Prime Difference

by Alan Edward Nourse

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Being two men rolled out of one would solve my problems--but which one would I be?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

I suppose that every guy reaches a point once in his lifetime when he gets one hundred and forty per cent fed up with his wife.

Understand now--I’ve got nothing against marriage or any thing like that. Marriage is great. It’s a good old red-blooded American Institution. Except that it’s got one defect in it big enough to throw a cat through, especially when you happen to be married to a woman like Marge--

It’s so permanent.

Oh, I’d have divorced Marge in a minute if we’d been living in the Blissful ‘Fifties--but with the Family Solidarity Amendment of 1968, and all the divorce taxes we have these days since the women got their teeth into politics, to say nothing of the Aggrieved Spouse Compensation Act, I’d have been a pauper for the rest of my life if I’d tried it. That’s aside from the social repercussions involved.

You can’t really blame me for looking for another way out. But a man has to be desperate to try to buy himself an Ego Prime.

So, all right, I was desperate. I’d spent eight years trying to keep Marge happy, which was exactly seven and a half years too long.

Marge was a dream to look at, with her tawny hair and her sulky eyes and a shape that could set your teeth chattering--but that was where the dream stopped.

She had a tongue like a #10 wood rasp and a list of grievances long enough to paper the bedroom wall. When she wasn’t complaining, she was crying, and when she wasn’t crying, she was pointing out in chilling detail exactly where George Faircloth fell short as a model husband, which happened to be everywhere. Half of the time she had a “beastly headache” (for which I was personally responsible) and the other half she was sore about something, so ninety-nine per cent of the time we got along like a couple of tomcats in a packing case.


Maybe we just weren’t meant for each other. I don’t know. I used to envy guys like Harry Folsom at the office. His wife is no joy to live with either, but at least he could take a spin down to Rio once in a while with one of the stenographers and get away with it.

I knew better than to try. Marge was already so jealous that I couldn’t even smile at the company receptionist without a twinge of guilt. Give Marge something real to howl about, and I’d be ready for the Rehab Center in a week.

But I’d underestimated Marge. She didn’t need anything real, as I found out when Jeree came along.

Business was booming and the secretaries at the office got shuffled around from time to time. Since I had an executive-type job, I got an executive-type secretary. Her name was Jeree and she was gorgeous. As a matter of fact, she was better than gorgeous. She was the sort of secretary every businessman ought to have in his office. Not to do any work--just to sit there.

Jeree was tall and dark, and she could convey more without saying anything than I ever dreamed was possible. The first day she was there, she conveyed to me very clearly that if I cared to supply the opportunity, she’d be glad to supply the motive.

That night, I could tell that Marge had been thinking something over during the day. She let me get the first bite of dinner halfway to my mouth, and then she said, “I hear you got a new secretary today.”

I muttered something into my coffee cup and pretended not to hear.

Marge turned on her Accusing Look #7. “I also hear that she’s five-foot-eight and tapes out at 38-25-36 and thinks you’re handsome.”

Marge had quite a spy system.

“She couldn’t be much of a secretary,” she added.

“She’s a perfectly good secretary,” I blurted, and kicked myself mentally. I should have known Marge’s traps by then.

Marge exploded. I didn’t get any supper, and she was still going strong at midnight. I tried to argue, but when Marge got going, there was no stopping her. I had my ultimatum, as far as Jeree was concerned.

Harry Folsom administered the coup de grace at coffee next morning.

“What you need is an Ego Prime,” he said with a grin. “Solve all your problems. I hear they work like a charm.”

I set my coffee cup down. Bells were ringing in my ears. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s against the law. Anyway, I wouldn’t think of such a thing. It’s--it’s indecent.”

Harry shrugged. “Just joking, old man, just joking. Still, it’s fun to think about, eh? Freedom from wife. Absolutely safe and harmless. Not even too expensive, if you’ve got the right contacts. And I’ve got a friend who knows a guy--”

Just then, Jeree walked past us and flashed me a big smile. I gripped my cup for dear life and still spilled coffee on my tie.

As I said, a guy gets fed up.

And maybe opportunity would only knock once.

And an Ego Prime would solve all my problems, as Harry had told me.


It was completely illegal, of course. The wonder was that Ego Prime, Inc., ever got to put their product on the market at all, once the nation’s housewives got wind of just what their product was.

From the first, there was rigid Federal control and laws regulating the use of Primes right down to the local level. You could get a license for a Utility model Prime if you were a big business executive, or a high public official, or a movie star, or something like that; but even then his circuits had to be inspected every two months, and he had to have a thousand built-in Paralyzers, and you had to specify in advance exactly what you wanted your Prime to be able to do when, where, how, why, and under what circumstances.

The law didn’t leave a man much leeway.

But everybody knew that if you really wanted a personal Prime with all his circuits open and no questions asked, you could get one. Black market prices were steep and you ran your own risk, but it could be done.

Harry Folsom told his friend who knew a guy, and a few greenbacks got lost somewhere, and I found myself looking at a greasy little man with a black mustache and a bald spot, up in a dingy fourth-story warehouse off lower Broadway.

“Ah, yes,” the little man said. “Mr. Faircloth. We’ve been expecting you.”


I didn’t like the looks of the guy any more than the looks of the place. “I’ve been told you can supply me with a--”

He coughed. “Yes, yes. I understand. It might be possible.” He fingered his mustache and regarded me from pouchy eyes. “Busy executives often come to us to avoid the--ah--unpleasantness of formal arrangements. Naturally, we only act as agents, you might say. We never see the merchandise ourselves--” He wiped his hands on his trousers. “Now were you interested in the ordinary Utility model, Mr. Faircloth?”

I assumed he was just being polite. You didn’t come to the back door for Utility models.

“Or perhaps you’d require one of our Deluxe models. Very careful workmanship. Only a few key Paralyzers in operation and practically complete circuit duplication. Very useful for--ah--close contact work, you know. Social engagements, conferences--”

I was shaking my head. “I want a Super Deluxe model,” I told him.

He grinned and winked. “Ah, indeed! You want perfect duplication. Yes, indeed. Domestic situations can be--awkward, shall we say. Very awkward--”

I gave him a cold stare. I couldn’t see where my domestic problems were any affairs of his. He got the idea and hurried me back to a storeroom.

“We keep a few blanks here for the basic measurement. You’ll go to our laboratory on 14th Street to have the minute impressions taken. But I can assure you you’ll be delighted, simply delighted.”

The blanks weren’t very impressive--clay and putty and steel, faceless, brainless. He went over me like a tailor, checking measurements of all sorts. He was thorough--embarrassingly thorough, in fact--but finally he was finished. I went on to the laboratory.

And that was all there was to it.


Practical androids had been a pipe dream until Hunyadi invented the Neuro-pantograph. Hunyadi had no idea in the world what to do with it once he’d invented it, but a couple of enterprising engineers bought him body and soul, sub-contracted the problems of anatomy, design, artistry, audio and visio circuitry, and so forth, and ended up with the modern Ego Primes we have today.

I spent a busy two hours under the NP microprobes; the artists worked outside while the NP technicians worked inside. I came out of it pretty woozy, but a shot of Happy-O set that straight. Then I waited in the recovery room for another two hours, dreaming up ways to use my Prime when I got him. Finally the door opened and the head technician walked in, followed by a tall, sandy-haired man with worried blue eyes and a tired look on his face.

“Meet George Faircloth Prime,” the technician said, grinning at me like a nursing mother.

I shook hands with myself. Good firm handshake, I thought admiringly. Nothing flabby about it.

I slapped George Prime on the shoulder happily. “Come on, Brother,” I said. “You’ve got a job to do.”

But, secretly, I was wondering what Jeree was doing that night.

George Prime had remote controls, as well as a completely recorded neurological analogue of his boss, who was me. George Prime thought what I thought about the same things I did in the same way I did. The only difference was that what I told George Prime to do, George Prime did.

If I told him to go to a business conference in San Francisco and make the smallest possible concessions for the largest possible orders, he would go there and do precisely that. His signature would be my signature. It would hold up in court.

And if I told him that my wife Marge was really a sweet, good-hearted girl and that he was to stay home and keep her quiet and happy any time I chose, he’d do that, too.

George Prime was a duplicate of me right down to the sandy hairs on the back of my hands. Our fingerprints were the same. We had the same mannerisms and used the same figures of speech. The only physical difference apparent even to an expert was the tiny finger-depression buried in the hair above his ear. A little pressure there would stop George Prime dead in his tracks.

He was so lifelike, even I kept forgetting that he was basically just a pile of gears.

I’d planned very carefully how I meant to use him, of course.

Every man who’s been married eight years has a sanctuary. He builds it up and maintains it against assault in the very teeth of his wife’s natural instinct to clean, poke, pry and rearrange things. Sometimes it takes him years of diligent work to establish his hideout and be confident that it will stay inviolate, but if he starts early enough, and sticks with it long enough, and is fierce enough and persistent enough and crafty enough, he’ll probably win in the end. The girls hate him for it, but he’ll win.

With some men, it’s just a box on their dressers, or a desk, or a corner of an unused back room. But I had set my sights high early in the game. With me, it was the whole workshop in the garage.


At first, Marge tried open warfare. She had to clean the place up, she said. I told her I didn’t want her to clean it up. She could clean the whole house as often as she chose, but I would clean up the workshop.

After a couple of sharp engagements on that field, Marge staged a strategic withdrawal and reorganized her attack. A little pile of wood shavings would be on the workshop floor one night and be gone the next. A wrench would be back on the rack--upside down, of course. An open paint can would have a cover on it.

I always knew. I screamed loudly and bitterly. I ranted and raved. I swore I’d rig up a booby-trap with a shotgun.

So she quit trying to clean in there and just went in once in a while to take a look around. I fixed that with the old toothpick-in-the-door routine. Every time she so much as set foot in that workshop, she had a battle on her hands for the next week or so. She could count on it. It was that predictable.

She never found out how I knew, and after seven years or so, it wore her down. She didn’t go into the workshop any more.

As I said, you’ve got to be persistent, but you’ll win.

Eventually.

If you’re really persistent.

Now all my effort paid off. I got Marge out of the house for an hour or two that day and had George Prime delivered and stored in the big closet in the workshop. They hooked his controls up and left me a manual of instructions for running him. When I got home that night, there he was, just waiting to be put to work.

After supper, I went out to the workshop--to get the pipe I’d left there, I said. I pushed George Prime’s button, winked at him and switched on the free-behavior circuits.

“Go to it, Brother,” I said.

George Prime put my pipe in his mouth, lit it and walked back into the house.

Five minutes later, I heard them fighting.

It sounded so familiar that I laughed out loud. Then I caught a cab on the corner and headed uptown.

We had quite a night, Jeree and I. I got home just about time to start for work, and sure enough, there was George Prime starting my car, business suit on, briefcase under his arm.

I pushed the recall and George Prime got out of the car and walked into the workshop. He stepped into his cradle in the closet. I turned him off and then drove away in the car.

Bless his metallic soul, he’d even kissed Marge good-by for me!


Needless to say, the affairs of George Faircloth took on a new sparkle with George Prime on hand to cover the home front.

For the first week, I was hardly home at all. I must say I felt a little guilty, leaving poor old George Prime to cope with Marge all the time--he looked and acted so human, it was easy to forget that he literally couldn’t care less. But I felt apologetic all the same whenever I took him out of his closet.

“She’s really a sweet girl underneath it all,” I’d say. “You’ll learn to like her after a bit.”

“Of course I like her,” George Prime said. “You told me to, didn’t you? Stop worrying. She’s really a sweet girl underneath it all.”

He sounded convincing enough, but still it bothered me. “You’re sure you understand the exchange mechanism?” I asked. I didn’t want any foul-ups there, as you can imagine.

“Perfectly,” said George Prime. “When you buzz the recall, I wait for the first logical opportunity I can find to come out to the workshop, and you take over.”

“But you might get nervous. You might inadvertently tip her off.”

George Prime looked pained. “Really, old man! I’m a Super Deluxe model, remember? I don’t have fourteen activated Hunyadi tubes up in this cranial vault of mine just for nothing. You’re the one that’s nervous. I’ll take care of everything. Relax.”

So I did.

Jeree made good all her tacit promises and then some. She had a very cozy little apartment on 34th Street where we went to relax after a hard day at the office. When we weren’t doing the town, that is. As long as Jeree didn’t try too much conversation, everything was wonderful.

And then, when Jeree got a little boring, there was Sybil in the accounting department. Or Dorothy in promotion. Or Jane. Or Ingrid.

I could go on at some length, but I won’t. I was building quite a reputation for myself around the office.

Of course, it was like buying your first 3-V set. In a week or so, the novelty wears off a little and you start eating on schedule again. It took a little while, but I finally had things down to a reasonable program.

Tuesday and Thursday nights, I was informally “out” while formally

“in.” Sometimes I took Sunday nights “out” if things got too sticky around the house over the weekend. The rest of the time, George Prime cooled his heels in his closet. Locked up, of course. Can’t completely trust a wife to observe a taboo, no matter how well trained she is.

There, was an irreconcilable amount of risk. George Prime had to quick-step some questions about my work at the office--there was no way to supply him with current data until the time for his regular two-month refill and pattern-accommodation at the laboratory. In the meantime, George Prime had to make do with what he had.

But as he himself pointed out he was a Super Deluxe model.


Marge didn’t suspect a thing. In fact, George Prime seemed to be having a remarkable effect on her. I didn’t notice anything at first--I was hardly ever home. But one night I found my pipe and slippers laid out for me, and the evening paper neatly folded on my chair, and it brought me up short. Marge had been extremely docile lately. We hadn’t had a good fight in days. Weeks, come to think of it.

I thought it over and shrugged. Old age, I figured. She was bound to mellow sometime.

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