DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP
In a giant, empty, decaying building which had once housed thousands, a single TV set hawked its wares to an uninhabited room.
This ownerless ruin had, before World War Terminus, been tended and maintained. Here had been the suburbs of San Francisco, a short ride by monorail rapid transit; the entire peninsula had chattered like a bird tree with life and opinions and complaints, and now the watchful owners had either died or migrated to a colony world. Mostly the former; it had been a costly war despite the valiant predictions of the Pentagon and its smug scientific vassal, the Rand Corporation -- which had, in fact, existed not far from this spot. Like the apartment owners, the corporation had departed, evidently for good. No one missed it.
In addition, no one today remembered why the war had come about or who, if anyone, had won. The dust which had contaminated most of the planet's surface had originated in no country and no one, even the wartime enemy, had planned on it. First, strangely, the owls had died. At the time it had seemed almost funny, the fat, fluffy white birds lying here and there, in yards and on streets; coming out no earlier than twilight as they had while alive the owls escaped notice. Medieval plagues had manifested themselves in a similar way, in the form of many dead rats. This plague, however, had descended from above.
After the owls, of course, the other birds followed, but by then the mystery had been grasped and understood. A meager colonization program had been underway before the war but now that the sun had ceased to shine on Earth the colonization entered an entirely new phase. In connection with this a weapon of war, the Synthetic Freedom Fighter, had been modified; able to function on an alien world the humanoid robot -- strictly speaking, the organic android -- had become the mobile donkey engine of the colonization program. Under U.N. law each emigrant automatically received possession of an android subtype of his choice, and, by 2019, the variety of subtypes passed all understanding, in the manner of American automobiles of the 1960s.
That had been the ultimate incentive of emigration: the android servant as carrot, the radioactive fallout as stick. The U.N. had made it easy to emigrate, difficult if not impossible to stay. Loitering on Earth potentially meant finding oneself abruptly classed as biologically unacceptable, a menace to the pristine heredity of the race. Once pegged as special, a citizen, even if accepting sterilization, dropped out of history. He ceased, in effect, to be part of mankind. And yet persons here and there declined to migrate; that, even to those involved, constituted a perplexing irrationality. Logically, every regular should have emigrated already. Perhaps, deformed as it was, Earth remained familiar, to be clung to. Or possibly the non-emigrant imagined that the tent of dust would deplete itself finally. In any case thousands of individuals remained, most of them constellated in urban areas where they could physically see one another, take heart at their mutual presence. Those appeared to be the relatively sane ones. And, in dubious addition to them, occasional peculiar entities remained in the virtually abandoned suburbs.
John Isidore, being yammered at by the television set in his living room as he shaved in the bathroom, was one of these.
He simply had wandered to this spot in the early days following the war. In those evil times no one had known, really, what they were doing. Populations, detached by the war, had roamed, squatted temporarily at first one region and then another. Back then the fallout had been sporadic and highly variable; some states had been nearly free of it, others became saturated. The displaced populations moved as the dust moved. The peninsula south of San Francisco had been at first dust-free, and a great body of persons had responded by taking up residence there; when the dust arrived, some had died and the rest had departed. J.R. Isidore remained.
The TV set shouted, "-- duplicates the halcyon days of the pre-Civil War Southern states! Either as body servants or tireless field hands, the custom-tailored humanoid robot -- designed specifically for YOUR UNIQUE NEEDS, FOR YOU AND YOY ALONE -- given to you on your arrival absolutely free, equipped fully, as specified by you before your departure from Earth; this loyal, trouble-free companion in the greatest, boldest adventure contrived by man in modern history will provide --" It continued on and on.
I wonder if I'm late for work, Isidore wondered as he scraped. He did not own a working clock; generally he depended on the TV for time signals, but today was Interspace Horizons Day, evidently. Anyhow the TV claimed this to be the fifth (or sixth?) anniversary of the founding of New America, the chief U.S. settlement on Mars. And his TV set, being partly broken, picked up only the channel which had been nationalized during the war and still remained so; the government in Washington, with its colonization program, constituted the sole sponsor which Isidore found himself forced to listen to.
"Let's hear from Mrs. Maggie Klugman," the TV announcer suggested to John Isidore, who wanted only to know the time. "A recent immigrant to Mars, Mrs. Klugman in an interview taped live in New New York had this to say. Mrs. Klugman, how would you contrast your life back on contaminated Earth with your new life here in a world rich with every imaginable possibility?" A pause, and then a tired, dry, middle-aged, female voice said, "I think what I and my family of three noticed most was the dignity." "The dignity, Mrs. Klugman?" the announcer asked. "Yes," Mrs. Klugman, now of New New York, Mars, said. "It's a hard thing to explain. Having a servant you can depend on in these troubled times ... I find it reassuring."
"Back on Earth, Mrs. KIugman, in the old days, did you also worry about finding yourself classified, ahem, as a special?"
Oh, my husband and myself worried ourselves nearly to death. Of course, once we emigrated that worry vanished, fortunately forever."
To himself John Isidore thought acidly. And it's gone away for me, too, without my having to emigrate. He had been a special now for over a year, and not merely in regard to the distorted genes which he carried. Worse still, he had failed to pass the minimum mental faculties test, which made him in popular parlance a chickenhead. Upon him the contempt of three planets descended. However, despite this, he survived. He had his job, driving a pickup and delivery truck for a false-animal repair firm; the Van Ness Pet Hospital and his gloomy, gothic boss Hannibal Sloat accepted him as human and this he appreciated. Mors certa, vita incerta, as Mr. Sloat occasionally declared. Isidore, although he had heard the expression a number of times, retained only a dim notion as to its meaning. After all, if a chickenhead could fathom Latin he would cease to be a chickenhead. Mr. Sloat, when this was pointed out to him, acknowledged its truth. And there existed chickenheads infinitely stupider than Isidore, who could hold no jobs at all, who remained in custodial institutions quaintly called "Institute of Special Trade Skills of America," the word "special" having to get in there somehow, as always.
"-- your husband felt no protection," the TV announcer was saying, "in owning and continually wearing an expensive and clumsy radiation-proof lead codpiece, Mrs. Klugman?"
"My husband," Mrs. Klugman began, but at that point, having finished shaving, Isidore strode into the living room and shut off the TV set.
Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn't worked in all the time Isidore had lived here. From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it -- the silence -- meant to supplant all things tangible. Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive. Alive! He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait. The silence of the world could not rein back its greed. Not any longer. Not when it had virtually won.
He wondered, then, if the others who had remained on Earth experienced the void this way. Or was it peculiar to his peculiar biological identity, a freak generated by his inept sensory apparatus? Interesting question, Isidore thought. But whom could he compare notes with? He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited apartments, which like all its counterparts, fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin. Eventually everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical, mere pudding-like kipple piled to the ceiling of each apartment. And, after that, the uncared-for building itself would settle into shapelessness, buried under the ubiquity of the dust. By then, naturally, he himself would be dead, another interesting event to anticipate as he stood here in his stricken living room alone with the lungless, all-penetrating, masterful world-silence.
Better, perhaps, to turn the TV back on. But the ads, directed at the remaining regulars, frightened him. They informed him in a countless procession of ways that he, a special, wasn't wanted. Had no use. Could not, even if he wanted to, emigrate. So why listen to that? he asked himself irritably. Fork them and their colonization; I hope a war gets started there -- after all, it theoretically could -- and they wind up like Earth. And everybody who emigrated turns out to be special.
Okay, he thought; I'm off to work. He reached for the doorknob that opened the way out into the unlit hall, then shrank back as he glimpsed the vacuity of the rest of the building. It lay in wait for him, out here, the force which he had felt busily penetrating his specific apartment. God, he thought, and reshut the door. He was not ready for the trip up those clanging stairs to the empty roof where he had no animal. The echo of himself ascending: the echo of nothing. Time to grasp the handles, he said to himself, and crossed the living room to the black empathy box.
When he turned it on the usual faint smell of negative ions surged from the power supply; he breathed in eagerly, already buoyed up. Then the cathode-ray tube glowed like an imitation, feeble TV image; a collage formed, made of apparently random colors, trails, and configurations which, until the handles were grasped, amounted to nothing. So, taking a deep breath to steady himself, he grasped the twin handles.
The visual image congealed; he saw at once a famous landscape, the old, brown, barren ascent, with tufts of dried-out bonelike weeds poking slantedly into a dim and sunless sky. One single figure, more or less human in form, toiled its way up the hillside: an elderly man wearing a dull, featureless robe, covering as meager as if it had been snatched from the hostile emptiness of the sky. The man, Wilbur Mercer, plodded ahead, and, as he clutched the handles, John Isidore gradually experienced a waning of the living room in which he stood; the dilapidated furniture and walls ebbed out and he ceased to experience them at all. He found himself, instead, as always before, entering into the landscape of drab hill, drab sky. And at the same time he no longer witnessed the climb of the elderly man. His own feet now scraped, sought purchase, among the familiar loose stones; he felt the same old painful, irregular roughness beneath his feet and once again smelled the acrid haze of the sky -- not Earth's sky but that of some place alien, distant, and yet, by means of the empathy box, instantly available.
He had crossed over in the usual perplexing fashion; physical merging -- accompanied by mental and spiritual identification -- with Wilbur Mercer had reoccurred. As it did for everyone who at this moment clutched the handles, either here on Earth or on one of the colony planets. He experienced them, the others, incorporated the babble of their thoughts, heard in his own brain the noise of their many individual existences. They -- and he -- cared about one thing; this fusion of their mentalities oriented their attention on the hill, the climb, the need to ascend. Step by step it evolved, so slowly as to be nearly imperceptible. But it was there. Higher, he thought as stones rattled downward under his feet. Today we are higher than yesterday, and tomorrow -- he, the compound figure of Wilbur Mercer, glanced up to view the ascent ahead. Impossible to make out the end. Too far. But it would come.
A rock, hurled at him, struck his arm. He felt the pain. He half turned and another rock sailed past him, missing him; it collided with the earth and the sound startled him. Who? he wondered, peering to see his tormentor. The old antagonists, manifesting themselves at the periphery of his vision; it, or they, had followed him all the way up the hill and they would remain until at the top --
He remembered the top, the sudden leveling of the hill, when the climb ceased and the other part of it began. How many times had he done this? The several times blurred; future and past blurred; what he had already experienced and what he would eventually experience blended so that nothing remained but the moment, the standing still and resting during which he rubbed the cut on his arm which the stone had left. God, he thought in weariness. In what way is this fair? Why am I up here alone like this, being tormented by something I can't even see? And then, within him, the mutual babble of everyone else in fusion broke the illusion of aloneness.
You felt it, too, he thought. Yes, the voices answered. We got hit, on the left arm; it hurts like hell. Okay, he said. We better get started moving again. He resumed walking, and all of them accompanied him immediately.
Once, he remembered; it had been different. Back before the curse had come, an earlier, happier part of life. They, his foster parents Frank and Cora Mercer, had found him floating on an inflated rubber air-rescue raft, off the coast of New England ... or had it been Mexico, near the port of Tampico? He did not now remember the circumstances. Childhood had been nice; he had loved all life, especially the animals, had in fact been able for a time to bring dead animals back as they had been. He lived with rabbits and bugs, wherever it was, either on Earth or a colony world; now he had forgotten that, too. But he recalled the killers, because they had arrested him as a freak, more special than any of the other specials. And due to that everything had changed.
Local law prohibited the time-reversal faculty by which the dead returned to life; they had spelled it out to him during his sixteenth year. He continued for another year to do it secretly, in the still remaining woods, but an old woman whom he had never seen or heard of had told. Without his parents' consent they -- the killers -- had bombarded the unique nodule which had formed in his brain, had attacked it with radioactive cobalt, and this had plunged him into a different world, one whose existence he had never suspected. It had been a pit of corpses and dead bones and he had struggled for years to get up from it. The donkey and especially the toad, the creatures most important to him, had vanished, had become extinct; only rotting fragments, an eyeless head here, part of a hand there, remained. At last a bird which had come there to die told him where he was. He had sunk down into the tomb world. He could not get out until the bones strewn around him grew back into living creatures; he had become joined to the metabolism of other lives and until they rose he could not rise either.
How long that part of the cycle had lasted he did not now know; nothing had happened, generally, so it had been measureless. But at last the bones had regained flesh; the empty eyepits had filled up and the new eyes had seen, while meantime the restored beaks and mouths had cackled, barked, and caterwauled. Possibly he had done it; perhaps the extrasensory node of his brain had finally grown back. Or maybe he hadn't accomplished it; very likely it could have been a natural process. Anyhow he was no longer sinking; he had begun to ascend, along with the others. Long ago he had lost sight of them. He found himself evidently climbing alone. But they were there. They still accompanied him; he felt them, strangely, inside him.
Isidore stood holding the two handles, experiencing himself as encompassing every other living thing, and then, reluctantly, he let go. It had to end, as always, and anyhow his arm ached and bled where the rock had struck it.
Releasing the handles he examined his arm, then made his way unsteadily to the bathroom of his apartment to wash the cut off. This was not the first wound he had received while in fusion with Mercer and it probably would not be the last. People, especially elderly ones, had died, particularly later on at the top of the hill when the torment began in earnest. I wonder if I can go through that part again, he said to himself as he swabbed the injury. Chance of cardiac arrest; be better, he reflected, if I lived in town where those buildings have a doctor standing by with those electro-spark machines. Here, alone in this place, it's too risky.
But he knew he'd take the risk. He always had before. As did most people, even oldsters who were physically fragile.
Using a Kleenex he dried his damaged arm.
And heard, muffled and far off, a TV set.
It's someone else in this building, he thought wildly, unable to believe it. Not my TV; that's off, and I can feel the floor resonance. It's below, on another level entirely!
I'm not alone here any more, he realized. Another resident has moved in, taken one of the abandoned apartments, and close enough for me to hear him. Must be level two or level three, certainly no deeper. Let's see, he thought rapidly. What do you do when a new resident moves in? Drop by and borrow something, is that how it's done? He could not remember; this had never happened to him before, here or anywhere else: people moved out, people emigrated, but nobody ever moved in. You take them something, he decided. Like a cup of water or rather milk; yes, it's milk or flour or maybe an egg -- or, specifically, their ersatz substitutes.
Looking in his refrigerator -- the compressor had long since ceased working -- he found a dubious cube of margarine. And, with it, set off excitedly, his heart laboring, for the level below. I have to keep calm, he realized. Not let him know I'm a chickenhead. If he finds out I'm a chickenhead he won't talk to me; that's always the way it is for some reason. I wonder why?
He hurried down the hall.