Monkey on His Back

by Charles V. De Vet

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Under the cloud of cast-off identities lay the shape of another man-- was it himself?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

He was walking endlessly down a long, glass-walled corridor. Bright sunlight slanted in through one wall, on the blue knapsack across his shoulders. Who he was, and what he was doing here, was clouded. The truth lurked in some corner of his consciousness, but it was not reached by surface awareness.

The corridor opened at last into a large high-domed room, much like a railway station or an air terminal. He walked straight ahead.

At the sight of him a man leaning negligently against a stone pillar, to his right but within vision, straightened and barked an order to him, “Halt!” He lengthened his stride but gave no other sign.

Two men hurried through a doorway of a small anteroom to his left, calling to him. He turned away and began to run.

Shouts and the sound of charging feet came from behind him. He cut to the right, running toward the escalator to the second floor. Another pair of men were hurrying down, two steps at a stride. With no break in pace he veered into an opening beside the escalator.

At the first turn he saw that the aisle merely circled the stairway, coming out into the depot again on the other side. It was a trap. He glanced quickly around him.

At the rear of the space was a row of lockers for traveler use. He slipped a coin into a pay slot, opened the zipper on his bag and pulled out a flat briefcase. It took him only a few seconds to push the case into the compartment, lock it and slide the key along the floor beneath the locker.

There was nothing to do after that--except wait.

The men pursuing him came hurtling around the turn in the aisle. He kicked his knapsack to one side, spreading his feet wide with an instinctive motion.

Until that instant he had intended to fight. Now he swiftly reassessed the odds. There were five of them, he saw. He should be able to incapacitate two or three and break out. But the fact that they had been expecting him meant that others would very probably be waiting outside. His best course now was to sham ignorance. He relaxed.

He offered no resistance as they reached him.

They were not gentle men. A tall ruffian, copper-brown face damp with perspiration and body oil, grabbed him by the jacket and slammed him back against the lockers. As he shifted his weight to keep his footing someone drove a fist into his face. He started to raise his hands; and a hard flat object crashed against the side of his skull.

The starch went out of his legs.

“Do you make anything out of it?” the psychoanalyst Milton Bergstrom, asked.

John Zarwell shook his head. “Did I talk while I was under?”

“Oh, yes. You were supposed to. That way I follow pretty well what you’re reenacting.”

“How does it tie in with what I told you before?”

Bergstrom’s neat-boned, fair-skinned face betrayed no emotion other than an introspective stillness of his normally alert gaze. “I see no connection,” he decided, his words once again precise and meticulous. “We don’t have enough to go on. Do you feel able to try another comanalysis this afternoon yet?”

“I don’t see why not.” Zarwell opened the collar of his shirt. The day was hot, and the room had no air conditioning, still a rare luxury on St. Martin’s. The office window was open, but it let in no freshness, only the mildly rank odor that pervaded all the planet’s habitable area.

“Good.” Bergstrom rose. “The serum is quite harmless, John.” He maintained a professional diversionary chatter as he administered the drug. “A scopolamine derivative that’s been well tested.”

The floor beneath Zarwell’s feet assumed abruptly the near transfluent consistency of a damp sponge. It rose in a foot-high wave and rolled gently toward the far wall.

Bergstrom continued talking, with practiced urbanity. “When psychiatry was a less exact science,” his voice went on, seeming to come from a great distance, “a doctor had to spend weeks, sometimes months or years interviewing a patient. If he was skilled enough, he could sort the relevancies from the vast amount of chaff. We are able now, with the help of the serum, to confine our discourses to matters cogent to the patient’s trouble.”

The floor continued its transmutation, and Zarwell sank deep into viscous depths. “Lie back and relax. Don’t...”

The words tumbled down from above. They faded, were gone.

Zarwell found himself standing on a vast plain. There was no sky above, and no horizon in the distance. He was in a place without space or dimension. There was nothing here except himself--and the gun that he held in his hand.

A weapon beautiful in its efficient simplicity.

He should know all about the instrument, its purpose and workings, but he could not bring his thoughts into rational focus. His forehead creased with his mental effort.

Abruptly the unreality about him shifted perspective. He was approaching--not walking, but merely shortening the space between them--the man who held the gun. The man who was himself. The other “himself” drifted nearer also, as though drawn by a mutual attraction.

The man with the gun raised his weapon and pressed the trigger.

With the action the perspective shifted again. He was watching the face of the man he shot jerk and twitch, expand and contract. The face was unharmed, yet it was no longer the same. No longer his own features.

The stranger face smiled approvingly at him.

“Odd,” Bergstrom said. He brought his hands up and joined the tips of his fingers against his chest. “But it’s another piece in the jig-saw. In time it will fit into place.” He paused. “It means no more to you than the first, I suppose?”

“No,” Zarwell answered.

He was not a talking man, Bergstrom reflected. It was more than reticence, however. The man had a hard granite core, only partially concealed by his present perplexity. He was a man who could handle himself well in an emergency.

Bergstrom shrugged, dismissing his strayed thoughts. “I expected as much. A quite normal first phase of treatment.” He straightened a paper on his desk. “I think that will be enough for today. Twice in one sitting is about all we ever try. Otherwise some particular episode might cause undue mental stress, and set up a block.” He glanced down at his appointment pad. “Tomorrow at two, then?”

Zarwell grunted acknowledgment and pushed himself to his feet, apparently unaware that his shirt clung damply to his body.

The sun was still high when Zarwell left the analyst’s office. The white marble of the city’s buildings shimmered in the afternoon heat, squat and austere as giant tree trunks, pock-marked and gray-mottled with windows. Zarwell was careful not to rest his hand on the flesh searing surface of the stone.

The evening meal hour was approaching when he reached the Flats, on the way to his apartment. The streets of the old section were near-deserted. The only sounds he heard as he passed were the occasional cry of a baby, chronically uncomfortable in the day’s heat, and the lowing of imported cattle waiting in a nearby shed to be shipped to the country.

All St. Martin’s has a distinctive smell, as of an arid dried-out swamp, with a faint taint of fish. But in the Flats the odor changes. Here is the smell of factories, warehouses, and trading marts; the smell of stale cooking drifting from the homes of the laborers and lower class techmen who live there.

Zarwell passed a group of smaller children playing a desultory game of lic-lic for pieces of candy and cigarettes. Slowly he climbed the stairs of a stone flat. He prepared a supper for himself and ate it without either enjoyment or distaste. He lay down, fully clothed, on his bed. The visit to the analyst had done nothing to dispel his ennui.


The next morning when Zarwell awoke he lay for a moment, unmoving. The feeling was there again, like a scene waiting only to be gazed at directly to be perceived. It was as though a great wisdom lay at the edge of understanding. If he rested quietly it would all come to him. Yet always, when his mind lost its sleep-induced lethargy, the moment of near understanding slipped away.

This morning, however, the sense of disorientation did not pass with full wakefulness. He achieved no understanding, but the strangeness did not leave as he sat up.

He gazed about him. The room did not seem to be his own. The furnishings, and the clothing he observed in a closet, might have belonged to a stranger.

He pulled himself from his blankets, his body moving with mechanical reaction. The slippers into which he put his feet were larger than he had expected them to be. He walked about the small apartment. The place was familiar, but only as it would have been if he had studied it from blueprints, not as though he lived there.

The feeling was still with him when he returned to the psychoanalyst.

The scene this time was more kaleidoscopic, less personal.

A village was being ravaged. Men struggled and died in the streets. Zarwell moved among them, seldom taking part in the individual clashes, yet a moving force in the conflict.

The background changed. He understood that he was on a different world.

Here a city burned. Its resistance was nearing its end. Zarwell was riding a shaggy pony outside a high wall surrounding the stricken metropolis. He moved in and joined a party of short, bearded men, directing them as they battered at the wall with a huge log mounted on a many-wheeled truck.

The log broke a breach in the concrete and the besiegers charged through, carrying back the defenders who sought vainly to plug the gap. Soon there would be rioting in the streets again, plundering and killing.

Zarwell was not the leader of the invaders, only a lesser figure in the rebellion. But he had played a leading part in the planning of the strategy that led to the city’s fall. The job had been well done.

Time passed, without visible break in the panorama. Now Zarwell was fleeing, pursued by the same bearded men who had been his comrades before. Still he moved with the same firm purpose, vigilant, resourceful, and well prepared for the eventuality that had befallen. He made his escape without difficulty.

He alighted from a space ship on still another world--another shift in time--and the atmosphere of conflict engulfed him.

Weary but resigned he accepted it, and did what he had to do...

Bergstrom was regarding him with speculative scrutiny. “You’ve had quite a past, apparently,” he observed.

Zarwell smiled with mild embarrassment. “At least in my dreams.”

“Dreams?” Bergstrom’s eyes widened in surprise. “Oh, I beg your pardon. I must have forgotten to explain. This work is so routine to me that sometimes I forget it’s all new to a patient. Actually what you experienced under the drug were not dreams. They were recollections of real episodes from your past.”

Zarwell’s expression became wary. He watched Bergstrom closely. After a minute, however, he seemed satisfied, and he let himself settle back against the cushion of his chair. “I remember nothing of what I saw,” he observed.

“That’s why you’re here, you know,” Bergstrom answered. “To help you remember.”

“But everything under the drug is so...”

“Haphazard? That’s true. The recall episodes are always purely random, with no chronological sequence. Our problem will be to reassemble them in proper order later. Or some particular scene may trigger a complete memory return.

“It is my considered opinion,” Bergstrom went on, “that your lost memory will turn out to be no ordinary amnesia. I believe we will find that your mind has been tampered with.”

“Nothing I’ve seen under the drug fits into the past I do remember.”

“That’s what makes me so certain,” Bergstrom said confidently. “You don’t remember what we have shown to be true. Conversely then, what you think you remember must be false. It must have been implanted there. But we can go into that later. For today I think we have done enough. This episode was quite prolonged.”

“I won’t have any time off again until next week end,” Zarwell reminded him.

“That’s right.” Bergstrom thought for a moment. “We shouldn’t let this hang too long. Could you come here after work tomorrow?”

“I suppose I could.”

“Fine,” Bergstrom said with satisfaction. “I’ll admit I’m considerably more than casually interested in your case by this time.”

A work truck picked Zarwell up the next morning and he rode with a tech crew to the edge of the reclam area. Beside the belt bringing ocean muck from the converter plant at the seashore his bulldozer was waiting.

He took his place behind the drive wheel and began working dirt down between windbreakers anchored in the rock. Along a makeshift road into the badlands trucks brought crushed lime and phosphorus to supplement the ocean sediment. The progress of life from the sea to the land was a mechanical process of this growing world.

Nearly two hundred years ago, when Earth established a colony on St. Martin’s, the land surface of the planet had been barren. Only its seas thrived with animal and vegetable life. The necessary machinery and technicians had been supplied by Earth, and the long struggle began to fit the world for human needs. When Zarwell arrived, six months before, the vitalized area already extended three hundred miles along the coast, and sixty miles inland. And every day the progress continued. A large percentage of the energy and resources of the world were devoted to that essential expansion.

The reclam crews filled and sodded the sterile rock, planted binding grasses, grain and trees, and diverted rivers to keep it fertile. When there were no rivers to divert they blasted out springs and lakes in the foothills to make their own. Biologists developed the necessary germ and insect life from what they found in the sea. Where that failed, they imported microorganisms from Earth.

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