AT THE OFFICES of Concord Military Service Consultants, Jesse Slade looked through the window at the street below and saw everything denied him in the way of freedom, flowers and grass, the opportunity for a long and unencumbered walk into new places. He sighed.
"Sorry, sir," the client opposite his desk mumbled apologetically. "I guess I'm boring you."
"Not at all," Slade said, reawakening to his onerous duties. "Let's see. . ." He examined the papers which the client, a Mr. Walter Grossbein, had presented to him. "Now you feel, Mr. Grossbein, that your most favorable chance to elude military service lies in the area of a chronic ear-trouble deemed by civilian doctors in the past acute labyrinthitis. Hmmm." Slade studied the pertinent documents.
His duties -- and he did not enjoy them -- lay in locating for clients of the firm a way out of military service. The war against the Things had not been conducted properly, of late; many casualties from the Proxima region had been reported -- and with the reports had come a rush of business for Concord Military Service Consultants.
"Mr. Grossbein," Slade said thoughtfully, "I noticed when you entered my office that you tended to list to one side."
"Did I?" Mr. Grossbein asked, surprised.
"Yes, and I thought to myself, That man has a severe impairment of his sense of balance. That's related to the ear, you know, Mr. Grossbein. Hearing, from an evolutionary standpoint, is an outgrowth of the sense of balance. Some water creatures of a low order incorporate a grain of sand and make use of it as a drop-weight within their fluid body, and by that method tell if they're going up or down."
Mr. Grossbein said, "I believe I understand."
"Say it, then," Jesse Slade said.
"I -- frequently list to one side or another as I walk."
"And at night?"
Mr. Grossbein frowned, and then said happily, "I, uh, find it almost impossible to orient myself at night, in the dark, when I can't see."
"Fine," Jesse Slade said, and begin writing on the client's military service form B-30. "I think this will get you an exemption," he said.
Happily, the client said, "I can't thank you enough."
Oh yes you can, Jesse Slade thought to himself. You can thank us to the tune of fifty dollars. After all, without us you might be a pale, lifeless corpse in some gully on a distant planet, not far from now.
And, thinking about distant planets, Jesse Slade felt once more the yearning. The need to escape from his small office and the process of dealing with gold-bricking clients whom he had to face, day after day.
There must be another life than this, Slade said to himself. Can this really be all there is to existence?
Far down the street outside his office window a neon sign glowed night and day. Muse Enterprises, the sign read, and Jesse Slade knew what it meant. I'm going in there, he said to himself. Today. When I'm on my ten-thirty coffee break; I won't even wait for lunch time.
As he put on his coat, Mr. Hnatt, his supervisor, entered the office and said, "Say, Slade, what's up? Why the fierce trapped look?"
"Um, I'm getting out, Mr. Hnatt," Slade told him. "Escaping. I've told fifteen thousand men how to escape military service; now it's my turn."
Mr. Hnatt clapped him on the back. "Good idea, Slade; you're overworked. Take a vacation. Take a time-travel adventure to some distant civilization -- it'll do you good."
"Thanks, Mr. Hnatt," Slade said, "I'll do just that." And left his office as fast as his feet would carry him, out of the building and down the street to the glowing neon sign of Muse Enterprises.
The girl behind the counter, blonde-haired, with dark green eyes and a figure that impressed him more for its engineering aspects, its suspension so to speak, smiled at him and said, "Our Mr. Manville will see you in a moment, Mr. Slade. Please be seated. You'll find authentic nineteenth century Harper's Weeklies over on the table, there." She added, "And some twentieth century Mad Comics, those great classics of lampoonery equal to Hogarth."
Tensely, Mr. Slade seated himself and tried to read; he found an article in Harper's Weekly telling that the Panama Canal was impossible and had already been abandoned by its French designers -- that held his attention for a moment (the reasoning was so logical, so convincing) but after a few moments his old ennui and restlessness, like a chronic fog, returned. Rising to his feet he once more approached the desk.
"Mr. Manville isn't here yet?" he asked hopefully.
From behind him a male voice said, "You, there at the counter."
Slade turned. And found himself facing a tall, dark-haired man with an intense expression, eyes blazing.
"You," the man said, "are in the wrong century."
Striding toward him, the dark-haired man said, "I am Manville, sir." He held out his hand and they shook. "You must go away," Manville said. "Do you understand, sir? As soon as possible."
"But I want to use your services," Slade mumbled.
Manville's eyes flashed. "I mean away into the past. What's your name?" He gestured emphatically. "Wait, it's coming to me. Jesse Slade, of Concord, up the street, there."
"Right," Slade said, impressed.
"All right, now down to business," Mr. Manville said. "Into my office." To the exceptionally-constructed girl at the counter he said, "No one is to disturb us, Miss Frib."
"Yes, Mr. Manville," Miss Frib said. "I'll see to that, don't you fear, sir."
"I know that, Miss Frib." Mr. Manville ushered Slade into a well-furnished inner office. Old maps and prints decorated the walls; the furniture -- Slade gaped. Early American, with wood pegs instead of nails. New England maple and worth a fortune.
"Is it all right. . ." he began.
"Yes, you may actually sit on that Directorate chair," Mr. Manville told him. "But be careful; it scoots out from under you if you lean forward. We keep meaning to put rubber casters on it or some such thing." He looked irritated now, at having to discuss such trifles. "Mr. Slade," he said brusquely, "I'll speak plainly; obviously you're a man of high intellect and we can skip the customary circumlocutions."
"Yes," Slade said, "please do."
"Our time-travel arrangements are of a specific nature; hence the name 'Muse.' Do you grasp the meaning, here?"
"Urn," Slade said, at a loss but trying. "Let's see. A muse is an organism that functions to --"
"That inspires," Mr. Manville broke in impatiently. "Slade, you are -- let's face it -- not a creative man. That's why you feel bored and unfulfilled. Do you paint? Compose? Make welded iron sculpture out of spaceship bodies and discarded lawn chairs? You don't. You do nothing; you're utterly passive. Correct?"
Slade nodded. "You've hit it, Mr. Manville."
"I've hit nothing," Mr. Manville said irritably. "You don't follow me, Slade. Nothing will make you creative because you don't have it within you. You're too ordinary. I'm not going to get you started finger-painting or basket-weaving; I'm no Jungian analyst who believes art is the answer." Leaning back he pointed his finger at Slade. "Look, Slade. We can help you, but you must be willing to help yourself first. Since you're not creative, the best you can hope for -- and we can assist you here -- is to inspire others who are creative. Do you see?"
After a moment Slade said, "I see, Mr. Manville. I do."
"Right," Manville said, nodding. "Now, you can inspire a famous musician, like Mozart or Beethoven, or a scientist such as Albert Einstein, or a sculptor such as Sir Jacob Epstein -- any one of a number of people, writers, musicians, poets. You could, for example, meet Sir Edward Gibbon during his travels to the Mediterranean and fall into a casual conversation with him and say something to this order. . . Hmmm, look at the ruins of this ancient civilization all around us. I wonder, how does a mighty empire such as Rome come to fall into decay? Fall into ruin. . . fall apart. . ."
"Good Lord," Slade said fervently, "I see, Manville; I get it. I repeat the word 'fall' over and over again to Gibbon, and due to me he gets the idea of his great history of Rome, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And --" He felt himself tremble. "I helped."
" 'Helped'?" Manville said. "Slade, that's hardly the word. Without you there would have been no such work. You, Slade, could be Sir Edward's muse." He leaned back, got out an Upmann cigar, circa 1915, and lit up.
"I think," Slade said, "I'd like to mull this over. I want to be sure I inspire the proper person; I mean, they all deserve to be inspired, but --"
"But you want to find the person in terms of your own psychic needs," Manville agreed, puffing fragrant blue smoke. "Take our brochure." He passed a large shiny multi-color 3-D pop-up booklet to Slade. "Take this home, read it, and come back to us when you're ready."
Slade said, "God bless you, Mr. Manville."
"And calm down," Manville said. "The world isn't going to end. . . we know that here at Muse because we've looked." He smiled, and Slade managed to smile back.
Two days later Jesse Slade returned to Muse Enterprises. "Mr. Manville," he said, "I know whom I want to inspire." He took a deep breath. "I've thought and thought and what would mean to the most to me would be if I could go back to Vienna and inspire Ludwig van Beethoven with the idea for the Choral Symphony, you know, that theme in the fourth movement that the baritone sings that goes bum-bum de-da de-da bum-bum, daughters of Elysium; you know." He flushed. "I'm no musician, but all my life I've admired the Beethoven Ninth and especially --
"It's been done," Manville said.
"Eh?" He did not understand.
"It's been taken, Mr. Slade." Manville looked impatient as he sat at his great oak rolltop desk, circa 1910. Bringing out a thick metal-staved black binder he turned the pages. "Two years ago a Mrs. Ruby Welch of Montpelier, Idaho went back to Vienna and inspired Beethoven with the theme for the choral movement of his Ninth." Manville slammed the binder shut and regarded Slade. "Well? What's your second choice?"
Stammering, Slade said, "I'd -- have to think. Give me time."
Examining his watch, Manville said shortly, "I'll give you two hours. Until three this afternoon. Good day, Slade." He rose to his feet, and Slade automatically rose, too.
An hour later, in his cramped office at Concord Military Service Consultants, Jesse Slade realized in a flashing single instant who and what he wanted to inspire. At once he put on his coat, excused himself to sympathetic Mr. Hnatt, and hurried down the street to Muse Enterprises.
"Well, Mr. Slade," Manville said, seeing him enter. "Back so soon. Come into the office." He strode ahead, leading the way. "All right, let's have it." He shut the door after the two of them.
Jesse Slade licked his dry lips and then, coughing, said, "Mr. Manville, I want to go back and inspire -- well, let me explain. You know the great science fiction of the golden age, between 1930 and 1970?"
"Yes, yes," Manville said impatiently, scowling as he listened.
"When I was in college," Slade said, "getting my M.A. in English lit, I had to read a good deal of twentieth century science fiction, of course. Of the greats there were three writers who stood out. The first was Robert Heinlein with his future history. The second, Isaac Asimov with his Foundation epic series. And --" He took a deep, shuddering breath. "The man I did my paper on. Jack Dowland. Of the three of them, Dowland was considered the greatest. His future history of the world began to appear in 1957, in both magazine form -- as short stories -- and in book form, as complete novels. By 1963, Dowland was regarded as --"
Mr. Manville said, "Hmmm." Getting out the black binder, he began to thumb through it. "Twentieth century science fiction. . . a rather specialized interest -- fortunately for you. Let's see."
"I hope," Slade said quietly, "it hasn't been taken."
"Here is one client," Mr. Manville said. "Leo Parks of Vacaville, California. He went back and inspired A. E. van Vogt to avoid love stories and westerns and try science fiction." Turning more pages, Mr. Manville said, "And last year a client of Muse Enterprises, Miss Julie Oxenblut of Kansas City, Kansas asked to be permitted to inspire Robert Heinlein in his future history. . . was it Heinlein you said, Mr. Slade?"
"No," Slade said, "it was Jack Dowland, the greatest of the three. Heinlein was great, but I did much research on this, Mr. Manville, and Dowland was greater."
"No, it hasn't been done," Manville decided, closing up the black binder. From his desk drawer he brought out a form. "You fill this out, Mr. Slade," he said, "and then we'll begin to roll on this matter. Do you know the year and the place at which Jack Dowland began work on his future history of the world?"
"I do," Slade said. "He was living in a little town on the then Route 40 in Nevada, a town called Purpleblossom, consisted of three gas stations, a cafe, a bar, and a general store. Dowland had moved there to get atmosphere; he wanted to write stories of the Old West in the form of TV scripts. He hoped to make a good deal of money."
"I see you know your subject," Manville said, impressed.
Slade continued, "While living in Purpleblossom he did write a number of TV western scripts but somehow he found them unsatisfactory. In any case, he remained there, trying other fields such as children's books and articles on teen-age pre-marital sex for the slick magazines of the times. . . and then, all at once, in the year 1956, he suddenly turned to science fiction and immediately produced the greatest novelette seen to date in that field. That was the consensus gentium of the time, Mr. Manville, and I have read the story and I agree. It was called THE FATHER ON THE WALL and it still appears in anthologies now and then; it's the kind of story that will never die. And the magazine in which it appeared, Fantasy & Science Fiction, will always be remembered for having published Dowland's first epic in its August 1957 issue."
Nodding, Mr. Manville said, "And this is the magnus opus which you wish to inspire. This, and all that followed."
"You have it right, sir," Mr. Slade said.
"Fill out your form," Manville said, "and we'll do the rest." He smiled at Slade and Slade, confident, smiled back.
The operator of the time-ship, a short, heavy-set, crew-cut young man with strong features, said briskly to Slade, "Okay, bud; you ready or not? Make up your mind."
Slade, for one last time, inspected his twentieth century suit which Muse Enterprises had provided him -- one of the services for the rather high fee which he had found himself paying. Narrow necktie, cuffless trousers, and Ivy League striped shirt. . . yes, Slade decided, from what he knew of the period it was authentic, right down to the sharp-pointed Italian shoes and the colorful stretch socks. He would pass without any difficulty as a citizen of the U.S. of 1956, even in Purpleblossom, Nevada.
"Now listen," the operator said, as he fastened the safety belt around Slade's middle, "you got to remember a couple of things. First of all, the only way you can get back to 2040 is with me; you can't walk back. And second, you got to be careful not to change the past -- I mean, stick to your one simple task of inspiring this individual, this Jack Dowland, and let it go at that."
"Of course," Slade said, puzzled at the admonition.
"Too many clients," the operator said, "you'd be surprised how many, go wild when they get back into the past; they get delusions of power and want to make all sorts of changes -- eliminate wars, hunger and poverty -- you know. Change history."
"I won't do that," Slade said. "I have no interest in abstract cosmic ventures on that order." To him, inspiring Jack Dowland was cosmic enough. And yet he could empathize enough to understand the temptation. In his own work he had seen all kinds of people.
The operator slammed shut the hatch of the time-ship, made certain that Slade was strapped in properly, and then took his own seat at the controls. He snapped a switch and a moment later Slade was on his way to his vacation from monotonous office work -- back to 1956 and the nearest he would come to a creative act in his life.
The hot midday Nevada sun beat down, blinding him; Slade squinted, peered about nervously for the town of Purpleblossom. All he saw was dull rock and sand, the open desert with a single narrow road passing among the Joshua plants.
"To the right," the operator of the time-ship said, pointing. "You can walk there in ten minutes. You understand your contract, I hope. Better get it out and read it."
From the breast pocket of his 1950-style coat, Slade brought the long yellow contract form with Muse Enterprises. "It says you'll give me thirty-six hours. That you'll pick me up in this spot and that it's my responsibility to be here; if I'm not, and can't be brought back to my own time, the company is not liable."
"Right," the operator said, and re-entered the time-ship. "Good luck, Mr. Slade. Or, as I should call you, Jack Dowland's muse." He grinned, half in derision, half in friendly sympathy, and then the hatch shut after him.
Jesse Slade was alone on the Nevada desert, a quarter mile outside the tiny town of Purpleblossom.
He began to walk, perspiring, wiping his neck with his handkerchief.
There was no problem to locating Jack Dowland's house, since only seven houses existed in the town. Slade stepped up onto the rickety wooden porch, glancing at the yard with its trash can, clothes line, discarded plumbing fixtures. . . parked in the driveway he saw a dilapidated car of some archaic sort -- archaic even for the year 1956.
He rang the bell, adjusted his tie nervously, and once more in his mind rehearsed what he intended to say. At this point in his life, Jack Dowland had written no science fiction; that was important to remember -- it was in fact the entire point. This was the critical nexus in his life -- history, this fateful ringing of his doorbell. Of course Dowland did not know that. What was he doing within the house? Writing? Reading the funnies of a Reno newspaper? Sleeping?
Footsteps. Tautly, Slade prepared himself.
The door opened. A young woman wearing light-weight cotton trousers, her hair tied back with a ribbon, surveyed him calmly. What small, pretty feet she had, Slade noticed. She wore slippers; her skin was smooth and shiny, and he found himself gazing intently, unaccustomed to seeing so much of a woman exposed. Both ankles were completely bare.
"Yes?" the woman asked pleasantly but a trifle wearily. He saw now that she had been vacuuming; there in the living room was a tank type G.E. vacuum cleaner. . . its existence here proving that historians were wrong; the tank type cleaner had not vanished in 1950 as was thought.
Slade, thoroughly prepared, said smoothly, "Mrs. Dowland?" The woman nodded. Now a small child appeared to peep at him past its mother. "I'm a fan of your husband's monumental --" Oops, he thought, that wasn't right. "Ahem," he corrected himself, using a twentieth century expression often found in books of that period. "Tsk-tsk," he said. "What I mean to say is this, madam. I know well the works of your husband Jack. I am here by means of a lengthy drive across the desert badlands to observe him in his habitat." He smiled hopefully.
"You know Jack's work?" She seemed surprised, but thoroughly pleased.
"On the telly," Slade said. "Fine scripts of his." He nodded.
"You're English, are you?" Mrs. Dowland said. "Well, did you want to come in?" She held the door wide. "Jack is working right now up in the attic. . . the children's noise bothers him. But I know he'd like to stop and talk to you, especially since you drove so far. You're Mr. --"
"Slade," Slade said. "Nice abode you possess, here."
"Thank you." She led the way into a dark, cool kitchen in the center of which he saw a round plastic table with wax milk carton, melmac plate, sugar bowl, two coffee cups and other amusing objects thereon. "JACK!" she called at the foot of a flight of stairs. "THERE'S A FAN OF YOURS HERE; HE WANTS TO SEE YOU!"
Far off above them a door opened. The sound of a person's steps, and then, as Slade stood rigidly, Jack Dowland appeared, young and good-looking, with slightly-thinning brown hair, wearing a sweater and slacks, his lean, intelligent face beclouded with a frown. "I'm at work," he said curtly. "Even though I do it at home it's a job like any other." He gazed at Slade. "What do you want? What do you mean you're a 'fan' of my work? What work? Christ, it's been two months since I sold anything; I'm about ready to go out of my mind."
Slade said, "Jack Dowland, that is because you have yet to find your proper genre." He heard his voice tremble; this was the moment.
"Would you like a beer, Mr. Slade?" Mrs. Dowland asked.
"Thank you, miss," Slade said. "Jack Dowland," he said, "I am here to inspire you."
"Where are you from?" Dowland said suspiciously. "And how come you're wearing your tie that funny way?"
"Funny in what respect?" Slade asked, feeling nervous.
"With the knot at the bottom instead of up around your adam's apple." Dowland walked around him, now, studying him critically. "And why's your head shaved? You're too young to be bald."
"The custom of this period," Slade said feebly. "Demands a shaved head. At least in New York."
"Shaved head my ass," Dowland said. "Say, what are you, some kind of a crank? What do you want?"
"I want to praise you," Slade said. He felt angry now; a new emotion, indignation, filled him -- he was not being treated properly and he knew it.
"Jack Dowland," he said, stuttering a little, "I know more about your work than you do; I know your proper genre is science fiction and not television westerns. Better listen to me; I'm your muse." He was silent, then, breathing noisily and with difficulty.
Dowland stared at him, and then threw back his head and laughed.
Also smiling, Mrs. Dowland said, "Well, I knew Jack had a muse but I assumed it was female. Aren't all muses female?"
"No," Slade said angrily. "Leon Parks of Vacaville, California, who inspired A. E. van Vogt, was male." He seated himself at the plastic table, his legs being too wobbly, now, to support him. "Listen to me, Jack Dowland --"
"For God's sake," Dowland said, "either call me Jack or Dowland but not both; it's not natural the way you're talking. Are you on tea or something?" He sniffed intently.
"Tea," Slade echoed, not understanding. "No, just a beer, please."
Dowland said, "Well get to the point. I'm anxious to be back at work. Even if it's done at home it is work."
It was now time for Slade to deliver his encomium. He had prepared it carefully; clearing his throat he began. "Jack, if I may call you that, I wonder why the hell you haven't tried science fiction. I figure that --"
"I'll tell you why," Jack Dowland broke in. He paced back and forth, his hands in his trousers pockets. "Because there's going to be a hydrogen war. The future's black. Who wants to write about it? Keeerist." He shook his head. "And anyhow who reads that stuff? Adolescents with skin trouble. Misfits. And it's junk. Name me one good science fiction story, just one. I picked up a magazine on a bus once when I was in Utah. Trash! I wouldn't write that trash even if it paid well, and I looked into it and it doesn't pay well -- around one half cent a word. And who can live on that?" Disgustedly, he started toward the stairs. "I'm going back to work."
"Wait," Slade said, feeling desperate. All was going wrong. "Hear me out, JackDowland."
"There you go with that funny talk again," Dowland said. But he paused, waiting. "Well?" he demanded.
Slade said, "Mr. Dowland, I am from the future." He was not supposed to say that -- Mr. Manville had warned him severely -- but it seemed at the moment to be the only way out for him, the only thing that would stop Jack Dowland from walking off.
"What?" Dowland said loudly. "The what?"
"I am a time-traveler," Slade said feebly, and was silent.
Dowland walked back toward him.
When he arrived at the time-ship, Slade found the short-set operator seated on the ground before it, reading a newspaper. The operator glanced up, grinned and said, "Back safe and sound, Mr. Slade. Come on, let's go." He opened the hatch and guided Slade within.
"Take me back," Slade said. "Just take me back."
"What's the matter? Didn't you enjoy your inspiring?"
"I just want to go back to my own time," Slade said.
"Okay," the operator said, raising an eyebrow. He strapped Slade into his seat and then took his own beside him.
When they reached Muse Enterprises, Mr. Manville was waiting for them. "Slade," he said, "come inside." His face was dark. "I have a few words to say to you."
When they were alone in Manville's office, Slade began, "He was in a bad mood, Mr. Manville. Don't blame me." He hung his head, feeling empty and futile.
"You --" Manville stared down at him in disbelief. "You failed to inspire him! That's never happened before!"
"Maybe I can go back again," Slade said.
"My God," Manville said, "you not only didn't inspire him -- you turned him against science fiction."
"How did you find this out?" Slade said. He had hoped to keep it quiet, make it his own secret to carry with him to the grave.
Manville said bitingly, "All I had to do was keep my eye on the reference books dealing with literature of the twentieth century. Half an hour after you left, the entire texts on Jack Dowland, including the half-page devoted to his biography in the Britannica -- vanished."
Slade said nothing; he stared at the floor.
"So I researched it," Manville said. "I had the computers at the University of California look up all extant citations on Jack Dowland."
"Were there any?" Slade mumbled.
"Yes," Manville said. "There were a couple. Minute, in rarified technical articles dealing comprehensively and exhaustively with that period. Because of you, Jack Dowland is now completely unknown to the public -- and was so even during his own day." He waved a finger at Slade, panting with wrath. "Because of you, Jack Dowland never wrote his epic future history of mankind. Because of your so-called 'inspiration' he continued to write scripts for TV westerns -- and died at forty-six an utterly anonymous hack."
"No science fiction at all?" Slade asked, incredulous. Had he done that badly? He couldn't believe it; true, Dowland had bitterly repulsed every suggestion Slade had made -- true, he had gone back up to his attic in a peculiar frame of mind after Slade had made his point. But --
"All right," Manville said, "there exists one science fiction work by Jack Dowland. Tiny, mediocre and totally unknown." Reaching into his desk drawer he grabbed out a yellowed, ancient magazine which he tossed to Slade. "One short story called ORPHEUS WITH CLAY FEET, under the pen name Philip K. Dick. Nobody read it then, nobody reads it now -- it was an account of a visit to Dowland by --" He glared furiously at Slade. "By a well-intentioned idiot from the future with deranged visions of inspiring him to write a mythological history of the world to come. Well, Slade? What do you say?"
Slade said heavily, "He used my visit as the basis for the story. Obviously."
"And it made him the only money he ever earned as a science fiction writer -- dissapointingly little, barely enough to justify his effort and time. You're in the story, I'm in the story -- Lord, Slade, you must have told him everything."
"I did," Slade said. "To convince him."
"Well, he wasn't convinced; he thought you were a nut of some kind. He wrote the story obviously in a bitter frame of mind. Let me ask you this: was he busy working when you arrived?"
"Yes," Slade said, "but Mrs. Dowland said --"
"There is -- was -- no Mrs. Dowland! Dowland never married! That must have been a neighbor's wife whom Dowland was having an affair with. No wonder he was furious; you broke in on his assignation with that girl, whoever she was. She's in the story, too; he put everything in and then gave up his house in Purpleblossom, Nevada and moved to Dodge City, Kansas." There was silence.
"Um," Slade said at last, "well, could I try again? With someone else? I was thinking on the way back about Paul Ehrlich and his magic bullet, his discovery of the cure for --"
"Listen," Manville said. "I've been thinking, too. You're going back but not to inspire Doctor Ehrlich or Beethoven or Dowland or anybody like that, anybody useful to society."
With dread, Slade glanced up.
"You're going back," Manville said between his teeth, "to uninspire people like Adolf Hitler and Karl Marx and Sanrome Clinger --"
"You mean you think I'm so ineffectual. . ." Slade mumbled.
"Exactly. We'll start with Hitler in his period of imprisonment after his first abortive attempt to seize power in Bavaria. The period in which he dictated Mein Kampf to Rudolf Hess. I've discussed this with my superiors and it's all worked out; you'll be there as a fellow prisoner, you understand? And you'll recommend to Adolf Hitler, just as you recommended to Jack Dowland, that he write. In this case, a detailed autobiography laying out in detail his political program for the world. And if everything goes right --"
"I understand," Slade murmured, staring at the floor again. "It's a -- I'd say an inspired idea, but I'm afraid I've given onus to that word by now."
"Don't credit me with the idea," Manville said. "I got it out of Dowland's wretched story, ORPHEUS WITH CLAY FEET; that's how he resolved it at the end." He turned the pages of the ancient magazine until he came to the part he wanted. "Read that, Slade. You'll find that it carries you up to your encounter with me, and then you go off to do research on the Nazi Party so that you can best uninspire Adolf Hitler not to write his autobiography and hence possibly prevent World War Two. And if you fail to uninspire Hitler, we'll try you on Stalin, and if you fail to uninspire Stalin, then --"
"All right," Slade muttered, "I understand; you don't have to spell it out to me."
"And you'll do it," Manville said, "because in ORPHEUS WITH CLAY FEET you agree. So it's all decided already."
Slade nodded. "Anything. To make amends."
To him Manville said, "You idiot. How could you have done so badly?"
"It was an off-day for me," Slade said. "I'm sure I could do better the next time." Maybe with Hitler, he thought. Maybe I can do a terrific job of uninspiring him, better than anyone else ever did in uninspiring anyone in history.
"We'll call you the null-muse," Manville said.
"Clever idea," Slade said.
Wearily, Manville said, "Don't compliment me; compliment Jack Dowland. It was in his story, too. At the very last."
"And that's how it ends?" Slade asked.
"No," Manville said, "it ends with me presenting you with a bill -- the costs of sending you back to uninspire Adolf Hitler. Five hundred dollars, in advance." He held out his hand. "Just in case you never get back here."
Resignedly, in misery, Jesse Slade reached as slowly as possible into his twentieth century coat pocket for his wallet.