It was a lonely thing to rule over a dying world--a world that had become sick, so terribly sick...
The Chancellor’s private washroom, discreetly off the innermost of his official suite of offices, was a dream of gleaming black porcelain and solid gold. Each spout, each faucet, was a gracefully stylized mermaid, the combination stall shower-steam room a marvel of hydraulic comfort and decor with variable lighting plotted to give the user every sort of beneficial ray, from ultraviolet to black heat.
But Bliss was used to it. At the moment, as he washed his hands, he was far more concerned with the reflection of his face in the mirror above the dolphin-shaped bowl. With a sort of wry resignation, he accepted the red rims of fatigue around his eyes, the batch of white at his left temple that was spreading toward the top of his dark, well-groomed head. He noted that the lines rising from the corners of his mouth to the curves of his nostrils seemed to have deepened noticeably during the past few days.
As he dried his hands in the air-stream, he told himself that he was letting his imagination run away with him--imagination had always been his weakness, and a grave failing for a head of state. And while he drew on his special, featherweight gloves, he reminded himself that, if he was aging prematurely, it was nobody’s fault but his own. No other man or woman approaching qualification for the job would have taken it--only a sentimental, humanistic fool like himself.
He took a quick sip from the benzedral fountain, waited for the restorative to do its work. Then, feeling moderately refreshed, he returned to his office, sank into the plastifoam cushions of the chair behind his tabletop mountain of a desk and pressed the button that informed Myra, his confidential secretary, he was ready.
There were five in the delegation--by their collars or robes, a priest, a rabbi, a lama, a dark-skinned Watusi witchman and a white robed abbess draped in chaste, flowing white. Automatically, he surveyed them, checking. The priest’s right shoe was twice as broad as his left, the rabbi’s head, beneath the black cap that covered it, was long and thin as a zucchini squash. The witchman, defiantly bare and black as ebony from the waist up, had a tiny duplicate of his own handsome head sprouting from the base of his sternum. The visible deformities of the lama and abbess were concealed beneath their flowing robes. But they were there--they had to be there.
Bliss rose as they entered and said, waving a gloved hand at the chairs on their side of the desk, “Greetings, sirs and madam--please be seated.” And, when they were comfortable, “Now, to what do I owe the honor of this visit?”
He knew, of course--sometimes he thought he knew more than any man should be allowed or able to know--but courtesy and custom demanded the question. It was the witchman who answered. Apparently he was spokesman for the group.
He said, speaking beautiful Cantabrigian English, “Honorable sir, we have come as representatives of the religions of the world, not to protest but in a spirit of enquiry. Our flocks grow increasingly restive, when they are not leaving us altogether, our influence grows less. We wish to know what steps, if any, are being taken toward modification or abrogation of the sterility program. Without hope of posterity, mankind is lost.”
While the others murmured their agreement, Bliss focused his gaze on the sealed lids of the tiny face sprouting from the Watusi’s breastbone. He wondered if there were eyes behind them, if there were a tongue behind those tiny clamped lips, and what words such a tongue would utter if it could speak.
“We are waiting, honorable sir,” the spokesman said.
Shaking himself free of the absorption, Bliss glanced at the teleprompter on his desk. Efficient as ever, Myra had their names there before him. He said, “Gentle R’hau-chi, I believe a simple exposition of our situation, and of what programs we are seeking to meet and mitigate it with, will give you the answers. Not, perhaps, the answers you seek, but the answers we must accept...”
Although the reports from World Laboratories changed from day to day, he knew the speech by heart. For the problem remained. Humanity, like virtually all other organic life on Earth, was dying. Where it spawned, it spawned monsters. On three-dimensional vidar rolls, he showed them live shots of what the laboratories were doing, what they were trying to do--in the insemination groups, the incubators, the ray-bombardment chambers, the parthenogenesis bureau.
Studying them, he could see by their expressions, hear by the prayers they muttered, how shocking these revelations were. It was one thing to know what was going on--another for them to see for themselves. It was neither pretty--nor hopeful.
When it was over, the rabbi spoke. He said, in deep, slightly guttural, vastly impressive intonations, “What about Mars, honorable sir? Have you reached communication with our brothers and sisters on the red planet?”
Bliss shook his head. He glanced at the alma-calendar at his elbow and told them, “Mars continues to maintain silence--as it has for two hundred and thirty-one years. Ever since the final war.”
They knew it, but they had to hear it from him to accept it even briefly. There was silence, long wretched silence. Then the abbess spoke. She said, “Couldn’t we send out a ship to study conditions first hand, honorable sir?”
Bliss sighed. He said, “The last four spaceships on Earth were sent to Mars at two-year intervals during the last perihelions. Not one of them came back. That was more than a half century ago. Since I accepted this office, I have had some of our ablest remaining scientific brains working on the problem of building a new ship. They have not been successful.” He laid his gloved hands, palms upward, on the desk, added,
“It appears that we have lost the knack for such projects.”
When they were gone, he walked to the broad window and looked out over the World Capital buildings at the verdant Sahara that stretched hundreds of miles to the foot of the faintly purple Atlas Mountains on the northwestern horizon. A blanket of brilliant green, covering what had once been the greatest of all Earthly deserts--but a poisonous blanket of strange plant mutations, some of them poisonous beyond belief.
Truly, Bliss thought, he belonged to a remarkable species. Man had conquered his environment, he had even, within the limits of the Solar System, conquered space. He had planted, and successfully, his own kind on a neighboring planet and made it grow. But man had never, at least on his home planet, conquered himself.
Overpopulation had long since ceased to be a problem--the atomic wars had seen to that. But, thanks to the miracles of science--atomics and automation--man had quickly rebuilt the world into a Garden of Eden with up-to-date plumbing. He might have won two planets, but he had turned his Eden into an arbor of deadly nightshade.
Oddly, it had not been the dreadful detonations of thermo-nuclear bombs that had poisoned his paradise--though, of course, they had helped. It had been the constant spillage of atomic waste into the upper atmosphere that had spelled ruin. Now, where four billion people had once lived in war and want, forty million lived in poisoned plenty. He was chancellor of a planet whose ruling species could not longer breed without disaster.
His was the last generation. It should have been a peaceful generation. But it was not.
For, as population decreased, so did the habitable areas of Earth. The formerly overpopulated temperate regions were now ghastly jungles of self-choking mutant plant growth. Only what had been the waste areas--Antarctica, the Gobi, Australia, Patagonia and the Sahara-Arabia districts--could still support even the strange sorts of human life that remained.
And the forty millions still alive were restless, frightened, paranoiac. Each believed his own group was being systematically exterminated in favor of some other. None had yet faced the fact that humanity, for all practical purposes, was already dead on Earth.
He sensed another presence in the room. It was Myra, his secretary, bearing a sheaf of messages in one hand, a sheaf of correspondence for him to sign in the other. She said, “You look beat, chancellor. Sit down.”
Bliss sat down. Myra, as his faithful and efficient amanuensis for more than fifteen years, had her rights. One of them was taking care of him during working hours. She was still rather pretty, he noted with surprise. An Afro-Asian with skin like dark honey and smooth, pleasant, rather flat features. It was, he thought, a pity she had that third eye in her forehead.
She stood beside him while he ran through the letters and signed them.
“Meeting of the regional vice-chancellors tomorrow, eh?” he said as he handed them back to her.
“Right, chancellor,” she said crisply. “Ten o’clock. You may have to take another whirlwind trip to tell them the situation is well in hand.”
He grunted and glanced at the messages, scanned them quickly, tossed them into the disposal vent beside his desk. Myra looked moderately disapproving. “What about that possible ship from Mars?” she asked.
“Shouldn’t you look into it?”
He grunted again, looked up at her, said, “If I’d looked into every ‘ship from Mars’ astronomy has come up with in the nine years I’ve held this office, I’d never have had time for anything else. You can lay odds it’s a wild asteroid or something like that.”
“They sound pretty sure this time,” Myra said doubtfully.
“Don’t they always?” he countered. “Come on, Myra, wrap it up. Time to go home.”
“Roger, boss,” she said, blinking all three eyes at him.
Bliss turned on the autopi and napped while the gyrojet carried him to his villa outside Dakar. Safely down on the roof of the comfortable, automatic white house, he took the lift down to his second-floor suite, where he showered and changed into evening sandals and clout. He redonned his gloves, then rode down another two flights to the terrace, where Elise was waiting for him in a gossamer-thin iridescent eggshell sari. They kissed and she patted the place on the love-seat beside her. She had a book--an old-fashioned book of colored reproductions of long-since-destroyed old masters on her lap. The artist was a man named Peter Paul Rubens.
Eyeing the opulent nudes, she giggled and said, “Don’t they look awfully--plain? I mean, women with only two breasts!”
“Well--yes,” he said. “If you want to take that angle.”
“Idiot!” she said. “Honestly, darling, you’re the strangest sort of man to be a World Chancellor.”
“These are strange times,” he told her, smiling without mirth, though with genuine affection.
“Suppose--just suppose,” she said, turning the pages slowly, “biology should be successful in stabilizing the species again. Would they have to set it back that far? I mean, either we or they would feel awfully out of style.”
“What would you suggest?” he asked her solemnly.
“Don’t be nasty,” she said loftily. Then she giggled again and ruffled his hair. “I wish you’d have it dyed one color,” she told him. “Either black or gray--or why not a bright puce?”
“What’s for dinner?” he asked, adding, “If I can still eat after that.”
The regional vice-chancellors were awaiting him in the next-to-the-innermost office when Bliss arrived at World Capital the next morning. Australia, Antarctica, Patagonia, Gobi, Sahara-Arabia--they followed him inside like so many penguins in the black-and-white official robes. All were deathly serious as they stated their problems.
Gobi wanted annual rainfall cut from 60 to 45 centimeters.
Sahara-Arabia was not receiving satisfactory food synthetics--there had been Moslem riots because of pork flavor in the meat.
Patagonia was suffering through a species of sport-worm that was threatening to turn it into a desert if biology didn’t come up with a remedy fast.