Sense From Thought Divide

by Mark Clifton

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: What is a "phony"? Someone who believes he can do X, when he can't, however sincerely he believes it? Or someone who can do X, believes he can't, and believes he is pretending he can?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“Remembrance and reflection, how allied;
What thin partitions sense from thought divide.”

When I opened the door to my secretary’s office, I could see her looking up from her desk at the Swami’s face with an expression of fascinated skepticism. The Swami’s back was toward me, and on it hung flowing folds of a black cloak. His turban was white, except where it had rubbed against the back of his neck.

“A tall, dark, and handsome man will soon come into your life,” he was intoning in that sepulchral voice men habitually use in their dealings with the absolute.

Sara’s green eyes focused beyond him, on me, and began to twinkle.

“And there he is right now,” she commented dryly. “Mr. Kennedy, Personnel Director for Computer Research.”

The Swami whirled around, his heavy robe following the movement in a practiced swirl. His liquid black eyes looked me over shrewdly, and he bowed toward me as he vaguely touched his chest, lips and forehead. I expected him to murmur, “Effendi,” or “Bwana Sahib,” or something, but he must have felt silence was more impressive.

I acknowledged his greeting by pulling down one corner of my mouth. Then I looked at his companion.

The young lieutenant was standing very straight, very stiff, and a flush of pink was starting up from his collar and spreading around his clenched jaws to leave a semicircle of white in front of his red ears.

“Who are you?” I asked the lieutenant.

“Lieutenant Murphy,” he answered shortly, and managed to open his teeth a bare quarter of an inch for the words to come out. “Pentagon!” His light gray eyes pierced me to see if I were impressed.

I wasn’t.

“Division of Matériel and Supply,” he continued in staccato, as if he were imitating a machine gun.

I waited. It was obvious he wasn’t through yet. He hesitated, and I could see his Adam’s apple travel up above the knot of his tie and back down again as he swallowed. The pink flush deepened suddenly into brilliant red and spread all over his face.

“Poltergeist Section,” he said defiantly.

What?“ The exclamation was out before I could catch it.

He tried to glare at me, but his eyes were pleading instead.

“General Sanfordwaithe said you’d understand.” He intended to make it matter of fact in a sturdy, confident voice, but there was the undertone of a wail. It was time I lent a hand before his forces were routed and left him shattered in hopeless defeat.

“You’re West Point, aren’t you?” I asked kindly.

It seemed to remind him of the old shoulder-to-shoulder tradition. He straightened still more. I hadn’t believed it possible.

“Yes, sir!” He wanted to keep the gratitude out of his voice, but it was there. It did not escape my attention that, for the first time, he had spoken the habitual term of respect to me.

“Well, what do you have here, Lieutenant Murphy?” I nodded toward the Swami who had been wavering between a proud, free stance and that of a drooping supplicant. The lieutenant, whose quality had been recognized, even by a civilian, was restored unto himself. He was again ready to do or die.

“According to my orders, sir,” he said formally, “you have requested the Pentagon furnish you with one half dozen, six, male-type poltergeists. I am delivering the first of them to you, sir.”

Sara’s mouth, hanging wide open, reminded me to close my own.

So the Pentagon was calling me on my bluff. Well, maybe they did have something at that. I’d see.

“Float me over that ash tray there on the desk,” I said casually to the Swami.

He looked at me as if I’d insulted him, and I could anticipate some reply to the effect that he was not applying for domestic service. But the humble supplicant rather than the proud and fierce hill man won. He started to pick up the ash tray from Sara’s desk with his hand.

“No, no!” I exclaimed. “I didn’t ask you to hand it to me. I want you to TK it over to me. What’s the matter? Can’t you even TK a simple ash tray?”

The lieutenant’s eyes were getting bigger and bigger.

“Didn’t your Poltergeist Section test this guy’s aptitudes for telekinesis before you brought him from Washington all the way out here to Los Angeles?” I snapped at him.

The lieutenant’s lips thinned to a bloodless line. Apparently I, a civilian, was criticizing the judgment of the Army.

“I am certain he must have qualified adequately,” he said stiffly, and this time left off the “sir.”

“Well, I don’t know,” I answered doubtfully. “If he hasn’t even enough telekinetic ability to float me an ash tray across the room--”

The Swami recovered himself first. He put the tips of his long fingers together in the shape of a sway-backed steeple, and rolled his eyes upward.

“I am an instrument of infinite wisdom,” he intoned. “Not a parlor magician.”

“You mean that with all your infinite wisdom you can’t do it,” I accused flatly.

“The vibrations are not favorable--” he rolled the words sonorously.

“All right,” I agreed. “We’ll go somewhere else, where they’re better!”

“The vibrations throughout all this crass, materialistic Western world--” he intoned.

“All right,” I interrupted, “we’ll go to India, then. Sara, call up and book tickets to Calcutta on the first possible plane!” Sara’s mouth had been gradually closing, but it unhinged again.

“Perhaps not even India,” the Swami murmured, hastily. “Perhaps Tibet.”

“Now you know we can’t get admission into Tibet while the Communists control it,” I argued seriously. “But how about Nepal? That’s a fair compromise. The Maharajadhiraja’s friendly now. I’ll settle for Nepal.”

The Swami couldn’t keep the triumphant glitter out of his eyes. The sudden worry that I really would take him to India to see if he could TK an ash tray subsided. He had me.

“I’m afraid it would have to be Tibet,” he said positively. “Nowhere else in all this troubled world are the vibrations--”

“Oh go on back to Flatbush!” I interrupted disgustedly. “You know as well as I that you’ve never been outside New York before in your life. Your accent’s as phony as the pear-shaped tones of a Midwestern garden club president. Can’t even TK a simple ash tray!”

I turned to the amazed lieutenant.

“Will you come into my office?” I asked him.

He looked over at the Swami, in doubt.

“He can wait out here,” I said. “He won’t run away. There isn’t any subway, and he wouldn’t know what to do. Anyway, if he did get lost, your Army Intelligence could find him. Give G-2 something to work on. Right through this door, lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir,” he said meekly, and preceded me into my office.

I closed the door behind us and waved him over to the crying chair. He folded at the knees and hips, as if he were hinged only there, as if there were no hinges at all in the ramrod of his back. He sat up straight, on the edge of his chair, ready to spring into instant charge of battle. I went around back to my desk and sat down.

“Now, lieutenant,” I said soothingly, “tell me all about it.”

I could have sworn his square chin quivered at the note of sympathy in my voice. I wondered, irrelevantly, if the lads at West Point all slept with their faces confined in wooden frames to get that characteristically rectangular look.

“You knew I was from West Point,” he said, and his voice held a note of awe. “And you knew, right away, that Swami was a phony from Flatbush.”

“Come now,” I said with a shrug. “Nothing to get mystical about. Patterns. Just patterns. Every environment leaves the stamp of its matrix on the individual shaped in it. It’s a personnel man’s trade to recognize the make of a person, just as you would recognize the make of a rifle.”

“Yes, sir. I see, sir,” he answered. But of course he didn’t. And there wasn’t much use to make him try. Most people cling too desperately to the ego-saving formula: Man cannot know man.

“Look, lieutenant,” I said, with an idea that we’d better get down to business. “Have you been checked out on what this is all about?”

“Well, sir,” he answered, as if he were answering a question in class, “I was cleared for top security, and told that a few months ago you and your Dr. Auerbach, here at Computer Research, discovered a way to create antigravity. I was told you claimed you had to have a poltergeist in the process. You told General Sanfordwaithe that you needed six of them, males. That’s about all, sir. So the Poltergeist Division discovered the Swami, and I was assigned to bring him out here to you.”

“Well then, Lieutenant Murphy, you go back to the Pentagon and tell General Sanfordwaithe that--” I could see by the look on his face that my message would probably not get through verbatim. “Never mind, I’ll write it,” I amended disgustedly. “And you can carry the message.” Lesser echelons do not relish the task of repeating uncomplimentary words verbatim to a superior. Not usually.

I punched Sara’s button on my intercom.

“After all the exposure out there to the Swami,” I said, “if you’re still with us on this crass, materialistic plane, will you bring your book?”

“My astral self has been hovering over you, guarding you, every minute,” Sara answered dreamily.

“Can it take shorthand?” I asked dryly.

“Maybe I’d better come in,” she replied.

When she came through the door the lieutenant gave her one appreciative glance, then returned to his aloof pedestal of indifference. Obviously his pattern was to stand in majestic splendor and allow the girls to fawn somewhere down near his shoes. These lads with a glamour boy complex almost always gravitate toward some occupation which will require them to wear a uniform. Sara catalogued him as quickly as I did, and seemed unimpressed. But you never can tell about a woman; the smartest of them will fall for the most transparent poses.

“General Sanfordwaithe, dear sir,” I began as she sat down at one corner of my desk and flipped open her book. “It takes more than a towel wrapped around the head and some mutterings about infinity to get poltergeist effects. So I am returning your phony Swami to you with my compliments--”

“Beg your pardon, sir,” the lieutenant interrupted, and there was a certain note of suppressed triumph in his voice. “In case you rejected our applicant for the poltergeist job you have in mind, I was to hand you this.” He undid a lovingly polished button of his tunic, slipped his hand beneath the cloth and pulled forth a long, sealed envelope.

I took it from him and noted the three sealing-wax imprints on the flap. From being carried so close to his heart for so long, the envelope was slightly less crisp than when he had received it. I slipped my letter opener in under the side flap, and gently extracted the letter without, in anyway, disturbing the wax seals which were to have guaranteed its privacy. There wasn’t any point in my doing it, of course, except to demonstrate to the lieutenant that I considered the whole deal as a silly piece of cloak and dagger stuff.

After the general formalities, the letter was brief: “Dear Mr. Kennedy: We already know the Swami is a phony, but our people have been convinced that in spite of this there are some unaccountable effects. We have advised your general manager, Mr. Henry Grenoble, that we are in the act of carrying out our part of the agreement, namely, to provide you with six male-type poltergeists, and to both you and him we are respectfully suggesting that you get on with the business of putting the antigravity units into immediate production.”

I folded the letter and tucked it into one side of my desk pad. I looked at Sara.

“Never mind the letter to General Sanfordwaithe,” I said. “He has successfully cut off my retreat in that direction.” I looked over at the lieutenant. “All right,” I said resignedly, “I’ll apologize to the Swami, and make a try at using him.”

I picked up the letter again and pretended to be reading it. But this was just a stall, because I had suddenly been struck by the thought that my extreme haste in scoring off the Swami and trying to get rid of him was because I didn’t want to get involved again with poltergeists. Not any, of any nature.

The best way on earth to avoid having to explain psi effects and come to terms with them is simply to deny them, convince oneself that they don’t exist. I sighed deeply. It looked as if I would be denied that little human privilege of closing my eyes to the obvious.

Old Stone Face, our general manager, claimed to follow the philosophy of building men, not machines. To an extent he did. His favorite phrase was, “Don’t ask me how. I hired you to tell me.” He hired a man to do a job, and I will say for him, he left that man alone as long as the job got done. But when a man flubbed a job, and kept on flubbing it, then Mr. Henry Grenoble stepped in and carried out his own job--general managing.

He had given me the assignment of putting antigrav units into production. He had given me access to all the money I would need for the purpose. He had given me sufficient time, months of it. And, in spite of all this coöperation, he still saw no production lines which spewed out antigrav units at some such rate as seventeen and five twelfths per second.

Apparently he got his communication from the Pentagon about the time I got mine. Apparently it contained some implication that Computer Research, under his management, was not pursuing the cause of manufacturing antigrav units with diligence and dispatch. Apparently he did not like this.

I had no more than apologized to the Swami, and received his martyred forgiveness, and arranged for a hotel suite for him and the lieutenant, when Old Stone Face sent for me. He began to manage with diligence and dispatch.

“Now you look here, Kennedy,” he said forcefully, and his use of my last name, rather than my first, was a warning, “I’ve given you every chance. When you and Auerbach came up with that antigrav unit last fall, I didn’t ask a lot of fool questions. I figured you knew what you were doing. But the whole winter has passed, and here it is spring, and you haven’t done anything that I can see. I didn’t say anything when you told General Sanfordwaithe that you’d have to have poltergeists to carry on the work, but I looked it up. First I thought you’d flipped your lid, then I thought you were sending us all on a wild goose chase so we’d leave you alone, then I didn’t know what to think.”

I nodded. He wasn’t through.

“Now I think you’re just pretending the whole thing doesn’t exist because you don’t want to fool with it.”

Perhaps he had come to the right decision after all. I’d resolutely washed the whole thing out of my mind. But I wasn’t going to get away with it. I could see it coming.

“For the first time, Kennedy, I’m asking you what happened?” he said firmly, but his tone was more telling than asking. So I was going to have to discuss frameworks with Old Stone Face, after all.

“Henry,” I asked slowly, “have you kept up your reading in theoretical physics?”

He blinked at me. I couldn’t tell whether it meant yes or no.

“When we went to school, you and I--” I hoped my putting us both in the same age group would tend to mollify him a little, “physics was all snug, secure, safe, definite. A fact was a fact, and that’s all there was to it. But there’s been some changes made. There’s the coördinate systems of Einstein, where the relationships of facts can change from framework to framework. There’s the application of multivalued logic to physics where a fact becomes not a fact any longer. The astronomers talk about the expanding universe--it’s a piker compared to man’s expanding concepts about that universe.”

He waited for more. His face seemed to indicate that I was beating around the bush.

“That all has a bearing on what happened,” I assured him. “You have to understand what was behind the facts before you can understand the facts themselves. First, we weren’t trying to make an antigrav unit at all. Dr. Auerbach was playing around with a chemical approach to cybernetics. He made up some goop which he thought would store memory impulses, the way the brain stores them. He brought a plastic cylinder of it over to me, so I could discuss it with you. I laid it on my desk while I went on with my personnel management business at hand.”

Old Stone Face opened a humidor and took out a cigar. He lit it slowly and deliberately and looked at me sharply as he blew out the first puff of smoke.

“The nursery over in the plant had been having trouble with a little girl, daughter of one of our production women. She’d been throwing things, setting things on fire. The teachers didn’t know how she did it, she just did it. They sent her to me. I asked her about it. She threw a tantrum, and when it was all over, Auerbach’s plastic cylinder of goop was trying to fall upward, through the ceiling. That’s what happened,” I said.

He looked at his cigar, and looked at me. He waited for me to tie the facts to the theory. I hesitated, and then tried to reassure myself. After all, we were in the business of manufacturing computers. The general manager ought to be able to understand something beyond primary arithmetic.

“Jennie Malasek was a peculiar child with a peculiar background,” I went on. “Her mother was from the old country, one of the Slav races. There’s the inheritance of a lot of peculiar notions. Maybe she had passed them on to her daughter. She kept Jennie locked up in their room. The kid never got out with other children. Children, kept alone, never seeing anybody, get peculiar notions all by themselves. Who, knows what kind of a coördinate system she built up, or how it worked? Her mother would come home at night and go about her tasks talking aloud, half to the daughter, half to herself. ‘I really burned that foreman up, today,’ she’d say. Or, ‘Oh, boy, was he fired in a hurry!’ Or, ‘She got herself thrown out of the place,’ things like that.”

“So what does that mean, Ralph?” he asked. His switch to my first name indicated he was trying to work with me instead of pushing me.

“To a child who never knew anything else,” I answered, “one who had never learned to distinguish reality from unreality--as we would define it from our agreed framework--a special coördinate system might be built up where ‘Everybody was up in the air at work, today,’ might be taken literally. Under the old systems of physics that couldn’t happen, of course--it says in the textbooks--but since it has been happening all through history, in thousands of instances, in the new systems of multivalued physics we recognize it. Under the old system, we already had all the major answers, we thought. Now that we’ve got our smug certainties knocked out of us, we’re just fumbling along, trying to get some of the answers we thought we had.

“We couldn’t make that cylinder activate others. We tried. We’re still trying. In ordinary cybernetics you can have one machine punch a tape and it can be fed into another machine, but that means you first have to know how to code and decode a tape mechanically. We don’t know how to code or decode a psi effect. We know the Auerbach cylinder will store a psi impulse, but we don’t know how. So we have to keep working with psi gifted people, at least until we’ve established some of the basic laws governing psi.”

I couldn’t tell by Henry’s face whether I was with him or away from him. He told me he wanted to think about it, and made a little motion with his hand that I should leave the room.

I walked through the suite of executive offices and down a sound rebuffing hallway. The throbbing clatter of manufacture of metallic parts made a welcome sound as I went through the far doorway into the factory. I saw a blueprint spread on a foreman’s desk as I walked past. Good old blueprint. So many millimeters from here to there, made of such and such an alloy, a hole punched here with an allowance of five-ten-thousandths plus or minus tolerance. Snug, secure, safe. I wondered if psi could ever be blue-printed. Or suppose you put a hole here, but when you looked away and then looked back it had moved, or wasn’t there at all?


Quickly, I got myself into a conversation with a supervisor about the rising rate of employee turnover in his department. That was something also snug, secure, safe. All you had to do was figure out human beings.

I spent the rest of the morning on such pursuits, working with things I understood.

On his first rounds of the afternoon, the interoffice messenger brought me a memorandum from the general manager’s office. I opened it with some misgivings. I was not particularly reassured.

Mr. Grenoble felt he should work with me more closely on the antigrav project. He understood, from his researches, that the most positive psi effects were experienced during a seance with a medium. Would I kindly arrange for the Swami to hold a seance that evening, after office hours, so that he might analyze the man’s methods and procedures to see how they could fit smoothly into Company Operation. This was not to be construed as interference in the workings of my department but in the interests of pursuing the entire matter with diligence and dispatch--

The seance was to be held in my office.

I had had many peculiar conferences in this room--from union leaders stripping off their coats, throwing them on the floor and stomping on them; to uplifters who wanted to ban cosmetics on our women employees so the male employees would not be tempted to think Questionable Thoughts. I could not recall ever having held a seance before.

My desk had been moved out of the way, over into one corner of the large room. A round table was brought over from the salesmen’s report writing room (used there more for surreptitious poker playing than for writing reports) and placed in the middle of my office--on the grounds that it had no sharp corners to gouge people in their middles if it got to cavorting about recklessly. In an industrial plant one always has to consider the matter of safety rules and accident insurance rates.

In the middle of the table there rested, with dark fluid gleaming through clear plastic cases, six fresh cylinders which Auerbach had prepared in his laboratory over in the plant.

Auerbach had shown considerable unwillingness to attend the seance; he pleaded being extra busy with experiments just now, but I gave him that look which told him I knew he had just been stalling around the last few months, the same as I had.

If the psi effect had never come out in the first place, there wouldn’t have been any mental conflict. He could have gone on with his processes of refining, simplifying and increasing the efficiency ratings of his goop. But this unexpected side effect, the cylinders learning and demonstrating something he considered basically untrue, had tied his hands with a hopeless sort of frustration. He would have settled gladly for a chemical compound which could have added two and two upon request; but when that compound can learn and demonstrate that there’s no such thing as gravity, teaching it simple arithmetic is like ashes in the mouth.

I said as much to him. I stood there in his laboratory, leaned up against a work bench, and risked burning an acid hole in the sleeve of my jacket just to put over an air of unconcern. He was perched on the edge of an opposite work bench, swinging his feet, and hiding the expression in his eyes behind the window’s reflection upon his polished glasses. I said even more.

“You know,” I said reflectively, “I’m completely unable to understand the attitude of supposedly unbiased men of science. Now you take all that mass of data about psi effects, the odd and unexplainable happenings, the premonitions, the specific predictions, the accurate descriptions of far away simultaneously happening events. You take that whole mountainous mass of data, evidence, phenomena--”

A slight turn of his head gave me a glimpse of his eyes behind the glasses. He looked as if he wished I’d change the subject. In his dry, undemonstrative way, I think he liked me. Or at least he liked me when I wasn’t trying to make him think about things outside his safe and secure little framework. But I didn’t give in. If men of science are not going to take up the evidence and work it over, then where are we? And are they men of science?

“Before Rhine came along, and brought all this down to the level of laboratory experimentation,” I pursued, “how were those things to be explained? Say a fellow had some unusual powers, things that happened around him, things he knew without any explanation for knowing them. I’ll tell you. There were two courses open to him. He could express it in the semantics of spiritism, or he could admit to witchcraft and sorcery. Take your pick; those were the only two systems of semantics which had been built up through the ages.

“We’ve got a third one now--parapsychology. If I had asked you to attend an experiment in parapsychology, you’d have agreed at once. But when I ask you to attend a seance, you balk! Man, what difference does it make what we call it? Isn’t it up to us to investigate the evidence wherever we find it? No matter what kind of semantic debris it’s hiding in?”

Auerbach shoved himself down off the bench, and pulled out a beat-up package of cigarettes.

“All right, Kennedy,” he had said resignedly, “I’ll attend your seance.”

The other invited guests were Sara, Lieutenant Murphy, Old Stone Face, myself, and, of course, the Swami. This was probably not typical of the Swami’s usual audience composition.

Six chairs were placed at even intervals around the table. I had found soft white lights overhead to be most suitable for my occasional night work, but the Swami insisted that a blue light, a dim one, was most suitable for his night work.

I made no objection to that condition. One of the elementary basics of science is that laboratory conditions may be varied to meet the necessities of the experiment. If a red-lighted darkness is necessary to an operator’s successful development of photographic film, then I could hardly object to a blue-lighted darkness for the development of the Swami’s effects.

Neither could I object to the Swami’s insistence that he sit with his back to the true North. When he came into the room, accompanied by Lieutenant Murphy, his thoughts seemed turned in upon himself, or wafted somewhere out of this world. He stopped in mid-stride, struck an attitude of listening, or feeling, perhaps, and slowly shifted his body back and forth.

“Ah,” he said at last, in a tone of satisfaction, “there is the North!”

It was, but this was not particularly remarkable. There is no confusing maze of hallways leading to the Personnel Department from the outside. Applicants would be unable to find us if there were. If he had got his bearings out on the street, he could have managed to keep them.

He picked up the nearest chair with his own hands and shifted it so that it would be in tune with the magnetic lines of Earth. I couldn’t object. The Chinese had insisted upon such placement of household articles, particularly their beds, long before the Earth’s magnetism had been discovered by science. The birds had had their direction-finders attuned to it, long before there was man.

Instead of objecting, the lieutenant and I meekly picked up the table and shifted it to the new position. Sara and Auerbach came in as we were setting the table down. Auerbach gave one quick look at the Swami in his black cloak and nearly white turban, and then looked away.

“Remember semantics,” I murmured to him, as I pulled out Sara’s chair for her. I seated her to the left of the Swami. I seated Auerbach to the right of him. If the lieutenant was, by chance, in cahoots with the Swami, I would foil them to the extent of not letting them sit side by side at least. I sat down at the opposite side of the table from the Swami. The lieutenant sat down between me and Sara.

The general manager came through the door at that instant, and took charge immediately.

“All right now,” Old Stone Face said crisply, in his low, rumbling voice, “no fiddle-faddling around. Let’s get down to business.”

The Swami closed his eyes.

“Please be seated,” he intoned to Old Stone Face. “And now, let us all join hands in an unbroken circle.”

Henry shot him a beetle-browed look as he sat down between Auerbach and me, but at least he was coöperative to the extent that he placed both his hands on top of the table. If Auerbach and I reached for them, we would be permitted to grasp them.

I leaned back and snapped off the overhead light to darken the room in an eerie, blue glow.

We sat there, holding hands, for a full ten minutes. Nothing happened.

It was not difficult to estimate the pattern of Henry’s mind. Six persons, ten minutes, equals one man-hour. One man-hour of idle time to be charged into the cost figure of the antigrav unit. He was staring fixedly at the cylinders which lay in random positions in the center of the table, as if to assess their progress at this processing point. He apparently began to grow dissatisfied with the efficiency rating of the manufacturing process at this point. He stirred restlessly in his chair.

The Swami seemed to sense the impatience, or it might have been coincidence.

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