Conditionally Human - Cover

Conditionally Human

by Walter M. Miller

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: They were such cute synthetic creatures, it was impossible not to love them. Of course, that was precisely why they were dangerous!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

There was no use hanging around after breakfast. His wife was in a hurt mood, and he could neither endure the hurt nor remove it. He put on his coat in the kitchen and stood for a moment with his hat in his hands. His wife was still at the table, absently fingering the handle of her cup and staring fixedly out the window at the kennels behind the house. He moved quietly up behind her and touched her silk-clad shoulder. The shoulder shivered away from him, and her dark hair swung shiningly as she shuddered. He drew his hand back and his bewildered face went slack and miserable.

“Honeymoon’s over, huh?”

She said nothing, but shrugged faintly.

“You knew I worked for the F.B.A.,” he said. “You knew I’d have charge of a district pound. You knew it before we got married.”

“I didn’t know you killed them,” she said venomously.

“I won’t have to kill many. Besides, they’re only animals.”

Intelligent animals!”

“Intelligent as a human imbecile, maybe.”

“A small child is an imbecile. Would you kill a small child?”

“You’re taking intelligence as the only criterion of humanity,” he protested hopelessly, knowing that a logical defense was useless against sentimentality. “Baby--”

“Don’t call me baby! Call them baby!”

Norris backed a few steps toward the door. Against his better judgment, he spoke again. “Anne honey, look! Think of the good things about the job. Sure, everything has its ugly angles. But think--we get this house rent-free; I’ve got my own district with no bosses around; I make my own hours; you’ll meet lots of people that stop in at the pound. It’s a fine job, honey!”

She sipped her coffee and appeared to be listening, so he went on.

“And what can I do? You know how the Federation handles employment. They looked over my aptitude tests and sent me to Bio-Administration. If I don’t want to follow my aptitudes, the only choice is common labor. That’s the law.”

“I suppose you have an aptitude for killing babies?” she said sweetly.

Norris withered. His voice went desperate. “They assigned me to it because I liked babies. And because I have a B.S. in biology and an aptitude for dealing with people. Can’t you understand? Destroying unclaimed units is the smallest part of it. Honey, before the evolvotron, before Anthropos went into the mutant-animal business, people used to elect dogcatchers. Think of it that way--I’m just a dogcatcher.”

Her cool green eyes turned slowly to meet his gaze. Her face was delicately cut from cold marble. She was a small woman, slender and fragile, but her quiet contempt made her loom.

He backed closer to the door.

“Well, I’ve got to get on the job.” He put on his hat and picked at a splinter on the door. He frowned studiously at the splinter. “I--I’ll see you tonight.” He ripped the splinter loose when it became obvious that she didn’t want to be kissed.

He grunted a nervous good-by and stumbled down the hall and out of the house. The honeymoon was over, all right.

He climbed in the kennel-truck and drove east toward the highway. The suburban street wound among the pastel plasticoid cottages that were set approximately two to an acre on the lightly wooded land. With its population legally fixed at three hundred million, most of the country had become one big suburb, dotted with community centers and lined with narrow belts of industrial development. Norris wished there were someplace where he could be completely alone.

As he approached an intersection, he saw a small animal sitting on the curb, wrapped in its own bushy tail. Its oversized head was bald on top, but the rest of its body was covered with blue-gray fur. Its tiny pink tongue was licking daintily at small forepaws with prehensile thumbs. It was a cat-Q-5. It glanced curiously at the truck as Norris pulled to a halt.

He smiled at it from the window and called, “What’s your name, kitten?”

The cat-Q-5 stared at him impassively for a moment, let out a stuttering high-pitched wail, then: “Kiyi Rorry.”

“Whose child are you, Rorry?” he asked. “Where do you live?”

The cat-Q-5 took its time about answering. There were no houses near the intersection, and Norris feared that the animal might be lost. It blinked at him, sleepily bored, and resumed its paw-washing. He repeated the questions.

“Mama kiyi,” said the cat-Q-5 disgustedly.

“That’s right, Mama’s kitty. But where is Mama? Do you suppose she ran away?”

The cat-Q-5 looked startled. It stuttered for a moment, and its fur crept slowly erect. It glanced around hurriedly, then shot off down the street at a fast scamper. He followed it in the truck until it darted onto a porch and began wailing through the screen, “Mama no run ray! Mama no run ray!”

Norris grinned and drove on. A class-C couple, allowed no children of their own, could get quite attached to a cat-Q-5. The felines were emotionally safer than the quasi-human chimp-K series called “neutroids.” When a pet neutroid died, a family was broken with grief; but most couples could endure the death of a cat-Q or a dog-F. Class-C couples were allowed two lesser units or one neutroid.

His grin faded as he wondered which Anne would choose. The Norrises were class-C--defective heredity.

He found himself in Sherman III Community Center--eight blocks of commercial buildings, serving the surrounding suburbs. He stopped at the message office to pick up his mail. There was a memo from Chief Franklin. He tore it open nervously and read it in the truck. It was something he had been expecting for several days.

Attention All District Inspectors:

Subject: Deviant Neutroid.

You will immediately begin a systematic and thorough survey of all

animals whose serial numbers fall in the Bermuda-K-99 series for

birth dates during July 2234. This is in connection with the

Delmont Negligency Case. Seize all animals in this category,

impound, and run proper sections of normalcy tests. Watch for

mental and glandular deviation. Delmont has confessed to passing

only one non-standard unit, but there may be others. He disclaims

memory of deviant’s serial number. This could be a ruse to bring

a stop to investigations when one animal is found. Be thorough.

If allowed to reach age-set or adulthood, such a deviant could be

dangerous to its owner or to others. Hold all seized K-99s who show

the slightest abnormality in the normalcy tests. Forward to central

lab. Return standard units to their owners. Accomplish entire

survey project within seven days.

C. Franklin

Norris frowned at the last sentence. His district covered about two hundred square miles. Its replacement-quota of new neutroids was around three hundred animals a month. He tried to estimate how many of July’s influx had been K-99s from Bermuda Factory. Forty, at least. Could he do it in a week? And there were only eleven empty neutroid cages in his kennel. The other forty-nine were occupied by the previous inspector’s “unclaimed” inventory--awaiting destruction.

He wadded the memo in his pocket, then nosed the truck onto the highway and headed toward Wylo City and the district wholesale offices of Anthropos, Inc. They should be able to give him a list of all July’s Bermuda K-99 serial numbers that had entered his territory, together with the retailers to whom the animals had been sold. A week’s deadline for finding and testing forty neutroids would put him in a tight squeeze.

He was halfway to Wylo City when the radiophone buzzed on his dashboard. He pulled into the slow lane and answered quickly, hoping for Anne’s voice. A polite professional purr came instead.

“Inspector Norris? This is Doctor Georges. We haven’t met, but I imagine we will. Are you extremely busy at the moment?”

Norris hesitated. “Extremely,” he said.

“Well, this won’t take long. One of my patients--a Mrs. Sarah Glubbes--called a while ago and said her baby was sick. I must be getting absent-minded, because I forgot she was class C until I got there.” He hesitated. “The baby turned out to be a neutroid. It’s dying. Eighteenth order virus.”


“Well, she’s--uh--rather a peculiar woman, Inspector. Keeps telling me how much trouble she had in childbirth, and how she can’t ever have another one. It’s pathetic. She believes it’s her own. Do you understand?”

“I think so,” Norris replied slowly. “But what do you want me to do? Can’t you send the neutroid to a vet?”

“She insists it’s going to a hospital. Worst part is that she’s heard of the disease. Knows it can be cured with the proper treatment--in humans. Of course, no hospital would play along with her fantasy and take a neutroid, especially since she couldn’t pay for its treatment.”

“I still don’t see--”

“I thought perhaps you could help me fake a substitution. It’s a K-48 series, five-year-old, three-year set. Do you have one in the pound that’s not claimed?”

Norris thought for a moment. “I think I have one. You’re welcome to it, Doctor, but you can’t fake a serial number. She’ll know it. And even though they look exactly alike, the new one won’t recognize her. It’ll be spooky.”

There was a long pause, followed by a sigh. “I’ll try it anyway. Can I come get the animal now?”

“I’m on the highway--”

“Please, Norris! This is urgent. That woman will lose her mind completely if--”

“All right, I’ll call my wife and tell her to open the pound for you. Pick out the K-48 and sign for it. And listen--”


“Don’t let me catch you falsifying a serial number.”

Doctor Georges laughed faintly. “I won’t, Norris. Thanks a million.” He hung up quickly.

Norris immediately regretted his consent. It bordered on being illegal. But he saw it as a quick way to get rid of an animal that might later have to be killed.

He called Anne. Her voice was dull. She seemed depressed, but not angry. When he finished talking, she said, “All right, Terry,” and hung up.

By noon, he had finished checking the shipping lists at the wholesale house in Wylo City. Only thirty-five of July’s Bermuda-K-99s had entered his territory, and they were about equally divided among five pet shops, three of which were in Wylo City.

After lunch, he called each of the retail dealers, read them the serial numbers, and asked them to check the sales records for names and addresses of individual buyers. By three o’clock, he had the entire list filled out, and the task began to look easier. All that remained was to pick up the thirty-five animals.

And that, he thought, was like trying to take a year-old baby away from its doting mother. He sighed and drove to the Wylo suburbs to begin his rounds.

Anne met him at the door when he came home at six. He stood on the porch for a moment, smiling at her weakly. The smile was not returned.

“Doctor Georges came,” she told him. “He signed for the--” She stopped to stare at him. “Darling, your face! What happened?”

Gingerly he touch the livid welts down the side of his cheek. “Just scratched a little,” he muttered. He pushed past her and went to the phone in the hall. He sat eying it distastefully for a moment, not liking what he had to do. Anne came to stand beside him and examine the scratches.

Finally he lifted the phone and dialed the Wylo exchange. A grating mechanical voice answered, “Locator center. Your party, please.”

“Sheriff Yates,” Norris grunted.

The robot operator, which had on tape the working habits of each Wylo City citizen, began calling numbers. It found the off-duty sheriff on its third try, in a Wylo pool hall.

“I’m getting so I hate that infernal gadget,” Yates grumbled. “I think it’s got me psyched. What do you want, Norris?”

“Cooperation. I’m mailing you three letters charging three Wylo citizens with resisting a Federal official--namely me--and charging one of them with assault. I tried to pick up their neutroids for a pound inspection--”

Yates bellowed lusty laughter into the phone.

“It’s not funny. I’ve got to get those neutroids. It’s in connection with the Delmont case.”

Yates stopped laughing. “Oh. Well, I’ll take care of it.”

“It’s a rush-order, Sheriff. Can you get the warrants tonight and pick up the animals in the morning?”

“Easy on those warrants, boy. Judge Charleman can’t be disturbed just any time. I can get the newts to you by noon, I guess, provided we don’t have to get a helicopter posse to chase down the mothers.”

“That’ll be all right. And listen, Yates--fix it so the charges will be dropped if they cooperate. Don’t shake those warrants around unless they just won’t listen to reason. But get those neutroids.”

“Okay, boy. Gotcha.”

Norris gave him the names and addresses of the three unwilling mothers. As soon as he hung up, Anne touched his shoulders and said, “Sit still.” She began smoothing a chilly ointment over his burning cheek.

“Hard day?” she asked.

“Not too hard. Those were just three out of fifteen. I got the other twelve. They’re in the truck.”

“That’s good,” she said. “You’ve got only twelve empty cages.”

He neglected to tell her that he had stopped at twelve for just this reason. “Guess I better get them unloaded,” he said, standing up.

“Can I help you?”

He stared at her for a moment, saying nothing. She smiled a little and looked aside. “Terry, I’m sorry--about this morning. I--I know you’ve got a job that has to be--” Her lip quivered slightly.

Norris grinned, caught her shoulders, and pulled her close.

“Honeymoon’s on again, huh?” she whispered against his neck.

“Come on,” he grunted. “Let’s unload some neutroids, before I forget all about work.”

They went out to the kennels together. The cages were inside a sprawling concrete barn, which was divided into three large rooms--one for the fragile neuter humanoid creatures, and another for the lesser mutants, such as cat-Qs, dog-Fs, dwarf bears, and foot-high lambs that never matured into sheep. The third room contained a small gas chamber with a conveyor belt leading from it to a crematory-incinerator.

Norris kept the third locked lest his wife see its furnishings.

The doll-like neutroids began their mindless chatter as soon as their keepers entered the building. Dozens of blazing blond heads began dancing about their cages. Their bodies thwacked against the wire mesh as they leaped about their compartments with monkey grace.

Their human appearance was broken by only two distinct features: short beaverlike tails decorated with fluffy curls of fur, and an erect thatch of scalp-hair that grew up into a bright candleflame. Otherwise, they appeared completely human, with baby-pink skin, quick little smiles, and cherubic faces. They were sexually neuter and never grew beyond a predetermined age-set which varied for each series. Age-sets were available from one to ten years human equivalent. Once a neutroid reached its age-set, it remained at the set’s child-development level until death.

“They must be getting to know you pretty well,” Anne said, glancing around at the cages.

Norris was wearing a slight frown as he inspected the room. “They’ve never gotten this excited before.”

He walked along a row of cages, then stopped by a K-76 to stare.

Apple cores!“ He turned to face his wife. “How did apples get in there?”

She reddened. “I felt sorry for them, eating that goo from the mechanical feeder. I drove down to Sherman III and bought six dozen cooking apples.”

“That was a mistake.”

She frowned irritably. “We can afford it.”

“That’s not the point. There’s a reason for the mechanical feeders.” He paused, wondering how he could tell her the truth. He blundered on: “They get to love whoever feeds them.”

“I can’t see--”

“How would you feel about disposing of something that loved you?”

Anne folded her arms and stared at him. “Planning to dispose of any soon?” she asked acidly.

“Honeymoon’s off again, eh?”

She turned away. “I’m sorry, Terry. I’ll try not to mention it again.”

He began unloading the truck, pulling the frightened and squirming doll-things forth one at a time with a snare-pole. They were one-man pets, always frightened of strangers.

“What’s the Delmont case, Terry?” Anne asked while he worked.


“I heard you mention it on the phone. Anything to do with why you got your face scratched?”

He nodded sourly. “Indirectly, yes. It’s a long story.”

“Tell me.”

“Well, Delmont was a green-horn evolvotron operator at the Bermuda plant. His job was taking the unfertilized chimpanzee ova out of the egg-multiplier, mounting them in his machine, and bombarding the gene structure with sub-atomic particles. It’s tricky business. He flashes a huge enlargement of the ovum on the electron microscope screen--large enough so he can see the individual protein molecules. He has an artificial gene pattern to compare it with. It’s like shooting sub-atomic billiards. He’s got to fire alpha-particles into the gene structure and displace certain links by just the right amount. And he’s got to be quick about it before the ovum dies from an overdose of radiation from the enlarger. A good operator can get one success out of seven tries.

“Well, Delmont worked a week and spoiled over a hundred ova without a single success. They threatened to fire him. I guess he got hysterical. Anyway, he reported one success the next day. It was faked. The ovum had a couple of flaws--something wrong in the central nervous system’s determinants, and in the glandular makeup. Not a standard neutroid ovum. He passed it on to the incubators to get a credit, knowing it wouldn’t be caught until after birth.”

“It wasn’t caught at all?” Anne asked.

“Funny thing, he was afraid it wouldn’t be. He got to worrying about it, thought maybe a mental-deviant would pass, and that it might be dangerous. So he went back to its incubator and cut off the hormone flow into its compartment.”

“Why that?”

“So it would develop sexuality. A neutroid would be born a female if they didn’t give it suppressive doses of male hormone prenatally. That keeps ovaries from developing and it comes out neuter. But Delmont figured a female would be caught and stopped before the final inspection. They’d dispose of her without even bothering to examine for the other defects. And he could blame the sexuality on an equipment malfunction. He thought it was pretty smart. Trouble was they didn’t catch the female. She went on through; they all look female.”

“How did they find out about it now?”

“He got caught last month, trying it again. And he confessed to doing it once before. No telling how many times he really did it.”

Norris held up the final kicking, squealing, tassel-haired doll from the back of the kennel-truck. He grinned at his wife. “This little fellow, for instance. It might be a potential she. It might also be a potential murderer. All these kiddos are from the machines in the section where Delmont worked.”

Anne snorted and caught the baby-creature in her arms. It struggled and tried to bite, but subsided a little when she disentangled it from the snare. “Kkr-r-reee,” it cooed nervously. “Kkr-r-reee!”

“You tell him you’re no murderer,” Anne purred to it.

Norris watched disapprovingly while she fondled it. One thing he had learned: to steer clear of emotional attachments. It was eight months old and looked like a child of two years--a year short of its age-set. And it was designed to be as affectionate as a human child.

“Put it in the cage, Anne,” he said quietly.

She looked up and shook her head.

“It belongs to somebody else. If it fixes a libido attachment on you, you’re actually robbing its owner. They can’t love many people at once.”

She snorted, but installed the thing in its cage.

“Anne--” Norris hesitated, hating to approach the subject. “Do you--want one--for yourself? I can sign an unclaimed one over to you to keep in the house. It won’t cost us anything.”

Slowly she shook her head, and her pale eyes went moody and luminous. “I’m going to have one of my own,” she said.

He stood in the back of the truck, staring down at her. “Do you realize what--”

“I know what I’m saying. We’re class-C on account of heart-trouble in both our families. Well, I don’t care, Terry. I’m not going to waste a heart over one of these pathetic little artificial animals. We’re going to have a baby.”

“You know what they’d do to us?”

“If they catch us, yes--compulsory divorce, sterilization. But they won’t catch us. I’ll have it at home, Terry. Not even a doctor. We’ll hide it.”

“I won’t let you do such a thing.”

She faced him angrily. “Oh, this whole rotten world!” she choked. Suddenly she turned and fled out of the building. She was sobbing.

Norris climbed slowly down from the truck and wandered on into the house. She was not in the kitchen nor the living room. The bedroom door was locked. He shrugged and went to sit on the sofa. The television set was on, and a newscast was coming from a local station.

“ ... we were unable to get shots of the body,” the announcer was saying. “But here is a view of the Georges residence. I’ll switch you to our mobile unit in Sherman II, James Duncan reporting.”

Norris frowned with bewilderment as the scene shifted to a two-story plasticoid house among the elm trees. It was after dark, but the mobile unit’s powerful floodlights made daylight of the house and its yard and the police ‘copters sitting in a side lot. An ambulance was parked in the street. A new voice came on the audio.

“This is James Duncan, ladies and gentlemen, speaking to you from our mobile unit in front of the late Doctor Hiram Georges’ residence just west of Sherman II. We are waiting for the stretcher to be brought out, and Police Chief Erskine Miler is standing here beside me to give us a word about the case. Doctor Georges’ death has shocked the community deeply. Most of you local listeners have known him for many years--some of you have depended upon his services as a family physician. He was a man well known, well loved. But now let’s listen to Chief Miler.”

Norris sat breathing quickly. There could scarcely be two Doctor Georges in the community, but only this morning...

A growling drawl came from the audio. “This’s Chief Miler speaking, folks. I just want to say that if any of you know the whereabouts of a Mrs. Sarah Glubbes, call me immediately. She’s wanted for questioning.”

“Thank you, Chief. This is James Duncan again. I’ll review the facts for you briefly again, ladies and gentlemen. At seven o’clock, less than an hour ago, a woman--allegedly Mrs. Glubbes--burst into Doctor Georges’ dining room while the family was at dinner. She was brandishing a pistol and screaming, ‘You stole my baby! You gave me the wrong baby! Where’s my baby?’

“When the doctor assured her that there was no other baby, she fired, shattering his salad plate. Glancing off it, the bullet pierced his heart. The woman fled. A peculiar feature of the case is that Mrs. Glubbes, the alleged intruder, has no baby. Just a minute--just a minute--here comes the stretcher now.”

Norris turned the set off and went to call the police. He told them what he knew and promised to make himself available for questioning if it became necessary. When he turned from the phone, Anne was standing in the bedroom doorway. She might have been crying a little, but she concealed it well.

“What was all that?” she asked.

“Woman killed a man. I happened to know the motive.”

“What was it?”

“Neutroid trouble.”

“You meet up with a lot of unpleasantness in this business, don’t you?”

“Lot of unpleasant emotions tangled up in it,” he admitted.

“I know. Well, supper’s been keeping hot for two hours. Shall we eat?”

They went to bed at midnight, but it was after one when he became certain that his wife was asleep. He lay in darkness for a time, listening to her even breathing. Then he cautiously eased himself out of bed and tiptoed quietly through the door, carrying his shoes and trousers. He put them on in the kitchen and stole silently out to the kennels. A half moon hung low in a misty sky, and the wind was chilly out of the north.

He went into the neutroid room and flicked a switch. A few sleepy chatters greeted the light.

One at a time, he awoke twenty-three of the older doll-things and carried them to a large glass-walled compartment. These were the long-time residents; they knew him well, and they came with him willingly--like children after the Piper of Hamlin. When he had gotten them in the glass chamber, he sealed the door and turned on the gas. The conveyor would automatically carry them on to the incinerator.

Now he had enough cages for the Bermuda-K-99s.

He hurriedly quit the kennels and went to sit on the back steps. His eyes were burning, but the thought of tears made him sicker. It was like an assassin crying while he stabbed his victim. It was more honest just to retch.

When he tiptoed back inside, he got as far as the hall. Then he saw Anne’s small figure framed in the bedroom window, silhouetted against the moonlit yard. She had slipped into her negligee and was sitting on the narrow windowstool, staring silently out at the dull red tongue of exhaust gases from the crematory’s chimney.

Norris backed away. He went to the parlor and lay down on the couch.

After a while he heard her come into the room. She paused in the center of the rug, a fragile mist in the darkness. He turned his face away and waited for the rasping accusation. But soon she came to sit on the edge of the sofa. She said nothing. Her hand crept out and touched his cheek lightly. He felt her cool finger-tips trace a soft line up his temple.

“It’s all right, Terry,” she whispered.

He kept his face averted. Her fingers traced a last stroke. Then she padded quietly back to the bedroom. He lay awake until dawn, knowing that it would never be all right, neither the creating nor the killing, until he--and the whole world--completely lost sanity. And then everything would be all right, only it still wouldn’t make sense.

Anne was asleep when he left the house. The night mist had gathered into clouds that made a gloomy morning of it. He drove on out in the kennel-truck, meaning to get the rest of the Bermuda-K-99s so that he could begin his testing.

Still he felt the night’s guilt, like a sticky dew that refused to depart with morning. Why should he have to kill the things? The answer was obvious. Society manufactured them because killing them was permissible. Human babies could not be disposed of when the market became glutted. The neutroids offered solace to childless women, kept them satisfied with a restricted birth rate. And why a restricted birth rate? Because by keeping the population at five billions, the Federation could insure a decent living standard for everybody.

Where there was giving, Norris thought glumly, there was also taking away. Man had always deluded himself by thinking that he “created,” but he created nothing. He thought that he had created--with his medical science and his end to wars--a longer life for the individual. But he found that he had only taken the lives of the unborn and added them to the years of the aged. Man now had a life expectancy of eighty, except that he had damn little chance of being born to enjoy it.

A neutroid filled the cradle in his stead. A neutroid that never ate as much, or grew up to be unemployed. A neutroid could be killed if things got tough, but could still satisfy a woman’s craving to mother something small.

Norris gave up thinking about it. Eventually he would have to adjust to it. He was already adjusted to a world that loved the artificial mutants as children. He had been brought up in it. Emotion came in conflict with the grim necessities of his job. Somehow he would have to love them in the parlor and kill them in the kennel. It was only a matter of adjustment.

At noon, he brought back another dozen K-99s and installed them in his cages. There had been two highly reluctant mothers, but he skipped them and left the seizure to the local authorities. Yates had already brought in the three from yesterday.

“No more scratches?” Anne asked him while they ate lunch. They did not speak of the night’s mass-disposal.

Norris smiled mechanically. “I learned my lesson yesterday. If they bare their fangs, I get out without another word. Funny thing though--I’ve got a feeling one mother pulled a fast one.”

“What happened?”

“Well, I told her what I wanted and why. She didn’t like it, but she let me in. I started out with her newt, but she wanted a receipt. So I gave her one; took the serial number off my checklist. She looked at it and said, ‘Why, that’s not Chichi’s number!’ I looked at the newt’s foot, and sure enough it wasn’t. I had to leave it. It was a K-99, but not even from Bermuda.”

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