S as in Zebatinsky
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by Isaac Asimov
Category: Science Fiction/Humor
Description: Marshall Zebatinsky was embarrassed. He, a nuclear physicist, visiting a numerologist in the hopes of furthering his career--to be famous. Was he so desperate for advancement that he would resort to the superstition, or worse fakery, of a numerologist? It was at his wife urgings and now the numerologist has told him that by changing one letter in his name all his dreams would come true. This story originally appeared in Star Science Fiction magazine in 1958. It later appeared in the story collection, Nine Tomorrows, with the title "Spell My Name With an S". Asimov's frustration with people misspelling his name as "Azimov" was the germ of the idea to the story.
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks, 1958 Star Science Fiction Magazine
eBookwise Release Date: January 2009
27 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [32 KB]
Reading time: 15-21 min.
Marshall Zebatinsky felt foolish. He felt as though there were eyes staring through the grimy store-front glass and across the scarred wooden partition; eyes watching him. He felt no confidence in the old clothes he had resurrected or the turned-down brim of a hat he never otherwise wore or the glasses he had left in their case.
He felt foolish and it made the lines in his forehead deeper and his young-old face a little paler.
He would never be able to explain to anyone why a nuclear physicist such as himself should visit a numerologist. (Never, he thought. Never.) Hell, he could not explain it to himself except that he had let his wife talk him into it.
The numerologist sat behind an old desk that must have been secondhand when bought. No desk could get that old with only one owner. The same might almost be said of his clothes. He was little and dark and peered at Zebatinsky with little dark eyes that were brightly alive.
He said, "I have never had a physicist for a client before, Dr. Zebatinsky."
Zebatinsky flushed at once. "You understand this is confidential."
The numerologist smiled so that wrinkles creased about the corners of his mouth and the skin around his chin stretched. "All my dealings are confidential."
Zebatinsky said, "I think I ought to tell you one thing. I don't believe in numerology and I don't expect to begin believing in it. If that makes a difference, say so now."
"But why are you here, then?"
"My wife thinks you may have something, whatever it is. I promised her and I am here." He shrugged and the feeling of folly grew more acute.
"And what is it you are looking for? Money? Security? Long life? What?"
Zebatinsky sat for a long moment while the numerologist watched him quietly and made no move to hurry his client.
Zebatinsky thought: What do I say anyway? That I'm thirty-four and without a future?
He said, "I want success. I want recognition."
"A better job?"
"A different job. A different kind of job. Right now, I'm part of a team, working under orders. Teams! That's all government research is. You're a violinist lost in a symphony orchestra."
"And you want to solo."
"I want to get out of a team and into--into me." Zebatinsky felt carried away, almost lightheaded, just putting this into words to someone other than his wife. He said, "Twenty-five years ago, with my kind of training and my kind of ability, I would have gotten to work on the first nuclear power plants. Today I'd be running one of them or I'd be head of a pure research group at a university. But with my start these days where will I be twenty-five years from now? Nowhere. Still on the team. Still carrying my 2 per cent of the ball. I'm drowning in an anonymous crowd of nuclear physicists, and what I want is room on dry land, if you see what I mean."
The numerologist nodded slowly. "You realize, Dr. Zebatinsky, that I don't guarantee success."
Zebatinsky, for all his lack of faith, felt a sharp bite of disappointment. "You don't? Then what the devil do you guarantee?"
"An improvement in the probabilities. My work is statistical in nature. Since you deal with atoms, I think you understand the laws of statistics."
"Do you?" asked the physicist sourly.
"I do, as a matter of fact. I am a mathematician and I work mathematically. I don't tell you this in order to raise my fee. That is standard. Fifty dollars. But since you are a scientist, you can appreciate the nature of my work better than my other clients. It is even a pleasure to be able to explain to you."
Zebatinsky said, "I'd rather you wouldn't, if you don't mind. It's no use telling me about the numerical values of letters, their mystic significance and that kind of thing. I don't consider that mathematics. Let's get to the point--"
* * * *
The numerologist said, "Then you want me to help you provided I don't embarrass you by telling you the silly nonscientific basis of the way in which I helped you. Is that it?"
"All right. That's it."
"But you still work on the assumption that I am a numerologist, and I am not. I call myself that so that the police won't bother me and" (the little man chuckled dryly) "so that the psychiatrists won't either. I am a mathematician; an honest one."
The numerologist said, "I build computers. I study probable futures."
"Does that sound worse than numerology to you? Why? Given enough data and a computer capable of sufficient number of operations in unit time, the future is predictable, at least in terms of probabilities. When you compute the motions of a missile in order to aim an anti-missile, isn't it the future you're predicting? The missile and antimissile would not collide if the future were predicted incorrectly. I do the same thing. Since I work with a greater number of variables, my results are less accurate."
"You mean you'll predict my future?"
"Very approximately. Once I have done that, I will modify the data by changing your name and no other fact about you. I throw that modified datum into the operation-program. Then I try other modified names. I study each modified future and find one that contains a greater degree of recognition for you than the future that now lies ahead of you. Or no, let me put it another way. I will find you a future in which the probability of adequate recognition is higher than the probability of that in your present future."
"Why change my name?"
"That is the only change I ever make, for several reasons. Number one, it is a simple change. After all, if I make a great change or many changes, so many new variables enter that I can no longer interpret the result. My machine is still crude. Number two, it is a reasonable change. I can't change your height, can I, or the color of your eyes, or even your temperament. Number three, it is a significant change. Names mean a lot to people. Finally, number four, it is a common change that is done every day by various people."
Zebatinsky said, "What if you don't find a better future?"
"That is the risk you will have to take. You will be no worse off than now, my friend."
Zebatinsky stared at the little man uneasily, "I don't believe any of this. I'd sooner believe numerology."
The numerologist sighed. "I thought a person like yourself would feel more comfortable with the truth. I want to help you and there is much yet for you to do. If you believed me a numerologist, you would not follow through. I thought if I told you the truth you would let me help you."
Zebatinsky said, "If you can see the future--"
"Why am I not the richest man on earth? Is that it? But I am rich--in all I want. You want recognition and I want to be left alone. I do my work. No one bothers me. That makes me a billionaire. I need a little real money and this I get from people such as yourself. Helping people is nice and perhaps a psychiatrist would say it gives me a feeling of power and feeds my ego. Now do you want me to help you?"
"How much did you say?"
"Fifty dollars. I will need a great deal of biographical information from you but I have prepared a form to guide you. It's a little long, I'm afraid. Still, if you can get it in the mail by the end of the week, I will have an answer for you by the--" (he put out his lower lip and frowned in mental calculation) "the twentieth of next month."
"Five weeks? So long?"
"I have other work, my friend, and other clients. If I were a fake, I could do it much more quickly. It is agreed then?"
Zebatinsky rose. "Well, agreed. This is all confidential, now."
"Perfectly. You will have all your information back when I tell you what change to make and you have my word that I will never make any further use of any of it."
The nuclear physicist stopped at the door. "Aren't you afraid I might tell someone you're not a numerologist?"
The numerologist shook his head. "Who would believe you, my friend? Even supposing you were willing to admit to anyone that you've been here."