Star, Bright

by Mark Clifton

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: There is no past or future, the children said; it all just IS! They had every reason to know!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Friday--June 11th

At three years of age, a little girl shouldn’t have enough functioning intelligence to cut out and paste together a Moebius Strip.

Or, if she did it by accident, she surely shouldn’t have enough reasoning ability to pick up one of her crayons and carefully trace the continuous line to prove it has only one surface.

And if by some strange coincidence she did, and it was still just an accident, how can I account for this generally active daughter of mine--and I do mean active--sitting for a solid half hour with her chin cupped in her hand, staring off into space, thinking with such concentration that it was almost painful to watch?

I was in my reading chair, going over some work. Star was sitting on the floor, in the circle of my light, with her blunt-nosed scissors and her scraps of paper.

Her long silence made me glance down at her as she was taping the two ends of the paper together. At that point I thought it was an accident that she had given a half twist to the paper strip before joining the circle. I smiled to myself as she picked it up in her chubby fingers.

“A little child forms the enigma of the ages,” I mused.

But instead of throwing the strip aside, or tearing it apart as any other child would do, she carefully turned it over and around--studying it from all sides.

Then she picked up one of her crayons and began tracing the line. She did it as though she were substantiating a conclusion already reached!

It was a bitter confirmation for me. I had been refusing to face it for a long time, but I could ignore it no longer.

Star was a High I.Q.

For half an hour I watched her while she sat on the floor, one knee bent under her, her chin in her hand, unmoving. Her eyes were wide with wonderment, looking into the potentialities of the phenomenon she had found.

It has been a tough struggle, taking care of her since my wife’s death. Now this added problem. If only she could have been normally dull, like other children!

I made up my mind while I watched her. If a child is afflicted, then let’s face it, she’s afflicted. A parent must teach her to compensate. At least she could be prepared for the bitterness I’d known. She could learn early to take it in stride.

I could use the measurements available, get the degree of intelligence, and in that way grasp the extent of my problem. A twenty point jump in I.Q. creates an entirely different set of problems. The 140 child lives in a world nothing at all like that of the 100 child, and a world which the 120 child can but vaguely sense. The problems which vex and challenge the 160 pass over the 140 as a bird flies over a field mouse. I must not make the mistake of posing the problems of one if she is the other. I must know. In the meantime, I must treat it casually.

“That’s called the Moebius Strip, Star,” I interrupted her thoughts.

She came out of her reverie with a start. I didn’t like the quick way her eyes sought mine--almost furtively, as though she had been caught doing something bad.

“Somebody already make it?” she disappointedly asked.

She knew what she had discovered! Something inside me spilled over with grief, and something else caught at me with dread.

I kept my voice casual. “A man by the name of Moebius. A long time ago. I’ll tell you about him sometime when you’re older.”

“Now. While I’m little,” she commanded with a frown. “And don’t tell. Read me.”

What did she mean by that? Oh, she must be simply paraphrasing me at those times in the past when I’ve wanted the facts and not garbled generalizations. It could only be that!

“Okay, young lady.” I lifted an eyebrow and glared at her in mock ferociousness, which usually sent her into gales of laughter. “I’ll slow you down!”

She remained completely sober.

I turned to the subject in a physics book. It’s not in simple language, by any means, and I read it as rapidly as I could speak. My thought was to make her admit she didn’t understand it, so I could translate it into basic language.

Her reaction?

“You read too slow. Daddy,” she complained. She was childishly irritable about it. “You say a word. Then I think a long time. Then you say another word.”

I knew what she meant. I remember, when I was a child, my thoughts used to dart in and out among the slowly droning words of any adult. Whole patterns of universes would appear and disappear in those brief moments.

“So?” I asked.

“So,” she mocked me impishly. “You teach me to read. Then I can think quick as I want.”

“Quickly,” I corrected in a weak voice. “The word is ‘quickly,’ an adverb.”

She looked at me impatiently, as if she saw through this allegedly adult device to show up a younger’s ignorance. I felt like the dope!

September 1st

A great deal has happened the past few months. I have tried, a number of times to bring the conversation around to discuss Star’s affliction with her. But she is amazingly adroit at heading me off, as though she already knows what I am trying to say and isn’t concerned. Perhaps, in spite of her brilliance, she’s too young to realize the hostility of the world toward intelligence.

Some of the visiting neighbors have been amused to see her sit on the floor with an encyclopedia as big as she is, rapidly turning the pages. Only Star and I know she is reading the pages as rapidly as she can turn them. I’ve brushed away the neighbors’ comments with: “She likes to look at the pictures.”

They talk to her in baby talk--and she answers in baby talk! How does she know enough to do that?

I have spent the months making an exhaustive record of her I.Q. measurements, aptitude speeds, reaction, tables, all the recommended paraphernalia for measuring something we know nothing about.

The tables are screwy, or Star is beyond all measurement.

All right, Pete Holmes, how are you going to pose those problems and combat them for her, when you have no conception of what they might be? But I must have a conception. I’ve got to be able to comprehend at least a little of what she may face. I simply couldn’t stand by and do nothing.

Easy, though. Nobody knows better than you the futility of trying to compete out of your class. How many students, workers and employers have tried to compete with you? You’ve watched them and pitied them, comparing them to a donkey trying to run the Kentucky Derby.

How does it feel to be in the place of the donkey, for a change? You’ve always blamed them for not realizing they shouldn’t try to compete.

But this is my own daughter! I must understand.

October 1st

Star is now four years old, and according to State Law her mind has now developed enough so that she may attend nursery school. Again I tried to prepare her for what she might face. She listened through about two sentences and changed the subject. I can’t tell about Star. Does she already know the answers? Or does she not even realize there is a problem?

I was in a sweat of worry when I took her to her first day at school yesterday morning. Last night I was sitting in my chair, reading. After she had put her dolls away, she went to the bookshelves and brought down a book of fairy tales.

That is another peculiarity of hers. She has an unmeasurably quick perception, yet she has all the normal reactions of a little girl. She likes her dolls, fairy stories, playing grown up. No, she’s not a monster.

She brought the book of fairy tales over to me.

“Daddy, read me a story,” she asked quite seriously.

I looked at her in amazement. “Since when? Go read your own story.”

She lifted an eyebrow in imitation of my own characteristic gesture.

“Children of my age do not read,” she instructed pedantically. “I can’t learn to read until I am in the first grade. It is very hard to do and I am much too little.”

She had found the answer to her affliction--conformity! She had already learned to conceal her intelligence. So many of us break our hearts before we learn that.

But you don’t have to conceal it from me, Star! Not from me!

Oh, well, I could go along with the gag, if that was what she wanted.

“Did you like nursery school?” I asked the standard question.

“Oh, yes,” she exclaimed enthusiastically. “It was fun.”

“And what did you learn today, little girl?”

She played it straight back to me. “Not much. I tried to cut out paper dolls, but the scissors kept slipping.” Was there an elfin deviltry back of her sober expression?

“Now, look,” I cautioned, “don’t overdo it. That’s as bad as being too quick. The idea is that everybody has to be just about standard average. That’s the only thing we will tolerate. It is expected that a little girl of four should know how to cut out paper dolls properly.”

“Oh?” she questioned, and looked thoughtful. “I guess that’s the hard part, isn’t it, Daddy--to know how much you ought to know?”

“Yes, that’s the hard part,” I agreed fervently.

“But it’s all right,” she reassured me. “One of the Stupids showed me how to cut them out, so now that little girl likes me. She just took charge of me then and told the other kids they should like me, too. So of course they did because she’s leader. I think I did right, after all.”

“Oh, no!” I breathed to myself. She knew how to manipulate other people already. Then my thought whirled around another concept. It was the first time she had verbally classified normal people as “Stupids,” but it had slipped out so easily that I knew she’d been thinking to herself for a long time. Then my whirling thoughts hit a third implication.

“Yes, maybe it was the right thing,” I conceded. “Where the little girl was concerned, that is. But don’t forget you were being observed by a grownup teacher in the room. And she’s smarter.”

“You mean she’s older, Daddy,” Star corrected me.

“Smarter, too, maybe. You can’t tell.”

“I can,” she sighed. “She’s just older.”

I think it was growing fear which made me defensive.

“That’s good,” I said emphatically. “That’s very good. You can learn a lot from her then. It takes an awful lot of study to learn how to be stupid.”

My own troublesome business life came to mind and I thought to myself, “I sometimes think I’ll never learn it.”

I swear I didn’t say it aloud. But Star patted me consolingly and answered as though I’d spoken.

“That’s because you’re only fairly bright, Daddy. You’re a Tween, and that’s harder than being really bright.”

“A Tween? What’s a Tween?” I was bumbling to hide my confusion.

“That’s what I mean, Daddy,” she answered in exasperation. “You don’t grasp quickly. An In Between, of course. The other people are Stupids, I’m a Bright, and you’re a Tween. I made those names up when I was little.”

Good God! Besides being unmeasurably bright, she’s a telepath!

All right, Pete, there you are. On reasoning processes you might stand a chance--but not telepathy!

“Star,” I said on impulse, “can you read people’s minds?”

“Of course, Daddy,” she answered, as if I’d asked a foolishly obvious question.

“Can you teach me?”

She looked at me impishly. “You’re already learning it a little. But you’re so slow! You see, you didn’t even know you were learning.”

Her voice took on a wistful note, a tone of loneliness.

“I wish--” she said, and paused.

“What do you wish?”

“You see what I mean, Daddy? You try, but you’re so slow.”

All the same, I knew. I knew she was already longing for a companion whose mind could match her own.

A father is prepared to lose his daughter eventually, Star, but not so soon.

Not so soon...

June again

Some new people have moved in next door. Star says their name is Howell. Bill and Ruth Howell. They have a son, Robert, who looks maybe a year older than Star, who will soon be five.

Star seems to have taken up with Robert right away. He is a well-mannered boy and good company for Star.

I’m worried, though. Star had something to do with their moving in next door. I’m convinced of that. I’m also convinced, even from the little I’ve seen of him, that Robert is a Bright and a telepath.

Could it be that, failing to find quick accord with my mind, Star has reached out and out until she made contact with a telepath companion?

No, that’s too fantastic. Even if it were so, how could she shape circumstances so she could bring Robert to live next door to her? The Howells came from another city. It just happened that the people who lived next door moved out and the house was put up for sale.

Just happened? How frequently do we find such abnormal Brights? What are the chances of one just happening to move in next door to another?

I know he is a telepath because, as I write this, I sense him reading it.

I even catch his thought: “Oh, pardon me, Mr. Holmes. I didn’t intend to peek. Really I didn’t.”

Did I imagine that? Or is Star building a skill in my mind?

“It isn’t nice to look into another person’s mind unless you’re asked, Robert,” I thought back, rather severely. It was purely an experiment.

“I know it, Mr. Holmes. I apologize.” He is in his bed in his house, across the driveway.

“No, Daddy, he really didn’t mean to.” And Star is in her bed in this house.

It is impossible to write how I feel. There comes a time when words are empty husks. But mixed with my expectant dread is a thread of gratitude for having been taught to be even stumblingly telepathic.

Saturday--August 11th

I’ve thought of a gag. I haven’t seen Jim Pietre in a month of Sundays, not since he was awarded that research fellowship with the museum. It will be good to pull him out of his hole, and this little piece of advertising junk Star dropped should be just the thing.

Strange about the gadget. The Awful Secret Talisman of the Mystic Junior G-Men, no doubt. Still, it doesn’t have anything about crackles and pops printed on it. Merely an odd-looking coin, not even true round, bronze by the look of it. Crude. They must stamp them out by the million without ever changing a die.

But it is just the thing to send to Jim to get a rise out of him. He could always appreciate a good practical joke. Wonder how he’d feel to know he was only a Tween.

Monday--August 13th

Sitting here at my study desk, I’ve been staring into space for an hour. I don’t know what to think.

It was about noon today when Jim Pietre called the office on the phone.

“Now, look, Pete,” he started out. “What kind of gag are you pulling?”

I chortled to myself and pulled the dead pan on him.

“What do you mean, boy?” I asked back into the phone. “Gag? What kind of gag? What are you talking about?”

“A coin. A coin.” He was impatient. “You remember you sent me a coin in the mail?”

“Oh, yeah, that,” I pretended to remember. “Look, you’re an important research analyst on metals--too damned important to keep in touch with your old friends--so I thought I’d make a bid for your attention thataway.”

“All right, give,” he said in a low voice. “Where did you get it?” He was serious.

“Come off it, Jim. Are you practicing to be a stuffed shirt? I admit it’s a rib. Something Star dropped the other day. A manufacturer’s idea of kid advertising, no doubt.”

“I’m in dead earnest, Peter,” he answered. “It’s no advertising gadget.”

“It means something?”

In college, Jim could take a practical joke and make six out of it.

“I don’t know what it means. Where did Star get it?” He was being pretty crisp about it.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. I was getting a little fed up; the joke wasn’t going according to plan. “Never asked her. You know how kids clutter up the place with their things. No father even tries to keep track of all the junk that can be bought with three box tops and a dime.”

“This was not bought with three box tops and a dime,” he spaced his words evenly. “This was not bought anywhere, for any price. In fact, if you want to be logical about it, this coin doesn’t exist at all.”

I laughed out loud. This was more like the old Jim.

“Okay, so you’ve turned the gag back on me. Let’s call it quits. How about coming over to supper some night soon?”

“I’m coming over, my friend.” He remained grim as he said it. “And I’m coming over tonight. As soon as you will be home. It’s no gag I’m pulling. Can you get that through your stubborn head? You say you got it from Star, and of course I believe you. But it’s no toy. It’s the real thing.” Then, as if in profound puzzlement, “Only it isn’t.”

A feeling of dread was settling upon me. Once you cried “Uncle” to Jim, he always let up.

“Suppose you tell me what you mean,” I answered soberly.

“That’s more like it, Pete. Here’s what we know about the coin so far. It is apparently pre-Egyptian. It’s hand-cast. It’s made out of one of the lost bronzes. We fix it at around four thousand years old.”

“That ought to be easy to solve,” I argued. “Probably some coin collector is screaming all over the place for it. No doubt lost it and Star found it. Must be lots of old coins like that in museums and in private collections.”

I was rationalizing more for my own benefit than for Jim. He would know all those things without my mentioning them. He waited until I had finished.

“Step two,” he went on. “We’ve got one of the top coin men in the world here at the museum. As soon as I saw what the metal was, I took it to him. Now hold onto your chair, Pete. He says there is no coin like it in the world, either museum or private collection.”

“You museum boys get beside yourselves at times. Come down to Earth. Sometime, somewhere, some collector picked it up in some exotic place and kept it quiet. I don’t have to tell you how some collectors are--sitting in a dark room, gloating over some worthless bauble, not telling a soul about it--”

“All right, wise guy,” he interrupted. “Step three. That coin is at least four thousand years old and it’s also brand-new! Let’s hear you explain that away.”

“New?” I asked weakly. “I don’t get it.”

“Old coins show wear. The edges get rounded with handling. The surface oxidizes. The molecular structure changes, crystalizes. This coin shows no wear, no oxidation, no molecular change. This coin might have been struck yesterday. Where did Star get it?

“Hold it a minute,” I pleaded.

I began to think back. Saturday morning. Star and Robert had been playing a game. Come to think of it, that was a peculiar game. Mighty peculiar.

Star would run into the house and stand in front of the encyclopedia shelf. I could hear Robert counting loudly at the base tree outside in the back yard. She would stare at the encyclopedia for a moment.

Once I heard her mumble: “That’s a good place.”

Or maybe she merely thought it and I caught the thought. I’m doing that quite a bit of late.

Then she would run outside again. A moment later, Robert would run in and stand in front of the same shelf. Then he also would run outside again. There would be silence for several minutes. The silence would rupture with a burst of laughing and shouting. Soon, Star would come in again.

“How does he find me?” I heard her think once. “I can’t reason it, and I can’t ESP it out of him.”

It was during one of their silences when Ruth called over to me.

“Hey, Pete! Do you know where the kids are? Time for their milk and cookies.”

The Howells are awfully good to Star, bless ‘em. I got up and went over to the window.

“I don’t know, Ruth,” I called back. “They were in and out only a few minutes ago.”

“Well, I’m not worried,” she said. She came through the kitchen door and stood on the back steps. “They know better than to cross the street by themselves. They’re too little for that. So I guess they’re over at Marily’s. When they come back, tell ‘em to come and get it.”

“Okay, Ruth,” I answered.

She opened the screen door again and went back into her kitchen. I left the window and returned to my work.

A little later, both the kids came running into the house. I managed to capture them long enough to tell them about the cookies and milk.

“Beat you there!” Robert shouted to Star.

There was a scuffle and they ran out the front door. I noticed then that Star had dropped the coin and I picked it up and sent it to Jim Pietre.

“Hello, Jim,” I said into the phone. “Are you still there?”

“Yep, still waiting for an answer,” he said.

“Jim, I think you’d better come over to the house right away. I’ll leave my office now and meet you there. Can you get away?”

“Can I get away?” he exclaimed. “Boss says to trace this coin down and do nothing else. See you in fifteen minutes.”

He hung up. Thoughtfully, I replaced the receiver and went out to my car. I was pulling into my block from one arterial when I saw Jim’s car pulling in from a block away. I stopped at the curb and waited for him. I didn’t see the kids anywhere out front.

Jim climbed out of his car, and I never saw such an eager look of anticipation on a man’s face before. I didn’t realize I was showing my dread, but when he saw my face, he became serious.

“What is it, Pete? What on Earth is it?” he almost whispered.

“I don’t know. At least I’m not sure. Come on inside the house.”

We let ourselves in the front, and I took Jim into the study. It has a large window opening on the back garden, and the scene was very clear.

At first it was an innocent scene--so innocent and peaceful. Just three little children in the back yard playing hide and seek. Marily, a neighbor’s child, was stepping up to the base tree.

“Now look, you kids,” she was saying. “You hide where I can find you or I won’t play.”

“But where can we go, Marily?” Robert was arguing loudly. Like all little boys, he seems to carry on his conversations at the top of his lungs. “There’s the garage, and there’s those trees and bushes. You have to look everywhere, Marily.”

“And there’s going to be other buildings and trees and bushes there afterward,” Star called out with glee. “You gotta look behind them, too.”

“Yeah!” Robert took up the teasing refrain. “And there’s been lots and lots of buildings and trees there before--especially trees. You gotta look behind them, too.”

Marily tossed her head petulantly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t care. Just hide where I can find you, that’s all.”

She hid her face at the tree and started counting. If I had been alone, I would have been sure my eyesight had failed me, or that I was the victim of hallucinations. But Jim was standing there and saw it, too.

Marily started counting, yet the other two didn’t run away. Star reached out and took Robert’s hand and they merely stood there. For an instant, they seemed to shimmer and--_they disappeared without moving a step!_

Marily finished her counting and ran around to the few possible hiding places in the yard. When she couldn’t find them, she started to blubber and pushed through the hedge to Ruth’s back door.

“They runned away from me again,” she whined through the screen at Ruth.

Jim and I stood staring out the window. I glanced at him. His face was set and pale, but probably no worse than my own.

We saw the instant shimmer again. Star, and then immediately Robert, materialized from the air and ran up to the tree, shouting, “Safe! Safe!”

Marily let out a bawl and ran home to her mother.

I called Star and Robert into the house. They came, still holding hands, a little shamefaced, a little defiant.

How to begin? What in hell could I say?

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