In Out of My Mind, John Brunner, in mid-career, selects a double-handful and more of what he considers his best work to date, thirteen stories that represent—under the three categories in which he classifies them: Past, Present, Future—his most challenging and entertaining stories, from present-day fear of nuclear annihilation to a loving, yet also terrifying infinite loop in time that includes a sideways step outside the universe as we know it. Put yourself in the hands of a master and take your imagination for a series of thrill-rides.
“One of the most important science fiction authors. Brunner held a mirror up to reflect our foibles because he wanted to save us from ourselves.” —SF Site
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Out Of My Mind
By John Brunner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1967 Brunner Fact & Fiction Ltd.
All rights reserved.
On consideration of the stories finally chosen for this collection, I'm struck by the prevailing pessimism of the whole. (The short list, as it leaves my desk, even contains the ominous total of thirteen items.)
Possibly this is because they were written during a period when the human race was exhibiting with particularly alarming frequency its incompetence to manage its own affairs on the public scale. On the private scale we make out pretty well, but where two or three million are gathered together—watch out!
Indeed, when the fever of international mudslinging is punctuated by an interlude of cool sanity, such as attended the signing of the test-ban treaty, one can't help wondering whether the world's leaders really had a lucid spell, or whether someone else came along and—well—intervened....
* * *
I had this from someone I met in a London pub, so it's only fair to stress that (a) it's at best secondhand and (b) as the phrase goes, "names have been changed to protect the innocent."
There was this young man sitting at the bar. I came up and ordered a drink. He saw the pin, which I always wear, on my lapel—the sign of the Society for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Pointing at it, he said, "You're scared!"
I said yes, because it was true. After all, the pin was there to provoke discussion with people. But I hoped he wasn't going to pick an argument at the moment, because he was clearly rather drunk.
He said, "I'm in the navy. I'm scared. Sit down and listen."
The island lay baking in the sun like a large round cake. It was iced around the edge and all across its center with bright white sand, decorated with a crisscross design of felled trees, and on the sand a greeting for some giant child's birthday had been written in the haphazard hieroglyphs of vehicle tracks. Exactly at its midpoint was a black cabin made of corrugated iron; around this, in a tidy radial arrangement, latticework steel towers took the place of candles. The whole was set on the blue-silver platter of the Pacific Ocean and measured rather less than two miles each way.
It was an elaborate confection.
Beyond it, pegged out on the almost moveless water, there were large ships, none of them closer than fifteen miles away. Beached in the soft sand, or anchored to the atoll which ran out from the eastern side of the island a few feet below the surface, there were a few little ships. These were there to remove the men now working on the island to what was politely called a safe distance when zero hour approached. Yesterday the island had boasted over a hundred inhabitants, but most had already gone.
Now there remained a mere couple of dozen people on shore, mainly servicemen along to do the donkeywork of fetching and carrying. Already the landing craft were being loaded with unexpendable equipment: half-tracked trucks, spare scaffolding, the tents and field kitchens which had done their best to make the island seem military and efficient during the past few weeks. But it took the black cabin to make it look like anything other than a tropical paradise.
Shortly, of course, it would be rather more than a tropical hell.
A number of boats, fully loaded, moved away from the shore. Eventually one solitary boat headed in the opposite direction. It was one of the smallest vessels in sight, but even so it was ridiculously large by comparison with the single packing case which was its cargo.
Naturally, this was no ordinary packing case. Aside from rating an entire boat to itself, it was also entitled to a guard of four men and an escort in white coveralls who sat beside it wearing an anxious expression and listening through headphones to the tock-tock-brrr of a geiger counter. The case itself was slung in a cradle of tension springs like those used to ship unique archaeological relics, and when the boat nosed softly against the shore the men who had to lift it treated it with far more care than an equivalent quantity of eggs.
Among the men who came to greet it on arrival, showing the courtesy normally expended only on visiting royalty, were the two most important men on the island. They had been the most important even when all the hundred-plus previous inhabitants had been here, although there were several of the hundred-plus to whom it was not politic to mention the fact.
One of them was balding and elderly, with a slight stoop and horn-rimmed glasses. He had disks of green glass clipped over the lenses against the sunlight. The other was older, but looked younger because he was tall and thin and stood very erect. As they waited for the crate's handlers to transfer it from the cradle in the boat to another similar cradle specially rigged on the flat back of a half-tracked pickup, the one with glasses pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and furiously wiped first the glasses and then his face.
"God!" he said. "The heat!"
His companion glanced at him and smiled without humor. "Don't let it get you down, Vliesser. It's going to be a hell of a lot hotter in a few hours' time."
Vliesser snorted. "We shall be well out of it by then. I swear, even if it means putting off the firing for half an hour, I intend to get a shower before zero hour."
"Stand out on deck. The blast will pick up plenty of water."
"Damn you, Rogan—do you have to be so cynical?"
"If I wasn't cynical," the tall man said, "I'd be shaking like a leaf. Was it this way at Bikini in '54?"
"I don't know. I wasn't there. In any case, this is a new advance. Qualitatively new. What's the good of drawing empty comparisons?" Vliesser mopped his forehead again.
"They used to tell a story to newcomers in the western states, about the bird that flew backwards because he liked to see where he'd been." Rogan chuckled. "That's me. I'm temperamentally unsuited for major forward steps."
The naval lieutenant who had been supervising the stowage of the packing case turned away from the pickup and saluted.
"The crate's ready to go to the cabin now, Dr. Rogan," he said. "You've been briefed on arrangements for the evacuation?"
Civilians in a target area, thought Rogan wryly. Aloud he answered, "Yes, we've been told. Directly we've armed the bomb we drive back to the beach; you'll be waiting at the boat, and we're to abandon the truck and come aboard."
"That's right," nodded the young officer. "Well, I'll get my men aboard now—I've been warned not to let them stay on shore while you're in the cabin." He hesitated. "Is that all?"
Rogan confirmed, and he saluted and went to round up his men.
Vliesser checked the spring cradle carrying the crate, gave a satisfied nod, and addressed Rogan. "You know how to drive this mechanical yak, I suppose? I didn't think to ask."
"Yes, I took a lesson on it a couple of days ago. Jump in." Rogan climbed over the low door into the driving seat; more awkwardly, Vliesser settled his podgy bulk in the passenger's place.
"Not less than a hundred and twenty people have seen the thing being built," he grunted. "You'd think one of them could be allowed to stay and give us a hand."
"Security," Rogan said. "I'm sure they'd be happier if even we didn't know how the thing is supposed to work. Matter of fact," he added reflectively, "I sometimes feel the same. But never mind. Hold on—here we go."
He started the engine, engaged a low gear, and began to ease the half-track up the gentle slope toward the black cabin.
Vliesser remained silent, mopping his forehead, for a full minute before speaking again. Then, not looking at his companion, he said, "Do you think it'll function?"
"Ask me this evening."
"Rogan, be serious. The occasion demands it. Think! The first manmade phoenix reaction—the first artificial carbon-nitrogen cycle—is probably going to be induced here, today!"
Guiding the vehicle carefully around some felled palms, Rogan nodded. "I hope it does work. I want to get back to something a bit more rewarding."
Vliesser glanced at him. "So you hope it will work? Do you not mean you hope it won't?"
"Not at all. I'm tired of being chased by the military towards bigger and better explosions. Now we've reached the level at which they're bound to lose interest. I mean, this really would be the weapon too terrible to use, wouldn't it?" He waved at the cabin ahead. "Let this thing off over open water, and you'll have a self-sustaining hydrogen reaction. It'd wipe the planet clean in about a twenty-fifth of a second."
"I made it decimal oh-five second," Vliesser said after a pause. "It's a function of the available deuterium."
"Don't let's argue," Rogan said with a wry smile, braking the half-track and swinging its nose around. After a couple of failures he backed it into a convenient position to unload.
Grumbling continually under his breath, Vliesser got down and helped his companion to manhandle the crate out of its springs. Carrying it between them, they entered the cabin. The black-painted walls had absorbed the sun, and the heat struck at them like a hammer.
"If this were TNT," Rogan said emotionlessly as he lowered his end of the crate, "I'd be running in case the heat in here set it off. Open it up, will you?"
Vliesser bent to the combination lock on the crate. He undid it and lifted off the lid. Inside there was insulation—a double layer of lead foil; flat cans of heavy water forming a false case inside the main one; more lead, in slabs rather than foil; rubber blocks to act as shock absorbers; and finally the trigger, a slender metal cylinder the length of a man's arm.
Rogan set it gently on the sliding cradle which was to take it into the very heart of the bomb mechanism. He gave it a pat, then took a note pad from the pocket of his shirt and began to read out a list of figures. As he read, Vliesser moved about him, checking dials and operating levers marked with the wasp sign—black and yellow stripes signifying DANGER.
Everything was normal. Rogan sighed with relief and pocketed the note pad again. He picked up two leads with crocodile clips on the ends and brought them to twin terminals peeking out of the end of the trigger. Vliesser's breathing was the loudest sound in the world.
The wires were clipped in place. Rogan muttered something to himself and pushed the lever beside the sliding cradle. Silently, the trigger ran down its oiled causeway into the appointed place.
"Now all we have to do is turn on the radio controls," said Vliesser. "Then we can go."
"Light the blue touch paper and retire to a safe distance," Rogan quoted.
"What?" Vliesser glanced up sharply.
"Nothing. I was just thinking"—Rogan's eyes roved the mechanism surrounding them—"that you were right to say this was a great occasion. Shall we mark it appropriately?" He felt in the hip pocket of his khaki shorts and took out a flask. "Let's toast it, in the hope that it won't do the same to us."
"I can't say I share your sense of humor," Vliesser commented. "But I will cheerfully share your liquor."
"Here, then." Carefully, as he had armed the bomb, Rogan measured out half the contents of the flask into the lid for Vliesser, then raised the flask mockingly to his lips.
And his arm stopped. Everything stopped. He could not move a single muscle except his eyes and those involved in breathing. He tried to cry out, but failed, and from the look of terror on Vliesser's face he knew that the same paralysis had overtaken them both.
A second or two later, out of the sides of his eyes, he saw a distinct shimmer in the air. It resembled a heat effect but was too sharply defined.
As stiff as though turned to stone, both men stayed where they were.
Out of the shimmer in the air, a form was—was materializing. A form as tall as a man but not shaped quite like a man, although it had the same number of limbs, the same proportion of head to trunk, and moved with a manlike gait.
Straining to see what it was, Rogan felt his eye muscles stabbed by pain, and he had to look to the front again, where all he could see was Vliesser, a statue depicting raw fear.
About ten minutes went by. During it they barely glimpsed the stranger, but they could guess what he was doing—he was going around the cabin checking all the mechanism so shortly due for a fast and fiery end. They heard clinking noises and shuffling footsteps; once or twice they had a view of the stranger's back as he passed across their field of vision. But at no time did they see him clearly.
They heard him very well, of course. And that was the trouble.
When the tour of inspection was complete, the stranger paused in front of the shimmer in the air and—so it seemed to Rogan—glanced back. A voice tinged with sarcasm said, in perfect English with a strong American accent:
"Congratulations, gentlemen! This time you'll manage it!"
Their invisible bonds broke. Flask and lid crashed to the floor as they whirled.
But there was no one there.
The island baked on. Aboard a ship far out to sea, men looked impatiently at their watches. The young lieutenant in charge of the boat that was supposed to be taking Rogan and Vliesser away discovered that they were five full minutes overdue. He contemplated the relative risks of taking a party up to investigate and being court-martialed for disobeying orders, or doing nothing and being court-martialed for not going to the rescue. He decided to give the scientists another five minutes.
He hoped to hell there hadn't been a mixup in his orders. The island was only baking now; shortly it would be burned to a crisp. Possibly to even less.
Eventually his dilemma was resolved. Aboard ship, someone who saw a fast promotion fading ordered a radio message to be sent, and the lieutenant took two of his men up to the black cabin, in a rather agitated hurry.
They found the cabin stinking of whiskey, and Vliesser and Rogan busy smashing the equipment to pieces.
"You were the lieutenant who found them?" I said. I knew the recent Pacific tests had been joint Anglo-American undertakings, of course.
He looked at his empty glass. "I didn't say that," he muttered. "Matter of fact, I didn't say anything. I didn't say anything at all."
He got off his stool and walked, as though he had taken patient aim, straight through the door. He didn't even sway. When I got to the door myself, he was nowhere to be seen.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the names have been changed to protect innocent people. Like us.
THE NAIL IN THE MIDDLE OF THE HAND
It's reported that every time an executioner dies—the public hangman in Britain, for example—there are scores and scores of applications for his vacant post. Did you ever walk down a crowded street and wonder whether you were passing a man who wrote after the job, think that behind that civilized expression and smart suit of clothes might be a person desirous of being licensed to snuff out lives?
Not only the act but the apparatus of judicial murder retains its horrid fascination. Think of the unhealthy adoration which one way and another has been lavished on the Cross. It could as easily have been the saltire cross or Saint Catherine's wheel or the gallows.
More mesmeric yet than the act or the apparatus, though, is the man who kills. And at the most celebrated execution of all time: who was he?
What became of him?
* * *
Outside in the warm spring night there suddenly began an irregular hammering. After the first half-dozen blows, a raucous voice with neither tone nor sense of rhythm to justify it was raised in what was probably meant to be song.
In the well-lighted, comfortable room—as barrack accommodation went—where he was visiting his friend the centurion, the elegant young man from the governor's staff wrinkled his nose in distaste. He said, "Do you enjoy that abominable row?"
"By the Bull God, no!" said the centurion. "But it would be more than my rule over my men is worth were I to tell him to shut his mouth. You don't know who it is, eh?"
"How should I know?" said the elegant young man, and sipped at his goblet of wine. "This Samian of yours is excellent, I must say. Who ships it for you?"
"A rascal of a Greek brings it in. I'll get you a barrel if you like. As I was saying, you honestly don't know?"
"I keep little company with the rank-and-file soldiery," the elegant young man said sarcastically.
"Does the name Decius Asculus mean anything to you?" the centurion said, and gave a faint smile as he saw understanding dawn on his friend's face.
"The one they call the Expert?" The elegant young man bent forward eagerly in his seat. "Is he really among your men?"
Excerpted from Out Of My Mind by John Brunner. Copyright © 1967 Brunner Fact & Fiction Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Fair Warning
- The Nail in the Middle of the Hand
- Orpheus’s Brother
- Such Stuff
- The Totally Rich
- See What I Mean!
- The Fourth Power
- The Last Lonely Man
- A Better Mousetrap
- Eye of The Beholder
- Round Trip