Krumbine blanched as his eyes slowly traced the uneven lines in the upper left-hand corner:

from Richard Rowe

215 West 10th St. (horizontal)

2837 Rocket Court (vertical)

Hive 37, NewNew York 319, N. Y.

Columbia, Terra

“Ugh!” Krumbine said, shivering. “Those crawling characters, those letters, as you call them, those things barely enough like print to be readable--they seem to be on the verge of awakening all sorts of horrid racial memories. I find myself thinking of fur-clad witch-doctors dipping long pointed sticks in bubbling black cauldrons. No wonder Pink Wastebasket couldn’t take it, brave girl.”

Firming himself behind his desk, he pushed a number of buttons and spoke long numbers and meaningful alphabetical syllables into several microphones. Banks of colored lights around the desk began to blink like a theatre marquee sending Morse Code, while phosphorescent arrows crawled purposefully across maps and space-charts and through three-dimensional street diagrams.

“There!” he said at last. “The sender of the letter is being apprehended and will be brought directly here. We’ll see what sort of man this Richard Rowe is--if we can assume he’s human. Seven precautionary cordons are being drawn around his population station: three composed of machines, two of SBI agents, and two consisting of human and mechanical medical-combat teams. Same goes for the intended recipient of the letter. Meanwhile, a destroyer squadron of the Solar Fleet has been detached to orbit over NewNew York.”

“In case it becomes necessary to Z-Bomb?” Potshelter asked grimly.

Krumbine nodded. “With all those villains lurking just outside the Solar System in their invisible black ships, with planeticide in their hearts, we can’t be too careful. One word transmitted from one spy to another and anything may happen. And we must bomb before they do, so as to contain our losses. Better one city destroyed than a traitor on the loose who may destroy many cities. One hundred years ago, three person-to-person postcards went through the mails--just three postcards, Potshelter!--and pft went Schenectady, Hoboken, Cicero, and Walla Walla. Here, as long as you’re mixing them, try one of these oval blues--I find them best for steady swallowing.”

Bells jangled. Krumbine grabbed up two phones, holding one to each ear. Potshelter automatically picked up a third. The ringing continued. Krumbine started to wedge one of his phones under his chin, nodded sharply at Potshelter and then toward a cluster of microphones at the end of the table. Potshelter picked up a fourth phone from behind them. The ringing stopped.

The two men listened, looking doped, Krumbine with an eye fixed on the sweep second hand of the large wall clock. When it had made one revolution, he cradled his phones. Potshelter followed suit.

“I do like the simplicity of the new on-the-hour Puffyloaf phono-commercial,” the latter remarked thoughtfully. “The Bread That’s Lighter Than Air. Nice.”

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