Dead End

by Wallace Macfarlane

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Sparing people's feelings is deadly. It leads to--no feelings, no people!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Scientist William Manning Norcross drank his soup meticulously and scooped up the vegetables at the bottom of the cup, while his attention was focused on the television screen. He watched girls swimming in formation as he gnawed the bone of his steak. He stolidly ate the baked potato with his fingers when the girls turned around, displaying “Weejees Are Best” signs pasted to their shapely backs. The final flourish was more formation swimming, where they formed a wheel under water, swimming past the camera to display in individual letters stuck to their bare midriffs: “Wonderful Weejees!”

Norcross chuckled appreciatively when a fat old man swam after them with an “Is That Right?” strung across his behind. Young men followed him, each carrying a one-word card that spelled: “You--Bet--It’s--Right--Don’t--Be--Left--Buy--Weejees--!” The scene ended on the surface. The grotesque old man was far in back, while the young men caught the young women, and together they kicked up a cloud of spray in the distance, which by a trick of photography mounted to the sky and the words swept around the globe in monstrous letters: “BUY WEEJEES!”

The dessert was apple pie, and Scientist Norcross turned the screen to the “Abstractions” channel. Watching the colors and patterns form in response to the music, he finished the pie and licked his fingers appreciatively. He pressed a stud to reveal the mirror wall before he activated the molecular cleanup.

Not many people would do that. It was not contrary to morals, exactly, but it was like scratching in public, and it took a scientific mind to study the human form unshaken, immediately after ingestion. There was pie on his tunic and gravy in his hair and a smear of grease from cheek to ear. With no sign of squeamishness, he smeared beet juice on his nose and studied the effect before he depressed the “Clear” stud.

He stretched and stood up while the tray disappeared, then turned and glanced in the mirror again. Nothing on him. Clean. He yawned luxuriantly before he tapped the “Finish” panel on the door and stepped forth, an immaculate and well-fed gentlemen of the year 2512.

He had a well-trained sense of humor, and a smile crossed his lips as he thought of the terror a 21st Century man would feel in such an eating chamber. When he pressed the clear button, the barbarian would be clean--really, sterilely clean--for the first time in his life, and without clothes, too. Oh, what a jape that would be, for the molecular cleanup would immediately disintegrate such abominations as the fur of animals, and much clothing 400 years ago was actually made of such things as sheep hair.

He bowed to a pretty woman just entering a cubicle and thought defiantly that a scientific mind afforded much amusement. There was no illusion in his icy clear thoughts, for they were not befogged by moral questions.

With a sigh, Scientist William Manning Norcross returned to the difficult problem he had set aside while having lunch. The garden city was beautiful outside, but he gave only passing attention to the rain slithering down the huge dome of force over the buildings. He did not pause to admire the everlasting flowers in their carefully simulated beds of soil.

John Davis Drumstetter was in a state of crisis again, and Scientist Norcross was worried.

His fears were well founded. The young man wheeled on Scientist Norcross the minute he stepped through the hedge into the force field under the giant live oak tree.

“Where are they?” he demanded. “I am coming to believe, Scientist, that your reputation is exceeded only by your inability to live up to it. The problem is only an extension of your own early work. You volunteered cooperation, and I accepted it gladly, but your delays are very distressing!”

“Johnny,” said Scientist Norcross, “the press of my own experiments--”

“Then tell me you won’t do it!”

“I want to help you. Don’t you remember the years we spent together in your training to the high calling of scientist? I took your young hand, Johnny, and helped you over the juvenile stumbling blocks. Why, your first mind machine was one I gave you, and when--”

“You’re a fraud, Scientist!” said the young man bitterly.

“The young never appreciate the old,” sighed Norcross.

“Go suck a mango!”

Norcross was shocked. “There’s no call for being obscene, John Davis Drumstetter,” he said sternly. “To mention eating to another person, and right in public, where you might be overheard--”

“Eat a slippery, sloppery mango on television, you old fool! Smear it all over your face while you ingest it into your unspeakable digestive tract!”

“John Davis Drumstetter,” said the scientist with great control, “I have been your friend since you were born. Your father and I became scientists on the same day. You are young and over-eager. Just remember,” he finished with a warning shake of his finger, “Satellite Station One wasn’t built in a day!”

Drumstetter stopped his furious pacing and subdued his rage with visible effort. He chilled, like red steel hardening, and when he spoke he was in full command of himself.

“Now listen to me, Norcross, and keep your mouth shut. For the past forty years I’ve been working on the stellar overdrive. We have the Solar System in our reticule, colonies have been established on every planet, and ships have been sent to Alpha Centauri, with every chance that mankind has established itself in that solar system. But in the four hundred years since science emerged from the dark ages, we’ve managed to creep only four light years away from home! And you, Scientist, are withholding your work on the overdrive relay. Do you understand why your plea of old friendship does not affect me? In the past two years, you’ve done nothing--”

“Experiments that must be kept secret,” mumbled Norcross.

“And it is my belief,” said the young man in a clipped, cold voice, “that you have sold yourself to your taste buds and digestive tract. Either that,” and here his burning rage came into the open, “or you are a pseudo-life!”

At this ultimate insult, Scientist Norcross was silent with indignation. He watched Drumstetter shrug into a stole, turn down the power to the huge mind machine, sling his reticule over his shoulder, and stalk off through the hedge.

Norcross slumped into a chair, his mind in confusion. He heard Drumstetter’s plane as it left the ground. Plane, he thought, his mind avoiding the problem. Plane. What a curious name, handed down through the ages, to call a swift skip powered by Earth’s magnetism. An original plane fought the air, buoyed up by the lift of plane surfaces in movement. When the movement stopped, it died.

Died. Death. Pseudo-life.

Scientist Norcross shuddered. His well-trained sense of humor did not include abominations.

He took the communication from his pocket and cleared to Prime Center. When the prim, grim face of Prime Center himself in the little disc was sharp, Norcross reported what had happened, even to the suggestion Drumstetter had made that he was pseudo-life.

“This is very bad,” said Prime Center. “Monica Drake Lane is now pseudo-life, too.”

“God’s name!”

“Took her skip into a cliff in the Sierra Mountains yesterday. Disconnected the anti-collision. A clear case.”

“What will this do to Drumstetter?”

“Nothing,” said Prime Center, “unless he learns.”

“Is she ready?”

“I’m sending her to you right now for indoctrination. Reports are that Drumstetter is visiting scientists on the West Coast, and Probability reports that he may cover the world before he returns. Do you understand? Her indoctrination must be perfect.”

“It always has been.” Norcross pulled his lip. “The same limitation will be in Monica Drake Lane?” he asked hopelessly.

“Of course,” said Prime Center. “We’ll keep you posted on developments.”

“You’d better try women,” said Norcross.

“Women, narcotics, or anything else! I’d eat a blueberry pie with my hands behind my back at high noon,” said Prime Center with fierce obscenity, “if I thought it would do any good!”

He cut the connection.

Norcross was still under the oak tree, lost in contemplation of a color abstraction on his little communication, when a tall blonde girl, brown as a berry, stepped hesitantly through the hedge. She walked to him and, when he looked up, she buried her face in her hands. He stood and held her shoulders.

“Now, now,” said Scientist Norcross, “don’t cry, my dear.”

“But this is so puzzling--and I wasn’t crying,” she answered. “What’s happened to me?”

“Sit down, Monica, and tell me what you think has happened.”

“But I don’t know. You see, the last I remember is walking through the Psych Lab in San Francisco, and suddenly--suddenly, I’m in New York and they’re sending me to you. What has happened?”

“Where do you first remember being in New York?”

“In the--oh, I don’t know!” She was in a flush of embarrassment.

“I’ll help you, my dear. You were in the pseudo-life clinic. You are not exactly Monica Drake Lane any longer. She died. You are pseudo-life.”

Her eyes were bright and the pupils were pinpointed from shock.

“You are the pseudo-life Monica Drake Lane. To all outward appearances, you are an exact counterpart of the girl. Inwardly? Well, your internal organs have been simplified, and you cannot reproduce. Aside from such minor changes, you are identical, and incidentally a much more efficient creature than your prototype. And if your mind, which is a very good one, was a human mind, I could not tell you this. Pseudo-life is a most remarkable thing, but Lewis and Havinghurst and Covalt, who developed it 300 years ago, were never able to imbue pseudo-life with what they called the minus-one factor, which includes the phenomenal human emotional sensitivity, among other things. Are you feeling better now?”

“Why, yes--” Her voice trailed off.

“You are no longer a slave of your emotions,” said Scientist Norcross complacently. “None of us are.”

“You--you are--?”

“Oh, yes. We generally don’t speak of such things, but since I’m to introduce you to pseudo-life, I can tell you that I died two years ago.”

“I’m afraid I never did know--or Monica Drake Lane never--that is, I--”

“You are Monica Drake Lane. If you will sit quietly, I’ll tell you about it.” Scientist Norcross took two cigarettes from his reticule and offered the girl one. The lip play was considered somewhat daring between the sexes, but under the circumstances he thought the mild narcotic would be good for her, as well as the sharpening of the senses brought on by actually smoking together.

“When the Americans, who inhabited this continent, gained domination of the world in the 21st Century, they consolidated their position by carrying their customs to the ends of the Earth. For that matter, to Alpha Centauri, if the ships did get through.

“Forgive me,” he interrupted himself, “if I seem improper or even immoral in this little talk of ours. Believe me, it’s not with an easy disregard of proprieties that I bring myself to speak of such things.

“Well, the Americans believed, and rightly so, that death is a dreadful thing. Until Lewis and Havinghurst and Covalt developed pseudo-life, a great deal of time and effort and money went into such things as cemeteries--places where they literally buried their dead with elaborate ceremonials and much anguish. They had other equally wasteful practices, such as madhouses and jails, which were done away with when it became practical to replace a useless person with another, who matched the original to near absolute perfection, but without fatal flaws of body or weaknesses of the mind.

“Emphasis has shifted since those early years, when the abnormals were dealt with, to the comforting of human beings. Should John Davis Drumstetter suffer greatly at the loss of his mentor, the man who guided him in the ways of science? Of course not. He never knew I died.”

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