Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (8 page)

O’Banion made a startled sound, as half a dozen excellent examples flashed into his mind at once, collided, and, under the first examination, faded away.

“Because,” said Sam in a voice which was friendly and almost apologetic, “if there ain’t such a law, you might say every set of laws ever dreamed up, even the sets that were bigger and older and lasted longer than the one you practice, even any set you can imagine for the future-they’re all goin’ to contradict one another some way or other. So, who’s really to say whose set of laws are right—or fit to build anything on, or breed up a handful of folks fit to run it?”

O’Banion stared at his glass without touching it. For an awful moment he was totally disoriented; a churning pit yawned under his feet and he must surely topple into it. He thought wildly, you can’t leave me here, old man! You’d better say something else, and fast, or I … or I …

There was a sort of pressure in his ears, like sound too high-pitched for humans. Sam said softly, “You really think Sue Martin ain’t good enough for you?”

“I didn’t say that, I didn’t say that!” O’Banion blurted, hoarse with indignation, and fright, and relief as well. He shuddered back and away from the lip of this personal precipice and looked redly at the composed old face. “I said different, too different, that’s all. I’m thinking of her as well as—”

For once Sam bluntly interrupted, as if he had no patience with what O’Banion was saying. “What’s different?”

“Background, I told you. Don’t you know what that is?”

“You mean the closer a girl’s background is to yours, the better chance you’d have bein’ happy the rest of your life?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” The perfect example popped into his mind, and he speared a finger out and downward toward the piano. “Did you hear what she was singing just before you got here? ‘The boy next door.’ Don’t you understand what that really means, why that song, that idea, hits home to so many people? Everybody understands that; it’s the appeal of what’s familiar, close by—the similar background I’m talking about!”

“You have to shout?” chuckled Sam. Sobering, he said, “Well, counselor, if you’re goin’ to think consistently, like you said, couldn’t you dream up a background even more sim’lar than your next-door neighbor?”

O’Banion stared at him blankly, and old Sam Bittelman asked, “Are you an only child, counselor?”

O’Banion closed his eyes and saw the precipice there waiting; he snapped them open in sheer self-defense. His hands hurt and he looked down, and slowly released them from the edge of the table. He whispered, “What are you trying to tell me?”

His bland face the very portrait of candor, Sam said, “Shucks, son, I couldn’t tell you a thing, not a blessed thing. Why, I don’t know anything you don’t know to tell you! I ain’t asked you a single question you couldn’t’ve asked yourself, and the answers were all yours, not mine. Hey …” he breathed, “you better come along home. You wouldn’t want Miz Martin to see you looking the way you do right now.”

Numbly, Anthony Dunglass O’Banion followed him out.

VIII

It was hot, so hot that apparently even Bitty felt it, and after supper went to sit on the verandah. It was very late when at last she came in to do the dishes, but she went ahead without hurrying, doing her usual steady, thorough job. Sam had gone to bed, Mary Haunt was
sulking in her room after yet another of those brief, violent brushes with Miss Schmidt. O’Banion was crouching sweatily over some law-books in the parlor, and Halvorsen—

Halvorsen was standing behind her, just inside the kitchen. On his face was a mixture of expressions far too complicated to analyze, but simple in sum—a sort of anxious wistfulness. In his hands was a paper sack, the mouth of which he held as if it were full of tarantulas. His stance was peculiar, strained, and off-balance, one foot advanced, his shoulders askew; his resolution had equated with his diffidence and immobilized him, and there he stayed like a bee in amber.

Bitty did not turn. She went right on working steadily, her back to him, until she finished the pot she was scouring. Still without turning, she reached for another and said, “Well, come on in, Philip.”

Halvorsen literally sagged as her flat, matter-of-fact voice reached him, shattering with its exterior touch his interior deadlock. He grinned, or just bared his teeth, and approached her. “You
do
have eyes in the back of your head.”

“Nup.” She rapped once with her knuckle on the windowpane over the sink. Night had turned it to black glass. Halvorsen watched the little cone of suds her hand had left, then refocused his eyes on the image in the glass—vivid, the kitchen and everything in it. Hoarsely, he said, “I’m disappointed.”

“I don’t keep things I don’t need,” she said bluntly, as if they’d been talking about apple-corers. “What’s on your mind? Hungry?”

“No.” He looked down at his hands, tightened them still more on the bag. “No,” he said again, “I have, I wanted …” He noticed that she had stopped working and was standing still, inhumanly still, with her hands in the dishwater and her eyes on the windowpane. “Turn around, Bitty.”

When she would not, he supported the bottom of the paper bag with one hand and with the other scrabbled it open. He put his hands down inside it. “Please,” he tried to say, but it was only a hiss.

She calmly shook water off her hands, wiped them on a paper towel. When she turned around her face was eloquent—as always, and only because it always was. Its lines were eloquent, and the
shape of her penetrating eyes, and the light in them. As a photograph or a painting such a face is eloquent. It is a frightening thing to look into one and realize for the first time that behind it nothing need be moving. Behind the lines of wisdom and experience and the curved spoor of laughter, something utterly immobile could be waiting. Only waiting.

Halvorsen said, “I think all the time.” He wet his lips. “I never stop thinking, I don’t know how. It’s … there’s something wrong.”

Flatly, “What’s wrong?”

“You, Sam,” said Halvorsen with difficulty. He looked down at the bag over his hand. She did not. “I’ve had the … feeling … for a long time now. I didn’t know what it was. Just something wrong. So I talked to O’Banion. Miss Schmidt too. Just, you know, talk.” He swallowed. “I found out. What’s wrong, I mean. It’s the way you and Sam talk to us, all of us.” He gestured with the paper bag. “
You never say anything!
You only ask questions!”

“Is that all?” asked Bitty good-humoredly.

“No,” he said, his eyes fixed on hers. He stepped back a pace.

“Aren’t you afraid that paper bag’ll spoil your aim, Philip?”

He shook his head. His face turned the color of putty.

“You didn’t go out and buy a gun just for me, did you?”

“You see?” he breathed. “Questions. You see?”

“You already had it, didn’t you, Philip? Bought it for something else?”

“Stay away from me,” he whispered, but she had not moved. He said, “Who are you? What are you after?”

“Philip,” she said gently—and now she smiled. “Philip—
why do you want to be dead?

Part Two

SPECIAL ENTRY IN FIELD EXPEDITION [NOTEBOOK]: Since it is now [my] intention to prefer charges against [my] [partner-teammate] [Smith] and to use these [notes] as a formal [document] in the matter, [I] shall now summarize in detail the particulars of the case: [We] have been on Earth for [expression of time-units] on a
field expedition to determine whether or not the dominant species here possesses the Synapse known to our [catalog] as Beta sub Sixteen, the master [computer] [at home] having concluded that without the Synapse, this Earth culture must become extinct. Needless to [say] [we] are here to observe and not to interfere; to add to the [memory-banks] of the master [computer] only, it being a matter of no significance otherwise.

On arrival [we] set up the usual [detectors], expecting to get our information in a [expression of very short time-unit] or so; but to our [great astonishment] the readings on the [kickshaw], the [gimmick] and our high-sensitivity [snivvy] were mixed; it appears that this culture possessed the Synapse but did not use it. [!!!]

[We] therefore decided to conduct a [microcosmic] observation on each of the specimens in a small group, under [laboratory] conditions, to discover to what extent the Synapse exists in them, and under what circumstances it might become functional. We have set up for this purpose [the analog of] a [], or [residence], called, in Terrestrial terms,
small town boarding house
, and have attracted to it:

PHILIP HALVORSEN, a young vocational guidance expert, who has a ceaselessly active analytical mind, and a kind of instinct for illogic: he knows when a person or situation is, in some way, wrong, and will not rest until he finds out why. He has recently followed his own logic to the conclusion that he wants to be dead—and he can’t find out why!… MARY HAUNT, a beautiful girl who claims to be twenty-two [and lies], and who wants to be a movie star with an ambition transcending all reason. She is employed in a very minor capacity at the local radio station, and is always angry at everyone.… ANTHONY DUNGLASS O’BANION, a young lawyer, deeply convinced that his family background, “breeding,” “culture” and occupation set him apart from everyone else in town; he is desperately fighting a growing conviction that he is in love with … SUE MARTIN, young widowed night-club hostess (whom O’Banion’s Mother, if she were here, would certainly refer to as a “woman of that sort”). Sue Martin, a woman of unusual equilibrium, loves O’Banion but will not submit herself to his snobbery and therefore
keeps her feelings very much to herself.… Her young son ROBIN, who is three, and is friends with everyone everywhere including his invisible, “imaginary” playmates Boff and Googie. Robin’s special friend is the lawyer O’Banion; they get along very well indeed.… Finally, MISS SCHMIDT, the high-school librarian, who is a soft-voiced, timid little rabbit of a woman, afraid of the world and abjectly obedient to propriety.

The retired couple who run the boarding house are SAM and BITTY BITTELMAN, wise, relaxed, helpful, observant. They are available always except for one day a month when they go out “for a ride.”

That, in Terrestrial terms, is [our] laboratory setup. [We] installed a [widget] and [rigged-up] a [wadget] as complementary [observation- and-control] even though it meant using a [miserable] [inefficient] [old-fashioned] power supply on the [wadget], which has to be re[charged] every [equivalent of Earth month]. Everything proceeded satisfactorily until [Smith], plagued by what [I] can only, in the most cosmic breadth of generosity, call an excess of enthusiasm, insisted that [we] speed up our research by stimulating the Synapse in these specimens. In spite of [my] warnings and [my] caution, [he] [bulled] ahead giving [me] no choice but to assist [him] in re[wiring] the [machines] for this purpose. But let it be on the [record] that [I] specifically warned [him] of the dangers of revealing [our] presence here. [I] for [one] dread the idea of being responsible for the destruction of organized life. Even if only one of the specimens should detect [us], there is so much intercommunication in this small group that it would be virtually impossible to remove or destroy one without alerting and disturbing all. The least effect would be to negate all [our] efforts so far; the most is something [I] cannot [ethically] live with.

Under these [unhappy] circumstances [we] proceeded with the stimulation; Old Sam Bittelman went to Miss Schmidt’s room when she reported her venetian blind broken and unable to close. She suddenly found it impossible not to answer Sam’s questions, which probed at the very roots of her timidity. Shocked to these roots, but more thoughtful than she had ever been in her life, before, she went to bed forgetting the blind and thinking about the fact that her conditioning
to keep her body covered was more deeply instilled into her than
Thou shalt not kill
—and other, equally unsettling concepts.

Mary Haunt overslept, for the very first time, and went into the kitchen, furious. Sam and Bitty were there, and suddenly the girl
had
to answer the questions they shot at her. She escaped quickly, but spent the rest of the day in bed, miserable and disoriented, wondering if, after all, she did want Hollywood.…

Anthony O’Banion went down to the night club where Sue Martin worked, and sat out of sight on the balcony. Suddenly Sam Bittelman was at the table with him, asking him deeply troubling questions about the law and why he practiced it, about his convictions of blood and breeding, and about his feelings for Sue Martin. Dizzied and speechless, O’Banion was led home by kind old Sam.

Bitty found Sue Martin alone in her room one morning, and asked her some pointed questions, all of which Sue answered with ease, quite undisturbed, quite willing. Yes, she loved O’Banion. No, she wouldn’t do anything about it; that was O’Banion’s problem. Sue Martin was no trouble at all to Bitty.…

Late one hot evening Halvorsen walked into the kitchen with a gun in his hand, saying there was something wrong, something he couldn’t name … but
“Who are you and what do you want?”
Bitty calmly asked him why he had bought a gun: “It was for yourself, wasn’t it, Philip?
Why do you want to be dead?
” [I] submit that [Smith] is guilty of carelessness and [unethical] conduct. [I] see no solution but to destroy this specimen and perhaps the others. [I] declare that this situation has arisen only because [Smith] ignored [my] clearly [stated] warning. As [I] [write], this alerted, frightened specimen stands ready to commit violence on [our] [equipment] and thereby itself. [I] hereby serve notice on [Smith] that [he] got [us] into this and [he] can [ ]ing well get [us] out.

IX

“Why do you want to be dead?”

Phil Halvorsen stood gaping at the old woman, and the gun, still shrouded in its silly paper bag, began whispering softly as he trembled. The butt fitted his hand as his hand fitted the butt;
It’s holding
me
, he thought hysterically, knowing clearly that his hysteria was a cloud, a cloak, a defense against that which he was not equipped to think about … well, maybe not ready to think about; but how had she known?

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