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´╗┐Title: A Feast of Demons
Author: Samachson, Joseph, 1906-1980
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Feast of Demons" ***

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                         Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction March 1958.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed.


                          A FEAST OF DEMONS


                         By WILLIAM MORRISON


                        Illustrated by DILLON


     If you want my opinion, old Maxwell should have kept his big
     mouth shut ... and then El Greco could not have put Earth in
     a frame!

       *       *       *       *       *



I

That year we were all Romans, and I have to tell you that I look awful
in a toga and short sword, but not nearly as awful as the Greek.

You go to one of the big schools and naturally you turn out for the
Class Reunion. Why not? There's money there, and good fellowship, and
money, and the chance of a business contact that will do you some
good. And money.

Well, I wasn't that fortunate--and you can say that again because it's
the story of my life: I wasn't that fortunate.

I didn't go to Harvard, Princeton or Yale. I didn't even go to
Columbia, U.C.L.A. or the University of Chicago. What I went to was
Old Ugly. Don't lie to me--you never heard of Old Ugly, not even if I
tell you it's Oglethorpe A. & M. There were fifty-eight of us in my
graduating class--that's 1940--and exactly thirty turned up for the
tenth reunion.

[Illustration]

Wouldn't that turn your stomach? Only thirty Old Grads with enough
loyalty and school feeling to show up for that tenth reunion and
parade around in Roman togas and drink themselves silly and renew old
school ties. And, out of that thirty, the ones that we all really
wanted to see for sentimental reasons--I refer to Feinbarger of
Feinbarger Shipping, Schroop of the S.S.K. Studios in Hollywood, Dixon
of the National City Bank and so on--they didn't show up at all. It
was terribly disappointing to all of us, especially to me.

In fact, at the feast that evening, I found myself sitting next to El
Greco. There simply wasn't anyone else there. You understand that I
don't refer to that Spanish painter--I believe he's dead, as a matter
of fact. I mean Theobald Greco, the one we called the Greek.

       *       *       *       *       *

I introduced myself and he looked at me blearily through thick
glasses. "Hampstead? Hampstead?"

"_Virgil_ Hampstead," I reminded him. "You remember me. Old Virgie."

He said, "Sure. Any more of that stuff left in the bottle, Old
Virgie?"

I poured for him. It was my impression, later borne out by evidence,
that he was not accustomed to drinking.

I said, "It's sure great to see all the fellows again, isn't it? Say,
look at Pudge Detweiler there! Ever see anything so comical as the
lampshade he's wearing for a hat?"

"Just pass me the bottle, will you?" Greco requested. "Old Virgie, I
mean."

"Still in research and that sort of thing?" I asked. "You always were
a brain, Greek. I can't tell you how much I've envied you creative
fellows. I'm in sales myself. Got a little territory right here that's
a mint, Greek. A mint. If I only knew where I could lay my hands on a
little capital to expand it the way--But I won't bore you with shop
talk. What's your line these days?"

"I'm in transmutation," he said clearly, and passed out face down on
the table.

Now nobody ever called me a dope--other things, yes, but not a dope.

I knew what transmutation meant. Lead into gold, tin into platinum,
all that line of goodies. And accordingly the next morning, after a
certain amount of Bromo and black coffee, I asked around the campus
and found out that Greco had a place of his own not far from the
campus. That explained why he'd turned up for the reunion. I'd been
wondering.

I borrowed cab fare from Old Pudge Detweiler and headed for the
address I'd been given.

It wasn't a home. It was a beat-up factory and it had a sign over the
door:

T. GRECO

_Plant Foods & Organic Supplies_

       *       *       *       *       *

Since it was Sunday, nobody seemed to be there, but I pushed open the
door. It wasn't locked. I heard something from the basement, so I
walked down a flight of steps and looked out into a rather smelly
laboratory.

There was the Greek. Tall, thin, wide-eyed and staggering, he
appeared to be chasing butterflies.

I cleared my throat, but he didn't hear me. He was racing around the
laboratory, gasping and muttering to himself, sweeping at empty air
with what looked to me like an electric toaster on a stick. I looked
again and, no, it wasn't an electric toaster, but exactly what it was
defied me. It appeared to have a recording scale on the side of it,
with a needle that flickered wildly.

I couldn't see what he was chasing.

The fact was that, as far as I could see, he wasn't chasing anything
at all.

You have to get the picture: Here was Greco, racing around with one
eye on the scale and one eye on thin air; he kept bumping into things,
and every now and then he'd stop, and stare around at the gadgets on
the lab benches, and maybe he'd throw a switch or turn a dial, and
then he'd be off again.

He kept it up for ten minutes and, to tell you the truth, I began to
wish that I'd made some better use of Pudge Detweiler's cab fare. The
Greek looked as though he'd flipped, nothing less.

But there I was. So I waited.

And by and by he seemed to get whatever it was he was looking for and
he stopped, breathing heavily.

I said, "Hi there, Greek."

He looked up sharply. "Oh," he said, "Old Virgie."

He slumped back against a table, trying to catch his breath.

"The little devils," he panted. "They must have thought they'd got
away that time. But I fixed them!"

"Sure you did," I said. "You bet you did. Mind if I come in?"

He shrugged. Ignoring me, he put down the toaster on a stick, flipped
some switches and stood up. A whining sound dwindled and disappeared;
some flickering lights went out. Others remained on, but he seemed to
feel that, whatever it was he was doing, it didn't require his
attention now.

In his own good time, he came over and we shook hands. I said
appreciatively, "Nice-looking laboratory you have here, Greek. I don't
know what the stuff is for, but it looks expen--it looks very
efficient."

He grunted. "It is. Both. Expensive and efficient."

I laughed. "Say," I said, "you were pretty loaded last night. Know
what you told me you were doing here?"

He looked up quickly. "What?"

"You said you were in transmutation." I laughed harder than ever.

       *       *       *       *       *

He stared at me thoughtfully, and for a second I thought--well, I
don't know what I thought, but I was worried. He had a lot of
funny-looking things there, and his hand was stretching out toward one
of them.

But then he said, "Old Virgie."

"That's me," I said eagerly.

"I owe you an apology," he went on.

"You do?"

He nodded. "I'd forgotten," he confessed, ashamed. "I didn't remember
until just this minute that you were the one I talked to in my senior
year. My only confidant. And you've kept my secret all this time."

I coughed. "It was nothing," I said largely. "Don't give it a
thought."

He nodded in appreciation. "That's just like you," he reminisced. "Ten
years, eh? And you haven't breathed a word, have you?"

"Not a word," I assured him. And it was no more than the truth. I
hadn't said a word to anybody. I hadn't even said a word to myself.
The fact of the matter was, I had completely forgotten what he was
talking about. Kept his secret? I didn't even _remember_ his secret.
And it was driving me nuts!

"I was sure of you," he said, suddenly thawing. "I knew I could trust
you. I must have--otherwise I certainly wouldn't have told you, would
I?"

I smiled modestly. But inside I was fiercely cudgeling my brain.

He said suddenly, "All right, Virgie. You're entitled to something for
having kept faith. I tell you what I'll do--I'll let you in on what
I'm doing here."

All at once, the little muscles at the back of my neck began to tense
up.

He would do _what_? "Let me in" on something? It was an unpleasantly
familiar phrase. I had used it myself all too often.

"To begin with," said the Greek, focusing attentively on me, "you
wonder, perhaps, what I was doing when you came in."

"I do," I said.

He hesitated. "Certain--particles, which are of importance to my
research, have a tendency to go free. I can keep them under a measure
of control only by means of electrostatic forces, generated in this."
He waved the thing that looked like a toaster on a stick. "And as for
what they do--well, watch."

       *       *       *       *       *

El Greco began to putter with gleamy, glassy gadgets on one of the
tables and I watched him with, I admit, a certain amount of suspicion.

"What are you doing, Greek?" I asked pretty bluntly.

He looked up. Surprisingly, I saw that the suspicion was mutual; he
frowned and hesitated. Then he shook his head.

"No," he said. "For a minute I--but I can trust you, can't I? The man
who kept my secret for ten long years."

"Of course," I said.

"All right." He poured water out of a beaker into a U-shaped tube,
open at both ends. "Watch," he said. "Remember any of your college
physics?"

"The way things go, I haven't had much time to keep up with--"

"All the better, all the better," he said. "Then you won't be able to
steal anything."

I caught my breath. "Now _listen_--"

"No offense, Virgie," he said earnestly. "But this is a billion
dollars and--No matter. When it comes right down to cases, you could
know as much as all those fool professors of ours put together and it
still wouldn't help you steal a thing."

He bobbed his head, smiled absently and went back to his gleamy
gadgets. I tell you, I _steamed_. That settled it, as far as I was
concerned. There was simply no excuse for such unjustified insults to
my character. I certainly had no intention of attempting to take any
unfair advantage, but if he was going to act that way....

He was asking for it. Actually and literally asking for it.

He rapped sharply on the U-tube with a glass stirring rod, seeking my
attention.

"I'm watching," I told him, very amiable now that he'd made up my mind
for me.

"Good. Now," he said, "you know what I do here in the plant?"

"Why--you make fertilizer. It says so on the sign."

"Ha! No," he said. "That is a blind. What I do is, I separate optical
isomers."

"That's very nice," I said warmly. "I'm glad to hear it, Greek."

"Shut up," he retorted unexpectedly. "You don't have the foggiest
notion of what an optical isomer is and you know it. But try and
think. This isn't physics; it's organic chemistry. There are compounds
that exist in two forms--apparently identical in all respects, except
that one is the mirror image of the other. Like right-hand and
left-hand gloves; one is the other, turned backwards. You understand
so far?"

"Of course," I said.

       *       *       *       *       *

He looked at me thoughtfully, then shrugged. "No matter. They're
called d- and l-isomers--d for dextro, l for levo; right and left, you
see. And although they're identical except for being mirror-reversed,
it so happens that sometimes one isomer is worth much more than the
other."

"I see that," I said.

"I thought you would. Well, they can be separated--but it's expensive.
Not my way, though. My way is quick and simple. I use demons."

"Oh, now, Greek. _Really._"

He said in a weary tone, "Don't talk, Virgie. Just listen. It won't
tire you so much. But bear in mind that this is simply the most
trifling application of my discovery. I could use it for separating
U-235 from U-238 just as easily. In fact, I already--" He stopped in
mid-sentence, cocked his head, looked at me and backtracked. "Never
mind that. But you know what a Maxwell demon is?"

"No."

"Good for you, Virgie. Good for you!" he applauded. "I knew I'd get
the truth out of you if I waited long enough." _Another_ ambiguous
remark, I thought to myself. "But you surely know the second law of
thermodynamics."

"Surely."

"I thought you'd say that," he said gravely. "So then you know that if
you put an ice cube in a glass of warm water, for instance, the ice
melts, the water cools, and you get a glass with no ice but with all
the water lowered in temperature. Right? And it's a one-way process.
That is, you can't start with a glass of cool water and, hocus-pocus,
get it to separate into warm water and ice cube, right?"

"Naturally," I said, "for heaven's sake. I mean that's silly."

"_Very_ silly," he agreed. "You know it yourself, eh? So watch."

He didn't say hocus-pocus. But he did adjust something on one of his
gadgets.

There was a faint whine and a gurgling, spluttering sound, like fat
sparks climbing between spreading electrodes in a Frankenstein movie.

The water began to steam faintly.

But only at one end! That end was steam; the other was--was--

It was ice. A thin skin formed rapidly, grew thicker; the other open
end of the U-tube began to bubble violently. Ice at one end, steam at
the other.

Silly?

But I was seeing it!

I must say, however, that at the time I didn't really know that that
was all I saw.

       *       *       *       *       *

The reason for this is that Pudge Detweiler came groaning down the
steps to the laboratory just then.

"Ah, Greek," he wheezed. "Ah, Virgie. I wanted to talk to you before I
left." He came into the room and, panting, eased himself into a chair,
a tired hippopotamus with a hangover.

"What did you want to talk to me about?" Greco demanded.

[Illustration]

"You?" Pudge's glance wandered around the room; it was a look of
amused distaste, the look of a grown man observing the smudgy mud play
of children. "Oh, not you, Greek. I wanted to talk to Virgie. That
sales territory you mentioned, Virgie. I've been thinking. I don't
know if you're aware of it, but when my father passed away last
winter, he left me--well, with certain responsibilities. And it
occurred to me that you might be willing to let me invest some of
the--"

I didn't even let him finish. I had him out of there so fast, we
didn't even have a chance to say good-by to Greco. And all that stuff
about demons and hot-and-cold water and so on, it all went out of my
head as though it had never been. Old Pudge Detweiler! How was _I_ to
know that his father had left him thirty thousand dollars in one
attractive lump of cash!


II

Well, there were business reverses. Due to the reverses, I was forced
to miss the next few reunions. But I had a lot of time to think and
study, in between times at the farm and the shop where we stamped out
license plates for the state.

When I got out, I began looking for El Greco.

I spent six months at it, and I didn't have any luck at all. El Greco
had moved his laboratory and left no forwarding address.

But I wanted to find him. I wanted it so badly, I could taste it,
because I had begun to have some idea of what he was talking about,
and so I kept on looking.

I never did find him, though. He found me.

He came walking in on me in a shabby little hotel room, and I hardly
recognized him, he looked so prosperous and healthy.

"You're looking just great, Greek," I said enthusiastically, seeing it
was true. The years hadn't added a pound or a wrinkle--just the
reverse, in fact.

"You're not looking so bad yourself," he said, and gazed at me
sharply. "Especially for a man not long out of prison."

"Oh." I cleared my throat. "You know about that."

"I heard that Pudge Detweiler prosecuted."

"I see." I got up and began uncluttering a chair. "Well," I said,
"it's certainly good to--How did you find me?"

"Detectives. Money buys a lot of help. I've got a lot of money."

"Oh." I cleared my throat again.

Greco looked at me, nodding thoughtfully to himself. There was one
good thing; maybe he knew about my trouble with Pudge, but he also had
gone out of his way to find me. So _he_ wanted something out of _me_.

He said suddenly, "Virgie, you were a damned fool."

"I was," I admitted honestly. "Worse than you know. But I am no
longer. Greek, old boy, all this stuff you told me about those demons
got me interested. I had plenty of time for reading in prison. You
won't find me as ignorant as I was the last time we talked."

He laughed sourly. "That's a hot one. Four years of college leave you
as ignorant as the day you went in, but a couple years of jail make
you an educated man."

"Also a reformed one."

He said mildly, "Not too reformed, I hope."

"Crime doesn't pay--except when it's within the law. That's the chief
thing I learned."

"Even then it doesn't pay," he said moodily. "Except in money, of
course. But what's the use of money?"

       *       *       *       *       *

There wasn't anything to say to _that_. I said, probing delicately, "I
figured you were loaded. If you can use your demons to separate U-235
from U-238, you can use them for separating gold from sea water. You
can use them for damn near anything."

"Damn near," he concurred. "Virgie, you may be of some help to me.
Obviously you've been reading up on Maxwell."

"Obviously."

It was the simple truth. I had got a lot of use out of the prison
library--even to the point of learning all there was to learn about
Clerk Maxwell, one of the greatest of physicists, and his little
demons. I had rehearsed it thoroughly for El Greco.

"Suppose," I said, "that you had a little compartment inside a pipe of
flowing gas or liquid. That's what Maxwell said. Suppose the
compartment had a little door that allowed molecules to enter or
leave. You station a demon--that's what Maxie called them himself--at
the door. The demon sees a hot molecule coming, he opens the door. He
sees a cold one, he closes it. By and by, just like that, all the hot
molecules are on one side of the door, all the cold ones--the slow
ones, that is--on the other. Steam on one side, ice on the other,
that's what it comes down to."

"That was what you saw with your own eyes," Theobald Greco reminded
me.

"I admit it," I said. "And I admit I didn't understand. But I do now."

I understood plenty. Separate isotopes--separate elements, for that
matter. Let your demon open the door to platinum, close it to lead. He
could make you rich in no time.

He had, in fact, done just that for Greco.

       *       *       *       *       *

Greco said, "Here. First installment." He pulled something out of his
pocket and handed it to me. It was metallic--about the size of a
penny slot-machine bar of chocolate, if you remember back that far. It
gleamed and it glittered. And it was ruddy yellow in color.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Gold," he said. "Keep it, Virgie. It came out of sea water, like you
said. Call it the down payment on your salary."

I hefted it. I bit it. I said, "By the way, speaking of salary...."

"Whatever you like," he said wearily. "A million dollars a year? Why
not?"

"Why not?" I echoed, a little dazed.

And then I just sat there listening, while he talked. What else was
there to do? I won't even say that I was listening, at least not with
the very fullest of attention, because that thought of a million
dollars a year kept coming between me and his words. But I got the
picture. The possibilities were endless. And how well I knew it!

Gold from the sea, sure. But energy--free energy--it was there for the
taking. From the molecules of the air, for instance. Refrigerators
could be cooled, boilers could get up steam, homes could be heated,
forges could be fired--and all without fuel. Planes could fly through
the air without a drop of gasoline in their tanks. Anything.

A million dollars a year....

And it was only the beginning.

I came to. "What?"

He was looking at me. He repeated patiently, "The police are looking
for me."

I stared. "_You?_"

"Did you hear about Grand Rapids?"

I thought. "Oh--Wait. A fire. A big one. And that was you?"

"Not me. My demons. Maxwell demons--or Greco demons, they should be
called. He talked about them; I use them. When they're not using me.
This time, they burned down half the city."

"I remember now," I said. The papers had been full of it.

"They got loose," he said grimly. "But that's not the worst. You'll
have to earn your million a year, Virgie."

"What do you mean, they got loose?"

He shrugged. "Controls aren't perfect. Sometimes the demons escape. I
can't help it."

"How do you control them in the first place?"

He sighed. "It isn't really what you would call controls," he said.
"It's just the best I can do to keep them from spreading."

"But--you said sometimes you separate metals, sometimes you get
energy. How do the demons know which you want them to do, if you say
you can't control them?"

"How do you make an apple tree understand whether you want it to grow
Baldwins or Macintoshes?"

       *       *       *       *       *

I gawked at him. "Why--but you don't, Greek! I mean it's either one or
the other!"

"Just so with demons! You're not so stupid after all, are you? It's
like improving the breed of dogs. You take a common ancestral mutt,
and generations later you can develop an Airedale, a dachshund or a
Spitz. How? By selection. My demon entities grow, they split, the new
entities adapt themselves to new conditions. There's a process of
evolution. I help it along, that's all."

He took the little slab of gold from me, brooding.

Abruptly he hurled it at the wall. "Gold!" he cried wildly. "But who
wants it? I need _help_, Virgie! If gold will buy it from you, I'll
pay! But I'm desperate. You'd be desperate too, with nothing ahead but
a sordid, demeaning death from young age and a--"

I interrupted him. "What's that?"

It was a nearby raucous hooting, loud and mournful.

Greco stopped in mid-sentence, listening like a hunted creature. "My
room," he whispered. "All my equipment--on the floor above--"

I stepped back, a little worried. He was a strange man, skinny and
tall and wild-eyed. I was glad he was so thin; if he'd been built
solidly in proportion to his height, just then he would have worried
me, with those staring, frightened eyes and that crazy way of talking.
But I didn't have time to worry, in any case. Footsteps were
thundering in the halls. Distant voices shouted to each other.

The hoot came again.

"The fire whistle!" Greco bayed. "The hotel's on fire!"

He leaped out of my room into the corridor.

I followed. There was a smell of burning--not autumn leaves or paper;
it was a chemical-burning smell, a leather-burning smell, a
henyard-on-fire smell. It reeked of an assortment of things, gunpowder
and charred feathers, the choking soot of burning oil, the crisp tang
of a wood fire. It was, I thought for a second, perhaps the typical
smell of a hotel on fire, but in that I was wrong.

"Demons!" yelled Greco, and a bellhop, hurrying by, paused to look at
us queerly. Greco sped for the stairs and up them.

I followed.

It was Greco's room that was ablaze--he made that clear, trying to get
into it. But he couldn't. Black smoke billowed out of it, and orange
flame. The night manager's water bucket was going to make no headway
against _that_.

I retreated. But Greco plunged ahead, his face white and scary.

I stopped at the head of the stairs. The flames drove Greco off, but
he tried again. They drove him off again, and this time for good.

He stumbled toward me. "Out! It's hopeless!" He turned, stared blindly
at the hotel employees with their chain of buckets. "You! What do you
think you're doing? That's--" He stopped, wetting his lips. "That's a
gasoline fire," he lied, "and there's dynamite in my luggage. Clear
the hotel, you hear me?"

It was, as I say, a lie. But it got the hotel cleared out.

And then--

It might as well have been gasoline and dynamite. There was a purplish
flash and a muttering boom, and the whole roof of the four-story
building lifted off.

I caught his arm.

"Let's get out of here," I said.

He looked at me blindly. I'd swear he didn't know me. His eyes were
tortured.

"Too late!" he croaked. "Too late! They're free again!"


III

So I went to work for Theobald Greco--in his laboratory in Southern
California, where we replaced some of the things that had been
destroyed.

And one morning I woke up and found my hair was white.

I cried, "Greek!"

Minnie came running in. I don't believe I told you about Minnie. She
was Greco's idea of the perfect laboratory assistant--stupid, old,
worthless to the world and without visible kin. She came in and stared
and set up a cackling that would wake the dead.

"Mister Hampstead!" she chortled. "My, but ain't you a sight!"

"Where's Greco?" I demanded, and pushed her out of my way.

In pajamas and bathrobe, I stalked down the stairs and into the room
that had once been a kitchen and now was Greco's laboratory.

"Look!" I yelled. "What about _this_?"

He turned to look at me.

After a long moment, he shook his head.

"I was afraid of that," he mumbled. "You were a towhead as a kid,
weren't you? And now you're a towhead again."

"But my hair, Greek! It's turned _white_."

"Not white," he corrected despondently. "Yellow. It's reverted to
youth--overnight, the way it happens sometimes. I warned you, Virgie.
I told you there were dangers. Now you know. Because--"

He hesitated, looked at me, then looked away.

"Because," he said, "you're getting younger, just like me. If we don't
get this thing straightened out, you're going to die of young age
yourself."

I stared at him. "You said that before, about yourself. I thought
you'd just tongue-twisted. But you really mean--"

"Sit down," he ordered. "Virgie, I told you that you were looking
younger. It wasn't just looks. It's the demons--and not just you and
me, but a lot of people. First Grand Rapids. Then when the hotel
burned. Plenty have been exposed--you more than most, I guess, ever
since the day you walked into my lab and I was trying to recapture
some that had got away. Well, I don't guess I recaptured them all."

"You mean _I_--"

He nodded. "Some of the demons make people younger. And you've got a
colony of them in you."

       *       *       *       *       *

I swallowed and sat down. "You mean I'm going to get younger and
younger, until finally I become a baby? And then--what then, Greek?"

He shrugged. "How do I know? Ask me in another ten years. _Look at me,
Virgie!_" he cried, suddenly loud. "How old do I look to you?
Eighteen? Twenty?"

It was the plain truth. He looked no more than that. Seeing him day by
day, I wasn't conscious of change; remembering him from when we had
gone to school, I thought of him as younger anyway. But he was forty,
at the very least, and he didn't look old enough to vote.

He said, "I've had demons inside of me for six years. It seems they're
a bit choosy about where they'll live. They don't inhabit the whole
body, just parts of it--heart, lungs, liver. Maybe bones. Maybe some
of the glands--perhaps that' s why I feel so chipper physically. But
not my brain, or not yet. Fortunately."

"Fortunately? But that's wrong, Greek! If your brain grew younger
too--"

"Fool! If I had a young brain, I'd forget everything I learned, like
unrolling a tape backwards! That's the danger, Virgie, the immediate
danger that's pressing me--that's why I needed help! Because if I ever
forget, that's the end. Not just for me--for everybody; because
there's no one else in the world who knows how to control these things
at all. Except me--and you, if I can train you."

"They're loose?" I felt my hair wonderingly. Still, it was not exactly
a surprise. "How many?"

He shrugged. "I have no idea. When they let the first batch of rabbits
loose in Australia, did they have any idea how many there would be a
couple of dozen generations later?"

I whistled. Minnie popped her head in the door and giggled. I waved
her away.

"She could use some of your demons," I remarked. "Sometimes I think
she has awfully young ideas, for a woman who's sixty if she's a day."

Greco laughed crazily. "Minnie? She's been working for me for a year.
And she was eighty-five when I hired her!"

"I can't believe you!"

"Then you'll have to start practicing right now," he said.

It was tough, and no fooling; but I became convinced. It wasn't the
million dollars a year any more.

It was the thought of ending my days as a drooling, mewling infant--or
worse! To avert that, I was willing to work my brain to a shred.

       *       *       *       *       *

First it was a matter of learning--learning about the "strange
particles." Ever hear of them? That's not my term--that's what the
physicists call them. Positrons. The neutrino. Pions and muons, plus
and minus; the lambda and the antilambda. K particles, positive and
negative, and anti-protons and anti-neutrons and sigmas, positive,
negative and neutral, and--

Well, that's enough; but physics had come a long way since the classes
I cut at Old Ugly, and there was a lot to catch up on.

The thing was, some of the "strange particles" were stranger than even
most physicists knew. Some--in combination--were in fact Greco's
demons.

We bought animals--mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, even dogs. We infected
the young with some of our own demons--that was simple enough,
frighteningly simple; all we had to do was handle them a bit. And we
watched what happened.

They died--of young age.

Some vital organ or another regressed to embryonic condition, and they
died--as Greco and I would die, if we didn't find the answer. As the
whole world might die. Was it better than reverting past the embryo to
the simple lifeless zygote? I couldn't decide. It was dying, all the
same. When an embryonic heart or liver is called on to do a job for a
mature organism, there is only one way out. Death.

And after death--the demons went on; the dog we fed on the remains of
the guinea pigs followed them to extinction in a matter of weeks.

Minnie was an interesting case.

She was going about her work with more energy every day, and I'll be
blasted if I didn't catch her casting a lingering Marilyn Monroe sort
of look at me when Greco's back was turned.

"Shall we fire her?" I asked El Greco when I told him about it.

"What for?"

"She's disrupting the work!"

[Illustration]

"The work isn't worth a damn anyhow," he said moodily. "We're not
getting anywhere, Virgie. If it was only a matter of smooth,
predictable rates--But look at her. She's picking up speed! She's
dropped five years in the past couple weeks."

"She can stand to drop a lot more," I said, annoyed.

       *       *       *       *       *

He shrugged. "It depends on where. Her nose? It's shortened to about a
fifteen-year-old level now. Facial hair? That's mostly gone. Skin
texture? Well, I suppose there's no such thing as a too-immature skin,
I mean short of the embryonic capsule, but--Wait a minute."

He was staring at the doorway.

Minnie was standing there, simpering.

"Come here!" he ordered in a voice like thunder. "Come here, you!
Virgie, look at her nose!"

I looked. "Ugh," I said, but more or less under my breath.

"No, no!" cried Greco. "Virgie, don't you see her _nose_?" Foolish; of
course I did. It was long, beaked--

Then I saw.

"It's growing longer," I whispered.

"Right, my boy! Right! One curve at least has reversed itself. Do you
see, Virgie?"

I nodded. "She's--she's beginning to age again."

"Better than that!" he crowed. "It's faster than normal aging, Virgie!
_There are aging demons loose too!_"

A breath of hope!

But hope died. Sure, he was right--as far as it went.

There _were_ aging demons. We isolated them in some of our
experimental animals. First we had to lure Minnie into standing still
while Greco, swearing horribly, took a tissue sample; she didn't like
that, but a hundred-dollar bonus converted her. Solid CO_{2} froze the
skin; _snip_, and a tiny flake of flesh came out of her nose at the
point of Greco's scalpel; he put the sample of flesh through a few
tricks and, at the end of the day, we tried it on some of our mice.

They died.

Well, it was gratifying, in a way--they died of old age. But die they
did. It took three days to show an effect, but when it came, it was
dramatic. These were young adult mice, in the full flush of their
mousehood, but when these new demons got to work on them, they
suddenly developed a frowsy, decrepit appearance that made them look
like Bowery bums over whom Cinderella's good fairy had waved her wand
in reverse. And two days later they were dead.

"I think we've got something," said Greco thoughtfully; but I didn't
think so, and I was right. Dead was dead. We could kill the animals
by making them too young. We could kill the animals by making them too
old. But keep them alive, once the demons were in them, we could not.

Greco evolved a plan: Mix the two breeds of demons! Take an animal
with the young-age demons already in it, then add a batch that worked
in the other direction!

       *       *       *       *       *

For a while, it seemed to work--but only for a while. After a couple
of weeks, one breed or the other would gain the upper hand. And the
animals died.

It was fast in mice, slow in humans. Minnie stayed alive. But the nose
grew longer and facial hair reappeared; simultaneously her complexion
cleared, her posture straightened.

And then, for the first time, we began to read the papers.

STRANGE PLAGUE
STRIKES ELGIN

bawled the Chicago _Tribune_, and went on to tell how the suburbs
around Elgin, Illinois, were heavily infested with a curious new
malady, the symptoms of which were--youth.

OAKLAND "BABY-SKIN"
TOLL PASSES 10,000

blared the San Francisco _Examiner_. The New York _News_ found
thousands of cases in Brooklyn. A whole hospital in Dallas was
evacuated to make room for victims of the new plague.

And more.

We looked at each other.

"They're out in force," said Theobald Greco soberly. "And we don't
have the cure."


IV

The world was topsy-turvy, and in the middle of it Minnie disappeared,
talking hysterically about reporting us to the authorities. I don't
mind admitting that I was worried.

And the experiments were not progressing. The trouble seemed to be
that the two varieties of demons--the aging and the youthing--were not
compatible; if one took up residence in a given section of an
organism, the other moved out. The more numerous destroyed the weaker;
there was no balance. We tested it again and again in the mice and
there was no doubt of it.

So far, only the youthing demons were free. But when Minnie left us,
it was only a matter of time. Our carriers--from Grand Rapids and from
the hotel--had spread to California and the East Coast, to the North
and to the South, throughout the country, perhaps by now through the
world. It would be slower with the aging demons--there was only one
of Minnie--but it would be equally sure.

Greco began drinking heavily.

"It's the end," he brooded. "We're licked."

"No, Greek! We can't give up!"

"We _have_ to give up. The demons are loose in the Earth, Virgie!
Those people in the headlines--they'll die of young age. So will
others--even plants and animals, and bacteria, as the demons adapt to
them. And then--why not? The air. The rocks, the ocean, even the Earth
itself. Remember, the entropy of the Universe is supposed to tend to a
maximum not only as a whole, but in each of its parts taken in
isolation. The Earth's evolution--reversed. Spottily, and maybe that's
worse, because some parts will evolve forward and others reverse, as
is happening in my own body. Heaven help the world, Old Virgie! And
not just the Earth, because what can stop them from spreading? To the
Moon, the other planets--out of the Solar System, for that matter; to
the other galaxies, even. Why not? And then--"

"_GRECO._"

An enormous tinny voice, more than human, filled the air. It came from
outside.

I jumped a foot. It sounded like the voice of a demon; then I got a
grip on myself and understood. It was a loudspeaker, and it came from
outside.

"_GRECO. WE KNOW YOU'RE IN THERE. COME ON OUT!_"

I had a stabbing sensation of familiarity. "The police!" I cried.
"Greco, it's the police!"

He looked at me wearily and shook his head.

"No. More likely the F.B.I."

       *       *       *       *       *

Well, that was it. I got out--I didn't wait for permission from the
Greek.

I stopped at the door, and three searchlight beams hit me right in the
eye. There were cars all around the laboratory, but I couldn't see
them, not after those lights went on.

I froze, stiff; wanting to make sure they understood (a) that I wasn't
Greco and (b) that I didn't have a gun.

They understood, all right.

But they let me out.

They put me in one of the cars, with a slim gray-eyed young man in a
snap-brimmed hat sitting politely and alertly beside me, and they let
me watch; and what happened after that wasn't funny at all.

Greco didn't come out They shouted at him over the loudspeaker and
eventually he answered--his voice little and calm, coming out of
nowhere, and all he said was, "Go away. I won't come out. I warn you,
don't try to force your way in."

But he knew they wouldn't listen, of course.

They didn't.

They tried force.

And he met it in novel ways with force of his own. The door had locked
itself behind me; they got a fence post for a battering ram, and the
post burst into flame. They found an L-beam from an old bed frame and
tried that, and they were sorry they had done it; the thing melted in
the middle, splattering them with hot drops of steel.

The polite, alert young man beside me said, not so polite any more,
"What's he doing, you? What sort of fancy tricks has he got in there?"

"Demons," I said crazily, and _that_ was a mistake, but what else was
I to do? Try to explain Maxwell's equations to a Fed?

They were trying again--there were fifteen or twenty of them, at
least. They went for the windows, and the windows dissolved and rained
cherry-red wet glass on them. They tried again through the open frames
when the glass was gone, and the frames burst into fire around them,
the blue smoke bleached white in the yellow of the flame and the white
of the searchlights. They tried singly, by stealth; and they tried in
clusters of a dozen, yelling.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was hopeless--hopeless for everybody, because they couldn't get in
and the Greek could never, never get out; for go away they wouldn't.
Not even when, with _poof_ and a yellow flare, the gas tank of one of
the cars exploded. All that happened was that the man in the
snap-brimmed hat and I leaped out, real quick; and then all the cars
went up. But the men didn't leave. And then the guns began to go off
without waiting for anyone to pull the trigger; and the barrels
softened and slumped and spattered to the ground. But the men still
had bare hands, and they stayed.

The Greek got wild--or lost control, it was hard to tell which. There
was a sudden catastrophic _whooshing_ roar and, _wham_, a tree took
flame for roots. A giant old oak, fifty feet tall, I guess it had been
there a couple of centuries, but Greco's demons changed all that; it
took flame and shot whistling into the air, spouting flame and spark
like a Roman candle. Maybe he thought it would scare them. Maybe it
did. But it also made them mad. And they ran, all at once, every one
of them but my personal friend, for the biggest, openest of the
windows--

And leaped back, cursing and yelling, beating out flames on their
clothes.

Jets of flame leaped out of every window and door. The old building
seemed to bulge outward and go _voom_. In half a second, it was a
single leaping tulip of fire.

The firemen got there then, but it was a little late. Oh, they got
Greco out--alive, even. But they didn't save a bit of the laboratory.
It was the third fire in Greco's career, and the most dangerous--for
where previously only a few of the youthing demons had escaped, now
there were vast quantities of both sorts.

It was the end of the world.

I knew it.

       *       *       *       *       *

You know, I wish I had been right. I spent yesterday with Greco. He's
married now and has a fine young son. They made an attractive family
picture, the two healthy-looking adults, strong-featured, in the prime
of life, and the wee toddler between them.

The only thing is--Greco's the toddler.

He doesn't call himself Greco any more. Would you, the way the world
is now? He has plenty of money stashed away--I do too, of course--not
that money means very much these days. His brain hasn't been affected,
just his body. He was lucky, I guess. Some of the demons hit the brain
in some of their victims and--

Well, it's pretty bad.

Greco got the answer after a while. Both types of demons were loose in
the world, and both, by and by, were in every individual.

But they didn't kill each other off.

One simply grew more rapidly, took over control, until it ran out of
the kind of molecules it needed. Then the other took over.

Then the first.

Then the other again....

Mice are short-lived. It's like balancing a needle on the end of your
nose; there isn't enough space in a mouse's short span for balance,
any more than there is in a needle's.

But in a human life--

Things are going to have to be worked out, though.

It's bad enough that a family gets all mixed up the way Greco's
is--he's on a descending curve, his kid is on an aging curve, and
Minnie--did I tell you that it was Minnie he married?--has completed
her second rejuvenation and is on the way back up again.

But there are worse problems that that.

For one thing, it isn't going to be too long before we run out of
space. I don't mean time, I mean space. _Living_ space.

Because it's all very well that the human animal should now mature to
grow alternately younger and older, over and over--

But, damn it, how I wish that somebody once in a while would _die_!

                                                    --WILLIAM MORRISON

       *       *       *       *       *





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