At The Post
by Horace L. Gold
Clocker put in a call for Barnes at the box office of the Center. Barnes left a lecture for researchers from his planet and joined Clocker with no more than polite curiosity on his paternal face. Clocker told him briefly and bitterly about his talk with Zelda, and asked bluntly what was in it for the aliens.
"I think you can answer that," said Barnes. "You're a scientist of a sort. You determine the probable performance of a group of horses by their heredity, previous races and other factors. A very laborious computation, calling for considerable aptitude and skill. With that same expenditure of energy, couldn't you earn more in other fields?"
"I guess so," Clocker said. "But I like the track."
"Well, there you are. The only human form of gain we share is desire for knowledge. You devote your skill to predicting a race that is about to be run; we devote ours to recording a race that is about to destroy itself."
Clocker grabbed the alien's coat, pushed his face grimly close. "There, that's the hook! Take away the doom push and this racket folds."
Barnes looked bewildered. "I don't comprehend--"
"Listen, suppose everything's square. Let's say you guys really are leveling, these marks aren't being roped, you're knocking yourself out because your guess is that we're going to commit suicide."
"Oh." Barnes nodded somberly. "Is there any doubt of it? Do you honestly believe the holocaust can be averted?"
"I think it can be stopped, yeah. But you birds act like you don't want it to be. You're just laying back, letting us bunch up, collecting the insurance before the spill happens."
"What else can we do? We're scientists, not politicians. Besides, we've tried repeatedly to spread the warning and never once succeeded in transmitting it.
Clocker released his grip on the front of Barne's jacket. "You take me to the president or commissioner or whoever runs this club. Maybe we can work something out."
"We have a board of directors," Barnes said doubtfully. "But I can't see--"
"Don't rupture yourself trying. Just take me there and let me do the talking."
Barnes moved his shoulders resignedly. He led Clocker to the Administration Building and inside to a large room with paneled walls, a long, solid table and heavy, carved chairs. The men who sat around the table appeared as solid and respectable as the furniture. Clocker's guess was that they had been chosen deliberately, along with the decorations, to inspire confidence in the customer. He had been in rigged horse parlors and bond stores and he knew the approach.
Mr. Calhoun, the character with the white beard, was chairman of the board. He looked unhappily at Clocker.
"I was afraid there would be trouble," he said. "I voted against accepting you, you know. My colleagues, however, thought that you, as our first voluntary associate, might indicate new methods, but I fear my judgment has been vindicated."
"Still, if he knows how extinction can be prevented--" began Dr. Hardin, the one who had given the orientation lecture.
"He knows no such thing," a man with several chins said in an emphatic basso voice. "Man is the most destructive dominant race we have ever encountered. He despoiled his own planet, exterminated lower species that were important to his own existence, oppressed, suppressed, brutalized, corrupted -- it's the saddest chronicle in the Universe."
"Therefore his achievements," said Dr. Harding, "deserve all the more recognition!"
Clocker broke in: "If you'll lay off the gab, I'd like to get my bet down."
"Sorry," said Mr. Calhoun. "Please proceed, Mr. Locke."
Clocker rested his knuckles on the table and leaned over them. "I have to take your word you ain't human, but you don't have to take mine. I never worried about anybody but Zelda and myself; that makes me human. All I want is to get along and not hurt anybody if I can help it; that makes me what some people call the common man. Some of my best friends are common men. Come to think of it, they all are. They wouldn't want to get extinct. If we do, it won't be our fault."
Several of the men nodded sympathetic agreement.
"I don't read much except the sport sheets, but I got an idea what's coming up," Clocker continued, "and it's a long shot that any country can finish in the money. We'd like to stop war for good, all of us. Little guys who do the fighting and the dying. Yeah, and lots of big guys, too. But we can't do it alone."
"That's precisely our point," said Calhoun.
"I mean us back on Earth. People are afraid, but they just don't know for sure that we can knock ourself off. Between these catatonics and me, we could tell them what it's all about. I notice you got people from all over the world here, all getting along fine because they have a job to do and no time to hate each other. Well, it could be like that on Earth. You let us go back and you'll see a selling job on making it like up here like you never saw before."
Mr. Calhoun and Dr. Harding looked at each other and around the table. Nobody seemed willing to answer.
Mr. Calhoun finally sighed and got out of this big chair. "Mr. Locke, besides striving for international understanding, we have experimented in the manner you suggest. We released many of our human associates to tell what our science predicts on the basis of probability. A human psychological mechanism defeated us."
"Yeah?" Clocker asked warily. "What was that?"
"Protective amnesia. They completely and absolutely forgot everything they had learned here."
Clocker slumped a bit. "I know. I talked to some of these 'cured' catatonics -- people you probably sprung because you got all you wanted from them. They didn't remember anything." He braced again. "Look, there has to be a way out. Maybe if you snatch these politicians in all the countries, yank them up here, they couldn't stumble us into a war."
"Examine your history," said Dr. harding sadly, "and you will find that we have done this experimentally. It doesn't work. There are always others, often more unthinking, ignorant, stupid or vicious, ready to take their places."
Clocker looked challengingly at every member of the board of directors before demanding, "What are the odds on me remembering?"
"You are our first volunteer," said a little man at the side of the table. "Any answer we give would be a guess."
"All right, guess."
"We have a theory that your psychic censor might not operate. Of course, you realize that's only a theory--"
"That ain't all I don't realize. What's it mean?"
"Our control, regrettably, is a wrench to the mind. Lifting it results in amnesia, which is a psychological defense against disturbing memories."
"I walked into this, don't forget," Clocker reminded him. "I didn't know what I was getting into, but I was ready to take anything."
"That," said the little man, "is the unknown factor. Yes, you did submit voluntarily and you were ready to take anything -- but were you psychologically prepared for this? We don't know. We think there may be no characteristic wrench--"
"Meaning I won't have amnesia?"
"Meaning that you may not. We cannot be certain until a test has been made."
"Then," said Clocker, "I want a deal. It's Zelda I want; you know that, at any rate. You say you're after a record of us in case we bump ourself off, but you also say you'd like us not to. I'll buy that. I don't want us to, either, and there's a chance that we can stop it together."
"An extremely remote one," Mr. Calhoun stated.
"Maybe, but a chance. Now if you let me out and I'm the first case that don't get amnesia, I can tell the world about all this. I might be able to steer other guys, scientists and decent politicians, into coming here to get the dope straighter than I could. Maybe that'd give Earth a chance to cop a pardon on getting extinct. Even if it don't work, it's better than hanging around the radio waiting for the results."
Dr. Harding hissed on his glasses and wiped them thoughtfully, an adopted mannerism, obviously, because he seemed to see as well without them. "You have a point, Mr. Locke, but it would mean losing your contribution to our archives."
"Well, which is more important?" Clocker argued. "Would you rather have any record than have us save ourself?"
"Both," said Mr. Calhoun. "We see very little hope of your success, while we regard your knowledge as having important sociological significance. A very desirable contribution."
The others agreed.
"Look, I'll come back if I lame out," Clocker desperately offered. "You can pick me up any time you want. But if I make headway, you got to let Zelda go, too."
"A reasonable proposition," said Dr. Harding. "I call for a vote."
They took one. The best Clocker could get was a compromise.
"We will lift our control," Mr. Calhoun said, "for a suitable time. If you can arouse a measurable opposition to racial suicide -- measurable, mind you; we're not requiring that you reverse the lemming march alone -- we agree to release your wife and revise our policy completely. If, on the other hand, as seems more likely --"
"I come back here and go on giving you the inside on racing," Clocker finished for him. "How much time do I get?"
Dr. Harding turned his hands palm up on the table. "We do not wish to be arbitrary. We earnestly hope you gain your objective and we shall give you every opportunity to do so. If you fail, you will know it. So shall we."
"You're pretty sure I'll get scratched, aren't you?" Clocker asked angrily. "It's like me telling a jockey he don't stand a chance -- he's whammied before he even gets to the paddock. Anybody'd think do-gooders like you claim you are would wish me luck."
"But we do!" exclaimed Mr. Calhoun. He shook Clocker's hand warmly and sincerely. "Haven't we consented to release you? Doesn't this prove our honest concern? If releasing all our human associates would save humanity, we would do so instantly. But we have tried again and again. And so, to use your own professional terminology, we are hedging our bets by continuing to make our anthropological record until you demonstrate another method . . . if you do."
"Good enough," approved Clocker. "Thanks for the kind word."
The other board members followed and shook Clocker's hand and wished him well.
Barnes, being last, did the same and added, "You may see your wife, if you care to, before you leave."
"If I care to?" Clocker repeated. "What in hell do you think I came here for in the first place?"
Zelda was brought to him and they were left alone in a pleasant reading room. Soft music came from the walls, which glowed with enough light to read by. Zelda's lovely face was warm with emotion when she sat down beside him and put her hands in his.
"They tell me you're leaving, hon," she said.
"I made a deal, baby. If it works -- well, it'll be like it was before, only better."
"I hate to see you leave. Not just for me," she added as he lit up hopefully. "I still love you, hon, but it's different now. I used to want you near me every minute. Now it's loving you without starving for you. You know what I mean?"
"That's just the control they got on you. It's like that with me, too, only I know what it is and you don't."
"But the big thing is the project. Why, we're footnotes in history! Stay here, hon. I'd feel so much better knowing you were here, making your contribution like they say."
He kissed her lips. They were soft and warm and clinging, and so were her arms around his neck. This was more like the Zelda he had been missing.
"They gave you a hypo, sweetheart," he told her. "You're hooked; I'm not. Maybe being a footnote is more important than doing something to save our skin, but I don't think so. If I can do anything about it, I want to do it."
"I don't know," he admitted. "I'm hoping I get an idea when I'm paroled."
She nuzzled under his chin. "Hon, I want you and me to be footnotes. I want it awful bad."
"That's not what really counts, baby. Don't you see that? It's having you and stopping us humans from being just a bunch of old footnotes. Once we do that, we can always come back here and make the record, if it means that much to you."
"Oh, it does!"
He stood and drew her up so he could hold her more tightly. "You do want to go on being my wife, don't you, baby?"
"Of course! Only I was hoping it could be here."
"Well, it can't. But that's all I wanted to know. The rest is just details."
He kissed her again, including the side of her neck, which produced a subdued wriggle of pleasure, and then he went back to the Administration Building for his release.
Awakening was no more complicated than opening his eyes, except for a bit of fogginess and fatigue that wore off quickly, and Clocker saw he was in a white room with a doctor, a nurse and an orderly around his bed.
"Reflexes normal," the doctor said. He told Clocker, "You see and hear us. You know what I'm saying."
"Sure," Clocker replied. "Why shouldn't I?"
"That's right," the doctor evaded. "How do you feel?"
Clocker thought about it. He was a little thirsty and the idea of a steak interested him, but otherwise he felt no pain or confusion. He remembered that he had not been hungry or thirsty for a long time, and that made him recall going over the border after Zelda.
There were no gaps in his recollection.
He didn't have protective amnesia.
"You know what it's like there?" he asked the doctor eagerly. "A big place where everybody from all over the world tell these aliens about their job or racket." He frowned. "I just remembered something funny. Wonder why I didn't notice it at the time. Everybody talks the same language. Maybe that's because there's only one language for thinking." He shrugged off the problem. "The guys who run the shop take it all down as a record for whoever wants to know about us a zillion years from now. That's on account of us humans are about to close down the track and go home."
The doctor bent close intently. "Is that what you believe now or -- while you were -- disturbed?"
Clocker's impulse to blurt the whole story was stopped at the gate. The doctor was staring too studiously at him. He didn't have his story set yet; he needed time to think, and that meant getting out of this hospital and talking it over with himself.
"You kidding?" he asked, using the same grin that he met complainers with when his turf predictions went sour. "While my head was out of the stirrups, of course."
The doctor, the nurse and the orderly relaxed.
"I ought to write a book," Clocker went on, being doggedly humorous. "What screwball ideas I got! How'd I act?"
"Not bad," said the orderly. "When I found you yakking in your wife's room, I thought maybe it was catching and I'd better go find another job. But Doc here told me I was too stable to go psychotic."
"I wasn't any trouble?"
"Nah. All you did was talk about how to handicap races. I got quite a few pointers. Hell, you went over them often enough for anybody to get them straight!"
"I'm glad somebody made a profit," said Clocker. He asked the doctor, "When do I get out of here?"
"We'll have to give you a few tests first."
"Bring them on," Clocker said confidently.
They were clever tests, designed to trip him into revealing whether he still believed in his delusions. But once he realized that, he meticulously joked about them.
"Well?" he asked when the tests were finished.
"You're all right," said the doctor. "Just try not to worry about your wife, avoid overworking, get plenty of rest--"
Before Clocker left, he went to see Zelda. She had evidently recorded the time-step satisfactorily, because she was on a soft-shoe routine that she must have had down pat by the time she'd been ten.
He kissed her unresponsive mouth, knowing that she was far away in space and could not feel, see or hear him. But that didn't matter. He felt his own good, honest, genuine longing for her, unchecked by the aliens' control of emotions.
"I'll spring you yet, baby," he said. "And what I told you about that big apartment on Riverside Drive still goes. We'll have a time together that ought to be a footnote in history all by itself. I'll see you...after I get the real job done."
He heard the soft-shoe rhythm all the way down the corridor, out of the hospital, and clear back to the city.
Clocker's bank balance was sick, the circulation of his tip sheet gone. But he didn't worry about it; there were bigger problems.
He studied the newspapers before even giving himself time to think. The news was as bad as usual. He could feel the heat of fission, close his eyes and see all the cities and farms in the world going up in a blinding cloud. As far as he was concerned, Barnes and Harding and the rest weren't working fast enough; he could see doom sprinting in half a field ahead of the completion of the record.
The first thing he could have done was recapture the circulation of the tip sheet. The first thing he actually did do was write the story of his experience just as it had happened, and send it to a magazine.
When he finally went to work on his sheet, it was to cut down the racing data to a few columns and fill the rest of it with warnings.
"This is what you want?" the typesetter asked, staring at the copy Clocker turned in. "You sure this is what you want?"
"Sure I'm sure. Set it and let's get the edition out early. I'm doubling the print order."
"You heard me."
When the issue was out, Clocker waited around the main newsstands on Broadway. He watched the customers buy, study unbelievingly, and wander off looking as if all the tracks in the country had burned down simultaneously.
Doc Hawkins found him there.
"Clocker, my boy! You have no idea how anxious we were about you. But you're looking fit, I'm glad to say."
"Thanks," Clocker said abstractedly. "I wish I could say the same about you and the rest of the world."
Doc laughed. "No need to worry about us. We'll muddle along somehow."
"You think so, huh?"
"Well, if the end is approaching, let us greet it at the Blue Ribbon. I believe we can still find the lads there."
They were, and they greeted Clocker with gladness and drinks. Diplomatically, they made only the most delicate references to the revamping job Clocker had done on his tip sheet.
"It's just like opening night, that's all," comforted Arnold Wilson Wyle. "You'll get back into your routine pretty soon."
"I don't want to," said Clocker pugnaciously. "Handicapping is only a way to get people to read what I really want to tell them."
"Took me many minutes to find horses," Oil Pocket put in. "See one I want to bet on, but rest of paper make me too worried to bother betting. Okay with Injun, though -- horse lost. And soon you get happy again, stick to handicapping, let others worry about world."
Buttonhole tightened his grip on Clocker's lapel. "Sure, boy. As long as the bobtails run, who cares what happens to anything else?"
"Maybe I went too easy," said Clocker tensely. "I didn't print the whole thing, just a little part of it. Here's the rest."
They were silent while he talked, seeming stunned with the terrible significance of his story.
"Did you explain all this to the doctors?" Doc Hawkins asked.
"You think I'm crazy?" Clocker retorted. "They'd have kept me packed away and I'd never get a crack at telling anybody."
"Don't let it trouble you," said Doc. "Some vestiges of delusion can be expected to persist for a while, but you'll get rid of them. I have faith in your ability to distinguish between the real and unreal."
"But it all happened! If you guys don't believe me, who will? And you've got to so I can get Zelda back!"
"Of course, of course," said Doc hastily. "We'll discuss it further some other time. Right now I really must start putting my medical column together for the paper."
"What about you, Handy Sam?" Clocker challenged.
Handy Sam, with one foot up on the table and a pencil between his toes, was doodling self-consciously on a paper napkin. "We all get these ideas, Clocker. I used to dream about having arms and I'd wake up still thinking so, till I didn't know if I did or didn't. But like Doc says, then you figure out what's real and it don't mix you up any more."
"All right," Clocker said belligerently to Oil Pocket. "You think my story's batty, too?"
"Can savvy evil spirits, good spirits," Oil Pocket replied with stolid tact. "Injun spirits, though, not white ones."
"But I keep telling you they ain't spirits. They ain't even human. They're from some world way across the Universe--"
Oil Pocket shook his head. "Can savvy Injun spirits, Clocker. No spirits, no savvy."
"Look, you see the ones we're all in, don't you?" Clocker appealed to the whole group. "Do you mean to tell me you can't feel we're getting set to blow the joint? Wouldn't you want to stop it?"
"If we could, my boy, gladly," Doc said. "However, there's not much that any individual or group of individuals can do."
"But how in hell does anything get started? With one guy, two guys -- before you know it, you got a crowd, a political party, a country--"
"What about the other countries, though?" asked Buttonhole. "So we're sold on your story in America, let's say. What do we do -- let the rest of the world walk in and take us over?"
"We educate them," Clocker explained despairingly. "We start it here and it spreads to there. It doesn't have to be everybody. Mr. Calhoun said I just have to convince a few people and that'll show them it can be done and then I get Zelda back."
Doc stood up and glanced around the table. "I believe I speak for all of us, Clocker, when I state that we shall do all within our power to aid you."
"Like telling other people?" Clocker asked eagerly.
"Well, that's going pretty--"
"Forget it, then. Go write your column. I'll see you chumps around -- around ten miles up, shaped like a mushroom."
He stamped out, so angry that he untypically let the others settle his bill.
Clocker's experiment with the newspaper failed so badly that it was not worth the expense of putting it out; people refused to buy. Clocker had three-sheets printed and hired sandwich men to parade them through the city. He made violent speeches in Columbus Circle, where he lost his audience to revivalist orators; Union Square, where he was told heatedly to bring his message to Wall Street; and Times Square, where the police made him move along so he wouldn't block traffic. He obeyed, shouting his message as he walked, until he remembered how amusedly he used to listen to those who cried that Doomsday was near. He wondered if they were catatonics under imperfect control. It didn't matter; nobody paid serious attention to his or their warnings.
The next step, logically, was a barrage of letters to the heads of nations, to the U.N., to editors of newspapers. Only a few of his letters were printed. The ones in Doc's tabloid did best, drawing such comments as:
"Who does this jerk think he is, telling us everybody's going to get killed off? Maybe they will, but not in Brooklyn!"
"When I was a young girl, some fifty years ago, I had a similar experience to Mr. Locke's. But my explanation is quite simple. The persons I saw proved to be my ancestors. Mr. Locke's new-found friends will, I am sure, prove to be the same. The World Beyond knows all and tells all, and my Control, with whom I am in daily communication Over There, assures me that mankind is in no danger whatever, except from the evil effects of tobacco and alcohol and the disrespect of youth for their elders."
"The guy's nuts! He ought to go back to Russia. He's nothing but a nut or a Communist and in my book that's the same thing."
"He isn't telling us anything new. We all know who the enemy is. The only way to protect ourselves is to build TWO GUNS FOR ONE!"
"Is this Locke character selling us the idea that we all ought to go batty to save the world?"
Saddened and defeated, Clocker went through his accumulated mail. There were politely non-commital acknowledgements from embassies and the U.N. There was also a check for his article from the magazine he'd sent it to; the amount was astonishingly large.
He used part of it to buy radio time, the balance for ads in rural newspapers and magazines. City people, he figured, were hardened by publicity gags, and he might stir up the less suspicious and sophisticated hinterland. The replies he received, though, advised him to buy some farmland and let the metropolises he destroyed, which, he was assured, would be a mighty good thing all around.
The magazine came out the same day he tried to get into the U.N. to shout a speech from the balcony. He was quietly surrounded by a uniformed guard and moved, rather than forced, outside.
He went dejectedly to his hotel. He stayed there for several days, dialing numbers he selected randomly from the telephone book, and getting the brushoff from business offices, housewives and maids. They were all very busy or the boss wasn't in or they expected important calls.
That was when he was warmly invited by letter to see the editor of the magazine that had bought his article.
Elated for actually the first time since his discharge from the hospital, Clocker took a cab to a handsome building, showed his invitation to a pretty and courteous receptionist, and was escorted into an elaborate office where a smiling man came around a wide bleached-mahogany desk and shook hands with him.
"Mr. Locke," said the editor, "I'm happy to tell you that we've had a wonderful response to your story."
"Article," Clocker corrected.
The editor smiled. "Do you produce so much that you can't remember what you sold us? It was about--"
"I know," Clocker cut in. "But it wasn't a story. It was an article. It really--"
"Now, now. The first thing a writer must learn is not to take his ideas too seriously. Very dangerous, especially in a piece of fiction like yours."
"But the whole thing is true!"
"Certainly -- while you were writing it." The editor shoved a pile of mail across the desk toward him. "Here are some of the comments that have come in. I think you'll enjoy seeing the reaction."
Clocker went through them, hoping anxiously for no more than a single note that would show his message had come through to somebody. He finished and looked up blankly.
"You see?" the editor asked proudly. "You're a find."
"The new Mark Twain or Jonathan Swift. A comic."
"A satirist," the editor amended. He leaned across the desk on his crossed forearms. "A mail response like this indicates a talent worth developing. We would like to discuss a series of stories--"
"Whatever you choose to call them. We're prepared to--"
"You ever been off your rocket?" Clocker asked abruptly.
The editor sat back, smiling with polite puzzlement. "Why, no."
"You ought to try it some time." Clocker lifted himself out of the chair and went to the door. "That's what I want, what I was trying to sell in my article. We all ought to go to hospitals and get ourself let in and have these aliens take over and show us where we're going."
"You think that would be an improvement?"
"What wouldn't?" asked Clocker, opening the door.
"But about the series--"
"I've got your name and address. I'll let you know if anything turns up."
Clocker closed the door behind him, went out of the handsome building and called a taxi. All through the long ride, he stared at the thinning out of the city, the huddled suburban communities, the stretches of grass and well-behaved woods that were permitted to survive.
He climbed out at Glendale Center Hospital, paid the hackie, and went to the admitting desk. The nurse gave him a smile.
"We were wondering when you'd come visit your wife," she said. "Been away?"
"Sort of," he answered, with as little emotion as he had felt while he was being controlled. "I'll be seeing plenty of her from now on. I want my old room back."
"But you're perfectly normal!"
"That depends on how you look at it. Give me ten minutes alone and any brain vet will be glad to give me a cushioned stall."
Hands in his pockets, Clocker went into the elevator, walked down the corridor to his old room without pausing to visit Zelda. It was the live Zelda he wanted to see, not the tapping automaton.
He went in and shut the door.