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You stand before the humming computers and you fight off terror. You feel a more-than-human wisdom crushing you to the earth, denying you the right to think for yourself. You know that the future should be in your own hands, but you can't wring that much independence of thought and action from the master controls.
The Big Brain can't know what a man is thinking, but the feeling is there--the guilt feeling. You want to escape but can't. You look around you and see your own face mirrored back. You see on gleaming metal the haggard eyes and tight, despairing lips of a total stranger.
The girl at my side was trembling violently. She'd punched her identity number, and the Big Brain's answer had struck her like a hard-knuckled hand in the dark.
I could see the punched metaltape gleaming on her palm--four inches of tape. I could see the torment in her eyes, the film of moisture she was furiously trying to blink away. She was staring straight at me, but I knew my face meant nothing to her. It could only have seemed the cold face of a stranger, trapped like herself.
The realization of her torment gave a sharp, heady quality to my anger. The guilt feeling dissolved and I felt only anger. She was so very beautiful that I succumbed to the universal human fantasy. I saw her as an outcast girl in a freedom ruin and there was the tang of death in the air and the rich, heavy perfume which outcast women wore.
She was standing against a crumbling stone wall, her large, dark eyes wide with desperation, her unbound hair falling to her shoulders. She was a hostage to despair, appealing to the primitive in man in the pitiful hope of awakening love thatmight know reverence and respect. I had come upon her suddenly and I was fighting for her in a canyon of crumbling steel against men lost to all honor.
Then I saw the light of the dome that arched above me glowing on her hair and the bright, dangerous, mind's eye vision was gone. I wanted to whisper to her, "A computation denying you the right to marry is a crime against beauty such as yours. Don't accept it. Insist on a more rigorous check on every phase of your ancestry." But I didn't say it. How could a man and a woman reach each other with sympathy and warmth when a terrifying weight of nonhuman wisdom denied them the right of courtship?
A glance is a beginning courtship, a word spoken in a certain way, the briefest of handclasps in a shadowed room. Even that was denied us; we were strangers. There could be no hands stretched forth in friendship and reassurance. If you listened carefully you could hear the humming computers. You could hear the click of the metaltapes being punched, being cut off sharply. You could hear a lifetime of misery and bitter frustration being punched out in exactly ten seconds.
Marriage privilege permitted ... Marriage privilege denied.
The vault was like a prison, harsh with artificial sunlight, each of the twenty computation units guarded by heavy bars. You could look up at the glittering tiers of memory banks and stimulus-response circuits, and tell yourself that the Big Brain was society's only bulwark against decay from within. But if the unit before which you stood flashed its cold light upon you, the dryness in your throat wouldn't be from pride.
To the simple fellow yonder, the humming meant that the Big Brain was taking a personal interest in him, as well as every man and woman in the vault, with a solicitude almost godlike. To the junior coordinator whose lips had gone suddenly white, it was quite otherwise. He was an educated man with a high I.Q. and he was waiting for the Giant Computer to make an impersonal analysis of data as unalterable as the stars in their courses.
It was the Giant Computer in the eyes of Society and the technicians who had designed and constructed it. But to the simple fellow and to me, "Big Brain" cut closer to the truth. For quite different emotional reasons perhaps, but what of that? Popular names have a way of demolishing all pretense, and whatever the pros and cons of logic and science, a machine that can destroy your happiness takes an interest in you.
Marriage Privilege Permitted ... Marriage Privilege Denied.
There is more to it than that, of course. But you had to have good eyesight to read the micro-lettering, which told you exactly why you'd made a tragic mistake in allowing yourself to be born.
Biogenetic advances in electron-microscope Roentgen-ray analysis having made possible the exact determination of genes of human inheritance in the human adult, the individual's blindly instinctive urge to mate and have children can now for the first time be successfully controlled. Experience has shown that it is to Society's best interests to maintain at all times a perfect balance of the more desirable genetic types. It thus becomes obvious that curtailment of the marriage privilege must, of necessity, be directed solely to that end.
It was as simple as that. I looked down at my own tape, at the cruel words punched into the metal.
John Tabor ... Marriage Privilege Denied.
Ironically, I wasn't an undesirable type. I was perfectly healthy mentally and physically. In a few years--fifteen perhaps--my type could marry again. But right at the moment there were too many of me.
If I married now I would be gravely imperiling the beautiful socio-biogenetic balance which had to be preserved--even if it meant enforced celibacy or a freedom ruin for a man who had thought to find his greatest happiness through marriage and a home.
The girl next to me hadn't turned. She was still staring at me and her eyes were clear now--clear and fearless. I hadn't intended to speak to her. I had fought the impulse, knowing what it could lead to. I thought of how vigilantly unlawful love-making was spied upon and guarded against, save in the privacy of a man's own lodgings, how every instrument of twenty-second century technology was arrayed against it.
It seldom escaped detection and the penalty--death, or instant, monitor-defying flight to the decadent, violence-ravaged ruins of Nuork. What seemed to some the greater punishment was actually the most merciful, for when survival depends solely on blind luck and a savage, animal-like cunning even the best of men will become brutalized in the end. In Nuork it was kill or be killed and no man could hope to stay alive in a freedom ruin and endure such an exile for more than a year or two. There can be no real freedom in a hunted existence that keeps you constantly on the alert, with violence and death all about you and the dread that you're powerless to cope with it menacing your sanity day and night.
The desires of youth have no beginning, no end. It wasn't sympathy alone that made me ask, "How bad is it?"
"My classical Mendelian ratio is too low," she said. "Too low, that is, for any one of the pooled offspring of a series of families where the parental mating types are almost identical."
She laughed a little hysterically. "I seem to have memorized it already, word for word. It's strange how you'll do that when everything stops for you and you want to die."
"If it ties in that closely with multiple-family data you can ask for another analysis," I said. "Computations based on more than fifty predictable ratios are sometimes in error."
I showed her my tape. "This is my third computation. I received my first two years ago."
She seemed not to hear me. She was looking at me with suddenly heightened interest, as if my sympathy had brought her new hope and courage. Just my sympathy and not what I'd told her about the multiple-family loophole.
She drew closer to me and suddenly there was a flame of yearning between us. I was feeling it and I was pretty sure she was. Her femininity became so overwhelming that it frightened me. I was afraid to think of what might happen if she reached out and touched me. Just the coolness, softness of her palm resting against my arm--
I looked around the vault. A security guard stood by the door, but he wasn't watching us. His eyes were trained on another girl halfway down the vault, a wholly unattractive girl with angular features who stood with her head held high, as if defying the humming computers to deny her happiness.
Spots of color burned in her cheeks and in her eagerness to become a wife and mother she seemed for an instant almost beautiful.
I looked away quickly, feeling I had no right to stare. My temples were throbbing, but I refused to admit that I could be in danger. I had visualized what might happen if she touched me, but I felt confident I could keep that kind of madness at bay. If a woman I did not know was weak and wanted to touch me ... I could be strong.
Her hand was suddenly warm in mine, our intertwined fingers shattering my self-assurance and exposing it for what it was--a desperate clutching at a straw.
"Tell me about yourself," she whispered.
Realization came with appalling suddenness. She could have asked anything of me and I could not have refused her. A woman's strength may be different from a man's. But it can be wholly irresistible. There is beguilement in it and subtlety and when the woman is very beautiful a request can be a command.
I told her my name, my occupation. I told her I'd just come from Venus Base and I told her why I was going back. "Hard work is the only real compensation," I said. "When you're engaged in a construction job on the planets you don't have time to think too much. You take pride in your work, in watching the big machines cutting tunnels through solid rock at peak efficiency. You watch the hills being leveled, the sea bottoms being filled in. You watch a city you've helped build rising from firm foundations, white building by white building, and it gives you a feeling of accomplishment. It's better than staying on Earth and seeking a substitute for happiness."
"But is that real happiness?" she asked. "Aren't you deceiving yourself?"
"Happiness is always relative," I said. "Life deals every man a few brutal blows, and the happiest men I've known haven't always been the luckiest. It's harder for them when the blows fall."
She nodded in half-agreement, a troubled look in her eyes. As if to dispel thoughts that were too painful to her she asked, "What is life on Venus really like, outside of the construction-project sites?"
I told her of the planet's savage beauty, and there was only one thing I kept back--how different I was from most of the men who sought escape on Venus Base. I didn't tell her how great and unusual were my telepathic powers. It was far too dangerous a secret to entrust to a woman. When a child has been born abnormally telepathic he learns caution at an early age--even though he cannot hope to conceal his secret from the Big Brain.
"There are no women on Venus," she whispered. She was standing very close to me and suddenly her hair brushed my cheek. I told her more about the construction work.
"Men who can't marry on Earth will have their chance," I said. "Women will be sent out. There are restrictions you can't impose on pioneers and builders. The biogenetic heritage requirements won't be quite so strict."
"Women will be sent out when you are dust," she whispered.
I pretended I hadn't heard her. I held on to Venus Base as a child will hold on to its most treasured toy, pretending it has found a way to make it yield adult pleasures.
"The restrictions will be gradually relaxed," I said. "Even now it is a free and easy world. You can travel from construction site to construction site, whenever the desire to roam takes hold of you. To quiet that restless urge women will be sent out. It slows down the entire project. And a new society cannot afford that kind of man-hour waste."
"They will let you die first. The Big Brain has not yet made its power felt on Venus. The monitors know that when men have tasted freedom, Society must move with caution." Her fingers tightened on my arm. "Society needs men like you for construction work on Mars and Venus, but those who come after you will be a more docile breed. Society will never reward men whom it does not completely trust."
"I'll have to risk that," I said.
She gave me an odd look. "I suppose it is better than sitting under a psycho-helmet dreaming about a woman who exists only in your mind."
"Emotional illusion therapy can be a satisfying experience," I said. "You can have beautiful experiences in dreams. Sometimes it's so real you never want to wake up. The sleeping mind can be aroused and respond to tactile sensations that are memory-recalled without any actual--"
I stopped abruptly, because I wasn't sure it was wise to take her clinical detachment for granted, even on a purely scientific plane. So much depends on the individual's capacity to keep a discussion of the physical aspect of sex compartmentalized. It could take on an emotional coloration that will make what is being said seem outrageously candid and intimate, when nothing could be further from the truth. I had that capacity but the instant I saw a slight flush suffuse her face I hesitated to go on.
She seemed aware of my embarrassment, for she said quickly, "It can be satisfying, I've been told, to a man. But when you do wake up?"
"I went to Venus Base because I preferred to stay awake," I said. "Does that answer you?"
Her eyes searched my face. "Did you ever go to a freedom ruin?"
I shook my head.
I would have gone to the freedom ruins, if the stakes had been clear-cut. To be permanently banished to Nuork or one of the other ruins would have been worse, by all counts, than a death sentence. But I would have gone to one for an hour--or a day.
If the stakes had been clear-cut. The women who went expected to be fought over and the men--
You found a woman you could love and you courted her until tenderness and desire flamed in her eyes. Then, unless you were completely a beast, she became your woman for as long as you could hold her. To hold her you would have to kill, to defend and protect her against attack. Not all of the men who went to the ruins in search of a woman were brutes. But they were desperate and despairing men, driven half out of their minds by a hunger the ruins alone could satisfy.
They knew exactly what the stakes were--that it was kill or be killed. And that alone can demoralize a man and make him accept a jungle code. If we are willing to take so great a risk, they told themselves, we have a right to do what every man who comes here must do to stay alive.
It was false and vicious reasoning, because to take a woman by force, even if you are prepared to fight to the death to guard her from further harm, is always a brutal act. And that's why the stakes weren't clear-cut and I had always shunned the ruins. It was possible for a man to go to the ruins and court a woman honorably and openly and win her love. But few of the women who went to the ruins, in a desperate search for a mate, expected to be wooed in that way. They accepted the inevitable and were prepared to submit to violence. Any other kind of lovemaking would have seemed strange to them, and by the same token, suspect. They would not have completely trusted a man who wooed them with tenderness and respect.
No society can exist without its safety valves. By computation a certain percentage of the cruelly denied would find their way to the ruins, just as, far back in the twentieth century, a certain percentage of men would seek out women who made a profession of the merchandizing of sex.
A certain percentage would find their way to the ruins and--a certain percentage would die. In that respect it was clear-cut.
I could almost hear the Big Brain whispering, "Society has taken certain regions and about them it has erected barriers of self-loathing and public disgrace. Beyond the barriers there is no law but the law of the jungle. Beyond the barriers my wisdom has no meaning. But it is well that some should go; it is necessary."
If the stakes had been just a choice between living and dying I'd have accepted them gladly. But in the ruins men outnumbered women five to one, and that gave brutality too large a domain, and generosity and forbearance less than a fool's acre of breathing space. A man could not stand upright in so small a place, and still think of himself as a man.
The eyes of the girl at my side burned into mine. Large eyes she had, a deep, lustrous violet which looked almost black until you discovered that they could glow for you alone. "Do you know why women who can never have love here go to the ruins?
"This is why!" she said. Her arms went around my shoulders and she crushed her lips to mine, so hard I couldn't breathe for an instant. Then she stepped back quickly, her eyes shining. "Call it anything you wish."
"There's a name for it you don't often hear in the ruins," I said.
She came into my arms again and that was what I brought my mouth down hard on hers, bruising her lips a little and then draining their sweetness like a thirsty wayfarer in a parched wilderness. It was a madness we couldn't control and there was a terrible danger in it.
Posted June 14, 2011
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