“come in, private. have a seat. make yourself comfortable.”
“thank you, sir,” private jones managed to say. he sat down uncertainly in the chair in front of the general’s desk, and probably would have knocked the chair over if it had not been bolted to the floor.
general johnson smiled at private jones in the pleasantest manner he was able to summon.
admiral barker and air commander washington were seated in comfortable chairs to the left and right of the general, and they too managed something like friendly smiles and nods at the bewildered private.
behind the three senior officers a map of the galaxy, with colored pins indicating the progress of the war, covered the wall.
“i don’t suppose you know why you are here,” the general asked the private.
“no, sir, i do not.”
“do you have any thoughts, any suspicions, as to why you may be here?” the general asked gently.
private jones hesitated, but replied again, “no, sir, i do not.”
“none at all?”
“do you know your rank, private? i do not mean the fact that you are a private, but your ranking within human society?”
“yes, sir, i do. i am number 11, 789, 543, 201 - out of 19, 788, 895, 023.”
“very good, private, very good.” the general glanced back at the other two officers.
“did you just look that up?” admiral barker asked, “or did you know it?”
private jones flushed slightly. “i try to keep track, sir.”
“that’s good, private, very good,” the general replied. “well, that is enough chit chat. let’s get down to business. how would you like to go on a secret mission, eh? a secret mission that might change the whole course of the war?”
“a secret mission to change the whole war, sir?”
“i perceive you are not deaf, private. that is what i said.”
“but, sir, why me? as i have indicated i do not even rank in the top 50 percent of society! i am barely in the top 60 percent! and i have no special training or aptitude for such a thing - so - so, i have no idea why you would choose me.”
“we chose you precisely because you are so unlikely,” said air commander washington. “we have good reason to believe that the mutants have spies among us and have compromised our security. therefore we want to find someone buried so deep in the population that they could never find them. does that answer your question?”
“um - yes, sir. thank you.”
“tell me,” the general asked private jones, “what are your thoughts on the cat-men and the dog-men? do you think you could pass yourself off to them as a deserter and a sympathizer?”
“i - i am not sure, sir.”
“does the thought of being torn to pieces by them, if you were found out, frighten you?,” the admiral asked.
“i have to admit it does, sir.”
“i don’t know why,” the admiral replied. “it would be no worse than being blown to bits by a bomb from the mutants - a risk we all face every day.”
“that is true, sir,” private jones answered. “i had not thought of it that way.”
“what were your thoughts on animals before the mutation?” the general asked. “did you have any pets, any cats or dogs or other pets when you were growing up?”
oh, yes, sir i had a cat. a cat named sunshine.”
“sunshine, eh? and were you fond of sunshine?”
“oh yes, sir, i loved her very much! she was the sweetest little kitty you ever saw. she was the whole world to me.”
“i see. and do you think your memories of sunshine have any effect on your enthusiasm for the war effort.”
“i really do not know, sir.”
“what are your thoughts on the war, private?” air commander washington asked. “in a broad historical context, i mean.”
“oh, sir, i think it is terrible! terrible that living creatures can not just get along, but must fall on each other and tear each other to pieces. i do not understand why we can not just get along, as i got along with sunshine, in the faraway golden days.
“i think we have heard quite enough,” said the admiral.
“i agree,” said the general. “you may go, private.”
private jones jumped to his feet. “thank you, sir. do you think, sir that i will - “
“you may go, private,” the general repeated.
private jones made his escape, and the guard closed the door behind him.
“another one bites the dust,” observed the air commander. “what was that, the fifteenth today?”
“the fifteenth or sixteenth,” sighed the admiral. “but what can we do but carry on?”
the general opened a drawer in his desk. “i think we could all use a drink,” he announced.
mrs johnson thought joey was showing signs of progress, but mr johnson was more cautious.
joey’s head continued to grow a little bit every day, but he had stopped asking to go out so that he could meet other children.
he still spent many hours each day looking out the window - usually the large drawing room window that faced the front driveway - but he no longer looked out only on rainy days, but sometimes on clear and sunny days as well.
when asked by ms walker and the other therapists and observers why this was , he replied -
“the spirits of the birds are merging with the spirits of the frogs and beetles.”
“:and the war between the dead and the yet to be born?” ms walker asked. “what of that?”
“green is no longer a color,” joey replied. as this answer did not seem to involve visions of apocalyptic violence, it was considered progress.
also joey no longer asked “who are they?” every time he saw one of the guards patrolling outside on the grounds, although he would still stare intently sometimes when he noticed one of the guards making their rounds in the corridors of the house.
he no longer complained very much about the food he was served, but this could be attributed to
the staff’s learning to avoid the many things he objected to, such as salt, pepper, garlic, paprika, rosemary, and chocolate.
joey had resumed work on his histories of the world , and of the world’s religions, although he declined to share the unfinished products with anyone. and he had stopped laughing loudly - with the laugh that so unnerved many of the staff and guards - as he worked.
best of all, joey no longer openly expressed any desire to join the ranks of the the new race of intelligent children who were waging war on the world.
if only his head would stop growing!
then, mr and mrs johnson thought, things might finally get back to normal.
professor hargreaves puffed merrily on his pipe as he heaped abuse on dora’s paper.
“i don’t know what to say, candidate davis, i really do not. i would like to be polite, being by nature the politest of men, but really - i mean really - i do not know what to say except that this is the most absolute rubbish i have ever read. and by no means particularly original! ha ha! i vaguely recall reading something very much like it. although wait, it might have been the ravings of a confined lunatic referenced in some book or paper on mass delusions. or - perhaps i saw it long ago on some movie on late night tv, on some show like ‘worst movies of all time’! ha, ha!”
although dora had braced herself to face one of the professor’s famed “withering onslaughts”, she could not help flushing slightly.
“i would like to think,” she replied, with more grievance and exasperation in her voice than she would have liked, “that i have researched and considered the scenario a bit more thoroughly than your so-called ‘lunatic’ , or the script writer of the movie you saw.”
“oh, yes, to be sure!” the professor cried delightedly. “and what a scenario! let me see reprise it briefly. in the future, the entire human race is going to merge into one happy super-entity, in which all conflict, all aggression, all oppression, all injustice and inequality and iniquity and so forth will be obliterated and the human race live happily ever after in a refuge in a hole in the earth and live happily ever after! is that how i understand your scenario, eh? ha, ha, ha!”
“i do not use the term ‘ happily ever after’ “ dora answered as composedly as she could, “and i make clear that the outcome - which i only propose as a possibility - is many years - millennia at least in the future.”
“yes, obviously.” dora felt a little better. she felt she had taken the worst the professor could dish out and survived.
but suddenly the professor’s whole demeanor seemed to change. “obviously?” he asked without a hit of a smile.
the professor stood up behind his desk, and looked down at dora. “would it surprise you to learn, my dear candidate davis, that what you have so artfully deduced will not happen in in many millennia - but has in fact - already happened?”
this was a side of professor hargreaves that no one had prepared dora for. “the professor is pleased to be droll,” she replied.
“you think so?” the professor did not relax his serious tone.
“if the human race has been dissolved into one entity,” dora smiled, “what am i doing here? what are you doing standing here before me? what are the people outside in the street doing?”
“the people outside in the street are mere simulacra, or projected illusions, to deceive the handful of humans, like yourself, who have been left behind for research purposes. as for myself, i have taken human form for the same research purposes, but am in fact a being your puny little brain could not begin to comprehend.”
dora laughed out loud. “not bad! i would not have taken you, professor, for an enthusiast of the old-fashioned grand guignol and monster movies. a side of you i do not believe you reveal to just anyone. i feel flattered.”
“you think i am joking?”
“i will go along with the joke. tell me, just how many of us have been as you put it, ‘left behind’ for research purposes? a few hundred? a few thousand?”
“not nearly so many. you were seventeen. but now of course, the number must be reduced to sixteen.”
“you do not say so, “ dora managed to smile, although she was already bored with the professor’s little joke.
the professor reached down and struck a little bell, of the sort used on hotel desks.
after about a minute, during which time the professor maintained his straight face, dora thought she heard a bump on the roof of the faculty building.
this was followed by a clattering of boots on stairs and in the corridor outside.
the door behind dora opened. she turned and beheld two forms in red and gray uniforms completely unfamiliar to her, although whether the occupants of the uniforms were male or female, or human or otherwise, she could not tell.
“i am sorry it had to end like this, candidate davis,” the professor said softly, and for the first time dora thought she saw the slightest trace of sympathy in his face.
the battle seemed to be going badly, but the prophet remained calm.
general arkwright sat beside the prophet as they watched the red dots on the screen, representing the coalition’s forces, encircle the white dots, representing the prophet’s forces.
“i think,” general arkwright said, “that a counteroffensive on the left might be in order.” he spoke evenly, as the prophet disliked both obsequiousness and familiarity.
the general did not address the prophet either by his name, which was joe, or any title, such as “your holiness” to even “sir” as the prophet did not care to be addressed by any name, as he professed to not believe in names.
“do as you think best,” the prophet replied.
“thank you.” the general pressed a button in his receiver to indicate that he was activating the counteroffensive, although the counteroffensive had, in fact, already begun as soon as he had spoken the suggestion aloud to the prophet
the prophet had a way, well known to all who came into contact with him, of completing a thought or a sentence after a lapse of time. now he said to the general, “after all, it is just a lot of dots on a screen.”
“true,” the general agreed.
“our victory is assured,” the prophet continued, “not by the dots on the screen even though we are but dots on a screen ourselves, but by the disunity of our opponents, who do not possess the truth.”
and before the general could reply, the prophet arose and retired to his sanctum.
another disagreement had arisen in the allied headquarters.
this time it was not among the leaders themselves of the various factions - the christians, muslims, marxists, darwinists, etc who had united to defeat the multitudes who had flocked to the banner of the prophet joe smith and his new religion of whatitisism - but among the generals and admirals of the supposedly allied forces who could not agree on whether to make a final concerted offensive or to continue rolling the prophet’s forces back into an ever tightening circle.
even the army and the navy could not agree. general jackson of the christians and admiral cook of the darwinists were arrayed against general khan of the muslims and admiral cho of the marxists, and the pleas of mr butler of the lamarckists and professor walters of the pantheists to put aside their differences were proving fruitless…
tensions simmered and tempers boiled in a thousand little incidents in the allied headquarters…
the prophet lay down for his afternoon nap, more confident than ever of victory…
and young joe smith was back in his home town of thomasville, walking down main street to spruce street and across the green lawn to the white door of the little house…
“is that you, joey?” he heard as soon as he opened the door.
or friend - because after repeated calls to friend, friend had to notify cop.
99 had already used the allotted number of notices for the calendar,
but the noise - the scratching noise! the noise unlike anything 99 had ever heard in the programs.
the programs 99 had been watching for the 168 calendars of 99’s existence.
99 was getting along in calendars, and had had 3 friends and 4 cops.
but was not exactly sure why.
whether it was because of something 99 said or did, or just the routine of events.
there was the noise again!
the scratching noise!
at times like this 99 wanted to get up from the cot and go out into the hall.
which of course was strictly forbidden.
unknown to 99, all previous thoughts of going outside had been recorded in 99’s file…
99 tried to concentrate on the program.
it was a romance program. hot-tempered jeremy had cone to realize that only daphne’s love could save jeremy from jeremy’s self.
99, at the moment, preferred romance programs to travel or porn or horror or history or sport programs, after long sessions with advisor that left 99 with few hours of advice left in the current calendar.
two more programs to feeding time!
and the noise again!
99 had been told over and over by advisor and friend and cop that the noises were not real and existed only in 99’s brain.
suddenly 99 could not take it any longer….
and called friend!
99 lay back on cot, emotionally drained.
friend came quickly. and not alone.
with cop. and with entity 99 had never seen before!
99 got up from cot shakily, staring at new entity.
this is supervisor, friend and cop announced in unison.
supervisor! 99 could not believe it.
cop glared at 99. “do you know what you are?” cop asked 99.
“what?” 99 could hardly breathe, for fear. this was the most “real” thing that had ever happened to 99.
“a whiny little bitch,” said cop. “that is what you are.”
a whiny little bitch! 99 had heard the expression many times on the programs, but had never thought to hear it in own life, or suspect that it might be actually used in present time.
“but - but -“ 99 began to protest.
“do not speak,” said supervisor. “let officer finish.”
“a whiny ungrateful little bitch,” cop went on, but did not stop there…
billy had just arrived in the great city, and joey was showing billy around.
joey was pointing out to billy some of the more curious places and persons in the metropolis.
“check this personage out,” said joey. “a real old-timer, a real crowd favorite.”
the creature joey indicated was short and bald and wore a black knit cap, a threadbare greenish-brown flak jacket, and flip-flops, and it carried a handful of slim pamphlets. skinny bare legs showed between the jacket and the flip flops and billy had the impression that there was no other clothing under the jacket. but it was a pretty warm day.
“hello, noko,” joey addressed the creature.
“hello,” noko replied uncertainly, as if not quite remembering joey.
“this is billy,” joey announced. “billy might not know about your cause.”
noko looked at billy suspiciously. “no? are you interested in saving the world, young person?”
“if i am not, i probably should be,” billy replied politely. “do you mean saving the world from sin? from capitalism? from socialism?”
“no, no, no,” noko protested. “none of those things. all those things are all human, after all. i mean saving the world from the aliens!” noko thrust one of the pamphlets at billy.
“oh.” billy looked at the pamphlet, “humans unite! “ the cover urged, over a drawing of the earth impaled with something that looked like a big eye dropper.
“humans have to unite!” noko urged billy. “no more separate countries, no more separate races, no more separate religions or political parties. otherwise the aliens will divide and conquer and wipe us out! we have to all pull together before it is too late.”
“yes, that sounds like a good plan,” billy agreed, flipping through the pamphlet. “but are the aliens actually threatening? i have not seen anything to that effect in the news.”
“threatening?" noko replied. "they may already be here. in fact, they almost certainly are.”
“oh. i had not heard.”
“there is a copy of a letter in the pamphlet,” noko went on. “you can copy it and send it to the emperor of the united states. to the pope and the dalai lama, to the presidents of china and russia, and anybody else you can think of.”
“i’ll be sure to do that,” billy folded the pamphlet back up and smiled at noko.
noko stared at billy. “aren’t you going to make a donation? i can’t keep the cause going on air.”
“of course, what was i thinking?” billy held out a couple of coins, with noko quickly snatched.
“humans unite!” noko cried in what billy took to be a dismissal.
noko moved off, and joey and billy continued on their way.
“noko is just the tip of the iceberg,” joey laughed. “some estimates are that twenty percent of the people in the city are like that.”
“i hope i am not expected to give them all money.”
“ha,ha! no, you got caught off guard the first time. next time you will be prepared.”
“and they all believe that the aliens are invading?” billy asked.
“that, or something else pretty much like it,” joey shrugged.
“how about you, do you believe the aliens are invading?”
“oh, i know they have already invaded. and have been steadily taken over human bodies for a while now.”
“and how do you know that?”
“because it has already happened to me. didn’t i ever tell you that i - or the person you knew as joey - was taken over?”
“you think it is a joke, do you? you will find out. “
billy considered this as they walked along. “so what are you going to do with me, now that you have told me this?"
“i don’t know, i will have to check in with my superiors.”
billy did not answer.
they reached the ice cream shoppe that joey had previously recommended, and entered it.
“try the pistachio butternut,” joey told billy as they stepped up to the counter.
“she was a child. and we can not take any chances.”
“i don’t see how you can say all the children are these mutants. surely some of them are truly lost and need help -“
kenneth banged his fist on the steering wheel.
“we have two thousand miles to go, helen, and you are starting to drive me crazy with your nonsense.”
“i - i’m sorry, kenneth, it’s just that i - “
“don’t start again, helen. we have been over it all a hundred times.”
helen started to speak but stopped, and nodded.
kenneth kept his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road, which was only a little lighter than the surrounding dark desert.
they were driving with the headlights off, to conserve the car’s energy.
despite helen's lament and kenneth’s outburst, they had not seen one of the children for over forty miles.
or any other cars.
“what was that?” helen asked.
“a jackrabbit or a coyote, if it was anything at all. “
“i wonder why there are no other cars,” helen said after a while.
“because most people have either had enough sense to reach the refuge already, or were too stupid to even try. people like you, helen, who thought the children could be negotiated with.”
helen did not reply, and kenneth went on.
“in case you have forgotten how dire the situation is, my dear, let me refresh your memory. it seemed that civilization was progressing quite nicely in the year 2409 when the world parliament got the bright idea to give all schoolchildren the wonder drug f-877, to improve their cognitive skills and their stamina.
within two years a new race of super children emerged and proceeded to ravage the earth, driven by urges and motives that the most renowned scientists could only guess at.
the children were - are - implacable, relentless , invulnerable, and above all, untiring. they never sleep.
the surviving adults , including some of the world’s most eminent scientists, have gathered for a last stand in a dome in the mongolian desert.
the dome we are trying to reach right now, and will if only a few storms come up and we can recharge the car and if our supplies hold out.”
kenneth looked up at the sky. a few stars and a thin moon lit it up, but there were no clouds.
“damn it!” kenneth cried, “where are those storms bob wilson promised me!”
the energy meter on the dashboard showed a perilously low 18 percent.
as they hurtled through the desert the meter dropped to 17, then 16.
“look,” helen finally cried, as dawn finally began to show.
a few heavy clouds showed on the horizon. even better, a few flashes of lightning showed among them.
“at last,” kenneth exhaled. as the clouds seemed headed directly toward them, he stopped the car.
kenneh and helen got out of the car. as kenneth began opening the energy nodules on the front and sides of the car, helen got a couple of bottles of water and a couple of sandwiches out of the trunk.
“this is strange” said kenneth, watching the approaching storm. “it is coming almost too fast - almost as if it were being guided.”
“guided by what, dear?” asked helen.
but as she spoke, they could see some small, ghostly forms appearing on the horizon as the sun rose.
quickly, kenneth got into the car and retrieved his blaster from the glove compartment.
“get your own weapon out of the trunk, helen,” kenneth commanded.
helen hesitsted, but went back and took a small blaster in a holster out of the trunk and strapped it on.
the children - about six or seven of them that helen and kenneth could see - came closer, but the storm clouds came even faster, until they were directly overhead.
then the clouds unleashed their fury. rain poured down, and tremendous blasts of lightning lit up the sky.
but instread of being drawn down into the car’s energy nodules, the lightning blasts converged on kenneth!
screaming curses, kenneth unleashed his blaster on the clouds.
but to no avail, as the lightning lit him up and hurled his lifeless body to the ground.
the children came closer, and helen could begin to make out their faces.
how innocent and beautiful they looked!
helen reached for the blaster but something knocked the holster, and the blaster in it, off her hip and into the sand.
the lightning stopped.
the first child was now plainly visible, even in the wind and rain.
a little girl with the biggest, bluest eyes helen had ever seen.
“don’t be afraid, pretty lady,” said the girl. “all we need is love.”