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The Pritcher Mass

Gordon R. Dickson

  The Pritcher Mass

  Gordon R. Dickson


  Out Of My Life And Thought
















  Out Of My

  Life And Thought

  "Late on the third day, at the very mo­ment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopota­muses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase, Reverence for Life.' .. , Now I had found my way to the idea in which affirmation of the world and ethics are contained side by side; now I knew that the ethical acceptance of the world and of life, together with the ideals of civilization contained in this concept, has a foundation in thought . ."

  by Albert Schweitzer


  Chaz Sant had evoked the familiar passage from Schweitzer out of the cluttered attic of his memory. It was to help him do battle with the grim anger still burning inside him at hav­ing once more failed the para­normals test for work on the Mass. If there was anything he believed in ut­terly himself, it was the cool, clean thought the old humanitarian had laid out in that passage; but the hot flame of his own always-too-ready fury was hard to put down. He knew as well as he knew his own heart­beat, that he had the special ability to pass that test. Only, it had been as if something was deliberately trip­ping him as he took it . . .

  A sudden shrieking of railcar brakes and a heavy pressure of de­celeration jerked him out of his thoughts. He lifted his head, staring around. Everyone else in the packed city was also staring around. But the brake shriek and the deceleration went on, pressing all their upright bodies hard against the straps of the commuter harnesses that protected them.

  With a rough jolt, they stopped. There was a second of absolute si­lence; then the faint but distinct sounds of two explosions from some­where ahead of them—so faint, in fact, that they had to come from out­side the sterile seal of their car, the middle one of a three-car Com­muters Special on this 18:15 run from Chicago to the Wisconsin Dells.

  Then the abnormal silence was shattered by a roar of voices. It was a typical crowded day's-end run; and everyone in the car's two hundred and forty harnesses seemed to be talking at once, making guesses at what had happened. Chaz himself was strapped in next to the long win­dow running along the right side of the car; but he could see nothing unusual beyond its double thicknesses of glass. Only a twilight, autumn-brown and weedy landscape of the unsterile outside; a field that might once have been farmed acres was now rough with clumps of aspen saplings and the occasional splash of deadly color from the golden fruit of a Job's-berry bush.

  He craned his neck, trying to see up along the track forward; but at this spot it curved to the left through a stand of pines and there was noth­ing to be seen that way, either, but the trees and the bulging windowed right side of the Special's first car.

  "Sabotage," said the thin woman in the harness to Chaz' immediate left. Her face was pale except for small spots of color over her promi­nent cheekbones; and her voice was tight. "It's always on an evening run like this. The rails are going to be torn up ahead. Our seal will get cracked, somehow; and they'll never let us back into the Dells..."

  She closed her eyes and began moving her lips in some silent prayer, or ritual of comfort. She looked to be in her late thirties or early forties—pretty once, but time had been hard on her. The atmo­sphere in the ear stayed noisy with speculations. After a minute, how­ever, the train jerked and started again, slowly gathering speed. As the car Chaz was in went around the curve and emerged from the trees he got a clear view of what had halted it, spilled on the roadbed to the right of the steel tracks, less than twenty feet beyond the window and himself.

  The saboteur had been a man in his mid-fifties, very thin, wearing only the cut-off trouser lower half of a jumpsuit, with a thick red knit sweater. He had apparently found an old railway speedcart somewhere—a real antique, probably from some in­fested museum. The little vehicle was nothing more than a platform and motor mounted on railcar wheels. This had been loaded with a number of brown cardboard cartons, possibly containing explosives. With these, he had apparently tried to ram the train head on.

  What they had heard must have been two solid-missile shots from the computer-directed, seventy-five-mil­limeter Peace cannon on the first car. One shot had missed. There was a fresh-torn hole in the ground, five feet to the right of the tracks. The other had knocked the wheels off one side of the speedcart, and thrown cart, rider, and cargo off the tracks. If there had been explosives in the cartons, they had not gone off—probably stale. Concussion, or something like it, must have killed the saboteur himself; because there was not a mark on him although he seemed obviously dead—his open eyes staring up at the red sunset stains in the haze-thick sky, as he lay sprawled on his back by the shat­tered speedcart.

  He was brown-skinned and ema­ciated with the red spots of ulcers on his throat. Plainly in the last stages of Job's-berry rot . . .

  There was a long-drawn shudder of breath from the woman in the harness at Chaz' left. He glanced at her and saw that her face had no color at all now. Her eyes were open again, staring at the dead man.

  "He'll have planted something else up ahead to break us open—I know he'll have," she said.

  Chaz looked away from her un­comfortably. He could not blame anyone for fearing the rot. A single spore could slip through the smallest crack in a sealed environment, be inhaled and take root in human lungs, to grow and spread there until the one who had inhaled it died of as­phyxiation. But to see someone liv­ing in a constant, morbid fear of it was something that seemed to reach inside him, take hold of a handful of his guts and twist them.

  It was the sort of emotional self-torture in which his Neopuritanic aunt and cousins indulged. It had al­ways sickened him to see them slaves to such a fear, and filled him with a terrible fury against the thing that had made slaves of them. To a cer­tain extent, he felt the same way about all people with whom he shared this present poisoned and bottled-up world. The two conflict­ing reactions had made him a loner—as friendless and self-isolated as a man could be under conditions in which people were physically penned up together most of the time, as they were on this train.

  He hung in his harness, watching the roadbed gravel alongside the train start to blur in the gathering darkness, as the three cars picked up speed to a normal three hundred kilometers per hour. A pair of animal eyes gleamed at him momentarily from the gloom. Animals were gen­erally free of the rot; research for forty years had yet to find out why. It was dark enough outside now for the window to show him a shadowy im­age, pacing the rushing train like a transparent ghost, of the lighted car; and himself—jumpsuited, of average height, with the shock of straight black hair and the face that seemed to be scowling even when it was not . . .

  Details of what had happened were being passed back by word of mouth through the rows of com­muters ahead of him.

  "The heat-monitoring screen picked him up through the trees around the curve," the man in front of the woman next to Chaz relayed to the two rows about them, "even before they could see him. But on the screen he was just about the size of a repair scooter. So they held speed, just keyed in the computer on the cannon and waited. Sure enough, once the comp had a clear image, it identified a saboteur, fired, and knocked him out of the way."

  He twisted his neck further back over his shoulder to look at the row containing Chaz and the woman.

  "Someone up ahead suggested we hold a small penitential gathering for the
saboteur," he said. "Anyone back here want to join in?"

  "I do," said the woman. She was one of the Neopuritans all right. Chaz shook his head at the man, who turned his own head forward again. A little later, the car attendant came pushing amongst their close ranks, vertically unwinding a roll of thin, silver, floor-to-ceiling privacy curtain; weaving it in and out among the upright shapes of the harnessed commuters to enclose those who would join in the gathering.

  "Both of you here?" the atten­dant asked Chaz and the woman.

  "Not me," said Char. The atten­dant took the curtain back on the far side of the woman into the rows be­hind them; and returned a little later to bring the curtain forward around her other side; so that—in theory at least she and Chaz now occupied separate quarters aboard the packed railway car.

  Chaz hung in his harness, watch­ing the landscape, letting his mind drift. Muffled to faintness by the sound-absorption qualities of the privacy curtain, he could hear the gathering getting under way. They had already chosen a Speaker, who was lecturing now.

  ... remembering the words of the Reverend Michael Brown, twenty-three years ago: 'You are all a generation of Jobs, in sin and pain equally deserving—therefore, if your fellow seems to suffer and not your­self do not think he or she is more guilty than you, or you more lucky, but only that your own share and time are merely delayed. They will be coming.' Accordingly, in this gathering, all of us here recognize and admit our guilt toward a sick and polluted Earth, acknowledging that we are no better and no different from that in­fected and exiled fellow human, who just now would have made us like himself. In token of which we will now commence by singing Job's Doggerel Hymn. Together, now—

  "The bitter fires of hell on Earth

  Burn inward from periphery,

  On tainted soil the world around,

  The breeding grounds of Job's-berry.

  "Pray we to God of years forgot,

  We pray to wood and stone.

  Pray we escape from living rot.

  Nor do we pray alone.

  "In Neopuritanic cell,

  In sealed room and city street . ."

  ... Chaz ceased to listen. It was one way to shut out the emotion the hymn evoked. It was not that he was less ethic-concerned than others. In his six-by-eight-by-seven-foot con­dominium apartment in the Upper Dells, he had a meditation corner like everyone else; its small tray of dark, sterilized earth hand-raked carefully, morning and evening. In addition, however, he had a potassium ferro­cyanide crystal growing in nutrient so­lution, in a flask on the tray. Each morning, and evening as well, he spent a half-hour seated in front of that crystal in meditative concentra­tion. But his particular concern during these times was not world sin; or that he be lucky in avoiding an accident that could expose him to the rot. He meditated with the spiritual grunt and sweat of a man digging a ditch.

  He concentrated to develop what­ever talent he had for Heisenbergian chain-perception, so that he could pass the test for work on the Pritcher Mass. So he could get his hands at last on a chance to do something about the situation that had cowed and was pushing to extinction his huddled people. The idea of humbly accepting his share of humanity's sins had never worked for him. He was built to fight back, even if the fight was hopeless.

  If there was indeed such a thing as the chain-perception talent, he had decided some time ago, he was going to produce it in himself. And in fact, he felt that he now had. But for some rea­son he could not seem to make it oper­ate during an examination for work on the Mass. This afternoon he had failed for the sixth time; and it had been a simple test. The examiner had spilled a hundred grains of rice, each dyed in one of five different colors, on a table in front of him; and given him achro­matic glasses to put on.

  With the glasses on, the grains had all become one solid, uniform gray—together with the desk, the room, and Mr. Alex Waka, the examiner. Waka had hid the grains for a second with a sheet of cardboard while he stirred them about. Then he had taken the cardboard away, leaving Chaz to see if he could separate out all the grains of any one color.

  Chaz had worked, lining up the grains he selected, so that it would be possible to know afterwards where he had gone right, or wrong. But, when he took the glasses off he had only seventeen of the twenty red-col­ored grains in line before him. Of the last three grains he had selected, the first two were blue, the last yel­low. Strong evidence of paranormal talent—but not proof.

  "Damn it!" Chaz had snapped, as close to losing his temper as he ever let himself come nowadays. "I could feel something getting in my way on those last three choices."

  Waka nodded.

  "No doubt. I don't doubt you feel you did." he answered, sweeping the colored grains back into their box. He was a small, round-bodied man dressed in a sand-brown jumpsuit, a three-inch fringe haircut drooping over the low forehead of his round face. "All really potential Pritcher Mass workers seem to be self-con­vinced of their own talent. But a demonstration of it is what we need; and a demonstration is the one thing you haven't given me."

  "How about a catalyst, Mr. Waka?" Chaz asked bluntly. Waka shrugged.

  "A lot of hokum, as far as I know," he said. "About as useful as a rabbit's foot, or a lucky charm—a psychological prop but no para­normal talent stimulant."

  He looked keenly at Chaz.

  "What makes you think something like that might help you?"

  "A theory," said Chaz, slowly. "Have you ever heard of the species-mind idea?"

  "The notion of some sort of collec­tive unconscious, or subconscious for the human race?" Waka frowned. "That's a cult thing, isn't it?"

  "Maybe," said Chaz. "But tell me something else; have you ever grown crystals in a nutrient solution?"

  Waka shook his head.

  "You start out with a seed crystal," Chat. explained, "and this grows by drawing on the saturated chemical solution in which it's immersed—a solution of the same chemical composition as the seed crystal. You have to keep your solution saturated, of course, but eventually your seed crystal grows many times over."

  "What about it?" Waka asked.

  "Assuming there is some sort of collective unconscious—or even that I just think there's a collective un­conscious to draw on," Chaz said, "then suppose I get a catalyst and convince myself it acts like a seed crystal for my paranormal tal­ents, which accrete around it, draw­ing on the nutrient solution of the collective unconscious of the mass-mind? Would it help?"

  Waka shook his head.

  "You have to believe you can make our talents work," he said. "That's all know. If this, or a rabbit's foot, or anything can help you believe, then it's going to increase your apparent talents. Only—" His eyes became keen on Chaz. "As I understand it, the catalyst has to be from outside. Un­sterile—and illegal."

  Chaz shrugged. He carefully did not answer. He did not have a catalyst yet, in fact; or even one in prospect. But he was curious to hear Waka's reaction to the idea of his making use of something that could get him exiled from the sterile areas if it was found in his possession—in effect, condemned to death; since ex­posure to the outside meant death from the rot in a few months. "Well," said Waka, after a mo­ment's wait—and his voice changed—"let me tell you something. I believe in the salvation of humanity by one means, and one means only. That's the Pritcher Mass; which is one day going to help us transport a pure and untainted seed community of men and women to some new, clean world; so that the human race can start all over again, free from rot, spiritual as well as physical."

  He paused. For a moment, he had shed a great deal of the in­significance of his tubby person and foolish haircut; and the pure light of the fanatic shone through.

  "That means," he said, returning to his normal manner and tone of voice, "that as far as I'm concerned, my duty to the Mass overrides any other duty I may have, including those to purely lo­cal laws. I would not report an exam­inee using an unsterile object as a catalyst. Am I clear?"

  "You're clear," Chaz answered. His
opinion of Waka had just gone up a notch or two. But he was still wary of the examiner.

  "All right," Waka said, standing up behind his desk. "Then that's that for the present. Anytime you feel you can demonstrate the necessary level of talent, call me. Night or day, at any hour. Otherwise, please remember that, like all examiners for the Mass, I've got a heavy office schedule with other people just as eager as you are to go to work out beyond Pluto's orbit.

  Good afternoon, then. May forgiveness be yours."

  "Good afternoon," said Chaz. That was that, he thought now, hanging in his train car harness. Give him a chance at a possible catalyst, and he certainly would not pass it up. As for telling Waka about such a catalyst, in spite of the exam­iner's hint that he would be on Chaz' side against, the law in that case, that was something that still required thinking about

  Without warning, the world seemed to tilt under him. Train, car, fellow commuters, everything, seemed to fly off at an angle as a ter­rific pressure robbed him of breath and consciousness at once.

  He woke to the painful feeling that something hard was digging into the middle ribs on his right side and something rough was pressing against his left elbow. He tried to move away from whatever was dig­ging into his ribs and above him there was a snapping sound. He fell flat, face down on more of the rough surface that had been pressing against his left elbow.

  His head clearing, he became aware that he lay under something dark on what fell like a bed of small rocks. A cold, fresh current of air, laden with outdoor smells, chilled his face. Off to his right there was a variable light source and sounds of voices.

  There were other sounds of voices around and above him, in the over­hanging darkness. Some made sense, but most were merely sounds of pain and shock. Lifting his head, he saw shapes lumped about him, some making noises and some not.

  "They'll never let us in the Dells again," said a toneless voice almost in his ear. "Never."

  It was not memory speaking, but a live and present person. He lifted himself on his hands and looked to his left, farther into the shadow be­neath the overhang of darkness. Someone was seated there, as if be­fore an altar, legs crossed; and by the voice it was the woman who had oc­cupied the harness next to him.