The Laboratory Man

by Grace Verne Silver

My name is -- or was -- John Morton. In those days I thought well of myself, and some people, I fancied, thought well of me. I'm not so sure of that now; and I'm not sure of anything else.

Consciousness came back to me at the last full moon, three weeks ago. For two days afterward I could neither move nor speak. For another two days I played possum -- I wanted time to orient myself in my obviously strange surroundings. Apparently I was in some sort of cavern, very large, but it was not cool. Occasionally swirls of dust blew in at the openings, and when that happened very scantily clad women placed water soaked curtains of woolen cloth in the openings. If the dust storm was bad, an additional inner screen of wet wool was added. Well, I was used to dust! Probably the dust storms were worse than usual this season, I reasoned.

As time passed, I found I had no wish to move my body, no ability to move if I desired. I was very weak. I must have been ill a long time, I thought. I supposed the women I'd been travelling with must have been caring for me. Past experiences came before my mind as though projected on a flickering screen. Great gaps were missing. I remembered working on a dude ranch in Colorado. And what a pestiferous lot of guests we'd had that season! A whole herd of girls from a women's medical school on a vacation; and they'd picked on me to wrangle for them. I'd been guide, roustabout, and gigolo for them and wrangler for their horses. There was a doctor at their head. How I'd hated her -- when I didn't want to love her up! And she had no more use for me -- not half as much -- as for a slide under her microscope. It seems the vacation was also a cramming course for a select group of graduates -- sort of a finishing course to their medical training. And when I'd herded them around all day those unnatural females would gather round the fire and talk -- or SHE would talk. And I'd get so mad I'd hunt up the mules for company.

Dr. Ruth had a mind -- more's the pity; and she was a feminist, which was worse. the most damnable thing about it was I know she was right. Hadn't I herded cows enough to know that the female the necessary animal -- the male, an incident? Didn't I know the race would soon die out if only a hundred men were left and only one woman; but that, as she pointedly explained, a hundred women and one man reversed the situation? Silly talk anyway, I thought.

And now here I was, helpless on my back, in a cave; and the strangest collection of laboratory equipment, electrical gadgets, and scientific apparatus clashed with the most primitive furniture, dress, food and manners. Either I was crazy or they were. And there was Dr. Ruth looking quizzically at me as if I were a specimen she was about to dissect. I looked at my hands. I was now white and plump. I'd been a brown skinned skeleton the last I knew anything. Several time a day I was fed -- some tasteless stuff, and a curious electrical contrivance was placed on my wrists.

I've always detested female physicians; why hadn't my friends called in a man? Surely this strange place was not a hospital? Then I remembered that my friends were all dead. Maybe I was lucky to have even a woman looking after me!

The next time Dr. Ruth came in the room I questioned her:

"Do you mind explaining where I am?"

"Not," she answered, "if you'll tell me why you have been so reluctant to speak after regaining consciousness."

"I've been trying to decide whether I'd died, been kidnapped because of my beauty, or merely been sick!" I didn't thin it wise to add that the sight of a number of women walking around with almost nothing on might well make a man lose his powers of speech.

Dr. Ruth continued:

"You wouldn't be far wrong if you called it all three. You had a bad case of what might be called sleeping sickness; and while your body has been alive, and even useful, your brain has been dead for forty years -- not an unusual condition for a man."

"Sarcastic as ever, aren't you? Did you say forty days?"

"No. Forty years, ever since 1940 when we had the Big Earthquake. You collapsed on the trail from the combined effects of illness, exposure and sudden shock. We were then about fifty miles east of the Grand Junction. As soon as possible, my girls brought you here and we've kept you in this room ever since."

At the time it seemed natural enough to lie there and listen to her telling me I'd slept for forty years. My faculties were not yet very active; SHE says they never were, anyway. I even felt I'd hung up sort marathon record -- I'd beat Rip Van Winkle's time. I've always been an egotist (because, Dr. Ruth once told me, I had one of those inferiority complexes) and I reflected I must have been a precious scientific nut for all those doctors to crack. Still, the last time I'd talked to Dr. Ruth, she'd been contemptuous of my masculine traits. She'd said women were really the stronger sex. I wondered why they'd troubled to bring me along and said as much.

"I'll tell you -- later." She seemed to consider it an unpleasant -- almost sinister subject. I scarcely blamed her; I must have been an awful burden -- especially as she was a man hater, anyway. Probably her sense of duty made her care for me. I determined to get well and be on my way as soon as possible. When I asked where we were living, she replied,

"Can't you guess? You must heard of the Canyon de Chelley, in Arizona; and the two valleys near it. These are our home. The overhanging cliffs shelter us from the dust and wind; there is more rainfall here than there used to be, and more than anywhere else. We have spring water -- and" she lowered her voice unconsciously -- "it is safer, too!"

I thought this over a long time. When I opened my tired eyes I was alone. Safer? What did she mean? I must have slept. When I again awoke my mind was clearer. I recalled the last days before my illness. Ah, those were terrible times!

For weeks and months in 1940 the whole world was very hot, very dry and dusty; then there were periods of extreme could, but no snow came all that preceding winter, not anywhere on the North American continent. Yet all Europe had been buried in snow and ice! We in America had lived in cellars all that summer, in holes in the ground trying to escape the heat; and during the previous winter, we'd covered houses with dirt to keep out the cold. The year before that unseasonable flood had caused the death of a hundred thousand people and millions of live stock in the Mississippi Valley. Cyclones and tornadoes were of weekly occurrence. The once fertile valley had become what the school geographies of pre-Civil War days had called it -- the Great American Desert.

My father and mother had died, my sweetheart and her mother -- all my friends. I'd left St. Louis with the general exodus and found refuge and work, of a sort, in western Colorado. All who could afford to do so -- and who lived to get there, had moved farther and farther west. California, frightened at the invasion, had met the new comers with machine guns, but the desperate invaders went on. Colorado and the other Mountain states were relatively comfortable; but living costs were too high and the poorer people had moved on. At least we still had water fit to drink -- the other states had not even that. Our scientific men predicted a change -- either for better or worse -- after the earth passed through a belt of asteroids, or whatever they called them. Well, there'd evidently been a change!

People had sickened and died of strange new diseases. Sleeping sickness was very common -- people often slept a year before dying, especially in the Little Egypt section of Illinois. A generation of poverty had made them more susceptible, I suppose. Grass died to the very roots; tries died. What cattle the floods hadn't drowned the dust-choked grass killed. They ate dust; it got into their lungs. Dust pneumonia killed man and beast. People suffocated -- drowned in thick air. Particles of dried and dead cattle -- and humans, too, floated in the air, spreading pestilence over all the land. Women wore thick veils; men, some of them, went about with gas masks and nose filters such as we used in the threshing field. Autos stalled from static electricity and every car had its grounding chain, attached to the axle, dragging on the ground. Ultimately, gasoline caused so many explosions, and the difficulty of producing it was so great, that the use of gasoline driven vehicles was prohibited by proclamation. That was 1940 -- election year -- and everyone said Roosevelt would now have to have a third term, because all the other candidates had perished in the last epidemic!

Drought like that is terrible to endure, especially for people, like Americans, who have never had to accustom themselves to heat and difficult living conditions. Natives of the Sahara would have survived safely. When the first rain in almost two years fell the people went mad with joy. Only a half inch a day, but it can so gently there was little danger of floods washing away the fine silt. People thought their troubles were ended; was it not the change our scientists had predicted? Alas!

From the Atlantic to the Pacific the beautiful wetness spread. From Alaska to Florida the earth soaked up the water like a sponge. It did not turn green -- no, for all roots were dead, except cactus. All save in a very few favored valleys, whose inhabitants guarded their crops with a standing army to keep off raiders. For, you see, the irrigation projects alone had produced food -- and now their water supply was at the vanishing point. Famine had raged -- still raged. But now there was water. People could bathe again; even though for the first ten days of the rain that water seemed like liquid mud. It was strangely cool, and no one realized the menace dropping from the clouds.

After about ten days it turned warm, but continued to drizzle, and the water was cleaner. We were happy -- those of us who were left. We wondered at the smell -- the awful stench. It was like the battlefields of the World War. Decaying matter, soaked up animal particles -- rotting carcasses which had not smelled when dry -- now covered the earth with their stench. The rich went up in airplanes -- only to find the odor worse in the upper air. Those who were wise and could afford it, never stirred from their air-conditioned cubicles without gas masks. There was no wind, just a dead calm, as before a hurricane. A sort of cholera followed. Doctors and nurses were the first to die. That was when Dr. Ruth had brought her select students to our dude ranch. I remember peel had severely condemned her for cowardice. Why had she fled from the plague?

She'd been impervious, scornful of criticism. She had, however, told me this much:

Practically all the doctors are dead. No medical skill can save those people -- the doctors don't know enough to save themselves. If I could help them I'd gladly do so -- even to risk my life. I can't do a thing. No drugs are left and if there were any they'd be useless. Some people will survive, I suppose; and they and their children will need doctors -- sometime. Shall I sacrifice my life in vain? Shall I let these promising medical students do so?"

"The MEN doctors haven't fled," I taunted her.

"Men," she replied serenely, "are quixotic fools -- sentimental idealists. Women have had to be realists to survive. It's very important that women should survive."

"And I suppose it's not important that men should survive," I'd retorted. She looked at me speculatively:

"It is important -- to a man, and to the one woman who loves him -- that he should survive; not so to the race. One man to a hundred women -- even a thousand -- and the race can go on. One woman to a hundred men -- and the men would kill each other -- and her -- before the first child was born, out of their insane jealousy. Besides, a man may have numberless children; even the most prolific mothers, only a few."

I wanted to choke her. She seemed so merciless; all brain, no heart; and her "girls" just like her. She'd brought along as much laboratory equipment and instrument as possible, and gas masks; and the whole gang ran about in shorts to save clothes -- they had only one change apiece and Dr. Rught said they might never get any more. Of course, industry was at a standstill. The mills were closed; transportation at a sidetrack; stores denuded of supplies and there were no more to be had at any price. Still, I thought they could have brought along more clothing and fewer shiny steel instruments and such things.

Newspapers ceased from lack of paper. The radio, sole source of news, was strictly censored -- to prevent panic, they claimed. As though anything could prevent it! The President had finally issued a proclamation ordering all people to abandon cities, trek toward the rocky mouths, now the last hope. Air and water were cleaner there. There was little food anywhere, so what did it matter?

I'd been convoying Dr. Ruth and the girls on a long southwesterly march toward Grand Junction, I remembered. Newcomers to eastern Colorado were bringing disease and death with them and we fled before the hordes. There's been little to eat, and I was weak and dizzy. That's when Dr. Ruth had taunted me -- said women had always borne hardship, hunger better than men. I laid me down to die. I may have been delirious. The dust-laden air made the sun and mood all bloody appearing -- but now there were two suns and two moons -- there was never any night. The sun and moon seemed to be chasing each other about in a sea of mud and blood. I was very seasick -- or mountain sick, I thought the earth seemed to rock like a ship, do spirals like an airplane. I remember one of the girls said -- "earthquake."

Dr. Ruth said, "Probably it's a comet that's hit the earth. You girls remember Nermos -- the asteroid that came so close to earth in 1937 and that Dr. Rainmuth, its discoverer, foretold would return in 1940? I think that is it -- but it must have brought its relatives alone!"

She could joke, even if we all died.

I remember nothing more, except that I seemed to be continually shaken up. I imagine, now, they were carrying me on a travois, that Indian contrivance, which was alternately van, baby carriage, ambulance and a conveyance for the aged. Two poles were attached on either side of the saddle, their heavy ends dragging behind. A cross bar or two, and a blanket between the poles made a crude stretcher. We'd often used it on this trip.

Dr. Ruth personally brought in my breakfast, stewed squash, Indian corn, some squaw berries. It occurred to me that I was eating native American foods only.

"Certainly it's Indian food -- the native plants were the only ones that survived the climatic changes which began in 1936 and are not yet ended," explained Dr. Ruth. I suddenly realized that we must both be on the wrong side of sixty-five. Marathon sleepers must suffer the consequences! I asked her for a mirror, to her very evident amusement. After inspecting myself -- in the only surviving mirror, she told me -- I decided that after all I was still in my prime. I was too white, a little plump; but Dr. Ruth was slim, looked hardly a day over thirty-five, though her skin was weather worn and her eyes tired. I essayed a feeble joke.

"Probably you'll tell me it's the climate that has kept me young, as they used to say in Los Angeles."

She did not smile; though I thought that, after forty years, the joke was old enough to be new. At last she began.

"I'd better tell you a few things so you can catch up on the news -- and please don't imagine you are crazy, or that I am.

"When the earth passed through the 1940 shower of asteroids a great many after effects resulted. I do not know all. It was a long time before I was able to get my radio receiving set going again; a long time before any news was broadcast from any part of the world, even if our set here had been working. And little news comes through even now -- it is not permitted, apparently. But I've pieced together the salient facts, and if you feel able to listen, I'll tell you what I can, very briefly."

"I'm not able NOT to listen -- I need to know," I urged her.

"Los Angeles and the whole pacific coast slid into the ocean during the Big Earthquake."

"So there's only climate and salt water? Always was the main asset of California, anyway." I countered. "But what about Catalina?"

"At that time Catalina was upheaved, and there is a new continent there, half as big as Australia."

"So, well I recall that way back in 1910 a geologist working for a great oil company had predicted that very thing -- said California was once and would be become again an ocean bed. And he lost his job, too, because of the unfavorable publicity following publication of his theory. But does anyone live there now?"

"It's almost entirely inhabited by Japanese. Japan was spared any tragic consequences and was quick to seize the opportunity. She lost no time in claiming and colonizing the new land. She allows no white people to enter -- claims we are an inferior race."

"And the Atlantic coast?"

"That's the real story, and it's too long to tell you now.

"This much I'll say. Of course, all the cities were ruined, and the few survivors fled to the Appalachian Range. Some of the farms were preserved, especially in New England. Some giant Asteroid fell in such a way as to permanently deflect the Gulf Stream -- a very simple change in ocean currents, when you come to think of it. Instead of flowing across the Atlantic and northward past Great Britain and Scandinavia it now flows up the Atlantic coast, past Labrador. Commander Peary's old Arctic base, at Erah, is now one of the leading east coast cities. New England has become another Florida. Newfoundland, like the rest of Canada, Cub and Alaska are much warmer than before. Of course, the Japanese have Alaska -- they always wanted it anyway. As for Greenland, it's the garden spot of the New World, according to the radio real estate salesmen!"

"Tell me another thing -- why don't you and your girls go back to the Atlantic coast if it is so nice there?"

"In the first place we'd not be wanted. Our former friends and allies who owed us money were very bitter when, in our need, we tried to collect it. In the General Confusion, they came and conquered the whole Atlantic seaboard. Our government was helpless. Besides, they wanted to get the gigantic hordes of gold that our government had so carefully collected and put all in one place, Ft. Knox.

"Besides, the change in the course of the Gulf Stream had rendered Western Europe uninhabitable for the French and English and as a matter of self preservation, they had to cross the Atlantic. Under the new weather conditions even quite small boats crossed from Scotland to Greenland and Labrador and the district was soon colonized. Those who stayed behind were frozen and started, or killed by invading Russians and Germans."

I remembered bits of old time news bulletins.

"Such sudden climatic changes must have caused any number of political upheavals."

"Many -- too many! While the French were helping the English seize the Atlantic seaboard and both were liquidating their debts (that's what they called it) at our expense the Germans and other Central European peoples, driven by cold and hunger and political causes swarmed over France and Spain and Italy. Their invasion was not unexpected; the change in climate gave an additional incentive -- speeded things up; and they met with no resistance. All the rest of Europe and most all of Asia are Russian, of course. They know how to live and prosper -- and get food and clothing as well -- no matter how cold the climate becomes. You remember they were already raising cotton and wheat in Northern Siberia, way back in 1936, don't you? And the Japanese have what the others have left, apparently."

"But I still can't see why you stay here -- you and your handful of women?"

"It's happy here -- no war, no tyranny to speak of. The dozen girls who came with us have all had two or three children apiece; refugee women have arrived from other places from time to time. We number close to a thousand very contented women. The girls don't miss what they never have had; if there is no great happiness -- and I admit women need men to be truly happy -- there is also no great grief. No divorce or family rows either!"

"Do you mean to tell me --" I almost sat up in my excitement -- "that there are no men here. You are all women?"

"Of course there are the Navajo -- splendid Indian men. Our girls wanted to marry them, but the Navajo won't permit a racial stain -- not now. They have had the land restored to them, so they say. And they consider us inferior. They permitted us to settle here because we were women and they believed we would soon die off anyway. Now they tolerate us because of our medical knowledge -- they need us. They do not know of your existence -- they permit no white man to ever again enter their land. From their standpoint they are right, of course."

"But you spoke of your women all having had children?"

She met my eyes frankly.

"What do you suppose I kept you alive for all these years?"

"But I've been asleep -- you say -- for forty years! I didn't -- I couldn't have ---"

"Couldn't? You've evidently never heard of test tube babies! Yes -- you've been the unconscious 'donor.' More than a hundred of your children live with their mothers -- who of course have never even seen you and will never be allowed to see you -- in these three valleys."

"Do you mean to tell me I've been asleep forty years -- in a family of women -- pretty women -- and, and --

"My friend, you are not the only man who's slept when he should not have done so,--" she observed with more truth than humor.

I was utterly scandalized.

"And have you kept me as a laboratory specimen all these years -- made a father of me without my knowledge or consent -- all that?"

"Exactly. We tell the Indians our women have virgin births and most of the women -- the younger ones -- believe it themselves. Only the women physicians are in the secret. The Indians used to kill all our baby boys, but they left the girls live. Now I regulate certain factors and only girls have been born for the last ten years."

"What a lot of opportunities I've missed!" I was thinking of all those unkissed women -- what a chance for a real man!

"What is more, you must still submit to the same mode of life. You will never be allowed to waste your time in dalliance with women -- or fall in love with one of them. It might by your daughter, anyway! You are -- literally the father of your people. It is necessary to conserve your health so you can give your whole life to being a father -- just as you used to tell me women should give their whole lives to motherhood, by the way!"

"I might as well have stayed asleep," I answered with disgust.

"It might have been better for you if you had. In any case, you have now no choice. The Indians would instantly kill you if they found you. They would kill me and all the other women, too, if they ever discovered we had deceived them, kept a man hidden all these years. They would kill all the children if they knew they had a human father. As it is, the children are almost sacred because of their virgin births. Believe me -- if I see the slightest indication of rebellion against your fate, I'll instantly put you to sleep again. Permanently."

I shivered.

"But can I not have women friends --?"

"You are a man. You cannot be trusted. I cannot risk having any of my women racked by the pain of loving you. Its impossible!"

"But little children -- my children?"

"--might talk. The Navajo would learn of your existence."

She was thinking deeply.

There are two young boys here -- children of a woman who succeeded in reaching me from Montana. They are being carefully reared to take your place in the laboratory. When you are stronger, and if -- and ONLY if -- you solemnly promise to tell them nothing whatever of the former relations between the sexes, nothing of the world and its life before the Catastrophe, then perhaps you may see them, become friendly with them."

A hundred women and I may not kiss one of them. A couple of boys destined for laboratory fatherhood; I may play or work with them but never by word or manner show my discontent with the horribly humiliating position I occupy. Is there any escape? I have not given my word -- not yet. I've had two weeks to consider the matter. Dr. Ruth looks critically at me. I believe she may put me to sleep again! If I escape, I will die if I am caught, which is a small matter to me now. I've been as good as dead for forty years anyway! But it would be awful to bring death to all these women and children because of an abortive attempt to escape.

The radio is on. It is telling me:

"Every tenth male in Berlinovski has been shot as a counter revolutionary." I move the pointer and it says:

"Eighteen thousand labor conscripts died while building the Mussolini Bridge across the Mediterranean Sea. There is an ample supply of recruits to replace the dead." I turn again. Famine here, war there; and, then, this is what kills my hopes:

"Immigration to the Atlantic State is strictly forbidden and in future all who attempt to enter the country will be shot on sight. Formerly the government mercifully condemned them to the labor battalions for life. Since half the citizens are unemployed, in future immigrants will be shot."

I might escape, certainly. But what for? And where to?

I've almost decided to be 'good' but maybe I'd better be put to sleep. It's hard to be good when a hundred unkissed women are just beyond my prison, and I am still a man. Dr. Ruth has not permitted much deterioration in that respect! Damn her anyway!

Besides, I think I love her -- more or less.

 

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