Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (28 page)

“Better hurry,” said Merrihew.

“Yes, of course. Of course: I know what you mean. It’s already too late for some things. A whole ocean could die if we controlled population by tomorrow night. But you see, that’s what we’ve done. What Lasvogel’s done.”

“You lost me.”

Dr. Poole looked to right and left and leaned close again. “The place we call West Ecuador has the highest birth rate in the hemisphere. Or almost,” he added. Maybe the hedging words were a scientist’s exactitude and maybe they were a little something to keep curiosity at bay. “We have ways of keeping day-to-day tabs on it, primitive as it is. Every doctor, every clinic in West Ecuador is feeding our computers, whether anyone of them knows it or not. We can even get the midwives, about five-eighths of them—much more than half anyway. We’ve been setting the place up for an experiment for a long time. You don’t much approve of a tactic like that.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Most people wouldn’t approve. High-handed, undignified—I’ve heard all the names for it. I also know all the preachments about means and ends. We’re doing what we’re doing because we haven’t been able to find another way—and because something has to be done now and not when we can do a public-relations job and then put it through the courts. Little kids with blown-up bellies, toothpicks for arms and legs and sores all over—yes, we’re doing it for them. But also because West Ecuador is a preview. The whole world is going to be like that—not might be, is going to be—if something isn’t done now.”

Merrihew put up both hands in a way that said,
Well, all right, dammit
.

“We threw it to Lasvogel,” Dr. Poole said, “and he came through.” He added a little anxiously: “Lasvogel always comes through. Anyway, his treatment batted a thousand on a hundred and twenty-three cases. Injections. Not one of the recipients got pregnant. No side effects. I know what you’re going to say,” Dr. Poole added quickly, “Nothing new, eh? That Swedish pill, take it tonight, get your period tomorrow whether you’ve conceived or not? Wait—there’s more.”

Merrihew sat silent.

“Lasvogel’s whole approach was different,” Dr. Poole continued, “and that’s all I’ll say about it—except his preparation is more potent than you’d believe. More even than Lasvogel believed. We did a mass treatment. Well, I’ll tell you: we had a prevailing wind situation and we did it with a chemical fog. Lasvogel—we—we figured it might
affect some women in a nearby city to some measurable extent. As I said, we’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money setting up observation posts. We were looking for a decimal point and maybe three zeros before we came to a number—no more than that.”

Dr. Poole sat and wagged his head. It looked for a while as if he had forgotten what he was saying, forgotten his lunch and his guest, forgotten even this tumbling urgency. Then he asked, “In five weeks, in a population pushing two million, know how many pregnancies we recorded in West Ecuador’?”

It was not Merrihew’s style to respond to rhetorical questions. He simply waited.

“Seventeen. Seventeen, in five weeks.”

“Wow.” Merrihew cut steak, forked it up, lifted it, looked at it, put it down. “Wow.” Pollution, belly bloat and toothpick legs, war and pestilence—and cold greed is emperor: survival is greed. And then—how had Dr. Poole put it? —a solitary man walking some place where it’s wild and quiet. Merrihew had time to get a glimpse of a man like that in a place like that and think that it might after all be that way when Dr. Poole had to go and say, “They were all white.”

Merrihew hadn’t gotten to be what he was by being uncool—and it could be that he looked the part. But once in his life a flashbulb had gone off in his face in a dark room and once someone he had loved had died in his arms and once he had had to blow the whistle on the best friend he ever had, who died of it. This thing he had just heard was like all those at once; it made him bite his tongue the same way. It could be that he heard nothing at all for a long moment because he didn’t want to hear anything else; he wanted to tip time backward and not know what he had just been told. He came back slowly—as if someone had a volume control to bring up sound gradually from silence—and heard Dr. Poole say something about cloud formation.

“There’s a central mountain range and, like all such, it has cloud cover most of the day. Lasvogel thinks the chemical fog went in over the city and upslope on a thermal current. He really had no idea the stuff would work in dilutions like that, but it did. When it got to the
cloud it dispersed right through it in a few hours—well, he had anticipated that part. Then, of course, it rained. It rains every day in that place for a little while. It was the rain that brought it down on the lee side—so, you see, the whole place was covered.

Merrihew recognized a flicker of surprise in himself when he tried his voice and it worked. “Anybody live in those mountains—or are they all in the city’?”

“I see what you’re thinking,” Dr. Poole said. “Maybe we missed someone. Well, forget it. Yes, there are villages and small holdings all through the area. But you’ve got to accept what I said: we’ve had the whole place bugged for years now—crossroads clinics, private doctors, the pathological labs and the midwives. Trust the figures.”

“How big is the white population’?”

“Less than five percent. Two couples from the Peace Corps who settled there, some teachers and doctors, business people. Also some East Indian settlements and orientals. No pregnancies there either. Just Caucasians.”

Merrihew’s steak was cold. He put his fork down. “Too big to get hold of all at once. You’re taking a hell of a chance telling anyone about this. Even me.”

“Stick that in your cap for a feather. The record says you can be trusted.”

Merrihew looked him in the eye. “Nobody can be trusted with this one. All I can do is the best I can. Let’s get back to work.”

“Work? Ah. Your part in this, you mean. All I can tell you is what needs to be done and let you take it from there. I can’t tell you what to do.” He smiled briefly. “From what I hear, nobody can. That’s how you work.”

“Lasvogel,” Merrihew said tersely. He meant,
Get to the point
.

“Very well. Lasvogel is the key to everything. He’s on the track of an answer and he will come through—although maybe I say that because I have no alternative. But I’m afraid he won’t last the stretch. He’s under some kind of pressure that’s brought him to the breaking point and I’m scared.”

“I’m scared just hearing about it.”

“Oh, you don’t understand. It isn’t West Ecuador. I know the
man. I’ve seen him under stress—work stress—before. This is something different. Something outside. It isn’t physical—I have the right to order an examination and I did that, though I thought he was going to spit in my eye. All I got out of that is what I already knew—he’s under stress. Dr. Genovese—the Institute head medic—laid it to work pressure and told him to ease up, told me to ease up, too. But I know better.”

“How?”

Dr. Poole almost shrugged, almost gestured, barely shook his head. “Call it intuition. Call it my special talent the way you’d call Lasvogel’s problem-solving a special talent. We give things names and think we have answers. They aren’t answers but sometimes they make us feel better.” He drew a deep breath. “Anyway, your problem is Lasvogel. Find out what’s cutting him up and give me an idea of what can be done about it. Your problem is
not
West Ecuador. He’ll handle that. Here.” He removed an envelope from his breast pocket and handed it to Merrihew. “Here’s a personnel profile plus all the addresses, telephone numbers and peripheral information you can possibly need. Numbers you can reach me twenty-four hours a day—and don’t hesitate on that one. A drawing account. It doesn’t say so on the paper, but believe me, it’s open-ended. And I’ve bothered to write one thing down in red:
Respect Lasvogel’s privacy
. He’s obsessive about that. He must never have the slightest suspicion that you’re on the job or what the job is. I can put it to you this way: he’s the most totally devoted and conscientious man I have ever met, but if he thought he was being spied on, he’d quit the Institute—West Ecuador and all. The only other thing I have to say to you is something that doesn’t need saying: God help us if West Ecuador goes on much longer the way it is. Already there will have to be a wrinkle in the birth statistics that some sharp eyes will pick up. Imagine nine months from now when the news gets out that there’s a place where there have been no non-white births in a population of two million. You feel all right, Merrihew?”

Merrihew stood up. “I feel we’ve been sitting here too long. Talking too much.”

“But—”

“You said it was all in here,” and Merrihew tapped the envelope. “You better be right.” And he ran out.

II

Slit-eyed, thin-lipped, Merrihew went straight to a place he knew and began to work.

The place was a park bench off the mall, in a little hollow overarched by linden trees. Aside from turning pages from the envelope, which took him less than twenty minutes, he sat motionless, legs splayed out, eyes all but closed, for nearly two hours.

There were things about this job which ran 180 degrees out of phase with the way he worked, the way he thought. Don’t think of exactly where West Ecuador is, what it is (although “prevailing wind situation” and “central range with cloud cover … it rains every day there” and the population and birth-rate figures put a pin right on its map); don’t think of the nature of that fog and its power in incredible dilutions like that and just what that stuff had to be; it was Lasvogel’s job to work with that—and anyway, Merrihew genuinely doubted that any wild inspiration of his could even approach Lasvogel’s grasp of the variables involved. Don’t think of ways and means of discovering from Lasvogel himself what it was that was pulling him apart. Superbrain he might be, but Merrihew doubted he was so unlike other human beings as to be always aware of what was wrong with him. He probably didn’t know.

Merrihew liked to work with cross-checkable facts, and with the truth (whatever, from time to time, the hell that might be). In this case he had to work with “metafacts” and treat them as if they were axioms, knowing perfectly well they weren’t. For example, Lasvogel was the only man who could solve the West Ecuador mess. Merrihew doubted that, but could not let that doubt dilute his efforts. And this one: the West Ecuador mess can be solved. Merrihew doubted this too, but must refuse to let that thought into the gears. And this: the difference between Lasvogel’s ability and inability to solve the West Ecuador problem lay in keeping him from falling apart. Merrihew was perfectly aware that Lasvogel might well solve the problem before he, Merrihew did anything; or that he, Merrihew,
might pass a miracle and restore Lasvogel to soundness of mind and soul and still Lasvogel might not be able to find an answer.

So all his reasoning and actions must spring from this sequence of assumptions and almost-facts as, if they were the word of God, or at least Moses. On top of which, whatever he did had to be done instantly and effectively, for literally every second made it more likely that the news would get out.

The news would get out.…

He stirred uneasily on the bench: he squirmed. Just the fact—no details, no hows or wheres—just the terrible fact that someone had a substance that would secretly and painlessly sterilize everyone on Earth except Caucasians. Who wouldn’t jump at that—jump in horror, in greed, even in joy, in terror? It wouldn’t matter what details were lacking: that which is stated as possible is done. A microscopic amount of uranium is split leaving its streaks through a half cupful of smoke, and once the news is out, the thing is done—years later, perhaps, billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of man-hours later, but it gets done and the world is never the same again. A man drops dead, seated at his desk. There is a bullet wound. There is a hole in the window glass. The detective draws a line from a man’s head, as he sits at the desk, through the hole. Ballistics experts alter it to the correct parabola and learn where the gun was that fired the shot—and so on—until a murderer is captured. Let it be known that a thing has been done and it will be known how it was done—if anyone cares enough.

And who would care enough about what had happened at West Ecuador? Blacks and bigots. Clever-mouthed haters, masking their diseased passions under a cant of believable ecology. And if a weapon so potent and so selective could be analyzed, why couldn’t it be made to select another target? And if that proved impossible, was there any way to measure the rage of the target now established?

Merrihew had a thought—permitted the thought—purely to know he had had it and that he had eliminated it. Take it to the military, to a wealthy bigot, to the potential victims of the most horrifying exercise of genocide known to history—even human history. One might say conscience would dictate something like the last
course—as for the others, there would be fortune incalculable, power immeasurable for a man who held what he had and used it for his own ends.

Merrihew shuddered and spat.

Work. Work. Get to work.…

He sat there for another twenty minutes.

“For God’s sake,” he said then. “What a way to save the world.”

It was all very discreet, of course, and in the delicate mention of it in Dr. Poole’s envelope, the words had all but blushed. The fact sheet held a strange mix of old-world disapproval and latter-day acceptance, combined with an arch appetite for gossip. What it came down to was that Lasvogel had, in addition to a cerebellum, some gonads, and that these had been preoccupied for some time by one Katrin Szabo, expatriate Hungarian, twenty-four years old, a mathematician employed by the Institute and living in the same apartment house on the same floor as Lasvogel. “His association with Miss Szabo,” said the fact sheet primly, “is regarded strictly as Dr. Lasvogel’s concern and not the Institute’s business”—thereby making it Merrihew’s.

What a way to save the world …

Merrihew, having carefully checked the whereabouts of the parties involved, went to the apartment house where Lasvogel lived, repeating to himself like a mantra:
Lasvogel’s privacy must be respected. Lasvogel’s privacy must …
Oh, he didn’t give a damn for Lasvogel’s privacy. Not now. What the mantra meant was that Lasvogel must not be underestimated. A mind that could do that many things in that many fields was one that would pick up the slightest trace of spying—and that one trace would blow the whole bit. Merrihew could hardly contain West Ecuador in his memory—he most certainly did not want it on his conscience. Anything he did in this operation would have to be by remote control. Anyone he moved or diverted must be handled invisibly and without touching.

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