by Bob Shaw


My finger rests lightly on the black button.

The street beyond this window looks quiet, but I am not deceived — for my death lies out there, waiting. I had thought myself prepared to face it, yet now a strange timidity grips me. Having surrendered all claim to life, I am still reluctant to die. The only parallel to this mood in my experience is that of a man whose marriage is failing (of such things I can sneak with some authority) but who lacks the nerve or energy for adultery. He eyes another woman squarely, with all the boldness he can muster, and inwardly he begs her to take the first step — for, in spite of his yearnings, he cannot. In this way then, I confront the sergeant whose arrest is so strict; in this way I hesitate on the threshold of one of death’s ten thousand doors.

My finger rests lightly on the black button.

The sky, too, looks peaceful, but I wonder. Up there in that vault of wind-scoured pewter an aircraft may be preparing to unburden itself of a man-made sun; at this exact second a missile may be penetrating the upper atmosphere amid a cloud of decoys and slow-tumbling rocket casings. That way, the whole town would go with me, but my conscience can sustain the weight of seventy thousand deaths as long as there is time to carry out the vow before the fireball comes billowing and spreading.

As long as I press the black buttons.

My left arm hangs limp, and blood trickles warmly downward across the palm of that hand, tempting me to close the fingers, to try holding on to life. I can find no bullet hole in the material of my sleeve — the fibres appear to have closed over it as do a bird’s feathers — which seems strange, but what do I know of such things?

How did I, Lucas Hutchman, an undistinguished mathematician, come to be in this situation?

It should be instructive to consider the events of the past few weeks, but I’m tired and must be careful not to relax too much.

I must be prepared to press the black button…


Hutchman lifted the squared sheet from his desk, looked at it, and felt something very strange happen to his face.

Starting at the hairline, an icy sensation moved downward in a slow wave over his forehead, cheeks, and chin. The skin in the region of the wave prickled painfully as he felt each pore open and close in an insubstantial progression, like wind patterns on a field of grain. He put a hand to his forehead and found it slippery, dewed with chill perspiration.

A cold sweat, he thought, his shocked mind seizing gratefully on the irrelevant. You really can break into a cold sweat — and I thought it was just a figure of speech.

He mopped his face and then stood up, feeling strangely weak. The squared sheet on the desk reflected sunlight up at him, seeming to glow malevolently. He stared at the close-packed strings of figures he had put there, and his consciousness ricocheted away from what they represented. What unimpressive handwriting! In some places the figures are three, four times bigger than in others. Surely that must show lack of character.

Vague colours — mauve and saffron — drifted beyond the frosted-glass partition which separated him from his secretary. He snatched the rectangle of paper and crammed it into his jacket pocket, but the area of colour was moving toward the corridor, not coming his way. Hutchman opened the connecting door and peered through at Muriel Burnley. She had the cautious, prissy face of a village postmistress, and an incongruously voluptuous figure which was nothing but a source of embarrassment to her.

“Are you going out?” Hutchman said the first words that came into his head, meanwhile looking unhappily around her office which was too small, and choked with olive-green filing cabinets. The travel posters and plants with which Muriel had decorated it served only to increase the atmosphere of claustrophobia. She glanced with resentful perplexity at her right hand on the knob of the outer door, at the coffee cup and foil-wrapped chocolate bar in her left hand, and at the clock which registered 10:30 — the time at which she always took her break with another secretary along the corridor. She did not speak.

“I just wanted to know if Don’s in this morning,” Hutchman extemporized. Don Spain was a cost accountant who had the office on the opposite side of Muriel’s and shared her services.

“Him!” Muriel’s face was scornful behind the tinted prescription lenses — the exact colour of antique-brown glass — which screened her eyes from the world. “He won’t be in for another half-hour — this is Thursday.”

“What happens on Thursday?”

“This is the day he works at his other job.” Muriel spoke with heavy patience.

“Oh!” Hutchman recalled that Spain made up the payroll for a small bakery on the far side of town as a sideline and usually handed his work in on Thursdays. Having outside employment was, as Muriel frequently pointed out, a breach of company regulations, but the main cause of her anger was that Spain often gave her letters to type on behalf of the bakery. “All right, then. You run along and have your coffee.”

“I was going to,” Muriel assured him, closing the door firmly behind her.

Hutchman went back into his own office and took the sheet of figures from his pocket. He held it by one corner above the metal waste bin and ignited it with his bulky desk cigarette lighter. The paper had begun to burn reluctantly, with a surprising amount of acrid smoke, when the door to Muriel’s office was opened. Shades of gray moved on the frosted glass, the blurred mask of a face looking his way. Hutchman dropped the paper, stamped it out, and crammed it back into his pocket in one frantic movement. A second later Spain looked into the office, grinning his conspiratorial grin.

“Ho there, Hutch,” he said huskily, “How’re you getting on?”

“Not bad.” Hutchman was flustered and aware he was showing it. “Not badly, I mean.”

Spain’s grin widened as he sensed he was on to something. He was a short, balding, untidy man with slate-gray jowls and an almost pathological desire to know everything possible about the private lives of his colleagues. His preference was for material of a scandalous nature, but failing that any kind of information was almost equally acceptable. Over the years Hutchman had developed a fascinated dread of the little man and his patient, ferretting methods.

“Anybody asking about me this morning?” Spain came right into the office.

“Not that I know of. You’re safe for another week.”

Spain recognized the gibe about his outside work and his eyes locked knowingly with Hutchman’s for an instant. Suddenly Hutchman felt contaminated, wished he had not made the reference which somehow had associated him with Spain’s activities.

“What’s the smell in here?” Spain’s face appeared concerned. “Something on fire?”

“The waste bin was smouldering. I threw a butt into it.”

Spain’s eyes shone with gleeful disbelief. “Did you, Hutch? Did you? You might have burned the whole factory down.”

Hutchman shrugged, picked up a file from his desk, and began studying its contents. It was a summary of performance data from a test firing of a pair of Jack-and-Jill missiles. He had already abstracted as much information as he required from it, but he hoped Spain would take the hint and leave.

“Were you watching television last night?” Spain said, his throaty voice slurring with pleasure.

“Can’t remember.” Hutchman shuffled graph papers determinedly.

“Did you see that blond bit on the Mort Walters show? The one that’s supposed to be a singer?”

“No.” Hutchman was fairly sure he had seen the girl in question, but he had no desire to get involved in a conversation — in any case, his viewing time had been brief. He had glanced up from a book and noticed an unusually pneumatic female figure on the screen, then Vicky had walked into the room and switched the set off. Accusation and disgust had spread like Arctic ice across her features. He had waited all evening for an explosion, but this time she seemed to be burning on a slow fuse.

“Singer!” Spain said indignantly. “It isn’t hard to see how she got on that show. I thought those balloons of hers were going to come right out every time she took a breath.”

What’s going on here? Hutchman thought.That’s exactly what Vicky said last night. What are they getting steamed up about? And why do they get at me about it? I’ve never exercised the droit du casting director.

“…makes me laugh is all the fuss about too much violence on television,” Spain was saying. “They never stop to think about what seeing all these half-naked women does to a kid’s mind.”

“Probably makes them think about sex,” Hutchman said stonily.

“Of course it does!” Spain was triumphant. “What did I tell you?”

Hutchman closed his eyes. This… this thing standing before me is an adult member of the so-called human race. God help us. Now is the time for all good parties to come to the aid of the men. Vicky gets jealous of electron patterns on a cathode-ray tube. Spain prefers to see shadows of the Cambodian war — those tortured women holding dead babies with the blue-rimmed bullet holes in their downy skulls. But would this charred sheet of paper in my pocket really change anything? I CAN MAKE NEUTRONS DANCE TO A NEW TUNE — but what about the chorea which affects humanity?

“…all at it, all those whores you see on the box are at it. All on the game. I wish I’d been born a woman, that’s all I can say. I’d have made a fortune.” Spain gave a throaty laugh.

Hutchman opened his eyes. “Not from me, you wouldn’t.”

“Am I not your type, Hutch? Not intellectual enough?”

Hutchman glanced at the large varnished pebble he used for a paperweight and imagined smashing Spain’s head with it Plea: justifiable insecticide. “Get out of my office, Don — I have work to do.”

Spain sniffed, producing a glutinous click in the back of his nose, and went through into the connecting office, closing the door behind him. The gray abstract of his figure on the frosted glass hovered in the region of Muriel’s desk for a few minutes, accompanied by the sound of drawers being opened and papers riffled, then faded as he moved into his own room. Hutchman watched the pantomime with increasing self-disgust for the way in which he had never once come right out and told Spain what he thought of him. I can make neutrons dance to a new tune, but I shrink from telling a human tick to fasten onto someone else. He took a bulky file marked “secret” from the secure drawer of his desk and tried to concentrate on the project which was paying his salary.

Jack was a fairly conventional ground-to-air missile employing the simplest possible guidance-and-control system, that of radio command from the firing station. It was, in fact, a modification of an earlier Westfield defensive missile which had suffered from an ailment common to its breed — loss of control sensitivity as the distance between it and the launcher/control console complex increased. Westfield had conceived the idea of transferring part of the guidance-and-control system to a second missile — Jill — fired a fraction of a second later, which would follow Jack and relay data on its position relative to a moving target. The system was an attempt to preserve the simplicity of command-link guidance and yet obtain the accuracy of a fully automated targetseeking device. If it worked it would have a respectable range, high reliability, and low unit cost. As a senior mathematician with Westfield, Hutchman was ehgaged on rationalizing the maths, paring down the variables to a point where Jack and Jill could be directed by something not very different from a conventional firecontrol computer.

The work was of minimal interest to him — being a far cry from the formalism of quantum mechanics — but the Westfield plant was close to Vicky’s hometown. She refused to consider moving to London, or Cambridge (there had been a good offer from Brock at the Cavendish), or any other center where he could have followed his own star; and he was too committed to their marriage to think about separating. Consequently he worked on the mathematics of many-particle systems in his spare time, more for relaxation than anything else. Relaxation! The thoughts he had been trying to suppress twisted upward from a lower level of his mind.

Our own government, the Russians, the Americans, the Chinese, the French — any and all of them would snuff me out in a second if they knew what is in my pocket. I can make neutrons dance to a new tune!

Shivering slightly, he picked up a pencil and began work, but concentration was difficult. After a futile hour he phoned the chief photographer and arranged a showing of all recent film on the Jack-and-Jill test firings.

In the cool anonymous darkness of the small theater scenes of water and grainy blue sky filled his eyes, became the only reality, making him feel disembodied. The dark smears of the missiles hovered and trembled and swooped, exhausting clouds of hydraulic fluid into the air at every turn, until their motors flared out and they dropped into the sea, slowly, swinging below the orange mushrooms of their recovery chutes. Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill…

“They’ll never be operational,” a voice said in his ear. It was that of Boyd Crangle, assistant chief of preliminary design, who had come into the room unnoticed by Hutchman. Crangle had been opposed to the Jack-and-Jill project from its inception.

“Think not?”

“Not a chance,” Crangle said with crisp confidence. “All the aluminium we use in this country’s aerospace industry — it ends up being melted down and made into garbage cans because our aircraft and missiles are obsolescent before they get into the air. That’s what you and I help to produce, Hutch. Garbage cans. It would be much better, more honest, and probably more profitable if we cut out the intermediate stage and went into full-scale manufacture of garbage cans.”

“Or ploughshares.”

“Or what?”

“The things we ought to beat our swords into.”

“Very profound, Hutch.” Crangle sighed heavily. “It’s almost lunchtime — let’s go out to the Duke and have a pint.”

“No thanks, Boyd. I’m going home for lunch, taking half a day off.” Hutchman was mildly surprised by his own words, but realized he really did need to get away for a few hours on his own and face the fact that the equations he had written on a single scrap of paper could make him the most important man in the world. There were decisions to be made.

The drive to Crymchurch took less than half an hour on clear, almost-empty roads which looked slightly unfamiliar through being seen at an unfamiliar time of day. It was a fresh October afternoon and the air which lapped at the open windows of the car was cool. Turning into the avenue where he lived, Hutchman was suddenly struck by the fact that autumn had arrived — the sidewalks were covered with leaves, gold and copper coins strewn by extravagant beeches. September gets away every year, he thought. The favourite month always runs through my fingers before I realize it’s begun.