Fifty Per Cent Prophet

by Randall Garrett

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: That he was a phony Swami was beyond doubt. That he was a genuine prophet, though, seemed. but then, what's the difference between a dictator and a true prophet? So was he....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Dr. Joachim sat in the small room behind his reception hall and held his fingers poised above the keys of the rather creaky electrotyper on his desk. The hands seemed to hang there, long, slender, and pale, like two gulls frozen suddenly in their long swoop towards some precious tidbit floating on the writhing sea beneath, ready to begin their drop instantly, as soon as time began again.

All of Dr. Joachim’s body seemed to be held in that same stasis. Only his lips moved as he silently framed the next sentence in his mind.

Physically, the good doctor could be called a big man: he was broad-shouldered and well-muscled, but, hidden as his body was beneath the folds of his blue, monkish robe, only his shortness of stature was noticeable. He was only fifty-four, but the pale face, the full, flowing beard, and the long white hair topped by a small blue skullcap gave him an ageless look, as though centuries of time had flowed over him to leave behind only the marks of experience and wisdom.

The timelessness of an idealized Methuselah as he approached his ninth centennial, the God-given wisdom engraved on the face of Moses as he came down from Sinai, the mystic power of mighty Merlin as he softly intoned a spell of albamancy, all these seemed to have been blended carefully together and infused into the man who sat behind the typer, composing sentences in his head.

Those gull-hands swooped suddenly to the keyboard, and the aged machine clattered rapidly for nearly a minute before Dr. Joachim paused again to consider his next words.

A bell tinkled softly.

Dr. Joachim’s brown eyes glanced quickly at the image on the black-and-white TV screen set in the wall. It was connected to the hidden camera in his front room, and showed a woman entering his front door. He sighed and rose from his seat, adjusting his blue robes carefully before he went to the door that led into the outer room.

He’d rather hoped it was a client, but--

“Hello, Susan, my dear,” he said in a soft baritone, as he stepped through the door. “What seems to be the trouble?”

It wasn’t the same line that he’d have used with a client. You don’t ask a mark questions; you tell him. To a mark, he’d have said: “Ah, you are troubled.” It sounds much more authoritative and all-knowing.

But Cherrie Tart--née Sue Kowalski--was one of the best strippers on the Boardwalk. Her winters were spent in Florida or Nevada or Puerto Rico, but in summer she always returned to King Frankie’s Golden Surf, for the summer trade at Coney Island. She might be a big name in show business now, but she had never forgotten her carny background, and King Frankie, in spite of the ultra-ultra tone of the Golden Surf, still stuck to the old Minsky traditions.

The worried look on her too-perfect face had been easily visible in the TV screen, but it had been replaced by a bright smile as soon as she had heard Dr. Joachim opening the door. The smile flickered for a moment, then she said: “Gee, Doc; you give a girl the creepy feeling that you really can read her mind.”

Dr. Joachim merely smiled. Susan might be with it, but a good mitt man doesn’t give away all his little secrets. He had often wished that he could really read minds--he had heard rumors of men who could--but a little well-applied psychology is sometimes just as good.

“So how’s everything been, Doc?” She smiled her best stage smile--every tooth perfect in that perfect face, her hair framing the whole like a perfect golden helmet. She looked like a girl in her early twenties, but Dr. Joachim knew for a fact that she’d been born in 1955, which made her thirty-two next January.

“Reasonably well, all things considered,” Dr. Joachim admitted. “I’m not starving to death, at least.”

She looked around at the room--the heavy drapes, the signs of the zodiac in gold and silver, the big, over-stuffed chairs, all designed to make the “clients” feel comfortable and yet slightly awed by the ancient atmosphere of mysticism. In the dim light, they looked fairly impressive, but she knew that if the lights were brighter the shabbiness would show.

“Maybe you could use a redecorating job, then, Doc,” she said. With a gesture born of sudden impulse, she reached into her purse and pulled out an envelope and pressed it into the man’s hands. He started to protest, but she cut him off. “No, Doc; I want you to have it. You earned it.

“That San Juan-New York flight, remember?” she went on hurriedly. “You said not to take it, remember? Well, I ... I sort of forgot about what you’d said. You know. Anyway, I got a ticket and was ready to go when the flight was suddenly delayed. Routine, they said. Checking the engines. But I’d never heard of any such routine as that. I remembered what you told me, Doc, and I got scared.

“After an hour, they put another plane into service; they were still working on the other one. I was still worried, so I decided to wait till the next day.

“I guess you read what happened.”

He closed his eyes and nodded slowly. “I read.”

“Doc, I’d’ve been on that flight if you hadn’t warned me. All the money in the world isn’t enough to pay for that.” The oddly worried look had come back into her eyes. “Doc, I don’t know how you knew that ship was going to go, and I won’t ask. I don’t want to know. But, ... one thing: Was it me they were after?”

She thinks someone blew up the ship, he thought. She thinks I heard about the plot some way. For an instant he hesitated, then:

“No, Susan; they weren’t after you. No one was trying to kill you. Don’t worry about it.”

Relief washed over her face. “O.K., Doc; if you say so. Look, I’ve got to run now, but we’ve got to sit down and have a few drinks together, now that I’m back. And ... Doc--”


“Anytime you need anything--if I can ever help you--you let me know, huh?”

“Certainly, my dear. And don’t you worry about anything. The stars are all on your side right now.”

She smiled, patted his hand, and then was gone in a flash of gold and honey. Dr. Joachim looked at the door that had closed behind her, then he looked down at the envelope in his hands. He opened it gently and took out the sheaf of bills. Fifteen hundred dollars!

He smiled and shoved the money into his pocket. After all, he was a professional fortuneteller, even if he didn’t like that particular label, and he had saved her life, hadn’t he?

He returned to the small back room, sat down again at the typer, and, after a minute, began typing again.

When he was finished, he addressed an envelope and put the letter inside.

It was signed with his legal name: Peter J. Forsythe.

It required less than two hours for that letter to end up at its destination in a six-floor brick building, a rather old-fashioned affair that stood among similar structures in a lower-middle-class section of Arlington, Virginia, hardly a hop-skip-and-jump from the Pentagon, and not much farther from the Capitol.

The letter was addressed to Mr. J. Harlan Balfour, President, The Society for Mystical and Metaphysical Research, Inc., but Mr. Balfour was not at the Society’s headquarters at the time, having been called to Los Angeles to address a group who were awaiting the Incarnation of God.

Even if he had been there, the letter wouldn’t have reached him first. All mail was sent first to the office of the Executive Secretary, Mr. Brian Taggert. Most of it--somewhat better than ninety-nine per cent--went directly on to Mr. Balfour’s desk, if it was so addressed; Brian Taggert would never have been so cruel as to deprive Mr. Balfour of the joy of sorting through the thousands of crackpot letters in search of those who had the true spark of mysticism which so fascinated Mr. Balfour.

Mr. Balfour was a crackpot, and it was his job to take care of other crackpots--a job he enjoyed immensely and wholeheartedly, feeling, as he did, that that sort of thing was the only reason for the Society’s existence. Of course, Mr. Balfour never considered himself or the others in the least bit crackpottish, in which he was just as much in error as he was in his assumption of the Society’s raison d’être.

Ninety per cent of the members of the Society for Mystical and Metaphysical Research were just what you would expect them to be. Anyone who was “truly interested in the investigation of the supranormal”, as the ads in certain magazines put it, could pay five dollars a year for membership, which, among other things, entitled him to the Society’s monthly magazine, The Metaphysicist, a well-printed, conservative-looking publication which contained articles on everything from the latest flying saucer report to careful mathematical evaluations of the statistical methods of the Rhine Foundation. Within its broad field, the magazine was quite catholic in its editorial policy.

These members constituted a very effective screen for the real work of the society, work carried on by the “core” members, most of whom weren’t even listed on the membership rolls. And yet, it was this group of men and women who made the Society’s title true.

Mr. Brian Taggert was a long way from being a crackpot. The big, dark-haired, dark-eyed, hawknosed man sat at his desk in his office on the fifth floor of the Society’s building and checked over the mail. Normally, his big wrestler’s body was to be found quietly relaxed on the couch that stood against a nearby wall. Not that he was in any way averse to action; he simply saw no virtue in purposeless action. Nor did he believe in the dictum of Miles Standish; if he wanted a thing done, he sent the man most qualified to do it, whether that was himself or someone else.

When he came to the letter from Coney Island, New York, he read it quickly and then jabbed at a button on the intercom switchboard in his desktop. He said three syllables which would have been meaningless to anyone except the few who understood that sort of verbal shorthand, released the button, and closed his eyes, putting himself in telepathic contact with certain of the Society’s agents in New York.

Across the river, in the Senate Office Building, a telephone rang in the office of Senator Mikhail Kerotski, head of the Senate Committee on Space Exploration. It was an unlisted, visionless phone, and the number was known only to a very few important officials in the United States Government, so the senator didn’t bother to identify himself; he simply said: “Hello.” He listened for a moment, said, “O.K., fine,” in a quiet voice, and cut the connection.

He sat behind his desk for a few minutes longer, a bearlike man with a round, pale face and eyes circled with dark rings and heavy pouches, all of which had the effect of making him look like a rather sleepy specimen of the giant panda. He finished the few papers he had been working on, stacked them together, rose, and went into the outer office, where he told his staff that he was going out for a short walk.

By the time he arrived at the brownstone building in Arlington and was pushing open the door of Brian Taggert’s office, Taggert had received reports from New York and had started other chains of action. As soon as Senator Kerotski came in, Taggert pushed the letter across the desk toward him. “Check that.”

Kerotski read the letter, and a look of relief came over his round face. “Not the same typewriter or paper, but this is him, all right. What more do we know?”

“Plenty. Hold on, and I’ll give you a complete rundown.” He picked up the telephone and began speaking in a low voice. It was an ordinary-sounding conversation; even if the wire had been tapped, no one who was not a “core” member of the S.M.M.R. would have known that the conversation was about anything but an esoteric article to be printed in The Metaphysicist--something about dowsing rods.

The core membership had one thing in common: understanding.

Consider plutonium. Imagine someone dropping milligram-sized pellets of the metal into an ordinary Florence flask. (In an inert atmosphere, of course; there is no point in ruining a good analogy with side reactions.) More than two and a half million of those little pellets could be dropped into the flask without the operator having anything more to worry about than if he were dropping grains of lead or gold into the container. But after the five millionth, dropping them in by hand would only be done by the ignorant, the stupid, or the indestructible. A qualitative change takes place.

So with understanding. As a human mind increases its ability to understand another human mind, it eventually reaches a critical point, and the mind itself changes. And, at that point, the Greek letter psi ceases to be a symbol for the unknown.

When understanding has passed the critical point, conversation as it is carried on by most human beings becomes unnecessarily redundant. Even in ordinary conversation, a single gesture--a shrug of the shoulders, a snap of the fingers, or a nose pinched between thumb and forefinger--can express an idea that would take many words and much more time. A single word--”slob,” “nazi,” “saint”--can be more descriptive than the dozens of words required to define it. All that is required is that the meanings of the symbols be understood.

The ability to manipulate symbols is the most powerful tool of the human mind; a mind which can manipulate them effectively is, in every sense of the word, truly human.

Even without telepathy, it was possible for two S.M.M.R. agents to carry on a conversation above and around ordinary chit-chat. It took longer, naturally; when speaking without the chit-chat, it was possible to convey in seconds information that would have taken several minutes to get over in ordinary conversation.

Senator Kerotski only listened to a small part of the phone discussion. He knew most of the story.

In the past eight months, six anonymous letters had been received by various companies. As Taggert had once put it, in quotes, “We seem to have an Abudah chest containing a patent Hag who comes out and prophesies disasters, with spring complete.”

The Big Bend Power Reactor, near Marfa, Texas, had been warned that their stellarator would blow. The letter was dismissed as “crackpot,” and no precautions were taken. The explosion killed nine men and cut off the power in the area for three hours, causing other accidents due to lack of power.

The merchant submarine Bandar-log, plying her way between Ceylon and Japan, had ignored the warning sent to her owners and had never been heard from again.

In the Republic of Yemen, an oil refinery caught fire and destroyed millions of dollars worth of property in spite of the anonymous letter that had foretold the disaster.

The Prince Charles Dam in Central Africa had broken and thousands had drowned because those in charge had relegated a warning letter to the cylindrical file.

A mine cave-in in Canada had extinguished three lives because a similar letter had been ignored.

By the time the fifth letter had been received, the S.M.M.R. had received the information and had begun its investigation. As an ex officio organ of the United States Government, it had ways and means of getting hold of the originals of the letters which had been received by the responsible persons in each of the disasters. All had been sent by the same man; all had been typed on the same machine; all had been mailed in New York.

When the sixth warning had come to the offices of Caribbean Trans-Air, the S.M.M.R., working through the FBI, had persuaded the company’s officials to take the regularly scheduled aircraft off the run and substitute another while the regular ship was carefully inspected. But it was the replacement ship that came to pieces in midair.

The anonymous predictor, whoever he was, was a man of no mean ability.

Then letter number seven had been received by the United States Department of Space. It predicted that a meteor would smash into America’s Moonbase One, completely destroying it.

Finally, a non-anonymous letter had come to the S.M.M.R. requesting admission to the society, enclosing the proper fee. The letter also said that the writer was interested in literature on the subjects of prescience, precognition, and/or prophecy, and would be interested in contacting anyone who had had experience with such phenomena.

Putting two and two together only yields four, no matter how often it’s done, but two to the eighth power gives a nice, round two hundred fifty-six, which is something one can sink one’s teeth into.

Brian Taggert cut off the phone connection. “That’s it, Mike,” he said to the senator. “We’ve got him.”

Two of the Society’s agents, both top-flight telepaths, had gone out to “Dr. Joachim’s” place on Coney Island’s Boardwalk, posing as customers--”clients” was the word Dr. Joachim preferred--and had done a thorough probing job.

“He’s what might be called a perfectly sincere fraud,” Taggert continued. “You know the type I’m sure.”

The senator nodded silently. The woods were full of that kind of thing. Complete, reliable control of any kind of psionic power requires understanding and sanity, but the ability lies dormant in many minds that cannot control it, and it can and does burst forth erratically at times. Finding a physical analogy for the phenomenon is difficult, since mental activities are, of necessity, of a higher order than physical activities.

Some of the operations of tensor calculus have analogs in algebra; many do not.

Taggert gestured with one hand. “He’s been in business there for years. Evidently, he’s been able to make a few accurate predictions now and then--enough to keep his reputation going. He’s tried to increase the frequency, accuracy, and detail of his ‘flashes’ by studying up on the techniques used by other seers, and, as a result, he’s managed to soak up enough mystic balderdash to fill a library.

“He embellishes every one of his predictions to his ‘clients’ with all kinds of hokum, and he’s been doing it so long that he really isn’t sure how much of any prediction is truth and how much is embroidery work.

“The boys are trying to get more information on him now, and they’re going to do a little deep probing, if they can get him set up right; maybe they’ll be able to trigger off another flash on that moon-hit--but I doubt it.”

Senator Kerotski thumbed his chin morosely. “You’re probably right. Apparently, once those hunches come to a precog, they get everything in a flash and then they can’t get another thing--ever. I wish we could get our hands on one who was halfway along toward the point. We’ve got experts on psychokinetics, levitation, telepathy, clairvoyance, and what-have-you. But precognition we don’t seem to be able to find.”

“We’ve got one now,” Brian Taggert reminded him.

The senator snorted. “Even assuming that we had any theory on precognition completely symbolized, and assuming that this Forsythe has the kind of mind that can be taught, do you think we could get it done in a month? Because that’s all the time we have.”

“He’s our first case,” Taggert admitted. “We’ll have to probe everything out of him and construct symbol-theory around what we get. I’ll be surprised if we get anywhere at all in the first six months.”

Senator Kerotski put his hand over his eyes. “I give up. First the Chinese Soviet kidnaps Dr. Ch’ien and we have to scramble like maniacs to get him back before they find out that he’s building a space drive that will make the rocket industry obsolete. Then we have to find out what’s causing the rash of accidents that is holding up Dr. Theodore Nordred’s antigravity project. And now, just as everything is coming to a head in both departments, we find that a meteor is going to hit Moonbase One sometime between thirty and sixty days from now.” He spread apart the middle and ring fingers of the hand that covered his eyes and looked at Taggert through one eye. “And now you tell me that the only man who can pinpoint that time more exactly for us is of no use whatever to us. If we knew when that meteor was due to arrive, we would be able to spot and deflect it in time. It must be of pretty good size if it’s going to demolish the whole base.”

“How do you know it’s going to be a meteor?”

“You think the Soviets would try to bomb it? Don’t be silly, Taggert,” Kerotski said, grinning.

Taggert grinned back. “I’m not thinking they’d bomb us; but I’m trying to look at all the angles.”

The worried look came back to the senator’s pandalike face. “We have to do something. If only we knew that Forsythe’s prediction will really come off. Or, if it will, then exactly when? And is there anything we can do about it, or will it be like the airline incident. If we hadn’t made them switch planes, nothing would have happened. What if, no matter what we do, Moonbase One goes anyway?

“Remember, we haven’t yet built Moonbase Two. If our only base on the moon is destroyed, the Soviets will have the whole moon to themselves. Have you any suggestions?”

“Sure,” said Taggert. “Ask yourself one question: What is the purpose of Moonbase One?”

Slowly, a beatific smile spread itself over the senator’s face.


The whole discussion had taken exactly ninety seconds.

“Mrs. Jesser,” said Brian Taggert to the well-rounded, fortyish woman behind the reception desk at S.M.M.R. headquarters, “this is Dr. Forsythe. He has established a reputation as one of the finest seers living today.”

Mrs. Jesser looked at the distinguished, white-bearded gentleman with an expression that was almost identical with the one her grandmother had worn when she met Rudolph Valentino, nearly sixty years before, and the one her mother had worn when she saw Frank Sinatra a generation later. It was not an uncommon expression for Mrs. Jesser’s face to wear: it appeared every time she was introduced to anyone who looked impressive and was touted as a great mystic of one kind or another.

“I’m so glad to meet you, Dr. Forsythe!” she burbled eagerly.

“Dr. Forsythe will be working for us for the next few months--his office will be Room B on the fourth floor,” Taggert finished. He was genuinely fond of the woman, in spite of her mental dithers and schoolgirl mannerisms. Mysticism fascinated her, and she was firmly convinced that she had “just a weenie bit” of psychic power herself, although its exact nature seemed to change from time to time. But she did both her jobs well, although she was not aware of her double function. She thought she was being paid as a receptionist and phone operator, and she was quick and efficient about her work. She was also the perfect screen for the Society’s real work, for if anyone ever suspected that the S.M.M.R. was not the group of crackpots that it appeared to be, five minutes talking with Mrs. Jesser would convince them otherwise.

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