By JAMES CAUSEY
Illustrated by DICK FRANCIS
Anyone can make an error, but the higher the
society ... the more disastrous the mistake!
Half an hour before, while
she had been engrossed
in the current soap opera
and Harry Junior was screaming
in his crib, Melinda would naturally
have slammed the front door
in the little man's face. However,
when the bell rang, she was
wearing her new Chinese red
housecoat, had just lustered her
nails to a blinding scarlet, and
Harry Junior was sleeping like an
Yawning, Melinda answered
the door and the little man said,
beaming, "Excellent day. I have
geegaws for information."
Melinda did not quite recoil.
He was perhaps five feet tall,
with a gleaming hairless scalp
and a young-old face. He wore
a plain gray tunic, and a peddler's
tray hung from his thin
"Don't want any," Melinda
"Please." He had great, beseeching
amber eyes. "They all
say that. I haven't much time. I
must be back at the University
"You working your way
He brightened. "Yes. I suppose
you could call it that. Alien
Melinda softened. The initiations
those frats pulled nowadays—shaving
the poor guy's head,
eating goldfish—it was criminal.
"Well?" she asked grudgingly.
"What's in the tray?"
"Flanglers," said the little man
eagerly. "Oscilloscopes. Portable
force-field generators. A neural
distorter." Melinda's face was
blank. The little man frowned.
"You use them, of course? This
is a Class IV culture?" Melinda
essayed a weak shrug and the
little man sighed with relief. His
eyes fled past her to the blank
screen of the TV set. "Ah, a
monitor." He smiled. "For a moment
I was afraid—May I come
Melinda shrugged, opened
the door. This might be interesting,
like a vacuum-cleaner
salesman who had cleaned her
drapes last week for free. And
Kitty Kyle Battles Life wouldn't
be on for almost an hour.
"My name is Porteous," said
the little man with an eager smile.
"I'm doing a thematic on Class
IV cultures." He whipped out a
stylus, began jotting down notes.
The TV set fascinated him.
"It's turned off right now,"
Porteous's eyes widened impossibly.
"You mean," he whispered
in horror, "that you're exercising
Class V privileges? This is terribly
confusing. I get doors
slammed in my face, when Class
Fours are supposed to have a
splendid gregarian quotient—you
do have atomic power, don't
"Oh, sure," said Melinda uncomfortably.
This wasn't going to
be much fun.
"Space travel?" The little face
was intent, sharp.
"Well," Melinda yawned, looking
at the blank screen, "they've
got Space Patrol, Space Cadet,
Tales of Tomorrow ..."
"Excellent. Rocket ships or
force-fields?" Melinda blinked.
"Does your husband own one?"
Melinda shook her blonde head
helplessly. "What are your economic
Melinda took a deep rasping
breath, said, "Listen, mister, is
this a demonstration or a quiz
"Oh, my excuse. Demonstration,
certainly. You will not mind
"Questions?" There was an
ominous glint in Melinda's blue
"Your delightful primitive customs,
art-forms, personal habits—"
"Look," Melinda said, crimsoning.
"This is a respectable
neighborhood, and I'm not answering
any Kinsey report, understand?"
The little man nodded, scribbling.
"Personal habits are tabu?
I so regret. The demonstration."
He waved grandly at the tray.
"Anti-grav sandals? A portable
solar converter? Apologizing for
this miserable selection, but on
Capella they told me—" He followed
Melinda's entranced gaze,
selected a tiny green vial. "This
is merely a regenerative solution.
You appear to have no cuts or
"Oh," said Melinda nastily.
"Cures warts, cancer, grows hair,
Porteous brightened. "Of
course. I see you can scan. Amazing."
He scribbled further with
his stylus, glanced up, blinked
at the obvious scorn on Melinda's
face. "Here. Try it."
"You try it." Now watch him
Porteous hesitated. "Would
you like me to grow an extra
"Grow some hair." Melinda
tried not to smile.
The little man unstopped the
vial, poured a shimmering green
drop on his wrist, frowning.
"Must concentrate," he said.
"Thorium base, suspended solution.
Really jolts the endocrines,
complete control ... see?"
Melinda's jaw dropped. She
stared at the tiny tuft of hair
which had sprouted on that bare
wrist. She was thinking abruptly,
unhappily, about that chignon
she had bought yesterday. They
had let her buy that for eight
dollars when with this stuff she
could have a natural one.
"How much?" she inquired
"A half hour of your time
only," said Porteous.
Melinda grasped the vial firmly,
settled down on the sofa with
one leg tucked carefully under
"Okay, shoot. But nothing personal."
Porteous was delighted. He
asked a multitude of questions,
most of them pointless,
some naive, and Melinda dug
into her infinitesimal fund of
knowledge and gave. The little
man scribbled furiously, clucking
like a gravid hen.
"You mean," he asked in
amazement, "that you live in
these primitive huts of your own
"It's a G.I. housing project,"
Melinda said, ashamed.
"Astonishing." He wrote: Feudal
anachronisms and atomic
power, side by side. Class Fours
periodically "rough it" in back-to-nature movements.
Harry Junior chose that moment
to begin screaming for his
lunch. Porteous sat, trembling.
"Is that a Security Alarm?"
"My son," said Melinda despondently,
and went into the
Porteous followed, and watched
the ululating child with some
"Eighteen months," said Melinda
stiffly, changing diapers.
"He's cutting teeth."
Porteous shuddered. "What a
pity. Obviously atavistic.
Wouldn't the creche accept him?
You shouldn't have to keep him
"I keep after Harry to get a
maid, but he says we can't afford
"Manifestly insecure," muttered
the little man, studying Harry
Junior. "Definite paranoid tendencies."
"He was two weeks premature,"
volunteered Melinda. "He's
"I know just the thing," Porteous
said happily. "Here." He
dipped into the glittering litter
on the tray and handed Harry
Junior a translucent prism. "A
neural distorter. We use it to
train regressives on Rigel Two.
It might be of assistance."
Melinda eyed the thing doubtfully.
Harry Junior was peering
into the shifting crystal depths
with a somewhat strained expression.
"Speeds up the neural flow,"
explained the little man proudly.
"Helps tap the unused eighty
per cent. The pre-symptomatic
memory is unaffected, due to automatic
cerebral lapse in case of
overload. I'm afraid it won't do
much more than cube his present
IQ, and an intelligent idiot is
still an idiot, but—"
"How dare you?" Melinda's
eyes flashed. "My son is not an
idiot! You get out of here this
minute and take your—things
with you." As she reached for
the prism, Harry Junior squalled.
Melinda relented. "Here," she
said angrily, fumbling with her
purse. "How much are they?"
"Medium of exchange?" Porteous
rubbed his bald skull. "Oh,
I really shouldn't—but it'll make
such a wonderful addendum to
the chapter on malignant primitives.
What is your smallest denomination?"
"Is a dollar okay?" Melinda
Porteous was pleased with the
picture of George Washington.
He turned the bill over and over
in his fingers, at last bowed low
and formally, apologized for any
tabu violations, and left via the
"Crazy fraternities," muttered
Melinda, turning on the TV set.
Kitty Kyle was dull that
morning. At length Melinda
used some of the liquid in the
green vial on her eyelashes, was
quite pleased at the results, and
hid the rest in the medicine
Harry Junior was a model of
docility the rest of that day.
While Melinda watched TV and
munched chocolates, did and re-did
her hair, Harry Junior played
quietly with the crystal prism.
Toward late afternoon, he
crawled over to the bookcase,
wrestled down the encyclopedia
and pawed through it, gurgling
with delight. He definitely, Melinda
decided, would make a fine
lawyer someday, not a useless
putterer like Big Harry, who
worked all hours overtime in that
damned lab. She scowled as
Harry Junior, bored with the encyclopedia,
began reaching for
one of Big Harry's tomes on
nuclear physics. One putterer in
the family was enough! But when
she tried to take the book away
from him, Harry Junior howled
so violently that she let well
At six-thirty, Big Harry called
from the lab, with the usual
despondent message that he
would not be home for supper.
Melinda said a few resigned
things about cheerless dinners
eaten alone, hinted darkly what
lonesome wives sometimes did
for company, and Harry said he
was very sorry, but this might
be it, and Melinda hung up on
him in a temper.
Precisely fifteen minutes later,
the doorbell rang. Melinda opened
the front door and gaped.
This little man could have been
Porteous's double, except for the
black metallic tunic, the glacial
"Mrs. Melinda Adams?" Even
the voice was frigid.
"Major Nord, Galactic Security."
The little man bowed. "You
were visited early this morning
by one Porteous." He spoke the
name with a certain disgust. "He
left a neural distorter here. Correct?"
Melinda's nod was tremulous.
Major Nord came quietly into
the living room, shut the door
behind him. "My apologies,
madam, for the intrusion. Porteous
mistook your world for a
Class IV culture, instead of a
Class VII. Here—" He handed
her the crumpled dollar bill.
"You may check the serial number.
The distorter, please."
Melinda shrunk limply onto
the sofa. "I don't understand,"
she said painfully. "Was
he a thief?"
"He was—careless about his
spatial coordinates." Major
Nord's teeth showed in the faintest
of smiles. "He has been
corrected. Where is it?"
"Now look," said Melinda with
some asperity. "That thing's kept
Harry Junior quiet all day. I
bought it in good faith, and it's
not my fault—say, have you got
"Madam," said the Major with
dignity, "I dislike violating local
tabus, but must I explain the impact
of a neural distorter on a
backwater culture? What if your
Neanderthal had been given
atomic blasters? Where would
you have been today? Swinging
through trees, no doubt. What if
your Hitler had force-fields?" He
exhaled. "Where is your son?"
In the nursery, Harry Junior
was contentedly playing with his
blocks. The prism lay glinting in
Major Nord picked it up carefully,
scrutinized Harry Junior.
His voice was very soft.
"You said he was—playing
Some vestigial maternal instinct
prompted Melinda to
shake her head vigorously. The
little man stared hard at Harry
Junior, who began whimpering.
Trembling, Melinda scooped up
"Is that all you have to do—run
around frightening women
and children? Take your old distorter
and get out. Leave decent
Major Nord frowned. If only he
could be sure. He peered stonily
at Harry Junior, murmured,
"Definite egomania. It doesn't
seem to have affected him.
"Do you want me to scream?"
Major Nord sighed. He bowed
to Melinda, went out, closed the
door, touched a tiny stud on his
tunic, and vanished.
"The manners of some people,"
Melinda said to Harry Junior.
She was relieved that the Major
had not asked for the green vial.
Harry Junior also looked relieved,
although for quite a different
Big Harry arrived home a
little after eleven. There were
small worry creases about his
mouth and forehead, and the
leaden cast of defeat in his eyes.
He went into the bedroom and
Melinda sleepily told him about
the little man working his way
through college by peddling silly
goods, and about that rude cop
named Nord, and Harry said that
was simply astonishing and Melinda
said, "Harry, you had a
"I had two drinks," Harry told
her owlishly. "You married a
failure, dear. Part of the experimental
model vaporized, wooosh,
just like that. On paper it looked
Melinda had heard it all before.
She asked him to see if
Harry Junior was covered, and
Big Harry went unsteadily into
the nursery, sat down by his son's
"Poor little guy," he mused.
"Your old man's a bum, a useless
tinker. He thought he could
send Man to the stars on a
string of helium nuclei. Oh, he
was smart. Thought of everything.
Auxiliary jets to kick off
the negative charge, bigger mercury
vapor banks—a fine straight
thrust of positive Alpha particles."
He hiccuped, put his face
in his hands.
"Didn't you ever stop to think
that a few air molecules could
defocus the stream? Try a vacuum,
Big Harry stood up.
"Did you say something, son?"
"Gurfle," said Harry Junior.
Big Harry reeled into the living
room like a somnambulist.
He got pencil and paper, began
jotting frantic formulae. Presently
he called a cab and raced
back to the laboratory.
Melinda was dreaming
about little bald men with
diamond-studded trays. They
were chasing her, they kept pelting
her with rubies and emeralds,
all they wanted was to ask questions,
but she kept running, Harry
Junior clasped tightly in her
arms. Now they were ringing
alarm bells. The bells kept ringing
and she groaned, sat up in
bed, and seized the telephone.
"Darling." Big Harry's voice
shook. "I've got it! More auxiliary
shielding plus a vacuum.
We'll be rich!"
"That's just fine," said Melinda
crossly. "You woke the
Harry Junior was sobbing bitterly
into his pillow. He was sick
with disappointment. Even the
most favorable extrapolation
showed it would take him nineteen
years to become master of
An eternity. Nineteen years!
This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction January 1953.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the
U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.