Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder
In February 1973, I wrote a long essay concerned with Heinlein's forthcoming novel Time Enough for Love. But part of the way through, I had a sudden insight into Heinlein and his fiction that didn't fit into the piece. So I set the essay aside and wrote this strange little story overnight. It was first published in the April 1974 issue of Amazing.
Once upon a time, there was a community of giant mutant chipmunks, furry and blue, living in an abandoned basement in a great spaceship lost between the stars. One day, without any explanation that they could think of, they found a human baby in their midst. Pinned to his diaper was a note that said: "Cheep-cheep 3:16--'The wider world awaits,'" which was a quotation from the sacred scriptures in which they no longer believed.
They marveled at this miracle. For as they used to say to each other, giving the main bulkhead a rap with their furry knuckles: "What could be more solid? We know what we know."
However, they were generous folk and more than a little afraid of this infant creature they could not understand, with his absurd message, so they determined to raise the misfit as one of their own, and never to tell him how ugly he was. They named him Francis X. Cheep-cheep, after the evangelist, and they put him in the good hands of a sweet old mom and dad who raised him as though he were one of their own litter. His legacy was lost, thrown into the nearest wastepaper basket.
Frank was given the best education his society had to offer. He was taken on field trips to the ends of the universe. He was made acquainted with all the dimensions of the world. He was a bright and able lad, and he prospered.
Oh, he had the usual troubles in growing up. He yearned for his mom and resented his dad, who was a bit heavy-handed. And once he fought with young Meeper Blue, who told him he was adopted. But boys will be boys, his bites soon healed, as did Meeper's, and they were friends thereafter. Once he called nasty old Mrs. Snidely names and had to be punished. And finally there was the period when he had his problems in confronting his father and leaving home.
But when he did grow up, he rose to the top. He invented a mechanical currycomb. He invented a superior new waste-disposal system that blooped junk, trash and other crap into nowhere in particular. He invented other machines and made millions. On the side, he was a mean fighter, a cool jiver, a sweet singer, and a bad dude. But in his success, he remembered his friends like Meeper Blue, and he paid honor to his mom and his dad.
But with all this success and money and fame, Francis X. Cheep-cheep wasn't happy. He really ought to have been. Everyone told him that if they had what he had, they'd be happy.
But he wasn't. He kept feeling that there was something else he ought to be doing, if only he could remember what it was. He felt threatened by nameless terrors. He slept badly. That doesn't sound like much, but it was awful. Every time he started to feel good, really good, along would come a nameless terror and wipe him out.
Part of it was that there was nothing left to do, nothing that was worth doing. Life was as confining as a goldfish bowl. He looked around him at his society and it seemed a shuck. Anything anybody else could do, he could do, and he knew it. Life seemed pointless, a cosmic joke.
"There has to be more than this, beyond this limited horizon," he said. "If life has any meaning--and if it doesn't, why live?--there has to be more to it than this."
But he looked around him and there was nothing more. After all, rap, rap, what could be more solid?
He let his mind wander in search of an answer, but the places his mind wandered were bad places, and in those bad places he found only more nameless terrors. Wow, bad!--stuff like falling through space forever and ever, never fetching up against a bulkhead.
Something had to give way. The situation was intolerable. And, one day, something did give way.
Frank was visiting his dear old mom and dad, and he happened to look in a mirror. He looked in the mirror. He looked at mom and dad. He looked back into the mirror again.
Something was clearly wrong.
"Aargh," he cried, leaped upon his dad and bit him severely on the thigh. It was something he had always longed to do. They came and took him away to an institution for bewildered chipmunks like himself so that he could do no one harm until he recovered his senses. Meeper Blue was his doctor. They felt an important person like Francis X. Cheep-cheep would feel more comfortable in the capable hands of someone he knew.
"I see through it all now," Frank said. "None of this is real but me. You can end the sequence at any time. Wrap it up and put a ribbon around it and put it in the disposal! None of this is real. None of this is reasonable."
"Hmm.. " said Dr. Meeper Blue, in a serious and professional way. "Why do you say that, Frank?"
Frank leaped up and flicked on the water tap next to the disposal system. "Is this reasonable?" he asked. "Why should water spring forth out of the wall at a touch? It isn't natural."
Meeper noted his words, wrote them down, read them over, and then nodded to himself. Then he looked up at Frank.
"Why not?" he asked judiciously. "Water has always come out of a tap, just like that. Why should it be any different now, just because you aren't feeling yourself?"
Frank snorted. "I knew you'd say that. It's plausible, and you want me to believe in plausibility. But I won't. I refuse to believe in plausibility any longer. It violates common sense."
"Hmm.." said Meeper, and noted it all down.
"Or how about this? All around me I see this elaborate facade--bulkheads, schools, nuts, currycombs, chipmunks. What is it for? What is life for? All I can see is chipmunks working to live, living to work, working to live, living to work, ad infinitum. That's pointless ninnygaggle."
"Shucks, Frank. I have bad days when it looks like that to me, too. You're going to die someday. Get fun out of life while you can. You'll feel a lot better when you go back to work."
"You'd better be careful how you talk to me, or I'll bite you on the thigh, too!"
"You're just saying that, but you don't mean it. I can tell. I know the truth now. All this spigglemorphing nonsense exists for just one reason. To keep me distracted so I won't be able to remember. But the truth is that I'm not like you!"
At these words, Meeper Blue averted his eyes.
"Yes. Ha. Gotcha. You're more or less real. You're one of them. Most of you aren't even that much. I know that now. Empty counters, automatons, automatic pieces, zombies. But you, you were assigned to me at the outset to see that I didn't remember."
"It isn't that way, Frank. Really. It isn't that way at all."
"That's what you say," Frank scored triumphantly. Meeper sighed and set down his notebook.
"Now, Frank, it is true that you are ugly, and we've all done our best not to rub it in. But it's natural. I mean, you were adopted. But you can be helped. New surgical techniques have been developed since you were a squeaker. If it bothers you so much--and we've all gotten used to it--we'll fix you up. Heaven knows, you're rich enough. You should be happy.... And you can afford this kind of work if anyone can.
"Your sweet old mom and dad have signed the papers. We weren't going to tell you. We were going to let the fur and tail transplants be a surprise. But probably it's better that you should know now."
Frank looked at Meeper Blue and chittered in wonderment. He was two feet taller than Meeper or any other chipmunk. He was furless (except for lank drapings on his head and fuzzy patches elsewhere). He had no tail. He wasn't blue.
There was an unbridgeable gulf between them. How had he accepted it for so long. How had he ever accepted it?
They had told him that he was like them. They had seemed not to notice how ugly he was. They.... And he had craved popularity and social acceptance.
He had been a fool. He felt like a stranger alone in a strange land.
Frank said, "You mean you aren't going to dismantle the sequence?"
"But I've seen through you now."
Dr. Meeper Blue stood. "I think that's enough for now. We're making real progress, Frank. Real progress. We'll see how things look to you after the operation. I think we'll have you out of here in no time at all. The nurse will be here in a few minutes, swinging her bushy little tail behind her, to give you your shot. You'll like her. She's a real--chht, chht--sweetiepie."
He winked. "And when you wake, you won't be ugly anymore."
Meeper went out of the room. Frank didn't bother to say goodbye.
Instead, he occupied himself with his thoughts. The prime datum of existence was himself, Francis X. Cheep-cheep. He was sure of that. They had told him clumsy lies, that he had but a few short years of life behind him, a few short years to anticipate. But that was wrong and he knew it. This space of time was but a tiny phase in his experience. He was sure of his continuity.
"I'm not going to die. I may be a closed curve, but closed or open, I neither have a beginning nor an end," he said aloud to himself. "That for you, Meeper Blue."
But the prospect of the operations frightened him. What if they made him forget? What if he had to start all over again to work out the truth?
There was a discreet tap at the door.
"Yoo-hoo, Mr. Cheep-cheep," came the voice of a real sweetiepie. "Are you decent?"
He heard the words as "you who?" and they struck him to the heart. He was galvanized into action.
"I am Francis X. Cheep-cheep," he said. "And I will not forget!"
He crossed the room in a bound, fed himself into the disposal system of his own invention, pressed the handle, and blooped elsewhere. It gave him great joy to do it.
He landed on a great pile of crap, trash, and other miscellaneous junk. As he strove to get his bearings, a nutshell materialized in the air above him, plinked him sharply on the noggin, and bounced away down the slope.
He followed its progress with his eye. He was in the largest room he had ever seen, spherical, well-lit, fully two hundred feet across. The surface of the sphere was frosted gold. Through the center of the sphere ran a roadway of metal latticework. At the very heart of the sphere, a band of something encircled the roadway.
The heap of trash he sat upon rested on the roadway not far from the central ring--that part of the trash that had not spilled over and fallen far far to the surface of the sphere below. It was the greatest unbroken distance he had ever seen, and it made him giddy to look.
And it was then that Frank realized an incredible fact. He had traveled outside the universe--and he still lived!
He brimmed over. He nearly fainted.
But there was something somehow familiar, elusively familiar, about this place. He scrambled down the slope of trash as carefully as possible, sending only a few small avalanches of this and that careening over the edge and down to the golden surface below. At last he reached the roadway.
He was drawn to the central ring around the roadway. The frame of the ring was some transparent material. A variety of dials and gauges were inset into the framework so that they might be read by one standing on the roadway. And in front of Frank's eyes there was a red button asking to be pressed.
Insisting to be pressed.
Demanding to be pressed.
He had to press it. He could not help himself. He must. He must. He was governed by irresistible impulse.
He pressed the button.
Instantly, the light around him failed. The surface of the golden globe became transparent (except where the pile of trash, junk and random crap rested).
Frank saw the larger universe outside the ship!
He hung alone in nothingness. He was surrounded by deepness.
He saw the stars! (Except where the garbage impeded the view.)
It was too much. It was too much!
This vision was one of those nameless terrors that had haunted him all his life. It had been terrifying in dreams, and it was terrifying now.
He screamed and stabbed at the button to turn the vision off.
He fell to his knees and cried with the agony of it all. He grokked wrongness.
Then he heard a sigh. Not his own sigh, but a sigh like the tolling of a bell.
"Garbage," a voice said. "Garbage all over my frosted golden globe. That will really be a mess to clean up. You really screwed up this time, didn't you? Garbage isn't what the machine is for."
Frank looked up, but the radiant glory of the figure standing before him was too much for him and he had to look away again. He felt stabbed with the sharp knife of emotions that were too powerful for him, emotions he was no more fitted to experience than a clam to play a tuba. Waves of weariness, tragedy and grief swept over him like a shitstorm.
With eyes averted, he said, "W-Who are you?"
"R. Monroe Weems. Who do you think you are?"
"I'm Francis X. Cheep-cheep."
"Wrong, Bob," said the great glorious personage. "You've forgotten yourself again. You are not Francis X. Cheep-cheep."
"But it's all I know. It's the one thing I'm certain of."
The figure sighed once more, a sigh that rang in the ears of Francis X. Cheep-cheep like the sound of doom.
"You haven't done what you were assigned to do. You are supposed to use the Machine to lead these chipmunks out of that blasted basement they huddle in and show them the stars. Not for a garbage disposal. Not just to pop about by yourself like a silly tourist. You have a job to do and you still haven't done it. Will you never learn?
"Well, you'll just have to go all the way back to the beginning one more time and try to do it over. My boy, you know you have a great future in front of you if you can only forget this Francis X. Cheep-cheep nonsense and remember yourself."
A great future.
A great future!
So Francis X. Cheep-cheep had his answer. He was a closed curve. (Or was he?)
But a lot of good it did him to know it.
When the chipmunks found the baby boy in their midst, there was a note pinned to his diaper.
"Cheep-cheep 3:16--'The wider world awaits. (Save this note for future reference.)'"
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