BY ANTHONY BOUCHER
Illustrated by Paul Piérre
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction November 1950.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
It was a nasty plot Vyrko was involved in.
The worst part was that he constructed it
himself—and didn't get the end right!
There were three of them in the retreat, three out of all mankind safe from the deadly yellow bands.
The great Kirth-Labbery himself had constructed the retreat and its extraordinary air-conditioning—not because his scientific genius had foreseen the coming of the poisonous element, agnoton, and the end of the human race, but because he itched.
And here Vyrko sat, methodically recording the destruction of mankind, once in a straight factual record, for the instruction of future readers ("if any," he added wryly to himself), and again as a canto in that epic poem of Man which he never expected to complete, but for which he lived.
Lavra's long golden hair fell over his shoulders. It was odd that its scent distracted him when he was at work on the factual record, yet seemed to wing the lines of the epic.
"But why bother?" she asked. Her speech might have been clearer if her tongue had not been more preoccupied with the savor of the apple than with the articulation of words. But Vyrko understood readily: the remark was as familiar an opening as P-K4 in chess.
"It's my duty," Vyrko explained patiently. "I haven't your father's scientific knowledge and perception. Your father's? I haven't the knowledge of his humblest lab assistant. But I can put words together so that they make sense and sometimes more than sense, and I have to do this."
From Lavra's plump red lips an apple pip fell into the works of the electronic typewriter. Vyrko fished it out automatically; this too was part of the gambit, with the possible variants of grape seed, orange peel....
"But why," Lavra demanded petulantly, "won't Father let us leave here? A girl might as well be in a ... a...."
"Convent?" Vyrko suggested. He was a good amateur paleolinguist. "There is an analogy—even despite my presence. Convents were supposed to shelter girls from the Perils of The World. Now the whole world is one great Peril ... outside of this retreat."
"Go on," Lavra urged. She had long ago learned, Vyrko suspected, that he was a faintly over-serious young man with no small talk, and that she could enjoy his full attention only by asking to have something explained, even if for the nth time.
He smiled and thought of the girls he used to talk with, not at, and of how little breath they had for talking now in the world where no one drew an unobstructed breath.
It had begun with the accidental discovery in a routine laboratory analysis of a new element in the air, an inert gas which the great paleolinguist Larkish had named agnoton, the Unknown Thing, after the pattern of the similar nicknames given to others: neon, the New Thing; xenon, the Strange Thing.
It had continued (the explanation ran off so automatically that his mind was free to range from the next line of the epic to the interesting question of whether the presence of ear lobes would damage the symmetry of Lavra's perfect face) it had continued with the itching and sneezing, the coughing and wheezing, with the increase of the percentage of agnoton in the atmosphere, promptly passing any other inert gas, even argon, and soon rivaling oxygen itself.
And it had culminated (no, the lines were cleaner without lobes), on that day when only the three of them were here in this retreat, with the discovery that the human race was allergic to agnoton.
Allergies had been conquered for a decade of generations. Their cure, even their palliation, had been forgotten. And mankind coughed and sneezed and itched ... and died. For while the allergies of the ancient past produced only agonies to make the patient long for death, agnoton brought on racking and incessant spasms of coughing and sneezing which no heart could long withstand.
"So if you leave this shelter, my dear," Vyrko concluded, "you too will fight for every breath and twist your body in torment until your heart decides that it is all just too much trouble. Here we are safe, because your father's eczema was the only known case of allergy in centuries—and was traced to the inert gases. Here is the only air-conditioning in the world that excludes the inert gases—and with them agnoton. And here—"
Lavra leaned forward, a smile and a red fleck of apple skin on her lips, the apples of her breasts touching Vyrko's shoulders. This too was part of the gambit.
Usually it was merely declined. Tyrsa stood between them. Tyrsa, who sang well and talked better; whose plain face and beautiful throat were alike racked by agnoton.... This time the gambit was interrupted.
Kirth-Labbery himself had come in unnoticed. His old voice was thin with weariness, sharp with impatience. "And here we are, safe in perpetuity, with our air-conditioning, our energy plant, our hydroponics! Safe in perpetual siege, besieged by an inert gas!"
Vyrko grinned. "Undignified, isn't it?"
Kirth-Labbery managed to laugh at himself. "Damn your secretarial hide, Vyrko. I love you like a son, but if I had one man who knew a meson from a metazoon to help me in the laboratory...."
"You'll find something, Father," Lavra said vaguely.
Her father regarded her with an odd seriousness. "Lavra," he said, "your beauty is the greatest thing that I have wrought—with a certain assistance, I'll grant, from the genes so obviously carried by your mother. That beauty alone still has meaning. The sight of you would bring a momentary happiness even to a man choking in his last spasms, while our great web of civilization...."
He absently left the sentence unfinished and switched on the video screen. He had to try a dozen channels before he found one that was still casting. When every erg of a man's energy goes to drawing his next breath, he cannot tend his machine.
At last Kirth-Labbery picked up a Nyork newscast. The announcer was sneezing badly ("The older literature," Vyrko observed, "found sneezing comic...."), but still contriving to speak, and somewhere a group of technicians must have had partial control of themselves.
"Four hundred and seventy-two planes have crashed," the announcer said, "in the past forty-eight hours. Civil authorities have forbidden further plane travel indefinitely because of the danger of spasms at the controls, and it is rumored that all vehicular transport whatsoever is to come under the same ban. No Rocklipper has arrived from Lunn for over a week, and it is thirty-six hours since we have made contact with the Lunn telestation. Yurp has been silent for over two days, and Asia a week.
"'The most serious threat of this epidemic,' the head of the Academy has said in an authorized statement, 'is the complete disruption of the systems of communication upon which world civilization is based. When man becomes physically incapable of governing his machines....'"
It was then that they saw the first of the yellow bands.
It was just that: a band of bright yellow some thirty centimeters wide, about five meters long, and so thin as to seem insubstantial, a mere stripe of color. It came underneath the backdrop behind the announcer. It streaked about the casting room with questing sinuosity. No features, no appendages relieved its yellow blankness.
Then with a deft whipping motion it wrapped itself around the announcer. It held him only an instant. His hideously shriveled body plunged toward the camera as the screen went dead.
That was the start of the horror.
Vyrko, naturally, had no idea of the origin of the yellow bands. Even Kirth-Labbery could offer no more than conjectures. From another planet, another system, another galaxy, another universe....
It did not matter. Precise knowledge had now lost its importance. Kirth-Labbery was almost as indifferent to the problem as was Lavra; he speculated on it out of sheer habit. What signified was that the yellow bands were alien, and that they were rapidly and precisely completing the destruction of mankind begun by the agnoton.
"Their arrival immediately after the epidemic," Kirth-Labbery concluded, "cannot be coincidence. You will observe that they function freely in an agnoton-laden atmosphere."
"It would be interesting," Vyrko commented, "to visualize a band sneezing...."
"It's possible," the scientist corrected, "that the agnoton was a poison-gas barrage laid down to soften Earth for their coming; but is it likely that they could know that a gas harmless to them would be lethal to other life? It's more probable that they learned from spectroscopic analysis that the atmosphere of Earth lacked an element essential to them, which they supplied before invading."
Vyrko considered the problem while Lavra sliced a peach with delicate grace. She was unable to resist licking the juice from her fingers.
"Then if the agnoton," he ventured, "is something that they imported, is it possible that their supply might run short?"
Kirth-Labbery fiddled with the dials under the screen. It was still possible to pick up occasional glimpses from remote sectors, though by now the heart sickened in advance at the knowledge of the inevitable end of the cast.
"It is possible, Vyrko. It is the only hope. The three of us here, where the agnoton and the yellow bands are alike helpless to enter, may continue our self-sufficient existence long enough to outlast the invaders. Perhaps somewhere on Earth there are other such nuclei, but I doubt it. We are the whole of the future ... and I am old."
Vyrko frowned. He resented the terrible weight of a burden that he did not want but could not reject. He felt himself at once, oppressed and ennobled. Lavra went on eating her peach.
The video screen sprang into light. A young man with the tense, lined face of premature age spoke hastily, urgently. "To all of you, if there are any of you.... I have heard no answer for two days now.... It is chance that I am here. But watch, all of you! I have found how the yellow bands came here. I am going to turn the camera on it now ... watch!"
The field of vision panned to something that was for a moment totally incomprehensible. "This is their ship," the old young man gasped. It was a set of bars of a metal almost exactly the color of the bands themselves, and it appeared in the first instant like a three-dimensional projection of a tesseract. Then as they looked at it, their eyes seemed to follow strange new angles. Possibilities of vision opened up beyond their capacities. For a moment they seemed to see what the human eye was not framed to grasp.
"They come," the voice panted on, "from...."
The voice and the screen went dead. Vyrko covered his eyes with his hands. Darkness was infinite relief. A minute passed before he felt that he could endure once more even the normal exercise of the optic nerve. He opened his eyes sharply at a little scream from Lavra.
He opened them to see how still Kirth-Labbery sat. The human heart, too, is framed to endure only so much; and, as the scientist had said, he was old.
It was three days after Kirth-Labbery's death before Vyrko had brought his prose-and-verse record up to date. Nothing more had appeared on the video, even after the most patient hours of knob-twirling. Now Vyrko leaned back from the keyboard and contemplated his completed record—and then sat forward with abrupt shock at the thought of that word completed.
There was nothing more to write.
The situation was not novel in literature. He had read many treatments, and even written a rather successful satire on the theme himself. But here was the truth itself.
He was that most imagination-stirring of all figures, The Last Man on Earth. And he found it a boring situation.
Kirth-Labbery, had he lived, would have devoted his energies in the laboratory to an effort, even conceivably a successful one, to destroy the invaders. Vyrko knew his own limitations too well to attempt that.
Vrist, his gay wild twin, who had been in Lunn on yet another of his fantastic ventures when the agnoton struck—Vrist would have dreamed up some gallant feat of physical prowess to make the invaders pay dearly for his life. Vyrko found it difficult to cast himself in so swash-buckling a role.
He had never envied Vrist till now. Be jealous of the dead; only the living are alone. Vyrko smiled as he recalled the line from one of his early poems. It had been only the expression of a pose when he wrote it, a mood for a song that Tyrsa would sing well....
It was in this mood that he found (the ancient word had no modern counterpart) the pulps.
He knew their history: how some eccentric of two thousand years ago (the name was variously rendered as Trees or Tiller) had buried them in a hermetic capsule to check against the future; how Tarabal had dug them up some fifty years ago; how Kirth-Labbery had spent almost the entire Hartl Prize for them because, as he used to assert, their incredible mixture of exact prophecy and arrant nonsense offered the perfect proof of the greatness and helplessness of human ingenuity.
But Vyrko had never read them before. They would at least be a novelty to deaden the boredom of his classically dramatic situation. He passed a more than pleasant hour with Galaxy and Surprising and the rest, needing the dictionary but rarely. He was particularly impressed by one story detailing, with the most precise minutiae, the politics of the American Religious Wars—a subject on which he himself had based a not unsuccessful novel. By one Norbert Holt, he observed. Extraordinary how exact a forecast ... and yet extraordinary too how many of the stories dealt with space- and time-travel, which the race had never yet attained and now never would....
And inevitably there was a story, a neat and witty one by an author named Knight, about the Last Man on Earth. He read it and smiled, first at the story and then at his own stupidity.
He found Lavra in the laboratory, of all unexpected places.
She was staring fixedly at one corner, where the light did not strike clearly.
"What's so fascinating?" Vyrko asked.
Lavra turned suddenly. Her hair and her flesh rippled with the perfect grace of the movement. "I was thinking...."
Vyrko's half-formed intent toward her permitted no comment on that improbable statement.
"The day before Father ... died, I was in here with him and I asked if there was any hope of our escaping ever. Only this time he answered me. He said yes, there was a way out, but he was afraid of it. It was an idea he'd worked on but never tried. And we'd be wiser not to try it, he said."
"I don't believe in arguing with your father—even post mortem."
"But I can't help wondering.... And when he said it, he looked over at that corner."
Vyrko went to that corner and drew back a curtain. There was a chair of metal rods, and a crude control panel, though it was hard to see what it was intended to control. He dropped the curtain.
For a moment he stood watching Lavra. She was a fool, but she was exceedingly lovely. And the child of Kirth-Labbery could hardly carry only a fool's genes.
Several generations could grow up in this retreat before the inevitable failure of the most permanent mechanical installations made it uninhabitable. By that time Earth would be free of agnoton and yellow bands, or they would be so firmly established that there was no hope. The third generation would go forth into the world, to perish or....
He walked over to Lavra and laid a gentle hand on her golden hair.
Vyrko never understood whether Lavra had been bored before that time. A life of undemanding inaction with plenty of food may well have sufficed her. Certainly she was not bored now.
At first she was merely passive; Vyrko had always suspected that she had meant the gambit to be declined. Then as her interest mounted and Vyrko began to compliment himself on his ability as an instructor, they became certain of their success; and from that point on she was rapt with the fascination of the changes in herself.
But even this new development did not totally rid Vyrko of his own ennui. If there were only something he could do, some positive, Vristian, Kirth-Labberian step that he could take! He damned himself for having been an incompetent aesthetic fool, who had taken so for granted the scientific wonders of his age that he had never learned what made them tick, or how greater wonders might be attained.
He slept too much, he ate too much, for a brief period he drank too much—until he found boredom even less attractive with a hangover.
He tried to write, but the terrible uncertainty of any future audience disheartened him.
Sometimes a week would pass without his consciously thinking of agnoton or the yellow bands. Then he would spend a day flogging himself into a state of nervous tension worthy of his uniquely dramatic situation, but he would always relapse. There just wasn't anything to do.
Now even the consolation of Lavra's beauty was vanishing, and she began demanding odd items of food which the hydroponic garden could not supply.
"If you loved me, you'd find a way to make cheese ..." or "... grow a new kind of peach ... a little like a grape, only different...."
It was while he was listening to a film wire of Tyrsa's (the last she ever made, in the curious tonalities of that newly rediscovered Mozart opera) and seeing her homely face, made even less lovely by the effort of those effortless-sounding notes, that he became conscious of the operative phrase.
"If you loved me...."
"Have I ever said I did?" he snapped.
He saw a new and not readily understood expression mar the beauty of Lavra's face. "No," she said in sudden surprise. "No," and her voice fell to flatness, "you haven't...."
And as her sobs—the first he had ever heard from her—traveled away toward the hydroponic room, he felt a new and not readily understood emotion. He switched off the film wire midway through the pyrotechnic rage of the eighteenth-century queen of darkness.
Vyrko found a curious refuge in the pulps. There was a perverse satisfaction in reading the thrilling exploits of other Last Men on Earth. He could feel through them the emotions that he should be feeling directly. And the other stories were fun, too, in varying ways. For instance, that astonishingly accurate account of the delicate maneuvering which averted what threatened to be the first and final Atomic War....
He noticed one oddity: Every absolutely correct story of the "future" bore the same by-line. Occasionally other writers made good guesses, predicted logical trends, foresaw inevitable extrapolations. But only Norbert Holt named names and dated dates with perfect historical accuracy.
It wasn't possible. It was too precise to be plausible. It was far more spectacular than the erratic Nostradamus often discussed in the pulps.
But there it was. He had read the Holt stories solidly through in order a half-dozen times, without finding a single flaw, when he discovered the copy of Surprising Stories that had slipped behind a shelf and was therefore new to him.
He looked at once at the contents page. Yes, there was a Holt and—he felt a twinge of irrational but poignant sadness—one labeled as posthumous.
This story, we regret to tell you, is incomplete, and not only because of Norbert Holt's tragic death last month. This is the last in chronological order of Holt's stories of a consistently plotted future; but this fragment was written before his masterpiece, The Siege of Lunn. Holt himself used to tell me that he could never finish it, that he could not find an ending; and he died still not knowing how The Last Boredom came out. But here, even though in fragment form, is the last published work of the greatest writer about the future, Norbert Holt.
The note was signed with the initials M. S. Vyrko had long sensed a more than professional intimacy between Holt and his editor, Manning Stern; this obituary introduction must have been a bitter task. But his eyes were hurrying on, almost fearfully, to the first words of The Lost Boredom:
There were three of them in the retreat, three out of all mankind safe from the deadly yellow bands. The great Kirth-Labbery himself had constructed....
Vyrko blinked and started again. It still read the same. He took firm hold of the magazine, as though the miracle might slip between his fingers, and dashed off with more energy than he had felt in months.
He found Lavra in the hydroponic room. "I have just found," he shouted, "the damnedest unbelievable—"
"Darling," said Lavra, "I want some meat."
"Don't be silly. We haven't any meat. Nobody's eaten meat except at ritual dinners for generations."
"Then I want a ritual dinner."
"You can go on wanting. But look at this! Just read those first lines!"
"Vyrko," she pleaded, "I want it."
"Don't be an idiot!"
Her lips pouted and her eyes moistened. "Vyrko dear.... What you said when you were listening to that funny music.... Don't you love me?"
"No," he barked.
Her eyes overflowed. "You don't love me? Not after...?"
All Vyrko's pent-up boredom and irritation erupted. "You're beautiful, Lavra, or you were a few months ago, but you're an idiot. I am not in the habit of loving idiots."
"I tried to assure the perpetuation of the race—questionable though the desirability of such a project seems at the moment. It was not an unpleasant task, but I'm damned if it gives you the right in perpetuity to pester me."
She moaned a little as he slammed out of the room. He felt oddly better. Adrenalin is a fine thing for the system. He settled into a chair and resolutely read, his eyes bugging like a cover-monster's with amazed disbelief. When he reached the verbatim account of the quarrel he had just enjoyed, he dropped the magazine.
It sounded so petty in print. Such stupid inane bickering in the face of.... He left the magazine lying there and went back to the hydroponic room.
Lavra was crying—noiselessly this time, which somehow made it worse. One hand had automatically plucked a ripe grape, but she was not eating it. He went up behind her and slipped his hand under her long hair and began stroking the nape of her neck. The soundless sobs diminished gradually. When his fingers moved tenderly behind her ears, she turned to him with parted lips. The grape fell from her hand.
"I'm sorry," he heard himself saying. "It's me that's the idiot. Which, I repeat, I am not in the habit of loving. And you're the mother of my twins and I do love you...." And he realized that the statement was quite possibly, if absurdly, true.
"I don't want anything now," Lavra said when words were again in order. She stretched contentedly, and she was still beautiful even in the ungainly distortion which might preserve a race. "Now what were you trying to tell me?"
He explained. "And this Holt is always right," he ended. "And now he's writing about us!"
"Oh! Oh, then we'll know—"
"We'll know everything. We'll know what the yellow bands are and what becomes of them and what happens to mankind and—"
"—and we'll know," said Lavra, "whether it's a boy or a girl."
Vyrko smiled. "Twins, I told you. It runs in my family—no less than one pair to a generation. And I think that's it—Holt's already planted the fact of my having a twin named Vrist, even though he doesn't come into the action."
"Twins.... That would be nice. They wouldn't be lonely until we could.... But get it quick, dear. Read it to me; I can't wait!"
So he read Norbert Holt's story to her—too excited and too oddly affectionate to point out that her long-standing aversion for print persisted even when she herself was a character. He read on past the quarrel. He read a printable version of the past hour. He read about himself reading the story to her.
"Now!" she cried. "We're up to now. What happens next?"
The emotional release of anger and love had set Vyrko almost at peace with himself again; but a small restlessness still nibbled at his brain.
Irrelevantly he remembered Kirth-Labbery's cryptic hint of escape. Escape for the two of them, happy now; for the two of them and for their ... it had to be, according to the odds, their twins.
He sauntered curiously into the laboratory, Lavra following him. He drew back the curtain and stared at the chair of metal rods. It was hard to see the control board that seemed to control nothing. He sat in the chair for a better look.
He made puzzled grunting noises. Lavra, her curiosity finally stirred by something inedible, reached over his shoulder and poked at the green button.
"I don't like that last thing he says about me," Lavra objected. "I don't like anything he says about me. I think your Mr. Holt is a very nasty person."
"He says you're beautiful."
"And he says you love me. Or does he? It's all mixed up."
"It is all mixed up ... and I do love you."
The kiss was a short one; Lavra had to say, "And what next?"
"That's all. It ends there."
"Well.... Aren't you...?"
Vyrko felt strange. Holt had described his feelings so precisely. He was at peace and still curious, and the thought of Kirth-Labbery's escape method did nibble restlessly at his brain.
He rose and sauntered into the laboratory, Lavra following him. He drew back the curtain and stared at the chair of metal rods. It was hard to see the control board that seemed to control nothing. He sat in the chair for a better look.