A piece of wood
23 November 2019 -- You can read this short story as a basis of our discussion
“SIT down, young man,” said the Official.
“Thanks.” The young man sat.
“I’ve been hearing rumors about you,” the Official said pleasantly. “Oh, nothing much. Your nervousness. Your not getting on so well. Several months now I’ve heard about you, and I thought I’d call you in. Thought maybe you’d like your job changed. Like to go overseas, work in some other War Area? Desk job killing you off, like to get right in on the old fight?”
“I don’t think so,” said the young sergeant.
“What do you want?”
The sergeant shrugged and looked at his hands. “To live in peace. To learn that during the night, somehow, the guns of the world had rusted, the bacteria had turned sterile in their bomb casings, the tanks had sunk like prehistoric monsters into roads suddenly made tar pits. That’s what I’d like.”
“That’s what we’d all like, of course,” said the Official. “Now stop all that idealistic chatter and tell me where you’d like to be sent. You have your choice—the Western or the Northern War Zone.” The Official tapped a pink map on his desk.
But the sergeant was talking at his hands, turning them over, looking at the fingers: “What would you officers do, what would we men do, what would the world do if we all woke tomorrow with the guns in flaking ruin?”
The Official saw that he would have to deal carefully with the sergeant. He smiled quietly. “That’s an interesting question. I like to talk about such theories, and my answer is that there’d be mass panic. Each nation would think itself the only unarmed nation in the world, and would blame its enemies for the disaster. There’d be waves of suicide, stocks collapsing, a million tragedies.”
“But after that,” the sergeant said.
“After they realized it was true, that every nation was disarmed and there was nothing more to fear, if we were all clean to start over fresh and new, what then?”
“They’d rearm as swiftly as possible.”
“What if they could be stopped?”
“Then they’d beat each other with their fists. If it got down to that.
Huge armies of men with boxing gloves of steel spikes would gather at the national borders. And if you took the gloves away they’d use their fingernails and feet. And if you cut their legs off they’d spit on each other. And if you cut off their tongues and stopped their mouths with corks they’d fill the atmosphere so full of hate that mosquitoes would drop to the ground and birds would fall dead from telephone wires.”
“Then you don’t think it would do any good?” the sergeant said.
“Certainly not. It’d be like ripping the carapace off a turtle. Civilization would gasp and die from the shock.”
The young man shook his head. “Or are you lying to yourself and me because you’ve a nice comfortable job?”
“Let’s call it ninety per cent cynicism, ten per cent rationalizing the situation. Go put your Rust away and forget about it.”
The sergeant jerked his head up. “How’d you know I had it?” he said.
“The Rust, of course.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“I can do it, you know. I could start the Rust tonight if I wanted to.”
The Official laughed. “You can’t be serious.” “I am. I’ve been meaning to come talk to you. I’m glad you called me in. I’ve worked on this invention for a long time. It’s been a dream of mine. It has to do with the structure of certain atoms. If you study them you find that the arrangement of atoms in steel armor is suchand-such an arrangement. I was looking for an imbalance factor. I majored in physics and metallurgy, you know. It came to me, there’s a Rust factor in the air all the time. Water vapor. I had to find a way to give steel a ‘nervous breakdown.’ Then the water vapor everywhere in the world would take over. Not on all metal, of course. Our civilization is built on steel, I wouldn’t want to destroy most buildings. I’d just eliminate guns and shells, tanks,
planes, battleships. I can set the machine to work on copper and brass and aluminum, too, if necessary. I’d just walk by all of those weapons and just being near them I’d make them fall away.”
The Official was bending over his desk, staring at the sergeant. “May I ask you a question?”
“Have you ever thought you were Christ?”
“I can’t say that I have. But I have considered that God was good to me to let me find what I was looking for, if that’s what you mean.”
The Official reached into his breast pocket and drew out an expensive ball-point pen capped with a rifle shell. He flourished the pen and started filling in a form. “I want you to take this to Dr. Mathews this afternoon, for a complete checkup. Not that I expect anything really bad, understand. But don’t you feel you should see a doctor?”
“You think I’m lying about my machine,” said the sergeant. “I’m not. It’s so small it can be hidden in this cigarette package. The effect of it extends for 900 miles. I could tour this country in a few days, with the machine set to a certain type of steel. The other nations couldn’t take advantage of us because I’d rust their weapons as they approached us. Then I’d fly to Europe. By this time next month the world would be free of war forever. I don’t know how I found this invention. It’s impossible. Just as impossible as the atom bomb.
I’ve waited a month now, trying to think it over. I worried about what would happen if I did rip off the carapace, as you say. But now I’ve just about decided. My talk with you has helped clarify things. Nobody thought an airplane would ever fly, nobody thought an atom would ever explode, and nobody thinks that there can ever be Peace, but there will be.”
“Take that paper over to Dr. Mathews, will you,” said the Official hastily.
The sergeant got up. “You’re not going to assign me to any new Zone then?”
“Not right away, no. I’ve changed my mind. We’ll let Mathews decide.” “I’ve decided then,” said the young man. “I’m leaving the Post within the next few minutes. I’ve a pass. Thank you very much for giving me your valuable time, sir.”
“Now look here, Sergeant, don’t take things so seriously. You don’t have to leave. Nobody’s going to hurt you.”
“That’s right. Because nobody would believe me. Good-by, sir.” The sergeant opened the office door, and stepped out.
The door shut and the Official was alone. He stood for a moment looking at the door. He sighed. He rubbed his hands over his face. The phone rang. He answered it abstractedly.
“Oh, hello, Doctor. I was just going to call you.” A pause. “Yes, I was going to send him over to you. Look, is it all right for that young man to be wandering about? It is all right? If you say so, Doctor. Probably needs a rest, a good long one. Poor boy has a delusion of rather an interesting sort. Yes, yes. It’s a shame. But that’s what a Sixteen-Year War can do to you, I suppose.”
The phone voice buzzed in reply-
The Official listened and nodded. “I’ll make a note on that. Just a second.” He reached for his ball-point pen. “Hold on a moment. Always mislaying things.” He patted his pocket. “Had my pen here a moment ago. Wait.” He put down the phone and searched his desk, pulling out drawers. He checked his blouse pocket again. He stopped moving. Then his hands twitched slowly into his pocket and probed down. He poked his thumb and forefinger deep and brought out a pinch of something.
He sprinkled it on his desk blotter: a small filtering powder of yellow-red rust.
He sat staring at it for a moment. Then he picked up the phone. “Mathews,” he said, “get off the line, quick.” There was a click of someone hanging up and then he dialed another call. “Hello, Guard Station, listen, there’s a man coming past you any minute now, you know him, name of Sergeant Hollis, stop him, shoot him down, kill him if necessary, don’t ask any questions, kill the son-of-a-bitch, you heard me, this is the Official talking! Yes, kill him, you hear!”
“But, sir,” said a bewildered voice on the other end of the line. “I can’t, I just can't . .
“What do you mean you can’t, God damn it!”
“Because . . .” The voice faded away. You could hear the guard breathing into the phone a mile away.
The Official shook the phone. “Listen to me, listen, get your gun ready!”
“I can’t shoot anyone,” said the guard.
The Official sank back in his chair. He sat blinking for half a minute, gasping.
Out there even now—he didn’t have to look, no one had to tell him—the hangars were dusting down in soft red rust, and the airplanes were blowing away on a brown-rust wind into nothingness and the tanks were sinking, sinking slowly into the hot asphalt roads, like dinosaurs (isn’t that what the man had said?) sinking into primordial tar pits. Trucks were blowing away into ocher puffs of smoke, their drivers dumped by the road, with only the tires left running on the highways.
“Sir . . .” said the guard, who was seeing all this, far away. “Oh, God . . .”
“Listen, listen!” screamed the Official. “Go after him, get him, with your hands, choke him, with your fists, beat him, use your feet, kick his ribs in, kick him to death, do anything, but get that man. I’ll be right out!” He hung up the phone.
By instinct he jerked open the bottom desk drawer to get his service pistol. A pile of brown rust filled the new leather holster. He swore and leaped up.
On the way out of the office he grabbed a chair. It's wood, he thought. Good old-fashioned wood, good old-fashioned maple. He hurled it against the wall twice, and it broke. Then he seized one of the legs, clenched it hard in his fist, his face bursting red, the breath snorting in his nostrils, his mouth wide. He struck the palm of his hand with the leg of the chair, testing it. “All right, God damn it, come on!” he cried.
He rushed out, yelling, and slammed the door. -Hf