Master of None

by Neil Goble

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The advantages of specialization are so obvious that, today, we don't even know how to recognize a competent syncretist!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Freddy the Fish glanced at the folded newspaper beside him on the bench. A little one-column headline caught his eye:

MYSTERIOUS SIGNALS
FROM OUTER SPACE
“Probably from Cygnus,” he said.

Freddy mashed a peanut, popped the meat into his mouth, and tossed the shell to the curb in front of his bench. He munched and idly watched two sparrows arguing over the discarded delicacy; the victor flitted to the head of a statue, let go a triumphant dropping onto the marble nose, and hopped to a nearby branch.

“Serves him right,” Freddy said. He yawned and rubbed the stubble on his chin. Not yet long enough for scissors, he decided. He pulled his feet up on the bench, twisting in an effort to get comfortable. The sun was in his eyes, so he reclaimed the discarded newspaper and spread it over his face. His eyes momentarily focused on MYSTERIOUS SIGNALS FROM OUTER SPACE, right over his nose.

“Sure, Cygnus,” he muttered, and closed his eyes and dropped off to sleep.

When he was awakened, it was by an excited hand shaking his shoulder and a panting, “Freddy! Freddy! Lookit the Extra just came out!”

Freddy slowly sat up, ascertained the identity of the intruder and the fact that the sun was setting, and said, “Good evening, Willy. Please stop rattling that paper in my face.”

“But just read it, Freddy,” Willy shrieked, waving the paper so frantically that Freddy couldn’t make out the big black headline. “‘Positive contact from another planet,’ the guy was yellin’. They put out an Extra so I snitched one from the boy. Read it to me, huh, Freddy? I’m dyin’ o’ curious.”

“So give it here and I’ll read it for you. Quit shakin’ it or you’ll tear it all up,” Freddy snorted.

“Read it to me, huh, Freddy,” Willy said, handing over the paper. “I don’t know no one else that reads so good.”

Freddy studied the headline and the first paragraph silently, then whistled lightly and lowered the paper.

“Y’know, Willy,” he said, “the last thing I read before I dropped off a while ago was about these signals. But the funny thing is, I’d just assumed they were from Cygnus.”

“What’s a Cygnus, Freddy?” Willy asked, still pop-eyed. “A smoke? A dame? Or you mean like from Hunger?”

“Cygnus, my boy,” Freddy explained patronizingly, “is a constellation within which there are two colliding galaxies. These colliding galaxies produce the most powerful electromagnetic radiations in the universe--an undecillion watts!”

“What’s an undecillion?”

“An undecillion is ten raised to the 36th power,” Freddy sighed, fearing that he wasn’t getting through to Willy.

“No foolin’? What’s a watt ... aw, you’re pullin’ my leg again, Freddy, talkin’ riddles. Where’d ya ever learn to talk that way anyhow!”

“Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma. Picked up a little here, a little there,” Freddy said, reflecting on his indiscriminate past.

“Aw, cut it out, Freddy! C’mon, read it to me. Betcha can’t! Where’d ya say it was from? Cygnus?”

“Not Cygnus. Ganymede.” Freddy cleared his throat and rattled the newspaper authoritatively. “Washington: White House sources declared today that intelligent beings on a Jupiter moon have contacted the United States government. While the contents of the message have been made secret, the White House emphasized the message was friendly.”

Freddy continued, “The signals, which were intercepted yesterday, were decoded this morning by a team of government scientists and cryptographers who had been at the task all night. While officials were noncommittal about the nature of the message contained in the signals, they declared, ‘We are authorized to state that the received message was friendly and appears to represent a sincere attempt by another race of intelligent beings to contact the people of Earth. A reply message is being formulated.’ Officials further explained that the possibility of the signal’s being a hoax has been thoroughly investigated and that there is no doubt whatsoever that the message is a genuine interspatial communication from intelligent beings on Ganymede. Ganymede is one of twelve moons of the planet Jupiter, and is larger than the planet Mercury.”

Freddy stopped.

“Ain’t there any more?” Willy whined.

“The rest of it is about how far away Ganymede is, and its relative density and mass and stuff. You wouldn’t be interested, Willy.”

“Oh. I guess not.” Willy helped himself to a peanut. “What’s it mean, Freddy?”

“Nothing much, Willy. Just that there’s people somewhere besides here on Earth, and they called us on the phone.”

“Whadd’ya know about that!” Willy gasped. “I didn’t even know they was other people!” He stared with disbelief at the paper.

“I don’t suppose anyone knew.”

“How d’ya suppose they knew?” Willy asked. “I mean, that we was here, if we didn’t know they was there?”

“I’ve been wondering about that, Willy. You know that last rocket we shot?”

“From Cape Carnival you mean?”

“Yeh. It was supposed to go into orbit around Jupiter. I wouldn’t be surprised if maybe it didn’t land on Ganymede; the people there could have examined it, figured out where it came from, and then radioed us on the same frequency the rocket transmitter used. Paper doesn’t say that, of course, but it’s a reasonable hypothesis.”

“Freddy, I think you must be a genius or sumpin’.”

Freddy smiled and stretched out to sleep again as Willy wandered off, staring blankly at the newspaper.


Carlton Jones, America’s Number One personnel specialist, scowled at the pamphlet on his desk.

SECRET, it said in big red letters across the top and bottom. Special Instructions for Operation Space Case, said the smaller letters across the middle of the top sheet.

“Now I ask you, Dwindle,” Jones said to his clerkish aide, “where, in this worldful of specialists, am I going to find someone with a well-rounded education? Much less one who’ll take a chance on a flier like this?”

“Gosh, Mr. Jones, I just wouldn’t know,” Dwindle blinked. “Have you tried looking through your files?”

“Have I tried looking through my files,” Jones sighed, looking at the ceiling light. “Dwindle, my files include every gainfully employed person in the United States of America and its possessions. Millions of them. One doesn’t just browse through the files looking for things.”

“Oh,” Dwindle said. “I’m kinda new at this specialty,” he explained.

“Yes, Dwindle. However,” Jones continued, “one does make IBM runouts to find things.”

“Hey, that’s great!” Dwindle said, brightening. “Why don’t you try making an IBM runout?”

“I did, Dwindle. Please let me finish? Our instructions call for finding a person with a well-rounded education. More specifically, a person who is capable of intelligently discussing and explaining some two dozen major ‘fields of knowledge.’ Plus, of course, at least a passing acquaintance with some one or two hundred minor fields of knowledge.

“So I set Mathematics into the IBM sorter. Mathematics is one of the major fields of knowledge, you see.”

“Yeh,” Dwindle acknowledged.

“So I took the few million mathematicians’ cards which I got--good mathematicians and bad mathematicians, but at least people who can get their decimals in the right place. I set the IBM sorter for Biology, and ran the mathematicians’ cards through. So I got several thousand mathematician-biologists.”

“That’s pretty sharp!” Dwindle exclaimed with a twinkle. “Whoever thought of that!”

“Please, Dwindle,” Jones moaned, pressing his palms to his eyes. “Next I sorted according to Geology. Three hundred cards came through. Three hundred people in America who know their math, biology and geology!”

“That doesn’t sound like so many to me,” Dwindle said hesitantly, as if wondering what there was to get so excited about.

“And of those three hundred, do you know how many understand, even vaguely, Electronics? Twelve. And of those twelve, guess how many have an adequate background in History and Anthropology? Much less an understanding of eighteen other fields?”

“Not very many, I’ll bet,” Dwindle replied smartly.

“None! Not even one! I tried running the cards through in every order imaginable. We’ve bred a race of specialists and there’s not a truly educated man among us!”

“Say, you know what I bet? Even if you did find a guy who’s like what all you said...”

“Go ahead, Dwindle.”

“ ... I bet he wouldn’t even go up there to Ganymede. I sure wouldn’t! I’d be scared to death,” Dwindle chattered, waving his finger. “How’s he gonna get back, even if he gets there O.K.? Couldn’t anyone fool me with a bunch of pretty talk; I know the government doesn’t have a rocket that could take off again after it got there. Gotta have launching pads and computers and all that stuff. Government ever think about that?”

Jones held his head in anguish. “Dwindle, why don’t you be a good boy and run along to the snack bar for a coffee break? And bring me some aspirin when you come back.”


Freddy the Fish, Willy and Oscar Fronk were occupying the same bench, a comradeship made necessary by the overpopulation of the park on such a glorious day. Oscar was surveying the passing girls and scouting for worthwhile cigarette stubs. Willy was admiring a hovering beetle’s power of flight, and Freddy was reading a discarded copy of Scientific American.

The beetle landed on Willy’s sleeve and promptly located a gaping tear in the fabric, through which bare arm showed. Willy raised his other hand menacingly.

“Don’t,” Freddy barked, causing Willy to jump with enough force to dislodge the beetle.

“Aw, Freddy,” Willy whined, “why dintcha lemme kill it? What good’s a stupid bug?”

“That would have been a rather unfortunate kill, Willy, by your bare hand on your bare arm. You must learn to be cognizant of our insect friends and insect enemies.”

“So what’s he, poison or sumpin’?”

“Unpleasant, at least,” Freddy said. “That was a blister beetle; smash it on your arm and you’ll grow a nice welt. A member of the Meloidae family.”

“You mean bugs have families and all, too?” Willy asked.

“Beetle ‘families’ are groupings of similar species of insects,” Freddy explained. “Not actually kinfolk. For instance, this beetle is related to the Lytta vesicatoria of southern Europe, more commonly known as the--” Freddy glanced out of the corner of his eye at Oscar, hoping to shield the next bit of information from his perverted brain, and whispered the name.

Willy’s eyes widened. “Hey, Oscar,” he hollered, jumping up. “You hear what Freddy said? That bug I almost swatted’s practically a Spanish Fly!”

“Which way’d he go?” Oscar squeaked, allowing his collection of stubs to scatter as he hopped around, looking on and under and behind the bench for the escaping insect.

“Hold it, hold it,” Freddy commanded, trying to restore order. “I said it’s like it, not IS it. It doesn’t have what it takes, so skip it, huh?”

Willy and Oscar sat down again. “Freddy,” Willy sighed with adoration, “how’d ya ever get so smart? I mean, bein’ a bum and all?”

“I keep telling you guys; I went to nothing but the finest universities. Well, except toward the end, when I was getting desperate, I guess I wasn’t so choosy.”

“Aw, g’wan now, Freddy. Collitches cost money, and you’re as poor as the rest of us. Bummin’ for a cuppa coffee, and all the time talking about Yale, and Oxford, and Hah-vad.”

“What would you say, Willy, if I told you that once I belonged to the richest family in Mississippi?”

“I’d say Mississippi was a pretty poor state,” Willy said, and Oscar giggled.

“I once was Frederik Van Smelt, spoiled son of the wealthy shrimp and oyster scion. And there’s nothing as bad, my father said, as spoiled Smelt. He disowned me, of course. I owned six Cadillacs--one right after the other, I wrecked them all. I traveled all over the world and probably counteracted a billion dollars’ worth of foreign aid. I was kicked out of the best schools in the world.”

“How come if you’re so smart you flunked out of all them schools?” Oscar asked.

“Me? Flunked out? I never made less than an A in any course I took during my eight years at war with college. I was expelled from nine schools and barely escaped the highway patrol when I was bootlegging at Oklahoma University!”

“Freddy,” Willy said, “you’re lyin’ like a dog, butcha make it sound s’ real!”


Jones squirmed uncomfortably in his seat in the briefing room, phrasing and rephrasing his thoughts. It seemed that no matter which arrangement of words he chose, it still was going to be obvious that he’d flopped. He re-examined his fingernails and selected one which was still long enough to chew.

General Marcher concluded his current appraisal of the situation and began calling on the various individuals with whom certain phases of OPERATION SPACE CASE had been entrusted. Jones groaned as each arose and gave favorable progress reports.

“The pod is completed and has been tested, sir. It will by no means be plush, but it will be sufficiently comfortable even for the long voyage to Ganymede.”

“The guidance system is perfected to the extent that we need.”

“There are no further deceleration problems to be solved.”

“The crash program has been approved for the two-way rocket; it is on the drawing board and current estimates are that the envoy can be brought back in three years.”

“Ganymede has replied to our last message; a suitable artificial environment will be available for the envoy.”

“Personnel Specialist Jones?”

Carlton gave his chin a final sweaty rub and slowly rose to his feet. “General Marcher, sir,” he choked, “I’m ... we’re ... experiencing a little difficulty finding a volunteer, so far--”

“Negative perspiration on that count, Jones,” the Project Officer interrupted. “The draft has never been abolished; we can grab anyone you put your finger on! Now, who will it be?”

“Sir, it doesn’t seem to be that so much as ... well ... sir, has any consideration been given to perhaps sending a delegation rather than a single envoy?”

The general smiled broadly. “Now, that is more like it! I take it you mean you have a number of equally-qualified persons who have expressed an intense desire to go to Ganymede, and there is no way to impartially select one of these men over the others? This is commendable. However, our space limitation clearly precludes sending more than one person. I’m afraid you will just have to make your choice from a hat.”

Jones turned a trifle redder. “That’s not exactly the problem, either, sir.”

The general’s smile wilted and became a frozen frown. “Just exactly what are you trying to say, Jones?”

“There’s no one who can meet the qualifications, sir,” Jones said, feeling sick at his stomach.

“Are you telling me that in the entire United States, there is not one person who has a basic understanding of the twenty-four major fields?”

“I’m afraid that’s right, sir.”

“See me after the briefing, Jones. I’m certain that the Foremost Personnel Specialist in the United States must have some further ideas on this matter.”

Jones sank slowly back into his seat and covered his face with his hands. “I’m a goner,” he whispered to himself. “Jones, you can be replaced.”

Dwindle, sitting on his left, suddenly punched him vigorously in the ribs. “Say, Mr. Jones,” he rattled, “I just thought of a great idea.”

“Tell it to the general,” Jones moaned. “Maybe then he’ll realize what a handicap I’ve been working under.”


“Hi ya, Freddy,” Willy said, sitting down on the bench and helping himself to some peanuts. “Workin’ a crossword puzzle?”

Freddy pocketed his pencil stub and laid aside the newspaper. “Naw, not this time. Just playing around with one of those ‘We’re looking for bright young men’ ads.”

“Freddy! Y’ain’t thinkin’ a gettin’ a JOB?”

“Nothing like that,” Freddy laughed. “Just, exercising my mind. Filling out one of those little tests they always have. Helps keep a fella sharp, you know.”

“Yeh, I seen the kind. Like what has pictures and you’re supposed to find things wrong in the picture like dames with beards and dogs with six feet?”

“Kinda like that, only this one’s all written and is a little tougher. You’re supposed to send the answers in and whoever has good answers gets to take a tougher test and whoever does good on that test gets the job. Probably selling neckties on the corner or something.”

“No kiddin’. That what it says?”

“Just says ‘handsome rewards,’ but that’s probably close to it.”

“You gonna send it in?” Willy asked.

“Naw, I just fill ‘em out for fun, like I said. Can you imagine me peddling neckties on the corner?”

“Then how d’ya know if you got the right answers?”

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