Second Sight

by Alan Edward Nourse

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Amy Ballantine has a talent... and sometimes it lets her know more than she needs to know.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

(Note: The following excerpts from Amy Ballantine’s journal have never actually been written down at any time before. Her account of impressions and events has been kept in organized fashion in her mind for at least nine years (even she is not certain when she started), but it must be understood that certain inaccuracies in transcription could not possibly have been avoided in the excerpting attempted here. The Editor.)


Tuesday, 16 May. Lambertson got back from Boston about two this afternoon. He was tired; I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lambertson so tired. It was more than just exhaustion, too. Maybe anger? Frustration? I couldn’t be sure. It seemed more like defeat than anything else, and he went straight from the ‘copter to his office without even stopping off at the lab at all.

It’s good to have him back, though! Not that I haven’t had a nice enough rest. With Lambertson gone, Dakin took over the reins for the week, but Dakin doesn’t really count, poor man. It’s such a temptation to twist him up and get him all confused that I didn’t do any real work all week. With Lambertson back I’ll have to get down to the grind again, but I’m still glad he’s here. I never thought I’d miss him so, for such a short time away.

But I wish he’d gotten a rest, if he ever rests! And I wish I knew why he went to Boston in the first place. Certainly he didn’t want to go. I wanted to read him and find out, but I don’t think I’m supposed to know yet. Lambertson didn’t want to talk. He didn’t even tell me he was back, even though he knew I’d catch him five miles down the road. (I can do that now, with Lambertson. Distance doesn’t seem to make so much difference any more if I just ignore it.)

So all I got was bits and snatches on the surface of his mind. Something about me, and Dr. Custer; and a nasty little man called Aarons or Barrons or something. I’ve heard of him somewhere, but I can’t pin it down right now. I’ll have to dig that out later, I guess.

But if he saw Dr. Custer, why doesn’t he tell me about it?


Wednesday, 17 May. It was Aarons that he saw in Boston, and now I’m sure that something’s going wrong. I know that man. I remember him from a long time ago, back when I was still at Bairdsley, long before I came here to the Study Center. He was the consulting psychiatrist, and I don’t think I could ever forget him, even if I tried!

That’s why I’m sure something very unpleasant is going on.

Lambertson saw Dr. Custer, too, but the directors sent him to Boston because Aarons wanted to talk to him. I wasn’t supposed to know anything about it, but Lambertson came down to dinner last night. He wouldn’t even look at me, the skunk. I fixed him. I told him I was going to peek, and then I read him in a flash, before he could shift his mind to Boston traffic or something. (He knows I can’t stand traffic.)

I only picked up a little, but it was enough. There was something very unpleasant that Aarons had said that I couldn’t quite get. They were in his office. Lambertson had said, “I don’t think she’s ready for it, and I’d never try to talk her into it, at this point. Why can’t you people get it through your heads that she’s a child, and a human being, not some kind of laboratory animal? That’s been the trouble all along. Everybody has been so eager to grab, and nobody has given her a wretched thing in return.”

Aarons was smooth. Very sad and reproachful. I got a clear picture of him--short, balding, mean little eyes in a smug, self-righteous little face. “Michael, after all she’s twenty-three years old. She’s certainly out of diapers by now.”

“But she’s only had two years of training aimed at teaching her anything.”

“Well, there’s no reason that that should stop, is there? Be reasonable, Michael. We certainly agree that you’ve done a wonderful job with the girl, and naturally you’re sensitive about others working with her. But when you consider that public taxes are footing the bill--”

“I’m sensitive about others exploiting her, that’s all. I tell you, I won’t push her. And I wouldn’t let her come up here, even if she agreed to do it. She shouldn’t be tampered with for another year or two at least.” Lambertson was angry and bitter. Now, three days later, he was still angry.

“And you’re certain that your concern is entirely--professional?” (Whatever Aarons meant, it wasn’t nice. Lambertson caught it, and oh, my! Chart slapping down on the table, door slamming, swearing--from mild, patient Lambertson, can you imagine? And then later, no more anger, just disgust and defeat. That was what hit me when he came back yesterday. He couldn’t hide it, no matter how he tried.)

Well, no wonder he was tired. I remember Aarons all right. He wasn’t so interested in me, back in those days. Wild one, he called me. We haven’t the time or the people to handle anything like this in a public institution. We have to handle her the way we’d handle any other defective. She may be a plus-defective instead of a minus-defective, but she’s as crippled as if she were deaf and blind.

Good old Aarons. That was years ago, when I was barely thirteen. Before Dr. Custer got interested and started ophthalmoscoping me and testing me, before I’d ever heard of Lambertson or the Study Center. For that matter, before anybody had done anything but feed me and treat me like some kind of peculiar animal or something.

Well, I’m glad it was Lambertson that went to Boston and not me, for Aarons’ sake. And if Aarons tries to come down here to work with me, he’s going to be wasting his time, because I’ll lead him all around Robin Hood’s Barn and get him so confused he’ll wish he’d stayed home. But I can’t help but wonder, just the same. Am I a cripple like Aarons said? Does being psi-high mean that? I don’t think so, but what does Lambertson think? Sometimes when I try to read Lambertson I’m the one that gets confused. I wish I could tell what he really thinks.


Wednesday night. I asked Lambertson tonight what Dr. Custer had said. “He wants to see you next week,” he told me. “But Amy, he didn’t make any promises. He wasn’t even hopeful.”

“But his letter! He said the studies showed that there wasn’t any anatomical defect.”

Lambertson leaned back and lit his pipe, shaking his head at me. He’s aged ten years this past week. Everybody thinks so. He’s lost weight, and he looks as if he hasn’t slept at all. “Custer’s afraid that it isn’t a question of anatomy, Amy.”

“But what is it, then, for heaven’s sake?”

“He doesn’t know. He says it’s not very scientific, but it may just be that what you don’t use, you lose.”

“Oh, but that’s silly.” I chewed my lip.

“Granted.”

“But he thinks that there’s a chance?”

“Of course there’s a chance. And you know he’ll do everything he can. It’s just that neither of us wants you to get your hopes up.”

It wasn’t much, but it was something. Lambertson looked so beat. I didn’t have the heart to ask him what Aarons wanted, even though I know he’d like to get it off his chest. Maybe tomorrow will be better.

I spent the day with Charlie Dakin in the lab, and did a little work for a change. I’ve been disgustingly lazy, and poor Charlie thinks it’s all his fault. Charlie reads like twenty-point type ninety per cent of the time, and I’m afraid he knows it. I can tell just exactly when he stops paying attention to business and starts paying attention to me, and then all of a sudden he realizes I’m reading him, and it flusters him for the rest of the day. I wonder why? Does he really think I’m shocked? Or surprised? Or insulted? Poor Charlie!

I guess I must be good enough looking. I can read it from almost every fellow that comes near me. I wonder why? I mean, why me and not Marjorie over in the Main Office? She’s a sweet girl, but she never gets a second look from the guys. There must be some fine differential point I’m missing somewhere, but I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.

I’m not going to press Lambertson, but I hope he opens up tomorrow. He’s got me scared silly by now. He has a lot of authority around here, but other people are paying the bills, and when he’s frightened about something, it can’t help but frighten me.


Thursday, 18 May. We went back to reaction testing in the lab with Lambertson today. That study is almost finished, as much as anything I work on is ever finished, which isn’t very much. This test had two goals: to clock my stimulus-response pattern in comparison to normals, and to find out just exactly when I pick up any given thought-signal from the person I’m reading. It isn’t a matter of developing speed. I’m already so fast to respond that it doesn’t mean too much from anybody else’s standpoint, and I certainly don’t need any training there. But where along the line do I pick up a thought impulse? Do I catch it at its inception? Do I pick up the thought formulation, or just the final crystalized pattern? Lambertson thinks I’m with it right from the start, and that some training in those lines would be worth my time.

Of course, we didn’t find out, not even with the ingenious little random-firing device that Dakin designed for the study. With this gadget, neither Lambertson nor I know what impulse the box is going to throw at him. He just throws a switch and it starts coming. He catches it, reacts, I catch it from him and react, and we compare reaction times. This afternoon it had us driving up a hill, and sent a ten-ton truck rolling down on us out of control. I had my flasher on two seconds before Lambertson did, of course, but our reaction times are standardized, so when we corrected for my extra speed, we knew that I must have caught the impulse about 0.07 seconds after he did.

Crude, of course, not nearly fast enough, and we can’t reproduce on a stable basis. Lambertson says that’s as close as we can get without cortical probes. And that’s where I put my foot down. I may have a gold mine in this head of mine, but nobody is going to put burr-holes through my skull in order to tap it. Not for a while yet.

That’s unfair, of course, because it sounds as if Lambertson were trying to force me into something, and he isn’t. I’ve read him about that, and I know he wouldn’t allow it. Let’s learn everything else we can learn without it first, he says. Later, if you want to go along with it, maybe. But right now you’re not competent to decide for yourself.

He may be right, but why not? Why does he keep acting as if I’m a child? Am I, really? With everything (and I mean everything) coming into my mind for the past twenty-three years, haven’t I learned enough to make decisions for myself? Lambertson says of course everything has been coming in, it’s just that I don’t know what to do with it all. But somewhere along the line I have to reach a maturation point of some kind.

It scares me, sometimes, because I can’t find an answer to it and the answer might be perfectly horrible. I don’t know where it may end. What’s worse, I don’t know what point it has reached right now. How much difference is there between my mind and Lambertson’s? I’m psi-high, and he isn’t--granted. But is there more to it than that? People like Aarons think so. They think it’s a difference between human function and something else.

And that scares me because it just isn’t true. I’m as human as anybody else. But somehow it seems that I’m the one who has to prove it. I wonder if I ever will. That’s why Dr. Custer has to help me. Everything hangs on that. I’m to go up to Boston next week, for final studies and testing.

If Dr. Custer can do something, what a difference that will make! Maybe then I could get out of this whole frightening mess, put it behind me and forget about it. With just the psi alone, I don’t think I ever can.


Friday, 19 May. Today Lambertson broke down and told me what it was that Aarons had been proposing. It was worse than I thought it would be. The man had hit on the one thing I’d been afraid of for so long.

“He wants you to work against normals,” Lambertson said. “He’s swallowed the latency hypothesis whole. He thinks that everybody must have a latent psi potential, and that all that is needed to drag it into the open is a powerful stimulus from someone with full-blown psi powers.”

“Well?” I said. “Do you think so?”

“Who knows?” Lambertson slammed his pencil down on the desk angrily. “No, I don’t think so, but what does that mean? Not a thing. It certainly doesn’t mean I’m right. Nobody knows the answer, not me, nor Aarons, nor anybody. And Aarons wants to use you to find out.”

I nodded slowly. “I see. So I’m to be used as a sort of refined electrical stimulator,” I said. “Well, I guess you know what you can tell Aarons.”

He was silent, and I couldn’t read him. Then he looked up. “Amy, I’m not sure we can tell him that.”

I stared at him. “You mean you think he could force me?”

“He says you’re a public charge, that as long as you have to be supported and cared for, they have the right to use your faculties. He’s right on the first point. You are a public charge. You have to be sheltered and protected. If you wandered so much as a mile outside these walls you’d never survive, and you know it.”

I sat stunned. “But Dr. Custer--”

“Dr. Custer is trying to help. But he hasn’t succeeded so far. If he can, then it will be a different story. But I can’t stall much longer, Amy. Aarons has a powerful argument. You’re psi-high. You’re the first full-fledged, wide-open, free-wheeling psi-high that’s ever appeared in human history. The first. Others in the past have shown potential, maybe, but nothing they could ever learn to control. You’ve got control, you’re fully developed. You’re here, and you’re the only one there is.”

“So I happened to be unlucky,” I snapped. “My genes got mixed up.”

“That’s not true, and you know it,” Lambertson said. “We know your chromosomes better than your face. They’re the same as anyone else’s. There’s no gene difference, none at all. When you’re gone, you’ll be gone, and there’s no reason to think that your children will have any more psi potential than Charlie Dakin has.”

Something was building up in me then that I couldn’t control any longer. “You think I should go along with Aarons,” I said dully.

He hesitated. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to, sooner or later. Aarons has some latents up in Boston. He’s certain that they’re latents. He’s talked to the directors down here. He’s convinced them that you could work with his people, draw them out. You could open the door to a whole new world for human beings.”

I lost my temper then. It wasn’t just Aarons, or Lambertson, or Dakin, or any of the others. It was all of them, dozens of them, compounded year upon year upon year. “Now listen to me for a minute,” I said. “Have any of you ever considered what I wanted in this thing? Ever? Have any of you given that one single thought, just once, one time when you were so sick of thinking great thoughts for humanity that you let another thought leak through? Have you ever thought about what kind of a shuffle I’ve had since all this started? Well, you’d better think about it. Right now.

“Amy, you know I don’t want to push you.”

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