Category Phoenix

by Boyd Ellanby

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Man, it would appear, can adapt to any form of society. but not one in which the knowledge of extending life becomes a passport to death!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The door-knob turned, then rattled.

Dr. David Wong stepped out from behind the large bookcase, listening. He pressed the brass handle of the top shelf and the case silently pivoted back to become part of the wall, obliterating the dark passage behind it.

An imperative knocking began at the door; David walked softly to his desk and picked up his notebook. He tried to remain relaxed, but he could feel the tightening of his shoulder muscles. With his right hand, he shut his notebook and concealed it under a mass of papers, while his left hand pressed the desk button to release the lock of the door.

The door burst open and two men strode in, a black-uniformed Ruler followed by a watchguard. Black-visored cap still on his head, the first man marched to the desk and spoke without ceremonial greeting.

“The door was locked, Dr. Wong?”

“Correct, Dr. Lanza. The door was locked.”

“I shall have to instruct the guard to report it. Have you forgotten Leader Marley’s Maxim: Constructive science does not skulk behind locked doors?”

Wong leaned back in his chair and smiled at his visitors.

“The wisdom of Leader Marley is a constant help to us all, but his generosity is also a byword. Surely you remember that on the tenth anniversary of his accession, he honored me by the grant of occasional hours of Privacy, as a reward for my work on Blue Martian Fever?”

“I remember now,” said Dr. Lanza.

“But what for?” asked Officer Blagun. “It’s anti-social!”

“Evidently you have forgotten, Officer Blagun, another Maxim of Leader Marley: Nature has not equipped one Category to judge the needs of another; only the Leader understands all. Now, Dr. Lanza, will you tell me the reason for this visit? Since your promotion from Research to Ruler, I have rarely been honored by your attention.”

“I am here with a message,” said Lanza. “Leader Marley’s compliments, and he requests your presence at a conference on next Wednesday at ten in the morning.”

“Why did you have to deliver that in person? What’s wrong with using Communications?”

“It’s not my province to ask questions, Dr. Wong. I was told to come here, and I was told to wait for a reply.”

“Next Wednesday at ten? Let’s see, this is Friday.” David Wong pressed the key of his electronic calendar, but he had no need to study the dull green and red lights that flashed on to indicate the pattern of his day. He did not delude himself that he had any real choice, but he had learned in the past fifteen years that it kept up his courage to preserve at least the forms of independence. He allowed a decent thirty seconds to ponder the coded lights, then blanked the board and looked up with an easy smile.

“Dr. Wong’s compliments to Leader Marley, and he will be honored to attend a conference on Wednesday at ten.”

Nodding his head, Dr. Lanza glanced briefly around the office. “Queer, old-fashioned place you have here.”

“Yes. It was built many years ago by a slippery old politician who wanted to be safe from his enemies. Makes a good place for Research, don’t you think?”

Lanza did not answer. He strode to the door, then paused to look back.

“You understand, Dr. Wong, that I shall have to report the locked door? I have no choice.”

“Has anyone?”

Officer Blagun followed his superior, leaving the door wide open behind them. Wong remained rigid in his chair until the clack of heels on marble floor had become a mere echo in his brain, then stretched out his hand to the intercom. He observed with pride that his hand did not tremble as he pressed the dial.

“Get me Dr. Karl Haslam ... Karl? Can you meet me in the lab right away? I’ve thought of a new approach that might help us crack the White Martian problem. Yes, I know we planned on conferring tomorrow, but it’s getting later than you think.”

Again he pressed the dial. “Get me Leah Hachovnik. Leah? I’ve got some new stuff to dictate. Be a good girl and come along right away.”

Breaking the connection, he drew out his notebook and opened it.

David Wong was a big man, tall, well-muscled, compact, and he might have been handsome but for a vague something in his appearance. His lean face and upcurving mouth were those of a young man; his hair was a glossy black, too thick to be disciplined into neatness; and he was well-dressed, except for the unfashionable bulging of his jacket pocket, where he carried a bulky leather case of everfeed pens and notebooks. But it was his eyes that were disconcerting--an intense blue, brilliant and direct, they had a wisdom and a comprehension that seemed incongruous in so young a face.

A worried frown creased his forehead as he turned back to one of the first pages, studying the symbols he had recorded there, but he looked up without expression on hearing the tapping of slender heels.

“Quick work, Leah. How are you this morning?”

“As if anybody cared!” Leah Hachovnik settled down before the compact stenograph machine, her shoulders slumped, her thin mouth drooping at the corners.

“Feel like working?” said David.

“As much as I ever do, I guess. Sometimes I wonder if the traitors in the granite quarries have it any worse than I do. Sometimes I wish I’d been born into some other Category. Other people have all the luck. I don’t know what it is, Dr. Wong, but I just don’t seem to have the pep I used to have. Do you think it could be the climate here in New York?”

“People do grow older, Leah,” he reminded her gently.

“I know. But Tanya--you remember my twin sister Tanya, the one that got so sick that time, ten years ago, when you did that experiment with Blue Martian Fever, and she had to be sent out to Arizona? Of course I haven’t ever seen her since then--people in Office Category never get permission for that kind of travel--but she writes me that ever since she got well again she feels just like a kid, and works as hard as she ever did, and she still seems to enjoy life. Why, she’s had three proposals of marriage this past year alone, she says, and yet she’s thirty-five, just the same age as I am--being twins, you know?--and nobody’s proposed to me in ages. Well, I’m certainly going to try to find out what her method is. She’s coming back tomorrow.”

“She’s what?”

“Coming back. BureauMed is sending her back here to the Institute to take up her old job in Intercom. Funny they haven’t told you, her being an old employee and all.”

Dr. Wong was gripping his notebook in stiff fingers, but he replied easily, “Oh, well, BureauMed is a complex organization. With all they have to do, it’s not surprising they get things mixed up sometimes.”

“Don’t I know!” she sighed, and droned on in a dreary monotone. “This one institute alone would turn your hair gray before your time. I don’t know how some people seem to keep so young. I was just thinking to myself this morning when I watched you walking through the office, ‘Why, Dr. Wong doesn’t seem to age a bit! He looks just as young as he ever did, and look at me!’”

Looking at her, David admitted to himself, was not the pleasure it had once been. Ten years ago, she and her twin sister Tanya had been plump, delectable, kittenish girls, their mental equipment no more than standard for Office Category, of course, but their physical appearance had been outstanding, almost beautiful enough for Theater Category. Creamy ivory skin, gray eyes, and soft red hair dramatized by a freakish streak of white that shot abruptly back from the center of the forehead, Tanya’s swirling to the left, and Leah’s to the right, one girl the mirror image of the other.

But the Leah sitting before him now was thin and tired-looking, her sallow skin was lined, and her soft voice had become vinegary with disappointments. Her red hair had faded to a commonplace brown, and the white streak in the center was yellowed. An unwanted, souring old maid. But there was only one response to make.

“You look fine to me, Leah,” he said. “What time did you say your sister is coming?”

“Tomorrow evenings’ Playground Jet. Why?”

“We’ll have to think of a way to celebrate. But right now, I’d like to get started on my new paper. I’ve got to meet Dr. Haslam before long.”

“I know.” She raised her faded gray eyes. “That was a funny thing you said to him just now over the intercom. You said to him it was getting late. But it isn’t late. It’s only eleven o’clock in the morning.”

David stared. “Do you mean to say you were listening to our conversation? Why did you do that?”

She fidgeted and turned away from him. “Oh, I just happened to be at Comdesk and I guess the circuit wasn’t closed. Does it matter? But it seemed a funny thing for you to say.”

“People in Office Category are not supposed to understand Research,” he said severely. “If they were capable of Research, Leader Marley’s planners would have placed them there. As for its being late, it is, as far as White Martian Fever is concerned. Which is the subject of my paper. Prepare to take dictation.”

Shrugging her shoulders, she poised her bony fingers over the keys of the little machine.

“Paper for delivery at the Summer Seminar,” he began.

“But, Dr. Wong, that doesn’t have to be ready for three months yet!”

“Miss Hachovnik! Please remember Leader Marley’s Maxim: Individuals born into Office Category are the bone and muscle of the State; Nature has designed them to act, not to think.”

“Yes, Dr. Wong. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry, Leah. We’re old friends, so I won’t report you. All set?”

He took a pencil from his leather case and tapped it against his notebook as he ruffled the pages, wondering how to begin. It was hard to think logically when a part of his mind was in such confusion. Had Leah been listening in to all of his phone conversations? If so, it was fortunate that he had long ago devised an emergency code. Was it only idle curiosity that had prompted her or was she acting under orders? Was anyone else watching him, he wondered, listening to his talk, perhaps even checking the routine of his experimental work? There was Lanza this morning--why had he come unannounced, in person, when a Communications call would have served the purpose equally well?

Leah’s voice broke in. “I’m ready, Dr. Wong.”

He cleared his throat. “ ... the Summer Seminar. Title: The Propogation of White Martian virus. Paragraph. It will be remembered that the early attempts to establish Earth colonies on Mars were frustrated by the extreme susceptibility of our people to two viruses native to the foreign planet, viruses which we designate as Blue Martian and White Martian, according to the two distinct types of fever which they cause. Blue Martian Fever in the early days caused a mortality among our colonists of nearly eighty-five per cent, and made the establishment of permanent colonies a virtual impossibility.

“Under the inspired leadership of Leader Marley and with the advice of his deputy Dr. Lanza, this laboratory in Research worked out a method of growing the virus and producing an immunizing agent which is effective in nearly all human beings. Only the cooperation of several Categories made possible such a feat. It will not be forgotten that even the humblest helpers in the Institute had their share in the project, that some of them acted as human volunteers in the experiments, well knowing the risks they ran, and were afterward rewarded by a Free Choice.

“One person in Office Category, for instance, was given the privilege of learning to play the flute, although nobody in his family had ever belonged to Music, and another person in Menial Category was permitted a month’s study of elementary algebra, a nearly unheard of indulgence for a person in his position. But as Leader Marley so graciously remarked in conferring the awards: To the individual who risks much, the State gives much.”

“Like me and Tanya?” the girl asked, stopping her typing.

“Yes, like you and Tanya. You were allowed to act a part in an amateur Theater group, I remember, and since Tanya was made too ill to be able to use a Free Choice, she was sent out west to the Playground, just as though she had belonged to Ruler Category. Now where was I?”

“‘The State gives much.’”

“Oh, yes. Paragraph. Since the discovery of the immunizing mechanism to Blue Martian, permanent colonies have been established on Mars. But there remains the more elusive problem of White Martian Fever, which, though its mortality is only thirty per cent, is still so crippling to those victims who survive that the Martian colonies cannot begin to expand, and the resources of the planet cannot be fully developed, until an immunizing agent is found.

“For the past eight years this laboratory has been working at the problem, among others, and we are now in a position to report a small degree of progress. Since it proved to be impossible to grow the virus in the usual media, it occurred to us--”

The intercom buzzed, and Dr. Wong turned away to open the dial.

“David? What’s happened to you? I’ve been waiting here in the lab a quarter of an hour.”

“Sorry, Karl. I thought I had more time. Be right down.”

He reached for his white lab coat and shoved his long arms into the starched sleeves. “That’s all we have time for now, Leah. Can you get an early lunch and be back here this afternoon at two?”

But she was not listening. She was leaning over to look at the desk, staring avidly at the open pages of Dr. Wong’s notebook. Without comment he picked up the book, closed it, put it in the top drawer and locked the drawer. She watched him with curious eyes.

“What funny marks those were, Dr. Wong! Do you keep your notes in a private system of shorthand?”

“No. I write them in Coptic. For the sake of privacy.”

“What’s Coptic?”

“A dead language, spoken by the ancient Egyptians thirty or forty centuries ago.”

“But you’re Research, not Linguistics! It’s against the law for you to know other languages. Are you a traitor?”

“My dear Leah,” he said, “I’m far too sensible a man to go in for bootleg study, to learn anything without permission. I have no wish to end up with a pick-ax in my hands. But you shouldn’t tax your little mind with thinking. It’s not your job. You’re not equipped for it, and it’s dangerous.”

David passed the watchguard stationed in the basement corridor, walked through the open door of the laboratory, past the bench where a row of pretty technicians sat making serial dilutions of bacterial and virus suspensions, through the glow of the sterilizing room, and on into the small inner lab where flasks of culture media and developing hens’ eggs sat in a transparent incubator, and petri dishes flecked with spots of color awaited his inspection.

Dr. Karl Haslam was standing at the work bench, with a pair of silver forceps which held a small egg under the psi light. Gently he lowered the egg into its warm observation chamber, covered the container, and sat down.

“Well, here I am. What’s gone wrong? Explain yourself, my boy.”

“Just a minute.” Grinning maliciously, David took down a bottle from the shelf of chemicals, poured a colorless liquid into a beaker, and walked casually toward the doorway as he agitated the mixture of hydrogen sulphide and mercaptans. He held his breath, then coughed, when the fumes of putrescence filled the room and drifted out the door. He looked into the technician’s room.

“Sorry for the aroma, girls, but this is a vital experiment.”

“Can’t you at least shut the door?” one called pleadingly.

“Explain to the watchguard out there, will you?” Closing the door, he turned on the ventilator and sat down beside Dr. Haslam.

“Why all the melodrama?” Karl asked, baffled. “First you call me by emergency code, then you hole in like a conspirator. I’m beginning to think you’re a great loss to Theater. What’s happened? Why is it later than I think?”

“Do you take everything as a joke, Karl?”

“Certainly, until I’m forced to do otherwise. What’s worrying you?”

“I’m afraid of being arrested for treason. Don’t laugh! This morning I received a message, delivered in person by our old schoolmate Lanza, to report to Leader Marley on Wednesday, and Marley hasn’t paid any attention to me since he last inspected our lab, years ago. For another thing, Leah Hachovnik is making a nuisance of herself with her curiosity about my affairs. If she weren’t so clumsy about her prying, I’d almost believe she was under orders to spy on me.”

Karl moved impatiently. “I hope you’re not turning psychotic. You have a clean record of continuous production and you’ve never mixed in politics. You’ve never expressed what you may really think of our Leader even to me, although we’ve been friends since we were in Medschool, and I hope you never will. And you’re making progress with White Martian. Why, my boy, you’re all set! What’s treasonable about that?”

Someone knocked at the door. Hastily David uncovered the fragrant beaker and waved it about as he called, “Come in!”

The watchguard looked in for an instant, wrinkled his nose, and quickly shut the door. Laughing, David covered the beaker, and began walking about with long nervous strides, snapping his fingers as he tried to explain.

“I’m in trouble, Karl. I’ve run into something I don’t know how to deal with, and I need help, I need advice, I need cooperation. I’ve lived alone with this thing for ten long years, hoping month after month that something would turn up so I could evade the issue. But nothing has. And now there’s going to be a showdown.”

Karl touched his arm sympathetically. “My dear boy--”

That’s it!“ shouted David.

“What’s what?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Why do you always call me your ‘dear boy?’ You know I’m a year older than you are.”

“It’s just habit, I suppose. You look so young--your hair is black, while mine is nearly white. You’re full of vigor, while I begin to creak with middle age. I didn’t realize that I irritated you with my little phrase. I should think you’d be pleased that you have somehow managed to sip at the fountain of youth.”

David sank down on a stool. “I’m not pleased. I’m terrified.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that’s exactly what’s happened. I have sipped at the fountain of youth. I’ve discovered how to keep people from growing old. I myself have not aged a bit in the last ten years.”

There was a long silence. Karl sat unmoving, his face like stone.

“I don’t believe you,” he said at last.

“It’s no longer a question of belief. In a few days everybody will know, the proof will stare you in the face. And what will happen then?”

“Evidence?” Karl asked. “I can’t accept a statement as a fact.”

“Would you like to see my mice? Come with me.”

David Wong hurried into the small animal room and paused before a stack of wire cages in which furry creatures darted and squeaked.

“You remember when we were working on Blue Martian, those peculiar mutants we found in our mice, and how I used six of them in trying to make antibodies to the virus?”

“I remember,” said Karl. “They were spotted with tufts of white hair on the right forelegs.”

David took down a cage, thrust in his hand, and brought out two of the tiny black mice which crawled over his trembling hand. Their right forelegs bore tufts of long white hair.

“These,” he said, “are the same mice.”


“Their descendants, you mean. Mice don’t live that long.”

These mice do. And they’ll go on living. For years I’ve lived in fear that someone would notice and suspect the truth. Just as for years, every time someone has laughed and told me I never seemed to age a day, I’ve been terrified that he might guess the truth. I’m not aging.”

Karl looked dazed. “Well, my boy, you’ve got a bear by the tail. How did you find the elixir or whatever it is?”

“You remember the early work with radioactive tracers, a couple of hundred years ago, that proved that all our body cells are in a continuous state of flux? There’s a dynamic equilibrium between the disintegration and the resynthesis of the essential factors such as proteins, fats and amino groups, but the cell directs all the incoming material into the right chemical structures, under the influence of some organizing power which resides in the cell.

“Foreign influences like viruses may disrupt this order and cause cancer. The cells are continually in a state of change, but always replace their characteristic molecules, and it is only as they grow older that they gradually become ‘worn out.’ Then the body grows old, becomes less resistant to infection, and eventually succumbs to one disease or another. And you know, of course, that viruses also have this self-duplicating ability.

“I reasoned that at birth a man had a definite, finite amount of this essential self-duplicating entity--SDE--in his body cells, a kind of directing factor which reproduces itself, but more slowly than do the body cells. In that case, with the normal multiplication of the cells, the amount of SDE per cell would slowly but surely grow smaller with the years. Eventually the time would come when the percentage would be below the critical level--the cells would be less resistant, would function with less efficiency, and the man would ‘grow old.’”

Karl nodded soberly. “Reasonable hypothesis.”

“But one day, by pure chance, I isolated a component which I recognized as being the factor essential to the normal functioning of body cells. It hit me like a toothache. I found that I could synthesize the SDE in the lab, and the only problem then was to get it into a man’s cells. If I could do that, keep the SDE level up to that of youth, a man would stop aging! Since viruses penetrate our cells when they infect us, it was no trick at all to effect a chemical coupling of the SDE to the virus. I used Martian Blue, since it was handy, and its effects are usually brief.

“Presto! Old age is held at bay for another twenty or thirty years--I really don’t know how long. These mice were my first experiment, and as you see, they’re still alive. Next, I tried it on myself.”

David put the mice back in their cage, locked it, and returned to the lab.

“Tomorrow, the whole thing is bound to come out because Tanya Hachovnik is coming back. You know her sister Leah--gray, dried-up, soured on life. Well, I’ve had ways of checking, and when Tanya Hachovnik walks into the Institute, everyone will see her as the same luscious redhead of twenty-five we knew ten years ago. I realize that what I did was a criminal act. I didn’t think the thing through or I wouldn’t have been such a fool. But when I made those final experiments, I used the Hachovnik twins for a controlled pair.”

“You must have been crazy!”

“Perhaps I was. I’d tried it on myself, of course, with no bad effects except a few days’ fever, but I realized that without a control I never could be sure the SDE was actually working. It might be just that my particular genetic constitution caused me to age more slowly than the average. So I chose the twins. To Leah I gave the attenuated Martian Blue, but to Tanya I gave the simple Blue coupled with SDE. The experiment worked. Identical twins--one grows old like other people; the other remains young. I know now, Karl, how to prolong youth indefinitely. But what in the name of Leader Marley shall I do with my knowledge?”

Karl Haslam absently twisted his white hair and spoke slowly, as though he found trouble in choosing his words.

“You realize, of course, that it is your duty to acquaint Leader Marley with all the details of your discovery?”

“Is it? Can you imagine what this will do to our society? What about the generations of children coming into a world where no places have been vacated for them by death? What about the struggles for power? Who will decide, and on what basis, whether to confer or to withhold this gift? There’ll be riots, civil wars. I know that I’m only a scientist; all I ever wanted from life was to be left alone, in a peaceful laboratory, and let other people worry about the world and its troubles. But now--don’t you see that by the mere fact that I made this discovery, I’ve lost the right to sit by quietly and let other people make the decisions?”

“But, David, you and I aren’t able to handle such a problem! We’re only Research!”

“I know. We’re inadequate, yet we have the responsibility. The men who created atomic power probably felt inadequate, too, but could they have made as bad a mess of handling it as others did? Suppose I did turn this over to Marley--he’d use it to become the most absolute tyrant in the history of the race.”

Karl ran his fingers through his hair and smiled crookedly. “Well, you could always start a revolution, I suppose, and start by assassinating the Leader.”

“With what kind of weapon? Men like you and me are not allowed to own so much as an old-fashioned pistol. Except for the Military, Marley’s the only man allowed to wear a Needler. And, besides, I’m a Research, not a Military. I hate violence and I’m naturally conditioned against killing.”

“Then you shouldn’t have got into this mess. It would have been far better never to have discovered this SDE. I presume your notes are safely locked up, by the way?”

David grinned. “Don’t worry about my notes; they’re written in Coptic. You remember when I was still in Medschool and made my first important discovery, how to prevent the development of hereditary baldness by the injection of certain parahormones? Leader Marley rewarded me with a Free Choice, and I chose to learn a dead language. Not half a dozen men in the world could read my notes.”

“If your notes are safe, why don’t you just destroy your mice and get rid of your proof that way?”

“And the Hachovnik twins?”

“You could at least keep Tanya out of sight.”

“Don’t be a fool. That would only be a temporary measure and has nothing to do with the real problem. Lanza and Marley may suspect the truth right now, for all I know; they keep such close watch on my work. Anyway, the secret is bound to come out sooner or later.”

Dr. Haslam clasped his hands and stared at them for a long while. His lined face looked grayer than ever.

He looked up at last with a faint smile. “Well, my boy, I never asked you to discover this stuff, but since you have--I hereby burn my bridges! You’re right, we can’t give it to Marley. But you can’t handle it alone. What we need is time, and we haven’t got it. We shall both be liquidated before this is over, there’s no doubt of that, but we must do what we can. When is Tanya arriving?”

“Tomorrow night, on the Playground Jet.”

“And you see Leader Marley when?”

“Next Wednesday.”

“Five days yet. Then this is what we’ll do. Too bad Lanza is in the other camp, but there’s you and me, and I think Hudson and Fauré from Serology will come in with us. We’ll need others--sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists--the most promising material from all Categories if we’re to create a new society based on the prospect of immortality. But I’ll see the first two and bring them to your apartment tomorrow night for Tanya’s welcome-home party. I leave it to you to muzzle Leah.”

“That won’t do,” said David. “I don’t have a current Free Choice.”

“But I have. Two, as a matter of fact, a reward for curing the insomnia of Leader Marley’s wife. I choose to give a party, I choose tomorrow night, and I choose your apartment.”

A knock rattled the door, and the watchguard thrust in his head. “How much longer is this here experiment going to take? Do you guys want to be reported?”

“Just finishing, Officer,” called Karl. “You can leave the door open now.”

“What a stink!” said the guard. “Thank God I’m in Military!”

It hardly seemed like a party, David thought. His guests were ill at ease, and their conversation labored, then stopped altogether when the Menial came into the library with a tray of glasses and niblets.

“Put them on the liquor cabinet, James,” said David. “And that will be all. Enjoy yourself tonight.”

The Menial put down the tray and then stooped to fumble with the lock.

“Let that alone! I’ve told you a thousand times not to monkey with my liquor cabinet!”

“Don’t you want me to get out the ice cubes, Doctor?”

“I’ll do it. You can go now.”

“But are you sure you won’t want me later in the evening, Doctor? Who’s to serve the supper? Who’s going to clear up afterward?”

“We’ll manage. Don’t worry about us.”

James shuffled out of the room.

“I suppose that means I’ll manage,” said Leah, with a self-pitying sigh. “I’ve noticed that whenever people decide to rough it and do without a Menial, they take it for granted the women will do the work, never the men--unless the women are still young and pretty. Well, at any rate, I’ll have Tanya to help me. I still don’t see why you wouldn’t let me go to the Port to meet her, Dr. Wong.”

“I just thought it would be more of a celebration if we had a surprise party all waiting for her to walk into. Dr. Haslam will bring her here directly from the Port, and here we all are, her old friends from the Institute, waiting to welcome her home.”

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