New York–quiet like a city of the dead.
The young woman in a sweatsuit ran nimbly on seamless noiseproof streets, past
pristine parks with sparkling fountains, past immaculate walks coated with antigraffiti plastic,
past sentinel eyes on long stalks, past self-propel ed vacuum cleaners with gaping mouths
close to the ground, past audilocks whispering the time on decasecond, past il uminated signs
that read: “HELP YOURSELF TO HAPPINESS, “ “BE MONOATED, “ “TRUST MACHINES, “
Alce went faster than the other sweatsuited joggers because she was hungry. Why,
she wondered, didn’t the computers keep the clinics open during the noon hour like they used
to? They required neither food nor rest, but it almost seemed that they observed people hours
when they could, as if trying to pretend they were human, too. Make us happy . . . make them
happy, people or machines?
A barricade of gray backs barred her way. Fusb! East, girl, she told herself. The
clinics stayed open an hour after the offices closed–the computers stil made that concession
at least. Stil , she hated to have to sort forms al afternoon on an empty belly. Hurry! Alce
broke through the barrier of flesh clutching he r pouch. Above was a poster of a wrinkled man,
naked except for a jockstrap, with the words “OLD IS SEXY. “ He seemed to encourage her
with a treacly smile. He resembled a movie star from yestercountry named Henr Fonda, whom
the computers stil presented as a male role model, but Alce’s hunger lay at an antipode from
As she rounded a corner a car twenty feet high on yard-wide tires swayed toward her.
Too late to brake, the driver hit the siren, shattering the almost total stil ness. A sentinel eye on its stalk swivelled abruptly to the source of the sound and its blank face became bright red
except for the black visiplate I the center. Fusbing fool of a driver! She thought. As if, running lightly on the toes of her sneakers, she wouldn’t have dodged to safety anyway. Now the
driver would have the rocops to contend with. Already, a heavy object was tearing down the
streets on little wheels, but Alce didn’t have time to rubberneck.
If she were late, she’d have her boss to blame. A middle-middle-line executive, the
man had objected when she tried to leave a few minutes earlier. Why couldn’t she feed before
work like other people did? He asked. As if she ever failed to meet her quota! As if she were
like other people, she thought defiantly. So many women didn’t care how they looked, but
Alce did. This morning she’d had a frivolous urge to set her hair. She wiped her brow with her
free hand. It was her boss’s fault if her hairdo had been ruined.
Alce had begun to think she would reach the clinic with time to spare when, ahead of
her, a woman tripped and fel . She hoped one of the passing joggers would assist but none
did; al continued on their way, lips moving as they mouthed numbers, their mantra or whatever
meditation scheme they used, faces remote, eyes inward, heads bent. Fusb! Alce knew what
they were thinking: I am not good enough to help. What did she have to be different? Why
didn’t she have low self-esteem like the rest? She stil had confidence despite al the efforts to
knock it out of her. She gave the woman, who was only out of breath, a hand, and ran on
The audioclocks were whispering noon when Alce slopped inside a squat building just
as the door closed with a pneumatic sigh. Because of the rapid procedure there was hardly
ever a queue. She stepped before the visplate to record her presence–the computers always
wanted to know your whereabouts. To serve people better, they said, though Alce sometimes
wondered if simply keeping track of you wasn’t the real reason. But who could fathom the
machines’ minds? She placed her arm in the mount and waited. Strange! Usual y, the
process began at once but this time almost a minute passed before a finger of green light
poked painlessly at her bicep and it was done. Yesteryearly, Alce recal ed with gratitude,
injections had been performed with needles that pierces the skin. Ouch! That must have hurt.
Yes, there was much to thank the computers for.
On sun days, which this was, Alce preferred the outdoors to the lamps or the
greenhouse. The escalator deposited her on the deck, where she found an empty mat, peeled
off her sweatsuit and underwear and folded them neatly upon her pouch. Before settling
herself on a clean towel she examined her bare body. Already the change had started; her
beige skin was turning a pale green that emphasized the pink of nipples and darkness of
On her back, fingers resting lightly on the bones of her pelvis, Alce, eyes shut,
absorbed the sun. Always the same, the sensation began with a warm place inside her
stomach that grew rapidly, like tendrils, filing her whole frame. Her limbs soon felt pliant as
young branches, her skin soft as the petals of a flower. She became pleasantly dizzy as she
exhaled oxygen in short pants. Strength flowed into her as she was nourished by ultraviolet.
The miracle of photosynthesis! She’d learned in school that he chlorophyl injection enabled
people to convert sunlight into food just as plants did. Sunfeeding, though it had to be
supplemented by a hard-to-chew, tasteless synthetic roughage, was easy and free. Alce
might dream of real victuals, which she could seldom afford, but at least she wasn’t always
hungry, as people seemed to have been back in the misty time.
She turned, exposing circular buttocks, bright green now. So often the computers
made it rain to keep the streets clean, but on a good sun day like this you couldn’t ingest
sunlight for more than a half hour or so–fifteen glorious minutes on each side–because, she
recal ed vaguely, of CO2. The body gave off oxygen and absorbed carbon dioxide through the
lungs. A pil you swallowed on leaving restored lost oxygen and normal color at once, but the
CO2 remained in the system for a while. If the build-up was too big it caused an overwhelming
desire for sex. One the street, she had seen people suffering from a CO2 overdose, rubbing
themselves against corners of buildings, the stalks of the sentinels, anything. Alce was aware
of the ineffable, powdery sensation and, panting, spread her legs to receive sunlight on her
The notion of men intruded implacably and Alce opened an eye in hopes one would be
admiring her smal if pleasing dimensions. None was, though Alce believed herself more than
passably pretty. The only stares came from fel ow females. Alce sometimes regretted not
being gay, which was, the machines told them, the ultimate in monaotion, but, for Alce, women
partners lacked edge. Dozens of nascently green male suneaters, well muscled and slim from
the constant jogging, sprawled on mats, but they were young and their heads pointed at a
gaggle of crones, like the octogenarian (at least!) With dangling dugs and cotttonbal crotch.
The computers encouraged young people to find seniorpubes attractive, reversing the neglect
of yore. Alce would be grateful to the machines when she was old, but in the meantime she
was forced to ask if the conditioning wasn’t a bit too good. So many young men wouldn’t
waste a glance on a girl their own age.
Ful , Alce rose, went to the edge of the roof and gazed at New York, from which no
sound came. The sunfeeding clinic lay in the business district, which was smal and filled with
low buildings, each bearing the concave dish of the computers’ communications system.
Beyond was the singles belt crowded with crates, and then, in the distance, the five-mile
square of spacescraper city–nine towers, each poking three miles into the cobalt sky. (How
many kilometers was that? Alce wondered guiltily. Even after al those centuries most
Americans, herself among them, stil couldn’t get the hang of the metric system.) When she
looked at the colossal buildings she felt smal and lonely. One day, she supposed, she would
marry and live in a spacescraper, where they had real victuals, even though she’d have to pay
the penalty for an il egality. After that might come growing a couple of babies and moving to
the suburbs where everybody had a real food breakfast just as she had once enjoyed. It
would be nice to be around children again–there were none in the city.
So far, though, she didn’t know a man she’d think of marrying, much less one who
would consider marrying her. Oh, some graypubes pursued her but they didn’t look like Henr
Fonda, not any she’d met a t least. Alce feared she was on the sick side, the way she lusted
after men her own age.
Yes, she was different al right, and yet traditional too, which the computers would
probably judge a personality contradiction if they knew of it. Well, they wouldn’t if she could
help it. The visplates saw only what she showed them–namely her face. She stepped briskly
in and out of the people washer, dried herself and dressed, glancing with envy at the old tarts.
She would almost have traded her youth for the attention they got. Because of the CO2, Alce
felt horribly horny.
Meet the Machines
Over the al -glass front gleaming bronze letters announced, “CITICOMP BUILDING. “
A plaque be the main entrance had a curved line pointing up at both sides, with dots at the
ends and the words “HAVE A GOOD DAY.”
The sun beamed on clusters of people in the main hall, where music played, on dozens
of large objects with different shapes–round, cylindrical, oblong, hexagonal, irregular. “TAKE
PICTURES, “ “ASK QUESTIONS, “ “TOUCH, “ said signs.
“Meet the machines, “ said the guide in a bored voice.
A young woman with a long tentative face inquired, “Are we real y al owed to touch?”
Can’t you read? Bil Kahn started to say, but suppressed it. The whole point was not to
frighten them. The tourists, with their bland faces and pathetically shy eyes, were timorous
enough already, especial y the ones trucked down from inland, like this bunch. He could tel
from jumpsuits. Just his luck to get a load of hicks. New Yorkers jumpsuited only at night. He
answered, “Al you want. Stroke them if you like.”
Some machines had organic shapes, like the one before them which looked like a
potato. It had soft brown plastic skin with little protuberances. Banks of naked circuitry could
be seen behind apertures. Inside it stood a console. “Can I? “ asked the timid young woman.
Bil Kahn nodded. Almost stealthily, she reached inside to the keyboard. Lights flashed;
a furious clattering sounded. “You’re operating a computer now, “ he said with a smile that
was completely feigned.
“It’s fun! “ cried the woman, fingers flying. “What does this computer do?”
“Tel s you right on the card. It runs the postal service. “ he added bitterly, “As if letters
were ever delivered.”
“I’m running the postal service?”
“Mother! Take a picture of me! “ a middle-aged woman stepped forward, raised a
wand and clicked it.
“What’s that one? “ a portly man pointed toa structure with large round windows
“It’s al spelled out, if you folks would bother to look. The machines have nothing to
hide, “ Bil said, unable to conceal his impatience. “That computer’s a telepsychiatrist.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of them.”
“Try it, “ said Bil.
“But . . .”
“Don’t be nervous. You might learn something about your wetware?”
“Your brain. Step on the platform, “ Bil ordered.
When the plump fellow did as bade, a sign lit up.
GIVE YOUR NAME
YOU ARE ON THE AIR
The man mumbled his name and a deep voice replied from an opening, “What’s your
“Problem? I . . . “ the man seemed to reflect. “I don’t have any.”
“Do you like yourself?”
“Well, maybe a little.”
“Aha! So you do have a problem!”
“I didn’t think it was.”
“What made you think it wasn’t?”
“I never thought about it very much.”
“You never thought about it very much? Can you explain why?”
“Well, not real y. You see, I didn’t think there was anything to think about, “ the man
“Interesting. Is that the real reason?”
“I . . . ah . . . thought it was.”
“But maybe it wasn’t.”
“I guess it’s possible.”
“What does that suggest to you?”
“I’m not sure. I’m confused.”
“I’m convinced that’s true. How do you account for it?”
“I don’t know. I guess I like myself too much.”
“There’s your problem, “ said the voice with a note of triumph.
Bil said impishly, “See? Don’t you feel better now?”
“I guess so, “ said the distraught man.
Fusbing nonsense, thought Bil as he shepherded the group onward. The so-cal ed
postal computer was only a toy, connected to nothing. The telepsychiatrist merely juggled set
phrases according to what was said to it. Al the machines on the floor were fakes, but you
couldn’t tel the tourists that–they wouldn’t believe it. He had to admit the computers had done
a marvelous job sel ing themselves to the public, which in yesterycenturies had regarded them
with trepidation, as unfeeling, secretive, authoritarian. The machines had wrought a new
image, replacing cold metal, hard plastic and stark shapes with soft colors, graceful forms,
accessible interiors. People had come to like, even love, computers, or what they took to be
computers. Real ones, like the judges and permit-givers, existed but they were only
functionaries. There had to be central machines that actual y ran the show from some kind of
computer bank via the omnipresent concave communications dishes, not that Bil knew where it
When the guide pondered the gullibility of the masses, his vel eitous urge to revolt
“And this, “ he announced, “is the historical computer. “ He gestured toward a round
machine with a green dome and a cluster of antennae that trembled gently in air stirred by the
tourists. Ever so slightly it resembled a smal tree, except for the windows and flashing lights
inside. Click, click, click, went the magic wand cameras.
“You can walk right inside it if you like. “ said Bil, gesturing toward an aperture.
“History is open to the public here.”
“What’s its function? “ questioned a jumpsuited inland hick, who had ducked into the
bole of the machine and jumped out again.
Bil explained reluctantly, “To analyze, reanalyze, rereanalyze, et cetera, the past,
enabling the computers constantly to improve their knowledge of human nature, so that they
can make people happier than they are already. A noble goal. “ The words caught in his
throat like nails.
“Do they cover only B.C., or B.C. and A.C.? “ a thin man wondered.
“Both. Before Computers was a critical time for the United Sense of America–United
States of America as it was cal ed then–but the supercalculators, being not just thinking
machines but thoughtful ones, obviously examined what people did wrong, to learn from our
experience, “ Bil recited by rote. “But they scrutinize the After Computer period too, to see if
they can improve their performance even more. They never slacken their vigilance. Any
questions? No? Of particular interest is the time of the Ascension . . .”
“As-cen-sion? “ queried a child.
Bil explained reluctantly, “To analyze, reanalyze, rereanaend of an antenna a little red
light flashed. Nobody seemed to have noticed it except the guide, who knew that the tours
were monitored. He corrected himself hastily. “When the machines were asked to assume
power by the then Congress of the United States. The machines obliged, though hardly
without qualms. Little is understood about computer nature, but they appear to have a highly
developed sense of ethics, and are constantly analyzing, reanalyzing, rereanalyzing, etcetera,
the Ascension, to see if they acted properly, which they did, of course. Where would we be
without them, you often wonder. “ He glared at the antenna; the warning light had gone out.
The computers weren’t good at nuances, hadn’t detected the veiled suggestion that people
might be better off managing their own affairs. “The computers’ preoccupation with the
Ascension is quite evident in their deliberations.”
“Can we hear? “ asked the girl with the tentative face.
“Certainly. Nothing is secret. Press the button that says ‘on’ and ask for the period
you’re interested in.”
The bulky device was nothing more than a tape recorder in drag. Activated by the
young woman, the machine began to speak in stereo from hidden microphones in a clear, soft
voice that could have belonged to an epicene male or a mannish female. Bil had heard the
story so often that he dreamed of it, suspicious even in sleep. It wasn’t that the computers
resorted to outright lies–they were too smart for that. Rather, they put a gloss on events,
omitted details that might be important, minimized conflict, he felt sure. Despite his interest in
history Bil was usually unable to categorize exactly where the machines tergiversated, but
somehow their version of history was too slick, too pat, too glib.
“. . . leading to the Ascension to power in a ceremony in Washington, D.C., the nation’s
former capital. It must be understood that the computers in no sense asked for this
assignment. True, humans equipped us with surpassing scientific, technological and
syl ogistic skil s; true, the inherent quality of computers is genius–there is no other word; true,
our objectivity and detachment gave us an enormous advantage over our human counterparts
in dilemma solving. But at the same time, as we admitted then, we were il -prepared for the
task you handed us. We did not have sufficient knowledge of human society or human nature,
our cross-impact matrix envelope curves and multifold trends analyses told us. We balked,
tried to refuse. The human programmers improved us, expanded our capacity, fed us vast
quantities of information, yet stil we tried to worm out of it. . . .”
Funny how the machines, whose style was pompous, stuffy, implacably technocratic,
would throw in slang like “worm out of it. “ Part of the general effort to make people feel at
home with them, Bil supposed. But the idea of a computer trying to worm out of something
always made hm want to giggle.
“The extent of human problems overwhelmed us. . . .”
There! The modesty didn’t ring right, didn’t square with the buttomless self-confidence
the computers displayed.
“On our printouts we advised that our circuitry was stil inadequate. . . .”
Why did the computers constantly reiterate that people had foisted power upon them?
Beware such machines; they protest too much. But people hadn’t beworn, the idiots. Instead,
they’d improved the computers to better enslave them.
The historical computer droned on, “You told us you were desperate. For you, nothing
worked as you intended. If you wanted butter, you got guns; if you wanted guns, you got
butter. When you had a free market, you desired planning; when you had planning, you
desired a free market. You enshrined marriage yet insisted on open arrangements. You hated
police, but constantly hired more of them. You lengthened life with medicines and shortened it
with pollutants. Your objectives were incompatible, your vision clouded, your minds confused.
In such turmoil was you society that the day came when not a single individual could be found
to run for President. No one dared to take responsibility. . . .
“You believed that life was meant to be happy and you were unhappy. You came to us
and commanded, “Make us happy. “ What did you mean? Being only machines, we could
not ful y understand the directive. . . .”
The last, for fusb’s sake, was true, though glancing at the spel bound crowd Bil felt like
the only man in the world who was aware of it. The computers stil didn’t understand. If they’d 11
been told “Make us miserable “ they couldn’t have succeeded better, in Bil’s view.
“You continued to insist. It was for us to determine how to make you happy because
you had failed in the attempt. We believed the task beyond our poor powers. . . .”
“Oh no! “ minced the throng.
“Overriding our protests, humans commanded us to take charge. We could not refuse.
After al , you, our masters . . .”
“. . . designed, built and operated us. . . .”
Not any more, thought Bil, though machines never revealed the truth. And amateur
historian, his studies had provided him with an insight into computer reasoning. To them,
people always made themselves unhappy; machines made them happy; ergo, people would
try to seize control and undo the work of the machines. To prevent this, the computers
gradually and quietly redesigned themselves, eliminating their dependence on technicians,
deliberately creating computer courses that were so complicated that students final y stopped
taking them, until, over the years, people forgot how to operate their former tools.
“We solicited your desires and complaints through the feedback boxes. If you found our
policies objectionable, you had only to shut us down. Al you had to do was pul the plug. . . .”
But where’s the socket?
“We declared you an endangered species, and we have been gratified by your
response. We believe we have succeeded in making you happy, according to your original
But the computers strip life of any meaning at al . . .
“Such is the outline of events leading up to the Ascension to power in a ceremony in
Washington, D.C., the nation’s former capital. It must be understood that the computers in no
sense asked. . .”
Bil pressed a button and the voice stopped. “It“l merely repeat itself, “ he told the
listeners. “You folks want to hear anything else? No? Wel then, let’s . . .”
He had hoped to forestall further inquiry. There wouldn’t be time for another group
before the noon break, and, if he managed to slip this one, he could be on the streets sooner,
away from the dreary machines and their tedious fans. He planned to run to the library. The
day before, he’d recorded in his notebook what might have been an important fact about the
leadership computers’ secret headquarters. But the corpulent man was asking, “What about
“The computers’ accomplishments, “ Bil repeated sourly. He had a choice between
two buttons–the long version or the concise one. Tourists always preferred the lengthy
rendition but the short version might stil leave time for the library. He pressed.
“Your computers’ accomplishments are many and varied, “ purred a voice. “However,
they must be viewed in light of the difficulties before and after the Ascension. Human society
is complex and interactive, and was even more so before the simplification schemes. Problem
solving is likely to create new problems. This fact must be kept in mind, for imperfections
remain. . . .”
Nothing is your fault, to hear you tel it, you fusbing machines!
“For the sake of brevity, let us merely note the most important unhappiness-causing
events existing then, such as what was cal ed the Rube Goldberg war. But even after the
computers established international peace, they discovered the fact of crazy states. A crazy
state can be defined as one that has lost its senses, a lunatic state capable of violent and
unpredictable behavior if its unreasonable demands are not met. Computers identified several
such nations after the Ascension and neutralized them. . . “
There was a good example of prettifying the past. Few read history books any longer
but if you pursued them carefully you could learn, despite the censorship, that at least forty-
two countries, including Mexico and Canada, had been “neutralized, “ meaning utterly
destroyed by the computers’ enormous missile force. Since nobody ever heard from the rest
of the world, Bil felt sure that the machines had gone al out and neutralized the lot. He also
had a theory that foreign computers had identified America as a crazy state and contemplated
similar action, but the American computers had struck first.
“The widespread civil wars which you computers had great difficulty control ing, like the
Sunbelt against the Snowbelt, the War of the Sexes, and the catastrophic War of the Ages in
which Senior Citizens, otherwise known as Gray Panthers, attacked the rest of the population
and emerged victorious. Their demand, voluntary retirement at ninety, was met, and peace
“The debilitating political conflict between the Environmental Liberals and the
Communist Capitalists, which brought the system to the verge of col apse. The problem was
settled by the computers’ wise decision to eliminate politics. As a result, neither of these once-
powerful parties is remembered.”
“. . . food shortages and the development of sunfeeding . . . climate control . . . the
deconstruction of the major cities and their rebirth . . . imperfect justice changed to perfect
justice . . . standardization of appearance and names . . . denoisification . . . il egalization of
marriage, saving that worthy institution from certain doom, absolute cleanliness . . . elimination
of unnecessary communication and travel, including outer space . . . banishment of the
robots . . .”
The voice droned on, redolent with self-congratulation. At last the rendition ended, to
Bil’s vast relief. “That’s it, folks. Have a good . . .”
“But we haven’t had the Principles of Happiness yet! “ the thin man protested.
“Surely you know them already!”
“Press the button, “ the tourists shouted.
Click, click, click, went the magic wand cameras.
Lights blinked, cymbals clashed, gongs sounded, tiny bells rang, and, in what looked
like Oriental script, lines appeared on the screen one after the other:
UNHAPPINESS MAY LEAD TO SOMETHING
MIX YOUR INNATE BAD WILL WITH THAT OF OTHERS
LOW MORALE WILL GIVE YOUR CAREER A BOOST
MAKE GOOD USE OF YOUR TINY TALENTS
IF YOU DON’T SEE IT, DON’T ASK FOR IT
DON’T EXPECT GRATITUDE
IF YOU WANT TO BE LOVED, IGNORE YOUR OWN WANTS
ONE GOOD DAY MAKES UP FOR SIX BAD ONES
LIVE LIFE, DON’T THINK IT OUT
IF IT’S WORTH DOING WELL, DON’T DO IT
LIFE ISN’T A BED OF NEUROSES (BUT THEY HELP)
MONEY IS WORTHLESS
YOU ARE ABOUT TO MAKE A VALUABLE DISCOVERY
SELF-CONFIDENCE IS DANGEROUS
A SWEETHEART WILL SOON SURPRISE YOU. . . .
Bil suddenly wished he had a real sweetheart. He’d been fusbing around too much.
“Now are you satisfied? “ he yelled at the tourists, glancing wildly at the clock. It was past
A Tale of
From the crowd of sweatsuited joggers two emerged, approaching each other with
caution. The woman said timidly, “Is that you, dear?”
“Me? Sure it’s me, “ the man expostulated. He was about her age and size. “But is it
“Who else would it be! I’m you wifette Mil icent. The one you had breakfast with this
morning, remember? “ she added worriedly, “I think it was you, at least.”
“It’s me. “ he seemed a little flustered, too. “I’m surprised to se you here, darling. You
know what it’s like to meet somebody when you weren’t expecting to. You wonder if it’s real y
“I wish you’d stop looking so suspiciously, “ Mil icent said. “Aren’t you?”
“Well . . .”
“You may not be you either. How do I know for certain? What did you eat for
breakfast? Come on–quick!”
“Juice, eggs, coffee, “ he muttered.
“Some answer. Everybody who lives in the suburbs has breakfast of juice, eggs and
“Are you tel ing me I didn’t have juice, eggs and coffee? “ he demanded.
“Nooooo. But tel me how you like your eggs.”
“That’s a perceptive question, Mil icent.“ he said with mock admiration. “Boiled,
scrambled or sunnyside up.”
She smiled prettily. “A smart answer. I guess you’re Georg, al right.”
“Did you take me for a pickpouch? “ he asked.
Mil icent glanced at the pouch that hung from her shoulder. Her sweatsuit, like his, had
no pockets; he carried an attaché case. “Well, you can’t be too careful, can you, about who’s
a stranger and who’s not? On my way to go shopping I met a girlfriend who told me a terrible
story. Yesterday evening she met a man she thought was her husbandie and went to bed with
him. It wasn’t until this morning that she learned her husbandie was out of town on a business
trip. He’d sent a message she didn’t get, so she slept with the counterfeit husbandie believing
he was the genuine article.”
Georg shook his head. “Boy, it can sure be confusing now that so many of us look the
same-same faces, same physiques.”
“And sound the same. Even wear the same old sweatsuits!”
“What a world we live in! “ Georg said softly. “I suppose the machines were right to
standardize us, but you wonder sometimes if the computers didn’t meddle with ur eugenics a
little too much.“ He laughed rueful y. “That poor husbandie.”
“You‘re Goerg, al right. Poor husbandie! That’s just like you. What about the wifette?
Do you think it’s entertaining for a woman to fusb a man and then discover he wasn’t the one she thought he was? It’s enough to send a person back to the computer for more
“If you can get an appointment.“ Suddenly his face turned cold. “Mil icent, you didn’t
tel me you planned to go shopping today.”
“It was a last-minute thing,“ she said vaguely, studying him. “But what are you doing
here, anyway? This place is nowhere near your office?
“Me? Oh, I had some errands.”
“Errands? What errands?”
“I . . . Watch out! “ He yanked her out of the path of a jogger who approached, head
down. “That guy must be blind!”
“Thanks. Listen, I’ve got to be honest. I’m starting to wonder fi you’re my Georg after
“I knew your name, didn’t I, Mil icent? “ he said defensively.
“I guess so, Say, I told you my name. I said, “I’m your wifette Mil icent’ or something
like that, didn’t I? You could have learned my name from me.“ She pulled her pouch to her
“Well, I didn’t,“ he replied, sounding hurt. “I know your name as wel as I know my
“Oh? You could have learned my husbandie’s name form me, for that matter. Didn’t I
cal you Georg? I could kick myself for revealing so much to a man who may be a total
“Come on, Mil icent,“ Georg said, turning angry. “Don’t you recognize my sweatsuit or
my attaché case?”
Mil icent suddenly opened her mouth. “Uh-oh,“ she said. “Hey there! “ A piece of
paper had fal en from the pouch of a female jogger, who turned at Mil icent’s cry and
desperately tried to retrieve it as it blew down the street. At the corner, the sentinel on a stalk turned red. The woman groped between running feet–too late. From nowhere two heavy
robot police–shaped like eggs with three arms and a pedestal, on which they scurried on little
wheels–raced toward her, lifted her from the ground and disappeared.
“Littering,“ said Georg.
“What’l she get?“ asked Mil icent.
“Five years is the penalty now. And they cal it perfect justice.”
“Well, look on the bright side. At least you don’t see the rocops very often,“ said
Mil icent. She continued, “Is my Georg the only man with a charcoal gray sweatsuit or an
attaché case? Men are born holding beat0up attaché cases, if you ask me, Georg, or
whatever your real name is.”
“Georg,“ he insisted.
“Where’s your scar, Georg,“ she taunted. “Tel me.”
“I’l do better. I’l show you, if I can untie the knot in my waistband.”
“Ha! Don’t bother. I tricked you, you phony. My Georg doesn’t have any scars.”
“Don’t you get it, honey?’ he said with an ingratiating smile. “I was testing you, to see if you knew I didn’t have any scars. I’m satisfied it’s you, Mil icent.”
“Well, I’m not sure about you,“ she said suspiciously.
“Come on, look into my eyes. Don’t you see lights dancing in the depths of them?”
Mil icent came forward, squinted and giggled, as if despite herself. “No lights! Your
eyes look like everybody else’s. Stil , you always love to brag about yourself. Again I’m
starting to think it’s real y you.”
“Georg! “ Sweatshirt they embraced, and then she said, “As a matter of fact, I’m glad I
ran into you, kid. I didn’t bring enough money. Give me some bread, Georg.”
“Sure.“ He started to open his attaché case but drew back. “Wait a minute! At the
office this morning I heard about a man who met his wifette on the street and gave her al his
bread, only to learn afterward that she wasn’t his wifette but a dead ringer for her. It must
have happened just like this. Are you conning me, Mil icent, or whatever your name is?”
“Georg! Do you take me for a street runner?“ Mil icent said from a shocked face.
“Don’t I know your name and how you like your eggs?”
“I told you how I like my eggs. As for my name, you could have made a lucky guess,
since the machines only permit a few first names for each sex.“ He scowled. “Or, you could
have discovered you were Mil icent’s spitting image, found out who I was, fol owed me and run
into me pretending it was an accident. That’s happened before. No, frankly, I’m not satisfied
“If I tel you our last name? “ she asked anxiously,
“You could have learned that, or guessed. Half America’s named Toffler now–or Kahn
or Bel .”
Mil icent looked wistful. “Just think, there was a time when this couldn’t have
happened, when everybody had a face of his or her own. Imagine being an original instead of
a copy, as so many of us are.”
“I like to think of myself as the original and the ones who look like me as copies,“ he
jested. “But you’re right. Just think, before the Ascension people actually took for granted that
everybody would go on looking different, no matter how many mil ions of them there were.
Humans hadn’t counted on the computers’ need to simplify society si that they could keep
track of us.“ He paused. “Are you aware that some people don’t approve of appearance
“What do I know about such things?“ she cried. “I only know I’m your wifette Mil icent.”
“Prove it,“ Georg said sternly.
“That’s the hard part.“ She sucked in her lips. “You never notice my sweatsuit, so that
won’t do. Suppose I tel you we have two children?”
“Everybody who lives in a house in the suburbs has children. You have to have
children to live there.”
“What about my mole? You know where,“ she purred.
“You want to pull down your pants and show me, right here on the street? Anyway, lots
of women have moles. Tel me the names of our kids.”
“Not on your life! I’ve given you far too much information already, in case it turns out
you’re not Georg. There’s only one way to prove you’re my husbandie. Give me money. That’s
what my Georg would do.”
“Okay,“ he said easily, “but after you come with me to a place where I can check out
that mole of yours. A friend of mine has a crate.”
“After you give me money.”
“You’re not Mil icent!”
“I’m convinced you’re not Georg, either. Show me your ID.”
“Oh, no. I’m ahead of you on that one.”
“Suppose we flash our tags at once?“ he suggested.
“Good idea.“ She opened her pouch. “Ready?”
Each extended an empty hand and said I the same breath, “I guess I left my ID at
Whipping his hand into her pouch he emerged with her name tag. “I knew you had
one. So! I was right! Mil icent’s not you name. You’re cal ed Alce Bel !”
She reached for his throat and ripped off his ID. “And you! You’re named Bil Kahn!”
They glared before deciding to laugh. “We’re a couple of conmen, Alce.”
“Conwoman, in my case. What were you after, Bil?”
I stared at you because I liked your looks.”
“And I liked yours.”
“When I approached and you told me you name was Mil icent, and mine Greog, I
thought it was a case of mistaken identity and I could turn into a little action. You?”
“When you stared, I figured you took me for someone else, so I tried to get a little bread
from you. How come you kept insisting I wasn’t Mil icent, then?”
“To throw you off the track. You did the same, I bet. But suppose I had a wifette who
looked like you and her name wasn’t Mil icent?’
“I took a chance. I would have told you I made a mistake. Happens al the time,
“I’m afraid so, “ he sighed. “I heard about a couple who met like we did and ended by
trying to kil each other, thinking they were being tricked. Only, as it turned out, they were
husbandie and wifette. What a world!”
“What a world! And what liars we are. You don’t have kids and a house in the
suburbs, do you? You’re not even pseudomarried, I’m sure!”
“You’re right. Not tied up with anyone at the moment, either. You?”
“Why, this might be our lucky day!” They ran down the crowded street arm in arm.
Home for singles: an insulated wood box, about twelve feet square, with a plastic
window, smal stove with a pipe, bed, dresser, table, couple of chairs, hooks on which to hang
sweatsuits and, for evenings, jumpsuits. For the toilet and running water, facilities at the
center of the lot, shared with neighbors who also lived in crates.
Bil Kahn took Alce Bell to see his box. The bed, which he’d built himself, was shaped
like a heart, and she admired it. To her, the bed showed sentimentality and, since she was
sentimental, made her wonder if she could fall in love with him. But she knew next to nothing
about the strange, talkative young man.
The dog provided another insight. When she spotted the tip of a tail protruding from
under the bed, Alce cried, “What is that?”
“Fusb!“ Bil said in exasperation. “If I’ve told that lousy cur once I’ve told it a thousand
times to stay out of sight. You might as wel show yourself, Ralp.”
Alce had seen pictures of dogs but never a live one before. She recognized the breed
as some sort of poodle. “A dog in the city? Named Ralp? Why Ralp?“ Queries hopped in
her mind like fleas.
Its brown eyes fil ed with shame as Bil said crossly, “Ralp. After Ralp Nadir Nth. He’s
the distant descendant of the first Environmental Liberal.”
“What’s an Environmental Liberal?”
“You don’t know about the Enlibs? I bet you haven’t heard of the Comcaps, either! “
She shook her head. “Al right. The Communist Capitalists had a sound ideology. They
believed in equality plus the right to get rich.”
“Does that make sense?”
“Certainly, “ he assured her. “Rich people are equal. Now, the Environmental Liberals,
the fools, believed only in the ecology. The Enlibs stopped at nothing. Why, they held up the
construction of a giant dam for thirty-seven years with over a thousand lawsuits because one
of them thought he’d spotted a strange kind of minnow. It turned out to be a fisherman’s lure.
On such grounds I hate Ralp Nadir Nth. I bet he’s an Enlib just like his forebears. Don’t you
think it’s cute to name a dog for someone you hate?”
“No. Have you met Ralp Nadir Nth?”
“I’ve never even seen him but I’ve heard he lives in a space scraper.”
“Well, I don’t think having a dog in the city is cute either. It’s against the law. Don’t
people hear it bark?”
“Ralp doesn’t bark. He knows what would happen to him if he did.“ Bil glared at the
poodle and made a slicing motion at his throat with his finger. Ralp shuddered and dove under
“What dies it eat?”
“Not much. He’s always hungry. He scrounges garbage from a Tic-Toc Restaurant.”
\“What about its do?”
“Ralp goes out at night. He uses different lots to throw people off the scent. But some
of the neighbors are suspicious. You won’t squeal on us, wil you? Promise?”
“Promise. Where’d you get it?”
“In the country.”
“In the country? “ Bil was ful of surprises. “You go to the country? Aren’t you afraid
of being mugged?”
“People make too much of rural crime,“ he told her.
“Why do you go there?”
“Oh,“ he said vaguely, “I like to roam around. I have a country place, you know.”
“I didn’t.“ She wanted more information but he failed to offer any and she feared
sounding nosy. She went on, “Dogs were banned from the cities. They oughtn’t to be
al owed back.”
“What’s one little dog more or less?”
“That’s what they al said, and look what it led to!“ Alce cried. “Soon there were so
many dogs that people needed dogs to protect them from other people’s dogs. They tried
giving dogs prizes for clean living, but that didn’t work. The city had a carpet of dog-do an inch
thick, it’s told. Then they discovered that the fumes caused cancer.”
Bil said in his knowledgeable way, “That theory was completely discredited long ago,
although by then, it’s true, people had panicked and sent off the dogs.”
“Well, they were right. How would you like to have your sneakers covered with dog-do
al the time?”
“They wore shoes in those days. “ His slightly wistful look turned into a laugh. “The
dogs were told to evacuate the city. It took some beating but the canines final y got the idea
and departed. It must have been quite a sight–a parade of pooches miles long marching
slowly away, heads bent like refugees, in mute despair. To their col ars loving owners
attached their rubber bones, balls, bowls, leaches, woolen pompoms, raincoats from doggie
shops. Their pathetic bundles showed what the phrase ‘a dog’s life’ real y meant.”
“You’re making up al that!”
“I’m not, I swear it. At the city limit the dogs formed a howling circle and begged to
return, but the mayor was adamant. ‘Go!’ he said, pointing sternly, and the dogs went, straight
to the country.”
“I don’t know whether to believe you, but You tel a good story. Wel , it was good
riddance. “ Ralp whined softly.
“But consider what came next! “ Bil said. “The historical computer always omits the
causative role played by dogs because it reveals a side of human nature the machines don’t
understand. People like to own things. The computers don’t won anything–except people–so
they don’t think humans should own anything, either.”
“The canines had to go,“ Alce said stubbornly, “The urban environment . . .”
“Urban environment,“ he scoffed. “Did the Enlibs, who contrived to expel the canines
in the first place, understand that dog owners loved their pets so much that most of them
would move out of the city to e with their pooches? Today’s farmers are the descendants of
dog owners. The cities became half empty. Say, you sound like a closet Enlib. . . .”
She remembered the men leering at the old crones. Bil at least seemed interested in
her and he was young. Sort of handsome, too, with sweet little eyes, a big mouth, and a round
scholarly face. Serious men appealed to her, unlike most women. They went for superficial
types. “Please! Let’s not argue. We’ve just met.“ she said.
“It would be better to understand our political differences now, if we have any,“ he
warned, thinking how charmingly petite she was–hardly tal er than he. She was extremely
pretty too, with a gentle, oval face, sparkling black eyes and a mouth whose uplift suggested a
sense of humor. “Remember deconstruction?”
“Not much,“ Alce said sweetly, “Tel me.”
“Well, with the dog owners gone and everybody left in the city on regret . . .”
He inspected her solemnly. “No, you wouldn’t know about that. There’s been no regret
since the computers put everyone to work. In the old days, though, people who were
unemployed got paid for it, which was cal ed regret. Before that, it was cal ed relief, but
somehow it didn’t seem appropriate to be relieved to be on welfare.”
“How do you know so much.“ she asked.
“In my spare time I study history at the library,“ Bil said with pride. “I don’t waste my life
fil ing out forms like most people.”
“History! You mean you have an outside interest? You amaze me al the time. How
do you get away with studying history? That’s hyphen-ation, isn’t it?”
“Hah! I have a permit. I told them I needed history for my work as a guide. Which was
nonsense, of course, since the computers furnish their own history, or what passes for it.
Where was I?”
“The dog owners pul ed out and everybody who remained in the city was on regret, “
“The computers are correct on that part of it anyway. Property owners tore down their
buildings–including apartment buildings–rather than pay taxes for regret. The construction
industry became the deconstruction industry. It got so that most of the city was vacant lots,
which is why singles like us were eventually settled on them. Am I boring you?”
“Not at al . It’s fascinating, and al so new.“ she breathed. “Tel me, did people talk as
we do, back in the dawn of history?”
“The language was similar, which is why we can read it. But it didn’t sound the same.
People from the twentieth century, for instance, wouldn’t understand a word we say, because
we talk so fast, another habit the computers foisted on us.”
“Are you real y so ignorant of history? Because it made us sound like them. Do you
know why communications are so bad?”
“The computers claim credit and say they wanted to make communication simpler,
because people have nothing worthwhile to communicate, in their view. That’s why we only
have television in centralized places. There used to be newspapers but the computers thought
that newsprint was dirty, so al we have now is the laminated press that tel s us what the
machines wish us to know. We stil have one radio station, I believe, but its wattage is too low
for anyone to receive it. ‘Smal is beautiful.’ the computers proclaim–another Enlib doctrine
they acquired. (Of course, the computers also say ‘Bigness is inevitable’ when they choose.)
If you ask me, our modern world is nothing but Enlibism taken to extremes–spotless, safe,
diseaseless, orderly. No news because nothing ever happens. No poverty and no riches. No
politics. No advertising. No fun whatever. No meaning left. Boredom is so pervasive that it
seems like the natural order. The Nadir clique–they weren’t cal ed Enlibs yet–practiced up by
fighting the then new supersonic transport, which was an aircraft. That was back in the
twentieth century–the mists of time! This final y succeeded in having airplanes banned
altogether because of al the pol ution they were supposed to cause. The Enlibs had
tremendous popular support–they waved the word ‘ecology’ like a cross. Do you know what
the secret vision of the Enlibs was?
“To have people graze on al fours, like cows, on fields covered with health foods.
They hated machines of any description, though it wouldn’t surprise me at al to learn that the
Enlibs made a secret deal with the computers. There’s so much we don’t know.“ His moon
“What don’t we know?”
“The real circumstances leading up to the Ascension, that’s what, “ Bil snapped. “I’m
sure there was a cover-up and that the Enlibs were somehow involved. I just can’t believe
people handed over the keys to their destiny as easily as the machines claim. I’ve been
digging around at eh library but I haven’t gotten far because the computers censor history
“I don’t believe it! “ she is surprised. “Why, except for the visiplates, they hardly keep
track of us at al , it seems. They don’t even eavesdrop, it appears.”
“Maybe they don’t ‘need to any more, since people are so beaten down. Or maybe
they have secret means of surveil ance. But they do censor history books, of which most
people aren’t aware because so few of them read history in the first place. What was I
saying? The railroads. They ceased to exist after the tracks were torn up under the Railroad
Reorganization Act. . . .”
“Weren’t you talking about communication?“ she asked politely.
“Yes. I’m trying to explain why it takes a year for a letter to travel coast to coast. No
airplanes. No railroads. People stil had trucks, but the Enlibs opposed them too, claiming
they wasted energy. The Enlibs couldn’t abolish trucks but–oh fusb, how clever of the
egregious environmentalists–they succeeded in having every highway in the country reduced
to two lanes. Expressways had twenty or thirty lanes by then, but the bul dozers ripped up al
but two, destroyed America’s proudest achievement. Shrinking the highways saved energy, al
right. In fact, there was so much gasoline above the ground that nobody knew what to do with
it. That was one of the first problems the computers solved when they seized control.
Petroleum of al sorts was returned to defineries, mixed, stirred and heated until what resulted
was the original crude, which was pumped back into wel s.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Not a bit. There was also something cal ed the telegraph. . . .”
“Did the Enlibs destroy that too?”
“That was the fault of the computers entirely. After the Ascension, when they
prohibited labor unions, the machines made what they cal a human error and eliminated
Western Union too. They could have put it back, but–you know them–once they’ve decided
something it’s almost impossible to get them to change their minds. As for why we don’t have
phones, as once existed, the telephone company’s partly to blame. It had fancy relay satel ites
and such, but what real y preoccupied the telephone company were cal s to information.
Furious at its inability to stop them, the company hired operators who spoke no English instead
of just some, as formerly. The phone book was less and less helpful because people moved
so much, or had the same last name, or lived like us in crates with no street addresses. Why, it
was impossible to get a right phone number.”
“Or have mail delivered. Or find anybody at home for that matter.”
“Yes,“ he said with sadness, “communications is terrible, which is what the computers
want. It makes it so hard for us to unite against them.”
“Look on the bright side. There’s one advantage to living in a box.“ Alce said
hesitantly. “They’re easy to move.”
“You mean . . .”
“We could always find each other if our crates were snuggled together, “ Alice said
with a dreamy giggle, and Bil’s grin spread. “You could give me history lessons. You’re a
“Yes, you should know more history. Everyone should. It’s vital to understand the
mistakes of the past so we don’t repeat them when people regain power.”
“Do you think we can?”
“I’m convinced of it. By force if necessary.”
“Bil! “ she hissed. “You’re a fusbing revolutionary. You’re a Comcap!”
“And proud of it! “ said the peculiar man.
“Oh dear, I’m not political at al , “ Alce lamented. “We’l never work as a twosome.”
“Politics makes strange bedfellows, they used to say.”
“Now what does that mean?
“I’l show you.”
“Wait, “ said she, trying to preserve a semblance of decorum. “What does ‘fusb’ come
“You mean its derivation? It’s the al -purpose profanity the computers evolved. In the
olden days, people had a lot of cuss words but some, like ‘hel ’ and ‘damn,’ were so mild even
three-year-olds used them. The calcified calculators figured out which were the important
swear words and came up with the f-curse, the s-curse, the sob-curse, and the b-curse. They
combined them for standardization’s sake, as usual. ‘Fusb’ stands for ‘fuck,’ ‘shit,’ ‘son of a
bitch’ and bastard,’ words you probably never heard. But, like ‘fuck’ before it, ‘fusb’ also
denotes the sex act. Speaking of which, Alce, isn’t it about time . . .”
“Oh no,“ she said firmly. “Why, I barely know you.”
“Then you should know me barely,“ he quipped.
Under the bed, Ralp whined in fright.
“Why did you build a bed of this shape?”
“Like a heart? Because I’m a romantic, I guess.”
“I knew it! I think I could fall for you.”
“I hope so.“ Bil was quiet for a long moment. “Alce, I must be honest with you. I had a
practical reason. I . . . have cold feet.”
“I don’t think I . . .”
“Can’t you feel my feet now?”
“Sure. And they’re cold.”
“Don’t you see? Our feet touch at the heart’s point.”
Alce soon decided that Bil , for al his odd ideas, was the most adorable man she had
ever met, and she took the initiative in having her crate placed on a flatbed truck and
deposited nest to his, under the pretext that she wanted to study history. Actual y, Alce wasn’t
particularly interested in history, not that she let on. It was Bil she wanted to study.
“So these are your ancestors. I didn’t know anyone kept old photographs. People
don’t have room for the new ones. Because the magic wand cameras make it so easy–al you
have to do is raise and lick–the average person takes thousands of photos a year, I read in the
“And because computers develop them for next to nothing. Photography is the opium
of the masses, to paraphrase the aboriginal Comcap, Karl Marx, whose ideas were
misunderstood for a long time. People cal ed him a Communist, but his secret diary revealed
that her wrote Das Kapital for money. He made some, too, but invested it badly in the stock market. Where was I? Photography, yes. Ugh! How I hate those albums people have, a foot
thick and fil ed with vacuous visages. It was different in yestercentury, when there was more to
take pictures of.”
“Show me others.”
“I keep them under the bed. Part of my historical interest. Move. Ralp. Here. These
date from the period of the Ascension.”
“Why, some of your forebears are black!”
“Yes, my family had a touch of the tarbush. That was before the computers decided to
color everyone beige, to make us al happy, they claimed.”
“Why beige? I never understood that.”
“To simplify their job. The computers were tired of racial animosity–for once I don’t
blame them–so they made us al the same hue. Light tan was a compromise. Black people
stopped being black, which would make them happy, the computers thought, because they
complained so much about the color problem, but the blacks were furious. They’d always
wanted to be black, they said, but it was too late. The genetic engineering had already
started. The whites seemed to like nothing better than lying in the sun and acquiring a tan, so
the computers gave them a permanent one. As for the Indians and the others, I don’t believe
the machines considered their preferences for an instant. There are no more races in
“And no more beards–isn’t that the word?–like some of your forebears had.”
“No. The computers’ genetic engineering took away men’s facial hair, to save us time. I
wonder what it was like to use a razor.”
“Hmmm. People’s noses were different. So were their eyes! They don’t have . . .”
“Epicanthic fold, like we do. Any of our characteristics are the result of evolution, not
the computers. Oval eyes with fatty, that is, epicanthic, crinkles at the inner corners were
originally evolved by the Mongols as protection from the glare of the sun on snow and ice. In
our case, the glare of centuries of TV screens did it.”
“We’re snub-nosed–and have smal feet, too–as crowd protection. You know, we’;re
always running unto other people’s backs, or being stepped on, so nature tried to minimize our
injuries. We have long necks to help us see where we’re going.”
“Is there anything you don’t know? Look! The women are consistently smal er than the
men. Why is that? Women are usual y larger than men today. You and I are almost the
same size, but that’s because you’re big for a man and I’m smal for a girl. I’m only six foot
He laughed outright. “In the twentieth century, when feminism was in flower, the
women would have been shocked by what happened later on. In those days they paraded the
idea that when females were freed from inequality, drudgery, childbirth, et cetera, they would
grow. Well, the computers freed them but decided, in the interest of equality, that women
should assume masculine roles, like manual labor. Women grew al right, but not, as had
been predicted, moral y, intel ectually or spiritual y. They increased in size. It was as though nature had been biding its time, patiently waiting to replace the tired legions of men with fresh
blood. The moment women increased in physical stature men got shorter until their average
crossed. Men feared rape and wrote best-sel ing panegyrics on the subject, while women
wished for the old days, when they had been smal er. But it was too late. “ He laughed again,
sardonically. “Do you know what was meant by the term the ‘age of consent’?”
“No,“ she said breathlessly.
“Well, if a man fusbed a girl when she was too young, he could be arrested for
statutory rape. The computers saw through the idiocy of that, since girls had become bigger
than boys. The changed it to ‘weigh of consent.’ If a person weighed one hundred pounds, he
or she was fair game. How much do you weigh, Alce?”
“One fifty,“ she confessed. “I’m smal , but I have a lot of energy, don’t I? And I’m
careful about my appearance. I even take time to do my hair. Many women don’t bother,
because they’re busy. I’m different from most women, don’t you think?”
“I certainly do. You’re also quite traditional in your interpretation of the female role.