- Author: Fritz Leiber
Read book online «Bullet with His Name by Fritz Leiber (nice books to read .txt) 📕». Author - Fritz Leiber
By FRITZ LEIBER
Illustrated By: DILLON
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction July 1958.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Before passing judgment, just ask yourself
one question: Would you like answering for
humanity any better than Ernie Meeker did?
The Invisible Being shifted his anchorage a bit in Earth's gravitational field, which felt like a push rather than a pull to him, and said, "This featherless biped seems to satisfy Galaxy Center's requirements. I'd say he's a suitable recipient for the Gifts."
His Coadjutor, equally invisible and negatively massed, chewed that over. "Mature by his length and mass. Artificial plumage neither overly gaudy nor utterly drab—indicating median social level, which is confirmed by the size of his bachelor nest. Inward maps of his environment not fantastically inaccurate. Feelings reasonably meshed—at least neither volcanic nor frozen. Thoughts and values in reasonable order. Yes, I agree, a satisfactory test subject. Except...."
"Except we can never be sure of that 'reasonable' part."
"Of course not! Thank your stars that's beyond the reach of Galaxy Center's keenest telepathy, or even ours on the spot. Otherwise you and I'd be out of a job."
"And have to scheme up some other excuse for free-touring the Cosmos with backtracking permitted."
"Exactly!" The Being and his Coadjutor understood each other very well and were the best of friends. "Well, how many Gifts would you suggest for the test?"
"How about two Little and one Big?" the Coadjutor ventured.
"Umm ... statistically adequate but spiritually unsatisfying. Remember, the fate of his race hangs on his reactions to them. I'd be inclined to increase your suggestion by one each and add a Great."
"No—at least I question the last. After all, the Great Gifts aren't as important, really, as the Big Gifts. Besides...."
"Besides what? Come on, spit it out!" The Invisible Being was the bluff, blunt type.
"Well," said his less hearty but unswervingly honest companion, "I'm always afraid that you'll use the granting of a Great Gift as an excuse for some sardonic trick—that you'll put a sting in its tail."
"And why shouldn't I, if I want to? Snakes have stings in their tails (or do they on this planet?) and I'm a sort of snake. If he fails the test, he fails. And aren't both of us malicious, plaguing spirits, eager to knock holes in the inward armor of provincial entities? It's in the nature of our job. But we can argue about that in due course. What Little Gifts would you suggest?"
"That's something I want to talk about. Many of the Little Gifts are already well within his race's reach, if not his. After all, they've already got atomic power."
"Which as you very well know scores them nothing one way or the other on a Galaxy Center test. We're agreed on the nature and the number of our Gifts—three Little, two Big, and one Great?"
"Yes," his Coadjutor responded resignedly.
"And we're agreed on our subject?"
"Yes to that too."
"All right, then, let's get started. This isn't the only solar system we have to visit on this circuit."
Ernie Meeker—of Chicago, Illinois, U.S. of A., Occident, Terra, Sol, Starswarm 37, Rim Sector, Milky Way Galaxy—rubbed his chin and slanted across the street to a drugstore.
"Package of blades. Double edge. Five. Cheapest."
At one point during the transaction, the clerk lost sight of the tiny packet he'd placed on the coin-whitened glass between them. He gave a suspicious look, as if the customer had palmed them.
Ernie blinked. After a moment, he pointed toward the center of the counter.
"There they are," he said, dropping a coin beside them.
The clerk's face didn't get any less suspicious. Customer who could sneak something without your seeing could sneak it back the same way. He rang up the sale and closed the register fast.
Ernie Meeker went home and shaved. Five days—and shaves—later, he pushed the first blade, uncomfortably dull now, through the tiny slot beside the bathroom mirror. He unwrapped the second blade from the packet.
Five shaves later, he cut himself under the chin with the second blade, although he was drawing it as gently through his soaped beard as if it were only his second shave with it, or at most his third. He looked at it sourly and checked the packet. Wouldn't have been the first time he'd absentmindedly changed blades ahead of schedule.
But there were still three blades in their waxed wrappings.
Maybe, he thought, he'd still had one of the blades from the last packet and shuffled it into this series.
Or maybe—although the manufacturers undoubtedly had inspectors to prevent it from happening—he'd got a decent blade for once.
Two or three shaves later, it still seemed as sharp as ever, or almost so.
"Funny thing," he remarked to Bill at lunch, "sometimes you get a blade that shaves a lot better. Looks exactly like the others, but shaves better. Or worse sometimes, of course."
"And sometimes," his office mate said, "you wear out a blade fast by not soaking your beard enough. For me, one shave with a stiff beard and the blade's through. On the other hand, if you're careful to soak your beard real good—four, five minutes at least—have the water steaming hot, get the soap really into it, one blade can last a long time."
"That's true, all right," Ernie agreed, trying to remember how well he had been soaking his beard lately. Shaving was a good topic for light conversation, warm and agreeable, like most bathroom and kitchen topics.
But next morning in the bathroom, looking at the reflection of his unremarkable face, there was something chilly in his feelings that he couldn't quite analyze. He flipped his razor open and suspiciously studied the bright metal wafer, then flipped it closed with an irritated shrug.
As he shaved, it occurred to him that a good detective-story murder method would be to substitute a very sharp razor blade for one the victim knew was extremely dull. He'd whip it across his throat, putting a lot of muscle into the stroke to get through the tangle, and—urrk!
Ridiculous, of course. Wouldn't work except with a straight razor. Wouldn't even work with a straight razor, unless ... oh, well.
He told himself the blade was noticeably duller today.
Next morning, he was still using the freak blade, but with a persistent though very slight uneasiness. Things should behave as you expected them to, in accordance with their flimsy souls, he told himself at the barely conscious level. Men should die, hearts should break, girls should tell, nations perish, curtains get dirty, milk sour ... and razor blades grow dull. It was the comfortable, expected, reassuring way.
He told himself the blade was duller still. Just a bit.
The third morning, face lathered, he flipped open the razor and lifted it out.
"You're through," he said to it silently. "I've had the experience before of getting bum shaves by trying to save a penny by pretending to myself that a wornout blade was still sharp enough, when it obviously couldn't be. Or maybe—" he grinned a little wryly—"maybe I'd almost get one more shave out of you and then you'd fall to pieces like the Wonderful One Horse Shay and leave me with a chin full of steel porcupine quills. No, thanks."
So Ernie Meeker pushed through the little slot beside the mirror and heard tinkle faintly down and away the first of the Little Gifts, the Everlasting Razor Blade. One hundred and fifty thousand years later, it turned up, bright and shining, in the midst of a small knob of red iron oxide excavated by an archeological expedition of multi-brachs from Antares Gamma. Those wise history-mad beings handed it about wonderingly, from tentacle to impatient tentacle.
That day, Ernie felt a little sick, somehow. After dinner, he decided it was the Thuringer sausage he'd eaten at lunch. He hurried up to the bathroom with a spoon, but as he clutched the box of bicarbonate of soda, preparatory to plunging the spoon into it, it seemed to him that the box said distinctly, in a small inward-outward voice:
"No, no, no!"
Ernie sat down suddenly on the toilet seat. The spoon rattled against the porcelain finish of the washbowl as he laid it down. He held the box firmly in both hands and studied it.
Size, shape, materials, blue color, closure, etc., were exactly as they should be. But the white lettering on the blue background read:
AQUEOUS FUEL CATALYST
Dissociates H2O into hemi-quasi-stable H and O, furnishing a serviceable fuel-and-oxydizer mix for most motorcycles, automobiles, trucks, motorboats, airplanes, stationary motors, torque-twisters, translators, and rockets (exhaust velocity up to 6000 meters per second). Operates safely within and outside of all normal atmospheres. No special adaptor needed on oxygenizer-atmosphere motors.
Directions: Place one pinch in fuel tank, fill with water. Add water as needed.
A-F Catalyst should generally be renewed when objective tests show fuel quality has deteriorated 50 per cent.
U.S. and Foreign Patents Pending
After reading that several times, with suitable mind-checking and eye-testing in between, Ernie took up a little of the white powder on the end of a nailfile. He had thought of tasting it, but had instantly abandoned the notion and even refrained from sniffing the stuff—after all, the human body is mostly water.
After reducing the quantity several times, he gingerly dumped at most four or five grains on the flat edge of the washbowl and then used the broad end of the nailfile to maneuver a large bead of water over to the almost invisible white deposit. He closed the box, put it and the nailfile carefully on the window ledge, lit a match and touched it to the drop, at the last moment ducking his head a little below the level of the washbowl.
Nothing happened. After a moment, he slowly withdrew the match, shaking it out, and looked. There was nothing to see. He reached out to touch the stupid squashed ovoid of water.
Ouch! He withdrew his fingers much faster than the match, shook them more sharply. Something was there, all right. Heat. Heat enough to hurt.
He cautiously explored the boundaries of the heat. It became noticeable about eighteen inches above the drop and almost an inch to each side—an invisible slim vertical cylinder. Crouching close, eyes level with the top of the washbowl, he could make out the flame—a thin finger of crinkled light.
He noticed that a corner of the drop was seething—but only a corner, as if the heat were sharply bounded in that direction and perhaps as if the catalyst were only transforming the water to fuel a bit at a time.
He reached up and tugged off the light. Now he could see the flame—ghostly, about four inches high, hardly thicker than a string, and colored not blue but pale green. A spectral green needle. He blew at it softly. It shimmied gracefully, but not, he thought, as much as the flame of a match or candle. It had character.
He switched on the light. The drop was more than half gone now; the part that was left was all seething. And the bathroom was markedly warmer.
"Ernie! Are you going to be much longer?"
The knock hadn't been loud and his widowed sister's voice was more apologetic than peremptory, but he jumped, of course.
"I am testing something," he started to say and changed it mid-way. It came out, "I am be out in a minute."
He turned off the light again. The flame was a little shorter now and it shrank as he watched, about a quarter inch a second. As soon as it died, he switched on the light. The drop was gone.
He scrubbed off the spot with a dry washrag, on second thought put a dab of vaseline on the washrag, scrubbed the spot again with that—he didn't like to think of even a grain of the powder getting in the drains or touching any water. He folded the washrag, tucked it in his pocket, put the blue box—after a final check of the lettering—in his other coat pocket, and opened the door.
"I was taking some bicarb," he told his sister. "Thuringer sausage at lunch."
She nodded absently.
Sleep refused even to flirt with Ernie, his mind was full of so many things, especially calculations involving the distance between his car and the house and the length of the garden hose. In desperation, as the white hours accumulated and his thoughts began to squirm, he grabbed up the detective story he'd bought at the corner newsstand. He had read thirty pages before he realized that he was turning them as rapidly as he could