The Sensitive Man

by Poul Anderson

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: One man stood between a power-hungry cabal and world mastery-but a man of unusual talents.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The Mermaid Tavern had been elaborately decorated. Great blocks of hewn coral for pillars and booths, tarpon and barracuda on the walls, murals of Neptune and his court--including an outsize animated picture of a mermaid ballet, quite an eye-catcher. But the broad quartz windows showed merely a shifting greenish-blue of seawater, and the only live fish visible were in an aquarium across from the bar. Pacific Colony lacked the grotesque loveliness of the Florida and Cuba settlements. Here they were somehow a working city, even in their recreations.

The sensitive man paused for a moment in the foyer, sweeping the big circular room with a hurried glance. Less than half the tables were filled. This was an hour of interregnum, while the twelve to eighteen hundred shift was still at work and the others had long finished their more expensive amusements. There would always be a few around, of course--Dalgetty typed them as he watched.

A party of engineers, probably arguing about the compression strength of the latest submarine tank to judge from the bored expressions of the three or four rec girls who had joined them. A biochemist, who seemed to have forgotten his plankton and seaweed for the time being and to have focussed his mind on the pretty young clerk with him. A couple of hard-handed caissoniers, settling down to some serious drinking.

A maintenance man, a computerman, a tank pilot, a diver, a sea rancher, a bevy of stenographers, a bunch of very obvious tourists, more chemists and metallurgists--the sensitive man dismissed them all. There were others he couldn’t classify with any decent probability but after a second’s hesitation he decided to ignore them too. That left only the group with Thomas Bancroft.

They were sitting in one of the coral grottos, a cave of darkness to ordinary vision. Dalgetty had to squint to see in and the muted light of the tavern was a harsh glare when his pupils were so distended. But, yes--it was Bancroft all right and there was an empty booth adjoining his.

Dalgetty relaxed his eyes to normal perception. Even in the short moment of dilation the fluoros had given him a headache. He blocked it off from consciousness and started across the floor.

A hostess stopped him with a touch on the arm as he was about to enter the vacant cavern. She was young, an iridescent mantrap in her brief uniform. With all the money flowing into Pacific Colony they could afford decorative help here.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “Those are kept for parties. Would you like a table?”

“I’m a party,” he answered, “or can soon become one.” He moved aside a trifle so that none of the Bancroft group should happen to look out and see him. “If you could arrange some company for me...” He fumbled out a C-note, wondering just how such things could be done gracefully.

“Why, of course, sir.” She took it with a smoothness he envied and handed him a stunning smile in return. “Just make yourself comfortable.”

Dalgetty stepped into the grotto with a fast movement. This wasn’t going to be simple. The rough red walls closed in on top of him, forming a space big enough for twenty people or so. A few strategically placed fluoros gave an eerie undersea light, just enough to see by--but no one could look in. A heavy curtain could be drawn if one wanted to be absolutely secluded. Privacy--uh-huh!

He sat down at the driftwood table and leaned back against the coral. Closing his eyes he made an effort of will. His nerves were already keyed up to such a tautness that it seemed they must break and it took only seconds to twist his mind along the paths required.

The noise of the tavern rose from a tiny mumble to a clattering surf, to a huge and saw-edged wave. Voices dinned in his head, shrill and deep, hard and soft, a senseless stream of talking, jumbled together into words, words, words. Somebody dropped a glass and it was like a bomb going off.

Dalgetty winced, straining his ear against the grotto side. Surely enough of their speech would come to him, even through all that rock! The noise level was high but the human mind, if trained in concentration, is an efficient filter. The outside racket receded from Dalgetty’s awareness and slowly he gathered in the trickle of sound.

First man: “--no matter. What can they do?”

Second man: “Complain to the government. Do you want the FBI on our trail? I don’t.”

First man: “Take it easy. They haven’t yet done so and it’s been a good week now since--”

Second man: “How do you know they haven’t?”

Third man--heavy, authoritative voice. Yes, Dalgetty remembered it now from TV speeches--it was Bancroft himself: “I know. I’ve got enough connections to be sure of that.”

Second man: “Okay, so they haven’t reported it. But why not?”

Bancroft: “You know why. They don’t want the government mixing into this any more than we do.”

Woman: “Well, then, are they just going to sit and take it? No, they’ll find some way to--”


Dalgetty jumped and whirled around. His heart began to race, until he felt his ribs tremble and he cursed his own tension.


Effort again, forcing the volume down, grasping the thunderous heart in fingers of command and dragging it toward rest. He focussed his eyes on the girl who had entered. It was the rec girl, the one he had asked for because he had to sit in this booth.

Her voice was speaking on an endurable level now. Another pretty little bit of fluff. He smiled shakily. “Sit down, sweet. I’m sorry. My nerves are shot. What’ll you have?”

“A daiquiri, please.” She smiled and placed herself beside him. He dialed on the dispenser--the cocktail for her, a scotch and soda for himself.

“You’re new here,” she said. “Have you just been hired or are you a visitor?” Again the smile. “My name’s Glenna.”

“Call me Joe,” said Dalgetty. His first name was actually Simon. “No, I’ll only be here a short while.”

“Where you from?” she asked. “I’m clear from New Jersey myself.”

“Proving that nobody is ever born in California.” He grinned. The control was asserting itself, his racing emotions were checked and he could think clearly again. “I’m--uh--just a floater. Don’t have any real address right now.”

The dispenser ejected the drinks on a tray and flashed the charge--$20. Not bad, considering everything. He gave the machine a fifty and it made change, a five-buck coin and a bill.

“Well,” said Glenna, “here’s to you.”

“And you.” He touched glasses, wondering how to say what he had to say. Damn it, he couldn’t sit here just talking or necking, he’d come to listen but ... A sardonic montage of all the detective shows he had ever seen winked through his mind. The amateur who rushes in and solves the case, heigh-ho. He had never appreciated all the detail involved till now.

There was hesitation in him. He decided that a straightforward approach was his best bet. Deliberately then he created a cool confidence. Subconsciously he feared this girl, alien as she was to his class. All right, force the reaction to the surface, recognize it, suppress it. Under the table his hands moved in the intricate symbolic pattern which aided such emotion-harnessing.

“Glenna,” he said, “I’m afraid I’ll be rather dull company. The fact is I’m doing some research in psychology, learning how to concentrate under different conditions. I wanted to try it in a place like this, you understand.” He slipped out a 2-C bill and laid it before her. “If you’d just sit here quietly it won’t be for more than an hour I guess.”

“Huh?” Her brows lifted. Then, with a shrug and a wry smile, “Okay, you’re paying for it.” She took a cigarette from the flat case at her sash, lit it and relaxed. Dalgetty leaned against the wall and closed his eyes again.

The girl watched him curiously. He was of medium height, stockily built, inconspicuously dressed in a blue short-sleeved tunic, gray slacks and sandals. His square snub-nosed face was lightly freckled, with hazel eyes and a rather pleasant shy smile. The rusty hair was close-cropped. A young man, she guessed, about twenty-five, quite ordinary and uninteresting except for the wrestler’s muscles and, of course, his behavior.

Oh, well, it took all kinds.

Dalgetty had a moment of worry. Not because the yarn he had handed her was thin but because it brushed too close to the truth. He thrust the unsureness out of him. Chances were she hadn’t understood any of it, wouldn’t even mention it. At least not to the people he was hunting.

Or who were hunting him?

Concentration, and the voices slowly came again: “--maybe. But I think they’ll be more stubborn than that.”

Bancroft: “Yes. The issues are too large for a few lives to matter. Still, Michael Tighe is only human. He’ll talk.”

The woman: “He can be made to talk, you mean?” She had one of the coldest voices Dalgetty had ever heard.

Bancroft: “Yes. Though I hate to use extreme measures.”

Man: “What other possibilities have we got? He won’t say anything unless he’s forced to. And meanwhile his people will be scouring the planet to find him. They’re a shrewd bunch.”

Bancroft, sardonically: “What can they do, please? It takes more than an amateur to locate a missing man. It calls for all the resources of a large police organization. And the last thing they want, as I’ve said before, is to bring the government in on this.”

The woman: “I’m not so sure of that, Tom. After all, the Institute is a legal group. It’s government sponsored and its influence is something tremendous. Its graduates--”

Bancroft: “It educates a dozen different kinds of psychotechnicians, yes. It does research. It gives advice. It publishes findings and theories. But believe me the Psychotechnic Institute is like an iceberg. Its real nature and purpose are hidden way under water. No, it isn’t doing anything illegal that I know of. Its aims are so large that they transcend law altogether.”

Man: “What aims?”

Bancroft: “I wish I knew. We’ve only got hints and guesses, you know. One of the reasons we’ve snatched Tighe is to find out more. I suspect that their real work requires secrecy.”

The woman, thoughtfully: “Y-y-yes, I can see how that might be. If the world at large were aware of being--manipulated--then manipulation might become impossible. But just where does Tighe’s group want to lead us?”

Bancroft: “I don’t know, I tell you. I’m not even sure that they do want to--take over. Something even bigger than that.” A sigh. “Let’s face it, Tighe is a crusader too. In his own way he’s a very sincere idealist. He just happens to have the wrong ideals. That’s one reason why I’d hate to see him harmed.”

Man: “But if it turns out that we’ve got to--”

Bancroft: “Why, then we’ve got to, that’s all. But I won’t enjoy it.”

Man: “Okay, you’re the leader, you say when. But I warn you not to wait too long. I tell you the Institute is more than a collection of unworldly scientists. They’ve got someone out searching for Tighe and if they should locate him there could be real trouble.”

Bancroft, mildly: “Well, these are troubled times, or will be shortly. We might as well get used to that.”

The conversation drifted away into idle chatter. Dalgetty groaned to himself. Not once had they spoken of the place where their prisoner was kept.

All right, little man, what next? Thomas Bancroft was big game. His law firm was famous. He had been in Congress and the Cabinet. Even with the Labor Party in power he was a respected elder statesman. He had friends in government, business, unions, guilds and clubs and leagues from Maine to Hawaii. He had only to say the word and Dalgetty’s teeth would be kicked in some dark night. Or, if he proved squeamish, Dalgetty might find himself arrested on a charge like conspiracy and tied up in court for the next six months.

By listening in he had confirmed the suspicion of Ulrich at the Institute that Thomas Bancroft was Tighe’s kidnapper--but that was no help. If he went to the police with that story they would (a) laugh, long and loud--(b) lock him up for psychiatric investigation--© worst of all, pass the story on to Bancroft, who would thereby know what the Institute’s children could do and would take appropriate counter-measures.


Of course, this was just the beginning. The trail was long. But time was hideously short before they began turning Tighe’s brain inside out. And there were wolves along the trail.

For a shivering instant, Simon Dalgetty realized what he had let himself in for.

It seemed like forever before the Bancroft crowd left. Dalgetty’s eyes followed them out of the bar--four men and the woman. They were all quiet, mannerly, distinguished-looking, in rich dark slack suits. Even the hulking bodyguard was probably a college graduate, Third Class. You wouldn’t take them for murderers and kidnappers and the servants of those who would bring back political gangsterism. But then, reflected Dalgetty, they probably didn’t think of themselves in that light either.

The enemy--the old and protean enemy, who had been fought down as Fascist, Nazi, Shintoist, Communist, Atomist, Americanist and God knew what else for a bloody century--had grown craftier with time. Now he could fool even himself.

Dalgetty’s senses went back to normal. It was a sudden immense relief to be merely sitting in a dimly-lit booth with a pretty girl, to be no more than human for a while. But his sense of mission was still dark within him.

“Sorry I was so long,” he said. “Have another drink.”

“I just had one.” She smiled.

He noticed the $10-figure glowing on the dispenser and fed it two coins. Then, his nerves still vibrating, he dialed another whiskey for himself.

“You know those people in the next grotto?” asked Glenna. “I saw you watching them leave.”

“Well, I know Mr. Bancroft by reputation,” he said. “He lives here, doesn’t he?”

“He’s got a place over on Gull Station,” she said, “but he’s not here very much, mostly on the mainland, I guess.”

Dalgetty nodded. He had come to Pacific Colony two days before, had been hanging around in the hope of getting close enough to Bancroft to pick up a clue. Now he had done so and his findings were worth little. He had merely confirmed what the Institute already considered highly probable without getting any new information.

He needed to think over his next move. He drained his drink. “I’d better jet off,” he said.

“We can have dinner in here if you want,” said Glenna.

“Thanks, I’m not hungry.” That was true enough. The nervous tension incidental to the use of his powers raised the devil with appetite. Nor could he be too lavish with his funds. “Maybe later.”

“Okay, Joe, I might be seeing you.” She smiled. “You’re a funny one. But kind of nice.” Her lips brushed his and then she got up and left. Dalgetty went out the door and punched for a top-side elevator.

It took him past many levels. The tavern was under the station’s caissons near the main anchor cable, looking out into deep water. Above it were store-houses, machine rooms, kitchens, all the paraphernalia of modern existence. He stepped out of a kiosk onto an upper deck, thirty feet above the surface. Nobody else was there and he walked over to the railing and leaned on it, looking across the water and savoring loneliness.

Below him the tiers dropped away to the main deck, flowing lines and curves, broad sheets of clear plastic, animated signs, the grass and flowerbeds of a small park, people walking swiftly or idly. The huge gyro-stabilized bulk did not move noticeably to the long Pacific swell. Pelican Station was the colony’s “downtown,” its shops and theaters and restaurants, service and entertainment.

Around it the water was indigo blue in the evening light, streaked with arabesques of foam, and he could hear waves rumble against the sheer walls. Overhead the sky was tall with a few clouds in the west turning aureate. The hovering gulls seemed cast in gold. A haziness in the darkened east betokened the southern California coastline. He breathed deeply, letting nerves and muscles and viscera relax, shutting off his mind and turning for a while into an organism that merely lived and was glad to live.

Dalgetty’s view in all directions was cut off by the other stations, the rising streamlined hulks which were Pacific Colony. A few airy flex-strung bridges had been completed to link them, but there was still an extensive boat traffic. To the south he could see a blackness on the water that was a sea ranch. His trained memory told him, in answer to a fleeting question, that according to the latest figures eighteen-point-three percent of the world’s food supply was now being derived from modified strains of seaweed. The percentage would increase rapidly, he knew.

Elsewhere were mineral-extracting plants, fishery bases, experimental and pure-research stations. Below the floating city, digging into the continental shelf, was the underwater settlement--oil wells to supplement the industrial synthesizing process, mining, exploration in tanks to find new resources, a slow growth outward as men learned how to go deeper into cold and darkness and pressure. It was expensive but an over-crowded world had little choice.

Venus was already visible, low and pure on the dusking horizon. Dalgetty breathed the wet pungent sea-air into his lungs and thought with some pity of the men out there--and on the Moon, on Mars, between worlds. They were doing a huge and heart-breaking job--but he wondered if it were bigger and more meaningful than this work here in Earth’s oceans.

Or a few pages of scribbled equations, tossed into a desk drawer at the Institute. Enough. Dalgetty brought his mind to heel like a harshly trained dog. He was also here to work.

The forces he must encounter seemed monstrous. He was one man, alone against he knew not what kind of organization. He had to rescue one other man before--well, before history was changed and spun off on the wrong course, the long downward path. He had his knowledge and abilities but they wouldn’t stop a bullet. Nor did they include education for this kind of warfare. War that was not war, politics that were not politics but a handful of scrawled equations and a bookful of slowly gathered data and a brainful of dreams.

Bancroft had Tighe--somewhere. The Institute could not ask the government for help, even if to a large degree the Institute was the government. It could, perhaps, send Dalgetty a few men but it had no goon squads. And time was like a hound on his heels.

The sensitive man turned, suddenly aware of someone else. This was a middle-aged fellow, gaunt and gray-haired, with an intellectual cast of feature. He leaned on the rail and said quietly, “Nice evening, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Dalgetty. “Very nice.”

“It gives me a feeling of real accomplishment, this place,” said the stranger.

“How so?” asked Dalgetty, not unwilling to make conversation.

The man looked out over the sea and spoke softly as if to himself. “I’m fifty years old. I was born during World War Three and grew up with the famines and the mass insanities that followed. I saw fighting myself in Asia. I worried about a senselessly expanding population pressing on senselessly diminished resources. I saw an America that seemed equally divided between decadence and madness.

“And yet I can stand now and watch a world where we’ve got a functioning United Nations, where population increase is leveling off and democratic government spreading to country after country, where we’re conquering the seas and even going out to other planets. Things have changed since I was a boy but on the whole it’s been for the better.”

“Ah,” said Dalgetty, “a kindred spirit. Though I’m afraid it’s not quite that simple.”

The man arched his brows. “So you vote conservative?”

“The Labor Party is conservative,” said Dalgetty. “As proof of which it’s in coalition with the Republicans and the Neofederalists as well as some splinter groups. No, I don’t care if it stays in, or if the Conservatives prosper or the Liberals take over. The question is--who shall control the group in power?”

“Its membership, I suppose,” said the man.

“But just who is its membership? You know as well as I do that the great failing of the American people has always been their lack of interest in politics.”

“What? Why, they vote, don’t they? What was the last percentage?”

“Eight-eight-point-three-seven. Sure they vote--once the ticket has been presented to them. But how many of them have anything to do with nominating the candidates or writing the platforms? How many will actually take time out to work at it--or even to write their Congressmen? ‘Ward heeler’ is still a term of contempt.

“All too often in our history the vote has been simply a matter of choosing between two well-oiled machines. A sufficiently clever and determined group can take over a party, keep the name and the slogans and in a few years do a complete behind-the-scenes volte-face.” Dalgetty’s words came fast, this was one facet of a task to which he had given his life.

“Two machines,” said the stranger, “or four or five as we’ve got now, are at least better than one.”

“Not if the same crowd controls all of them,” Dalgetty said grimly.


“‘If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em.’ Better yet, join all sides. Then you can’t lose.”

“I don’t think that’s happened yet,” said the man.

“No it hasn’t,” said Dalgetty, “not in the United States, though in some other countries--never mind. It’s still in process of happening, that’s all. The lines today are drawn not by nations or parties, but by--philosophies, if you wish. Two views of man’s destiny, cutting across all national, political, racial and religious lines.”

“And what are those two views?” asked the stranger quietly.

“You might call them libertarian and totalitarian, though the latter don’t necessarily think of themselves as such. The peak of rampant individualism was reached in the nineteenth century, legally speaking. Though in point of fact social pressure and custom were more strait-jacketing than most people today realize.

“In the twentieth century that social rigidity--in manners, morals, habits of thought--broke down. The emancipation of women, for instance, or the easy divorce or the laws about privacy. But at the same time legal control began tightening up again. Government took over more and more functions, taxes got steeper, the individual’s life got more and more bound by regulations saying ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not.’

“Well, it looks as if war is going out as an institution. That takes off a lot of pressure. Such hampering restrictions as conscription to fight or work, or rationing, have been removed. What we’re slowly attaining is a society where the individual has maximum freedom, both from law and custom. It’s perhaps farthest advanced in America, Canada, and Brazil, but it’s growing the world over.

“But there are elements which don’t like the consequences of genuine libertarianism. And the new science of human behavior, mass and individual, is achieving rigorous formulation. It’s becoming the most powerful tool man has ever had--for whoever controls the human mind will also control all that man can do. That science can be used by anyone, mind you. If you’ll read between the lines you’ll see what a hidden struggle is shaping up for control of it as soon as it reaches maturity and empirical useability.”

“Ah, yes,” said the man. “The Psychotechnic Institute.”

Dalgetty nodded, wondering why he had jumped into such a lecture. Well, the more people who had some idea of the truth the better--though it wouldn’t do for them to know the whole truth either. Not yet.

“The Institute trains so many for governmental posts and does so much advisory work,” said the man, “that sometimes it looks almost as if it were quietly taking over the whole show.”

Dalgetty shivered a little in the sunset breeze and wished he’d brought his cloak. He thought wearily, _Here it is again. Here is the story they are spreading, not in blatant accusations, not all at once, but slowly and subtly, a whisper here, a hint there, a slanted news story, a supposedly dispassionate article ... Oh, yes, they know their applied semantics._

“Too many people fear such an outcome,” he declared. “It just isn’t true. The Institute is a private research organization with a Federal grant. Its records are open to anyone.”

“All the records?” The man’s face was vague in the gathering twilight.

Dalgetty thought he could make out a skeptically lifted brow. He didn’t reply directly but said, “There’s a foggy notion in the public mind that a group equipped with a complete science of man--which the Institute hasn’t got by a long shot--could ‘take over’ at once and, by manipulations of some unspecified but frightfully subtle sort, rule the world. The theory is that if you know just what buttons to push and so on, men will do precisely as you wish without knowing that they’re being guided. The theory happens to be pure jetwash.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the man. “In general terms it sounds pretty plausible.”

Dalgetty shook his head. “Suppose I were an engineer,” he said, “and suppose I saw an avalanche coming down on me. I might know exactly what to do to stop it--where to plant my dynamite, where to build my concrete wall and so on. Only the knowledge wouldn’t help me. I’d have neither the time nor the strength to use it.

“The situation is similar with regard to human dynamics, both mass and individual. It takes months or years to change a man’s convictions and when you have hundreds of millions of men...” He shrugged. “Social currents are too large for all but the slightest, most gradual control. In fact perhaps the most valuable results obtained to date are not those which show what can be done but what cannot.”

“You speak with the voice of authority,” said the man.

“I’m a psychologist,” said Dalgetty truthfully enough. He didn’t add that he was also a subject, observer and guinea pig in one. “And I’m afraid I talk too much. Go from bad to voice.”

“Ouch,” said the man. He leaned his back against the rail and his shadowy hand extended a pack. “Smoke?”

“No, thanks, I don’t.”

“You’re a rarity.” The brief lighter-flare etched the stranger’s face against the dusk.

“I’ve found other ways of relaxing.”

“Good for you. By the way I’m a professor myself. English Litt at Colorado.”

“Afraid I’m rather a roughneck in that respect,” said Dalgetty. For a moment he had a sense of loss. His thought processes had become too far removed from the ordinary human for him to find much in fiction or poetry. But music, sculpture, painting--there was something else. He looked over the broad glimmering water, at the stations dark against the first stars, and savored the many symmetries and harmonies with a real pleasure. You needed senses like his before you could know what a lovely world this was.

“I’m on vacation now,” said the man. Dalgetty did not reply in kind. After a moment--”You are too, I suppose?”

Dalgetty felt a slight shock. A personal question from a stranger--well, you didn’t expect otherwise from someone like the girl Glenna but a professor should be better conditioned to privacy customs.

“Yes,” he said shortly. “Just visiting.”

“By the way, my name is Tyler, Harmon Tyler.”

“Joe Thomson.” Dalgetty shook hands with him.

“We might continue our conversation if you’re going to be around for awhile,” said Tyler. “You raised some interesting points.”

Dalgetty considered. It would be worthwhile staying as long as Bancroft did, in the hope of learning some more. “I may be here a couple of days yet,” he said.

“Good,” said Tyler. He looked up at the sky. It was beginning to fill with stars. The deck was still empty. It ran around the dim upthrusting bulk of a weather-observation tower which was turned over to its automatics for the night and there was no one else to be seen. A few fluoros cast wan puddles of luminance on the plastic flooring.

Glancing at his watch, Tyler said casually, “It’s about nineteen-thirty hours now. If you don’t mind waiting till twenty hundred I can show you something interesting.”

“What’s that?”

“Ah, you’ll be surprised.” Tyler chuckled. “Not many people know about it. Now, getting back to that point you raised earlier...”

The half hour passed swiftly. Dalgetty did most of the talking.

“--and mass action. Look, to a rather crude first approximation a state of semantic equilibrium on a world-wide scale, which of course has never existed, would be represented by an equation of the form--”

“Excuse me.” Tyler consulted the shining dial again. “If you don’t mind stopping for a few minutes I’ll show you that odd sight I was talking about.”

“Eh? Oh-oh, sure.”

Tyler threw away his cigarette. It was a tiny meteor in the gloom. He took Dalgetty’s arm. They walked slowly around the weather tower.

The men came from the opposite side and met them halfway. Dalgetty had hardly seen them before he felt the sting in his chest.

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