by Robert Sheckley
Science Fiction Story: Elwood Caswell, a homicidal maniac who wants to murder his best friend. Knowing it was wrong, he stops to buy a therapeutic machine, one made by General Motors. In a hurry, he buys, for cash, the floor model. The clerk learns that the floor model was gauged for Martians, who knows what effect it would have on a human, and the hunt is on.
Tags: Science Fiction Novel-Classic
On May 2, 2103, Elwood Caswell walked rapidly down Broadway with a loaded revolver hidden in his coat pocket. He didn’t want to use the weapon, but feared he might anyhow. This was a justifiable assumption, for Caswell was a homicidal maniac.
It was a gentle, misty spring day and the air held the smell of rain and blossoming-dogwood. Caswell gripped the revolver in his sweaty right hand and tried to think of a single valid reason why he should not kill a man named Magnessen, who, the other day, had commented on how well Caswell looked.
What business was it of Magnessen’s how he looked? Damned busybodies, always spoiling things for everybody...
Caswell was a choleric little man with fierce red eyes, bulldog jowls and ginger-red hair. He was the sort you would expect to find perched on a detergent box, orating to a crowd of lunching businessmen and amused students, shouting, “Mars for the Martians, Venus for the Venusians!”
But in truth, Caswell was uninterested in the deplorable social conditions of extraterrestrials. He was a jetbus conductor for the New York Rapid Transit Corporation. He minded his own business. And he was quite mad.
Fortunately, he knew this at least part of the time, with at least half of his mind.
Perspiring freely, Caswell continued down Broadway toward the 43rd Street branch of Home Therapy Appliances, Inc. His friend Magnessen would be finishing work soon, returning to his little apartment less than a block from Caswell’s. How easy it would be, how pleasant, to saunter in, exchange a few words and...
No! Caswell took a deep gulp of air and reminded himself that he didn’t really want to kill anyone. It was not right to kill people. The authorities would lock him up, his friends wouldn’t understand, his mother would never have approved.
But these arguments seemed pallid, over-intellectual and entirely without force. The simple fact remained--he wanted to kill Magnessen.
Could so strong a desire be wrong? Or even unhealthy?
Yes, it could! With an agonized groan, Caswell sprinted the last few steps into the Home Therapy Appliances Store.
Just being within such a place gave him an immediate sense of relief. The lighting was discreet, the draperies were neutral, the displays of glittering therapy machines were neither too bland nor obstreperous. It was the kind of place where a man could happily lie down on the carpet in the shadow of the therapy machines, secure in the knowledge that help for any sort of trouble was at hand.
A clerk with fair hair and a long, supercilious nose glided up softly, but not too softly, and murmured, “May one help?”
“Therapy!” said Caswell.
“Of course, sir,” the clerk answered, smoothing his lapels and smiling winningly. “That is what we are here for.” He gave Caswell a searching look, performed an instant mental diagnosis, and tapped a gleaming white-and-copper machine.
“Now this,” the clerk said, “is the new Alcoholic Reliever, built by IBM and advertised in the leading magazines. A handsome piece of furniture, I think you will agree, and not out of place in any home. It opens into a television set.”
With a flick of his narrow wrist, the clerk opened the Alcoholic Reliever, revealing a 52-inch screen.
“I need--” Caswell began.
“Therapy,” the clerk finished for him. “Of course. I just wanted to point out that this model need never cause embarrassment for yourself, your friends or loved ones. Notice, if you will, the recessed dial which controls the desired degree of drinking. See? If you do not wish total abstinence, you can set it to heavy, moderate, social or light. That is a new feature, unique in mechanotherapy.”
“I am not an alcoholic,” Caswell said, with considerable dignity. “The New York Rapid Transit Corporation does not hire alcoholics.”
“Oh,” said the clerk, glancing distrustfully at Caswell’s bloodshot eyes. “You seem a little nervous. Perhaps the portable Bendix Anxiety Reducer--”
“Anxiety’s not my ticket, either. What have you got for homicidal mania?”
The clerk pursed his lips. “Schizophrenic or manic-depressive origins?”
“I don’t know,” Caswell admitted, somewhat taken aback.
“It really doesn’t matter,” the clerk told him. “Just a private theory of my own. From my experience in the store, redheads and blonds are prone to schizophrenia, while brunettes incline toward the manic-depressive.”
“That’s interesting. Have you worked here long?”
“A week. Now then, here is just what you need, sir.” He put his hand affectionately on a squat black machine with chrome trim.
“That, sir, is the Rex Regenerator, built by General Motors. Isn’t it handsome? It can go with any decor and opens up into a well-stocked bar. Your friends, family, loved ones need never know--”
“Will it cure a homicidal urge?” Caswell asked. “A strong one?”
“Absolutely. Don’t confuse this with the little ten amp neurosis models. This is a hefty, heavy-duty, twenty-five amp machine for a really deep-rooted major condition.”
“That’s what I’ve got,” said Caswell, with pardonable pride.
“This baby’ll jolt it out of you. Big, heavy-duty thrust bearings! Oversize heat absorbers! Completely insulated! Sensitivity range of over--”
“I’ll take it,” Caswell said. “Right now. I’ll pay cash.”
“Fine! I’ll just telephone Storage and--”
“This one’ll do,” Caswell said, pulling out his billfold. “I’m in a hurry to use it. I want to kill my friend Magnessen, you know.”
The clerk clucked sympathetically. “You wouldn’t want to do that ... Plus five percent sales tax. Thank you, sir. Full instructions are inside.”
Caswell thanked him, lifted the Regenerator in both arms and hurried out.
After figuring his commission, the clerk smiled to himself and lighted a cigarette. His enjoyment was spoiled when the manager, a large man impressively equipped with pince-nez, marched out of his office.
“Haskins,” the manager said, “I thought I asked you to rid yourself of that filthy habit.”
“Yes, Mr. Follansby, sorry, sir,” Haskins apologized, snubbing out the cigarette. “I’ll use the display Denicotinizer at once. Made rather a good sale, Mr. Follansby. One of the big Rex Regenerators.”
“Really?” said the manager, impressed. “It isn’t often we--wait a minute! You didn’t sell the floor model, did you?”
“Why--why, I’m afraid I did, Mr. Follansby. The customer was in such a terrible hurry. Was there any reason--”
Mr. Follansby gripped his prominent white forehead in both hands, as though he wished to rip it off. “Haskins, I told you. I must have told you! That display Regenerator was a Martian model. For giving mechanotherapy to Martians.”
“Oh,” Haskins said. He thought for a moment. “Oh.”
Mr. Follansby stared at his clerk in grim silence.
“But does it really matter?” Haskins asked quickly. “Surely the machine won’t discriminate. I should think it would treat a homicidal tendency even if the patient were not a Martian.”
“The Martian race has never had the slightest tendency toward homicide. A Martian Regenerator doesn’t even process the concept. Of course the Regenerator will treat him. It has to. But what will it treat?”
“Oh,” said Haskins.
“That poor devil must be stopped before--you say he was homicidal? I don’t know what will happen! Quick, what is his address?”
“Well, Mr. Follansby, he was in such a terrible hurry--”
The manager gave him a long, unbelieving look. “Get the police! Call the General Motors Security Division! Find him!”
Haskins raced for the door.
“Wait!” yelled the manager, struggling into a raincoat. “I’m coming, too.”
Elwood Caswell returned to his apartment by taxicopter. He lugged the Regenerator into his living room, put it down near the couch and studied it thoughtfully.
“That clerk was right,” he said after a while. “It does go with the room.”
Esthetically, the Regenerator was a success.
Caswell admired it for a few more moments, then went into the kitchen and fixed himself a chicken sandwich. He ate slowly, staring fixedly at a point just above and to the left of his kitchen clock.
Damn you, Magnessen! Dirty no-good lying shifty-eyed enemy of all that’s decent and clean in the world...
Taking the revolver from his pocket, he laid it on the table. With a stiffened forefinger, he poked it into different positions.
It was time to begin therapy.
Caswell realized worriedly that he didn’t want to lose the desire to kill Magnessen. What would become of him if he lost that urge? His life would lose all purpose, all coherence, all flavor and zest. It would be quite dull, really.
Moreover, he had a great and genuine grievance against Magnessen, one he didn’t like to think about.
His poor sister, debauched by the subtle and insidious Magnessen, ruined by him and cast aside. What better reason could a man have to take his revolver and...
Caswell finally remembered that he did not have a sister.
Now was really the time to begin therapy.
He went into the living room and found the operating instructions tucked into a ventilation louver of the machine. He opened them and read:
To Operate All Rex Model Regenerators:
1. Place the Regenerator near a comfortable couch. (A comfortable couch can be purchased as an additional accessory from any General Motors dealer.)
2. Plug in the machine.
3. Affix the adjustable contact-band to the forehead.
And that’s all! Your Regenerator will do the rest! There will be no language bar or dialect problem, since the Regenerator communicates by Direct Sense Contact (Patent Pending). All you must do is cooperate.
Try not to feel any embarrassment or shame. Everyone has problems and many are worse than yours! Your Regenerator has no interest in your morals or ethical standards, so don’t feel it is ‘judging’ you. It desires only to aid you in becoming well and happy.
As soon as it has collected and processed enough data, your Regenerator will begin treatment. You make the sessions as short or as long as you like. You are the boss! And of course you can end a session at any time.
That’s all there is to it! Simple, isn’t it? Now plug in your General Motors Regenerator and GET SANE!
“Nothing hard about that,” Caswell said to himself. He pushed the Regenerator closer to the couch and plugged it in. He lifted the headband, started to slip it on, stopped.
“I feel so silly!” he giggled.
Abruptly he closed his mouth and stared pugnaciously at the black-and-chrome machine.
“So you think you can make me sane, huh?”
The Regenerator didn’t answer.
“Oh, well, go ahead and try.” He slipped the headband over his forehead, crossed his arms on his chest and leaned back.
Nothing happened. Caswell settled himself more comfortably on the couch. He scratched his shoulder and put the headband at a more comfortable angle. Still nothing. His thoughts began to wander.
Magnessen! You noisy, overbearing oaf, you disgusting--
“Good afternoon,” a voice murmured in his head. “I am your mechanotherapist.”
Caswell twitched guiltily. “Hello. I was just--you know, just sort of--”
“Of course,” the machine said soothingly. “Don’t we all? I am now scanning the material in your preconscious with the intent of synthesis, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. I find...”
“Just one moment.” The Regenerator was silent for several minutes. Then, hesitantly, it said, “This is beyond doubt a most unusual case.”
“Really?” Caswell asked, pleased.
“Yes. The coefficients seem--I’m not sure...” The machine’s robotic voice grew feeble. The pilot light began to flicker and fade.
“Hey, what’s the matter?”
“Confusion,” said the machine. “Of course,” it went on in a stronger voice, “the unusual nature of the symptoms need not prove entirely baffling to a competent therapeutic machine. A symptom, no matter how bizarre, is no more than a signpost, an indication of inner difficulty. And all symptoms can be related to the broad mainstream of proven theory. Since the theory is effective, the symptoms must relate. We will proceed on that assumption.”
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” asked Caswell, feeling lightheaded.
The machine snapped back, its pilot light blazing. “Mechanotherapy today is an exact science and admits no significant errors. We will proceed with a word-association test.”
“Fire away,” said Caswell.
Caswell hesitated, trying to figure out the word. It sounded vaguely Martian, but it might be Venusian or even--
“Fleefl?” the Regenerator repeated.
“Marfoosh,” Caswell replied, making up the word on the spur of the moment.
“Rigamaroo latasentricpropatria!” Caswell shot back. It was a collection of sounds he was particularly proud of. The average man would not have been able to pronounce them.
“Hmm,” said the Regenerator. “The pattern fits. It always does.”
“You have,” the machine informed him, “a classic case of feem desire, complicated by strong dwarkish intentions.”
“I do? I thought I was homicidal.”
“That term has no referent,” the machine said severely. “Therefore I must reject it as nonsense syllabification. Now consider these points: The feem desire is perfectly normal. Never forget that. But it is usually replaced at an early age by the hovendish revulsion. Individuals lacking in this basic environmental response--”
“I’m not absolutely sure I know what you’re talking about,” Caswell confessed.
“Please, sir! We must establish one thing at once. You are the patient. I am the mechanotherapist. You have brought your troubles to me for treatment. But you cannot expect help unless you cooperate.”
“All right,” Caswell said. “I’ll try.”
Up to now, he had been bathed in a warm glow of superiority. Everything the machine said had seemed mildly humorous. As a matter of fact, he had felt capable of pointing out a few things wrong with the mechanotherapist.
Now that sense of well-being evaporated, as it always did, and Caswell was alone, terribly alone and lost, a creature of his compulsions, in search of a little peace and contentment.
He would undergo anything to find them. Sternly he reminded himself that he had no right to comment on the mechanotherapist. These machines knew what they were doing and had been doing it for a long time. He would cooperate, no matter how outlandish the treatment seemed from his layman’s viewpoint.
But it was obvious, Caswell thought, settling himself grimly on the couch, that mechanotherapy was going to be far more difficult than he had imagined.
The search for the missing customer had been brief and useless. He was nowhere to be found on the teeming New York streets and no one could remember seeing a red-haired, red-eyed little man lugging a black therapeutic machine.
It was all too common a sight.
In answer to an urgent telephone call, the police came immediately, four of them, led by a harassed young lieutenant of detectives named Smith.
Smith just had time to ask, “Say, why don’t you people put tags on things?” when there was an interruption.
A man pushed his way past the policeman at the door. He was tall and gnarled and ugly, and his eyes were deep-set and bleakly blue. His clothes, unpressed and uncaring, hung on him like corrugated iron.
“What do you want?” Lieutenant Smith asked.
The ugly man flipped back his lapel, showing a small silver badge beneath. “I’m John Rath, General Motors Security Division.”
“Oh ... Sorry, sir,” Lieutenant Smith said, saluting. “I didn’t think you people would move in so fast.”
Rath made a noncommittal noise. “Have you checked for prints, Lieutenant? The customer might have touched some other therapy machine.”
“I’ll get right on it, sir,” Smith said. It wasn’t often that one of the operatives from GM, GE, or IBM came down to take a personal hand. If a local cop showed he was really clicking, there just might be the possibility of an Industrial Transfer...
Rath turned to Follansby and Haskins, and transfixed them with a gaze as piercing and as impersonal as a radar beam. “Let’s have the full story,” he said, taking a notebook and pencil from a shapeless pocket.
He listened to the tale in ominous silence. Finally he closed his notebook, thrust it back into his pocket and said, “The therapeutic machines are a sacred trust. To give a customer the wrong machine is a betrayal of that trust, a violation of the Public Interest, and a defamation of the Company’s good reputation.”
The manager nodded in agreement, glaring at his unhappy clerk.
“A Martian model,” Rath continued, “should never have been on the floor in the first place.”
“I can explain that,” Follansby said hastily. “We needed a demonstrator model and I wrote to the Company, telling them--”
“This might,” Rath broke in inexorably, “be considered a case of gross criminal negligence.”
Both the manager and the clerk exchanged horrified looks. They were thinking of the General Motors Reformatory outside of Detroit, where Company offenders passed their days in sullen silence, monotonously drawing microcircuits for pocket television sets.
“However, that is out of my jurisdiction,” Rath said. He turned his baleful gaze full upon Haskins. “You are certain that the customer never mentioned his name?”
“No, sir. I mean yes, I’m sure,” Haskins replied rattledly.
“Did he mention any names at all?”
To read the complete story you need to be logged in:
Log In or
Register for a Free account (Why register?)
* Allows you 3 stories to read in 24 hours.