he was given 26 books to read. each book was accompanied by a brief description of the author.
it was explained that 13 of the books were written by a male and 13 by a female. 13 had been written by a straight person and 13 by a gay person, and 13 by a trans person and 13 by a cis person.
it was further stated that the racial and national identities of the 26 authors were in an approximately correct proportion to those of the world’s population.
the testees were instructed to give an analysis of each book. no suggestions were given, and no length was specified.
the books were:
the tiger’s yawn , by sara ming
thunder at sunset, by ah chang
no lotuses for mr y, by edwina lee
the finishing line grows more distant, by a survivor
bulletproof blossoms, by wang mei
courtesy and contempt, by badri chopra
every person their own apocalypse, by rachana desai
the colonel is indisposed, by gregory mahto
nothing and nowhere, by babar
i am me and also you, by bettina jamali
the monkey’s earlobe, by farida kusuma
the ocean, by lelei sanchez
fat girl with grasshopper legs, by akane aoki
the fourth secret , by anna komroff
don’t go there, by valentina ospanov
the nonentity, by paul bartko
the candy volcano, by elio crespo
you did this to me by q qasimi
the prophet weeps at burger king, by aludra abdullah
a program for mister p, by john nakadama
white people are funny, by abioye
blank space, by melody bangojena
hitting the spot, by bethany fanshawe-st john
the obliterated, by tomas peron
the dog, by clara martinez
i just want mine back, by adam grady
the 26 books had all been produced by a single software program. the real test was for the testees to unqualifiedly identify this fact. and to do so on their own, as there was nothing in the test instructions suggesting that this might be so.
those who passed the test were admitted into a training program for the elite (a rigorous program, with only 8% of the trainees passing).
those who failed the test were returned to the general population.
sheldon had committed terrible crimes, but it looked like nobody was following him.
he had been driving for eleven hours without stopping, over seven hundred miles.
in the past forty-five minutes he had been passed by two trucks and a bus going in the opposite direction, back toward civilization.
he had not seen anybody behind him for almost two hours.
it really looked like the end of civilization.
maybe he was finally safe.
he decided to stop at the next place he come to where he could at least get gas and a cup of coffee.
darkness was finally catching up with him.
yes, he was safe. he could feel it.
no sooner did he feel safe than he began to feel restless.
wasn’t there anything out here? if there wasn’t a burger king or an arby’s roast beef, couldn’t there at least be an old-fashioned truck stop?
there had to be a gas station. the roads were being kept up by somebody.
and there was supposed to be civilization again if you just kept going.
an old-fashioned truck stop diner beside a one-pump station - there had to be one.
somewhere along these miles and miles of nothing.
yes, that would hit the spot - a little diner. a few hundred yards off the highway.
with a freckle-faced high school girl putting in a few hours after school behind the counter .
or an old-fashioned gum-chewing blonde floozie with big knockers.
either way, they would be all alone…
and sheldon could have some fun and work off the tension of his long drive…
he kept going and going.
finally it was dark.
except for a quick stop to take a piss he just kept going and going.
some barbed wire by the side of the road. for what - cows? sheep? he didn’t see any.
but no buildings.
no sign of human beings.
sheldon knew the problem, at least part of it.
everybody wanted to be safe. they were afraid to live out in the middle of nowhere.
where some big bad boogeyman - like sheldon - might get them.
where was the spirit of the pioneers?
weren’t there even any indians out here, for christ’s sake?
finally, finally, he saw something.
but it was not an old-fashioned truck stop. anything but.
it was brightly lit, with nothing old-fashioned about it.
white and bright and shiny, like a goddamned space station or something.
but it did seem to be just a rest stop. three self-service pumps, and a white, brightly lit building labeled - rest- coffee - food .
sheldon entered the building. it was just a cafeteria - a few booths, and a rectangular counter area.
it was empty. nobody in the booths, at the counter - or behind the counter.
but each booth, and each seat at the counter, had a small display terminal at it.
sheldon sat down at the counter. as soon as he did, the screen in front of him lit up.
there was a large blue tab labeled “menu” and sheldon pressed it. a menu - breakfast, lunch, and dinner - came up.
he looked around, more closely. he noticed aluminum chutes leading from the counter spots and then angling down to the floor area behind the counter - presumably where the food would be delivered from.
he also noticed slots for coins and bills just below the terminals. good, he would not need to use a credit card.
sheldon ordered a big breakfast - four eggs, sausage, home fries, etc. and black coffee.
the apparatus took his hundred dollar bill, and gave him his change. nothing about a tip - he could live with that.
in a few minutes the breakfast came smoothly out of the chute in front of him.
it was good - quite tasty, in fact. he wondered if it was made from soybeans or some more basic substance.
there were no signs of any other humans, and at this point he did not expect any.
he took his time. as he did he considered the situation.
nobody home. nobody anywhere. everybody holed up in their safe little holes.
disgusting. pathetic. how was a guy supposed to have any fun? but what could you do?
sheldon finished his coffee. he might as well get some gas and be on his way.
as he got up he noticed a vending machine with candies and gum and nuts.
he looked the selection over and decided to get a packet of planters peanuts.
he put his coins in and waited for the peanuts to drop into the tray at the bottom of the machine.
he put his hand into the tray -
the lid of the tray clamped down on his hand.
tight, biting into his wrist.
sheldon tried twisting his hand and extracting it slowly. that didn’t work.
he tried jerking it out. that worked even worse. his hand was held fast - with no give to it at all.
what was this? just when things were starting to look good.
he took a deep breath.
sheldon had been in worse situations before - in worse situations with the worst of them.
he started to really notice the complete silence. despite all the machinery and bright lights, there was no humming.
and no sound from the highway outside.
what could he do? he would cut the hand off if he had to.
except that he didn’t have anything to cut it off with. he looked back at the counter - the plate and cup and fork and knife were all gone - not that they would have been any use if he could have reached them.
he had not had a gun or a knife on him when he had to make a quick getaway back in cincinnati - just some heavy artillery in the trunk of the car.
he wondered if he could chew the hand off, like a wolf. probably not - he didn’t have the teeth, even if he had the guts.
would he just have to wait for somebody to show up?
somebody like the police of seven continents who were looking for him?
i am not going to panic, he thought… i am not going to panic…
a red sun was fading and setting in the black armageddonic sky.
rick rogers trudged along, alone.
rick was a regular guy but he had seen and done things too terrible to be described.
all he had ever wanted was to be free, but now all he wanted was to sleep.
he wanted time to stop.
but with his luck it probably would not.
he saw a light up ahead.
i have walked this way before, he thought. and been to this place before.
it was just a place. in the middle of nowhere.
just a shack.
one small window, blocked, with only a little pale light around its edges.
one door. rick pushed it open.
there were three people inside.
he had never seen them before but he knew them, and they knew him.
a floozy was behind the bar.
a clown and a mighty barbarian sat together at one of the two tables.
there was a pinball machine in a corner and a foosball table beside the bar but no one was playing on either one.
the floozy, the clown, and the mighty barbarian all stared at rick when he entered.
one sign above the bar read - tea - 2 rupees. another read - coffee - 1 drachma.
rick only had a few pesos and 2 yen in his pocket.
“got any beer? whiskey?” he asked the floozy. “i only got some pesos and yen.”
“nobody cares what you got,” the barbarian said. the clown laughed.
the floozy eyed rick. “those signs are out of date,” she told him. “we actually got whatever you want - coffee, tea, beer, whiskey. even cognac or absinthe, if that’s what you like.”
behind rick the clown and the barbarian laughed again.
rick ignored them. “how much?” he asked the floozy.
“nothing,” she said. seeing rick’s surprised expression, she added, “that is, nothing if you sign up.”
even though he knew the answer, rick asked, “sign up for what?”
“sign up to kill some in-sur-gents, what did you think,” the barbarian.
“the captain will be here pretty soon,” the clown added.
rick had been here before. the clowns, the barbarians, the floozies, the insurgents - and the captain.
“what about the recruiting sergeant?” rick asked the floozy.
“he’s already been here and gone,” she told him. “he recruited everybody when the war was on.”
“and the war’s still on,” the barbarian said. he picked up the glass he had in front of him.
i can believe that much, rick thought.
“what’s your name, cowboy?” the clown asked rick.
rick hesitated. “rick,” he said.
“had to think about it, huh?’” the clown laughed. “you look like a regular - an old regular space corps man.”
“that’s just about right,” rick agreed.
“i’m fuckup, by the way,” the clown said. “and this here is bigdick,” pointing to the barbarian.
the barbarian just grunted. he gave rick the evil eye.
“and what’s your name?’ rick asked the floozy.
“glenda, what else would it be?”
“so how about it, my friend,” the clown continued, “you going to get on board when the captain gets here? going to kill you some insurgents? some rebels against the empire?”
rick shook his head. “no, i don’t think so.”
“no!” all three said at once and looked at him in astonishment.
“there’s been enough killing already,” rick said. “i’ve had enough killing.”
“there’s never enough killing,” the clown laughed.
“you might as well say there’s never enough drinking,” the barbarian said. he picked up his glass - of whiskey? - again.
“or enough loving,” glenda the floozy added.
“that’s right,” the clown told rick. “it’s nature’s way. you got to burn down the old trees so the new ones can grow.”
rick shook his head again. “i don’t think so.”
“does that mean you don’t want nothing to drink?” glenda asked.
“give him a drink,” the clown told her. “it will clear his head. an old regular spaceman not wanting to kill insurgents! who ever heard of such a thing?” and he laughed again.
“but look here,” said the barbarian. “if he don’t want to kill insurgents, what is he going to do? what good is he?”
“i know,” said glenda. “he can stay here and mind the store. and i can finally fulfill my dream of going off with you guys to defend the empire.”
the clown and the barbarian shook their heads doubtfully.
“i guess,” said the barbarian. “if that is what he wants. if he’s really such a sorry creature as that.”
“we’ll let the captain decide,” said the clown.
and so it was decided. when the captain and the recruiting sergeant arrived later with a ragtag crew of filthy lowlifes, the clown, the barbarian, and the floozy joined them and they all sailed off into the black yonder to do their part in the final defense of the empire.
rick was left alone in the shack. he took inventory of what he had.
some liquor and coffee left in the bar. a radio. a pair of binoculars. an old-fashioned blaster - with a broken meter so he could not tell how much charge there was in it. and an even more old-fashioned machine gun and a little ammunition.
a case of whiskey and a pile of cases of spam and s-rations.
and peace and quiet.
but the peace and quiet did not last long.
when the sun started to come up he saw some movement on the horizon.
he stepped outside and scanned the sky and the skyline.
what he saw chilled him.
hordes of giant rats! and behind them, giant ants and scorpions!
it took him a while to get anybody on the old radio.
the trooper on the other end sort of laughed. “i don’t know what we can do for you right now, hoss. we are spread kind of thin here ourselves. but i will pass your information along. just hang on as best you can and we will get back to you - maybe.”
the radio went dead.
rick looked outside. the rats were now visible to the naked eye.
“can you be quiet, please?” the queen of spades glared at esther.
esther looked up from her book, which she had been reading by the light of the fireplace.
“but i did not speak, aunt. i have not spoken since i sat down - “
“silence! are you contradicting me?”
“no, aunt -“ esther responded timidly.
“you are turning the pages of your wretched book, are you not?”
“that makes noise, does it not?”
“but, surely -“ esther faltered. she glanced down at the book in her hands, her well-thumbed copy of volume two of the reverend kilvert’s diary.
“surely it does,” the queen of spades continued, glowering at esther. “add to it your infernal rocking and the noise is well-nigh insupportable.”
esther glanced down guiltily at the rockers of the little chair she was sitting in. the rug beneath the chair was well-worn, but so well worn that they did not cushion the movement of the rockers and she had not noticed any squeaking.
esther felt her face flush as the old woman’s pitiless gaze bored into her.
esther had been the queen of hearts in a previous life, but in this one she was only a mousy little country cousin poor relation.
what was she to do? she did not want to leave her place by the fire - the only warm spot in the large, drafty, ice cold old house.
it was the dead of winter, and well below freezing, although the wind had not been blowing outside.
esther got up from the rocking chair, trying not to let the chair make the slightest movement.
“i will sit on the sofa,” esther announced, “and i will not read my book.”
there was an old horsehair sofa deep in the shadows in front of the large cracked window, away from the fire but at least in the same room with it.
“mind you do not breathe too loudly,” the old woman retorted. “i wish to enjoy the quiet.”
“i will do my best, aunt,” esther stammered.
suddenly jepson, the butler, appeared. he had been the jack of clubs in previous lives.
“ere!” he cried. “you miserable old witch! why torture the poor child? ain’t the cold torture enough, eh?”
the queen sat up straight in her chair. “how dare you! how dare you speak to me that way? jack’s as good as his mistress now, is he?”
“i’m as good as i mean to be, madam - as good as i mean to be! you want quiet, do yer?” laughing maniacally, the butler went over to the largest window and threw it open.
“listen!” he cried. “listen! not a sound for miles around! nobody out there to hear a sound, is there? that’s quiet for you!”
“close that window immediately!”
“ah! how’s about if i close your window, madam?” jepson advanced on the old woman, who was struggling to raise her withered limbs from her chair. “you think i don’t remember the way you treated me back in the day, in the old kingdom -“
jepson picked the queen out of her chair like a doll and hurled her into the fire.
esther heard the old woman’s neck snap. she settled into the embers in the fireplace without a sound.
professor parkerson sighed. he put down the pen he had been tapping absently on the blank page of his notebook.
after all, priscilla was his favorite grandchild, even though. she, like her mother, had disappointed him in so many ways.
“i suppose, my child, it has something to do with world peace?”
“indeed it does, grandfather. have you not read the newspapers?”
the professor smiled. “of course i read them.” what he did not add was that he only read them to be amused by their ignorant reporting on scientific and other matters of which they were blissfully uninformed.
“they say that the world is headed to war - yet again! and that this time it will be worse than ever!”
“yes, i believe i read something to that effect,” the professor replied.
“then can you not do something? after all, you are the most famous scientist and the most respected person on the planet - if you can not do something, who can? can you not call another peace conference?”
“well, my dear, you see what happened the last time i attempted such a venture. the world has scarcely recovered from the aftermath.”
“but what else can be done? please, grandfather, can you not try one more time?” priscilla pleaded.
the professor sighed again. “very well, my dear. i will see what i can do.”
and so it came about that yet another peace conference was called, in a peaceful village in the alps whose exact location was not disclosed in the press.
the press, indeed, made only the most token appearance in the village, as public interest in such proceedings had dissipated with their novelty. none of the great newspapers sent their “crack” reporters, and the neophytes who attended found little to fill their reports from interviewing the local citizenry.
most of the powers that be , out of respect for professor parkerson, sent distinguished representatives to the gathering.
kaiser frederick iv and czar nicholas iii came in person.
mrs roosevelt and miss amelia earhart represented the united states. mr noel coward appeared on behalf of brittania, and m malraux on behalf of the remnants of the french empire.
lady zhen, fresh from the triumphant publication of her sensational memoirs, did the honors for the son of heaven.
a mr suzuki, a complete unknown, arrived as the representative of the emperor of japan. he spoke perfect french and displayed the manners of a polished gentleman.
the weather cooperated, and the conference was held outdoors, on a broad patio with a splendid view of the mountains.
tea and coffee were served, with some truly excellent swiss pastries.
professor parkerson made a brief speech on the benefits of continued peace, followed by a more passionate one from his granddaughter.
both speeches were acknowledged with the courtesy due them.
a representative from each of the attending empires then made a brief statement, acknowledging the desirability of peace, but restating their own claims in polite but firm terms.
it was left to the kaiser, in his bluff way, to state what they all thought.
“after all, professor, it was the rending of the fabric of reality, brought about by your own discoveries, which has brought us to this unhappy pass.”
professor parkerson could only bow his head, in acknowledgement of the truth of this statement.
priscilla made a last passionate appeal to the assembled worthies, summoning up images of bodies blown apart by bombs, villages being incinerated, mothers and babes being bayoneted, and rivers of refugees clogging the roads of the world.
suddenly a strange orange light appeared in the afternoon sky.
“look ye!” cried priscilla. “there is truly the rending of the fabric of reality! a sign from heaven itself!”
“i am afraid,my dear,” the professor murmured, “that such phenomena are often seen in the skies in these mountain areas, at this time of year.”
on that note, the representatives rose from their chairs and after exchanging formalities, repaired to their rooms.