excerpt from Chapter 11 of The Space Merchants (1953),
a science fiction novel by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

[The setup: It is the future, a massively-overpopulated world controlled by commercialism run mad. Mitchell Courtenay, our anti-hero and stalwart advertising executive for Fowler Schocken, has stolen the highly-lucrative Venus colonization contract away from competitor Taunton Associates. Left for dead on a glacier, Courtenay makes his way back to New York City, where he is captured, bound, and put at B. J. Taunton's mercy.]

"Explain," said Tauton to one aide, "I want him thoroughly convinced that we are in earnest."

One of his men told me dryly: "It's a matter of population, Courtenay. Have you ever heard of Albert Fish?"


"He was a phenomenon of the dawn; the earliest days of the Age of Reason--1920 or thereabouts. Albert Fish stuck needles into himself, burned himself with alcohol-saturated wads of cotton, flogged himself--he liked it. He would have liked brainburning, I'll wager. It would have been twenty delightful subjective years of being flayed, suffocated, choked, and nauseated. It would have been Albert Fish's dream come true.

"There was only one Albert Fish in his day. Pressures and strains of a very high order are required to produce an Albert Fish. It would be unreasonable to expect more than one to be produced out of the small and scattered population of the period--less than three billion. With our vastly larger current population there are many Albert Fishes wandering around. You only have to find them. Our matchless research facilities here at Taunton have unearthed several. They turn up at hospitals, sometimes in very grotesque shape. They are eager would-be killers; they want the delights of punishment. A man like you says we can't hire killers because they'd be afraid of being punished. But Mr. Taunton, now, says we can hire a killer if we find one who likes being punished. And the best part of it all is, the ones who like to get hurt are the ones who just love hurting others. Hurting, for instance--you."

It had a bloodcurdlingly truthful ring to it. Our generation must be inured to wonder. The chronicles of fantastic heroism and abysmal wickedness that crowd our newscasts--I knew from research that they didn't have such courage or such depravity in the old days. The fact had puzzled me. We have such people as Malone, who quietly dug his tunnels for six years and then one Sunday morning blew up Red Bank, New Jersey. A Brink's traffic cop had got him sore. Conversely we have James Revere, hero of the White Cloud disaster. A shy, frail tourist-class steward, he had rescued on his own shoulders seventy-six passengers, returning again and again into the flames with his flesh charring from his bones, blind, groping his way along red-hot bulkheads with his hand-stumps. It was true. When there are enough people, you will always find somebody who can and will do any given thing. Taunton was an artist. He had grasped this broad and simple truth and used it. It meant that I was as good as dead. Kathy, I thought. My Kathy.

Taunton's thick voice broke in on my reflections. "You grasp the pattern?" he asked. "The big picture? The theme, the message, what I might call the essential juice of it is that I'm going to repossess Venus. Now, beginning at the beginning, tell us about the Schocken Agency. All its little secrets, its little weaknesses, its ins and outs, its corruptible employees, its appropriations, its Washington contacts--you know."

I was a dead man with nothing to lose--I thought. "No," I said.

One of Taunton's men said abruptly: "He's ready for Hedy," got up and went out.

Taunton said: "You've studied prehistory, Courtenay. You may recognize the name of Gilles de Rais." I did, and felt a tightness over my scalp, like a steel helmet slowly shrinking. "All the generations of prehistory added up to an estimated five billion population," Taunton rambled. "All the generations of prehistory produced only one Gilles de Rais, whom you perhaps think of as Bluebeard. Nowadays we have our pick of several. Out of all the people I might have picked to handle special work like that for me I picked Hedy. You'll see why."

The door opened and a pale, adenoidal girl with lank blond hair was standing in it. She had a silly grin on her face; her lips were thin and bloodless. In one hand she held a six-inch needle set in a plastic handle.

I looked into her eyes and began screaming. I couldn't stop screaming until they led her away and closed the door again. I was broken.

"Taunton," I whispered at last. "Please . . ."

He leaned back comfortably and said: "Give."

I tried, but I couldn't. My voice wouldn't work right and neither would my memory. I couldn't remember whether my firm was Fowler Schocken or Schocken Fowler, for instance.

Taunton got up at last and said: "We'll put you on ice for a while, Courtenay, so you can pull yourself together. I need a drink myself." He shuddered involuntarily, and then beamed again. "Sleep on it," he said, and left unsteadily.

Two of his men carted me from the brain room, down a corridor and into a bare cubbyhole with a very solid door. It seemed to be night in executives' country. Nothing was going on in any of the offices we passed, lights were low, and a single corridor guard was yawning at his desk.

I asked unsteadily: "Will you take the cocoon off me? I'm going to be a filthy mess if I don't get out of it."

"No orders about it," one of them said briefly, and they slammed the solid door and locked it. I flopped around the small floor trying to find something sharp enough to break the film and give me an even chance of bursting the plastic, but there was nothing. After incredible contortions and a dozen jarring falls I found that I could never get to my feet. The doorknob had offered a very, very faint ghost of hope, but it might as well have been a million miles away.

Mitchell Courtenay, copysmith. Mitchell Courtenay, key man of the Venus section. Mitchell Courtenay, destroyer-to-be of the Consies. Mitchell Courtenay flopping on the floor of a cell in the offices of the sleaziest, crookedest agency that ever blemished the profession, without any prospect except betrayal and--with luck--a merciful death. Kathy at least would never know. She would think I had died like a fool on the glacier, meddling with the power pack when I had no business to . . .

The lock of the door rattled and rattled. They were coming for me.

But when the door opened I saw from the floor not a forest of trousered legs but a single pair of matchstick ankles, nylon-clad.

"I love you," said the strange, dead voice of a woman. "They said I would have to wait, but I couldn't wait." It was Hedy. She had her needle.

I tried to cry for help, but my chest seemed paralyzed as she knelt beside me with shining eyes. The temperature of the room seemed to drop ten degrees. She clamped her bloodless lips on mine; they were like heated iron. And then I thought the left side of my face and head were being torn off. It lasted for seconds and blended into a red haze and unconsciousness.

"Wake up," the dead voice was saying. "I want you. Wake up." Lightning smashed at my right elbow, and I cried out and jerked my arm. My arm moved--

It moved.

The bloodless lips descended on mine again, and again her needle ran into my jaw, probing exactly for the great lump of the trigeminal facial nerve, and finding it. I fought the red haze that was trying to swallow me up. My arm had moved. She had perforated the membrane of the cocoon, and it could be burst. The needle searched again and somehow the pain was channeled to my right arm. In one convulsive jerk it was free.

I think I took the back of her neck in my hand and squeezed. I am not sure. I do not want to be sure. But after five minutes she and her love did not matter. I ripped and stripped the plastic from me and got to my feet an inch at a time, moaning from stiffness.

The corridor guard could not matter any more. If he had not come at my cries he would never come. I walked from the room and saw the guard apparently sleeping face-down on his desk. As I stood over him I saw a very little blood and serum puddled and coagulating in the small valley between the two cords of his shrunken old neck. One thrust transfixing the medulla had been enough for Hedy. I could testify that her knowledge of the nervous system's topography was complete.

The guard wore a gun that I hesitated over for a moment and then rejected. In his pockets were a few dollars that would be more useful. I hurried on to the ladders. His desk clock said 0605.