When I Grow Up

by Richard E. Lowe

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The youngster of this story isn't a child monster at all. He's just--a "destructor." And that in itself is somehow unimaginably terrifying!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The two professors couldn’t agree on the fundamentals of child behavior. But that was before they met little Herbux!

The University sprawled casually, unashamed of its disordered ranks, over a hundred thousand acres of grassy, rolling countryside. It was the year A.D. 3896, and the vast assemblage of schools and colleges and laboratories had been growing on this site for more than two thousand years.

It had survived political and industrial revolutions, local insurrections, global, inter-terrestrial and nuclear wars, and it had become the acknowledged center of learning for the entire known universe.

No subject was too small to escape attention at the University. None was too large to be attacked by the fearless, probing fingers of curiosity, or to in any way over-awe students and teachers in this great institution of learning.

No book was ever closed in the University and no clue, however tiny, was discarded as useless in the ceaseless search for knowledge which was the University’s prime and overriding goal.

For no matter how fast and far the spaceships might fly, or what strange creatures might be brought back across the great curve of the universe or how deeply the past was resurrected or the future probed, of one thing only was the University quite sure--man did not know enough.

All manner of schools had come into being at the University, and often they functioned in pairs, one devoted to proving a proposition, and the other to disproving it. And among these pairs of schools two, in particular, seemed to exist on a most tenuous basis. Their avowed mission was to settle the age-old argument concerning the relative influences of heredity and environment.

One, headed by Professor Miltcheck von Possenfeller, worked tirelessly to prove that there was no such determining factor as heredity, and that environment alone was the governing influence in human behavior.

The other, under the direction of Dr. Arthur D. Smithlawn, was dedicated to the task of proving that environment meant nothing, and that only heredity was important.

Success, in short, could only come to those who were born with the genes of success in their bodies, and failure was as preordained for the rest as was ultimate death for all.

Over a period of more than two hundred years the School of Environment had been taking babies from among the thousands of homeless waifs gathered in throughout the universe, and raising them carefully in a closely supervised, cultural atmosphere.

The School of Heredity, on the other hand, was more select. Its pupils came only from families whose genealogy could be traced back for at least a thousand years. Freedom of choice and expression was the rule here, since the school was attempting to prove that a child’s inherited tendencies will send it inevitably along a predetermined path, completely uninfluenced by outside help or hindrance.

In two centuries neither school had been able to develop an overpowering case in support of its own theory. Hence they both thrived, and cheerfully ignored the discrepancies which existed in the case records of individuals who had not turned out according to the book.

Although they were zealous professional rivals, Prof. von Possenfeller and Dr. Smithlawn were devoted personal friends. They called each other Possy and Smithy and got together once a week to play chess and exchange views on the universe in general. Only one subject was taboo between them--their experimental work.

On this particular Saturday night, however, Smithy noticed that his good friend Possy was terribly agitated and disturbed, and had for the third time carelessly put his queen in jeopardy.

“My dear friend,” exclaimed Possy, blindly moving his king into check. “Could you possibly be persuaded to ignore for the moment our ban on professional talk? There is something--”

Smithy, secretly, was only too anxious to talk at great length. But he pretended to give the request serious consideration.

“If it is really important,” he said. “Yes, by all means. Go right ahead.”

“Smithy,” Possy plunged on, “I am nonplussed. I am really, terribly disturbed. I’ve never felt like this before.”

Smithy waited patiently while Possy poured himself a large brandy and soda, hastily gulped it down, and made a face as he regretted the action.

“How much do you know about our methods of working in the School of Environment?” the professor asked, taking a new tack.

“Nothing, of course,” replied Smithy. The statement was not precisely true, but Smithy was not yet ready to confess that he had spies in his friend’s school.

“Well, then,” said Possy, knowing full well that Smithy had been getting reports on his college for many years, and feeling secretly glad that he, in turn, had been spying.

“Well, then,” he repeated, “you should be aware that we know absolutely nothing about the children we enroll. Most of them are infants. We do not know who their parents were, or where they were born. Except for the obvious clues which their bodies furnish, we do not even know their national or racial origins.

“We bring them up with absolutely equal treatment--the finest of everything. At the age of five we divide them arbitrarily into classes and begin training them for occupations. Some we educate as scholars, some laborers, some professional men. In me, dear friend, you see one of the triumphs of our methods. I myself was a foundling--raised and educated in the School of Environment. Whatever I may be, I owe to the School.”

He paused to give Smithy a chance to digest the statement.

“Of course,” Possy continued, “we take into consideration such factors as physical build and muscular development. We don’t train undersized boys to be freight handlers. But in general the division is arbitrary. And you’d be amazed how they respond to it. To keep a check on things, we interview our students twice a year to see how much they have learned.

“We always ask them what they want to be when they grow up. That enables us to determine whether or not the training is really taking hold. Occasionally, it is true, we find a case where the schooling seems to run counter to natural aptitudes--”

Smithy could not resist interrupting. “Natural aptitudes? I am surprised to hear you use such an expression. I thought you furnished your students with aptitudes through environmental conditioning.”

Stiffly, Possy retorted, “Sometime we will have a full, objective discussion of the matter. It is not pertinent at this moment. Of course I believe in natural, or instinctive aptitudes. But I do not believe that they are inherited from parents or even from remote ancestors.”

“Cosmic rays, perhaps,” needled Smithy, and became instantly sorry when his friend’s face began to redden. Possy didn’t believe in cosmic rays, obviously. Smithy apologized.

Possy sighed deeply and made a fresh start. “My friend,” he said, “in your work, as I understand it, you learn everything you can about a student’s past--and about his progenitors. By so doing you hope to be able to predict his future abilities, his likes and dislikes. But what course do you pursue when you find a boy who just doesn’t prove out according to the prognostications?”

Smithy mumbled a few evasive words in reply, but refused to be drawn into giving a positive answer.

“Never mind,” Possy said. “What would you say if you asked a boy what he liked, or what he wanted to do and his answer concerned something that never existed, or had never been dreamed of? Something horrible.”

Smithy’s eyebrows perked up. He made no attempt to conceal the fact that his interest had been aroused.

“What, precisely, do you mean?” he demanded.

“Just this,” Possy said, leaning forward to give emphasis to his words. “We have a boy who is being trained as a space navigator. He is very bright. He is of medium build, as a spaceman must be, and he learns easily and willingly. We are sure now that he will be ready for pre-space school two years before he reaches the minimum age. Yet, whenever this boy is asked what he wants to do, he replies, ‘I want to be a Destructor.’”

Smithy’s lips parted. But for a moment he remained completely silent while his mind stumbled over the strange term.

“Destructor?” he repeated, at last.

“Wait,” said Possy, “and listen carefully. This boy is now ten years old. He first gave me that answer three days ago. He repeated it two days ago, then yesterday and again today. I had never interviewed him before. I never interview a student personally until the tenth year--so I quite naturally had his files double-checked. Smithy, he’s been giving the same answer ever since he was five years old. Two interviews a year for six years--and three extra ones this week! Imagine! Fifteen times this boy has said he wants to be a Destructor--and no one even knows what a Destructor is.”

“Well,” Smithy said with a shrug, convinced that Possy was getting all excited over nothing, “I admit it seems strange--and highly single-minded for so young a boy. But don’t you imagine it’s some word he just made up?”

“I admitted that as a possibility until this morning. But look here.”

Possy reached behind his chair and took up a small leather bag. Slowly he unzipped it and delved inside. Then, with a grim flourish, he brought forth the body of a cat.

As Smithy’s eyes widened, Possy said dramatically: “Smithy, that boy killed this cat with a glance.”

“With a--a what?”

“A glance! You heard me correctly. He just looked at the cat, and the beast dropped dead. And he did it to other things, too--a sparrow, a baby fox. Why, he even did it to a rat that had been cornered by this very cat.

“I tell you, I had never been so shaken by anything in all my life. I said to myself, ‘Possy, have you got yourself a mutant?’ ‘No,’ I replied. ‘He’s completely normal in every respect, physically and otherwise. He’s a bit brighter than average, perhaps--ninety-eight six in his studies, including elementary astrophysics. He speaks brilliantly, composes poetry, even invents little gadgets. He’s a genius, maybe, but not a mutant.’ Then I asked myself, ‘how do you account for the cat?’”

Possy paused, inferentially transferring the question to his friend.

“I can’t account for the cat,” Smithy said. “Unless we assume its death was a coincidence. But I confess you’ve aroused my curiosity. Could I see and talk to this boy who wants to be a--” he grimaced--”a Destructor?”

“I’m glad you asked.” Possy sighed with relief. “Actually he is outside now, waiting to join us. But I must warn you that you’ll find him quite precocious. However, he’s extremely amenable.”

Possy went quickly to the door, opened it and called, “Herbux, come in.”

The boy entered. He was, Smithy observed, a quite ordinary-looking boy. He was so obviously ten years old that you couldn’t say he was either old or young, large or small, fat or thin or anything else, “for his age.” He was just ten years old and a boy.

“Herbux,” said Possy, “I want you to meet a friend of mine--the famous Dr. Smithlawn.”

“How do you do, sir,” Herbux said politely.

“How do you do,” returned Smithy. He had already decided not to be patronizing, but to take a bold, frank, comradely course with the lad.

“Herbux,” he said, “Professor von Possenfeller has been telling me the story of your life. Now you tell me, Herbux. Not what you want to be when you grow up, but why.”

“I don’t know why, sir,” Herbux replied easily. “I only know that I want to be a Destructor.”

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