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SEVEN SEATS TO THE MOON

Charlotte Armstrong

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CHAPTER 1

Saturday Afternoon

The pink curtain hung within inches of his cheek. J could imagine sly little fox ears, sharpening, the other side of the flimsy cloth where another human being could, if he chose, listen to every word. There was no help for it. J didn’t find it appropriate to whisper all the way from Chicago to southern California.

“Sophia?” (He tried to sound like himself in spite of his sense of an eavesdropper.) “Listen, don’t meet the plane. I’m not going to be on it.”

His wife began to wail, and he interrupted. “I’m in the damn hospital.”

Sophia’s voice changed immediately. “What’s the matter?” she demanded.

“Not a darned thing. Ridiculous! But I’m kinda trapped. They won’t let me out til tomorrow.”

“J, what happened to you?” Sophia’s concern sounded like anger. It often did.

“All it was,” he told her, “I almost got hit by a car, and I do mean almost. Skinned my knee. Big deal! Seems the old biddy who was driving the car is pretty much in the chips, and she’s got me hemmed in by her doctors and her lawyers. She doesn’t want to get sued. So here I …”

“J, shall I come?” He could hear Sophia’s mind checking off her chores. Empty the refrigerator. Call off the Neebys.

“No, no,” he said. “They’ve already gone over me, up and down and sideways. I’d have one heck of a time developing a nice expensive injury now. I’m supposed to settle. Listen, I’m having the hotel change my reservation to the same flight tomorrow.”

“J, are you sure?”

“Sure I’m sure.” J relaxed because he could tell that she was relaxing. “Now, they insist they’ve got to take pictures of every bone in my head, and it’s a damned nuisance, but it’s anyhow for free. Thing is, I can’t get out of here til the doctors say so.”

He considered explaining that he didn’t know where they had hidden his torn trousers, but he felt too classically helpless, sitting on the edge of the high bed with his bare, furry legs dangling. Nobody had to see this picture in her mind’s eye.

Sophia was demanding the whole story.

“Well, I was crossing the street around nine o’clock this morning, and with the light, too. She just didn’t happen to stop, that’s all. So I did some pret-ty fast footwork. Put my hand on her hood and kinda vaulted. All that happened was—she didn’t hit me, and neither did anybody else, but—I fell. So right away there was a traffic jam you wouldn’t believe and cops and the whole uproar. How about meeting the plane tomorrow?”

“I will,” said Sophia. “Or somebody will. All the kids are coming for Sunday night supper. Now, J, don’t you get on any airplane if you’re feeling the slightest bit … How do you feel? Were you knocked out or what?”

“No, no,” he said. “Skinned my knee and tore the pants to my blue suit. Well, I was shook up, naturally. But I feel fine now. They’ve put every antibiotic known to man in my bloodstream. So don’t worry about infection. It wouldn’t dare!”

“Are you going to settle?” Sophia was believing him now. He could hear some slight mischief creeping into her voice. He had a feeling that she could see him—not pitiably languishing, but perched, half-naked, with his thinning hair on end.

“Right now I’d settle for getting out of here,” he growled and looked behind him. The hospital gown didn’t quite meet in the back, and he could feel eye-beams like a draft on his skin. Two women had come into the room, one a nurse, the other an aide. They had a wheelchair.

“Listen, Sophia,” he said, across two-thirds of the continent, “I think they’re after me for some damn thing. If it’s too much trouble, I can take the bus as far as Hollywood.”

“No, no,” said his wife. “Don’t you do that. Where are you? What hospital?” He told her. “I’ll call you back tonight,” she announced firmly.

“Hey …”

“What?”

“Don’t forget to call off the Neebys.”

“I won’t, J. Take care, dear.”

J hung up and looked sourly at the wheelchair. “Boy,” he said, “you people must need customers pretty bad.”

“Mr. Little,” said the nurse in a stern fashion, “you are wanted for X rays. As a matter of fact,” she added grimly, “this hospital is full to absolute capacity, and we could use your bed, you know.”

J took this kindly. It was rather reassuring.

When they brought him back to the room, the pink curtain had been pushed into a column against the wall, and J met his room-mate, who turned out to be a man about his own vintage with a salt-sprinkled, red head and a plump, discontented face. He was an old hand at hospitals.

“They put you in the hospital,” he proclaimed. “This is great, for them. Best of care and hang the expense, although there’s insurance, but this they don’t mention. Oh, they’re doing the right thing, they are. Now, they got visiting hours to protect them. Oh, you bet, that’s what visiting hours are for, in case you don’t realize. Now, all they got to do is show up once a day. Once is enough. See, I might get tired.”

J guessed the man was promised no visitors today and felt miffed.

“Meantime, who gets to lie here and take the wholesale treatment? They run us like an assembly line. Wake us up, feed us, wash us, according to their convenience. The rest of the time we get to wait. Routine is not for us, you realize that? It’s for them. Oh, they don’t call us patients for nothing.”

J knew at once that this last had been said at least a thousand times. Too lazy to sort out all those pronouns and not disposed to entangle himself in a conversation, J advised the man that he intended to doze. So the man turned on the television set that hung high on the opposite wall and wrapped himself in the earphones.

While the pictured people capered and mouthed, J contemplated his situation, which he had to admit was ludicrous. He simply was not the kind of man who could have said to all those authorities, “I’m all right. Just let me be.” The fact was he had thought he was a goner, down on the pavement among the screaming wheels, and afterward he had been easily persuaded to be “wise.” He had even thought, in his innocence, that people were being very good to him. Oh, well, he could always clown it up, make a funny story. “Dine out on it” was the phrase his father used. He might work up a little imitation of the old dowager with her diamonds flashing and her bosoms heaving.

Nevertheless, he was in for a dismal siege. The hospital food was too bland, the sheet was so tight it burned, the blanket was not cozy. He wasn’t going to get his cocktail before dinner. He felt very sorry for himself, incarcerated thus and cruelly kept from home.

But J set himself to improve his own attitude. After all, what was he missing? One Saturday night bridge game with the usual neighborhood couple. He would be in his office on Monday according to schedule, and this adventure wasn’t costing him anything in money. He would have to sign a release of some kind, he realized. The lawyers had already made that clear in their oblique but firm fashion. Well, he might put up a bit of a fight for some nuisance money, but he wasn’t going to fight so hard that he couldn’t get out of here tomorrow. He was not a greedy man.

He was a lucky man—not to have been killed! What? Stone-dead in Chicago, aged forty-nine? An obituary composed itself in his head, and J said aloud, “Oh, God!”

After a while he realized that it was late for J Middleton Little to be setting up a dialogue with God. Oh, he had pondered the big questions when young, but in latter years he had been going about his mundane business pretty sure that there must be Something, but not so sure He wanted J to be “good,” or if so, what He meant by that. If J had been dispatched this Saturday morning to be judged (some say) by Truth itself, he would have had to go just as he was. J reflected that, on the whole, he had probably been neither a good man nor a bad man, but somewhere in the middle. How true!

When his room-mate turned off the TV, J left off brooding, braced himself, and was glad to see his suitcase arriving in the moment. The hotel had sent it around with a note that confirmed J’s plane seat for tomorrow at 2 P.M. Chicago time. He hopped out of bed, fished in his wallet for a tip, slung his suitcase on the bed, and opened it. The sight of his own things was comforting.

“Say,” said his room-mate feebly, “as long as you’re up, d’you mind going and hollering for a nurse? Slobs, never answer my light.”

So J got quickly into his own pajamas and his own robe and soft foldable slippers, placed his own toilet kit within the tiny lavatory, and then he left the room. After he had given the message, which was received stoically at the nurses’ post, J found himself continuing to stroll. Why not? He was okay. And damned if he was going to sit still in that bed all afternoon, all evening, and all night, too. His knee might stiffen. At all costs, he kidded himself, peering about him with mild interest, we must not stiffen!

In Burbank, California, Sophia Thomas Little called off the Neebys, letting Susie Neeby make do with the bare facts that J couldn’t make his plane. Sophia didn’t feel like going into J’s story. It had disconcerted her somewhat. Besides, it was J’s to tell.

But she had called her son’s house and told his wife, Marion, who said all the right things. “What a shame! But don’t worry, Mother. I’m sure Dad’s all right if he says so.” Marion then offered Win’s services to meet the plane tomorrow. But Sophia said quickly that she would do that herself. “But could you pick up my mother, do you think, dear? Marietta’s back at the Wimple.”

“Oh, is she?” said Marion sympathetically. “Well, of course. We’ll call for her.”

Marion then told Sophia how the Little grandkids were and, again, not to worry.

Sophia hung up and sighed deeply. She wasn’t exactly worrying. She didn’t like having her anticipations canceled. She liked to make a plan and operate within it. She didn’t fancy a lonely evening for which she had not been prepared. Her youngest daughter, Nancy Jo, who at the age of sixteen would have thought herself disgraced not to have a date on a Saturday night, couldn’t be asked to cancel that and stay home with her mother. This was unthinkable. Besides, it wasn’t Nanjo that Sophia wanted around.

She just wished that J were coming home.

In Chicago her husband, J Middleton Little, feeling a whole lot better in his own garments, wandered the corridors. He winced now and then to see through an open door a sight that really should not have been exposed to a stranger’s eyes. Unclothed, disheveled people, lying down and suffering pain—J couldn’t help feeling that it would have been more decent if he had not been able to peer in upon them in their helplessness, since he was humanly unable to refrain. What, persons! Stripped of their own garments, unable to project any images! (Which was a human right of sorts, after all.)

He spent quite a while mooning through some glass doors to watch those who were inspecting the new babies, and finally, having worn out the better part of the afternoon and knowing that supper would be gruesomely early, J made his way back to Room 817. The door was closed, and he opened it very gently. He didn’t know what ailed his room-mate. He would probably find out, he thought with resignation.

In the far bed, near the window, the man was lying flat, well covered up, seemingly asleep. So J hushed even his breathing and tiptoed in his soft footgear to the lavatory and managed the door soundlessly. Inside the tiny cubicle he felt along the doorjamb for the light switch. His own face leaped to his eye in the mirror. Wait a minute!

Had he misremembered the number and come sneaking into the wrong room? No, there was his own toilet kit on the shelf. But the head on the pillow in the far bed had, in the course of the afternoon, somehow turned pure white.

J frowned at himself and leaned closer to the glass to examine what just might be a small bruise on his cheekbone, thinking on two levels at once. Hah, if all those sophisticated tests had missed an obvious surface injury—phooey on modern science! And it was a trick of the light, of course. Hair didn’t turn white in an hour or two, in spite of old wives’ tales.

Then he heard a man’s voice say, “Close the door.”

Another man’s voice said, “How are you feeling, sir?”

“Lousy,” said the first voice, “from here on out. You know that.”

“Bad luck, sir. I don’t mind saying …”

“Crank me up, will you? We’re alone. That’s lucky.”

J could hear the creaking of the bed’s mechanism. He was feeling pretty foolish. They didn’t know he was in here! He had better flush the toilet. He hadn’t intended to become an eavesdropper.

“Any questions? Quickly,” said the first voice.

Before J could move, the visitor began to ask the doggonedest questions J had ever heard in his life. He couldn’t make head nor tail of whatever jargon was being spoken. It seemed to be English, but J didn’t seem to know a whole lot of these words. He began to catch a few clues. Oh, well, science. And damn it, here he was eavesdropping. Maybe he could sneak out later on. J felt hideously embarrassed.

The visitor spoke suddenly in the clear. “That checks, then. I also wanted to say I’m honored to be your replacement. Sorry you can’t make it yourself, sir. Of all people, you deserve to go.”

“One of the elite, eh?” said the patient. “Top, so they say. Don’t cry for me, Bryce. I’m sorry enough for myself, to be just missing what may be the very top. Poonacootamoowa.” He spoke the strange sounds in a lingering way.

“If it turns out to be so,” said the visitor, “the human race is going to have a fine string of syllables to get used to. Poonacootamoowa.”

“If the race survives,” said the patient in a voice that had edges.

“Pain, sir?” the visitor was quick.

“You bet,” snapped the patient.

“Can’t they do something to ease that?”

“I won’t have it,” said the patient. “A week is only seven days. And what’s a day?”

“Can’t they at least give you a private room, sir?” said the visitor in some distress.

“This is it,” said the patient. “My friend, whoever he is, leaves tomorrow. Then they’ll batten down the hatches, and I can scream all I want. No,” he added, as if the visitor had grimaced disagreement, “I will not have drugs. Too damned dangerous.”

“Oh, I don’t think …”

I think. And I will not be the one to blow it. A fine crown to my career that would be. Now, now, don’t think of me as any heroic martyr. It’s a form of vanity, like everything else. What a piece of work is man, eh?”

“He’ll survive,” said the visitor softly.

“You must have a seat to the moon,” said the patient savagely, “to be so sure of that.” He moaned, and then he seemed to rally. “You should remember,” he said, “that antique mankind had to put up with any and all pain. No anesthesia, no dainty white pills, no kindly needles, no blessed sleep to knit up the raveled sleeve.…”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said his visitor. “Ingenious little creature, man. Could be he has always scrounged around for a drop of something to ease the way.”

“It may be so,” said the patient with good humor.

“Well, I’ll get along, sir. Do my best.”

“Naturally,” said the patient, suddenly cross again. “But it’s a mean thing when a man comes as close as this … Get out of here, Bryce. Give my regards to ‘Mr. Smith.’” His voice drawled on the name, putting it in quotation marks.

“I’ll do that, Doctor.”

“And tell him … No, never mind.”

“Anything you say,” said the visitor lightly.

“Tell him that if I can’t take it, I’ll shuffle off this mortal coil by the nearest exit.” The visitor made a hissing sound. “You’re going to argue?” said the patient. “Don’t you realize that I may be especially watched? And don’t meowl about the moral of it, either. When the better part of at least one continent is swarming with children gone mad, it behooves grown men with brains in their heads to use them. I hope I’m smart enough to know that when my brain goes, there go I. So get along.”

“Well, good-bye,” said the visitor after a moment.

“I expect He will be,” said the patient, “no less and no more than He ever was.”

“If you could rest.…”

“On my laurels, eh?” said the patient. “Mind, now. Mind, now. There’s danger. I’ve said so. Take care.”

“So help us God, eh?” said the visitor awkwardly.

“Good-bye,” said the patient gently.

Then J could hear feet walking, and he seemed to hear the sigh of the door. There came a slapping sound, as if some palm caught the door’s swing. A woman’s voice said, “Are you comfortable, Mr. Barkis?”

“Not at all,” said the patient wearily.

J flashed around where he was and flushed the toilet. Quickly he opened the door of the lavatory and stepped into the room, already wishing that he had not flushed the toilet because, with luck, the patient might not have noticed from whence he had come.

“Oh, there you are, Mr. Little,” said the nurse brightly. “Hop in, now. You fellows had better get yourselves ready for your supper trays. The rumor is the food’s not bad tonight.” She fussed a few moments, making adjustments of the bed machinery and motherly smoothings of the coverings.

When she had gone, J, sitting high, turned his face to his new room-mate and put on a smile. “Hi. My name is J Middleton Little,” he said politely. “Glad to know you, sir.”

The new room-mate, who was perhaps in his late sixties, had a lean old face, very clean. His skin was drawn, shallowing the wrinkles. He had dark eyes, and they were fierce. He said nothing. J felt like an idiot. “That’s just the initial J,” he babbled. “My family didn’t bother … Say, what happened to the other man? Did he vanish?”

“Maybe he died,” said the man in the other bed bitterly, and he looked away.

“Well,” said J in a moment, “all I can say is I wish to the Lord I had a double martini.” He stared straight ahead.

He heard a throaty sound. “I’m sorry, Mr. Little,” his roommate said. “My name is John Barkis, and the fact is, so do I.”

J looked, and the man was smiling at him. J couldn’t help feeling an impact. For some reason there was power here. And it had charm.

CHAPTER 2

Saturday Night

The trays came, the meal was eaten, the trays went away. All the while J bore in mind the idea that this man was in a desperate state of health and had seemed to have been in pain. But J had no chance to arrange or even affirm any other recollections of the peculiar conversation he had overheard. His room-mate was betraying no sign of pain and no sign of suspicion, either. On the contrary, he kept asking the usual kindly questions, and J found himself delivering his autobiography in the usual sketchy manner. He did so gladly. It took him off the hook.

“What I do is, I manage an office,” he told this Barkis. “That is, I’m the assistant, but it is a very, very big firm of CPA’s, and second banana there is bigger than a lot of top bananas elsewhere—as bigness goes.”

“Oh, sure, I find the job interesting.”

“Well … I had four years of liberal arts and then graduate work. School of Business. That was after the service.”

“You bet. Fought the war at my desk in San Francisco. Never flinched,” J clowned. But the other man’s smile was fleeting. He asked another question.

“No, in Southern California. I’m only here since Thursday. I was supposed to fly home today, but the darnedest thing.…”

J went into the tale of his near-accident and warmed up to the task of making it amusing. His audience gave him perfect attention, but J could not make the man laugh aloud. Instead, his room-mate asked where in Southern California J lived.

“Burbank. Suburban Los Angeles, you could say. Nice place to raise a family.”

“You have a family, then?”

“I sure do. Three kids, boy and two girls. Our youngest daughter is still in high school. The others are married. Three grandchildren, now. Girl and two boys. Makes a nice balance, so far.”

“Indeed. And your wife is … with you?”

“You bet. Same old wife I started with.”

“You have not—seen much of the world, I take it?”

“Every once in a while,” said J solemnly, “I go half a mile over the border to Mexico and drink a glass of beer. No, I never got around to travel,” he continued as this fell flat. “I just keep slogging along in the same old rut. Nice place, my rut, you know. All the comforts of home. Who needs foreign intrigue?”

J reflected that he would be hard put to dig up anything bizarre or exciting in that sense that had ever happened to him. “You know,” he burst out, “I was thinking to myself this morning that I may be smack dab in the middle of this whole society. You tend to stop and think when you’ve nearly got yourself …”

He was going to say “dead,” but J caught the word before it fell out of his mouth. “Well, I’ll tell you,” he recovered smoothly. “Turn over in your mind the name I’ve had all my life. Middleton was my mother’s family name. So here I am, J Middleton Little. And, by golly, it suits me. I’m middle-class. Middle-income. (Of course, I like to think it’s high middle.) And middlebrow, for sure. I just might be the Average Reasonable Man in the Street, for all I know.”

“J Middleton Little,” the other man murmured, and J seemed to hear a note of pity.

J wasn’t asking for pity. He said, “I enjoy it, Mr. Barkis. Neither the top nor the bottom, that’s for me.” (Whoops! “Top” was a word he had overheard.)

“What you say is very interesting,” said his room-mate dreamily.

No, it’s not, thought J, trying to corner another wisp of memory. Hadn’t that visitor called this man Doctor? J didn’t want to ask. He wasn’t going to turn the tables and start a series of questions now, however polite that might be. If his room-mate didn’t know about the eavesdropping or, knowing, was choosing to ignore it, J was more than willing to skip the whole thing himself.

“After all,” Barkis was saying, “the economy, at least, bases on you, does it not? On your conscientious industry day in and day out, on you and all the others like you, who go your rounds and pay your bills and ask for nothing more.”

The phone rang, and J was glad of it. (Nuts to this turn of the talk. His sense of self had begun to bristle at that “nothing more”!) He picked up the phone. “Excuse me. This will be my wife.”

“Long suffering … in quiet desperation … gallant enough to say that you enjoy … Perhaps you do,” the old man kept mumbling.

Sophia said into J’s ear in her accusing way, “How are you now?”

“Just fine. A-okay. How’s everything there?”

Sophia began to tell him that everything there was fine, but J watched (out of his eye corner, with some surprise) his roommate begin to struggle out of the other bed and totter to his feet. (Should he be doing that? J wondered.)

He began to give Sophia a list of the kinds of tests he had undergone, but at the same time he kept ready to spring to assist while the thin old body, arrayed in rather elegant pajamas, staggered perilously across to the lavatory door. When that door closed, J sighed into the phone.

“What?” said Sophia at once.

“Nothing, honey. I guess I don’t like it much being stuck here another night.”

“I don’t like it, either,” she said promptly. “Are you surely getting home tomorrow?”

“That I am. All I’ve got to do is get past the lawyers. I’m getting out of this bed as early in the morning as I can. Believe me, I’d rather be sitting in the airport.”

“Oh, J, it must be miserable!”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s been interesting in a way. Tell you all about it when I get there.”

“Well, you be sure and get here,” she said in her scolding voice. “But you do feel perfectly all right?”

“Not only that, I’ve got the word of modern science on it. Only things wrong with me come from hanging around for darned near fifty years.”

Sophia laughed. They said goodnight.

J settled back. His room-mate came out of the lavatory. He went to his bed rather more briskly than he had left it. He lay, breathing fast, for a moment. Then he said, “I am trying to remember exactly what you must have heard.”

Why the old fox! J thought. He dragged himself in there just to test it out!

“Listen, I never meant to hide in there. I’m very sorry. It just got too embarrassing. I’d like to apologize. I honestly …”

His room-mate said quietly, “Are you a lover of mankind, Mr. Little?”

J was jolted. “I gather there was some top secret stuff being mentioned, but you don’t have to worry about me, Mr. Barkis.” He was going to add that he hadn’t understood a thing, but Barkis interrupted.

“I wonder, Mr. Little, if you would mind getting out of bed and closing the door very firmly? Please?”

J got out of bed and closed the door to the corridor. He firmed it with exaggerated care. He got back under his covers, feeling frightened for some reason. “I don’t want you to tell me anything I’m not supposed to know,” he said. “I promise you that I won’t mention a word that was said. Listen, I never took a science course in my life without kicking and screaming all the way. All I know is right out of science fiction. That’s about the extent.…”

J subsided. His room-mate was rigid. He seemed to be screaming silently. Was he in pain?

In a while Barkis turned his face. “I’ll ask you not only to make that promise,” he said, giving J a cold lick of his eye, “but promise not even to mention me. Let it be assumed that your original companion lasted out the night.”

“All right,” said J uncomfortably.

“But it won’t be easy, will it? For you to refrain from telling your wife and your grown children something of this very strange adventure?”

There it was again, that pitying distance. J began to say that even if he told, his people were trustworthy, but he didn’t get beyond two words into his sentence.

“I am asking you to promise not to speak of this to one living soul.” Now the older man’s eyes were fierce. “Mr. Little, I am what they call a terminal case. I am going to die quite soon. You overheard that, surely? Nevertheless, I ought to have known that you were there. My … friend simply assumed that I would know. It’s not his fault. It’s not your fault. The fault is mine.”

“But if I promise you …”

“I have resolved,” Barkis swept on bleakly, “to let them give me no pain-killers whatsoever, lest in some drugged state my tongue went out of control, and I said too much. I had resolved to deny this miserable body any dominion and use my will. Then I blew it, after all.”

J said promptly, “No, you didn’t. Whatever was said won’t go out of this room with me.”

“It will go out of this room with you,” said Barkis, “and sit, bursting in your memory, all the way to California.”

What will?” J snapped impatiently. “You don’t understand. Listen, I couldn’t make head nor tail of one damned thing the two of you did say. Gibberish! Poonacootamoowa to the moon! How can I tell a top secret that I don’t know?

“You wouldn’t know you were telling it,” said Barkis flatly. “In my judgment you had better know.”

J sank against his pillows, feeling annoyed.

“And for your promise,” said his room-mate with a high overtone like a subtle screech, “to obliterate the consequences of my stupidity, I can promise you seven seats to the moon.”

Oh? Well! J winced away from this knowledge. He had long ago concluded that this man was a scientist of some kind, and probably top, at that. But now he knew that the finest mind can deteriorate. This seemed very sad to J.

“So you read science fiction, Mr. Little?” Barkis broke the silence rather sweetly.

“Some,” said J shortly. “Not much.”

“What do you think of it?”

“It can be good or bad, I guess,” said J sulkily.

“Implausible, of course?”

“Oh, sure,” said J. “Although I guess we’ve learned not to be quite so sure.” He was squirming. The fact was, J thought, such stories were too often only good old Westerns in space helmets. Furthermore, he tended to resent authors who could give the good guys or the bad guys any old kind of imagined magic, at any time, so that the reader never even knew the rules.

“I suppose, then, you’d repeat an old nut’s dying fantasies? Surely, they are only a form of fiction.”

J was hit. He said stiffly, “I have already told you that I won’t repeat a word I heard you say.”

“Ah, yes,” said Barkis, “but such a promise is subject to revision. For instance, if you revise your notion of the circumstances under which it was given? As the mental state of him to whom you gave it?”

“It is?” said J tightly.

“And subject, also, to your faith in the integrity of some other. Your wife, for instance. A secret is not much fun to keep alone.”

“Why don’t you,” said J angrily, “stop having so much fun, then?”

They were silent. J felt shame. That hadn’t been a very nice thing to say. “It wasn’t your fault,” he murmured. “Don’t worry …”

“I have no children nor grandchildren,” the man said.

J glanced at him. Now what?

“Even so, I should be sorry to see the human race vanish from the universe. I can assume you feel that, too?”

J didn’t even bother to answer.

“There are things,” said Barkis slowly, “that some men can do, now, that most men cannot imagine ever being done. There are things known, and the Average Reasonable Man knows not that they are known.”

“You speak as one of the elite, I guess,” said J, stung.

“Why, I suppose so,” said Barkis. His smile did pleasant things to his wrinkles. “If I tell you that it is quite possible—today, tonight, tomorrow—for men to colonize the moon, will you believe it?”

“I have no way to assess or judge your knowledge,” said J, “have I?”

Barkis sighed. “Aye, there’s the rub.” He raised on his elbow. “But you do know it is possible that this planet could be made uninhabitable—never mind in how many ways?”

“I’ve heard rumors to that effect,” said J stiffly. “We live with that these days.”

“There is a … what shall I call it?… a group of people who know that, and live with it, but who do not intend to be present on the occasion of the extinction of the species. They are of all so-called races and nationalities, and they watch, all over the world, in very sensitive spots.” The man was speaking in flat tones as if he droned a report. “The moment it becomes apparent to them that such desolation is upon us, they intend to remove themselves and a few well-chosen thousands to the moon. And shelter there. When this earth is clean, in time, they will return and be the seed. And so the species can try again.”

“Who’s choosing the chosen people?” said J promptly. “Who elected the elite?” he asked. (He didn’t believe a word of this nonsense, but he was beginning to enjoy it.)

“That’s shrewd,” said Barkis. His clean old face now sparkled. “That’s very shrewd. But what can the elite be, today, but the brainy ones? Who else could make this project Work? Still it has recently occurred to me that the group may be somewhat top-heavy. It may need at least one Average Reasonable Man. And perhaps his Average Family? I can’t go, as you see. But since I wear some laurels in the sight of that company, I have the disposition of seven seats. They are now yours, Mr. Little. As a reward if you like. Or a bribe. Whichever.”

“Oh, boy,” sighed J. Even his toes were wiggling in outrage. “This is all very interesting, as a bedtime story. But I said I won’t talk, and I won’t talk, and that should be enough without an elaborate snow job.”

“And, of course, you never promised not to repeat a silly bedtime story. What harm, eh?” The man was bitter.

J was getting angry. “Okay. What harm?” he snapped. “Explain to me.”

“Do you see resigned millions letting the chosen go?” said Barkis wearily.

“So you’ve got to bribe anybody who gets to know? But you haven’t got enough bribes for everybody?”

“Efforts continue,” said Barkis, “to save everybody. This Ark may never have to be set afloat. The reason for secrecy,” he said in a louder voice, “is a well-considered decision not to risk bringing on the catastrophe we still hope to avert.”

“Well, I’m certainly glad to hear that efforts continue,” said J sarcastically. “Is the President brainy enough to get to go? What’s the government’s position?”

“I don’t see it along nationalistic lines,” said Barkis. “I see the human family. You are a father. Would you—”

“Don’t preach to me, please,” barked J. “For one thing, I’m the father of three human children, not mankind.”

His room-mate began to nibble on his pale lips. J licked his own. This argument was weird.

“To answer your question,” Barkis said in a minute, “governments know; none can officially know. So don’t go running to our government for confirmation. Not every one in government knows what the government knows.”

J blinked at him.

“Don’t you see it can’t be public? Tell me, Mr. Little, do you conceive of the common people of many nations as becoming, in an instant, a harmony of thoughtful minds, all dedicated to the long view and the salvation of the seed of man?”

J, feeling slightly chilled (within the story), said, “I imagine there’d be some questions raised—How come your guys got more seats than our guys?—and so on.”

Barkis rolled his head. “And some mad children on this earth with power to destroy more than they recognize to be in being.”

“Okay, okay,” said J. “I’ve given you my word.”

There was silence.

“Tell me this,” said J in a moment. “Why can’t you just take a promise? Isn’t your little group of top brains going to have to believe what you promise one another? You’ll never get to the moon, let alone back again, if you don’t.”

“You speak of a principle,” said Barkis softly. “That eases me.”

“I’m glad,” said J grimly. “So now don’t give it another thought.”

He seemed to know that Barkis was in pain, although the man made no moan. The spasms seemed to come and go.

“We are agreed,” his room-mate said. “But there’s one thing more. You are going to California tomorrow?”

“You bet I am.”

“Then I must arrange for you to receive the ticket.”

“What ticket?’”

“Seven seats to the moon.” Barkis raised on his elbow again. “My word is good, Mr. Little. I’ll have it registered in your name and delivered to you. Six seats to fill as you like, but you must sit in the seventh. Write down your address.”

J didn’t protest. If the old man was really loopy, too much argument couldn’t be good for him. J wrote down his name and address.

Barkis received the piece of paper and put it into his pajama pocket (whence J expected it would probably go to the laundry). “The carrier,” said the old man musingly, “will have to identify himself. You might, by chance, be approached by the wrong people, who may be watching me, especially.”

(Ah, J thought, poor old cracked head! What needless suffering!)

“Let the password be anything to do with Noah or his Ark.”

“That seems appropriate,” said J genially. “Well, thanks very much, sir.” Now that he was going along with the gag J began to feel quite some affection for the poor old kook, who must have been quite a fellow in his day.

“I suppose I’ll get an early warning?” he puzzled aloud. “When do you expect … Or don’t you, really? This is just in case, I guess.”

“My foreboding,” said Barkis, “is that the flood will come. My guess is—within the year.”

“As much margin as that?” said J, surprised and wondering what was surprising him.

“A year,” droned Barkis, “is only fifty-two weeks. A week is only seven days.”

“And what’s a day?” supplied J cheerfully, quoting (now that he remembered). “But there’s got to be a gathering place. I mean when you stop to think, it’s going to be mighty tricky.”

“The mechanics will be explained to you,” said Barkis in an exhausted voice. He turned off his lamp abruptly.

J felt sorry that he had pressed unreason with reasonable inquiries. He said in a moment, “Say, why don’t I crank down your bed? You can’t get comfortable sitting up so high.”

He slipped his feet to the floor, moved, and performed the small service. The old man watched him with hooded eyes. His thanks were faint; his voice was feeble.

J climbed back into bed and, in silence, began to try to remember all of the conversation he had overheard. It was pretty mixed up now with this fantastic yarn. He had remembered the word “elite.” And, yes, something about a seat to the moon, by golly! And then he remembered with a lurch of his heart what seemed to have been, there at the last, a discussion of suicide.

J began to think that Barkis believed all this stuff. (Well, he must be crazy!) But who had the visitor been? Had he believed it? No, no, must have been some friend, well-aware of a pitiable obsession, a delusion fallen on a fine mind in its latter days. He must have been playing along in affectionate kindness. J could figure that. A replacement, the visitor had called himself. A scientist of some kind, from his vocabulary. Couldn’t have been faking that, could he? Did he have a seat to the moon?

Ah, come on! The whole thing had to be phony baloney. For all J knew the old man beside him was some kind of two-bit scientist who was dreaming all this up as his ego’s final gasp, just because he had never got anywhere near the top. Grandeur, sure. Thinking he was “watched especially,” for instance.

J began to feel very tense in the muscles. If the other man—mad or not—was falling mercifully asleep, J didn’t want to thresh and turn. But he couldn’t lie still. So he slipped out of the bed and got into his robe. It was still early. In fact, the evening visiting hour must be still in effect. J said very softly, “Just going for a stroll on the premises. Don’t worry.”

His room-mate neither stirred nor replied.

So J went softly out of the room into the brighter corridors, among the sounds of voices, the bustle of people in their grotesque variety. Yet, in the big hospital’s population of visitors, one element was missing. There were no child visitors. J caught himself thinking, The Little kids must go. That’s three seats taken.

He chided himself for this at once. But the trouble was J was in the middle. He didn’t know enough. Had, for instance, no notion by what means or brainy struggle human life could be sustained for years on what he understood to be a barren hunk of rock and dust, hanging in space.

Yet, on the other hand, he knew too much. J wasn’t one who would have laughed when Galileo sat down to his telescope. Or yelled, “Get a horse.” J was a pretty civilized fellow. He was supposed to keep his mind open and so balance along the tight wire of uncertainty, taking care at all times never to be absolutely sure of anything.

J thought wistfully that to be a furious savage, righteous in ignorance, with all his glands pumping away to some single purpose—though that be perilous—would sure be an easier way to live.

When the door to 817 had closed, a thin old hand reached for the telephone.

“Mr. Smith here.”

“Willing.”

“And ready. Go ahead.”

“There’s some trouble. Could be serious.”

“How serious?”

“Abort. Reschedule.”

“What’s to do?”

“Send somebody.”

“Bryce?”

“No, somebody practical.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow. Not too early.”

“Will do, Doctor.”

When J sneaked back three-quarters of an hour later, the room was still, the air fresh. All had been neatened, the window opened. Some nurse had been in.

He crept into the lavatory, brushed his teeth, and otherwise prepared himself for sleep. As he climbed into the bed, his room-mate spoke softly. “Good night, Mr. Little. I hope I won’t disturb you.”

“That’s all right,” said J. “Goodnight,” and added, “sir.”

“This is a burden for a man like you,” said Barkis suddenly. “I’m sorry.” And then he said, as if he didn’t realize he was making sounds, “Oh, God, I’m so tired … so tired … All my fellows?”

“Try to rest,” said J.

His room-mate murmured something. “The rest is silence,” J thought he said.

All night J could only doze. He was terribly conscious of the other man. He could tell at times that there was pain, and he did not think that this was fantasy. But J lay very low. He dared not call a nurse. How could he, J Middleton Little, from Burbank, California, give orders that this man be sedated against his will? And how suggest that he ought to be in a room that had bars on its window?

J didn’t know enough. He knew too much. He might hang onto the old chap’s pajama tails for one night. But J was going home tomorrow. Surely authorities knew the man’s condition. Didn’t they? J hoped. J feared. He was miserable all night long while, in the small breeze, the curtains on this eighth-floor open window moved hypnotically.

When the dusk of the room began to brighten and voices and clatterings began to be heard, Barkis was sound asleep, but J M. Little was feeling pretty darned exhausted.

CHAPTER 3

Sunday

A nurse came and pulled the pink curtain to make a token wall. A doctor came and disappeared behind it. J popped out of bed and trotted off to take his shower down the hall. He wasn’t going to eavesdrop anymore if he could help it.

When he returned, the curtain was out of the way. Barkis was sitting up and looking fairly spry. They exchanged no more than genial good mornings. Breakfast came. J wondered if his elder had already forgotten last evening’s conversation.

He was half-dressed and packing his suitcase when a man’s high-pitched voice said, “Well, well, well! Doctor Livingstone, I presume. Hello there, sir! Now, what’s all this?”

It wasn’t a visiting hour. Maybe this was another doctor. But whoever he was, as the stranger came bounding into the room, making for the other bed, J loathed him on sight. He was the very image of the extrovert. His florid face was arranged in a permanent smile, revealing a set of very large teeth. He had writhing brows the dark color of his stiff, abundant hair, and ice-cold, pale brown eyes.

“What are you doing here?” said J’s room-mate dourly.

“I’m having a baby. Heh, heh,” said the stranger. “Well, I mean my sister is.” He sat down on the foot of J’s bed, as J couldn’t help feeling he ought not to have done.

“Anything serious?” the man inquired of Barkis.

“Not very,” said Barkis coldly. “Mr. Little, this is Barry Goodrick. Don’t trust him an inch.”

“Bygones, bygones,” the stranger chided. “How are you, Mr. Little? Glad to see you!”

(He wasn’t. How could he be?) J muttered something.

“How have you been, Barry?” said Barkis to the rescue.

“Oh, fair. Fair,” said Goodrick. “You leaving us, Mr. Little?” His glance was licking instrusively over the open suitcase and J’s dirty underwear.

“I sure am,” said J. “Excuse me.” He went to fetch his things from the lavatory. He tied his tie.

“Well, I’m certainly sorry,” Goodrick was saying to Barkis, “to find you under the weather, sir. Something sudden, was it?”

“Not very,” said Barkis in the same cold way. “I don’t think you are supposed to be in here.”

“Oh, what they don’t know won’t hurt them,” said the stranger, lounging back on his elbow which, to J, was somehow infuriating. That bed was still J’s bed, and even temporary sheets are personal! “Passed any miracles lately? Heh. Heh. How are things going?”

Barkis didn’t answer. His eyes had taken on that fierce light. J, who thought this Goodrick was a real pain in the neck, hated to leave the old man at his mercy, but his suitcase was closed. He picked up his jacket.

“Say … uh … I’ve got a plane to catch,” he said, “and I sure don’t want to miss it this time.”

“When’s it leave?” said Goodrick immediately.

“Two o’clock this afternoon,” said J, deadpan. Goodrick narrowed his eyes. “Well,” said J to his friend, “I’ll say good-bye, sir.”

He moved around the beds to the window side, and the old man gave him his hand. It was very thin and dry. The clasp was firm, and J seemed to feel a second pressure, which was as if to say, “Remember?” He wished this damned other man wasn’t here.

“Nice to have known you,” he said to Barkis, “and I guess we’ll let the Sweet Prince of Denmark have the last word. Okay? Good luck, sir. Good-bye.”

“Good-bye,” sid Barkis bleakly, sadly, without a smile.

J nodded to Goodrick, whose eyes were much narrowed now, although his smile was as wide as ever. J picked up his bag and left the room, feeling that he had just been rather clever. Waiting for the elevator he preened himself to have remembered that Barkis had quoted the works of William Shakespeare several times in his hearing and had even quoted the very line to which J had just so cleverly referred. He felt that the reassuring message had been given and received right under the snooping nose of that snoop-nosed Goodrick, whoever he was.

He rode down, and lo, in the lobby, one of Mrs. Evangeline Burns’ lawyers was waiting with the papers. So J negotiated for his departure at the desk, and then he sat down to sign whatever he’d have to sign to get free and go home.

Up in Room 817 Goodrick said, “What was that all about?”

Barkis said, “What?”

“Something’s, by any chance, rotten in Denmark? Heh. Heh.”

Barkis said testily, “We had a literary sort of chat last night. You wouldn’t understand.”

“That so? Who is the man?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” said Barkis with bad temper. “Some half-educated bourgeois bore. I’m supposed to have peace and quiet in this place, by the way, and I don’t feel like company.”

“Nervous?”

“I can have you put out,” said Barkis. “Don’t tempt me.”

“You shouldn’t carry a grudge, Doctor.”

“I wouldn’t call my intense aversion to your personality a grudge, exactly.”

“I’m just wondering,” said Goodrick, paying no attention to insults but putting his left thumb to his mouth and chewing (between words) on the flesh around the nail, “if there was something in the lab went a little bit whacky? And made you sick? Eh?”

Barkis looked out the window.

“I can’t help it,” said Goodrick, “if I’m imaginative. For instance, what does he know, the Little bourgeois?”

Barkis said thoughtfully, “It’s not so much that I dislike you. Your kind of mind doesn’t interest me.” Then he winced.

“Don’t feel so good, Doctor?” said Goodrick alertly.

An orderly, a scrubwoman, and an aide appeared in the doorway. “Excuse us,” said the orderly sternly. He and the aide grasped J’s bed, preparing to move it out the door. Goodrick got up. It was as if they’d dumped him. The scrubwoman put down her pail and readied her mop. A nurse put her head in. “Excuse me,” she trumpeted. “Sir, visitors are not permitted in a patient’s room at this hour.”

“Well, since I’m outnumbered,” said Goodrick, “I’ll see you later, Doctor.”

“I sincerely hope not,” said Barkis firmly.

Downstairs J saw Goodrick come out of an elevator and go over to the desk. He saw the woman there point with her pencil in his (J’s) direction. But Goodrick neither turned to look nor did he approach. Instead he walked away toward a row of phone booths. J was glad. He had not liked that man.

The session with the lawyer didn’t take long; J was extremely agreeable to suggestions this morning.

As the cab bore him through the bustle of the noisy city, J reckoned up the hours he would have to wait at O’Hare. Well, he didn’t care. He figured to ensconce himself in the Ambassador Club and read the papers.