Authors: Robert Sheckley
Ah, I cast indeed my net into their sea, and meant to catch good fish; but always I did draw up the head of some ancient God.
For my sister, Joan
The Departure from Earth
It had been a typically unsatisfactory day. Carmody had gone to the office, flirted mildly with Miss Gibbon, disagreed respectfully with Mr Wainbock, and spent fifteen minutes with Mr Blackwell, discussing the outlook for the football Giants. Towards the end of the day he had argued with Mr Seidlitz – argued vehemently and with a total lack of knowledge – about the steady depletion of the country’s natural resources, and the remorseless advance of destructive agencies such as Con Ed, the Army Engineering Corps, tourists, fire ants, and pulp-paper manufacturers. All of these, he contended, were responsible in varying degrees for the spoliation of the landscape and the steady obliteration of the remaining pockets of natural loveliness.
‘Well, Tom,’ sardonic, ulcerated Seidlitz had said, ‘you’ve really thought about this, haven’t you?’
Miss Gibbon, an attractive young lady without much chin, had said, ‘Oh, Mr Carmody, I really don’t think you should say that.’
What had he said, and why shouldn’t he say it? Carmody couldn’t remember, and thus remained unrepentant, though vaguely guilty.
His superior, plump, mild Mr Wainbock, had said, ‘There really may be something in what you say, Tom. I’ll look into it.’
Carmody was aware that there was very little in what he had said, and that it didn’t bear looking into.
Tall, sardonic George Blackwell, who could speak without moving his upper lip, had said, ‘I think you’re right, Carmody, I really do. If they switch Voss from free safety to strongside cornerback, we’ll
see a pass rush.’
Upon further reflection, Carmody decided that it wouldn’t make any difference.
Carmody was a quiet man, of a predominantly melancholic humour, with a face that neatly matched the elegiac contours of his disposition. He was somewhat above the average in height and self-deprecation. His posture was bad, but his intentions were good. He had a talent for depression. He was cyclothymic – tall, beagle-eyed men of vaguely Irish antecedents usually are, especially after the age of thirty.
He played a decent game of bridge, even though he tended to undervalue his hands. Nominally he was an atheist, but more by rote than conviction. His avatars, which can be viewed in the Hall of Potentialities, were uniformly heroic. He was a Virgo, dominated by Saturn when it was in the House of the Sun. This alone could have made him outstanding. He shared the common human hallmark: he was simultaneously predictable and unfathomable – a routine miracle.
He left the office at 5:45 and caught the subway uptown. There he was pushed and jostled by many people whom he wished to think of as underprivileged, but whom he suspected of being acutely and irrevocably undesirable.
He emerged at 96th Street station and walked the few blocks to his apartment on West End Avenue. The doorman greeted him cheerfully and the lift operator gave him a friendly nod. He unlocked his apartment door, went in and lay down on the couch. His wife was vacationing in Miami; therefore, with impunity he propped his feet on the nearby marble table.
A moment later there was a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning from the middle of the living room. Carmody sat upright and clutched at his throat for no particular reason. The thunder rumbled for several seconds, then was replaced by a paean of trumpets. Carmody hastily removed his feet from the marble table. The trumpets ceased, and were replaced by a brave skirling of bagpipes. There was another flash of lightning, and a man appeared in the middle of the brilliance.
The man was of medium height, stocky, had curly blond hair and wore a golden-coloured cloak and orange leggings. His features appeared normal except that he had no ears. He took two steps forward, stopped, reached into the empty air and plucked forth a scroll, tearing it badly as he did so. He cleared his throat – a sound like a ball bearing failing under a combination of weight and friction – and said, ‘Greetings!’
Carmody did not reply, being struck by a temporary hysterical muteness.
‘We are come,’ the stranger said, ‘as the fortuitous respondent of an ineffable desire. Yours! Do any men? No so, then! Shall it?’
The stranger waited for a reply. Carmody convinced himself by several proofs known only to himself that what was happening to him was indeed happening to him, and replied on a reality level:
‘What in God’s name is this all about?’
The stranger said, still smiling: ‘It is for you, Car-Mo-Dee! Out of the effluvium of what-is you have won a small but significant portion of what-might-be. Rejoicings, not? Specifically: your name has led the rest; the fortuitous is again vindicated, and rosy-limbed Indeterminacy rejoices with drug-stained mouth as ancient Constancy is barred again within his Cave of Inevitability. Is this not a cause for? Then why do you not?’
Carmody rose to his feet, feeling quite calm. The unknown is frightening only antecedent to the phenomenon of perseveration. (The Messenger knew this, of course.)
‘Who are you?’ Carmody demanded.
The stranger considered the question, and his smile faded. He muttered, half to himself, ‘The fog-minded squirms! They have processed me wrong again!’ I could mutilate myself from sheer mortification. May they haunt themselves unerringly! Never mind, I reprocess, I adapt, I become …’
The stranger pressed his fingers to his head, allowing them to sink in to a depth of five centimetres. His fingers rippled like those of a man playing a very small piano. Immediately he changed into a short dumpy man of average height, balding, wearing an unpressed business suit and carrying a bulging briefcase, an umbrella, a cane, a magazine, and a newspaper.
‘Is this correct?’ he asked. ‘Yes, I can see it is,’ he answered himself. ‘I really must apologize for the sloppy work done by our Similitude Centre. Only last week I appeared on Sigma IV as a giant bat with the Notification in my beak, only to discover that my recipient was a member of the water-lily family. And two months before (I am using local equivalent terms, of course) while on a mission to Thagma the Old World, those fools in Similitude processed me to appear as four virgins, when the correct procedure was obviously –’
‘I don’t understand a word you’re saying,’ Carmody said. ‘Will you kindly explain what this is all about?’
‘Of course, of course,’ the stranger said. ‘Let me just check the local referents …’ He closed his eyes, then opened them again. ‘Strange, very strange,’ he muttered. ‘Your language doesn’t seem to contain the containers which my product requires; metaphorically, I mean. But then, who am I to judge? Inexactitude can be aesthetically pleasing, I suppose; everything is a matter of taste.’
‘What is all of this?’ Carmody asked, in a low, ominous voice.
‘Well, sir, it’s the Intergalactic Sweepstakes, of course! And you are a winner, of course! The proposition is inherent in terms of my appearance, is it not?’
‘No, it is not,’ Carmody said, ‘and I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
An expression of doubt crossed the stranger’s face, then was erased as if by an eraser. ‘You do not know! But of course! You had, I suppose, despaired of winning, and therefore had set the knowledge aside to avoid its contemplation. How unfortunate that I have come at the time of your mental hibernation! But no insult was intended, I can assure you. Your data file is not readily available? I feared not. Then I shall explain; you, Mr Carmody, have won a Prize in the Intergalactic Sweepstakes. Your coefficients were pulled by the Random Selector for Part IV, Class 32 Lifeforms. Your Prize – a very handsome Prize, I believe – is waiting for you at Galactic Centre.’
Carmody found himself reasoning with himself in the following manner: ‘Either I am insane or I am not insane. If insane, I can reject my delusions and seek psychiatric aid; but this would leave me in the absurd position of trying to deny what my senses tell me is true in favour of a dimly remembered rationality. This might well compound my conflicts, thus deepening my insanity to the point where my sorrowing wife would have to put me in an institution. On the other hand, if I accept this presumed delusion as real, I might also end up being institutionalized.
‘If, on the other hand, I am
insane, then all of this is actually happening. And what
actually happening is a strange, unique occurrence, an adventure of the first magnitude. Evidently (if this is actually happening) there are beings in the Universe superior in intelligence to humans, just as I have always suspected. These individuals hold a sweepstakes in which names are drawn at random. (They are certainly entitled to do this; I see no manner in which a sweepstakes is inconsistent with superior intelligence.) Finally, in this presumed sweepstakes, my name has been drawn. This is a privileged occurrence, and may well be the first time that the sweepstakes has been extended to Earth. I have won a Prize in this contest. Such a Prize might bring me wealth, or prestige, or women, or knowledge, any or all of which would be worth having.
‘Therefore, all things considered, it will be better for me to believe that I am not insane and go with this gentleman to collect my Prize. If I am wrong, I shall wake up in an institution. There I will apologize to the doctors, state that I recognize the nature of my delusion, and perhaps win my freedom.’
This was what Carmody thought, and that was the conclusion he reached. It was not a surprising one. Very few humans (except the insane ones) accept the premise of insanity in favour of a startling new hypothesis.
There were certain things wrong with Carmody’s reasoning, of course; and these things were to rise up and plague him later on. But one might say that he did very well, under the circumstances, to reason at all.
‘I don’t know much about what all of this is about,’ Carmody said to the Messenger. ‘Are there any conditions attached to my Prize? I mean, am I supposed to do anything or buy anything?’
‘There are no conditions,’ the Messenger said. ‘Or at least, none worth speaking about. The Prize is free; if not free, it would not be a Prize. If you accept it, you must accompany me to Galactic Centre, which is in itself a trip worth the taking. There you will be given your Prize. Then, at your pleasure, you may take your Prize back to this, your home. If you require any help for the journey back, we will of course assist you to the fullest extent of our abilities. And that’s all there is to it.’
‘Sounds good to me,’ Carmody said, in exactly the same tones that Napoleon used when he was shown Ney’s dispositions for the Battle of Waterloo. ‘How do we get there?’
‘This way,’ the Messenger said. And he led Carmody into a hall closet and out through a crack in the space-time continuum.
It was as easy as that. Within seconds of subjective time, Carmody and the Messenger had traversed a considerable distance and arrived at Galactic Centre.