Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (34 page)

“Let’s talk about that,” said Joe, beginning to smile. Karl Trilling knew the signs, so he began to smile a little, too. They talked about it.


The crematorium in the second sub-basement was purely functional, as if all concessions to sentiment and ritual had been made elsewhere, or canceled. The latter most accurately described what had happened when at last, at long long last, the old man died. Everything was done precisely according to his instructions, immediately after he was certifiably dead and before any public announcements were made—right up to and including the moment when the square mouth of the furnace opened with a startling clang, a blare of heat, a flare of light—the hue the old-time blacksmiths called straw color. The simple coffin slid rapidly in, small flames exploding into being on its corners, and the door banged shut. It took a moment for the eyes to adjust to the bare room, the empty greased track, the closed door. It took the same moment for the conditioners to whisk away the sudden smell of scorched soft pine.

The medical examiner leaned over the small table and signed his name twice. Karl Trilling and Cleveland Wheeler did the same. The M.E. tore off copies and folded them and put them away in his breast pocket. He looked at the closed square iron door, opened his mouth, closed it again and shrugged. He held out his hand.

“Good night, Doctor.”

“Good night, Doctor. Rugosi’s outside—he’ll show you out.”

The M.E. shook hands wordlessly with Cleveland Wheeler and left.

“I know just what he’s feeling,” Karl said. “Something ought to be said. Something memorable—end of an era. Like ‘One small step for man—’ ”

Cleveland Wheeler smiled the bright smile of the college hero, fifteen years after—a little less wide, a little less even, a great deal less in the eyes. He said in the voice that commanded, whatever he said, “If you think you’re quoting the first words from an astronaut on the moon, you’re not. What he said was from the ladder, when he poked his boot down. He said, ‘It’s some kind of soft stuff. I can kick it around with my foot.’ I’ve always liked that much better. It was real, it wasn’t rehearsed or memorized or thought out and it
had to do with that moment and the next. The M.E. said good night and you told him the chauffeur was waiting outside. I like that better than anything anyone could say. I think he would, too.” Wheeler added, barely gesturing, with a very strong slightly cleft chin, toward the hot black door.

“But he wasn’t exactly human.”

“So they say.” Wheeler half smiled and, even as he turned away, Karl could sense himself tuned out, the room itself become of secondary importance—the next thing Wheeler was to do, and the next and the one after, becoming more real than the here and now.

Karl put a fast end to that.

He said levelly, “I meant what I just said, Wheeler.”

It couldn’t have been the words, which by themselves might have elicited another half-smile and a forgetting. It was the tone, and perhaps the “Wheeler.” There is a ritual about these things. To those few on his own level, and those on the level below, he was Cleve. Below that he was mister to his face and Wheeler behind his back. No one of his peers would call him mister unless it was meant as the herald of an insult; no one of his peers or immediate underlings would call him Wheeler at all, ever. Whatever the component, it removed Cleveland Wheeler’s hand from the knob and turned him. His face was completely alert and interested. “You’d best tell me what you mean, Doctor.”

Karl said, “I’ll do better than that. Come.” Without gestures, suggestions or explanations he walked to the left rear of the room, leaving it up to Wheeler to decide whether or not to follow. Wheeler followed.

In the corner Karl rounded on him. “If you ever say anything about this to anyone—even me—when we leave here, I’ll just deny it. If you ever get in here again, you won’t find anything to back up your story.” He took a complex four-inch blade of machined stainless steel from his belt and slid it between the big masonry blocks. Silently, massively, the course of blocks in the corner began to move upward. Looking up at them in the dim light from the narrow corridor they revealed, anyone could see that they were real blocks and that to get through them without that key and the precise knowledge of where to put it would be a long-term project.

Again Karl proceeded without looking around, leaving go, no-go as a matter for Wheeler to decide. Wheeler followed. Karl heard his footsteps behind him and noticed with pleasure and something like admiration that when the heavy blocks whooshed down and seated themselves solidly behind them, Wheeler may have looked over his shoulder but did not pause.

“You’ve noticed we’re alongside the furnace,” Karl said, like a guided-tour bus driver. “And now, behind it.”

He stood aside to let Wheeler pass him and see the small room.

It was just large enough for the tracks which protruded from the back of the furnace and a little standing space on each side. On the far side was a small table with a black suitcase standing on it. On the track stood the coffin, its corners carboned, its top and sides wet and slightly steaming.

“Sorry to have to close that stone gate that way,” Karl said matter-of-factly. “I don’t expect anyone down here at all, but I wouldn’t want to explain any of this to persons other than yourself.”

Wheeler was staring at the coffin. He seemed perfectly composed, but it was a seeming. Karl was quite aware of what it was costing him.

Wheeler said, “I wish you’d explain it to me.” And he laughed. It was the first time Karl had ever seen this man do anything badly.

“I will. I am.” He clicked open the suitcase and laid it open and flat on the little table. There was a glisten of chrome and steel and small vials in little pockets. The first tool he removed was a screwdriver. “No need to use screws when you’re cremating ’em,” he said cheerfully and placed the tip under one corner of the lid. He struck the handle smartly with the heel of one hand and the lid popped loose. “Stand this up against the wall behind you, will you?”

Silently Cleveland Wheeler did as he was told. It gave him something to do with his muscles; it gave him the chance to turn his head away for a moment; it gave him a chance to think—and it gave Karl the opportunity for a quick glance at his steady countenance.

He’s a mensch
, Karl thought.
He really is.…

Wheeler set up the lid neatly and carefully and they stood, one on each side, looking down into the coffin.

“He—got a lot older,” Wheeler said at last.

“You haven’t seen him recently.”

“Here and in there,” said the executive. “I’ve spent more time in the same room with him during the past month than I have in the last eight, nine years. Still, it was a matter of minutes, each time.”

Karl nodded understandingly. “I’d heard that. Phone calls, any time of the day or night, and then those long silences two days, three, not calling out, not having anyone in—”

“Are you going to tell me about the phony oven?”

“Oven? Furnace? It’s not a phony at all. When we’ve finished here it’ll do the job, all right.”

“Then why the theatricals?”

“That was for the M.E. Those papers he signed are in sort of a never-never country just now. When we slide this back in and turn on the heat they’ll become as legal as he thinks they are.”

“Then why—”

“Because there are some things you have to know.” Karl reached into the coffin and unfolded the gnarled hands. They came apart reluctantly and he pressed them down at the sides of the body. He unbuttoned the jacket, laid it back, unbuttoned the shirt, unzipped the trousers. When he had finished with this, he looked up and found Wheeler’s sharp gaze, not on the old man’s corpse, but on him.

“I have the feeling,” said Cleveland Wheeler, “that I have never seen you before.”

Silently Karl Trilling responded:
But you do now
. And,
Thanks, Joey. You were dead right
. Joe had known the answer to that one plaguing question,
How should I act?

Talk just the way he talks
, Joe had said.
Be what he is, the whole time.…

Be what he is. A man without illusions (they don’t work) and without hope (who needs it?) who has the unbreakable habit of succeeding. And who can say it’s a nice day in such a way that everyone around snaps to attention and says:
Yes, SIR!

“You’ve been busy,” Karl responded shortly. He took off his jacket, folded it and put it on the table beside the kit. He put on surgeon’s gloves and slipped the sterile sleeve off a new scalpel. “Some people scream and faint the first time they watch a dissection.”

Wheeler smiled thinly. “I don’t scream and faint.” But it was not lost on Karl Trilling that only then, at the last possible moment, did Wheeler actually view the old man’s body. When he did he neither screamed nor fainted; he uttered an astonished grunt.

“Thought that would surprise you,” Karl said easily. “In case you were wondering, though, he really was a male. The species seems to be oviparous. Mammals too, but it has to be oviparous. I’d sure like a look at a female. That isn’t a vagina. It’s a cloaca.”

“Until this moment,” said Wheeler in a hypnotized voice, “I thought that ‘not human’ remark of yours was a figure of speech.”

“No, you didn’t,” Karl responded shortly.

Leaving the words to hang in the air, as words will if a speaker has the wit to isolate them with wedges of silence, he deftly slit the corpse from the sternum to the pubic symphysis. For the first-time viewer this was always the difficult moment. It’s hard not to realize viscerally that the cadaver does not feel anything and will not protest. Nerve-alive to Wheeler, Karl looked for a gasp or a shudder; Wheeler merely held his breath.

“We could spend hours—weeks I imagine, going into the details,” Karl said, deftly making a transverse incision in the ensiform area, almost around to the trapezoid on each side, “but this is the thing I wanted you to see.” Grasping the flesh at the juncture of the cross he had cut, on the left side, he pulled upward and to the left. The cutaneous layers came away easily, with the fat under them. They were not pinkish, but an off-white lavender shade. Now the muscular striations over the ribs were in view. “If you’d palpated the old man’s chest,” he said, demonstrating on the right side, “you’d have felt what seemed to be normal human ribs. But look at this.”

With a few deft strokes he separated the muscle fibers from the bone on a mid-costal area about four inches square, and scraped. A rib emerged and, as he widened the area and scraped between it and the next one, it became clear that the ribs were joined by a thin flexible layer of bone or chitin.

“It’s like baleen—whalebone,” said Karl. “See this?” He sectioned out a piece, flexed it.

“My God.”


“Now look at this.” Karl took surgical shears from the kit, snapped through the sternum right up to the clavicle and then across the lower margin of the ribs. Slipping his fingers under them, he pulled upward. With a dull snap the entire ribcage opened like a door, exposing the lung.

The lung was not pink, nor the liverish-brownish-black of a smoker, but yellow—the clear bright yellow of pure sulfur.

“His metabolism,” Karl said, straightening up at last and flexing the tension out of his shoulders, “is fantastic. Or was. He lived on oxygen, same as us, but he broke it out of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and trioxide, and carbon dioxide mostly. I’m not saying he could—I mean he had to. When he was forced to breathe what we call clean air, he could take just so much of it and then had to duck out and find a few breaths of his own atmosphere. When he was younger he could take it for hours at a time, but as the years went by he had to spend more and more time in the kind of smog he could breathe. Those long disappearances of his, and that reclusiveness—they weren’t as kinky as people supposed.”

Wheeler made a gesture toward the corpse. “But—what is he? Where—”

“I can’t tell you. Except for a good deal of medical and biochemical details, you now know as much as I do. Somehow, somewhere, he arrived. He came, he saw, he began to make his moves. Look at this.”

He opened the other side of the chest and then broke the sternum up and away. He pointed. The lung tissue was not in two discreet parts, but extended across the median line. “One lung, all the way across, though it has these two lobes. The kidneys and gonads show the same right-left fusion.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said Wheeler a little hoarsely. “Damn it, what is it?”

“A featherless biped, as Plato once described homo sap. I don’t know what it is. I just know that it is—and I thought you ought to know. That’s all.”

“But you’ve seen one before. That’s obvious.”

“Sure. Epstein.”


“Sure. The old man had to have a go-between—someone who could, without suspicion, spend long hours with him and hours away. The old man could do a lot over the phone, but not everything. Epstein was, you might say, a right arm that could hold its breath a little longer than he could. It got to him in the end, though, and he died of it.”

“Why didn’t you say something long before this?”

“First of all, I value my own skin. I could say reputation, but skin is the word. I signed a contract as his personal physician because he needed a personal physician—another bit of window-dressing. But I did precious little doctoring—except over the phone—and nine-tenths of that was, I realized quite recently, purely diversionary. Even a doctor, I suppose, can be a trusting soul. One or the other would call and give a set of symptoms and I’d cautiously suggest and prescribe. Then I’d get another call that the patient was improving and that was that. Why, I even got specimens—blood, urine, stools—and did the pathology on them and never realized that they were from the same source as what the medical examiner checked out and signed for.”

“What do you mean, same source?”

Karl shrugged. “He could get anything he wanted—anything.”

“Then—what the M.E. examined wasn’t—” he waved a hand at the casket.

“Of course not. That’s why the crematorium has a back door. There’s a little pocket sleight-of-hand trick you can buy for fifty cents that operates the same way. This body here was inside the furnace. The ringer—a look-alike that came from God knows where; I swear to you I don’t—was lying out there waiting for the M.E. When the button was pushed the fires started up and that coffin slid in—pushing this one out and at the same time drenching it with water as it came through. While we’ve been in here, the human body is turning to ashes. My personal private secret instructions, both for Epstein and for the boss, were to wait until I was certain I was alone and
then come in here after an hour and push the second button, which would slide this one back into the fire. I was to do no investigations, ask no questions, make no reports. It came through as logical but not reasonable, like so many of his orders.” He laughed suddenly. “Do you know why the old man—and Epstein too, for that matter, in case you never noticed—wouldn’t shake hands with anyone?”

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