People Minus X(txt+pdf+epub+mobi电子书下载)


发布时间:2021-08-04 00:46:08

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作者:Gallun, Raymond Zinke

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People Minus X

People Minus X试读:

I

Ed Dukas was writing letters. Someone or something was also writing—unseen but at his elbow. It was perhaps fifteen minutes before he noticed. Conspicuous at the center of the next blank sheet of paper he reached for, part of a word was already inscribed:

"Nippe ..."

The writing was faint and wavering but in the same shade of blue ink as that in his own pen.

Ed Dukas said "Hey?" to himself, mildly.

The frown creases between his hazel eyes deepened. They were evidence of strain that was not new. The stubby forefinger and thumb of his right hand rubbed their calloused whorls together. Surprise on his square face gave way to a cool watchfulness that, in the last ten years of guarded living, had been grimed into his nature. Ed Dukas was now twenty-two. This era was hurtling and troubled. Since his childhood, Ed had become acquainted with wonder, beauty, hate, opportunity and disaster on a cosmic level, luxury, adventure, love. Sometimes he had even found peace of mind.

He put down his pen, leaving the letter he had been writing suspended in mid-sentence:

... Pardon the preaching, Les. Human nature and everything else seems booby-trapped. They drummed the idea of courage and careful thinking into us at school. Because so much that is new and changing is a big thing to handle. Still, we'll have to stick to a course of action.

Now Ed sat with his elbows on his table, that other, no longer quite blank, sheet of paper held lightly in his hands. He sat there, a stocky young man, his hair cut short like a hedge, the clues of his existence around him: student banners on the walls; a stereoptic picture of his track team—in color of course; ditto for his astrophysics class; his bookcase; his tiny sensipsych set; and the delicate instruments that any guy who hoped to reach the next human goal, the nearer stars, had to learn about.

His girl's picture, part of any youth's pattern of life for the last three centuries, smiled from beside him on the table. Dark. Strong as girls were apt to be, these days. Beautiful in a rough-hewn way. But even with all that strength to rely on, he was worried about her more than ever now. Times were strange. He glanced at her likeness once. Then his gaze bounced back to the paper in his hands.

His nerves tingled at the eerie thing that was happening there. He didn't know whether to feel afraid of it or hopeful. Man was stumbling toward ultimate mastery of his own flesh and the forces of the universe. But the distance remained enormous, though technical science was moving forward, perhaps too swiftly, on all fronts. Part of Ed's fear before the unknown was like the stage fright of an inexperienced actor. You never quite knew what was ahead or how to judge anything strange that you saw.

"Nippe...."

At the end of the line which made the "e" there was a tiny speck of blue ink. Almost imperceptibly, like the minute hand of a clock, it crept on, curving and looping to form another letter.

"Nipper" the word was now.

This could be somebody's funny gag, Ed thought. Somebody with a gadget. The world is full of gadgets these days. Maybe too full.

It occurred to him that a pal might be playing a joke with some simple device bought in a novelty store. But probability leaned toward something deeper and more costly. Who knew? Someone might have invented a way to make a man invisible. You didn't deny that anything could be, any more.

"Speak up!" he ordered softly.

But no answer came, and his wondering gaze found nothing unusual in the room around him. He froze. "Nipper." It could be part of a message, an honest attempt to convey vitally important information. Or it could be the forerunner of violence aimed in his direction. Through no fault of his own, he had had enemies for ten years. Tonight they might really act. To die was still possible. In spite of vitaplasm. Or the more tedious method that employed natural flesh. Or the tiny cylinders hidden away in vaults. Lives were now in danger again. Human, and almost human....

For a moment Ed wanted to give a warning and to call others into consultation. He wanted to shout, "Dad! Mom! Come here!"

He didn't do so. Between him and the precise, benign personality that he called Dad there was a gradually growing barrier. And for his mother, beautiful and young by art and science, he had that feeling of male protectiveness that takes the form of keeping possible dangers hidden.

Ed decided to work on his own. Being essentially careful and slow moving when it came to delicate processes, he had not touched that creeping droplet of ink. Its secret might thus be destroyed. No, he'd never do a thing so foolish.

Swiftly he folded the paper and fastened the writing under his microscope. The ink speck was almost dry now, and nothing was hidden in it. The line of the writing itself was odd under magnification. Here and there it showed tiny, irregular dots at spaced intervals, connected by fine, dragging marks. That was all.

Of course he realized that Nipper might be only the first cryptic word of a message and that he had only to wait and see what would follow.

Until he began to wait, however, the significance of the word itself eluded him. A child's nickname was all that it suggested.

But now his mind bore down on it. And he had the answer almost at once. A small boy climbing the wall of a pretty garden. And his casual christening by a pleasant stranger who met him thus for the first time. Among more vivid and significant details, the memory of the name itself had been mislaid. But Ed Dukas knew that in his boyhood one person had always called him Nipper: Uncle Mitch Prell, and nobody else. Now it seemed like a secret sign.

Ed gulped, his reaction suspended somewhere between shocked pleasure and a frosty sense of eeriness. To have a friend, whom he had loved as a child, vanish into space and into apparent nonexistence after becoming a fugitive, and then to have what seemed to be this friend try to communicate again after ten years, and in this weird manner—well—how would you say it? Ghosts, of course, were pure superstition. But in this age one could still react as if to the supernatural—with tingling hide and quickened heartbeats. In fact, with the vast growth of technology, more than ever was such a feeling possible.

"Uncle Mitch!" Ed Dukas called quietly.

Again there was no reply. The name on the paper still could be somebody else's trick. Granger's, maybe. There were ways for him to have learned a nickname. Many people might admire Granger as much as others despised him. And it was hard to say what he might do, or when. Or how, for that matter. He was clever. And wrong.

There was still another thing to remember. Ed did not altogether love the memory of his uncle, Dr. Mitchell Prell. For this famous scientist was marked with the stigma of responsibility for a terrific mishap. No, Prell did not bear the burden alone. There were other scientists, it was said, who had poked too roughly, and with too sharp a stick, into Nature's deepest lair. Nature had snarled back. Ed had grown up with the public hate that had resulted. He had fought against it, yet he had felt it, until sometimes he did not know where he himself stood.

Now he waited for more writing to be traced on the paper under the microscope. A minute passed, but there was nothing more. He did notice, however, that the letters of that one word matched roughly the austere handwriting of his uncle.

Once he glanced toward the window with some nervousness. Outside, the night was glorious. Never again would nights be hideous as they once had been. He saw lush gardens under silver light. If any devilish thing not known until recent months slithered through the shadows, it kept hidden. Ed saw other neighboring houses. New trees had grown to fair size in ten years. Older and larger trees remained lopsided and gnarled. But their burn scars had healed.

Otherwise there was nothing left to monument the past—except, perhaps, the sullen mutter of voices in nearby streets.

But Ed Dukas's mind, triggered by the name Nipper and by awareness of Mitchell Prell, slipped briefly away from the present. He had often explored memory to find understanding. At school, after the catastrophe, psychiatrists had made every kid do that. So that neuroses might be broken or lessened or avoided. So that animal terror would not draw a curtain over a mental record of an interlude. So that memory might not be lodged, like a red coal of hysteria, in the subconscious.

Like a trained dog leaping through a flaming hoop, Ed Dukas's thoughts plunged back to that zone where his earliest memories faded into the mists of infancy:

A birthday cake with two candles. A fountain splashing in the patio of this same house. A dachshund, Schnitz, which a little boy put in almost the same category as the flat, rubber-tired robots that cleaned the rooms. Where was the distinction between machines and animals?

Flowers, hummingbirds, and butterflies in the garden. The echoes of footsteps on stone floors. Toy space ships and star ships at Christmas. The star ships were things yet to become real.... There was endless interest in life then. But even in those days there were signs of cautious and puzzled guidance.

There was the sensipsych, of course. It was a wonderful box of dark wood in the living room. A soft couch folded down from it. There you lay, and for a moment strange golden light flickered into your eyes. You went to sleep, but you did not really go to sleep. For you became someone else. Maybe a cartoon character in a world where everything looked different. Funny things happened to you that frightened you at first; but then you laughed when you found that there was no harm in them.

Or, instead of being in such a crazy fairyland, you might be a real boy in space armor jumping across the surface of a huge chunk of rock called an asteroid, while stars and a blazing white sun stared at you from blackness. You were very busy helping others to roof the asteroid with crystal, and to put air underneath, and to build houses and factories where people might live and work. Always more and more people spreading out and out to populate the empty worlds of space.

But you were never on that sensipsych couch for very long, or too often. You would wake up, and there was Mom saying, "Enough, fella. A little of that sort of thing goes a great way, even when the experiences are rugged and educational and not just whimsical nonsense."

Ed Dukas would be angry and puzzled. For it had seemed that those visions, going on without end, could bring joy forever.

"You'll understand sometime, Eddie," his mother would say, consoling him. "What happens to you by sensipsych is just make-believe. What we call recorded sensory experience. Some of it really happened to other people. Some of it is just made up. It can teach you things. But too much is very bad. Not so long ago folks found out."

There was something tender and hard and even scared in his mother's words.

Ed's dad also had his comments. Dad was something called a minerals expert.

"Come on, Eddie, let's rassle," he'd say. "Stick your chin out, boy. Let's see how tough you can look. No, not mean-tough.... That's better. We've got to lick the times we live in. And something in ourselves. With machines doing so much for us, life can be soft. And sensipsych dreams are soft. Everything in moderation. Dreams can make you feel as helpless as an oyster. Until you despise yourself and the whole race. Yes, people found out. They were always meant to feel strong and proud, and they must have tasks equal to their increasing powers. Otherwise there's spiritual rot. We've got to be ready for anything, feel our way, try to be ready to keep our balance for whatever comes. Because life could be terrible, too, if the wonderful forces we control got out of hand. We've got to go on progressing—moving out to the planets, and then maybe the stars. Got to go either ahead or backward. Can't stand still. And it's easy to go backward nowadays. Got to fight that, Eddie, or else there might be a kind of death."

"What is death, Dad?"

Ed's father would answer his son's serious expression with a gay grin. "A kind of myth, now, boy. Just going to sleep and never waking up. We hope it's mostly finished, for everybody. Even the disease of old age turned out to be something like rust gathering in a pipe. Simple. It can be fixed up. Some people even let themselves get old. But they can be made young again. Always."

Eddie had other questions.

"You were born in the old way, Eddie," his mother said. "But so many people are needed now to populate the solar system. So everybody can't be born from his mother's body. There's another way; almost the same, really. Babies are born—they're made, really—in a laboratory. Then they live in a youth center, like the one on the hill."

Eddie saw its great white spire looming among the trees. Often he could hear voices in the gardens and playgrounds on the terraced setbacks of its many levels. The voices seemed mysterious somehow.

Even then Eddie sensed the groping and confusion that was in his parents' minds. Sometimes his mother would speak fervently to his father: "Jack, I'd never choose to live in another age. I love it. Because it's rich, endlessly varied, exciting. Is that why I'm often scared out of my wits? Even disgusted often enough with my selfish self and all the automatic devices? I love my work, the planning of pleasant interiors. I'm so busy there doesn't even seem to be time for another child. Yet maybe there are centuries ahead, Jack. How does one fill centuries without getting fed up? And are we supposed to be something superhuman in the end? Or do we wind up like the ancient Martians and the beings of the Asteroid Planet, before it was blown to millions of pieces? Wiped out in super-conflict, before they could progress very much further than we are now?"

Most of this went over Eddie's head. But it left a smoky tension to lurk in his mind behind the peaceful presence of sun and trees. People had made their world more beautiful for their own relaxed enjoyment. Yet even in those days Eddie sensed the turbulent undercurrent deep inside them.

Once his father expressed a vagrant thought: "Maybe we should go out to Venus sometime, Eileen. Start life over more simply in an uncrowded planet that's being conditioned to receive our ancient race. Maybe we'll do it in just a few years." He grinned.

"Yes," Eddie's mother replied. "If being indefinitely young and alive doesn't fool us before then. If our complicated civilization doesn't crack open and spit fire, and vaporize everybody. Death by violence is still definitely possible. You know, lots of our friends are getting their bodies and minds recorded so that they can be restored in case of serious injury. Maybe we should have done it long ago."

Jack Dukas met her concern with a light tease: "A woman's worry matched against the stubbornness of a man—eh, Eileen? There's something unnatural about being recorded that I rebel against. Don't be too troubled, though. The centuries won't slip from our fingers so immediately. I hardly ever touch a dangerous thing in my work. Besides, safety devices are almost perfect."

Such serious, troubled thoughts did not dim the optimism and eagerness of young Ed Dukas. His private dreams soared into the thrills of Someday. His small hands were impatient to grasp the shadowy shapes of the future, more legendary than the not-distant past with its still-living heroes: Roland, who was largely responsible for the rejuvenation process; Schaeffer, who developed the sensipsych, brought on the dream-world period of decay, and in the end helped Harwell defeat the trap of emasculating visions by urging mankind back toward a vigorous grip on reality; and the hundreds of others who had taken part.

But the first visit of Mitchell Prell, when Ed Dukas was five, was, to the boy, like acquaintance with a legend. "Hi, Nipper!" were the first words his uncle had spoken to Eddie. Dr. Mitchell Prell was his mother's brother. He was a much smaller man than Eddie's dad, and dark instead of blond. He was famous. And he brought gifts.

"A piece of the Moon, Nipper," he said. "An opal imbedded naturally in gold. For your mom. And this case of instruments dug up in Martian ruins, for your dad. Fifty million years old but better than anything designed by human beings for locating ores far underground. And this for you—also from Mars. I haven't been there for a long time. But I got an old friend to send me the stuff—to the labs on the Moon."

Maybe Eddie's gift had once been a toy for the off-spring of extinct Martian monsters. It was triangular like a kite, metallic, with a faint lavender sheen. When you whistled a certain way, a jet of air made it rise high in the sky. But it always came back. Atomic power was in it somewhere. For it never ran out of energy.

Uncle Mitch never seemed to say much. He didn't get deep into philosophy. He set up queer apparatus in his room, and a kid could look at it if he didn't touch. And to one of Dad's questions he answered briefly, "Yes, we're making headway in the labs on the Moon. There'll be a motor for star ships. If, in our experiments, hyperspace itself doesn't burst at the seams under that level of power. No, we're not yet trying for speeds of more than a fraction of that of light. A trip to a star will take a long time."

It soon came out that Uncle Mitch had another interest. He kept in a glass tube something that squirmed and wriggled, and felt like warm flesh though its natural form, when at rest, was a slender cylinder of pencil size.

About that he would only say, "Call it alive if you want to. But not like us. Invented and artificial, and far more rugged than our flesh. For the rest, wait and see if anything comes of it. Maybe it'll become the clay of the superman. Schaeffer, here on Earth, is working on it, too."

Uncle Mitch stayed for a week. Then he was gone, rocketing out to the labs, isolated for safety at the center of a mare on the always hidden hemisphere of the Moon.

"Mitch knows what he wants and is direct about it," was Jack Dukas's comment. "Simple. No conflicts. The scientist's approach. Wise or stupid? Who knows?"

Eddie was six, and then seven. The years moved slowly, but he grew and hardened with them. By the time he was twelve, sports and study and awareness of realities had toughened his body and matured his soul considerably. That was fortunate, for this was his and mankind's fateful year. The day came when the household robots were fixing up the guestroom specially for Uncle Mitch again. Dad was afield, a hundred miles away, to look over a vein of quartz crystal that was to be shipped to the lunar laboratories. At 9:00 P.M. Eddie's father had not yet returned.

Eddie was sprawled on his bed looking lazily at the translucent blue font of the lamp beside it. The color was rich and beautiful, the carvings snaky and odd. Here was another gift, ordered by Uncle Mitch from a friend in the region of the Asteroids. The font was an artifact of a race contemporary with the Martians who had also lost their fight to master nature and themselves through knowledge. The font had been found floating free in space, among the wreckage of a planet blown to pieces ages back.

Eddie was thinking of such things. He was also thinking of neighborhood pals, to whom he had bragged about his uncle and his expected arrival.

As for what happened at that moment: there was transpatial warning, radioed out fifteen seconds ahead, telling of forces gone hopelessly out of control in the lunar laboratories. But Eddie's set was not functioning, and he did not hear it.

Beyond the windows of his room there was just calm, pale moonlight. The Moon looked little different than it always looked, except for the blue spots of the atmosphere domes of the great mining centers.

But then came the intolerable blue-white light. Perhaps, somewhere, exposed instruments measured its intensity. On the roofs of meteorological stations, maybe. Say conservatively that, for the space of a few seconds, it was five hundred times as strong as full sunshine.

Night was broken off. But there was no day like this. For one fragment of a second Eddie glanced at the window. Shadows seemed gone, utterly. Even dark things like tree trunks reflected so much light that they all but vanished in the shimmering glare. As yet, it was a soundless phenomenon.

Eddie shut his eyes and buried his face in his pillow. This reflex action, partly as natural as terror and partly the result of training for emergencies at school, saved his vision. He might have screamed, had he been able to find his voice. Distantly, he heard human sounds that increased the sickness in his stomach. A gentle scene and mood, product of science, had been utterly shattered by forces of the same origin.

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