A Single Potato. By J.B. Pick.
When Krieg came back from the planet Cadmus he received his medals and an interview with the President and was questioned by the Press and appeared on Television and suffered the other ordeals to which his achievements entitled him. He proved a disappointment to everybody. As one radio reporter said, "He's the tightest clam I ever tried to open."
He would make no personal comment on anything. The television people called him 'the Robot.' His superiors agreed that he had done all they had asked of him, and yet in some indefinable way they expected more.
When Lon Yalta on his chat show asked Krieg, "Well, John, what's it like to be the first man on Cadmus?" Krieg gazed silently for so long that Yalta began to curse behind his shining teeth, and when Krieg said "Have you ever looked at a flower?" Yalta wasn't sure whether to laugh or adopt an expression of profound contemplation.
"A flower? Why, sure. You don't mean there are flowers on Cadmus, Major?"
"No, I don't mean that," Krieg said.
What could you do with a man who was both dull and unpredicatable? The media were glad to drop Krieg and turn to the scientific results of the expedition, which could be introduced by more loquacious and human individuals, even if what they said was unintelligible.
Krieg, of course, had a wife and children. Astronauts must be solid citizens, and married men are regarded as more solid, and suit public relations better, than bachelors. But Krieg's son was less interested in Cadmus itself than in the wizardries of spacecraft; he was an electronics fanatic who spent his time playing computer games, probing the internet, and constructing radio equipment. He had made himself a radio by the age of ten.
Krieg's daughter, on the other hand, was too small to conceive of anything further off than the end of the street and complained that her daddy hadn't taken her to Cadmus. "Can I go next time?" she said.
What his wife said was, "Thank God it's all over."
But for Krieg his trip to Cadmus had only just began.
He left the service as soon as he decently could and although the authorities didn't like it, they extracted all they needed from him and having no doubt about his reliability decided to let him go.
The Colonel said, "I don't understand the guy. There doesn't seem to be anything to understand, which is worse. He was bright before he went - sharp and sober, know what I mean? It's as if he's had one of those brain operations or something. He's so - well, ordinary, I guess."
He was pacing up and down like a man who wanted to kick somebody. "What the hell! I think he's keeping something back."
So they tried again. The records, the log, the reports, the photographs, the tapes, the questions and answers, the physical examination, everything. The only item Krieg seemed to have left out was Krieg himself.
He failed to cash in on his fame and got a job on the production line in a factory. His wife wept. She said, "Why don't you use your name, John? You were the first man up there, don't you know that?"
"Know?" He considered the word for a while and then said, "No, I don't know that."
She left him three months afterwards.
He worked in the factory for two years with such dedicated anonymity that when he was made redundant no one even remembered that he ahd been the first man anywhere.
A month later he was recognised on the street by a fellow named Fry, who took him for a drink.
"What have you been doing, then, John?" Fry said.
"Doing?" Krieg seemed to have difficulty in understanding the simplest words. Instead of answering he took something from his pocket and placed it on the bar.
"It's a stone."
"You mean - you brought this back and never told them?"
"No, I didn't bring it back. I found it yesterday."
"Well, what's so wonderful about it?"
"Just look at it."
"Hell, I am looking at it. It looks like an ordinary pebble to me."
"That's right," Krieg said. "It's an ordinary pebble. So what does that mean?"
Fry was glad to get away.
The second man on Cadmus was Willie Premovic and when he got back he showed the same distressing symptoms of matter-of-fact indifference, and expressed concern only for the unimportant. The doctor who examined him began to wonder whether both Premovic and Krieg were suffering from a new sort of space sickness and he could invent a syndrome. So word went out that John Krieg was to report for further examination.
He was eventually found working as a garage hand on the West Coast and said he wasn't interested in returning to be prodded by the deaf and blind. He was arrested by Security and taken in.
He said nothing during several days of intensive examination, except to give curt replies to specific questions, but when the doctor told him that the investigation was somplete Krieg said, "I'll tell you what you're studying when you're studying me. You're studying the life after death."
The doctor thought psychological treatment advisable and both Krieg and Premovic were confined to a mental hospital for a period of three months during which time they were under constant observation. Neither of them did anything interesting except that when they were together they laughed a lot At the end of three months they were released because no one could prove that there was anything wrong with them.
On the day that Krieg was released the man in charge of the hospital, a Dr Frederick Lauter, said to him, "Why don't you tell me what you really think happened on Cadmus? I shan't pass it on and I shan't keep you here whatever they say, I can assure you of that. As far as I'm concerned, you're healthy and sane."
Krieg smiled. "What happened to me is simple. I died."
Dr Lauter wore the blank expression of a man trying to conceal his thoughts. "So what does that make you as of this moment?" he said.
"You're physically alive, you're physically fit," Lauter said. "You function mentally. The tests say you're normal. By any definition I ever heard you're a living human being. So what do you mean when you say you're dead?"
"When a man gets to that place," Krieg said, "he knows he's dead. What gets back here is a ghost struggling to be born."
"And do you think you'll manage to get born?"
"I'll let you know if I do," Krieg said.
Several months later a small parcel arrived at the hospital addressed to Dr Frederick Lauter. When he opened it he found a cardboard box containing a single potato. Enclosed was a note which read, 'This a real potato. Having recognised this, I know that I'm alive. If there are any other living things on earth they will find me or I them. Krieg.'
Dr Lauter was interested enough to make enquiries about Willie Premovic. He was shocked to find that Premovic had become little more than a beachcomber in some Californian wilderness and one day walked into the sea. His body had been washed up on the shore twenty-four hours later.
That night Lauter awoke to find himself staring out of the window at the deeps of space in which he could distinguish a particular, bright star. "Perhaps this is Venus," he said to himself and found to his astonishment that he was possessed by the idea, "I wish I could go there." He knew very well that no one could survive on Venus. Yet at that moment the intensity of the starlight seemed to increase. He could hear a dog barking, distant traffic, a night bird calling. His feet seemed to be gripping the floor more firmly, his skin tingled, he felt the gentle movement of air. His eyes filled with tears.
He never heard of John Krieg again.
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© J.B. Pick1971. Please do not reproduce it without consent.