I Am a Nucleus

by Stephen Barr

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: No doubt whatever about it, I had the Indian sign on me. my comfortably untidy world had suddenly turned into a monstrosity of order!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

When I got home from the office, I was not so much tired as beaten down, but the effect is similar. I let myself into the apartment, which had an absentee-wife look, and took a cold shower. The present downtown temperature, according to the radio, was eighty-seven degrees, but according to my Greenwich Village thermometer, it was ninety-six. I got dressed and went into the living room, and wished ardently that my wife Molly were here to tell me why the whole place looked so woebegone.

What do they do, I asked myself, that I have left undone? I’ve vacuumed the carpet, I’ve dusted and I’ve straightened the cushions ... Ah! The ashtrays. I emptied them, washed them and put them back, but still the place looked wife-deserted.

It had been a bad day; I had forgotten to wind the alarm clock, so I’d had to hurry to make a story conference at one of the TV studios I write for. I didn’t notice the impending rain storm and had no umbrella when I reached the sidewalk, to find myself confronted with an almost tropical downpour. I would have turned back, but a taxi came up and a woman got out, so I dashed through the rain and got in.

“Madison and Fifty-fourth,” I said.

“Right,” said the driver, and I heard the starter grind, and then go on grinding. After some futile efforts, he turned to me. “Sorry, Mac. You’ll have to find another cab. Good hunting.”

If possible, it was raining still harder. I opened my newspaper over my hat and ran for the subway: three blocks. Whizzing traffic held me up at each crossing and I was soaked when I reached the platform, just in time to miss the local. After an abnormal delay, I got one which exactly missed the express at Fourteenth Street. The same thing happened at both ends of the crosstown shuttle, but I found the rain had stopped when I got out at Fifty-first and Lexington.

As I walked across to Madison Avenue, I passed a big excavation where they were getting ready to put up a new office building. There was the usual crowd of buffs watching the digging machines and, in particular, a man with a pneumatic drill who was breaking up some hard-packed clay. While I looked, a big lump of it fell away, and for an instant I was able to see something that looked like a chunk of dirty glass, the size of an old-fashioned hatbox. It glittered brilliantly in the sunlight, and then his chattering drill hit it.

There was a faint bang and the thing disintegrated. It knocked him on his back, but he got right up and I realized he was not hurt. At the moment of the explosion--if so feeble a thing can be called one--I felt something sting my face and, on touching it, found blood on my hand. I mopped at it with my handkerchief but, though slight, the bleeding would not stop, so I went into a drugstore and bought some pink adhesive which I put on the tiny cut. When I got to the studio, I found that I had missed the story conference.

During the day, by actual count, I heard the phrase “I’m just spitballing” eight times, and another Madison Avenue favorite, “The whole ball of wax,” twelve times. However, my story had been accepted without change because nobody had noticed my absence from the conference room. There you have what is known as the Advertising World, the Advertising game or the advertising racket, depending upon which rung of the ladder you have achieved.

The subway gave a repeat performance going home, and as I got to the apartment house we live in, the cop on the afternoon beat was standing there talking to the doorman.

He said, “Hello, Mr. Graham. I guess you must have just have missed it at your office building.” I looked blank and he explained, “We just heard it a little while ago: all six elevators in your building jammed at the same time. Sounds crazy. I guess you just missed it.”

Anything can happen in advertising, I thought. “That’s right, Danny, I just missed it,” I said, and went on in.

Psychiatry tells us that some people are accident-prone; I, on the other hand, seemed recently to be coincidence-prone, fluke-happy, and except for the alarm clock, I’d had no control over what had been going on.

I went into our little kitchen to make a drink and reread the directions Molly had left, telling me how to get along by myself until she got back from her mother’s in Oyster Bay, a matter of ten days. How to make coffee, how to open a can, whom to call if I took sick and such. My wife used to be a trained nurse and she is quite convinced that I cannot take a breath without her. She is right, but not for the reasons she supposes.

I opened the refrigerator to get some ice and saw another notice: “When you take out the Milk or Butter, Put it Right Back. And Close the Door, too.”

Intimidated, I took my drink into the living room and sat down in front of the typewriter. As I stared at the novel that was to liberate me from Madison Avenue, I noticed a mistake and picked up a pencil. When I put it down, it rolled off the desk, and with my eyes on the manuscript, I groped under the chair for it. Then I looked down. The pencil was standing on its end.

There, I thought to myself, is that one chance in a million we hear about, and picked up the pencil. I turned back to my novel and drank some of the highball in hopes of inspiration and surcease from the muggy heat, but nothing came. I went back and read the whole chapter to try to get a forward momentum, but came to a dead stop at the last sentence.

Damn the heat, damn the pencil, damn Madison Avenue and advertising. My drink was gone and I went back to the kitchen and read Molly’s notes again to see if they would be like a letter from her. I noticed one that I had missed, pinned to the door of the dumbwaiter: “Garbage picked up at 6:30 AM so the idea is to Put it Here the Night Before. I love you.” What can you do when the girl loves you?

I made another drink and went and stared out of the living room window at the roof opposite. The Sun was out again and a man with a stick was exercising his flock of pigeons. They wheeled in a circle, hoping to be allowed to perch, but were not allowed to.

Pigeons fly as a rule in formation and turn simultaneously, so that their wings all catch the sunlight at the same time. I was thinking about this decorative fact when I saw that as they were making a turn, they seemed to bunch up together. By some curious chance, they all wanted the same place in the sky to turn in, and several collided and fell.

The man was as surprised as I and went to one of the dazed birds and picked it up. He stood there shaking his head from side to side, stroking its feathers.

My speculations about this peculiar aerial traffic accident were interrupted by loud voices in the hallway. Since our building is usually very well behaved, I was astonished to hear what sounded like an incipient free-for-all, and among the angry voices I recognized that of my neighbor, Nat, a very quiet guy who works on a newspaper and has never, to my knowledge, given wild parties, particularly in the late afternoon.

“You can’t say a thing like that to me!” I heard him shout. “I tell you I got that deck this afternoon and they weren’t opened till we started to play!”

Several other loud voices started at the same time.

“Nobody gets five straight-flushes in a row!”

“Yeah, and only when you were dealer!”

The tone of the argument was beginning to get ugly, and I opened the door to offer Nat help if he needed it. There were four men confronting him, evidently torn between the desire to make an angry exit and the impulse to stay and beat him up. His face was furiously red and he looked stunned.

“Here!” he said, holding out a deck of cards, “For Pete’s sake, look at ‘em yourselves if you think they’re marked!”

The nearest man struck them up from his hand. “Okay, Houdini! So they’re not marked! All I know is five straight...”

His voice trailed away. He and the others stared at the scattered cards on the floor. About half were face down, as might be expected, and the rest face up--all red.

Someone must have rung, because at that moment the elevator arrived and the four men, with half frightened, incredulous looks, and in silence, got in and were taken down. My friend stood looking at the neatly arranged cards.

“Judas!” he said, and started to pick them up. “Will you look at that! My God, what a session...”

I helped him and said to come in for a drink and tell me all about it, but I had an idea what I would hear.

After a while, he calmed down, but he still seemed dazed.

“Never seen anything to equal it,” he said. “Wouldn’t have believed it. Those guys didn’t believe it. Every round normal, nothing unusual about the hands--three of a kind, a low straight, that sort of thing and one guy got queens over tens, until it gets to be my deal. Brother! Straight flush to the king--every time! And each time, somebody else has four aces...”

He started to sweat again, so I got up to fix him another drink. There was one quart of club soda left, but when I tried to open it, the top broke and glass chips got into the bottle.

“I’ll have to go down for more soda,” I said.

“I’ll come, too. I need air.”

At the delicatessen on the corner, the man gave me three bottles in what must have been a wet bag, because as he handed them to me over the top of the cold-meat display, the bottom gave and they fell onto the tile floor. None of them broke, although the fall must have been from at least five feet. Nat was too wound up in his thoughts to notice and I was getting used to miracles. We left the proprietor with his mouth open and met Danny, the cop, looking in at the door, also with his mouth open.

On the sidewalk, a man walking in front of Nat stooped suddenly to tie his shoe and Nat, to avoid bumping him, stepped off the curb and a taxi swerved to avoid Nat. The street was still wet and the taxi skidded, its rear end lightly flipping the front of one of those small foreign cars, which was going rather fast. It turned sideways and, without any side-slip, went right up the stoop of a brownstone opposite, coming to rest with its nose inside the front door, which a man opened at that moment.

The sight of this threw another driver into a skid, and when he and the taxi had stopped sliding around, they were face to face, arranged crosswise to the street. This gave them exactly no room to move either forward or backward, for the car had its back to a hydrant and the taxi to a lamp.

Although rather narrow, this is a two-way street, and in no time at all, traffic was stacked up from both directions as far as the avenues. Everyone was honking his horn.

Danny was furious--more so when he tried to put through a call to his station house from the box opposite.

It was out of order.

Upstairs, the wind was blowing into the apartment and I closed the windows, mainly to shut out the tumult and the shouting. Nat had brightened up considerably.

“I’ll stay for one more drink and then I’m due at the office,” he said. “You know, I think this would make an item for the paper.” He grinned and nodded toward the pandemonium.

When he was gone, I noticed it was getting dark and turned on the desk lamp. Then I saw the curtains. They were all tied in knots, except one. That was tied in three knots.

All right, I told myself, it was the wind. But I felt the time had come for me to get expert advice, so I went to the phone to call McGill. McGill is an assistant professor of mathematics at a university uptown and lives near us. He is highly imaginative, but we believe he knows everything.

When I picked up the receiver, the line sounded dead and I thought, more trouble. Then I heard a man cough and I said hello. McGill’s voice said, “Alec? You must have picked up the receiver just as we were connected. That’s a damn funny coincidence.”

“Not in the least,” I said. “Come on over here. I’ve got something for you to work on.”

“Well, as a matter of fact, I was calling up to ask you and Molly--”

“Molly’s away for the week. Can you get over here quick? It’s urgent.”

“At once,” he said, and hung up.

While I waited, I thought I might try getting down a few paragraphs of my novel--perhaps something would come now. It did, but as I came to a point where I was about to put down the word “agurgling,” I decided it was too reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan, and stopped at the letter “R.” Then I saw that I had unaccountably hit all four keys one step to the side of the correct ones, and tore out the page, with my face red.

This was absolutely not my day.

“Well,” McGill said, “nothing you’ve told me is impossible or supernatural. Just very, very improbable. In fact, the odds against that poker game alone would lead me to suspect Nat, well as I know him. It’s all those other things...”

He got up and walked over to the window and looked at the hot twilight while I waited. Then he turned around; he had a look of concern.

“Alec, you’re a reasonable guy, so I don’t think you’ll take offense at what I’m going to say. What you have told me is so impossibly unlikely, and the odds against it so astronomical, that I must take the view that you’re either stringing me or you’re subject to a delusion.” I started to get up and expostulate, but he motioned me back. “I know, but don’t you see that that is far more likely than...” He stopped and shook his head. Then he brightened. “I have an idea. Maybe we can have a demonstration.”

He thought for a tense minute and snapped his fingers. “Have you any change on you?”

“Why, yes,” I said. “Quite a bit.” I reached into my pocket. There must have been nearly two dollars in silver and pennies. “Do you think they’ll each have the same date, perhaps?”

“Did you accumulate all that change today?”

“No. During the week.”

He shook his head. “In that case, no. Discounting the fact that you could have prearranged it, if my dim provisional theory is right, that would be actually impossible. It would involve time-reversal. I’ll tell you about it later. No, just throw down the change. Let’s see if they all come up heads.”

I moved away from the carpet and tossed the handful of coins onto the floor. They clattered and bounced--and bounced together--and stacked themselves into a neat pile.

I looked at McGill. His eyes were narrowed. Without a word, he took a handful of coins from his own pocket and threw them.

These coins didn’t stack. They just fell into an exactly straight line, the adjacent ones touching.

“Well,” I said, “what more do you want?”

“Great Scott,” he said, and sat down. “I suppose you know that there are two great apparently opposite principles governing the Universe--random and design. The sands on the beach are an example of random distribution and life is an example of design. The motions of the particles of a gas are what we call random, but there are so many of them, we treat them statistically and derive the Second Law of Thermodynamics--quite reliable. It isn’t theoretically hard-and-fast; it’s just a matter of extreme probability. Now life, on the other hand, seems not to depend on probability at all; actually, it goes against it. Or you might say it is certainly not an accidental manifestation.”

“Do you mean,” I asked in some confusion, “that some form of life is controlling the coins and--the other things?”

He shook his head. “No. All I mean is that improbable things usually have improbable explanations. When I see a natural law being broken, I don’t say to myself, ‘Here’s a miracle.’ I revise my version of the book of rules. Something--I don’t know what--is going on, and it seems to involve probability, and it seems to center around you. Were you still in that building when the elevators stuck? Or near it?”

“I guess I must have been. It happened just after I left.”

“Hm. You’re the center, all right. But why?”

“Center of what?” I asked. “I feel as though I were the center of an electrical storm. Something has it in for me!”

McGill grinned. “Don’t be superstitious. And especially don’t be anthropomorphic.”

“Well, if it’s the opposite of random, it’s got to be a form of life.”

“On what basis? All we know for certain is that random motions are being rearranged. A crystal, for example, is not life, but it’s a non-random arrangement of particles ... I wonder.” He had a faraway, frowning look.

I was beginning to feel hungry and the drinks had worn off.

“Let’s go out and eat,” I said, “There’s not a damn thing in the kitchen and I’m not allowed to cook. Only eggs and coffee.”

We put on our hats and went down to the street. From either end, we could hear wrecking trucks towing away the stalled cars. There were, by this time, a number of harassed cops directing the maneuver and we heard one of them say to Danny, “I don’t know what the hell’s going on around here. Every goddam car’s got something the matter with it. They can’t none of them back out for one reason or another. Never seen anything like it.”

Near us, two pedestrians were doing a curious little two-step as they tried to pass one another; as soon as one of them moved aside to let the other pass, the other would move to the same side. They both had embarrassed grins on their faces, but before long their grins were replaced by looks of suspicion and then determination.

“All right, smart guy!” they shouted in unison, and barged ahead, only to collide. They backed off and threw simultaneous punches which met in mid-air. Then began one of the most remarkable bouts ever witnessed--a fight in which fist hit fist but never anything else, until both champions backed away undefeated, muttering identical excuses and threats.

Danny appeared at that moment. His face was dripping. “You all right, Mr. Graham?” he asked. “I don’t know what’s going on around here, but ever since I came on this afternoon, things are going crazy. Bartley!” he shouted--he could succeed as a hog-caller. “Bring those dames over here!”

Three women in a confused wrangle, with their half-open umbrellas intertwined, were brought across the street, which meant climbing over fenders. Bartley, a fine young patrolman, seemed self-conscious; the ladies seemed not to be.

“All right, now, Mrs. Mac-Philip!” one of them said. “Leave go of my umbrella and we’ll say no more about it!”

“And so now it’s Missus Mac-Philip, is it?” said her adversary.

The third, a younger one with her back turned to us, her umbrella also caught in the tangle, pulled at it in a tentative way, at which the other two glared at her. She turned her head away and tried to let go, but the handle was caught in her glove. She looked up and I saw it was Molly. My nurse-wife.

“Oh, Alec!” she said, and managed to detach herself. “Are you all right?” Was I all right!

“Molly! What are you doing here?”

“I was so worried, and when I saw all this, I didn’t know what to think.” She pointed to the stalled cars. “Are you really all right?”

“Of course I’m all right. But why...”

“The Oyster Bay operator said someone kept dialing and dialing Mother’s number and there wasn’t anyone on the line, so then she had it traced and it came from our phone here. I kept calling up, but I only got a busy signal. Oh, dear, are you sure you’re all right?”

I put my arm around her and glanced at McGill. He had an inward look. Then I caught Danny’s eye. It had a thoughtful, almost suspicious cast to it.

“Trouble does seem to follow you, Mr. Graham,” was all he said.

When we got upstairs, I turned to McGill. “Explain to Molly,” I said. “And incidentally to me. I’m not properly briefed yet.”

He did so, and when he got to the summing up, I had the feeling she was a jump ahead of him.

“In other words, you think it’s something organic?”

“Well,” McGill said, “I’m trying to think of anything else it might be. I’m not doing so well,” he confessed.

“But so far as I can see,” Molly answered, “it’s mere probability, and without any over-all pattern.”

“Not quite. It has a center. Alec is the center.”

Molly looked at me with a curious expression for a moment. “Do you feel all right, darling?” she asked me. I nodded brightly. “You’ll think this silly of me,” she went on to McGill, “but why isn’t it something like an overactive poltergeist?”

“Pure concept,” he said. “No genuine evidence.”


“Absolutely not. For one thing, most of the objects affected weren’t magnetic--and don’t forget magnetism is a force, not a form of energy, and a great deal of energy has been involved. I admit the energy has mainly been supplied by the things themselves, but in a magnetic field, all you’d get would be stored kinetic energy, such as when a piece of iron moves to a magnet or a line of force. Then it would just stay there, like a rundown clock weight. These things do a lot more than that--they go on moving.”

“Why did you mention a crystal before? Why not a life-form?”

“Only an analogy,” said McGill. “A crystal resembles life in that it has a definite shape and exhibits growth, but that’s all. I’ll agree this--thing--has no discernible shape and motion is involved, but plants don’t move and amebas have no shape. Then a crystal feeds, but it does not convert what it feeds on; it merely rearranges it into a non-random pattern. In this case, it’s rearranging random motions and it has a nucleus and it seems to be growing--at least in what you might call improbability.”

Molly frowned. “Then what is it? What’s it made of?”

“I should say it was made of the motions. There’s a similar idea about the atom. Another thing that’s like a crystal is that it appears to be forming around a nucleus not of its own material--the way a speck of sand thrown into a supersaturated solution becomes the nucleus of crystallization.”

“Sounds like the pearl in an oyster,” Molly said, and gave me an impertinent look.

“Why,” I asked McGill, “did you say the coins couldn’t have the same date? I mean apart from the off chance I got them that way.”

“Because I don’t think this thing got going before today and everything that’s happened can all be described as improbable motions here and now. The dates were already there, and to change them would require retroactive action, reversing time. That’s out, in my book. That telephone now--”

The doorbell rang. We were not surprised to find it was the telephone repairman. He took the set apart and clucked like a hen.

“I guess you dropped it on the floor, mister,” he said with strong disapproval.

“Certainly not,” I said. “Is it broken?”

“Not exactly broken, but--” He shook his head and took it apart some more.

McGill went over and they discussed the problem in undertones. Finally the man left and Molly called her mother to reassure her. McGill tried to explain to me what had happened with the phone.

“You must have joggled something loose. And then you replaced the receiver in such a way that the contact wasn’t quite open.”

“But for Pete’s sake, Molly says the calls were going on for a long time! I phoned you only a short time ago and it must have taken her nearly two hours to get here from Oyster Bay.”

“Then you must have done it twice and the vibrations in the floor--something like that--just happened to cause the right induction impulses. Yes, I know how you feel,” he said, seeing my expression. “It’s beginning to bear down.”

Molly was through telephoning and suggested going out for dinner. I was so pleased to see her that I’d forgotten all about being hungry.

“I’m in no mood to cook,” she said. “Let’s get away from all this.”

McGill raised an eyebrow. “If all this, as you call it, will let us.”

In the lobby, we ran into Nat, looking smug in a journalistic way.

“I’ve been put on the story--who could be better?--I live here. So far, I don’t quite get what’s been happening. I’ve been talking to Danny, but he didn’t say much. I got the feeling he thinks you’re involved in some mystical, Hibernian way. Hello, McGill, what’s with you?”

“He’s got a theory,” said Molly. “Come and eat with us and he’ll tell you all about it.”

Since we decided on an air-conditioned restaurant nearby on Sixth Avenue, we walked. The jam of cars didn’t seem to be any less than before and we saw Danny again. He was talking to a police lieutenant, and when he caught sight of us, he said something that made the lieutenant look at us with interest. Particularly at me.

“If you want your umbrella, Mrs. Graham,” Danny said, “it’s at the station house. What there’s left of it, that is.”

Molly thanked him and there was a short pause, during which I felt the speculative regard of the lieutenant. I pulled out a packet of cigarettes, which I had opened, as always, by tearing off the top. I happened to have it upside down and all the cigarettes fell out. Before I could move my foot to obliterate what they had spelled out on the sidewalk, the two cops saw it. The lieutenant gave me a hard look, but said nothing. I quickly kicked the insulting cigarettes into the gutter.

When we got to the restaurant, it was crowded but cool--although it didn’t stay cool for long. We sat down at a side table near the door and ordered Tom Collinses as we looked at the menu. Sitting at the next table were a fat lady, wearing a very long, brilliant green evening gown, and a dried-up sour-looking man in a tux. When the waiter returned, they preempted him and began ordering dinner fussily: cold cuts for the man, and vichyssoise, lobster salad and strawberry parfait for the fat lady.

I tasted my drink. It was most peculiar; salt seemed to have been used instead of sugar. I mentioned this and my companions tried theirs, and made faces.

The waiter was concerned and apologetic, and took the drinks back to the bar across the room. The bartender looked over at us and tasted one of the drinks. Then he dumped them in his sink with a puzzled expression and made a new batch. After shaking this up, he set out a row of glasses, put ice in them and began to pour.

That is to say he tilted the shaker over the first one, but nothing came out. He bumped it against the side of the bar and tried again. Still nothing. Then he took off the top and pried into it with his pick, his face pink with exasperation.

I had the impression that the shaker had frozen solid. Well, ice is a crystal, I thought to myself.

The other bartender gave him a fresh shaker, but the same thing happened, and I saw no more because the customers sitting at the bar crowded around in front of him, offering advice. Our waiter came back, baffled, saying he’d have the drinks in a moment, and went to the kitchen. When he returned, he had madame’s vichyssoise and some rolls, which he put down, and then went to the bar, where the audience had grown larger.

Molly lit a cigarette and said, “I suppose this is all part of it, Alec. Incidentally, it seems to be getting warmer in here.”

It was, and I had the feeling the place was quieter--a background noise had stopped. It dawned on me that I no longer heard the faint hum of the air-conditioner over the door, and as I started to say so, I made a gesture toward it. My hand collided with Molly’s when she tapped her cigarette over the ashtray, and the cigarette landed in the neighboring vichyssoise.

“Hey! What’s the idea?” snarled the sour-looking man.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I said. “It was an accident. I--”

“Throwing cigarettes at people!” the fat lady said.

“I really didn’t mean to,” I began again, getting up. There must have been a hole in the edge of their tablecloth which one of my cuff buttons caught in, because as I stepped out from between the closely set tables, I pulled everything--tablecloth, silver, water glasses, ashtrays and the vichyssoise-à-la-nicotine--onto the floor.

The fat lady surged from the banquette and slapped me meatily. The man licked his thumb and danced as boxers are popularly supposed to do. The owner of the place, a man with thick black eyebrows, hustled toward us with a determined manner. I tried to explain what had happened, but I was outshouted, and the owner frowned darkly.

One of the waiters came up to the owner and tapped him on the shoulder and started to tell him about the air-conditioner, thus creating a momentary diversion, which did not, however, include the fat lady.

“He must be drunk!” she told her companion, who nodded contemptuously. A man carrying a stepladder came down the aisle from the back, his eye on the air-conditioner, but not, it seemed, on the stepladder, which bumped the owner of the restaurant on the shoulder just as he was turning back to me.

It was not a hard bump, but it threw him off balance, so that he more or less embraced the waiter. Then he turned around and it was obvious he thought I had struck him. The room was now divided into two groups: ourselves and our audience, and those who were too far away or intent on other matters to have noticed the fracas, the chief of these being the man with the stepladder, who was paying undivided attention to the air-conditioner. The owner was very angry with me.

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