No Substitutions - Cover

No Substitutions

by Jim Harmon

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: If it was happening to him, all right, he could take that. but what if he was happening to it?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Putting people painlessly to sleep is really a depressing job. It keeps me awake at night thinking of all those bodies I have sent to the vaults, and it interferes to a marked extent with my digestion. I thought before Councilman Coleman came to see me that there wasn’t much that could bother me worse.

Coleman came in the morning before I was really ready to face the day. My nerves were fairly well shot from the kind of work I did as superintendent of Dreamland. I chewed up my pill to calm me down, the one to pep me up, the capsule to strengthen my qualities as a relentless perfectionist. I washed them down with gin and orange juice and sat back, building up my fortitude to do business over the polished deck of my desk.

But instead of the usual morning run of hysterical relatives and masochistic mystics, I had to face one of my superiors from the Committee itself.

Councilman Coleman was an impressive figure in a tailored black tunic. His olive features were set off by bristling black eyes and a mobile mustache. He probably scared most people, but not me. Authority doesn’t frighten me any more. I’ve put to sleep too many megalomaniacs, dictators, and civil servants.

“Warden Walker, I’ve been following your career with considerable interest,” Coleman said.

“My career hasn’t been very long, sir,” I said modestly. I didn’t mention that nobody could last that long in my job. At least, none had yet.

“I’ve followed it from the first. I know every step you’ve made.”

I didn’t know whether to be flattered or apprehensive. “That’s fine,” I said. It didn’t sound right.

“Tell me,” Coleman said, crossing his legs, “what do you think of Dreamland in principle?”

“Why, it’s the logical step forward in penal servitude. Man has been heading toward this since he first started civilizing himself. After all, some criminals can’t be helped psychiatrically. We can’t execute them or turn them free; we have to imprison them.”

I waited for Coleman’s reaction. He merely nodded.

“Of course, it’s barbaric to think of a prison as a place of punishment,” I continued. “A prison is a place to keep a criminal away from society for a specific time so he can’t harm that society for that time. Punishment, rehabilitation, all of it is secondary to that. The purpose of confinement is confinement.”

The councilman edged forward an inch. “And you really think Dreamland is the most humane confinement possible?”

“Well,” I hedged, “it’s the most humane we’ve found yet. I suppose living through a--uh--movie with full sensory participation for year after year can get boring.”

“I should think so,” Coleman said emphatically. “Warden, don’t you sometimes feel the old system where the prisoners had the diversions of riots, solitary confinement, television, and jailbreaks may have made time easier to serve? Do these men ever think they are actually living these vicarious adventures?”

That was a question that made all of us in the Dreamland service uneasy. “No, Councilman, they don’t. They know they aren’t really Alexander of Macedonia, Tarzan, Casanova, or Buffalo Bill. They are conscious of all the time that is being spent out of their real lives; they know they have relatives and friends outside the dream. They know, unless--”

Coleman lifted a dark eyebrow above a black iris. “Unless?”

I cleared my throat. “Unless they go mad and really believe the dream they are living. But as you know, sir, the rate of madness among Dreamland inmates is only slightly above the norm for the population as a whole.”

“How do prisoners like that adjust to reality?”

Was he deliberately trying to ask tough questions? “They don’t. They think they are having some kind of delusion. Many of them become schizoid and pretend to go along with reality while secretly ‘knowing’ it to be a lie.”

Coleman removed a pocket secretary and broke it open. “About these new free-choice models--do you think they genuinely are an improvement over the old fixed-image machines?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. “By letting the prisoner project his own imagination onto the sense tapes and giving him a limited amount of alternatives to a situation, we can observe whether he is conforming to society to a larger extent.”

“I’m glad you said that, Walker,” Councilman Coleman told me warmly. “As I said, I’ve been following your career closely, and if you get through the next twenty-four-hour period as you have through the foregoing part of your Dream, you will be awakened at this time tomorrow. Congratulations!”

I sat there and took it.

He was telling me, the superintendent of Dreamland, that my own life here was only a Dream such as I fed to my own prisoners. It was unbelievably absurd, a queasy little joke of some kind. But I didn’t deny it.

If it were true, if I had forgotten that everything that happened was only a Dream, and if I admitted it, the councilman would know I was mad. It couldn’t be true. Yet--

Hadn’t I thought about it ever since I had been appointed warden and transferred from my personnel job at the plant?

Whenever I had come upon two people talking, and it seemed as if I had come upon those same two people talking the same talk before, hadn’t I wondered for an instant if it couldn’t be a Dream, not reality at all?

Once I had experienced a Dream for five or ten minutes. I was driving a ground car down a spidery road made into a dismal tunnel by weeping trees, a dank, lavender maze. I had known at the time it was a Dream, but still, as the moments passed, I became more intent on the difficult road before me, my blocky hands on the steering wheel, thick fingers typing out the pattern of motion on the drive buttons.

I could remember that. Maybe I couldn’t remember being shoved into the prison vault for so many years for such and such a crime.

I didn’t really believe this, not then, but I couldn’t afford to make a mistake, even if it were only some sort of intemperate test--as I was confident it was, with a sweet, throbbing fury against the man who would employ such a jagged broadsword for prying in his bureaucratic majesty.

“I’ve always thought,” I said, “that it would be a good idea to show a prisoner what the modern penal system was all about by giving him a Dream in which he dreamed about Dreamland itself.”

“Yes, indeed,” Coleman concurred. Just that and no more.

I leaned intimately across my beautiful oak desk. “I’ve thought that projecting officials into the Dream and letting them talk with the prisoners might be a more effective form of investigation than mere observation.”

“I should say so,” Coleman remarked, and got up.

I had to get more out of him, some proof, some clue beyond the preposterous announcement he had made.

“I’ll see you tomorrow at this time then, Walker.” The councilman nodded curtly and turned to leave my office.

I held onto the sides of my desk to keep from diving over and teaching him to change his concept of humor.

The day was starting. If I got through it, giving a good show, I would be released from my Dream, he had said smugly.

But if this was a dream, did I want probation to reality?

Horbit was a twitchy little man whose business tunic was the same rodent color as his hair. He had a pronounced tic in his left cheek. “I have to get back,” he told me with compelling earnestness.

“Mr. Horbit--Eddie--” I said, glancing at his file projected on my desk pad, “I can’t put you back into a Dream. You served your full time for your crime. The maximum.”

“But I haven’t adjusted to society!”

“Eddie, I can shorten sentences, but I can’t expand them beyond the limit set by the courts.”

A tear of frustration spilled out of his left eye with the next twitch. “But Warden, sir, my psychiatrist said that I was unable to cope with reality. Come on now, Warden, you don’t want a guy who can’t cope with reality running around loose.” He paused, puzzled. “Hell, I don’t know why I can’t express myself like I used to.”

He could express himself much better in his Dream. He had been Abraham Lincoln in his Dream, I saw. He had lived the life right up to the night when he was taking in An American Cousin at the Ford Theater. Horbit couldn’t accept history that he had no more life to live. He only knew that if in his delirium he could gain Dreamland once more, he could get back to the hard realities of dealing with the problems of Reconstruction.

Please,” he begged.

I looked up from the file. “I’m sorry, Eddie.”

His eyes narrowed, both of them, on the next twitch. “Warden, I can always go out and commit another anti-social act.”

“I’m afraid not, Eddie. The file shows you are capable of only one crime. And you don’t have a wife any more, and she doesn’t have a lover.”

Horbit laughed. “Your files aren’t infallible, Warden.”

With one gesture, he ripped open his tunic and tore into his own flesh. No, not his own flesh. Pseudo-flesh. He took out the gun that was underneath.

“The beamer is made of X-ray-transparent plastic, Warden, but it works as well as one made of steel and lead.”

“Now that you’ve got it in here,” I said in time with the pulse in my throat, “what are you going to do with it?”

“I’m going to make you go down to the vaults and put me back to sleep, Warden.”

I nodded. “I suppose you can do that. But what’s to prevent me from waking you up as soon as I’ve taken away your gun?”

“This!” He tossed a sheet of paper onto my desk.

“What’s this?” I asked unnecessarily. I could read it.

“A confession that you accepted a bribe to put me back to sleep,” Horbit said, his tic beating out a feverish tempo. “As soon as you’ve signed it, I’ll use your phone to have it telefaxed to the Registrar of Private Documents.”

I had to admire the thought behind the idea. Horbit was convinced that I was only a figment of his unfocused imagination, but he was playing the game with uncompromising logic, trusting that even madness had hard and tight rules behind it.

There was also something else I admired about the plan.

It could work.

Once he fed that document to the archives, I would be obligated to help him even without the gun. My word would probably be taken that I had been forced to do it at gunpoint, but there would always be doubts, enough to wreck my career when it came time for promotion.

Nothing like this had ever happened in my years as warden.

Suddenly, Coleman’s words hit me in the back of the neck. If I got through the next twenty-four hours. This had to be some kind of test.

But a test for what?

Had I been deliberately told that I was living only a Dream to see if my ethics would hold up even when I thought I wasn’t dealing with reality?

Or if this was only a Dream, was it a test to see if I was morally ready to return to the real, the earnest world?

But if it was a test to see if I was ready for reality, did I want to pass it? My life was nerve-racking and mind-wrecking, but I liked the challenge--it was the only life I knew or could believe in.

What was I going to do?

The only thing I knew was that I couldn’t tune in tomorrow and find out.

The time was now.

Horbit motioned the gun to my desk set. “Sign that paper.”

I reached out and took hold of his wrist. I squeezed.

Horbit’s screams brought in the guards.

I picked up the gun from where he had dropped it and handed it to Captain Keller, my head guard, a tough old bird who wore his uniform like armor.

“Trying to force his way back to the sleep tanks,” I told Keller.

He nodded. “Happened before. Back when old man Preston lost his grip.”

Preston had been my predecessor. He had lost his hold on reality like all the others before him who had served long as warden of Dreamland. A few had quit while they were still ahead and spent the rest of their lives recuperating. Our society didn’t produce individuals tough enough to stand the strain of putting their fellow human beings to sleep for long.

One of Keller’s men had stabbed Horbit’s arm with a hypospray to blanket the pain from his broken wrist, and the man was quieter.

“I couldn’t have done it, Warden,” Horbit mumbled drowsily. “I couldn’t kill anybody. Unless it was like that other time.”

“Of course, Eddie,” I said.

I had banked on that, hadn’t I, when I made my move?

Or did I?

Wasn’t it perhaps a matter of knowing that all of it wasn’t real and that the safety cutoffs in even a free-choice model of a Dream Machine couldn’t let me come to any real harm? I had been suspiciously brave, disarming a dedicated maniac. With only an hour to spare for gym a day, I could barely press 350 pounds. I was hardly in shape for personal combat.

On the other hand, maybe I actually wanted something to go wrong so my sleep sentence would be extended. Or was it that, in some sane part of my mind, I wanted release from unreality badly enough to take any risk to prove that I was morally capable of returning to the real world?

It was a carrousel and I couldn’t catch the brass ring no matter how many turns I went spinning through.

I hardly heard Horbit when he half-shouted at me as my men led him from the room. Glancing up sharply, I saw him straining purposefully against the bonds of muscle and narcotic that held him.

“You have to send me back now, Warden,” he was shrilling. “You have to! I tried to coerce you with a gun. That’s a crime, Warden--you know that’s a crime! I have to be put to sleep!”

Keller flicked his mustache with a thick thumbnail. “How about that? You won’t let a guy back into the sleepy-bye pads, so he pulls a gun on you to make you, and that makes him eligible. He couldn’t lose, Warden. No, sir, he had it made.”

My answer to Keller was forming, building up in my jaw muscles, but I took a pill and it went away.

“Hold him in the detention quarters,” I said finally. “I’m going to make a study of this.”

Keller winked knowingly and sauntered out of the office, his left hand swinging the blackjack the Committee had taken away from him a decade before.

The problem of what to do with Keller wasn’t particularly atypical of the ones I had to solve daily and I wasn’t going to let that worry me. Much.

I pressed my button to let Mrs. Engle know I was ready for the next interview.

They came. There were the hysterical relatives, the wives and mothers and brothers who demanded that their kin be Awakened because they were special cases, not really guilty, or needed at home, or possessed of such awesome talents and qualities as to be exempt from the laws of lesser men.

Once in a while I granted a parole for a prisoner to see a dying mother or if some important project was falling apart without his help, but most of the time I just sat with my eyes propped open, letting a sea of vindictive screeching and beseeching wailings wash around me.

The relatives and legal talent were spaced with hungry-eyed mystics who were convinced they could contemplate God and their navels both conscientiously as an incarnation of Gautama. To risk sounding religiously intolerant, I usually kicked these out pretty swiftly.

The onetime inmate who wanted back in after a reprieve was fairly rare. Few of them ever got that crazy.

But it was my luck to get another the same day, the day for me, as Horbit.

Paulson was a tall, lean man with sad eyes. The clock above his sharp shoulder bone said five till noon. I didn’t expect him to take much out of my lunch hour.

“Warden,” Paulson said, “I’ve decided to give myself up. I murdered a blind beggar the other night.”

“For his pencils?” I asked.

Paulson shifted uneasily. “No, sir. For his money. I needed some extra cash and I was stronger than he was, so why shouldn’t I take it?”

I examined the projection of his file. He was an embezzler, not a violent man. He had served his time and been released. Conceivably he might embezzle again, but the Committee saw to it that temptation was never again placed in his path. He would not commit a crime of violence.

“Look, Paulson,” I said, a trifle testily, “if you have so little conscience as to kill a blind old man for a few dollars, where do you suddenly get enough guilt feelings to cause you to give yourself up?”

Paulson tried his insufficient best to smile evilly. “It wasn’t conscience, Warden. I never lie awake a minute whenever I kill anybody. It’s just--well, Dreaming isn’t so bad. Last time I was Allen Pinkerton, the detective. It was exciting. A lot more exciting than the kind of life I lead.”

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