Isaac Asimov - Breeds There A Man

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Isaac Asimov - Breeds There A Man

"Breeds There a Man?”

    Copyright ? 1951 by Street and Smith Publications, Inc.

    Police Sergeant Mankiewicz was on the telephone and he wasn't enjoying it. His conversation was sounding like a one-sided view of a firecracker. He was saying, "That's right! He came in here and said, 'Put me in jail, because I want to kill myself.'

    "... I can't help that. Those were his exact words. It sounds crazy to me, too.

    ". . . Look, mister, the guy answers the description. You asked me for information and I'm giving it to you.

    ". . . He has exactly that scar on his right cheek and he said his name was John Smith. He didn't say it was Doctor anything-at-all. ". . . Well, sure it's a phony. Nobody is named John Smith. Not in a police station, anyway.

    ". . . He's in jail now.

    ". . . Yes, I mean it.

    "... Resisting an officer; assault and battery; malicious mischief. That's three counts.

    "... I don't care who he is.

    ". . . All right. I'll hold on."

    He looked up at Officer Brown and put his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. It was a ham of a hand that nearly swallowed up the phone altogether. His blunt-featured face was ruddy and steaming under a thatch of pale-yellow hair.

    He said, "Trouble! Nothing but trouble at a precinct station. I'd rather be pounding a beat any day."

    "Who's on the phone?" asked Brown. He had just come in and didn't really care. He thought Mankiewicz would look better on a suburban beat, too. "Oak Ridge. Long Distance. A guy called Grant. Head of

    somethingo-logical division, and now he's getting somebody else at seventy-five cents a min . . . Hello!"

    Mankiewicz got a new grip on the phone and held himself down. "Look," he said, "let me go through this from the beginning. I want you to get it straight and then if you don't like it, you can send someone down here. The guy doesn't want a lawyer. He claims he just wants to stay in jail and, brother, that's all right with me.

    "Well, will you listen? He came in yesterday, walked right up to me, and said, 'Officer, I want you to put me in jail because I want to kill myself.' So I said, 'Mister, I'm sorry you want to kill yourself. Don't do it, because if you do, you'll regret it the rest of your life.' "... I am serious. I'm just telling you what I said. I'm not saying it was a funny joke, but I've got my own troubles here, if you know

    what I mean. Do you think all I've got to do here is to listen to cranks who walk in and

    ". . . Give me a chance, will you?" I said, 'I can't put you in jail for wanting to kill yourself. That's no crime.' And he said, 'But I don't want to die.' So I said, 'Look, bud, get out of here.' I mean if a guy wants to commit suicide, all right, and if he doesn't want to, all right, but I don't want him weeping on my shoulder. ". . . I'm getting on with it. So he said to me. 'If I commit a crime, will you put me in jail?" I said, 'If you're caught and if someone files a charge and you can't put up bail, we will. Now beat it.' So he picked up the inkwell on my desk and, before I could stop him, he turned it upside down on the open police blotter.

    ". . . That's right! Why do you think we have 'malicious mischief tabbed on him? The ink ran down all over my pants.

    ". . . Yes, assault and battery, too! I came hopping down to shake a little sense into him, and he kicked me in the shins and handed me one in the eye.

    ". . . I'm not making this up. You want to come down here and look at my face?

    ". . . He'll be up in court one of these days. About Thursday, maybe. ". . . Ninety days is the least he'll get, unless the psychoes say otherwise. I think he belongs in the loony-bin myself.

    ". . . Officially, he's John Smith. That's the only name he'll give. ". . . No, sir, he doesn't get released without the proper legal steps. ", . . O.K., you do that, if you want to, bud! I just do my job here." He banged the phone into its cradle, glowered at it, then picked it up and

    began dialing. He said "Gianetti?", got the proper answer and began talk?ing.

    "What's the A.E.C.? I've been talking to some Joe on the phone and he says

    ". . . No, I'm not kidding, lunk-head. If I were kidding, I'd put up a sign. What's the alphabet soup?"

    He listened, said, "Thanks" in a small voice and hung up again. He had lost some of his color. "That second guy was the head of the Atomic Energy Commission," he said to Brown. "They must have switched me from Oak Ridge to Washington."

    Brown lounged to his feet, "Maybe the F.B.I, is after this John Smith guy. Maybe he's one of these here scientists." He felt moved to philosophy. "They ought to keep atomic secrets away from those guys. Things were O.K. as long as General Groves was the only fella who knew about the atom bomb. Once they cut in these here scientists on it, though"

    "Ah, shut up," snarled Mankiewicz.

    Dr. Oswald Grant kept his eyes fixed on the white line that marked the highway and handled the car as though it were an enemy of his. He always did. He was tall and knobby with a withdrawn expression stamped on his face. His knees crowded the wheel, and his knuckles whitened whenever he made a turn.

    Inspector Darrity sat beside him with his legs crossed so that the sole of his left shoe came up hard against the door. It would leave a sandy mark when he took it away. He tossed a nut-brown penknife from hand to hand. Earlier, he had unsheathed its wicked, gleaming blade and scraped casually at his nails as they drove, but a sudden swerve had nearly cost him a finger and he desisted.

    He said, "What do you know about this Ralson?"

    Dr. Grant took his eyes from the road momentarily, then returned them. He said, uneasily, "I've known him since he took his doctorate at Princeton. He's a very brilliant man."

    "Yes? Brilliant, huh? Why is it that all you scientific men describe one another as 'brilliant'? Aren't there any mediocre ones?" "Many. I'm one of them. But Ralson isn't. You ask anyone. Ask Oppen-heimer. Ask Bush. He was the youngest observer at Alamogordo." "O.K. He was brilliant. What about his private life?"

    Grant waited. "I wouldn't know."

    "You know him since Princeton. How many years is that?"

    They had been scouring north along the highway from Washington for two hours with scarcely a word between them. Now Grant felt the atmo?sphere change and the grip of the law on his coat collar.

    "He got his degree in '43."

    "You've known him eight years then."

    " "That's right."

    us "And you don't know about his private life?"

    "A man's life is his own, Inspector. He wasn't very sociable. A great many of the men are like that. They work under pressure and when they're off the job, they're not interested in continuing the lab acquaintanceships."

    "Did he belong to any organizations that you know of?"


    The inspector said, "Did he ever say anything to you that might indicate he was disloyal?"

    Grant shouted "No!" and there was silence for a while.

    Then Darrity said, "How important is Ralson in atomic research?" Grant hunched over the wheel and said, "As important as any one man can be. I grant you that no one is indispensable, but Ralson has always seemed to be rather unique. He has the engineering mentality." "What does that mean?"

    "He isn't much of a mathematician himself, but he can work out the gadgets

    that put someone else's math into life. There's no one like him when it comes to that. Time and again, Inspector, we've had a problem to lick and no time to lick it in. There were nothing but blank minds all around until he put some thought into it and said, 'Why don't you try so-and-so?' Then he'd go away. He wouldn't even be interested enough to see if it worked. But it always did. Always! Maybe we would have got it ourselves eventually, but it might have taken months of additional time. I don't know how he does it. It's no use asking him either. He just looks at you and says 'It was obvious', and walks away. Of course, once he's shown us how to do it, it is obvious."

    The inspector let him have his say out. When no more came, he said, "Would you say he was queer, mentally? Erratic, you know." "When a person is a genius, you wouldn't expect him to be normal, would you?"

    "Maybe not. But just how abnormal was this particular genius?" "He never talked, particularly. Sometimes, he wouldn't work." • "Stayed at home and went fishing instead?"

    "No. He came to the labs all right; but he would just sit at his desk. Sometimes that would go on for weeks. Wouldn't answer you, or even look at you, when you spoke to him."

    "Did he ever actually leave work altogether?"

    "Before now, you mean? Never!"

    "Did he ever claim he wanted to commit suicide? Ever say he wouldn't feel safe except in jail?"


    "You're sure this John Smith is Ralson?"

    "I'm almost positive. He has a chemical bum on his right cheek that can't be mistaken."

    "O.K. That's that, then I'll speak to him and see what he sounds like." The silence fell for good this time. Dr. Grant followed the snaking line as Inspector Darrity tossed the penknife in low arcs from hand to hand.

    The warden listened to the call-box and looked up at his visitors. "We can have him brought up here, Inspector, regardless." "No," Dr. Grant shook his head. "Let's go to him." Darrity said, "Is that normal for Ralson, Dr. Grant? Would you expect him to attack a guard trying to take him out of a prison cell?" Grant said, "I can't say." The warden spread a calloused palm. His thick nose twitched a little. "We haven't tried to do anything about him so far because of the telegram from Washington, but, frankly, he doesn't belong here. I'll be glad to have him taken off my hands." "We'll see him in his cell," said Darrity.

    They went down the hard, barlined corridor. Empty, incurious eyes watched their passing.

    Dr. Grant felt his flesh crawl. "Has he been kept here all the time?" Darrity did not answer.

    The guard, pacing before them, stopped. "This is the cell." Darrity said, "Is that Dr. Ralson?"

    Dr. Grant looked silently at the figure upon the cot. The man had been lying down when they first reached the cell, but now he had risen to one elbow and seemed to be trying to shrink into the wall. His hair was sandy and thin, his figure slight, his eyes blank and china-blue. On his right cheek there was a raised pink patch that tailed off like a tadpole. Dr. Grant said, "That's Ralson."

    The guard opened the door and stepped inside, but Inspector Darrity sent him out again with a gesture. Ralson watched them mutely. He had drawn both feet up to the cot and was pushing backwards. His Adam's apple bobbled as he swallowed.

    Darrity said quietly, "Dr. Elwood Ralson?" "What do you want?" The voice was a surprising baritone. "Would you come with us, please? We have some questions we would like to ask you."

    "No! Leave me alone!"

    "Dr. Ralson," said Grant, "I've been sent here to ask you to come back to


    Ralson looked at the scientist and there was a momentary glint of some?thing other than fear in his eyes. He said, "Hello, Grant." He got off his cot. "Listen, I've been trying to have them put me into a padded cell. Can't you make them do that for me? You know me, Grant, I wouldn't ask for some?thing I didn't feel was necessary. Help me. I can't stand the hard walls. It makes me want to ... bash" He brought

    the flat of his palm thudding down against the hard, dull-gray concrete behind his cot.

    •i Darrity looked thoughtful. He brought out his penknife and unbent the Reaming blade. Carefully, he scraped at his thumbnail, and said, "Would you like to see a doctor?"

    i> But Ralson didn't answer that. He followed the gleam of metal and his lips parted and grew wet. His breath became ragged and harsh. :j He said, "Put that away!" ,, Darrity paused. "Put what away?" "The knife. Don't hold it in front of me. I can't stand looking at it." j Darrity said, "Why not?" He held it out. "Anything wrong with it? It's a good knife."

    Ralson lunged. Darrity stepped back and his left hand came down on the other's wrist. He lifted the knife high in the air. "What's the matter, Ral?son? What are you after?"

    Grant cried a protest but Darrity waved him away. I Darrity said, "What do you want, Ralson?"

    <•,. Ralson tried to reach upward, and bent under the other's appalling

grip. ;He gasped, "Give me the knife."

    "Why, Ralson? What do you want to do with it?" 1 "Please. I've got to" He was pleading. "I've got to stop living."

    "You want to die?" i "No. But I must."

    Darrity shoved. Ralson flailed backward and tumbled into his cot, so that it squeaked noisily. Slowly, Darrity bent the blade of his penknife into its sheath and put it away. Ralson covered his face. His shoulders were shaking but otherwise he did not move.

    There was the sound of shouting from the corridor, as the other prisoners reacted to the noise issuing from Ralson's cell. The guard came hurrying down, yelling, "Quiet!" as he went.

    Darrity looked up. "It's all right, guard."

    He was wiping his hands upon a large white handkerchief. "I think we'll get a doctor for him."

    Dr. Gottfried Blaustein was small and dark and spoke with a trace of an Austrian accent. He needed only a small goatee to be the layman's carica?ture of a psychiatrist. But he was clean-shaven, and very carefully dressed. He watched Grant closely, assessing him, blocking in certain observations and deductions. He did this automatically, now, with everyone he met.

    He said, "You give me a sort of picture. You describe a man of great talent, perhaps even genius. You tell me he has always been uncomfortable with people; that he has never fitted in with his laboratory environment, even though it was there that he met the greatest of success. Is there another environment to which he has fitted himself?"

    "1 don't understand."

    "It is not given to all of us to be so fortunate as to find a congenial type of

    company at the place or in the field where we find it necessary to make a living. Often, one compensates by playing an instrument, or going hiking, or joining some club. In other words, one creates a new type of society, when not working, in which one can feel more at home. It need not have the slightest connection with what one's ordinary occupation is. It is an escape, and not necessarily an unhealthy one." He smiled and added, "Myself, I collect stamps. I am an active member of the American Society of Philate?lists."

    Grant shook his head. "I don't know what he did outside working hours. I doubt that he did anything like what you've mentioned." "Um-m-m. Well, that would be sad. Relaxation and enjoyment are wher?ever you find them; but you must find them somewhere, no?"

    "Have you spoken to Dr. Ralson, yet?"

    "About his problems? No."

    "Aren't you going to?"

    "Oh, yes. But he has been here only a week. One must give him a chance

    to recover. He was in a highly excited state when he first came here. It was almost a delirium. Let him rest and become accustomed to the new environ?ment. I will question him, then."

    "Will you be able to get him back to work?"

    Blaustein smiled. "How should I know? I don't even know what his sickness is."

    "Couldn't you at least get rid of the worst of it; this suicidal obsession of his, and take care of the rest of the cure while he's at work?" "Perhaps. I couldn't even venture an opinion so far without several inter?views."

    "How long do you suppose it will all take?"

    "In these matters, Dr. Grant, nobody can say."

    Grant brought his hands together in a sharp slap. "Do what seems best then. But this is more important than you know."

    "Perhaps. But you may be able to help me, Dr. Grant."


    "Can you get me certain information which may be classified as top secret?"

    "What kind of information?"

    "I would like to know the suicide rate, since 1945, among nuclear scien?tists. Also, how many have left their jobs to go into other types of scientific work, or to leave science altogether."

    "Is this in connection with Ralson?"

    "Don't you think it might be an occupational disease, this terrible unhap-piness of his?"

    "Wella good many have left their jobs, naturally."

    "Why naturally, Dr. Grant?"

    "You must know how it is, Dr. Blaustein, The atmosphere in modem atomic research is one of great pressure and red tape. You work with the government; you work with military men. You can't talk about your work; you have to be careful what you say. Naturally, if you get a chance at a job in a university, where you can fix your own hours, do your own work, write papers that don't have to be submitted to the A.E.C., attend conventions that aren't held behind locked doors, you take it." "And abandon your field of specialty forever."

    "There are always non-military applications. Of course, there was one man who did leave for another reason. He told me once he couldn't sleep nights. He said he'd hear one hundred thousand screams coming from Hiro?shima, when he put the lights out. The last I heard of him he was a clerk in a haberdashery."

    "And do you ever hear a few screams yourself?"

    Grant nodded. "It isn't a nice feeling to know that even a little of the responsibility of atomic destruction might be your own." "How did Ralson feel?"

"He never spoke of anything like that."

    "In other words, if he felt it, he never even had the safety-valve effect of letting off steam to the rest of you."

    "I guess he hadn't."

    "Yet nuclear research must be done, no?"

    "I'll say."

    "What would you do, Dr. Grant, if you felt you had to do something that you couldn't do."

    Grant shrugged. "I don't know." ' "Some people kill themselves." j "You mean that's what has Ralson down."

    "I don't know. I do not know. I will speak to Dr. Ralson this evening. I OBn promise nothing, of course, but I will let you know whatever I can."

    Grant rose. "Thanks, Doctor. I'll try to get the information you want." Elwood Ralson's appearance had improved in the week he had been at Dr. Blaustein's sanatorium. His face had filled out and some of the restless?ness had gone out of him. He was tieless and beltless. His shoes were with?out laces.

    Blaustein said, "How do you feel, Dr. Ralson?"


    "You have been treated well?"

    "No complaints, Doctor."

    Blaustein's hand fumbled for the letter-opener with which it was his habit to play during moments of abstraction, but his fingers met nothing. It had been put away, of course, with anything else possessing a sharp edge. There was nothing on his desk, now, but papers.

    He said, "Sit down, Dr. Ralson. How do your symptoms progress?" "You mean, do I have what you would call a suicidal impulse? Yes. It gets worse or better, depending on my thoughts, I think. But it's always with me. There is nothing you can do to help."

    "Perhaps you are right. There are often things I cannot help. But I would like to know as much as I can about you. You are an important man"

    Ralson snorted.

    "You do not consider that to be so?" asked Blaustein.

    "No, I don't. There are no important men, any more than there are important individual bacteria."

    "I don't understand."

    "I don't expect you to."

    "And yet it seems to me that behind your statement there must have been much thought. It would certainly be of the greatest interest to have you tell me some of this thought."

    For the first time, Ralson smiled. It was not a pleasant smile. His nostrils were white. He said, "It is amusing to watch you, Doctor. You

    go about your business so conscientiously. You must listen to me, mustn't you, with just that air of phony interest and unctuous sympathy. I can tell you the most ridiculous things and still be sure of an audience, can't I?"

    "Don't you think my interest can be real, even granted that it is profes?sional, too?"

    "No, I don't."

    "Why not?"

    "I'm not interested in discussing it."

    "Would you rather return to your room?"

    "If you don't mind. No!" His voice had suddenly suffused with fury as he stood up, then almost immediately sat down again. "Why shouldn't I use you? I don't like to talk to people. They're stupid. They don't see things. They stare at the obvious for hours and it means nothing to them. If I spoke to them, they wouldn't understand; they'd lose patience; they'd laugh. Whereas you must listen. It's your job. You can't interrupt to tell me I'm mad, even though you may think so." "I'd be glad to listen to whatever you would like to tell me." Ralson drew a deep breath. "I've known something for a year now, that very few people know. Maybe it's something no live person knows. Do you know that human cultural advances come in spurts? Over a space of two generations in a city containing thirty thousand free men, enough literary and artistic genius of the first rank arose to supply a nation of millions for a century under ordinary circumstances. I'm referring to the Athens of Peri?cles.

    "There are other examples. There is the Florence of the Medicis, the England of Elizabeth, the Spain of the Cordovan Emirs. There was the spasm of social reformers among the Israelites of the Eighth and Seventh centuries before Christ. Do you know what I mean?"

    •r Blaustein nodded. "I see that history is a subject that interests you." ' "Why not? I suppose there's nothing that says I must restrict myself to nuclear cross-sections and wave mechanics."

    "Nothing at all. Please proceed."

    "At first, I thought I could learn more of the true inwardness of historical cycles by consulting a specialist. I had some conferences with a professional historian. A waste of time!"

    "What was his name; this professional historian?"

    "Does it matter?"

    "Perhaps not, if you would rather consider it confidential. What did he tell you?"

    "He said I was wrong; that history only appeared to go in spasms. He said that after closer studies the great civilizations of Egypt and Sumeria did not arise suddenly or out of nothing, but upon the basis of a long-developing sub-civilization that was already sophisticated

    in its arts. He said that Peri-clean Athens built upon a pre-Periclean Athens of lower accomplishments, without which the age of Pericles could not have been.

    "I asked why was there not a post-Periclean Athens of higher accomplish?ments still, and he told me that Athens was ruined by a plague and by a long war with Sparta. I asked about other cultural spurts and each time it was a war that ended it, or, in some cases, even accompanied it. He was like all the rest. The truth was there; he had only to bend and pick it up; but he didn't."

    Ralson stared at the floor, and said in a tired voice, "They come to me in the laboratory sometimes, Doctor. They say, 'How the devil are we going to get rid of the such-and-such effect that is ruining all our measurements, Ralson?' They show me the instruments and the wiring diagrams and I say, 'It's staring at you. Why don't you do so-and-so? A child could tell you that.' Then I walk away because I can't endure the slow puzzling of their stupid faces. Later, they come to me and say, 'It worked, Ralson. How did you figure it out?' I can't explain to them, Doctor; it would be like explaining that water is wet. And I couldn't explain to the historian. And I can't explain to you. It's a waste of time."

    "Would you like to go back to your room?"


    Blaustein sat and wondered for many minutes after Ralson had been escorted out of his office. His fingers found their way automatically into the upper right drawer of his desk and lifted out the letter-opener. He twiddled it in his fingers.

    Finally, he lifted the telephone and dialed the unlisted number he had been given.

    He said, "This is Blaustein. There is a professional historian who was consulted by Dr. Ralson some time in the past, probably a bit over a year

    ago. I don't know his name. I don't even know if he was connected with a university. If you could find him, I would like to see him." Thaddeus Milton, Ph.D., blinked thoughtfully at Blaustein and brushed his hand through his iron-gray hair. He said, "They came to me and I said that I had indeed met this man. However, I have had very little connection with him. None, in fact, beyond a few conversations of a professional na?ture."

    "How did he come to you?"

    "He wrote me a letter; why me, rather than someone else, I do not know. A series of articles written by myself had appeared in one of the semi-learned journals of semi-popular appeal about that time. It may have at?tracted his attention."

    "I see. With what general topic were the articles concerned?"

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