Unthinkable - Cover


by Rog Phillips

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: If Nature suddenly began to behave differently, what we consider obvious and elementary today might become--unthinkable.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

In the story THE DESPOILERS in the October 1947 Amazing Stories I raised the question, “Is there anything absolutely beyond human comprehension?” In that story I gave humanity a thousand years to give birth to one man who could comprehend the incomprehensible.

The incomprehensible is harder to portray in a story than is merely the unknown. If we denote anything incomprehensible by the symbol X, we can describe what X is to a certain extent by knowing what it is not. We can, gradually, gain a certain insight into what it is by comparing it to what IS comprehensible.

In the last analysis the universe of normalcy is incomprehensible. We have made progress in comprehending it because we have isolated it into small bundles of events that can be dealt with by the human intellect.

We have arrived at certain basic pictures of the behavior of the incomprehensible. We have found a certain stability existing in the picture we have built up. We have searched the heavens and found that stars are made up of the same elements as the Earth--with a few exceptions. And with those exceptions we have brought them into the framework of our picture of the Universe by postulating “dense matter.”

We have, slowly, come to the belief that the same laws operate throughout the entire Universe, just as they do here on the Earth. This is the Uniformity Postulate.

In that story THE DESPOILERS the Uniformity Postulate was not denied. The incomprehensible in that story was the mind of a Despoiler. It, to the human mind, was incomprehensible; and to the Despoiler, the human mind was incomprehensible.

Each viewed the Universe differently due to a difference in whatever lies at the foundations of the thinking processes. In other words, uniformity of the principle of thought was denied there.

Both the Despoilers and Man had mechanical civilization and science, but due to their different minds neither could comprehend completely the viewpoint of the other ON THE SAME THING. Each had applied his REASON to the disorder of nature and constructed what to him was a REASONABLE PICTURE.

The type of mentality I attributed to the Despoiler may be impossible. It may be that if the human race eventually reaches out and encounters other intelligent races it will find that the basic principles which result in thought as we know it are the ONLY basic principles that can give rise to thinking intelligence, so that wherever we find civilization we will find creatures that think the same as we do, and have seen the same pattern in nature that we have.

There is another possibility besides the encountering of incomprehensible minds. That is the possibility of encountering incomprehensible “islands” of reality.

One thing we have discovered about nature that makes such “islands” possible--or that makes it possible WE are living in such an “island”--is that matter has a habit of “reacting” to some types of energy patterns, and “totally ignoring” others.

Perhaps you can better understand what I mean by the following analogous position: Kah is an intelligent entity fixed at a certain point. He can only derive a picture of reality from what he sees. He can only see a foot in front of him. In all his existence he has seen only one type of thing--rocks about an inch in diameter. He therefore concludes that all reality is rocks an inch in diameter.

He is unable ever to learn that he is situated at a place where the one-inch rocks leave a screen with seven-eighths-inch holes that let every smaller pebble and all the sand through, and that seven-eighths-inch screen is the catch-all for a higher screen with one-inch holes that kept everything larger from coming through.

His Universe is brought to him by selective screening. He rationalizes what his Universe presents him, and postulates that ALL reality is identical to what he can experience. He can NOT conceive of what is utterly beyond his range of experience and imagination--which is merely the re-arrangement of reality or of thoughts derived from reality.

We are perhaps in much that same position. To be sure, our telescopes bring us data from stars that are so far away the human race will never reach them--but is not our telescope a “screen” that brings us only the one-inch rocks?

There may be and probably is a vast realm of reality co-existent with the reality we know, right around us; but it is “screened” from us. It may be possible that we know less than ten percent of actual reality around us due to the screening of our senses and our instruments that blocks completely, or permits to pass completely, every energy pattern that can’t pass through the “holes” of our “screen.”

Going back to Kah, the one-inch-rock-universe observer, suppose that in one batch of dirt dumped at the head of the screening system there happened to be no one-inch rocks at all? Or, more closely to the story you are about to read, suppose, with his mind deeply grooved with the tracks of the one-inch rocks, he were to move to a vantage point where there were no one-inch rocks, but larger or smaller ones?

He would immediately find nature behaving according to an utterly strange pattern, BUT he could only sort the incoming sensations according to the neural grooves already built up in his mind! In his mind he could only see one-inch rocks or nothing, and since what he would see would obviously be something, it would either seem nothing to him, or one-inch rocks behaving strangely.

His instruments and his mind would interpret by the old gradations and scales and concepts. His Universe would still be made of nothing but one-inch rocks, to him, but its behavior would be strange.

Perhaps slowly, like a newborn child making sense out of its surroundings, or a foreigner slowly making sense out of our language, he would penetrate to the new reality with his mind. Perhaps in the very process his being would change its structure.

In the end he would be in a unique position. He would have the memories of one Reality, and the experiences of a new one. He would have the language of the old with which to describe the new to his old companions. Could he do it so they would comprehend it?

It would do him no good simply to invent new words to describe something beyond the experience of his old companions. He would have to describe something beyond their experience with words and sentences they had created to describe only what they had gained from their own experience! How could he hope to make them gain a true understanding of it?

He might tell them simply and truthfully everything he experienced--and it might come out utter nonsense! It probably would. Unless he could bring back some of the evidence, either intentionally or unwittingly.

At first that evidence might present a pattern of utter nonsense and contradiction with known thought patterns and concepts. It might present seemingly normal events in nonsense sequences. It might present impossible events in seemingly normal sequences. It might even present disjointed events in sequence.

What it would present would be only what the screen of the senses and the screen of the mind could accept. Underneath would be a perfectly orderly pattern of events of some sort, behaving according to different natural laws in conflict with those we have existed under. Slowly we might penetrate to an understanding of them, but not at first, because at first they would be completely UNTHINKABLE.

In this story, UNTHINKABLE, an attempt has been made to depict such a conflict of nature and human mentality. It is not the ordinary science fiction attempt. It is not new laws working in harmony with old, or new discoveries that fit into the old pattern. It is, if you please, an utterly alien bit of reality in conflict with the old.

The story cannot but be inadequate. It is the froth and foam of the struggle. It is the parts that fit into the words and phrases and sentences. You won’t like it at all--unless you have the type of mind that can reach a little way beyond experience. And though what you may “see” may have no counterpart in all reality, if this story serves to expand your mental horizons, it has at least found an excuse for being written.


Dr. Nale Hargrave tossed his spotless grey hat expertly across the six feet of space between him and the coat tree, humming the while a currently popular tune whose only words he could remember were “Feemo fimo fujo, the flumy fwam to fwojo.”

His eyes rested self-congratulatingly on the hat after it came to a safe stop, then turned to beam an instant at his receptionist before he continued on to his office.

She smiled after him with an affectionate, indulgent look, gave him as long as it took her to powder her nose and tuck a few stray hairs into place, then pressed the buzzer that signaled to quarantine that the doctor was ready to screen the crew of the U triple S Endore.

The Endore had arrived during the night. Usually crews that had to wait hours before passing through psych raised a big fuss. Quarantine wasn’t exactly designed for comfort. A man couldn’t be expected to enjoy sitting on a bench and reading a worn-out magazine after looking forward to visiting his old haunts on Earth after months or years in space. His only thought was to get through the red tape and step through the door on the other side of which lay freedom of expression and freedom from space discipline--and girls.

That was the usual result of forced delay in quarantine. The crew of the Endore hadn’t let a peep out of them.

Martha Ryan, the receptionist, glanced knowingly at the closed door. She knew that Nale was sitting at his desk, his legs crossed carelessly, his long fingers holding the report on the Endore and the report of the psych observer. He was probably frowning slightly over the unusual behavior of the crew.

She had her own list of names of the crew on the desk before her. Heading the list was the name, Comdr. Hugh Dunnam. Dr. Nale would ordinarily call him first. Next would come any of the crew that the commander reported unbalanced, followed by the rest of the crew.

Sometimes when the psych observer’s report was unfavorable to the whole crew he called some crew member at random before calling the top name.

It didn’t surprise her, therefore, when the intercom came to life and Dr. Nale’s voice pleasantly asked for a name two-thirds of the way down on the list of forty names--Ren Gravenard, spaceman/2d cls.

Martha’s pencil followed the list down, making a light check after the name while she dialed quarantine to send in the man.

In her mind’s eye she could visualize the lifted eyebrows of the day shift guards as they glanced over the huddled crew. She could see their suddenly changed attitude toward the crew, their new caution as they opened the heavy wire door and led the man out. She could see, too, the worried frown of Comdr. Dunnam, whoever he was, as he realized what that meant--to have a crew member precede him.

She could see, too, Dunnam’s probable warning look to spaceman Gravenard to keep mum and play his cards close.

That was the trouble with crews of ships when they thought they might be held up by psych over something. They invariably overplayed their innocence right from the start.

The side door from quarantine opened. Two guards entered, preceding and following the first victim warily. Martha sized Ren Gravenard up closely while her face assumed the careful, welcoming smile that often brought attempts at dating.

Ren Gravenard was no different in appearance than a million like him. He was average in everything including his type of character.

“You are Ren Gravenard?” she asked.

He nodded without speaking.

Martha pressed the button that told Doctor Nale the first one had arrived, got his O.K. signal, and motioned Gravenard and the guards toward the inner door with a sweep of long yellow pencil in perfectly manicured fingers.

As the three passed into the private office she made a slow dash after the spaceman’s name preparatory to writing his destination when he came out. It would be “obs” or “O.K.”

Then she glanced at her wrist watch. Its hands pointed to six after nine. Two hours and fifty-four minutes later Ren Gravenard had still not come out. And in her two years as receptionist for Dr. Nale Hargrave, Martha Ryan had never known him to spend more than twenty minutes with any subject...

Her manicured nail pressed the buzzer three times to signal she was going to lunch. Giving Dr. Nale a full minute to make any request, without receiving any, she opened the door to the corridor and left.

When she returned an hour later she was surprised to see the door to Dr. Hargrave’s inner office open and Dr. John Bemis, the chief of the psych staff, at the desk.

“Come in, Miss Ryan,” Dr. Bemis said, accenting his invitation with a wave of his hand.

He waited until she had come in and closed the door behind her before continuing.

“There’s something’s happened,” he said gravely. “I don’t know just what, and maybe I don’t exactly WANT to know.”

Dr. Bemis spread his hands in an all inclusive gesture.

“The universe is a big place,” he said. “I suppose we should have expected that sooner or later we’d run into something a little outside normal experience.”

He shook his head slowly, looking up at the ceiling as though trying to pierce it and see beyond. When he continued, his voice was sharp and businesslike.

“Tell me exactly what you saw, thought, and felt this morning. Every detail, however unimportant you might think it.”

“There’s really very little to tell,” Martha said, surprised and alarmed. “There was this crew of the Endore in quarantine when I came to work this morning. They were unusual in that they didn’t complain about having to wait, indicating a guilt feeling in the crew. Dr. Hargrave asked to see a common spaceman first. That proved he recognized this. The name of the spaceman he saw is Ren Gravenard, who was brought in at a little after nine and was still in there when I left at twelve.”

She looked keenly at Dr. Bemis. Something was so radically wrong somewhere that she didn’t have the courage to even ask him. She just waited.

“Dr. Hargrave has been taken to observation,” he said without warning. “So has the crew of the Endore. I--ah--believe you may take an indefinite leave from the office until further notice. With full pay, of course.”

“Dr. Hargrave?” Martha asked, not hearing the last.

“Yes!” Dr. Bemis’s voice changed from harsh tenseness to contriteness. “I’m sorry, Miss Ryan, but I feel it inadvisable to discuss it just now. All I can say is that full quarantine measures are now in force as of fifteen minutes ago. There will be no landing or taking off from Earth until it is lifted; and within this area the same quarantine applies.”[1]

Martha Ryan hesitated, then turned and left. Dr. Bemis watched her go. After the door closed behind her he did a very peculiar thing. He took a gun out of his coat pocket and shot himself through the head. After that he went to a mirror on the wall, dressed the wounds carefully, wincing at the bite of the alcohol in the raw flesh, and, after drinking several glasses of water, returned to Dr. Hargrave’s desk.

He sat there, drumming his fingers on the walnut surface, his eyes closed as if he were listening to something very far away. A buzzer under his desk gave three short buzzes. He reached over and deflected the toggle on the intercom.

“Back already, Martha?” he said cheerily. “Any more left on your list for the Endore?”

Martha checked her list. There had been two left when she went to lunch. They had been checked off, too, while she was gone.

“That’s all, Dr. Nale,” she said.

“Good,” came his voice through the intercom. “Think I’ll go out and have something to eat myself.”

The click of the intercom was followed at once by the opening of the inner office door. Martha’s eyes watched Dr. Nale Hargrave as he walked through the office and out into the corridor.

Her eyes remained on the exit after he had gone, a faint frown creasing the smooth skin above her eyes. She had an IRRATIONAL impression that she had seen Dr. Bemis, the super, instead of Dr. Nale, and with his head bandaged clumsily.

She dismissed this with a pout and took a book out of a drawer to do her afternoon reading.

The buzzer on her desk buzzed a warning. She laid the book flat as the inner office door opened and Dr. Nale escorted Ren Gravenard out into the waiting room.

Martha glanced at her watch. It was ten after nine. Four minutes! She expected the nod from Dr. Nale. Her pencil wrote an O.K. after the dash she had drawn four minutes ago.

“Thank you doctor,” Ren Gravenard was saying heartily. The two guards left by the side door back to quarantine.

Dr. Nale went over and bent close to Martha’s ear.

“As your psychiatrist,” he said pseudo-seriously, “I can advise you that unless you kiss me I am going to feel quite frustrated.”

“Oh, that would never do!” Martha laughed, and kissed him.

She jerked back, startled. There was the sound of a shot from the inner office. The door was still open. Martha and Dr. Nale looked through the door, horrified.

Ren Gravenard was standing in the middle of the inner office dropping a flat automatic into his side pocket. There was an ugly wound on either side of his head from a bullet that had passed directly through his brain.

He smiled at them disarmingly, “It’s quite all right. You see, it couldn’t possibly do me any harm because I’m waiting for the elevator.”

“Oh,” they said, relieved. They bent and kissed each other again while Ren Gravenard went over to the mirror on the wall and dressed the wounds, wincing from the raw touch of the alcohol on wounded bone and flesh.

The outer door opened and two men came in with a wicker basket.

Dr. Nale pointed over in the corner where one of the guards lay dead.

“What happened to him, Doc?” one of the men asked.

“He got shot through the head,” Dr. Hargrave explained. “One of the men off the Endore did it. They’re all being taken over to observation. I think I’ll have to go over with them. I’m beginning to get an inkling of what’s going on, and I’m very much afraid of what I think it is.”

The two men set the basket down and lifted the wicker lid. Dr. Bemis came out of the inner office and laid down in the corner. The two men waited until he had settled himself, then lifted him into the basket.

Dr. Hargrave held open the outer door for them. He returned to the desk beside Martha and took a gun out of his coat pocket. He pointed it at her, frowned in indecision, then slowly, with perspiration standing out on his forehead, pulled out the clip and emptied the barrel of the gun.

“Good for you,” Martha said. She picked up her book and started reading. Dr. Hargrave put the gun back in his pocket and went to the door.

“Take a few days off starting tomorrow,” he said before going out. “I’m going to be slowly going crazy trying to figure this mess out. That’s why I insisted to Dr. Bemis that I be confined with the crew of the Endore--just in case.”

His heels made loud noises on the marble floor of the corridor. He pushed through the revolving doors to the sidewalk.

There was an argument going on between a small newsboy and an elderly gentlemen type of man.

“I tell you there’s only two pennies,” the boy insisted.

“There’s four,” the man insisted just as strongly. “See?”

He pried open the boy’s fingers and looked.

“Sorry,” he said. “You’re right.” His hand went into his pocket to make up the deficit.

“Hey! Wait a minute,” the boy said. “I was wrong. You gave me two pennies too much.”

A small pudgy finger took two of the pennies. The boy glanced at the others to make sure the right number were left.

Nale was close enough to see what happened. He saw the pennies taken from what seemed to be seven or eight in the boy’s palm. When the two were taken away there seemed to be a slight blur--and there was only a solitary penny left.

He didn’t wait. The paper boy and the customer were still patiently arguing as he climbed into his car and drove away. He drove slowly with his foot close to the brakes.

Although his eyes were warily watching each car on the street, his mind was busy. He was trying to figure out who had been shot.

“It might even have been me!” he thought. And there was no way of knowing.

He drove the car another block. There was doubt growing in his mind. On a sudden impulse he pulled the car over to the curb and stopped the motor. Getting out, he started walking rapidly. There would be three miles of walking before he reached observation, but it would be safer to walk.

A block further he stopped abruptly in surprise. The spaceport observation hospital was just in front of him.

“I should have guessed,” he muttered as he pushed through the heavy doors. “The speedometer, of course. Naturally it would go first.”

Martha Ryan saw the door close on Dr. Hargrave, then started reading again. She finished the page and turned it over. The first few words of the opposite side of the sheet showed the continuity to be difficult.

Thinking she might have turned two sheets by mistake, she turned back one. It was still wrong. She sighed exasperatedly. She distinctly remembered that she had been on page twenty-five, so the next page should be twenty-six. Since it hadn’t been, she would have to look for twenty-six.

She looked through the book, page by page, and it wasn’t there. Getting over her exasperation she made a game of it. Finally she developed to the stage where she would open the book at random, note the number of the page, close the book, and then try to find that page she had just seen.

It was a very peculiar book. She found that, (a) she could find any page number she wasn’t looking for, and (b) any page number she looked for was not in the book, even though it had been a moment before.

Resting thoughtfully for several minutes on this achievement of deduction she decided to try another experiment. She counted the number of sheets of paper in the book and wrote the number down. It was one hundred twenty-four.

Then she counted them again. There were one hundred eighty-six. She counted them five more times, making seven times she had counted them. She got nine different numbers of sheets in the book. She decided she couldn’t get nine different numbers after counting only seven times, and counted the numbers. There were five. She closed her eyes and counted to ten rapidly, then counted them again. There were fourteen.

She held out her hands. She had seven fingers on her right hand and three on her left. She chuckled dryly and thought, “Well, anyway there are ten altogether.” She counted them to be sure, and there were thirteen.

Pursing her lips stubbornly she held up two fingers and counted them. There were two. She held them rigid and closed her eyes, counting rapidly to ten. Opening her eyes she looked cautiously at the upraised fingers. There were two.

She raised a third finger to join the other two, and there were five upraised fingers. Not only that, there were seven of them clenched. She closed her eyes and counted to ten quickly, then opened them. There were three upraised fingers. She counted the clenched ones and there were two. Relieved, she checked on the upraised fingers again--and there were seven.

She gave up in disgust. Deciding she ought to go home she stood up and started to cross to the coat tree.

The door to the corridor opened and Ren Gravenard stepped in.

“Hello!” Martha said in surprise. “I thought you were sent to observation.”

“I was,” Ren said. “That’s where I am now, but when there are forty of you, you can sort of get lost in the group and wind up anywhere you want to.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” Martha said dryly. “Maybe you can explain a few things.”

Ren grinned crookedly.

“Suppose I do the explaining over something to eat,” he said. “I almost stopped and had something on the way over here, but I wanted to wait and eat with you. Do you mind?”

“Of course not,” Martha frowned. She was taking a closer look at this spaceman second class. He had a nice way of smiling at her. His eyes had depths she hadn’t noticed before.

The illogical thought came to her that maybe now that things didn’t behave the way they should, maybe he and his fellow spacemen were the only ones that knew what it was all about.

“All this,” Martha waved her hand vaguely. “It must have been caused by something about the Endore, mustn’t it?”

Ren nodded, holding the door open for her. They walked along the corridor to the revolving doors, his hand tucked protectively under her arm.

“Is it mental?” Martha asked when they were on the sidewalk.

“No,” Ren answered. “But let’s wait until we eat. I’m starved to death. If you run into any trouble I’ll help you out. You see, I know how to work things.”

“Like finding page twenty-six in the book I’m reading?” Martha asked.

“That’s simple,” Ren said. “All you have to do is look for page twenty-nine and you’ll run across page twenty-six right away. Things like that are mental, partly. I mean, you have to have the right attitude to get results you want.”

“I don’t understand,” Martha said.

“Well, it’s like this,” Ren explained. “If you’re looking for page twenty-six it won’t be one of the first two pages you look at, regardless of where you open the book. But after you’ve looked at three of them you’ve passed the page you want unless you’re not looking for it. If you’re not looking for it you REACH the right page.”

“But why page twenty-nine to find twenty-six?” Martha persisted.

“It has to do with the new arithmetic,” Ren said.

“Oh,” Martha said dully. “So that’s the whole trouble with everything.”

“No, that’s only part of it,” Ren said. “But here’s a good place to eat.” He guided her through the door.

An hour later Ren lit a cigarette and took a long drag on it, his eyes looking longingly into Martha’s. He exhaled the smoke in a long white plume. Then he began talking.

“I don’t know whether you read it on the report sheet or not, but the trip of the Endore began from this same spaceport two years ago. The observatory on Pluto had reported a free planet passing within two hundred quadrillion miles of the solar system. The Endore was assigned the task of landing on it, if feasible.

“I had been a member of the crew for only four months when the Endore turned outward from its position just the other side of Mars’ orbit.”

Ren smiled apologetically.

“I hadn’t exactly planned on being a spaceman, second class. I don’t know whether you know the system, but whether you do or not, it should suffice to say that I had studied for five years to become a research scientist, and failed. I decided to take out my disappointment by joining up for two years. I planned on making another try at research when I got out.

“Everything went along fine on the trip out. We were a very congenial crew with a fine, human commander. He made it a point to get personally acquainted with every member of the crew eventually. He seemed to take a particular liking to me for some reason. By the time we were half-way out to Metapor, as we found out it was called later, I was an unofficial first mate or something with free run of the pilot room and the instruments.

“I had guessed by now that when I enlisted they looked up my record and passed the word along to Commander Dunnam to sell me on the idea of a career as a spaceman.

“At any rate, I was in an ideal position to see all that went on first hand. We were within three hundred thousand miles of Metapor when we got the first indication of the change in metaphysics. I discovered it myself. I was helping the astrogator get the constants for the planet...”

“Take a look at the gravy board, Ren,” Ford Gratrick, the astrogator said. “What’s she say?”

Ren looked at the fine black pointer on the gravity potentiometer. It pointed to a spot just two marks above the number ten on the dial.

“Ten and two tenths,” Ren read.

“That can’t be right,” Ford frowned. “At this distance that would make this baby a super.”

He came over and looked himself. While he was looking the pointer moved up to twenty and then down to six tenths.

“Must be out of order,” Ford muttered. “Well, this’ll give you experience with emergency equipment. Break out the manual gravy dish, Ren.”

It was a fine coil spring in a glass tube. Other glass tubes fastened on, to make the length almost ten feet. At one g the spring with its weight would stretch out to the bottom. From there to a ten thousandth of a g the spring rose up to a point half-way.

Ren put it together speedily, placing it in the wall clamps designed to hold it. The glass itself was graduated with the scale of gravity strength. The cylindrical weight at the free end of the spring had a line on it that would coincide with the proper reading.

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