What Is Posat?

by Phyllis Sterling Smith

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: A scientist, an unemployed man and a cat lady read an advertisement about a secret society from a magazine. They all answer it for various, but different, reasons and get somewhat different return mailings. It turns out that there really IS a real ancient secret society with scientific secrets, and it is drafting new researchers.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

POSAT: an ancient secret society

Most readers passed it by with scarcely a glance. It was, after all, similar to the many that had appeared through the years under the name of that same society. Other readers, as their eyes slid over the familiar format of the ad, speculated idly about the persistent and mildly mysterious organization behind it. A few even resolved to clip the attached coupon and send for the booklet--sometime--when a pen or pencil was nearer at hand.

Bill Evans, an unemployed pharmacist, saw the ad in a copy of _Your Life and Psychology_ that had been abandoned on his seat in the bus. He filled out the blanks on the coupon with a scrap of stubby pencil. “You can alter the course of your life!” he read again. He particularly liked that thought, even though he had long since ceased to believe it. He actually took the trouble to mail the coupon. After all, he had, literally, nothing to lose, and nothing else to occupy his time.

Miss Elizabeth Arnable was one of the few to whom the advertisement was unfamiliar. As a matter of fact, she very seldom read a magazine. The radio in her room took the place of reading matter, and she always liked to think that it amused her cats as well as herself. Reading would be so selfish under the circumstances, wouldn’t it? Not but what the cats weren’t almost smart enough to read, she always said.

It just so happened, however, that she had bought a copy of the Antivivisectionist Gazette the day before. She pounced upon the POSAT ad as a trout might snap at a particularly attractive fly. Having filled out the coupon with violet ink, she invented an errand that would take her past the neighborhood post office so that she could post it as soon as possible.

Donald Alford, research physicist, came across the POSAT ad tucked at the bottom of a column in The Bulletin of Physical Research. He was engrossed in the latest paper by Dr. Crandon, a man whom he admired from the point of view of both a former student and a fellow research worker. Consequently, he was one of the many who passed over the POSAT ad with the disregard accorded to any common object.

He read with interest to the end of the article before he realized that some component of the advertisement had been noted by a region of his brain just beyond consciousness. It teased at him like a tickle that couldn’t be scratched until he turned back to the page.

It was the symbol or emblem of POSAT, he realized, that had caught his attention. The perpendicularly crossed ellipses centered with a small black circle might almost be a conventionalized version of the Bohr atom of helium. He smiled with mild skepticism as he read through the printed matter that accompanied it.

“I wonder what their racket is,” he mused. Then, because his typewriter was conveniently at hand, he carefully tore out the coupon and inserted it in the machine. The spacing of the typewriter didn’t fit the dotted lines on the coupon, of course, but he didn’t bother to correct it. He addressed an envelope, laid it with other mail to be posted, and promptly forgot all about it. Since he was a methodical man, it was entrusted to the U.S. mail early the next morning, together with his other letters.

Three identical forms accompanied the booklet which POSAT sent in response to the three inquiries. The booklet gave no more information than had the original advertisement, but with considerable more volubility. It promised the recipient the secrets of the Cosmos and the key that would unlock the hidden knowledge within himself--if he would merely fill out the enclosed form.

Bill Evans, the unemployed pharmacist, let the paper lie unanswered for several days. To be quite honest, he was disappointed. Although he had mentally disclaimed all belief in anything that POSAT might offer, he had watched the return mails with anticipation. His own resources were almost at an end, and he had reached the point where intervention by something supernatural, or at least superhuman, seemed the only hope.

He had hoped, unreasonably, that POSAT had an answer. But time lay heavily upon him, and he used it one evening to write the requested information--about his employment (ha!), his religious beliefs, his reason for inquiring about POSAT, his financial situation. Without quite knowing that he did so, he communicated in his terse answers some of his desperation and sense of futility.

Miss Arnable was delighted with the opportunity for autobiographical composition. It required five extra sheets of paper to convey all the information that she wished to give--all about her poor, dear father who had been a missionary to China, and the kinship that she felt toward the mystic cults of the East, her belief that her cats were reincarnations of her loved ones (which, she stated, derived from a religion of the Persians; or was it the Egyptians?) and in her complete and absolute acceptance of everything that POSAT had stated in their booklet. And what would the dues be? She wished to join immediately. Fortunately, dear father had left her in a comfortable financial situation.

To Donald Alford, the booklet seemed to confirm his suspicion that POSAT was a racket of some sort. Why else would they be interested in his employment or financial position? It also served to increase his curiosity.

“What do you suppose they’re driving at?” he asked his wife Betty, handing her the booklet and questionnaire.

“I don’t really know what to say,” she answered, squinting a little as she usually did when puzzled. “I know one thing, though, and that’s that you won’t stop until you find out!”

“The scientific attitude,” he acknowledged with a grin.

“Why don’t you fill out this questionnaire incognito, though?” she suggested. “Pretend that we’re wealthy and see if they try to get our money. Do they have anything yet except your name and address?”

Don was shocked. “If I send this back to them, it will have to be with correct answers!”

“The scientific attitude again,” Betty sighed. “Don’t you ever let your imagination run away with the facts a bit? What are you going to give for your reasons for asking about POSAT?”

“Curiosity,” he replied, and, pulling his fountain pen from his vest pocket, he wrote exactly that, in small, neat script.

It was unfortunate for his curiosity that Don could not see the contents of the three envelopes that were mailed from the offices of POSAT the following week. For this time they differed.

Bill Evans was once again disappointed. The pamphlet that was enclosed gave what apparently meant to be final answers to life’s problems. They were couched in vaguely metaphysical terms and offered absolutely no help to him.

His disappointment was tempered, however, by the knowledge that he had unexpectedly found a job. Or, rather, it had fallen into his lap. When he had thought that every avenue of employment had been tried, a position had been offered him in a wholesale pharmacy in the older industrial part of the city. It was not a particularly attractive place to work, located as it was next to a large warehouse, but to him it was hope for the future.

It amused him to discover that the offices of POSAT were located on the other side of the same warehouse, at the end of a blind alley. Blind alley indeed! He felt vaguely ashamed for having placed any confidence in them.

Miss Arnable was thrilled to discover that her envelope contained not only several pamphlets, (she scanned the titles rapidly and found that one of them concerned the sacred cats of ancient Egypt), but that it contained also a small pin with the symbol of POSAT wrought in gold and black enamel. The covering letter said that she had been accepted as an active member of POSAT and that the dues were five dollars per month; please remit by return mail. She wrote a check immediately, and settled contentedly into a chair to peruse the article on sacred cats.

After a while she began to read aloud so that her own cats could enjoy it, too.

Don Alford would not have been surprised if his envelope had shown contents similar to the ones that the others received. The folded sheets of paper that he pulled forth, however, made him stiffen with sharp surprise.

“Come here a minute, Betty,” he called, spreading them out carefully on the dining room table. “What do you make of these?”

She came, dish cloth in hand, and thoughtfully examined them, one by one. “Multiple choice questions! It looks like a psychological test of some sort.”

“This isn’t the kind of thing I expected them to send me,” worried Don. “Look at the type of thing they ask. ‘If you had discovered a new and virulent poison that could be compounded from common household ingredients, would you (1) publish the information in a daily newspaper, (2) manufacture it secretly and sell it as rodent exterminator, (3) give the information to the armed forces for use as a secret weapon, or (4) withhold the information entirely as too dangerous to be passed on?’”

“Could they be a spy ring?” asked Betty. “Subversive agents? Anxious to find out your scientific secrets like that classified stuff that you’re so careful of when you bring it home from the lab?”

Don scanned the papers quickly. “There’s nothing here that looks like an attempt to get information. Besides, I’ve told them nothing about my work except that I do research in physics. They don’t even know what company I work for. If this is a psychological test, it measures attitudes, nothing else. Why should they want to know my attitudes?”

“Do you suppose that POSAT is really what it claims to be--a secret society--and that they actually screen their applicants?”

He smiled wryly. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if I didn’t make the grade after starting out to expose their racket?”

He pulled out his pen and sat down to the task of resolving the dilemmas before him.

His next communication from POSAT came to his business address and, paradoxically, was more personal than its forerunners.

Dear Doctor Alford:

We have examined with interest the information that you have sent

to us. We are happy to inform you that, thus far, you have

satisfied the requirements for membership in the Perpetual Order

of Seekers After Truth. Before accepting new members into this

ancient and honorable secret society, we find it desirable that

they have a personal interview with the Grand Chairman of POSAT.

Accordingly, you are cordially invited to an audience with our

Grand Chairman on Tuesday, July 10, at 2:30 P.M. Please let us

know if this arrangement is acceptable to you. If not, we will

attempt to make another appointment for you.

The time specified for the appointment was hardly a convenient one for Don. At 2:30 P.M. on most Tuesdays, he would be at work in the laboratory. And while his employers made no complaint if he took his research problems home with him and worried over them half the night, they were not equally enthusiastic when he used working hours for pursuing unrelated interests. Moreover, the headquarters of POSAT was in a town almost a hundred miles distant. Could he afford to take a whole day off for chasing will-o-wisps?

It hardly seemed worth the trouble. He wondered if Betty would be disappointed if he dropped the whole matter. Since the letter had been sent to the laboratory instead of his home, he couldn’t consult her about it without telephoning.

Since the letter had been sent to the laboratory instead of his home! But it was impossible!

He searched feverishly through his pile of daily mail for the envelope in which the letter had come. The address stared up at him, unmistakably and fearfully legible. The name of his company. The number of the room he worked in. In short, the address that he had never given them!

“Get hold of yourself,” he commanded his frightened mind. “There’s some perfectly logical, easy explanation for this. They looked it up in the directory of the Institute of Physics. Or in the alumni directory of the university. Or--or--”

But the more he thought about it, the more sinister it seemed. His laboratory address was available, but why should POSAT take the trouble of looking it up? Some prudent impulse had led him to withhold that particular bit of information, yet now, for some reason of their own, POSAT had unearthed the information.

His wife’s words echoed in his mind, “Could they be a spy ring? Subversive agents?”

Don shook his head as though to clear away the confusion. His conservative habit of thought made him reject that explanation as too melodramatic.

At least one decision was easier to reach because of his doubts. Now he knew he had to keep his appointment with the Grand Chairman of POSAT.

He scribbled a memo to the department office stating that he would not be at work on Tuesday.

At first Don Alford had some trouble locating the POSAT headquarters. It seemed to him that the block in which the street number would fall was occupied entirely by a huge sprawling warehouse, of concrete construction, and almost entirely windowless. It was recessed from the street in several places to make room for the small, shabby buildings of a wholesale pharmacy, a printer’s plant, an upholstering shop, and was also indented by alleys lined with loading platforms.

It was at the back of one of the alleys that he finally found a door marked with the now familiar emblem of POSAT.

He opened the frosted glass door with a feeling of misgiving, and faced a dark flight of stairs leading to the upper floor. Somewhere above him a buzzer sounded, evidently indicating his arrival. He picked his way up through the murky stairwell.

The reception room was hardly a cheerful place, with its battered desk facing the view of the empty alley, and a film of dust obscuring the pattern of the gray-looking wallpaper and worn rug. But the light of the summer afternoon filtering through the window scattered the gloom somewhat, enough to help Don doubt that he would find the menace here that he had come to expect.

The girl addressing envelopes at the desk looked very ordinary. _Not the Mata-Hari type_, thought Don, with an inward chuckle at his own suspicions. He handed her the letter.

She smiled. “We’ve been expecting you, Dr. Alford. If you’ll just step into the next room--”

She opened a door opposite the stairwell, and Don stepped through it.

The sight of the luxurious room before him struck his eyes with the shock of a dentist’s drill, so great was the contrast between it and the shabby reception room. For a moment Don had difficulty breathing. The rug--Don had seen one like it before, but it had been in a museum. The paintings on the walls, ornately framed in gilt carving, were surely old masters--of the Renaissance period, he guessed. Although he recognized none of the pictures, he felt that he could almost name the artists. That glowing one near the corner would probably be a Titian. Or was it Tintorretto? He regretted for a moment the lost opportunities of his college days, when he had passed up Art History in favor of Operational Circuit Analysis.

The girl opened a filing cabinet, the front of which was set flush with the wall, and, selecting a folder from it, disappeared through another door.

Don sprang to examine the picture near the corner. It was hung at eye level--that is, at the eye level of the average person. Don had to bend over a bit to see it properly. He searched for a signature. Apparently there was none. But did artists sign their pictures back in those days? He wished he knew more about such things.

Each of the paintings was individually lighted by a fluorescent tube held on brackets directly above it. As Don straightened up from his scrutiny of the picture, he inadvertently hit his head against the light. The tube, dislodged from its brackets, fell to the rug with a muffled thud.

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