Appointment in Tomorrow

by Fritz Leiber

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Is it possible to have a world without moral values? Or does lack of morality become a moral value, also?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The first angry rays of the sun--which, startlingly enough, still rose in the east at 24 hour intervals--pierced the lacy tops of Atlantic combers and touched thousands of sleeping Americans with unconscious fear, because of their unpleasant similarity to the rays from World War III’s atomic bombs.

They turned to blood the witch-circle of rusty steel skeletons around Inferno in Manhattan. Without comment, they pointed a cosmic finger at the tarnished brass plaque commemorating the martyrdom of the Three Physicists after the dropping of the Hell Bomb. They tenderly touched the rosy skin and strawberry bruises on the naked shoulders of a girl sleeping off a drunk on the furry and radiantly heated floor of a nearby roof garden. They struck green magic from the glassy blot that was Old Washington. Twelve hours before, they had revealed things as eerily beautiful, and as ravaged, in Asia and Russia. They pinked the white walls of the Colonial dwelling of Morton Opperly near the Institute for Advanced Studies; upstairs they slanted impartially across the Pharoahlike and open-eyed face of the elderly physicist and the ugly, sleep-surly one of young Willard Farquar in the next room. And in nearby New Washington they made of the spire of the Thinkers’ Foundation a blue and optimistic glory that outshone White House, Jr.

It was America approaching the end of the Twentieth Century. America of juke-box burlesque and your local radiation hospital. America of the mask-fad for women and Mystic Christianity. America of the off-the-bosom dress and the New Blue Laws. America of the Endless War and the loyalty detector. America of marvelous Maizie and the monthly rocket to Mars. America of the Thinkers and (a few remembered) the Institute. “Knock on titanium,” “Whadya do for black-outs,” “Please, lover, don’t think when I’m around,” America, as combat-shocked and crippled as the rest of the bomb-shattered planet.

Not one impudent photon of the sunlight penetrated the triple-paned, polarizing windows of Jorj Helmuth’s bedroom in the Thinker’s Foundation, yet the clock in his brain awakened him to the minute, or almost. Switching off the Educational Sandman in the midst of the phrase, “ ... applying tensor calculus to the nucleus,” he took a deep, even breath and cast his mind to the limits of the world and his knowledge. It was a somewhat shadowy vision, but, he noted with impartial approval, definitely less shadowy than yesterday morning.

Employing a rapid mental scanning technique, he next cleared his memory chains of false associations, including those acquired while asleep. These chores completed, he held his finger on a bedside button, which rotated the polarizing window panes until the room slowly filled with a muted daylight. Then, still flat on his back, he turned his head until he could look at the remarkably beautiful blonde girl asleep beside him.

Remembering last night, he felt a pang of exasperation, which he instantly quelled by taking his mind to a higher and dispassionate level from which he could look down on the girl and even himself as quaint, clumsy animals. Still, he grumbled silently, Caddy might have had enough consideration to clear out before he awoke. He wondered if he shouldn’t have used his hypnotic control of the girl to smooth their relationship last night, and for a moment the word that would send her into deep trance trembled on the tip of his tongue. But no, that special power of his over her was reserved for far more important purposes.

Pumping dynamic tension into his 20-year-old muscles and confidence into his 60-year-old mind, the 40-year-old Thinker rose from bed. No covers had to be thrown off; the nuclear heating unit made them unnecessary. He stepped into his clothing--the severe tunic, tights and sockassins of the modern business man. Next he glanced at the message tape beside his phone, washed down with ginger ale a vita-amino-enzyme tablet, and walked to the window. There, gazing along the rows of newly planted mutant oaks lining Decontamination Avenue, his smooth face broke into a smile.

It had come to him, the next big move in the intricate game making up his life--and mankind’s. Come to him during sleep, as so many of his best decisions did, because he regularly employed the time-saving technique of somno-thought, which could function at the same time as somno-learning.

He set his who?-where? robot for “Rocket Physicist” and “Genius Class.” While it worked, he dictated to his steno-robot the following brief message:

Dear Fellow Scientist:

A project is contemplated that will have a crucial bearing on man’s

future in deep space. Ample non-military Government funds are

available. There was a time when professional men scoffed at the

Thinkers. Then there was a time when the Thinkers perforce neglected

the professional men. Now both times are past. May they never

return! I would like to consult you this afternoon, three o’clock

sharp, Thinkers’ Foundation I.

Jorj Helmuth

Meanwhile the who?-where? had tossed out a dozen cards. He glanced through them, hesitated at the name “Willard Farquar,” looked at the sleeping girl, then quickly tossed them all into the addresso-robot and plugged in the steno-robot.

The buzz-light blinked green and he switched the phone to audio.

“The President is waiting to see Maizie, sir,” a clear feminine voice announced. “He has the general staff with him.”

“Martian peace to him,” Jorj Helmuth said. “Tell him I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

Huge as a primitive nuclear reactor, the great electronic brain loomed above the knot of hush-voiced men. It almost filled a two-story room in the Thinkers’ Foundation. Its front was an orderly expanse of controls, indicators, telltales, and terminals, the upper ones reached by a chair on a boom.

Although, as far as anyone knew, it could sense only the information and questions fed into it on a tape, the human visitors could not resist the impulse to talk in whispers and glance uneasily at the great cryptic cube. After all, it had lately taken to moving some of its own controls--the permissible ones--and could doubtless improvise a hearing apparatus if it wanted to.

For this was the thinking machine beside which the Marks and Eniacs and Maniacs and Maddidas and Minervas and Mimirs were less than Morons. This was the machine with a million times as many synapses as the human brain, the machine that remembered by cutting delicate notches in the rims of molecules (instead of kindergarten paper-punching or the Coney Island shimmying of columns of mercury). This was the machine that had given instructions on building the last three-quarters of itself. This was the goal, perhaps, toward which fallible human reasoning and biased human judgment and feeble human ambition had evolved.

This was the machine that really thought--a million-plus!

This was the machine that the timid cyberneticists and stuffy professional scientists had said could not be built. Yet this was the machine that the Thinkers, with characteristic Yankee push, had built. And nicknamed, with characteristic Yankee irreverence and girl-fondness, “Maizie.”

Gazing up at it, the President of the United States felt a chord plucked within him that hadn’t been sounded for decades, the dark and shivery organ chord of his Baptist childhood. Here, in a strange sense, although his reason rejected it, he felt he stood face to face with the living God: infinitely stern with the sternness of reality, yet infinitely just. No tiniest error or wilful misstep could ever escape the scrutiny of this vast mentality. He shivered.

The grizzled general--there was also one who was gray--was thinking that this was a very odd link in the chain of command. Some shadowy and usually well-controlled memories from World War II faintly stirred his ire. Here he was giving orders to a being immeasurably more intelligent than himself. And always orders of the “Tell me how to kill that man” rather than the “Kill that man” sort. The distinction bothered him obscurely. It relieved him to know that Maizie had built-in controls which made her always the servant of humanity, or of humanity’s right-minded leaders--even the Thinkers weren’t certain which.

The gray general was thinking uneasily, and, like the President, at a more turbid level, of the resemblance between Papal infallibility and the dictates of the machine. Suddenly his bony wrists began to tremble. He asked himself: Was this the Second Coming? Mightn’t an incarnation be in metal rather than flesh?

The austere Secretary of State was remembering what he’d taken such pains to make everyone forget: his youthful flirtation at Lake Success with Buddhism. Sitting before his guru, his teacher, feeling the Occidental’s awe at the wisdom of the East, or its pretense, he had felt a little like this.

The burly Secretary of Space, who had come up through United Rockets, was thanking his stars that at any rate the professional scientists weren’t responsible for this job. Like the grizzled general, he’d always felt suspicious of men who kept telling you how to do things, rather than doing them themselves. In World War III he’d had his fill of the professional physicists, with their eternal taint of a misty sort of radicalism and free-thinking. The Thinkers were better--more disciplined, more human. They’d called their brain-machine Maizie, which helped take the curse off her. Somewhat.

The President’s Secretary, a paunchy veteran of party caucuses, was also glad that it was the Thinkers who had created the machine, though he trembled at the power that it gave them over the Administration. Still, you could do business with the Thinkers. And nobody (not even the Thinkers) could do business (that sort of business) with Maizie!

Before that great square face with its thousands of tiny metal features, only Jorj Helmuth seemed at ease, busily entering on the tape the complex Questions of the Day that the high officials had handed him: logistics for the Endless War in Pakistan, optimum size for next year’s sugar-corn crop, current thought trends in average Soviet minds--profound questions, yet many of them phrased with surprising simplicity. For figures, technical jargon, and layman’s language were alike to Maizie; there was no need to translate into mathematical shorthand, as with the lesser brain-machines.

The click of the taper went on until the Secretary of State had twice nervously fired a cigaret with his ultrasonic lighter and twice quickly put it away. No one spoke.

Jorj looked up at the Secretary of Space. “Section Five, Question Four--whom would that come from?”

The burly man frowned. “That would be the physics boys, Opperly’s group. Is anything wrong?”

Jorj did not answer. A bit later he quit taping and began to adjust controls, going up on the boom-chair to reach some of them. Eventually he came down and touched a few more, then stood waiting.

From the great cube came a profound, steady purring. Involuntarily the six officials backed off a bit. Somehow it was impossible for a man to get used to the sound of Maizie starting to think.

Jorj turned, smiling. “And now, gentlemen, while we wait for Maizie to celebrate, there should be just enough time for us to watch the takeoff of the Mars rocket.” He switched on a giant television screen. The others made a quarter turn, and there before them glowed the rich ochres and blues of a New Mexico sunrise and, in the middle distance, a silvery mighty spindle.

Like the generals, the Secretary of Space suppressed a scowl. Here was something that ought to be spang in the center of his official territory, and the Thinkers had locked him completely out of it. That rocket there--just an ordinary Earth satellite vehicle commandeered from the Army, but equipped by the Thinkers with Maizie-designed nuclear motors capable of the Mars journey and more. The first spaceship--and the Secretary of Space was not in on it!

Still, he told himself, Maizie had decreed it that way. And when he remembered what the Thinkers had done for him in rescuing him from breakdown with their mental science, in rescuing the whole Administration from collapse he realized he had to be satisfied. And that was without taking into consideration the amazing additional mental discoveries that the Thinkers were bringing down from Mars.

“Lord,” the President said to Jorj as if voicing the Secretary’s feeling, “I wish you people could bring a couple of those wise little devils back with you this trip. Be a good thing for the country.”

Jorj looked at him a bit coldly. “It’s quite unthinkable,” he said. “The telepathic abilities of the Martians make them extremely sensitive. The conflicts of ordinary Earth minds would impinge on them psychotically, even fatally. As you know, the Thinkers were able to contact them only because of our degree of learned mental poise and errorless memory-chains. So for the present it must be our task alone to glean from the Martians their astounding mental skills. Of course, some day in the future, when we have discovered how to armor the minds of the Martians--”

“Sure, I know,” the President said hastily. “Shouldn’t have mentioned it, Jorj.”

Conversation ceased. They waited with growing tension for the great violet flames to bloom from the base of the silvery shaft.

Meanwhile the question tape, like a New Year’s streamer tossed out a high window into the night, sped on its dark way along spinning rollers. Curling with an intricate aimlessness curiously like that of such a streamer, it tantalized the silvery fingers of a thousand relays, saucily evaded the glances of ten thousand electric eyes, impishly darted down a narrow black alleyway of memory banks, and, reaching the center of the cube, suddenly emerged into a small room where a suave fat man in shorts sat drinking beer.

He flipped the tape over to him with practiced finger, eyeing it as a stockbroker might have studied a ticker tape. He read the first question, closed his eyes and frowned for five seconds. Then with the staccato self-confidence of a hack writer, he began to tape out the answer.

For many minutes the only sounds were the rustle of the paper ribbon and the click of the taper, except for the seconds the fat man took to close his eyes, or to drink or pour beer. Once, too, he lifted a phone, asked a concise question, waited half a minute, listened to an answer, then went back to the grind.

Until he came to Section Five, Question Four. That time he did his thinking with his eyes open.

The question was: “Does Maizie stand for Maelzel?”

He sat for a while slowly scratching his thigh. His loose, persuasive lips tightened, without closing, into the shape of a snarl.

Suddenly he began to tape again.

“Maizie does not stand for Maelzel. Maizie stands for amazing, humorously given the form of a girl’s name. Section Six, Answer One: The mid-term election viewcasts should be spaced as follows...”

But his lips didn’t lose the shape of a snarl.

Five hundred miles above the ionosphere, the Mars rocket cut off its fuel and slumped gratefully into an orbit that would carry it effortlessly around the world at that altitude. The pilot unstrapped himself and stretched, but he didn’t look out the viewport at the dried-mud disc that was Earth, cloaked in its haze of blue sky. He knew he had two maddening months ahead of him in which to do little more than that. Instead, he unstrapped Sappho.

Used to free fall from two previous experiences, and loving it, the fluffy little cat was soon bounding about the cabin in curves and gyrations that would have made her the envy of all back-alley and parlor felines on the planet below. A miracle cat in the dream world of free fall. For a long time she played with a string that the man would toss out lazily. Sometimes she caught the string on the fly, sometimes she swam for it frantically.

After a while the man grew bored with the game. He unlocked a drawer and began to study the details of the wisdom he would discover on Mars this trip--priceless spiritual insights that would be balm to war-battered mankind.

The cat carefully selected a spot three feet off the floor, curled up on the air, and went to sleep.

Jorj Helmuth snipped the emerging answer tape into sections and handed each to the appropriate man. Most of them carefully tucked theirs away with little more than a glance, but the Secretary of Space puzzled over his.

“Who the devil would Maelzel be?” he asked.

A remote look came into the eyes of the Secretary of State. “Edgar Allen Poe,” he said frowningly, with eyes half-closed.

The grizzled general snapped his fingers. “Sure! Maelzel’s Chess player. Read it when I was a kid. About an automaton that was supposed to play chess. Poe proved it hid a man inside it.”

The Secretary of Space frowned. “Now what’s the point in a fool question like that?”

“You said it came from Opperly’s group?” Jorj asked sharply.

The Secretary of Space nodded. The others looked at the two men puzzledly.

“Who would that be?” Jorj pressed. “The group, I mean.”

The Secretary of Space shrugged. “Oh, the usual little bunch over at the Institute. Hindeman, Gregory, Opperly himself. Oh, yes, and young Farquar.”

“Sounds like Opperly’s getting senile,” Jorj commented coldly. “I’d investigate.”

The Secretary of Space nodded. He suddenly looked tough. “I will. Right away.”

Sunlight striking through French windows spotlighted a ballet of dust motes untroubled by air-conditioning. Morton Opperly’s living room was well-kept but worn and quite behind the times. Instead of reading tapes there were books; instead of steno-robots, pen and ink; while in place of a four by six TV screen, a Picasso hung on the wall. Only Opperly knew that the painting was still faintly radioactive, that it had been riskily so when he’d smuggled it out of his bomb-singed apartment in New York City.

The two physicists fronted each other across a coffee table. The face of the elder was cadaverous, large-eyed, and tender--fined down by a long life of abstract thought. That of the younger was forceful, sensuous, bulky as his body, and exceptionally ugly. He looked rather like a bear.

Opperly was saying, “So when he asked who was responsible for the Maelzel question, I said I didn’t remember.” He smiled. “They still allow me my absent-mindedness, since it nourishes their contempt. Almost my sole remaining privilege.” The smile faded. “Why do you keep on teasing the zoo animals, Willard?” he asked without rancor. “I’ve maintained many times that we shouldn’t truckle to them by yielding to their demand that we ask Maizie questions. You and the rest have overruled me. But then to use those questions to convey veiled insults isn’t reasonable. Apparently the Secretary of Space was bothered enough about this last one to pay me a ‘copter call within twenty minutes of this morning’s meeting at the Foundation. Why do you do it, Willard?”

The features of the other convulsed unpleasantly. “Because the Thinkers are charlatans who must be exposed,” he rapped out. “We know their Maizie is no more than a tealeaf-reading fake. We’ve traced their Mars rockets and found they go nowhere. We know their Martian mental science is bunk.”

“But we’ve already exposed the Thinkers very thoroughly,” Opperly interposed quietly. “You know the good it did.”

Farquar hunched his Japanese-wrestler shoulders. “Then it’s got to be done until it takes.”

Opperly studied the bowl of mutated flowers by the coffee pot. “I think you just want to tease the animals, for some personal reason of which you probably aren’t aware.”

Farquar scowled. “We’re the ones in the cages.”

Opperly continued his inspection of the flowers’ bells. “All the more reason not to poke sticks through the bars at the lions and tigers strolling outside. No, Willard, I’m not counseling appeasement. But consider the age in which we live. It wants magicians.” His voice grew especially tranquil. “A scientist tells people the truth. When times are good--that is, when the truth offers no threat--people don’t mind. But when times are very, very bad...” A shadow darkened his eyes. “Well, we all know what happened to--” And he mentioned three names that had been household words in the middle of the century. They were the names on the brass plaque dedicated to the martyred three physicists.

He went on, “A magician, on the other hand, tells people what they wish were true--that perpetual motion works, that cancer can be cured by colored lights, that a psychosis is no worse than a head cold, that they’ll live forever. In good times magicians are laughed at. They’re a luxury of the spoiled wealthy few. But in bad times people sell their souls for magic cures, and buy perpetual motion machines to power their war rockets.”

Farquar clenched his fist. “All the more reason to keep chipping away at the Thinkers. Are we supposed to beg off from a job because it’s difficult and dangerous?”

Opperly shook his head. “We’re to keep clear of the infection of violence. In my day, Willard, I was one of the Frightened Men. Later I was one of the Angry Men and then one of the Minds of Despair. Now I’m convinced that all my reactions were futile.”

“Exactly!” Farquar agreed harshly. “You reacted. You didn’t act. If you men who discovered atomic energy had only formed a secret league, if you’d only had the foresight and the guts to use your tremendous bargaining position to demand the power to shape mankind’s future...”

“By the time you were born, Willard,” Opperly interrupted dreamily, “Hitler was merely a name in the history books. We scientists weren’t the stuff out of which cloak-and-dagger men are made. Can you imagine Oppenheimer wearing a mask or Einstein sneaking into the Old White House with a bomb in his briefcase?” He smiled. “Besides, that’s not the way power is seized. New ideas aren’t useful to the man bargaining for power--only established facts or lies are.”

“Just the same, it would have been a good thing if you’d had a little violence in you.”

“No,” Opperly said.

“I’ve got violence in me,” Farquar announced, shoving himself to his feet.

Opperly looked up from the flowers. “I think you have,” he agreed.

“But what are we to do?” Farquar demanded. “Surrender the world to charlatans without a struggle?”

Opperly mused for a while. “I don’t know what the world needs now. Everyone knows Newton as the great scientist. Few remember that he spent half his life muddling with alchemy, looking for the philosopher’s stone. Which Newton did the world need then?”

“Now you are justifying the Thinkers!”

“No, I leave that to history.”

“And history consists of the actions of men,” Farquar concluded. “I intend to act. The Thinkers are vulnerable, their power fantastically precarious. What’s it based on? A few lucky guesses. Faith-healing. Some science hocus-pocus, on the level of those juke-box burlesque acts between the strips. Dubious mental comfort given to a few nerve-torn neurotics in the Inner Cabinet--and their wives. The fact that the Thinkers’ clever stage-managing won the President a doubtful election. The erroneous belief that the Soviets pulled out of Iraq and Iran because of the Thinkers’ Mind Bomb threat. A brain-machine that’s just a cover for Jan Tregarron’s guesswork. Oh, yes, and that hogwash of ‘Martian wisdom.’ All of it mere bluff! A few pushes at the right times and points are all that are needed--and the Thinkers know it! I’ll bet they’re terrified already, and will be more so when they find that we’re gunning for them. Eventually they’ll be making overtures to us, turning to us for help. You wait and see.”

“I am thinking again of Hitler,” Opperly interposed quietly. “On his first half dozen big steps, he had nothing but bluff. His generals were against him. They knew they were in a cardboard fort. Yet he won every battle, until the last. Moreover,” he pressed on, cutting Farquar short, “the power of the Thinkers isn’t based on what they’ve got, but on what the world hasn’t got--peace, honor, a good conscience...”

The front-door knocker clanked. Farquar answered it. A skinny old man with a radiation scar twisting across his temple handed him a tiny cylinder. “Radiogram for you, Willard.” He grinned across the hall at Opperly. “When are you going to get a phone put in, Mr. Opperly?”

The physicist waved to him. “Next year, perhaps, Mr. Berry.”

The old man snorted with good-humored incredulity and trudged off.

“What did I tell you about the Thinkers making overtures?” Farquar chortled suddenly. “It’s come sooner than I expected. Look at this.”

He held out the radiogram, but the older man didn’t take it. Instead he asked, “Who’s it from? Tregarron?”

“No, from Helmuth. There’s a lot of sugar corn about man’s future in deep space, but the real reason is clear. They know that they’re going to have to produce an actual nuclear rocket pretty soon, and for that they’ll need our help.”

“An invitation?”

Farquar nodded. “For this afternoon.” He noticed Opperly’s anxious though distant frown. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Are you bothered about my going? Are you thinking it might be a trap--that after the Maelzel question they may figure I’m better rubbed out?”

The older man shook his head. “I’m not afraid for your life, Willard. That’s yours to risk as you choose. No, I’m worried about other things they might do to you.”

“What do you mean?” Farquar asked.

Opperly looked at him with a gentle appraisal. “You’re a strong and vital man, Willard, with a strong man’s prides and desires.” His voice trailed off for a bit. Then, “Excuse me, Willard, but wasn’t there a girl once? A Miss Arkady?”

Farquar’s ungainly figure froze. He nodded curtly, face averted.

“And didn’t she go off with a Thinker?”

“If girls find me ugly, that’s their business,” Farquar said harshly, still not looking at Opperly. “What’s that got to do with this invitation?”

Opperly didn’t answer the question. His eyes got more distant. Finally he said, “In my day we had it a lot easier. A scientist was an academician, cushioned by tradition.”

Willard snorted. “Science had already entered the era of the police inspectors, with laboratory directors and political appointees stifling enterprise.”

“Perhaps,” Opperly agreed. “Still, the scientist lived the safe, restricted, highly respectable life of a university man. He wasn’t exposed to the temptations of the world.”

Farquar turned on him. “Are you implying that the Thinkers will somehow be able to buy me off?”

“Not exactly.”

“You think I’ll be persuaded to change my aims?” Farquar demanded angrily.

Opperly shrugged his helplessness. “No, I don’t think you’ll change your aims.”

Clouds encroaching from the west blotted the parallelogram of sunlight between the two men.

As the slideway whisked him gently along the corridor toward his apartment, Jorj was thinking of his spaceship. For a moment the silver-winged vision crowded everything else out of his mind.

Just think, a spaceship with sails! He smiled a bit, marveling at the paradox.

Direct atomic power. Direct utilization of the force of the flying neutrons. No more ridiculous business of using a reactor to drive a steam engine, or boil off something for a jet exhaust--processes that were as primitive and wasteful as burning gunpowder to keep yourself warm.

Chemical jets would carry his spaceship above the atmosphere. Then would come the thrilling order, “Set sail for Mars!” The vast umbrella would unfold and open out around the stern, its rear or Earthward side a gleaming expanse of radioactive ribbon perhaps only an atom thick and backed with a material that would reflect neutrons. Atoms in the ribbon would split, blasting neutrons astern at fantastic velocities. Reaction would send the spaceship hurtling forward.

In airless space, the expanse of sails would naturally not retard the ship. More radioactive ribbon, manufactured as needed in the ship itself, would feed out onto the sail as that already there became exhausted.

A spaceship with direct nuclear drive--and he, a Thinker, had conceived it completely except for the technical details! Having strengthened his mind by hard years of somno-learning, mind-casting, memory-straightening, and sensory training, he had assured himself of the executive power to control the technicians and direct their specialized abilities. Together they would build the true Mars rocket.

But that would only be a beginning. They would build the true Mind Bomb. They would build the true Selective Microbe Slayer. They would discover the true laws of ESP and the inner life. They would even--his imagination hesitated a moment, then strode boldly forward--build the true Maizie!

And then ... then the Thinkers would be on even terms with the scientists. Rather, they’d be far ahead. No more deception.

He was so exalted by this thought that he almost let the slideway carry him past his door. He stepped inside and called, “Caddy!” He waited a moment, then walked through the apartment, but she wasn’t there.

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