The Kenzie Report

by Mark Clifton

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: If this story has a moral, it is: "Leave well enough alone." Just look what happened to Kenzie "mad-about-ants" MacKenzie, who didn't....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

That Kenzie MacKenzie was a mad scientist hardly showed at all. To see him ambling down the street in loose jointed manner, with sandy hair uncombed, blue eyes looking vaguely beyond normal focus, you might think here was a young fellow dreaming over how his gal looked last night. It might never occur to you that he was thinking of--ants.

Of course, we fellows in the experimental lab all knew it, but Kenzie wasn’t too hard to get along with. In fact, he could usually be counted on to pull us out of a technical hole. We put up with him through a certain fondness, maybe even a little pride. It gave us a harmless subject to talk about when security was too rigid on other things.

Our Department Chief knew it, but Kenzie had solved quite a few knotty electronics problems. The Chief never has been too particular to see credit get back to the guy who earned it. We guessed he figured having Kenzie there was profitable to him. In fact, the little redhead in payroll told me the Chief was drawing quite a few bonus checks.

Personnel probably didn’t know about it. Kenzie’s papers, buried deep in the files, wouldn’t show it; because about the only question they had not asked us was, “Where do you stand on the matter of ants?”

There was an unwritten law in the lab for nobody ever to mention insects, or even elderly female relatives. I guess that was why it wasn’t mentioned to the new guy, name of Robert Pringle. This fellow Pringle worked along for a couple weeks and showed us he had the old know-how in his fingers. A capable tech, a good joe, and we thought we were lucky to get him.

On this particular morning, it happened that Pringle was working at the bench next to Kenzie. Being a talented tech, like the rest of us, his mind naturally ran along more than one channel at the same time. I expect he was really surprised at the reaction he got when he shouted out to the room at large.

“Hey, fellows,” he yelled. “I got little green bugs on my roses. What do you do about it?”

The silence made him look up from his work, and he couldn’t help noticing we all stood there with clinched hands and gritted teeth. We were watching Kenzie, who snapped the juice off his soldering iron and pointed the iron at Pringle.

“Those,” said Kenzie in a hollow, impressive voice, “are aphis. If you will look closer, Pringle, you will see among them--ants. The aphid is to the ant as the dairy cow is to the human. Those ants are aphid herders, carefully tending and milking their flock.”

“Here we go again,” moaned one of the fellows across the lab.

“The ants are a highly intelligent life form,” Kenzie went on. “I would explain it to you in detail, but I am in the middle of a problem at this moment.”

“Thank heaven for that,” another tech ground out the words.

“Suffice it to say,” Kenzie ignored all interruptions, “Man would well occupy himself trying to communicate with them.”

The Chief came to the doorway of his little office down at the end of the lab. He looked us all over patiently and knowingly.

“Now give him your syllogism, Kenzie,” he said quietly, “so we can all get back to work.”

“You may reflect on this, Pringle,” Kenzie stated and waved his soldering iron in the air.

“One: Man wants to communicate with intelligent life from other planets or the stars.

“Two: We know from observation the ants communicate with one another.

“Ergo: Before we reach so far as to contact extra terrestrial intelligence, had we not better occupy our time with solving a much simpler communications problem; to wit: communicate with the ants? How can we expect to solve communication with really alien beings from the stars, when we have not learned to communicate with the intelligent beings at our very feet?”

All over the room we sighed heavily with relief. We knew the syllogism was the conclusion, the Sunday punch. The boy had really cut it short this time. Usually he was good for a solid hour with facts and figures about how ants built bridges and such stuff.

We all looked at Pringle’s face, expecting to see the embarrassed and sheepish grin. This was the usual reaction of a stranger when he first met up with Kenzie’s syllogism. It horrified us to see, instead, his shining eyes. We heard him say enthusiastically.

“That’s just how I’ve always felt about it, Kenzie. It’s a pleasure to meet a man who isn’t afraid of thinking.”

“Oh, no-o-o!” we all groaned out in a chorus.

“Only,” Pringle said dubiously, and our hopes began to arise again. “Only I’ve been thinking more along the line of termites.” Our hopes fell and were shattered.

We heard the Chief moan to himself and saw him turn and almost run back into his office.

“Two of ‘em now,” he was mumbling over and over. “Two of ‘em now. It ain’t worth it. It ain’t worth it.” He sat down heavily and buried his head in his arms across the top of his desk. Kenzie was watching him too, like he was wondering what had got into the Chief. Then Kenzie turned back to Pringle.

“Ants,” he said with determination.

“Termites,” Pringle answered him stubbornly. Kenzie glared at Pringle for a minute, then his face cleared.

“Why not both of them?” he asked, like a fellow who was willing to be big about it.

“Sure, why not?” Pringle came his half way also. Then, like he wasn’t to be outdone in generosity. “Ants first, then termites later.”

Solemnly the two shook hands. They went back to their work at the bench, and there was an aura of understanding and accord at that end of the room thick enough to be felt.

“I hope you insect lovers will be very happy together,” the grid expert mumbled to their backs. The rest of us also settled back into our varied jobs and problems. But we worked as if we momentarily expected an earthquake to rock us. Our hands were not quite steady. Our eyes were not firm and piercing. We almost held our breaths. For a wonder, we agreed with the Chief. Two of ‘em now.

The days passed and nothing more was said. More than ever now, we enforced the taboo on insects. We didn’t mention trees, or wood, or even the conditional subjunctive. Would sounded like wood. Wood might bring up the thought of termites.

We could see the Chief was weighing the advantages of keeping them against the risks of upsetting the department constantly. As we expected, greed won. We knew he would not risk giving up the prestige and extra bonuses he got for Kenzie’s work. And he knew he had to keep those discoveries coming, because our management has a short memory of what a guy has done in the past.

The Chief even let Kenzie have Pringle as his own personal tech. It served two purposes. It isolated them from the rest of us. It made Kenzie happy.

I will say for the lads, they spent most of their time on Company problems, at first. But gradually, on one corner of Kenzie’s bench, a gadget began to take shape. The two of them worked on it when there were no urgent, frantic, must-be-out-today-without-fail problems to be solved first. None of us could figure out the purpose of the mechanism.

We knew if we couldn’t figure it, the Chief couldn’t. But we could practically see him rub his hands in glee when he thought of the extra bonus he might get for this new gadget.

Of course the Chief wasn’t a complete slouch as an electronics engineer. But it was a long time since he did his study, and he had grown hazy by spending too many years as an administrator. The word got around that for hours at a time, after we had gone home, the Chief would stand at Kenzie’s bench.

The way we reasoned it, he figured he ought to know something about the gadget when he took it in to Old Rock Jaw, and palmed it off as his latest discovery. We also reasoned that since we couldn’t figure it, the Chief must have been an awfully troubled man.

Obviously, it had something to do with microwave transmission and reception. There was the usual high-frequency condensor, the magnatron tubes, the tuning cavities. All company stock, of course. But then none of us ever worried about cost. That was the Chief’s problem.

He didn’t worry much about it either, except at budget time. Then there were screams of anguish from the front office over experimental requisitions. Every year, Old Rock Jaw promised to fire us all, if we didn’t cut costs, but in a couple of weeks we always forgot about it.

Trouble was, the Chief had been getting edgy about costs lately, so we knew it was about time for the annual budget battle. Significantly, he didn’t say a word to Kenzie about the gadget.

As luck would have it, I was working late one night on a special permit. My bench is over in a wing of the lab, and I guess the Chief forgot I was around. I saw a very pretty scene.

The Chief had built up a habit of staying late so he could stand and study over the Kenzie gadget. He never touched it, though. He knew enough not to bother anything, because we all knew how bitter Kenzie was when anybody touched his things.

The Chief was standing there this evening when the General Manager, Old Rock Jaw, was showing some important personages through the plant after hours. They came through the lab door, and I saw scrambled eggs and fruit salad shining all over bulging uniforms. There was also one little geezik in a pin-striped suit. Old Rock Jaw was talking, as usual.

“ ... and it is from this room, gentlemen,” he was saying, “That some of those revolutionary discoveries emanate!”

Then he caught sight of the Chief, who had hastily picked up a cold soldering iron and was tentatively touching a random point on the new mechanism.

“Ah-h!” Old Rock Jaw exclaimed with satisfaction. “Here is our chief scientist now. Still at work. He watches no clock, gentlemen. He knows no time. His whole life is wrapped up in his research!”

The Chief didn’t look around, but bent closer to the soldering point. He looked like he hoped they would limit their inspection to a cursory look about and then retire. I hoped they would too, I didn’t want them to see me.

But Old Rock Jaw, in more of a blowhard mood even than usual, couldn’t let well enough alone. He came up close to the Chief, and looked over his shoulder at the mechanism. He was even more ignorant than the Chief, so I knew he wouldn’t recognize any of it.

“Don’t let us disturb you, Alfred,” he breathed in a hushed voice. “But could you tell the gentlemen what you are working on now?” He cleared his throat importantly and said, “I might add that everyone here has been security cleared, Alfred, so you may speak freely.”

The Chief still did not lift his eyes from his work. He didn’t dare. He carefully turned an unconnected control knob a hairsbreadth with utmost deliberation and precision.

“Multimicrofrequidometer,” the Chief mumbled, and buried his head still deeper into the mechanism.

“Ah yes, of course. But you have a new hook up,” the General Manager bluffed. “I hardly recognized it at first. Startling!” he breathed.

He looked around triumphantly at the impressed brass and braid. He looked pointedly at the pin-striped suit who probably controlled congressional purse strings.

“Apparently he is at a point where he cannot divert his attention to us, gentlemen,” he breathed in a hushed voice. He placed his fingers to his lips and began to tip-toe backwards toward the door.

The beef trust in fancy uniform came up on their own toesies, and also tiptoed away from the genius scientist. By now, the genius was beginning to exude large drops of sweat.

The door closed behind them, and the Chief dropped the cold soldering iron with a sigh of relief. He took hold of his tongue, where he must have been biting into it. He wiped his forehead and fingers with his breast-pocket handkerchief.

Both the Chief and I heard the party walking down the hall and into another wing of the building. I still didn’t make a sound. It would never do for the Chief to know he had been observed. After a suitable time, the Chief, also, tiptoed out of the lab, and he was mumbling to himself as I have never seen him mumble before.

Several days later another thing appeared on Kenzie’s work bench. This time it was a large rectangular glass aquarium. It was filled with moist earth. Now here was something new in electronics!

We shook our heads. One of the techs, who fancied himself a psychologist, said the boys were suffering from retrogressive dementia. They had gone so far back into childhood, they had to play sand box. The Chief overheard the tech, and spoke up plaintively.

“But I don’t see any celluloid spade and bucket,” he said. He seemed relieved when we burst out laughing.

His relief didn’t last long, however. It changed to more worry when he saw the boys carefully sprinkling bread and meat crumbs over the surface of the sand. Then on top of that they dropped moist bits of cake icing. When Pringle brought down a marigold plant, all covered with aphis, and transplanted it in a corner of the aquarium, the Chief again ran into his office and began to hold his head in his hands.

More days passed. The gadget became a bristling porcupine of test clips. By now the boys had forgotten they were working for the Company and spent practically all their time on the whoozits. The Chief became so fascinated, in a kind of horror-stricken manner, that he did not mention the aquarium to Kenzie at all.

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