The Project Gutenberg eBook of Second census

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Title: Second census

Author: John Victor Peterson

Illustrator: John Schoenherr

Release date: September 14, 2023 [eBook #71645]

Language: English

Original publication: New York, NY: Royal Publications, Inc, 1957

Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at


Second Census


Illustrated by SCHOENHERR

Quintuplets alone would be bad enough, without
a census taker who could count them in advance!

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Infinity October 1957.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

In addition to being a genius in applied atomics, Maitland Browne's a speedster, a practical joker, and a spare-time dabbler in electronics.

As far as speed's concerned, I had a very special reason for wanting to get home early tonight, and swift straight flight would have been perfectly okay with me. The trouble was that Browne decided that this was his night to work on Fitzgerald.

Browne lifted the three passenger jetcopter—his contribution to our commuterpool—from the flight stage at Brookhaven National Laboratories in a strictly prosaic manner. Then the flight-fiend in him came out with a vengeance. Suddenly and simultaneously he set the turbo-jets to full thrust and dived to treetop level; then he started hedgehopping toward Long Island Sound. His heavy dark features were sardonic in the rear-view mirror; his narrowed, speculative eyes flicked to it intermittently to scan Ed Fitzgerald beside me.

Browne's action didn't surprise, startle, or even frighten me at first. I'd seen the mildly irritated look in his eyes when Fitzgerald had come meandering up—late as usual!—to the ship back on the stage. I had rather expected some startling development; provoking Ed Fitzgerald to a measurable nervous reaction was one of Browne's burning ambitions. I also had a certain positive hunch that Fitzgerald's tardiness was deliberate.

In any event my mind was ninety per cent elsewhere. Tessie—my wife—had visifoned me from Doc Gardiner's office in New Canaan just before I'd left my office at the Labs and had told me with high elation that we were destined to become the proud parents of quintuplets! I was, therefore, now going back bewilderedly over our respective family trees, seeking a precedent in the genes.

I was shocked out of my genealogical pursuits when Browne skimmed between the tall stereo towers near Middle Island. I prayerfully looked at Fitzgerald for assistance in persuading Browne to cease and desist, but Fitzgerald was staring as imperturbably as ever at Browne's broad back, a faintly derisive smile on his face.

I should have expected that. Even a major cataclysm couldn't budge Fitzgerald. I've seen him damp an atomic pile only milliseconds from critical mass without batting an eye before, during or after.

I tried to console myself. But while I knew Browne's reaction time was uncommonly fast and his years of 'copter flight singularly accident-free, I still could not relax. Not tonight, with the knowledge that I was a prospective father of not just the first but the first five. I wanted to get home to Tessie in a hurry, certainly, but I wanted to get there all in one proud piece.

Browne went from bad to worse and began kissing the 'copter's belly on the waves in Long Island Sound. The skipping stone effect was demoralizing. Then, trying to top that, he hedgehopped so low on the mainland that the jets blew the last stubbornly clinging leaves from every oak tree we near-missed crossing Connecticut to our destination on the Massachusetts border.

Fitzgerald was the only one who talked on the way. Browne was too intent on his alleged driving. I was, frankly, too scared for intelligible conversation. It wasn't until later, in fact, that I realized that Ed Fitzgerald's monologue had clearly solved a problem we were having on adjusting the new cosmotron at the Labs.

"We made good time tonight," Browne said, finally easing up as we neared home.

Fitzgerald grinned.

I found my voice after a moment and said, "It's a good thing radar doesn't pick up objects that low or C.A.A. would be breathing down your fat neck! As it is, I think the cops at Litchfield have probably 'cast a summons to your p. o. tray by now. That was the mayor's 'copter you almost clipped."

Browne shrugged as if he'd worry about it—maybe!—if it happened. He's top physicist at the Labs. In addition to his abilities, that means he has connections.

We dropped imperturbable Fitzgerald on his roofstage at the lower end of Nutmeg Street; then Browne dropped a relieved me two blocks up and proceeded the five blocks to his enormous solar house at the hill's summit.

I energized the passenger shaft, buttoned it to optimum descent and dropped to first. There was a note from Tessie saying she'd gone shopping with Fitzgerald's wife, Miriam. So I'd start celebrating alone!

I punched the servomech for Scotch-on-the-rocks. As I sat sipping it I kept thinking about Maitland Browne. It wasn't just the recollection of the ride from Brookhaven. It was also the Scotch. Association.

I thought back to the night Tessie and I had gone up to Browne's to spend the evening, and Browne invited me to sit in a new plush chair. I sat all right, but promptly found that I was completely unable to rise despite the fact that I was in full possession of my faculties. He'd then taken our respective wives for a midnight 'copter ride, leaving me to escape the chair's invisible embrace if I could. I couldn't.

Luckily he'd forgotten that his liquor cabinet was within arm's reach of the chair; I'd made devastating inroads on a pinch bottle by the time they'd returned. He switched off his psionic machine but fast then, and didn't ever try to trap me in it again!

The visifone buzzed and I leaped to it, thinking of Tessie out shopping in her delicate condition—

I felt momentary relief, then startlement.

It was Fitzgerald—Fitzgerald with fair features flushed, Fitzgerald the imperturbable one stammering with excitement!

"Now, wait a second!" I said in amazement. "Calm down, for Heaven's sake! What's this about a census?"

"Well, are they taking one now?"

"By 'they' I presume you mean the Bureau of the Census of the U. S. Department of Commerce," I said, trying to slow him down, while wondering what in the name of a reversed cyclotron could have jarred him so.

He spluttered. "Who else? Well, are they?"

"Not to my knowledge. They took it only last year. Won't do it again until 1970. Why?"

"As I was trying to tell you, a fellow who said he was a census taker was just here and damn it, Jim, he wanted to know my considered ideas of natural resources, birth control, immigration, racial discrimination, UFO's and half a dozen other things. He threw the questions at me so fast I became thoroughly confused. What with me still thinking about the cosmotron, wondering if Brownie will stop riding me before I do break down, and wondering where Miriam is, I just had to slow him down so that I could piece together the answers.

"Just about then he staggered as if a fifth of hundred-proof bourbon had caught up with him and reeled out without a fare-thee-well. I didn't see which way he went because Jim Moran—he's the new fellow in the house just down the hill—Jim called to see if the fellow had been here yet and what I thought of him. If he hit Jim's before me, that means he should be getting to you within the next half-hour or so."

My front door chimed.

"Sorry, Fitz," I said. "This must be Tessie. She was coming home on the surface bus. Miriam's with her, so that's one worry off your mind. Take it easy. I'll call you back."

But it wasn't Tessie. It was a man, dressed in a dark brown business suit that was tight on his big frame. His face was a disturbing one, eyes set so wide apart you had trouble meeting them up close and felt embarrassed shifting your gaze from one to the other.

"Mr. James Rainford?" he asked rhetorically.


"I'm from the Bureau of the Census," he said calmly.

This couldn't be the same fellow Fitzgerald had encountered. There must be a group of them covering the neighborhood. In any event, this man was cold sober. Further, the fastest Olympic runner couldn't have made the two long blocks from Fitzgerald's house in the time that had elapsed and this fellow wasn't even breathing hard.

"Let's see your credentials," I said.

I wasn't sure whether he hesitated because he couldn't remember which pocket they were in or for some other reason; anyway, he did produce credentials and they were headed U. S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, and looked very proper indeed.

But I still couldn't quite believe it. "But the census was taken last year," I said.

"We have to recheck this area," he said smoothly. "We have reason to believe that the records are inaccurate."

His eyes were harder to meet than ever.

"Excuse me," I said and stepped out on the stoop, looking down the hill toward Fitzgerald's house.

Not only was Fitzgerald standing on his tropic forelawn, but so were the dozen household heads in between, each and every one of them staring fixedly at the pair of us on my stoop.

"Come in," I said perplexedly and led the way.

When I turned to face him I found that he'd swung a square black box which resembled a miniature cathode ray oscilloscope from behind his back and was busily engaged in punching multi-colored buttons tinging the dim raster. I'm a gadget man—cybernetics is my forte—but I'm afraid I stared. The most curious wave-forms I have ever seen were purple-snaking across the 'scope.

"It's a combination memory storage bank and recorder," he explained. "Electronic shorthand. I'm reading the data which your wife gave to us and which I'll ask you to verify."

The gadget was a new one to me. I made a mental note to renew my subscription to Scientific American.

"Married," he said. "Ah, yes, expecting!"

"Now will you stop right there!" I cried. "That couldn't be on your records! A year ago we certainly weren't expecting! Now, look—"

But he kept on with most peculiar enthusiasm. "Quintuplets! Sure! Three boys and two girls! My congratulations, Mr. Rainford. Thank you for your time!"

I stood there dazed. Nobody but Doctor Gardiner, Tessie and myself—well, maybe Miriam Fitzgerald by this time—knew we were expecting. Even Gardiner couldn't know the division of sexes among the foetal group at this early stage of development!

I had to find a way to delay this strange man.

"Let's see your credentials again," I demanded as my mind raced: Oh, where's Tessie? What was it Fitz had said? Brownie, maybe Brownie, can explain

The census taker pulled papers from his pocket, then reeled as though drunk. He staggered backward against and out of the door, the autoclose slamming it behind him.

I jerked open the door and jumped out on the stoop.

In those few seconds the man had vanished—

No! There he was fifty feet away ringing Mike Kozulak's bell. And he was erect, completely steady!

But nobody could move that fast!

I turned back and picked up the papers he'd dropped. There was a little sheaf of them, printed on incredibly thin paper. The printing resembled the wave-forms I had seen upon the 'scope. It was like some twisted Arabic script. And this strange script was overprinted on a star-chart which I thought I recognized.

I plumbed my mind, I had it! In a star identification course at M. I. T. they had given us star-charts showing us the galaxy as seen from another star which we were asked to identify. One of those charts at M. I. T. had been almost exactly the same as this: the galaxy as viewed from Alpha Centauri!

I was stunned. I staggered a bit as I went back out on the stoop and looked down the street. I welcomed the sight of Ed Fitzgerald hurrying up across the neighbors' forelawns, uprooting some of the burbanked tropical plants en route.

By the time Fitzgerald reached me, the census taker had come out of Mike Kozulak's like a fission-freed neutron, staggered a few times in an orbit around one of Mike's greenhouse-shelled shrubs, and actually streaked across the two vacant lots between Mike's and Manny Cohen's.

"He's not human," I said to Ed. "Not Earth-human. I'll swear he's from Alpha Centauri; look at these papers! What he's after Heaven knows, but maybe we can find out. It's a cinch he'll eventually reach Maitland Browne's. Let's get there fast; maybe we'll be able to trap him!"

I dragged Fitzgerald inside and we went up the passenger shaft under optimum ascent.

My little Ponticopter's jets seared the roof garden as I blasted forward before the vanes had lifted us clear of the stage. I think I out-Browned Browne in going those five blocks and I know I laid the foundation for a Mrs. Browne vs. Mr. Rainford feud as I dropped my 'copter with dismaying results into the roof garden which was her idea of Eden. I had to, though; Brownie's is a one-copter stage and his ship was on it.

We beat the alien. We looked back down the hill before we entered Brownie's passenger shaft. The fellow was just staggering out of Jack Wohl's rancher at the lower end of this last block.

We found Browne working on a stripped-down stereo chassis which had been carelessly laid without protective padding in the middle of the highly polished dining table. I knew then that his wife couldn't possibly be home.

Browne looked up as if he were accustomed to unannounced people dropping into his reception chute.

"To what do I owe the honor of—" he started. Fitzgerald interrupted him with a stammered burst that brought a pleased grin to his broad features.

"Well, Fitz," Browne said. "Where's the old control?"

Fitzgerald fumed. I took over and explained swiftly.

"Well, this is a problem," Browne said thoughtfully. "Now why in the world—"

His front door chimed and became one-way transparent. We saw the alien standing on the stoop, erect and calm.

"Now what will—" Fitzgerald started. "We thought maybe—the chair, Brownie!"

Browne grinned and pressed a button on the table console. He has them in every room—to control at his whim any of the dozens of electronic and mechanical equipments located throughout his enormous house.

The front door opened and the alien entered as Browne cried "Come in!"

Browne flicked over a switch marked Lock 1st Fl as he rose and went into the living room. We followed him warily.

The alien glanced back at the closed door with a trace of annoyance on his broad features; then regarded us imperturbably as we advanced.

"Mr. Fitzgerald and Mr. Rainford," he said flatly. "Well, this is a surprise!"

He didn't sound sincere.

"Have a seat," Browne said, waving a big hand toward the chair.

The alien shook his head negatively.

Browne gave Fitzgerald and me a quick glance, inclining his head forward. We promptly accelerated our advance.

"Look," Browne said, his dark face intense, "we know you're not what you pretend to be. We know you're not of our country, not of our world, not even of our solar system. Sit down in that chair!"

He lunged forward, grasping with his big hands, as we leaped at the alien from either flank.

The alien didn't just move—he streaked, shooting between Browne and Fitzgerald, heading unerringly toward the open passenger shaft—into it!

Browne leaped to a console and punched the roof-lock button. A split second later we heard a riveting machine burst of what was obviously Centaurian profanity coming down the shaft as the alien found the exit closed. Browne's fingers darted on the console, locking all the upstairs windows.

"Browne," I said, "what good will that do? If we do manage to corner him, just how long do you think we can stand up against him? With his speed he could evade us until doomsday, to say nothing about beating our brains out while we tried to land one, solid punch!"

Fitzgerald said, "If we can keep him on the run, maybe he'll get tired."

"Yeah, maybe," I said. "What if that's his normal speed? And who's likely to get tired first? I'm dragging as of now."

"Well," Fitzgerald said, "we could get more people in and go at him in shifts—or, well, what about tear gas or an anesthetic gas or—"

"Now, wait!" Browne snapped, unquestionably seizing command. "I'll admit I started him on the run just now. Perhaps it was the wrong approach. After all, he's done nothing wrong as far as we know. I—I guess all of us—leaped to the illogical conclusion that he's out for no good just because he's an alien. Sure, he's after something or he wouldn't be going from door to door posing as a census taker. The way you talk, Jim, would seem to indicate you're not curious. Well, I am, and I'm going to do everything in my power to find out what he's after.

"We've got to make him tell us. We can't deduce anything from the data we have now. Sure, we know he has what you, Jim, say look like bona fide credentials from the Census Bureau, but we also have right here I. D. papers or something which show he's apparently from Alpha Centauri. We know he speaks our language perfectly; ergo he either learned it here first-hand or acquired it from someone else who had learned it here.

"Whatever he's after, his approach certainly varies. He asked you a lot of questions, Fitz, but, Jim, practically all he did in your house was tell you your wife was pregnant with quintuplets. And whatever his approach has been, he never seems to finish whatever he comes to do. Something about you two—and from what you two have said, Kozulak and Wohl—seems to have a most peculiar effect on him; you say he's staggered out of every house he's entered only to recover again in a matter of seconds.

"Just try to equate that!"

He stopped, pondering, and we didn't interrupt.

"Look," he said, "you two go upstairs. Take opposite sides of the house and find him. Go slowly so that he won't be alarmed. Try to talk with him, to persuade him we mean him no harm. If you find you can't persuade him to come willingly, try to work him back to the passenger shaft. I'll watch through the console—I've kinescopes in every room—and I'll lock off one room at a time so that he can't reverse himself. I won't activate the kinescopes until you're upstairs; he might deactivate them if he weren't kept busy. Get him back to the passenger shaft and I'll take over from there."

"But what—" Fitzgerald started.

Browne scowled and we went. Fitzgerald should have known better; there are no buts when Browne gives orders.

We reached the second floor, floated off the up column into the foyer, and separated.

Browne's first floor rooms are spacious, but most of those on the second floor are not. I'd never been on the second floor before; I found it a honeycomb of interconnected rooms of varying sizes and shapes. I was apparently in Mrs. Browne's quarters; there were half a dozen hobby rooms alone: a sewing room, a painting room, a sculpture room, a writing room, others—And here was her spacious bedroom and on its far side the alien was vainly trying to force one of its windows.

He turned as I entered, his curious eyes darting around for an avenue of escape.

"Now, wait," I said as soothingly as I could. "We don't mean any harm. I think we're justified in being curious as to why you're here. Who are you anyway? What are you looking for and why?"

He shook his head as if bewildered and seemed suddenly to become unsteady.

"One question at a time, please," he said, temporizingly. "Your school system isn't exacting enough; you all think of too many things at once. It shocks a mind trained to single subject concentration, especially when one has been educated in telepathic reception."

He grinned at me as I mentally recalled his staggering moments of seeming drunkenness.

One question at a time, he'd said. Well, I'd ask him the one that was burning at the threshold of my mind. I said quickly:

"I realize that you probably read in my mind that my wife and I are expecting quintuplets, but how did you know the rest—about the division of sexes—or did you guess?"

"I'll have to explain," he said; then hesitated, seeming to debate mentally with himself as to whether he should go on. Suddenly he started to talk so fast that the words nearly blurred into unrecognizability, like a 45 rpm record at 78.

"I am Hirm Sulay of Alpha Centauri Five," he burst. "My people have warred with the race of Beta Centauri Three for fifty of your years. We secretly bring our children here to protect them from sporadic bombing, insuring their upbringing through placing them in orphanages or directly into homes."

A horrible suspicion flamed in my mind. I'd tried vainly to account for the multiple birth we were expecting. I cried at him: "Then my wife—" and he said,

"She will have twin girls, Doc Gardiner tells me. We had planned to have three newborn boys ready in the delivery room."

"Then Doc Gardiner—"

"He and his staff are all of my race," Hirm Sulay said. "I see how your mind leaped when I said 'newborn boys.' Your UFO sightings frequently describe a 'mother' ship. Considering the gravid women aboard I'd say the description is quite apt."

For some reason anger flared in me, and I rushed at him. He blurred and went around me and out the way I'd come. I raced after him and heard Fitzgerald cry, "Oh, no you don't!" and machine-gun footfalls were doubling back toward me.

I hurried on and he flashed at and by me, then turned back as he came to a door Browne had remotely locked. Back at and past me again. I gave chase.

Fitzgerald yelled, "He's slowing down, Jim. He's tiring!"

And the doors kept closing under Browne's nimble fingering at the console down below. Suddenly the area was cut down to the passenger shaft foyer, and the three of us were weaving about, like two tackles after the fastest fullback of all time. I leaped forward and actually laid a hand on the alien for a split second, just enough to topple him off balance so that Fitzgerald, charging in, managed to bump him successfully into the shaft. A surprised cry came ringing back up the shaft; Browne had obviously cut the lift's power supply completely.

Browne's voice came ringing up: "Come on down, fellows; I've got him!"

The shaft guard light flicked to green. Fitzgerald and I dropped down to first.

Browne had apparently had his chair directly under the shaft; it was back from the touchdown pad now and Hirm Sulay was in it, vainly wriggling, shame-faced.

"Now maybe we'll find out a thing or two—" Browne said meaningfully, bending toward the alien.

"Wait a minute," I cut in and related what Hirm Sulay had told me upstairs.

"Is it true?" Browne demanded.

Hirm Sulay nodded.

"But why are you going from door to door? Surely you know where those children are!"

"Sorry," Hirm Sulay said, "we don't. Some of the older and more important records were lost. I say more important because the missing ones I seek are grown. We're fighting a war, as I told you, Jim. You can't keep fighting a war without young recruits!"

Browne's nearly fantastic dexterity came to my mind then. It apparently came to his simultaneously; he asked abruptly,

"Could I be one of you?"

"What do you think?" Hirm Sulay countered, his face enigmatic.

"Well, I certainly can't move as fast as you!"

"Have you ever tried? Have you ever gone in for athletics? I'd say no. Most scientists are essentially inactive—physically, that is."

"Are you saying 'yes'?" Browne cried.

Hirm Sulay looked us over, one by one. "Each of you is of our blood," he said. "I knew Jim and Fitz were when Fitz said I was slowing down upstairs. I wasn't; they were speeding up to normalcy for the first time."

I was stunned for a moment, only dimly aware that he went on to say, "Now please turn off this blasted chair and tell me how it works. The principle applied as a tractor beam could win our war!"

"I haven't the vaguest idea," Browne said. "But I bet you can figure it out!"

Browne went to the servomech for drinks. He was gone for precisely three seconds. Of those the servomech took two. Slow machine.

I don't know what to tell Tessie. Maybe she'd feel strange with the boys if she knew. I'll certainly have to tell her part of the truth, though, because I just can't let Browne and Fitzgerald go to help win our war without me.