The Remorseful C M Kornbluth
The Remorseful C M Kornbluth
IT DOES NOT matter when it happened. This is because he was alone and time had ceased to have any meaning for him. At first he had searched the rubble for other survivors, which kept him busy for a couple of years. Then he wandered across the continent in great, vague quarterings, but the plane one day would not take off and he knew he would never find anybody anyway. He was by then in his forties, and a kind of sexual delirium overcame him. He searched out and pored over pictures of women, preferring leggy, high-breasted types. They haunted his dreams; he masturbated incessantly with closed eyes, tears leaking from them and running down his filthy
bearded face. One day that phase ended for no reason and he took up his wanderings again, on foot. North in the summer, south in the winter on weed-grown U.S. 1, with the haversack of pork and beans on his shoulders, usually talking as he trudged, sometimes singing. It does not matter when it happened. This is because the Visitors were eternal; endless time stretched before them and behind, which mentions only two of the infinities of infinities that their “lives” included. Precisely when they arrived at a particular planetary system was to them the most trivial of irrelevancies. Eternity was theirs; eventually they would have arrived at all of them. They had won eternity in the only practical way: by outnumbering it. Each of the Visitors was a billion lives as you are a billion lives- the billion lives, that is, of your cells. But your cells have made the mistake of specializing. Some of them can only contract and relax. Some can only strain urea from your blood. Some can only load, carry, and unload oxygen. Some can only transmit minute electrical pulses and others can only manufacture chemicals in a desperate attempt to keep the impossible Rube Goldberg mechanism that you are from breaking down. They never succeed and you always do. Perhaps before you break down some of your specialized cells unite with somebody else’s specialized cells and grow into another impossible, doomed contraption. The Visitors were more sensibly arranged. Their billion lives were not cells but small, unspecialized, insect-like creatures linked by an electromagnetic field subtler than the coarse grapplings that hold you together. Each of the billion creatures that made up a Visitor could live and carry tiny weights, could manipulate tiny power tools, could carry in its small round black head, enough brain cells to feed, mate, breed, and work-and a few million more brain cells that were pooled into the field which made up the Visitor’s consciousness. When one of the insects died there were no rites; it was matter-of-factly pulled to pieces and eaten by its neighboring insects while it was still fresh. It mattered no more to the. Visitor than the growing of your hair does to you, and the growing of your hair is accomplished only by the deaths of countless cells. “Maybe on Mars!” he shouted as he trudged. The haversack jolted a shoulder blade and he arranged a strap without breaking his stride.
Birds screamed and scattered in the dark pine forests as he roared at them: “Well, why not? There must of been ten thousand up there easy. Progress, God damn it! That’s progress, man! Never thought it’d come in my time. But you’d think they would of sent a ship back by now so a man wouldn’t feel so all alone. You know better than that, man. You know God damned good and well it happened up there too. We had Northern Semisphere, they had Southern Semisphere, so you know God damned good and well what happened up there. Semisphere? Hemisphere. Hemi-semi-demisphere.” That was a good one, the best one he’d come across hi years. He roared it out as he went stumping along. When he got tired of it he roared: “You should of been in the Old Old Army, man. We didn’t go in for this Liberty Unlimited crock in the Old-Old Army. If you wanted to march in step with somebody else you marched in step with somebody else, man. None of this crock about you march out of step or twenty lashes from the sergeant for limiting your liberty.” That was a good one too, butjt made him a little uneasy. He tried to remember whether he had been in the army or had just heard about it. He realized in time that a storm was blowing up from his depths; unless he headed it off he would soon be sprawled on the broken concrete of U.S. 1, sobbing and beating his head with his fists. He went back hastily to Sem-isphere, flem-isphere, Hem-i-sem-i-de/n-isphere, roaring it at the scared birds as he trudged. There were four Visitors aboard the ship when it entered the planetary system. One of them was left on a cold outer planet rich in metal outcrops to establish itself in a billion tiny shelters, build a billion tiny forges, and eventually-in a thousand years or a million; it made no difference-construct a space ship, fission into two or more Visitors for company, and go Visiting. The ship had been getting crowded; as more and more information was acquired in its voyaging it was necessary for the swarms to increase hi size, breeding more insects to store the new facts. The three remaining Visitors turned the prow of their ship toward an intermediate planet and made a brief, baffling stop there. It was uninhabited except for about ten thousand entities-far fewer than one would expect, and certainly not enough for an efficient first-contact study. The Visitors made for the next planet sunward after only