Bread Overhead

by Fritz Leiber

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The Staff of Life suddenly and disconcertingly sprouted wings --and mankind had to eat crow!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

As a blisteringly hot but guaranteed weather-controlled future summer day dawned on the Mississippi Valley, the walking mills of Puffy Products (“Spike to Loaf in One Operation!”) began to tread delicately on their centipede legs across the wheat fields of Kansas.

The walking mills resembled fat metal serpents, rather larger than those Chinese paper dragons animated by files of men in procession. Sensory robot devices in their noses informed them that the waiting wheat had reached ripe perfection.

As they advanced, their heads swung lazily from side to side, very much like snakes, gobbling the yellow grain. In their throats, it was threshed, the chaff bundled and burped aside for pickup by the crawl trucks of a chemical corporation, the kernels quick-dried and blown along into the mighty chests of the machines. There the tireless mills ground the kernels to flour, which was instantly sifted, the bran being packaged and dropped like the chaff for pickup. A cluster of tanks which gave the metal serpents a decidedly humpbacked appearance added water, shortening, salt and other ingredients, some named and some not. The dough was at the same time infused with gas from a tank conspicuously labeled “Carbon Dioxide” (“No Yeast Creatures in Your Bread!”).

Thus instantly risen, the dough was clipped into loaves and shot into radionic ovens forming the midsections of the metal serpents. There the bread was baked in a matter of seconds, a fierce heat-front browning the crusts, and the piping-hot loaves sealed in transparent plastic bearing the proud Puffyloaf emblem (two cherubs circling a floating loaf) and ejected onto the delivery platform at each serpent’s rear end, where a cluster of pickup machines, like hungry piglets, snatched at the loaves with hygienic claws.

A few loaves would be hurried off for the day’s consumption, the majority stored for winter in strategically located mammoth deep freezes.

But now, behold a wonder! As loaves began to appear on the delivery platform of the first walking mill to get into action, they did not linger on the conveyor belt, but rose gently into the air and slowly traveled off down-wind across the hot rippling fields.


The robot claws of the pickup machines clutched in vain, and, not noticing the difference, proceeded carefully to stack emptiness, tier by tier. One errant loaf, rising more sluggishly than its fellows, was snagged by a thrusting claw. The machine paused, clumsily wiped off the injured loaf, set it aside--where it bobbed on one corner, unable to take off again--and went back to the work of storing nothingness.

A flock of crows rose from the trees of a nearby shelterbelt as the flight of loaves approached. The crows swooped to investigate and then suddenly scattered, screeching in panic.

The helicopter of a hangoverish Sunday traveler bound for Wichita shied very similarly from the brown fliers and did not return for a second look.

A black-haired housewife spied them over her back fence, crossed herself and grabbed her walkie-talkie from the laundry basket. Seconds later, the yawning correspondent of a regional newspaper was jotting down the lead of a humorous news story which, recalling the old flying-saucer scares, stated that now apparently bread was to be included in the mad aerial tea party.

The congregation of an open-walled country church, standing up to recite the most familiar of Christian prayers, had just reached the petition for daily sustenance, when a sub-flight of the loaves, either forced down by a vagrant wind or lacking the natural buoyancy of the rest, came coasting silently as the sunbeams between the graceful pillars at the altar end of the building.

Meanwhile, the main flight, now augmented by other bread flocks from scores and hundreds of walking mills that had started work a little later, mounted slowly and majestically into the cirrus-flecked upper air, where a steady wind was blowing strongly toward the east.

About one thousand miles farther on in that direction, where a cluster of stratosphere-tickling towers marked the location of the metropolis of NewNew York, a tender scene was being enacted in the pressurized penthouse managerial suite of Puffy Products. Megera Winterly, Secretary in Chief to the Managerial Board and referred to by her underlings as the Blonde Icicle, was dealing with the advances of Roger (“Racehorse”) Snedden, Assistant Secretary to the Board and often indistinguishable from any passing office boy.

“Why don’t you jump out the window, Roger, remembering to shut the airlock after you?” the Golden Glacier said in tones not unkind. “When are your high-strung, thoroughbred nerves going to accept the fact that I would never consider marriage with a business inferior? You have about as much chance as a starving Ukrainian kulak now that Moscow’s clapped on the interdict.”


Roger’s voice was calm, although his eyes were feverishly bright, as he replied, “A lot of things are going to be different around here, Meg, as soon as the Board is forced to admit that only my quick thinking made it possible to bring the name of Puffyloaf in front of the whole world.”

“Puffyloaf could do with a little of that,” the business girl observed judiciously. “The way sales have been plummeting, it won’t be long before the Government deeds our desks to the managers of Fairy Bread and asks us to take the Big Jump. But just where does your quick thinking come into this, Mr. Snedden? You can’t be referring to the helium--that was Rose Thinker’s brainwave.”

She studied him suspiciously. “You’ve birthed another promotional bumble, Roger. I can see it in your eyes. I only hope it’s not as big a one as when you put the Martian ambassador on 3D and he thanked you profusely for the gross of Puffyloaves, assuring you that he’d never slept on a softer mattress in all his life on two planets.”

“Listen to me, Meg. Today--yes, today!--you’re going to see the Board eating out of my hand.”

“Hah! I guarantee you won’t have any fingers left. You’re bold enough now, but when Mr. Gryce and those two big machines come through that door--”

“Now wait a minute, Meg--”

“Hush! They’re coming now!”

Roger leaped three feet in the air, but managed to land without a sound and edged toward his stool. Through the dilating iris of the door strode Phineas T. Gryce, flanked by Rose Thinker and Tin Philosopher.

The man approached the conference table in the center of the room with measured pace and gravely expressionless face. The rose-tinted machine on his left did a couple of impulsive pirouettes on the way and twittered a greeting to Meg and Roger. The other machine quietly took the third of the high seats and lifted a claw at Meg, who now occupied a stool twice the height of Roger’s.

“Miss Winterly, please--our theme.”

The Blonde Icicle’s face thawed into a little-girl smile as she chanted bubblingly:

“_Made up of tiny wheaten motes

And reinforced with sturdy oats,

It rises through the air and floats--

The bread on which all Terra dotes!_”


“Thank you, Miss Winterly,” said Tin Philosopher. “Though a purely figurative statement, that bit about rising through the air always gets me--here.” He rapped his midsection, which gave off a high musical clang.

“Ladies--” he inclined his photocells toward Rose Thinker and Meg--”and gentlemen. This is a historic occasion in Old Puffy’s long history, the inauguration of the helium-filled loaf (‘So Light It Almost Floats Away!’) in which that inert and heaven-aspiring gas replaces old-fashioned carbon dioxide. Later, there will be kudos for Rose Thinker, whose bright relays genius-sparked the idea, and also for Roger Snedden, who took care of the details.

“By the by, Racehorse, that was a brilliant piece of work getting the helium out of the government--they’ve been pretty stuffy lately about their monopoly. But first I want to throw wide the casement in your minds that opens on the Long View of Things.”

Rose Thinker spun twice on her chair and opened her photocells wide. Tin Philosopher coughed to limber up the diaphragm of his speaker and continued:

“Ever since the first cave wife boasted to her next-den neighbor about the superior paleness and fluffiness of her tortillas, mankind has sought lighter, whiter bread. Indeed, thinkers wiser than myself have equated the whole upward course of culture with this poignant quest. Yeast was a wonderful discovery--for its primitive day. Sifting the bran and wheat germ from the flour was an even more important advance. Early bleaching and preserving chemicals played their humble parts.

“For a while, barbarous faddists--blind to the deeply spiritual nature of bread, which is recognized by all great religions--held back our march toward perfection with their hair-splitting insistence on the vitamin content of the wheat germ, but their case collapsed when tasteless colorless substitutes were triumphantly synthesized and introduced into the loaf, which for flawless purity, unequaled airiness and sheer intangible goodness was rapidly becoming mankind’s supreme gustatory experience.”

“I wonder what the stuff tastes like,” Rose Thinker said out of a clear sky.

“I wonder what taste tastes like,” Tin Philosopher echoed dreamily. Recovering himself, he continued:

“Then, early in the twenty-first century, came the epochal researches of Everett Whitehead, Puffyloaf chemist, culminating in his paper ‘The Structural Bubble in Cereal Masses’ and making possible the baking of airtight bread twenty times stronger (for its weight) than steel and of a lightness that would have been incredible even to the advanced chemist-bakers of the twentieth century--a lightness so great that, besides forming the backbone of our own promotion, it has forever since been capitalized on by our conscienceless competitors of Fairy Bread with their enduring slogan: ‘It Makes Ghost Toast’.”

“That’s a beaut, all right, that ecto-dough blurb,” Rose Thinker admitted, bugging her photocells sadly. “Wait a sec. How about?--

“_There’ll be bread

Overhead

When you’re dead--

It is said._”


Phineas T. Gryce wrinkled his nostrils at the pink machine as if he smelled her insulation smoldering. He said mildly, “A somewhat unhappy jingle, Rose, referring as it does to the end of the customer as consumer. Moreover, we shouldn’t overplay the figurative ‘rises through the air’ angle. What inspired you?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know--oh, yes, I do. I was remembering one of the workers’ songs we machines used to chant during the Big Strike--

“_Work and pray,

Live on hay.

You’ll get pie

In the sky

When you die--

It’s a lie!_

“I don’t know why we chanted it,” she added. “We didn’t want pie--or hay, for that matter. And machines don’t pray, except Tibetan prayer wheels.”

Phineas T. Gryce shook his head. “Labor relations are another topic we should stay far away from. However, dear Rose, I’m glad you keep trying to outjingle those dirty crooks at Fairy Bread.” He scowled, turning back his attention to Tin Philosopher. “I get whopping mad, Old Machine, whenever I hear that other slogan of theirs, the discriminatory one--’Untouched by Robot Claws.’ Just because they employ a few filthy androids in their factories!”

Tin Philosopher lifted one of his own sets of bright talons. “Thanks, P.T. But to continue my historical resume, the next great advance in the baking art was the substitution of purified carbon dioxide, recovered from coal smoke, for the gas generated by yeast organisms indwelling in the dough and later killed by the heat of baking, their corpses remaining in situ. But even purified carbon dioxide is itself a rather repugnant gas, a product of metabolism whether fast or slow, and forever associated with those life processes which are obnoxious to the fastidious.”

Here the machine shuddered with delicate clinkings. “Therefore, we of Puffyloaf are taking today what may be the ultimate step toward purity: we are aerating our loaves with the noble gas helium, an element which remains virginal in the face of all chemical temptations and whose slim molecules are eleven times lighter than obese carbon dioxide--yes, noble uncontaminable helium, which, if it be a kind of ash, is yet the ash only of radioactive burning, accomplished or initiated entirely on the Sun, a safe 93 million miles from this planet. Let’s have a cheer for the helium loaf!”


Without changing expression, Phineas T. Gryce rapped the table thrice in solemn applause, while the others bowed their heads.

“Thanks, T.P.,” P.T. then said. “And now for the Moment of Truth. Miss Winterly, how is the helium loaf selling?”

The business girl clapped on a pair of earphones and whispered into a lapel mike. Her gaze grew abstracted as she mentally translated flurries of brief squawks into coherent messages. Suddenly a single vertical furrow creased her matchlessly smooth brow.

“It isn’t, Mr. Gryce!” she gasped in horror. “Fairy Bread is outselling Puffyloaves by an infinity factor. So far this morning, there has not been one single delivery of Puffyloaves to any sales spot! Complaints about non-delivery are pouring in from both walking stores and sessile shops.”

“Mr. Snedden!” Gryce barked. “What bug in the new helium process might account for this delay?”

Roger was on his feet, looking bewildered. “I can’t imagine, sir, unless--just possibly--there’s been some unforeseeable difficulty involving the new metal-foil wrappers.”

“Metal-foil wrappers? Were you responsible for those?”

“Yes, sir. Last-minute recalculations showed that the extra lightness of the new loaf might be great enough to cause drift during stackage. Drafts in stores might topple sales pyramids. Metal-foil wrappers, by their added weight, took care of the difficulty.”

“And you ordered them without consulting the Board?”

“Yes, sir. There was hardly time and--”

“Why, you fool! I noticed that order for metal-foil wrappers, assumed it was some sub-secretary’s mistake, and canceled it last night!”

Roger Snedden turned pale. “You canceled it?” he quavered. “And told them to go back to the lighter plastic wrappers?”

“Of course! Just what is behind all this, Mr. Snedden? What recalculations were you trusting, when our physicists had demonstrated months ago that the helium loaf was safely stackable in light airs and gentle breezes--winds up to Beaufort’s scale 3. Why should a change from heavier to lighter wrappers result in complete non-delivery?”


Roger Snedden’s paleness became tinged with an interesting green. He cleared his throat and made strange gulping noises. Tin Philosopher’s photocells focused on him calmly, Rose Thinker’s with unfeigned excitement. P.T. Gryce’s frown grew blacker by the moment, while Megera Winterly’s Venus-mask showed an odd dawning of dismay and awe. She was getting new squawks in her earphones.

“Er ... ah ... er...” Roger said in winning tones. “Well, you see, the fact is that I...”

“Hold it,” Meg interrupted crisply. “Triple-urgent from Public Relations, Safety Division. Tulsa-Topeka aero-express makes emergency landing after being buffeted in encounter with vast flight of objects first described as brown birds, although no failures reported in airway’s electronic anti-bird fences. After grounding safely near Emporia--no fatalities--pilot’s windshield found thinly plastered with soft white-and-brown material. Emblems on plastic wrappers embedded in material identify it incontrovertibly as an undetermined number of Puffyloaves cruising at three thousand feet!”

Eyes and photocells turned inquisitorially upon Roger Snedden. He went from green to Puffyloaf white and blurted: “All right, I did it, but it was the only way out! Yesterday morning, due to the Ukrainian crisis, the government stopped sales and deliveries of all strategic stockpiled materials, including helium gas. Puffy’s new program of advertising and promotion, based on the lighter loaf, was already rolling. There was only one thing to do, there being only one other gas comparable in lightness to helium. I diverted the necessary quantity of hydrogen gas from the Hydrogenated Oils Section of our Magna-Margarine Division and substituted it for the helium.”

“You substituted ... hydrogen ... for the ... helium?” Phineas T. Gryce faltered in low mechanical tones, taking four steps backward.

“Hydrogen is twice as light as helium,” Tin Philosopher remarked judiciously.

“And many times cheaper--did you know that?” Roger countered feebly. “Yes, I substituted hydrogen. The metal-foil wrapping would have added just enough weight to counteract the greater buoyancy of the hydrogen loaf. But--”

“So, when this morning’s loaves began to arrive on the delivery platforms of the walking mills...” Tin Philosopher left the remark unfinished.

“Exactly,” Roger agreed dismally.

“Let me ask you, Mr. Snedden,” Gryce interjected, still in low tones, “if you expected people to jump to the kitchen ceiling for their Puffybread after taking off the metal wrapper, or reach for the sky if they happened to unwrap the stuff outdoors?”

“Mr. Gryce,” Roger said reproachfully, “you have often assured me that what people do with Puffybread after they buy it is no concern of ours.”

“I seem to recall,” Rose Thinker chirped somewhat unkindly, “that dictum was created to answer inquiries after Roger put the famous sculptures-in-miniature artist on 3D and he testified that he always molded his first attempts from Puffybread, one jumbo loaf squeezing down to approximately the size of a peanut.”


Her photocells dimmed and brightened. “Oh, boy--hydrogen! The loaf’s unwrapped. After a while, in spite of the crust-seal, a little oxygen diffuses in. An explosive mixture. Housewife in curlers and kimono pops a couple slices in the toaster. Boom!”

The three human beings in the room winced.

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