The elderly, cross-tempered president of Obelisk Books said irritably, "I don't want to see him, Miss Handy. The item is already in print; if there's an error in the text we can't do anything about it now."
"But Mr. Masters," Miss Handy said, "it's such an important error, sir. If he's right. Mr. Brandice claims that the entire chapter --"
"I read his letter; I also talked to him on the vidphone. I know what he claims." Masters walked to the window of his office, gazed moodily out at the arid, crater-marred surface of Mars which he had witnessed so many decades. Five thousand copies printed and bound, he thought. And of that, half in gold-stamped Martian wub-fur. The most elegant, expensive material we could locate. We were already losing money on the edition, and now this.
On his desk lay a copy of the book. Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, in the lofty, noble John Dryden translation. Angrily, Barney Masters turned the crisp white pages. Who would expect anyone on Mars to know such an ancient text that well? he reflected. And the man waiting in the outer office consisted of only one out of eight who had written or called Obelisk Books about a disputed passage.
Disputed? There was no contest; the eight local Latin scholars were right. It was simply a question of getting them to depart quietly, to forget they had ever read through the Obelisk edition and found the fumbled-up passage in question.
Touching the button of his desk intercom, Masters said to his receptionist, "Okay; send him." Otherwise the man would never leave; his type would stay parked outside. Scholars were generally like that; they seemed to have infinite patience.
The door opened and a tall gray-haired man, wearing old-fashioned Terra-style glasses, loomed, briefcase in hand. "Thank you, Mr. Masters," he said, entering. "Let me explain, sir, why my organization considers an error such as this so important." He seated himself by the desk, unzipped his briefcase briskly. "We are after all a colony planet. All our values, mores, artifacts and customs come to us from Terra. WODAFAG considers your printing of this book. . ."
" 'WODAFAG'?" Masters interrupted. He had never heard of it, but even so he groaned. Obviously one of the many vigilant crank outfits who scanned everything printed, either emanating locally here on Mars or arriving from Terra.
"Watchmen Over Distortion And Forged Artifacts Generally," Brandice explained. "I have with me an authentic, correct Terran edition of De Rerum Natura -- the Dryden translation, as is your local edition." His emphasis on local made it sound slimy and second-rate; as if, Masters brooded, Obelisk Books was doing something unsavory in printing books at all. "Let us consider the inauthentic interpolations. You are urged to study first my copy --" He laid a battered, elderly, Terran-printed book open on Masters' desk. "-- in which it appears correctly. And then, sir, a copy of your own edition; the same passage." Beside the little ancient blue book he laid one of the handsome large wub-fur bound copies which Obelisk Books had turned out.
"Let me get my copy editor in here," Masters said. Pressing the intercom button he said to Miss Handy, "Ask Jack Snead to step in here, please."
"Yes, Mr. Masters."
"To quote from the authentic edition," Brandice said, "we obtain a metric rendering of the Latin as follows. Ahem." He cleared his throat self-consciously, then began to read aloud.
"I know the passage," Masters said sharply, feeling needled; the man was lecturing him as if he were a child.
"This quatrain," Brandice said, "is absent from your edition, and the following spurious quatrain -- of God knows what origin -- appears in its place. Allow me." Taking the sumptuous, wub-fur bound Obelisk copy, he thumbed through, found the place; then read.
Glaring at Masters, Brandice closed the wub-fur bound copy noisily. "What is most annoying," Brandice said, "is that this quatrain preaches a message diametric to that of the entire book. Where did it come from? Somebody had to write it; Dryden didn't write it -- Lucretius didn't." He eyed Masters as if he thought Masters personally had done it.
The office door opened and the firm's copy editor, Jack Snead, entered. "He's right," he said resignedly to his employer. "And it's only one alteration in the text out of thirty or so; I've been ploughing through the whole thing, since the letters started arriving. And now I'm starting in on other recent catalog-items in our fall list." He added, grunting. "I've found alterations in several of them, too."
Masters said, "You were the last editor to proofread the copy before it went to the typesetters. Were these errors in it then?"
"Absolutely not," Snead said. "And I proofread the galleys personally; the changes weren't in the galleys, either. The changes don't appear until the final bound copies come into existence -- if that makes any sense. Or more specifically, the ones bound in gold and wub-fur. The regular bound-in-boards copies -- they're okay."
Masters blinked. "But they're all the same edition. They ran through the presses together. In fact we didn't originally plan an exclusive, higher-priced binding; it was only at the last minute that we talked it over and the business office suggested half the edition be offered in wub-fur."
"I think," Jack Snead said, "we're going to have to do some close-scrutiny work on the subject of Martian wub-fur."
An hour later aging, tottering Masters, accompanied by copy editor Jack Snead, sat facing Luther Saperstein, business agent for the pelt-procuring firm of Flawless, Incorporated; from them, Obelisk Books had obtained the wub-fur with which their books had been bound.
"First of all," Masters said in a brisk, professional tone, "what is wub-fur?"
"Basically," Saperstein said, "in the sense in which you're asking the question, it is fur from the Martian wub. I know this doesn't tell you much, gentlemen, but at least it's a reference point, a postulate on which we can all agree, where we can start and build something more imposing. To be more helpful, let me fill you in on the nature of the wub itself. The fur is prized because, among other reasons, it is rare. Wub-fur is rare because a wub very seldom dies. By that I mean, it is next to impossible to slay a wub -- even a sick or old wub. And, even though a wub is killed, the hide lives on. That quality imparts its unique value to home-decoration, or, as in your case, in the binding of lifetime, treasured books meant to endure."
Masters sighed, dully gazed out the window as Saperstein droned on. Beside him, his copy editor made brief cryptic notes, a dark expression on his youthful, energetic face.
"What we supplied you," Saperstein said, "when you came to us -- and remember: you came to us; we didn't seek you out -- consisted of the most select, perfect hides in our giant inventory. These living hides shine with a unique luster all their own; nothing else either on Mars or back home on Terra resembles them. If torn or scratched, the hide repairs itself. It grows, over the months, a more and more lush pile, so that the covers of your volumes become progressively luxurious, and hence highly sought-after. Ten years from now the deep-pile quality of these wub-fur bound books --"
Interrupting, Snead said, "So the hide is still alive. Interesting. And the wub, as you say, is so deft as to be virtually impossible to kill." He shot a swift glance at Masters. "Every single one of the thirty-odd alterations made in the texts in our books deals with immortality. The Lucretius revision is typical; the original text teaches that man is temporary, that even if he survives after death it doesn't matter because he won't have any memory of his existence here. In place of that, the spurious new passage comes out and flatly talks about a future of life predicated on this one; as you say, at complete variance with Lucretius's entire philosophy. You realize what we're seeing, don't you? The damn wub's philosophy superimposed on that of the various authors. That's it; beginning and end." He broke off, resumed his note-scratching, silently.
"How can a hide," Masters demanded, "even a perpetually living one, exert influence on the contents of a book? A text already printed -- pages cut, folios glued and sewed -- it's against reason. Even if the binding, the damn hide, is really alive, and I can hardly believe that." He glared at Saperstein. "If it's alive, what does it live on?"
"Minute particles of food-stuffs in suspension in the atmosphere," Saperstein said, blandly.
Rising to his feet, Masters said, "Let's go. This is ridiculous."
"It inhales the particles," Saperstein said, "through its pores." His tone was dignified, even reproving.
Studying his notes, not rising along with his employer, Jack Snead said thoughtfully, "Some of the amended texts are fascinating. They vary from a complete reversal of the original passage -- and the author's meaning -- as in the case of Lucretius, to very subtle, almost invisible corrections -- if that's the word -- to texts more in accord with the doctrine of eternal life. The real question is this. Are we faced merely with the opinion of one particular life form, or does the wub know what it's talking about? Lucretius's poem, for instance; it's very great, very beautiful, very interesting -- as poetry. But as philosophy, maybe it's wrong. I don't know. It's not my job; I simply edit books; I don't write them. The last thing a good copy editor does is editorialize, on his own, in the author's text. But that is what the wub, or anyhow the post-wub pelt, is doing." He was silent, then.
Saperstein said, "I'd be interested to know if it added anything of value."
"Poetically? Or do you mean philosophically? From a poetic or literary, stylistic point of view its interpolations are no better and no worse than the originals; it manages to blend in with the author well enough so that if you didn't know the text already you'd never notice." He added broodingly, "You'd never know it was a pelt talking."
"I meant from a philosophical point of view."
"Well, it's always the same message, monotonously ground out. There is no death. We go to sleep; we wake up -- to a better life. What it did to De Rerum Natura; that's typical. If you've read that you've read them all."
"It would be an interesting experiment," Masters said thoughtfully, "to bind a copy of the Bible in wub-fur."
"I had that done," Snead said.
"Of course I couldn't take time to read it all. But I did glance over Paul's letters to the Corinthians. It made only one change. The passage that begins, 'Behold, I tell you a mystery --' it set all of that in caps. And it repeated the lines, 'Death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory?' ten times straight; ten whole times, all in caps. Obviously the wub agreed; that's its own philosophy, or rather theology." He said, then, weighing each word, "This basically is a theological dispute. . . between the reading public and the hide of a Martian animal that looks like a fusion between a hog and a cow. Strange." Again he returned to his notes.
After a solemn pause, Masters said, "You think the wub has inside information or don't you? As you said, this may not be just the opinion of one particular animal that's been successful in avoiding death; it may be the truth."
"What occurs to me," Snead said, "is this. The wub hasn't merely learned to avoid death; it's actually done what it preaches. By getting killed, skinned, and its hide -- still alive -- made into book covers -- it has conquered death. It lives on. In what it appears to regard as a better life. We're not just dealing with an opinionated local life form; we're dealing with an organism that has already done what we're still in doubt about. Sure it knows. It's a living confirmation of its own doctrine. The facts speak for themselves. I tend to believe it."
"Maybe continual life for it," Masters disagreed, "but that doesn't mean necessarily for the rest of us. The wub, as Mr. Saperstein points out, is unique. The hide of no other life form either on Mars or on Luna or Terra lives on, imbibing life from microscopic particles in suspension in the atmosphere. Just because it can do it --"
"Too bad we can't communicate with a wub hide," Saperstein said. "We've tried, here at Flawless, ever since we first noticed the fact of its post-mortem survival. But we never found a way."
"But we at Obelisk," Snead pointed out, "have. As a matter of fact I've already tried an experiment. I had a one-sentence text printed up, a single line reading: 'The wub, unlike every other living creature, is immortal.'
"I then had it bound in wub-fur; then I read it again. It had been changed. Here." He passed a slim book, handsomely appointed, to Masters. "Read it as it is now."
Masters read aloud: "The wub, like every other living creature, is immortal."
Returning the copy to Snead he said, "Well, all it did was drop out the un; that's not much of a change, two letters."
"But from the standpoint of meaning," Snead said, "it constitutes a bombshell. We're getting feedback from beyond the grave -- so to speak. I mean, let's face it; wub-fur is technically dead because the wub that grew it is dead. This is awfully damn close to providing an indisputable verification of the survival of sentient life after death."
"Of course there is one thing," Saperstein said hesitantly. "I hate to bring it up; I don't know what bearing it has on all this. But the Martian wub, for all its uncanny -- even miraculous -- ability to preserve itself, is from a mentational standpoint a stupid creature. A Terran opossum, for example, has a brain one-third that of a cat. The wub has a brain one-fifth that of an opossum." He looked gloomy.
"Well," Snead said, "the Bible says. 'The last shall be the first.' Possibly the lowly wub is included under this rubric; let's hope so."
Glancing at him, Masters said, "You want eternal life?"
"Certainly," Snead said. "Everybody does."
"Not I," Masters said, with decisiveness. "I have enough troubles now. The last thing I want is to live on as the binding of a book -- or in any fashion whatsoever." But inside, he had begun silently to muse. Differently. Very differently, in fact.
"It sounds like something a wub would like," Saperstein agreed. "Being the binding of a book; just lying there supine, on a shelf, year after year, inhaling minute particles from the air. And presumably meditating. Or whatever wubs do after they're dead."
"They think theology," Snead said. "They preach." To his boss he said, "I assume we won't be binding any more books in wub-fur."
"Not for trade purposes," Masters agreed. "Not to sell. But --" He could not rid himself of the conviction that some use lay, here. "I wonder," he said, "if it would impart the same high level of survival factor to anything it was made into. Such as window drapes. Or upholstery in a float-car; maybe it would eliminate death on the commuter paths. Or helmet-liners for combat troops. And for baseball players." The possibilities, to him, seemed enormous. . . but vague. He would have to think this out, give it a good deal of time.
"Anyhow," Saperstein said, "my firm declines to give you a refund; the characteristics of wub-fur were known publicly in a brochure which we published earlier this year. We categorically stated --"
"Okay, it's our loss," Masters said irritably, with a wave of his hand. "Let it go." To Snead he said, "And it definitely says, in the thirty-odd passages it's interpolated, that life after death is pleasant?"
"Absolutely. 'Our stint on earth doth herald an unstopping bliss.' That sums it up, that line it stuck into De Rerum Natura; it's all right there."
" 'Bliss,' " Masters echoed, nodding. "Of course, we're actually not on Earth; we're on Mars. But I suppose it's the same thing; it just means life, wherever it's lived." Again, even more gravely, he pondered. "What occurs to me," he said thoughtfully, "is it's one thing to talk abstractly about 'life after death.' People have been doing that for fifty thousand years; Lucretius was, two thousand years ago. What interests me more is not the big overall philosophical picture but the concrete fact of the wub-pelt; the immortality which it carried around with it." To Snead he said, "What other books did you bind in it?"
"Tom Paine's Age of Reason," Snead said, consulting his list.
"What were the results?"
"Two-hundred-sixty-seven blank pages. Except right in the middle the one word bleh."
"The Britannica. It didn't precisely change anything, but it added whole articles. On the soul, on transmigration, on hell, damnation, sin, or immortality; the whole twenty-four volume set became religiously oriented." He glanced up. "Should I go on?"
"Sure," Masters said, listening and meditating simultaneously.
"The Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. It left the text intact, but it periodically inserted the biblical line, 'The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.' Over and over again.
"James Hilton's Lost Horizon. Shangri-La turns out to be a vision of the after life which --"
"Okay," Masters said. "We get the idea. The question is, what can we do with this? Obviously we can't bind books with it -- at least books which it disagrees with." But he was beginning to see another use; a much more personal one. And it far outweighed anything which the wub-fur might do for or to books -- in fact for any inanimate object.
As soon as he got to a phone --
"Of special interest," Snead was saying, "is its reaction to a volume of collected papers on psychoanalysis by some of the greatest living Freudian analysts of our time. It allowed each article to remain intact, but at the end of each it added the same phrase." He chuckled." 'Physician, heal thyself.' Bit of a sense of humor, there."
"Yeah," Masters said. Thinking, unceasingly, of the phone and the one vital call which he would make.
Back in his own office at Obelisk Books, Masters tried out a preliminary experiment -- to see if this idea would work. Carefully, he wrapped a Royal Albert yellow bone-china cup and saucer in wub-fur, a favorite from his own collection. Then, after much soul-searching and trepidation, he placed the bundle on the floor of his office and, with all his declining might, stepped on it.
The cup did not break. At least it did not seem to.
He unwrapped the package, then and inspected the cup. He had been right; wrapped in living wub-fur it could not be destroyed.
Satisfied, he seated himself at his desk, pondered one last time.
The wrapper of wub-fur had made a temporary, fragile object imperishable. So the wub's doctrine of external survival had worked itself out in practice -- exactly as he had expected.
He picked up the phone, dialed his lawyer's number.
"This is about my will," he said to his lawyer, when he had him on the other end of the line. "You know, the latest one I made out a few months ago. I have an additional clause to insert."
"Yes, Mr. Masters," his lawyer said briskly. "Shoot."
"A small item," Masters purred. "Has to do with my coffin. I want it mandatory on my heirs -- my coffin is to be lined throughout, top, bottom and sides, with wub-fur. From Flawless, Incorporated. I want to go to my Maker clothed, so to speak, in wub-fur. Makes a better impression that way." He laughed nonchalantly, but his tone was deadly serious -- and his attorney caught it.
"If that's what you want," the attorney said.
"And I suggest you do the same," Masters said.
Masters said, "Consult the complete home medical reference library we're going to issue next month. And make certain you get a copy that's bound in wub-fur; it'll be different from the others." He thought, then, about his wub-fur-lined coffin once again. Far underground, with him inside it, with the living wub-fur growing, growing.
It would be interesting to see the version of himself which a choice wub-fur binding produced.
Especially after several centuries.