The Last MasterGordon R. Dickson
The Last Master
Gordon R. Dickson
A Tom Doherty Associates Book
Copyright © 1984 by
A TOR Book
First TOR printing, February
Can. Ed.: 812-53-563—
Cover art by David Mattingly
Naked under a thin sheet, being floated on an airborne grav table along a white and shining corridor to the injection room, Etter Ho grinned ironically at the gleaming ceiling. The inner pain and fury of the last seven months were set to the side now, under full control; he felt at peace. It came back to him abruptly that there was a quotation that fitted the situation.
Daily, with knees that feign to quake—Bent head and shaded brow—Yet once again, for my father’s sake, In Rimmon’s House I bow *
by Rudyard Kipling
Only it was not for his father’s sake but for his brother’s that he was here, in a situation no different from that of any ambitious deskworker gambling on bettering himself—ignorant of the beauty and freedom of a wanderer’s existence on the open seas. His brother, Wally, had bowed down in this particular House of Rimmon long since; now Etter was following him, after twenty-four years of being obligated to no one. Now, at last, even in his own mind, he was no better than any of the billions of other individuals who had ignored the chance of freedom on a Citizen’s Basic Allowance, to scurry after the golden manacles of occupation, position, and authority within the machinery that made possible their Utopian Earth.
His mind now seemed to be functioning at its best, as if newly sharp, cold, and crystal-clear—as if viewing the world from behind a wall of transparent ice. Like everyone else requesting the RIV treatment, Ett had been offered a tranquilizing agent to soothe his way during the process; but he had refused. In part this was because of his long habit of trusting himself to no drug—not even aspirin. He’d lived forever, it seemed, with the fear that even the mildest drug—anything at all that might affect the nervous system or the psyche—might blur and slow the reflexes of his long-established defenses. His inner, true self, protected by the façade of indifference he had established and maintained flawlessly since he was eight years old, must be kept hidden—well enough that even he could forget it existed, most of the time.
And this was the time, above all others, when those defenses must be alert and ready. He could not know in advance what the effect of the RIV would be—whether it might raise his I.Q. a few points or lower it—but he felt he had to be fully aware of the change as it was taking place, whatever it might be. And even if the freak chance that had struck Wally with a severe loss of his mental acuity, were to hit him too, he wanted no anaesthesia, no blurring of the memory. He must be aware of that, too, as he had insisted on being aware of all things else, as far back as he could remember.
Not, of course, that this worst of possible results was likely. The odds against it were literally millions to one, nearly as impossible as the equally freak chance of the drug stimulating him to super-genius. In any case, he must not think of either extreme possibility now. All possible happenings, everything, must be made secondary to his own purposes—to his plan, and to his own ability to feel and know what would happen to him. Those determinations were his personal imperatives, and he would not let go of them while life was still in him.
The automated floating table on which he was being transported swung abruptly into a right-angle turn, and a new stretch of corridor ceiling unreeled above him. He felt an impulse to raise his head to watch for what was coming to him—although actually he was the one in movement—but he controlled it even as his head was restrained by the padded rest it was cushioned in. At the same time the grav table slowed for another ninety-degree turn, and he passed through a doorway into a room where the ceiling was a soft pink. With that he realized that the corridor outside, too—or at least its ceiling—had been imperceptibly building up its own tinge of pink as he had approached the door to this room.
The room was small; he knew because he could see the tops of the walls surrounding him. And even as he watched them, he could see some of the topmost of the banks of physiological monitors come to life now, as his conveyance stopped and plugged itself in, connecting its sensors to them.
“So this is our patient?”
The voice was a deep bass, and it boomed in the room with a heartiness he immediately suspected as professional.
“Let’s take a look at you.”
The thin sheet was whisked away, even as the soothing pale pink of the ceiling became a soft-focused, pink-tinted mirror. Still looking up, he found himself gazing at himself and at the possessor of the hearty voice, a bulky shape, foreshortened by the angle of reflection, and green-clad even to face-mask and head-covering.
“Why the gown, doctor?” Ett asked. “This isn’t an operation.”
The figure moved in the mirror, and a few feet above him a large, green-clad head and shoulders swam into his field of vision. From the small area of brown-skinned face that showed between mask and cap, light-brown eyes looked down at him, and then away at the length of his body.
“Regulations, I’m afraid,” he heard. Warm fingers were prodding Ett, palpating his abdomen. “Hmm. You’re not overweight, after all, are you?”
“Not that I know of,” said Ett. “I’ve just got big bones.”
He lay staring up at the self he saw in the overhead mirror. Oddly, it was like watching someone he had never seen before. Why? Of course. It was because this was the last time he might look at his own image with the understanding of this mind with which he had been born. It was entirely possible that the body he saw would have—well, someone else—in it next time he looked at it in a mirror. He tried to make eye contact with the image above him, but found the focus too soft for that.
So he studied what he could see—a tall stranger with coarse black hair and an oval face. The Polynesian ancestry showed in the smoothness of the flesh that overlaid his muscles and led people at first glance into the mistake of thinking him physically soft. The cragginess of the northern European—those big bones he had mentioned—were hidden under the sleek Pacific flesh. Volcano interior under peaceful ocean island. A trapdoor to hellfire and damnation beneath the blue of calm tropic skies—as it had been for three generations now. Great-grandfather Bruder, he wondered, how easy do your bones lie, back in the cold and stony earth of the Cascades? Do they remember the bright beaches of your Mission?
—Actually, I know the answer, Great-grandfather. They lie uneasy, don’t they? I know, because inside me I carry the curse that was yours…
The physician’s fingers had continued prodding, palpating. Now they stopped.
“You’re in very good shape, Etter,” said the deep voice.
“Thanks, Jerry,” said Ett. “Good of you to say so.”
The masked face, which had started to turn away from him, came back.
“Jerry?” it said. “I’m Dr. Morgan Carwell. Were you expecting someone named Jerry?”
“No,” said Ett. “Pleased to meet you. Dr. Carwell.”
The eyes above the green mask stared down at him.
“You’ve already met me, Etter,” the physician said. “It was brief enough, that’s true. But we met just an hour ago, before your final examination. Remember?”
“Yes,” said Ett. “I met a Dr. Carwell. Did you meet someone named Mr. Ho?”
Their gazes held each other.
“Sorry, Mr. Ho. They tell us it’s a good practice to use a patient’s first name. I apologize. Now, please relax. We want you as calm as possible.”
“I’m relaxed,” said Ett.
“Fine.” Carwell turned away. “Now you shouldn’t expect to notice physical sensations as a result of being given the medication. Lots of people tell us they feel various kinds of reactions, but the best we can come up with is that these are just the result of their expecting to feel something—something like the placebo effect, in fact. Still, if you think you sense anything at all out of the ordinary, I want you to tell me right away—”
Still talking, he had turned his back to Ett, moving so that, even with the mirror above, his bulk hid his hands from the patient’s view. Ett felt the light pressure of something pressed momentarily against his neck, at the nape, and then the table tilted him up and forward, closer to a vertical posture. Immediately the doctor was behind him and a heavier pressure came to his neck, which was exposed in its harness at the back. Almost as quickly it was ended, and the doctor stepped back; the table put Ett back into a horizontal position. Carwell’s voice had continued, quietly and steadily. That was it, then. The RIV was already in him.
“—because, as they’ve probably told you several times over, that’s the whole purpose of administering RIV under the controls we do. There’s a countermedication available as a blocking agent, but if it’s needed, it has to be used as quickly as possible, to do the most good. And since there’s so little physiological effect with RIV, anything you can notice with your own perceptions might be highly useful.”
“Doctor—” began Ett, then fell silent again.
“Very good, that’s right,” said Carwell after a moment. He had checked his own talking immediately when Ett had opened his mouth. “We don’t want you to speak unless it’s necessary to tell us something important. The reason for that is also, of course, to keep you from distracting the physician, who’s trying to observe you, to look for any signs you might show outwardly, of a bad reaction. That’s also why you have to lie there without your clothes for some minutes yet, while I watch you. Any physical change at all, even movements, can be important…”
Carwell’s deep voice went rumbling on in a monotone that was obviously intended to be soothing. Ett had been repeatedly cautioned to relax as much as possible after getting the RIV treatment. He tried to do just that. There was no point in pretending that he had no concern at all about what might happen to him. No normal human being could play roulette with the chance of being turned into either a high-grade moron or a genius, no matter how remote those chances were, without concern about the results. And in Ett’s case, there was Wally, to whom the full-scale destruction of intelligence had actually come. Wally, his brother, to whom it had happened just that way, in this same procedure. Wally, who in the dice game of life, had crapped out…
What had happened to Wally, in fact, had been part of the general joke of existence, Ett thought, still watching himself in the mirrored ceiling. If his brother had never decided to try the RIV, Ett himself would have lived out his life happily without ever thinking twice of gambling with a drug that might either expand or cripple his inherent intelligence. But Wally, hoping to get back a woman he had lost—a woman who in Ett’s opinion was not worth three months out of his brother’s life, let alone the as-yet-unlived two thirds of his lifetime—had chosen the gamble; and now the chain of resulting events had brought Ett in turn to this room. Wally had always been unlucky in the women to whom he had been attracted. He was three years older than Ett, but they had looked alike enough to be twins, once they had become fully adult. So Wally had not even had the excuse that he was physically unattractive to the opposite sex. Because Ett had been lucky. The women who had liked him had always turned out to be better for him than he had secretly thought he deserved—but it had never seemed to work that way for Wally.
It had been as if there was some sort of reverse magic in Wally that always tripped him up. This last love of his had been someone called Maea Tornoy, whom Ett had met only once, and for no more than a minute or two. At that time Ett had been favorably impressed with her, and thought that maybe Wally had found what he had been looking for all these years. Maea had appeared both clever and beautiful—admit it, Ett told himself now, even in that short moment of meeting it had been clear to him that she was a good deal more clever than Wally. Enough so, that Ett had wondered a little even then at her interest in his brother. Now it seemed clear that the extent of the interest had only been the amusing of herself for a few weeks, before Wally’s open-hearted and obvious admiration had begun to bore her. When it had, she had dropped him.
“I’m not intelligent enough to interest her,” Wally had written Ett in a last letter, painful to read—“that’s the problem.” And so Wally had decided on a gamble that might make him into what he assumed Maea wanted. He had taken his physical exams and put in an application for the same RIV treatment Ett was taking now.
Afterward, when the first signs of a negative reaction had appeared, he had been taken quickly and discreetly to a pleasant, large, brick building surrounded by parklike grounds, located outside Hilo on the Big Island; a place staffed by gentle-voiced people to care for him. The deterioration of his intelligence did not happen all at once, but came on over a period of weeks, by small jumps—and as soon as Wally had realized clearly the end condition toward which he was inexorably bound, he had hanged himself.
Upon Ett, who had masqueraded as a lotus-eater all his life, with his secret inner fires grimly banked and controlled, the word of Wally’s action had come like a sledgehammer, utterly smashing his belief of more than twenty years that he could stand apart from the world. For all that time he had kept his mask in place successfully, even before Wally, even in the face of his brother’s unceasing attempts to convert him to a realization that he must live in society as it was—adapt himself to it.
But even as a child Ett had already learned that adapting was the one thing that he could not do. So he had slipped aside from the confrontation with the world that his attitude would have demanded. He had left Wally to try to struggle with that world alone; and Wally had so struggled until it had finally destroyed him. His final error had been falling in love with someone who had driven him to face a challenge that he had not survived. It was the crowning touch, Ett thought, in a life that just would not seem to go right for Wally—that Maea should leave him. And so, in the end, he had taken the RIV treatment, and then killed himself.
Moreover, Ett had discovered upon arrival in Hawaii, the world—life—kept right on shafting Wally after his death. For after he had killed himself successfully, he’d been discovered and cut down, gotten into cryogenic stasis within minutes.
“Well, then,” Ett’s relief had been enormous, “he can be revived, can’t he?”
“Theoretically,” had answered the physician he had been allowed to talk to at the Cryogenics Center in Hilo.
“What do you mean, ‘theoretically’?” Ett stared at the other, a small, hard-looking woman with hair just beginning to gray at the temples. The physician had looked at him, Ett thought, a little wearily.
“Mr. Ho,” she said, “you’ll have to understand something. In the case of your brother, successful revivification is only the remotest of possibilities. The chances are large that he couldn’t be brought back to a functioning existence even if he had the best medical team available.”
“Then we’ll just have to find out, won’t we?” said Ett.
“Please let me finish,” said the physician. “Even if he should be successfully
revived, the chances appear very strong that, rather than his mental deterioration having been halted by the death experience, it’ll have been enhanced; so that once brought back he would show no mental capacity at all—in short, he may be no more than a living body without a mind.”
“Sure,” said Ett. He heard the tone of his own voice, distant and unyielding. “But Wally would want to try, I think. So how do I go about finding the best medical team available?”
The physician looked down at the desktop which lay between them, then once more up at Ett.
“That’s another matter,” she said. “I’m sorry if the way I mentioned the best medical team made it sound as if it was possible for you to get something like that for your brother. Actually, the best team for anything like this is a team gathered together by an outstanding specialist in cryogenic revivification. But a specialist like that will have been booked for years in advance.”
“We’ll make an appointment,” said Ett. “Who’s the best?”
“Well… a Dr. Garranto,” said the physician. “But—”
Ett touched the minicorder button on his wrist chronometer, and aimed it at the woman before him.
“Let me get that down. What’s his full name?”
“Dr. Fernando James Garranto y Vega,” said the physician. “But I don’t seem to be explaining matters to you at all well. Any chance you might have of getting Dr. Garranto to act in your brother’s case is—well, impossible. Dr. Garranto specializes in unusual cases and never has any time—”
“Wally’s case isn’t unusual enough?”
The physician’s face tightened. She sat up straight in her chair.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but it looks like I’m going to have to be very frank with you. Dr. Garranto is simply not available for ordinary cases. There’s enough work for him among the more necessary and valuable individuals of the world to keep him occupied full-time. Even if he took your brother’s name onto his list, he’d never get to it. And if he did, believe me, you couldn’t afford the operation.”