A good many science fiction writers seem determined to depict children as
little monsters. Not all children perhaps, and not with completely merciless
regularity. But often enough to make us shudder. Only Richard Lowe remains
independent. The youngster of this story isn't a child monster at all. He's
just—a "destructor." And that in itself is somehow unimaginably terrifying!
by ... Richard E. Lowe
The two professors couldn't agree on the fundamentals of
child behavior. But that was before they met little Herbux!
The University sprawled casually,
unashamed of its disordered
ranks, over a hundred thousand
acres of grassy, rolling countryside.
It was the year A.D. 3896, and
the vast assemblage of schools and
colleges and laboratories had been
growing on this site for more than
two thousand years.
It had survived political and industrial
revolutions, local insurrections,
global, inter-terrestrial and
nuclear wars, and it had become
the acknowledged center of learning
for the entire known universe.
No subject was too small to
escape attention at the University.
None was too large to be attacked
by the fearless, probing fingers of
curiosity, or to in any way over-awe
students and teachers in this great
institution of learning.
No book was ever closed in the
University and no clue, however
tiny, was discarded as useless in the
ceaseless search for knowledge
which was the University's prime
and overriding goal.
For no matter how fast and far
the spaceships might fly, or what
strange creatures might be brought
back across the great curve of the
universe or how deeply the past was
resurrected or the future probed, of
one thing only was the University
quite sure—man did not know
All manner of schools had come
into being at the University, and
often they functioned in pairs, one
devoted to proving a proposition,
and the other to disproving it. And
among these pairs of schools two,
in particular, seemed to exist on a
most tenuous basis. Their avowed
mission was to settle the age-old
argument concerning the relative
influences of heredity and environment.
One, headed by Professor Miltcheck
von Possenfeller, worked
tirelessly to prove that there was
no such determining factor as
heredity, and that environment
alone was the governing influence
in human behavior.
The other, under the direction
of Dr. Arthur D. Smithlawn, was
dedicated to the task of proving
that environment meant nothing,
and that only heredity was important.
Success, in short, could only
come to those who were born with
the genes of success in their bodies,
and failure was as preordained for
the rest as was ultimate death for
Over a period of more than two
hundred years the School of Environment
had been taking babies
from among the thousands of
homeless waifs gathered in
throughout the universe, and raising
them carefully in a closely
supervised, cultural atmosphere.
The School of Heredity, on the
other hand, was more select. Its
pupils came only from families
whose genealogy could be traced
back for at least a thousand years.
Freedom of choice and expression
was the rule here, since the school
was attempting to prove that a
child's inherited tendencies will
send it inevitably along a predetermined
path, completely uninfluenced
by outside help or hindrance.
In two centuries neither school
had been able to develop an overpowering
case in support of its
own theory. Hence they both
thrived, and cheerfully ignored the
discrepancies which existed in the
case records of individuals who
had not turned out according to
Although they were zealous professional
rivals, Prof. von Possenfeller
and Dr. Smithlawn were devoted
personal friends. They called
each other Possy and Smithy and
got together once a week to play
chess and exchange views on the
universe in general. Only one subject
was taboo between them—their
On this particular Saturday
night, however, Smithy noticed
that his good friend Possy was terribly
agitated and disturbed, and
had for the third time carelessly
put his queen in jeopardy.
"My dear friend," exclaimed
Possy, blindly moving his king into
check. "Could you possibly be persuaded
to ignore for the moment
our ban on professional talk?
There is something—"
Smithy, secretly, was only too
anxious to talk at great length. But
he pretended to give the request
"If it is really important," he
said. "Yes, by all means. Go right
"Smithy," Possy plunged on, "I
am nonplussed. I am really, terribly
disturbed. I've never felt like
Smithy waited patiently while
Possy poured himself a large
brandy and soda, hastily gulped it
down, and made a face as he regretted
"How much do you know about
our methods of working in the
School of Environment?" the professor
asked, taking a new tack.
"Nothing, of course," replied
Smithy. The statement was not
precisely true, but Smithy was not
yet ready to confess that he had
spies in his friend's school.
"Well, then," said Possy, knowing
full well that Smithy had been
getting reports on his college for
many years, and feeling secretly
glad that he, in turn, had been
"Well, then," he repeated, "you
should be aware that we know
absolutely nothing about the children
we enroll. Most of them are
infants. We do not know who
their parents were, or where they
were born. Except for the obvious
clues which their bodies furnish,
we do not even know their national
or racial origins.
"We bring them up with absolutely
equal treatment—the finest
of everything. At the age of five
we divide them arbitrarily into
classes and begin training them
for occupations. Some we educate
as scholars, some laborers, some
professional men. In me, dear
friend, you see one of the triumphs
of our methods. I myself was a
foundling—raised and educated in
the School of Environment. Whatever
I may be, I owe to the School."
He paused to give Smithy a
chance to digest the statement.
"Of course," Possy continued,
"we take into consideration such
factors as physical build and muscular
development. We don't train
undersized boys to be freight
handlers. But in general the division
is arbitrary. And you'd be
amazed how they respond to it.
To keep a check on things, we
interview our students twice a
year to see how much they have
"We always ask them what they
want to be when they grow up.
That enables us to determine
whether or not the training is really
taking hold. Occasionally, it is
true, we find a case where the
schooling seems to run counter to
Smithy could not resist interrupting.
"Natural aptitudes? I am
surprised to hear you use such an
expression. I thought you furnished
your students with aptitudes
through environmental conditioning."
Stiffly, Possy retorted, "Sometime
we will have a full, objective discussion
of the matter. It is not
pertinent at this moment. Of
course I believe in natural, or
instinctive aptitudes. But I do not
believe that they are inherited from
parents or even from remote ancestors."
"Cosmic rays, perhaps," needled
Smithy, and became instantly sorry
when his friend's face began to
redden. Possy didn't believe in cosmic
rays, obviously. Smithy apologized.
Possy sighed deeply and made
a fresh start. "My friend," he said,
"in your work, as I understand it,
you learn everything you can about
a student's past—and about his
progenitors. By so doing you hope
to be able to predict his future
abilities, his likes and dislikes. But
what course do you pursue when
you find a boy who just doesn't
prove out according to the prognostications?"
Smithy mumbled a few evasive
words in reply, but refused to be
drawn into giving a positive answer.
"Never mind," Possy said.
"What would you say if you asked
a boy what he liked, or what he
wanted to do and his answer concerned
something that never existed,
or had never been dreamed of?
Smithy's eyebrows perked up. He
made no attempt to conceal the
fact that his interest had been
"What, precisely, do you mean?"
"Just this," Possy said, leaning
forward to give emphasis to his
words. "We have a boy who is
being trained as a space navigator.
He is very bright. He is of medium
build, as a spaceman must be, and
he learns easily and willingly. We
are sure now that he will be ready
for pre-space school two years before
he reaches the minimum age.
Yet, whenever this boy is asked
what he wants to do, he replies, 'I
want to be a Destructor.'"
Smithy's lips parted. But for a
moment he remained completely
silent while his mind stumbled over
the strange term.
"Destructor?" he repeated, at
"Wait," said Possy, "and listen
carefully. This boy is now ten years
old. He first gave me that answer
three days ago. He repeated it two
days ago, then yesterday and again
today. I had never interviewed him
before. I never interview a student
personally until the tenth year—so
I quite naturally had his files double-checked.
Smithy, he's been giving
the same answer ever since he
was five years old. Two interviews
a year for six years—and three
extra ones this week! Imagine!
Fifteen times this boy has said he
wants to be a Destructor—and no
one even knows what a Destructor
"Well," Smithy said with a
shrug, convinced that Possy was
getting all excited over nothing,
"I admit it seems strange—and
highly single-minded for so young
a boy. But don't you imagine it's
some word he just made up?"
"I admitted that as a possibility
until this morning. But look here."
Possy reached behind his chair
and took up a small leather bag.
Slowly he unzipped it and delved
inside. Then, with a grim flourish,
he brought forth the body of a cat.
As Smithy's eyes widened, Possy
said dramatically: "Smithy, that
boy killed this cat with a glance."
"With a—a what?"
"A glance! You heard me correctly.
He just looked at the cat,
and the beast dropped dead. And
he did it to other things, too—a
sparrow, a baby fox. Why, he even
did it to a rat that had been cornered
by this very cat.
"I tell you, I had never been so
shaken by anything in all my life.
I said to myself, 'Possy, have you
got yourself a mutant?' 'No,' I replied.
'He's completely normal in
every respect, physically and otherwise.
He's a bit brighter than
average, perhaps—ninety-eight six
in his studies, including elementary
astrophysics. He speaks brilliantly,
composes poetry, even invents
little gadgets. He's a genius, maybe,
but not a mutant.' Then I asked myself,
'how do you account for the
Possy paused, inferentially transferring
the question to his friend.
"I can't account for the cat,"
Smithy said. "Unless we assume
its death was a coincidence. But I
confess you've aroused my curiosity.
Could I see and talk to this
boy who wants to be a—" he grimaced—"a
"I'm glad you asked." Possy
sighed with relief. "Actually he is
outside now, waiting to join us.
But I must warn you that you'll
find him quite precocious. However,
he's extremely amenable."
Possy went quickly to the door,
opened it and called, "Herbux,
The boy entered. He was,
Smithy observed, a quite ordinary-looking
boy. He was so obviously
ten years old that you couldn't say
he was either old or young, large
or small, fat or thin or anything
else, "for his age." He was just
ten years old and a boy.
"Herbux," said Possy, "I want
you to meet a friend of mine—the
famous Dr. Smithlawn."
"How do you do, sir," Herbux
"How do you do," returned
Smithy. He had already decided not
to be patronizing, but to take a
bold, frank, comradely course with
"Herbux," he said, "Professor
von Possenfeller has been telling
me the story of your life. Now
you tell me, Herbux. Not what you
want to be when you grow up, but
"I don't know why, sir," Herbux
replied easily. "I only know
that I want to be a Destructor."
"But, Herbux, what is a Destructor?"
Herbux looked around the
room. He saw Smithy's birdcage,
walked over to it and stared for
a moment quietly at Dicky, the
Dicky looked back, chirped angrily
twice and toppled from his
perch. He landed on his back, his
tiny feet rigid and unmoving. He
was quite dead, Smithy observed,
with a sudden, detached, unbelieving
horror. Why, Dicky was seven
years old and he had been as good
a pet as any lonely old professor
could have desired as a cheery
"Look here, young man," he began
sternly. Then, as the shock
passed, he hastily changed his
tone. Suppose this child did have
some strange sort of power—mystic
perhaps, but definitely abnormal.
He may belong in the School
of the Future, Smithy thought. Or
perhaps in the School of the Past—the
Dark Ages Department. But
"Don't worry, sir," Herbux said.
"I can't do it to you."
"But—do what?" Smithy cried.
"What did you do?"
Smithy took a deep breath. He
felt as though a cruel hoax had
been played on him. After all,
Possy could have lied about the
cat and the other creatures. And
the boy was quite obviously bright
enough to learn lines and play a
part. But how explain Dicky?
He tried to calculate the coincidental
odds that might have caused
Dicky to die a natural death at one
precise instant in time under unusual
and exact circumstances. They
proved to be incalculable to his
unmathematical brain. He rubbed
his face with the palms of both
hands. Then he turned abruptly to
"I just don't know what to say
about it," he explained. "How
could I know? How could anybody
He faced the boy again. "Look
here, Herbux. This—this power of
yours. When did you first notice
you had it?"
"Last year, sir. I always knew
I would do it sometime. But one
day I was looking at a bird perched
on my windowsill, and it fell over
dead, just as your parakeet did. I
thought it was an accident or a
coincidence. But then the next day
it happened again—with a squirrel.
Soon I got to where I could
do it on purpose. But I don't know
"Well, how do you feel about
it? Do you want to kill these
"Oh, no, sir. I don't want to kill
them. I just want to be a Destructor."
Smithy had a sudden, disquieting
conviction that he was in the
presence of some completely alien,
dangerous being. A cold breeze
seemed to shiver through the room,
though he knew that his quarters
were airtight and perfectly ventilated.
This is ridiculous, he told himself,
turning to Possy with a helpless
shrug. To feel like this over
such a nice-looking young lad ...
"My friend," he said, "all this
has occurred so suddenly I must
have time to think. Such a thing
could never have happened in my
school. Perhaps you should—but
doubtless it has already occurred to
you—turn him over to physio-psychological
Possy nodded. "It has, of course.
But then I said to myself, 'Possy,
they are a bunch of dunderheaded
old fossils over there. They can
take a criminal and tear him apart
and make a good citizen out of him,
granted. But do they find out why
he was a criminal? Have they reduced
the number of new criminals?
No. And they would not
find out why this boy wants to be
a Destructor—nor even what a Destructor
"'You're right,' I told myself.
'And besides, Herbux is a nice boy.
Why, with this power of his—if
he wanted to do harm—there
wouldn't be an animal left alive
around the whole University. And
if he could do it to people he's
had many an opportunity to practice
on me. But has he? No, not
once. Besides, if you keep him in
school, you can maintain a good
close watch over him. Herbux has
promised to keep me fully informed
as to the progress of his strange
power. If he feels it getting stronger,
he will let me know immediately.'
Isn't that right, Herbux?"
"Yes, sir," said the boy quietly.
"You are quite sure," Smithy
asked, "that you know absolutely
nothing about this boy's past? His
parents, his birthplace—anything at
all? There must be some clue."
"You know very well I don't,"
Possy retorted angrily.
"I just thought that perhaps you
might have subjected him to hypno-research,"
Smithy said, placatingly.
"I wouldn't dream of such a
thing—" Possy began—and stopped
with a gasp. "How did you
know about that?" he demanded.
Smithy was flustered. "I—well,
that is—" He could think of no
convincing answer. Hypno-research
was one of Possy's most secret projects.
He had used it constantly in
his efforts to determine reasons for
non-conformity to set patterns of
behavior in some of his more recalcitrant
students. He had kept it
a secret because it added up to an
admission that perhaps heredity
could play a part in the development
of a student's character.
"Smithy, my dear old friend,"
he said with mock humility. "This
is no time for us to quarrel. Let us
face the facts candidly. You have
been spying on my school—and I
in turn have been spying on yours.
I know, for instance, that when
your students don't behave the way
their heredity charts predict you
often use hypno-therapy to change
their thought-lines, and force them
to conform. Is that any less fair
than what I do?"
Smithy sighed. "I guess not, my
friend. No, wait. I will go farther
than that. It is not a matter of
guessing. I am quite certain about
it. We are a couple of aging
frauds, struggling selfishly along,
playing with the lives of these children
solely to keep our jobs. Perhaps
"Nevertheless, we have a problem,"
interrupted Possy. "It's a
problem that won't be solved by
our becoming senile idiots. Get
your mind back on Herbux, and
help me. I feel this is a most desperate
situation. If it gets beyond
just the two of us, we are likely
to be thoroughly investigated. Then
goodness knows what would happen."
"But why? The child can do no
real harm. Suppose he does 'destruct'
an animal or two? There
are plenty more. And sooner or
later they would die of natural
causes, anyway. And it's unthinkable
that he could ever do it to—to
Smithy paused, obviously struck
by a startling thought. He turned
to Herbux. "Boy," he said, quite
sternly. "Come here."
Herbux obeyed, advancing to
within a foot of the old doctor and
facing him squarely.
"Look me in the eyes," Smithy
Questioningly, Herbux began to
stare at Smithy.
"Well," Smithy said, after a
time, "turn it on."
A set look came over Herbux's
face. His lips were compressed and
a thin dew of sweat had broken
out on his forehead.
Possy stood aghast, slowly comprehending
what his old friend
Smithy was doing. He was actually
risking his life—or so he believed—to
prove that the child could
not destruct a human being. He
wanted to stop the boy, but he
could not move from where he
Suddenly Herbux broke and
turned away. He began to sob.
"It's no use!" he cried. "I can't
do it. I just can't do it ..."
Smithy went to him and put an
arm on his shoulders.
"Tell me, boy," he exclaimed.
"What do you mean? Do you mean
that you can't bring yourself to do
it, or that it is physically impossible?"
Herbux just stood there, his head
bowed, crying wildly.
"I just can't do it," he repeated,
sounding now completely heart-broken.
Possy, coming alive again, said
soothingly, "Don't cry, son. It's
not bad. It's good, that you can't
Herbux whirled around, facing
Possy, his face inflamed with a sudden
"But I will," he screamed, "I
will do it! I will! When I grow
This etext was produced from Fantastic Universe September 1956.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
typographical errors have been corrected without note.