No, don’t move. You need to conserve the little oxygen that remains. What’s the point?  Well, there are those who would argue that staying alive is it’s own point, but I have a much more selfish reason which will be revealed to you in due course. You won’t die, you know, if you keep still and listen. If it makes you feel better, think of me as a figment of your imagination; just keep still.

You’ve already worked out that pulling that door shut was not a good idea; these old refrigerators don’t open the same way modern ones do, with a push. Still, you couldn’t be expected to know that. You could have listened to your mother, of course, and stayed away from the dump. No doubt she has filled your head with the usual mother things: don’t take risks, don’t experiment, stay on the path. Perhaps in this particular instance she may have had a point, but don’t jump to conclusions. There’s nothing wrong with experimentation in general; it can lead to some very interesting results. Just imagine: if no one ever experimented, you wouldn’t even know that it was oxygen your lungs were crying out for at this moment. You might think it was light. Experimentation, however, is not necessarily the same as random testing of the environment. It requires a certain degree of thought, of planning, of weighing the consequences. It also involves and understanding of the assumptions underlying the hypothesis, because there are always–

Keep still. I know it’s hot. I know you can’t breath, but, really, there’s not much point in using your last few minutes of consciousness to berate yourself, is there?  Relax, stay calm. I’ll tell you a story about a girl called Libby Thomas.

Once upon a time, when Libby Thomas was twelve, she got a chemistry set for Christmas. She fell in love with it and spent the next two weeks making foul-smelling concoctions in her bedroom. Nothing ever seemed to go quite right, and once she blew off her bangs when  test tube exploded, but she kept going, and she kept a careful record of everything she did.

One day, while her father was muttering about the snow and Libby herself was downstairs writing a letter to Carrie, her penfriend in Kansas (yes, yes, this was in the days before email, now keep still), Libby’s mother decided to tidy up her daughter’s room. The room reeked of the various experiments assembled on the desk; she opened the window and poured the whole mess out into the garden.

Later, when Libby’s father took a shovel and went into the back garden to clear the path, he fell over. He tried to get up again but slipped. He was quite stubborn and kept trying but after he landed on the same elbow for the third time he gave up and crawled his way back to the doorstep. Libby and her mother had to do the shoveling.

Libby was enjoying doing something useful and physical when her little brother arrived home. He stepped from the back door with a manly swagger and promptly fell down. Libby watched with interest as he floundered about and went red in the face: for some reason he seemed unable to get back on his feet…

Suspicion dawned on Mrs. Thomas’s face and she looked hard at her daughter, but behind her bland expression Libby was thoughtful.

The next day, after more thought, Libby asked her brother to invite some of his friends to play in the garden. Like most young boys he did not stop to think and so agreed readily enough. An hour later, half a dozen boys were tromping through the house, trailing clods of snow and one little sister of whom they had been unable to rid themselves. Libby was waiting for them in the garden.

Sure enough, as soon as their feet touched the snow, they all fell over. Except the little girl and, of course, Libby. They smiled at each other.

Later, when the boys were having their tears dried, their bruises kissed better, and the snowballs—which the little girl had stuffed down their necks—removed, Libby was upstairs in her room, frowning over her notes. Though she was not entirely sure what made her mixture act as it did, she was confident of her ability to duplicate it.

The next day, Libby was to be seen prowling around the neighbourhood carrying a stoppered test tube filled with a colourless liquid. She was very selective. A couple of drops on the snow outside the pub, a little dribble in the slush in front of the hardware store, a careful trail along the exact centre of all the pavements she herself was accustomed to using. Last of all, she flung a flamboyant scatter over the pristine football pitch which took up most of the park. She settled back to take notes.

In bed that night, Libby reviewed her findings by flashlight: as long as the ground was cold enough and wet enough, all the men and boys fell over, all the women and girls did not.

On Monday evening Libby went as usual to the youth club at the community centre. She set off early and spent some time walking up and down the various paths around the building before the others arrived. An hour later, she was agreeing with her friends how nice it was that none of the boys had turned up and they could finally get a go on the pool table. Unfortunately there was no dancing as one of Libby’s friends, in an excess of misplaced confidence—and the absence of anyone more qualified—had misconnected the sound system and blown the circuits, but this was a minor inconvenience.

When Libby got home and went into the living room to say goodnight, she was a little surprised to see pictures of the local pub and park and hardware store on the evening news. The newscaster was explaining in a funny voice how they had had to send a women-only crew to cover the story because their regular team kept falling over, wrecking two Arriflexes, a Uher….

Mr. Thomas was sitting in front of the TV, looking bewildered and sipping at a strong whiskey. He hardly noticed Libby’s goodnight kiss. But when Libby bent to kiss her mother, Mrs. Thomas glanced at the news, then at her daughter, so significantly that Libby’s heart sank. Then, to Libby’s surprise, her mother’s eyelid dropped in a wink.

Libby went upstairs slowly. While she brushed her teeth and got into her pajamas, she thought very hard. During the holidays, she could make two batches of the mixture a day. The shed at the bottom of the garden would do very nicely, seeing as her father would no longer be using it.

She climbed into bed.

If she and the other girls in her chemistry class told Miss Ferrar they had a special project, maybe they would be allowed to use the lab one night a week. Miss Ferrar might even help them. If the heating broke down the way it did last winter, they could start in the school itself, get to use the computer room whenever they wanted without some boy shoving them aside while old Mr. Bolan pretended not to notice.

She turned out the light.

Some of the girls in her chemistry class had friends at the neighbouring St. John’s school; between them they could cover the town. Next time there was a disco it would be the boys who would have to be ferried by car to the door and met again by worried Mums. Libby and her friends could walk there in their own time, safe and happy in the cold, crisp dark.

She would write to Carrie, who had penfriends in Japan and Canada. The world could become a very interesting place.

She fell asleep and dreamed of sleek planes criss-crossing the world, spraying…

But you can’t fall asleep, not now. I haven’t finished. You thought that was the end, and a pretty good one?  Ah. Well, you are only eleven. No: think about consequences and assumptions. Let’s assume that in my little fable everything happened as described and for the reasons I implied. We have this intriguing compound, deliciously non-lethal, and the demonstrated willingness to use it. The next stage would be examining its distribution around the world. Yes, yes, there’s Carrie, of course, the penfriend, and those other unnamed penfriends in distant parts. Fine. We’ll go with that.

So it’s a Tuesday afternoon in Topeka, Kansas, and Carrie has just returned from school (she is in eighth grade, a little more socially and, ah, biologically advanced than her penfriend) and is drinking a glass of juice and trying to open her letter from Libby at the same time. Halfway through the juice, she gets to the part of the letter where Libby is detailing how to make the compound. She sighs and shakes her head. Libby can be so, you know, dorky, always talking about chem and math and stuff. If she’d only invent, like, a better nail polish or something, that would be so cool, but what’s the point of making some goop that makes your date fall down?  Really, her penpal was getting weirder…

You don’t like that?  No, of course not: you’re only eleven. No, I haven’t forgotten the other penfriends. Let’s see now. Let’s say that Harumi is exactly twelve years old and she goes to the kind of school in Tokyo where all the girls wear something like looks like a cross between a sailor’s uniform and a catholic school girl’s outfit. When she gets Libby’s letter, she takes it very seriously indeed. So seriously that when she experiments herself, and when finds that the compound does indeed work, she immediately does as she’s been trained to do since birth: she bows respectfully to her father and places the problem in his lap. Social change, you see, is a very serious affair in Japan, and Harumi is smart enough to understand that Libby has invented something that will upset the applecart.

What Harumi doesn’t know is that her father, mild manned Mr Ichiguro, a low-level functionary of the official Japanese trade delegation soon to depart for Helsinki, is in fact a member of the government’s most secret intelligence squad. He takes the matter straight to his superior, who takes it to the Ministry of the Interior, who talks to the Prime Minister and then his opposite number in Great Britain. And within a week of Harumi talking to her father, jolly faced men in pin-striped suits show up at Libby’s school and whisk her away, and when Mrs Thomas gets back from shopping that afternoon she finds all Libby’s clothes and books and posters and test tubes and notes, even her hair brush, have vanished into thin air. She and Mr Thomas go the police, and they appear with tear-streaked faces on Crime Watch and other TV programmes, but no one ever comes forward with information, and Libby is never seen or heard from again.

Is that any closer to your idea of the truth?  I see. I quite agree. Of course it’s unbelievable. Oh, not the intelligence unit nonsense—after all, someone has to be in these things, and many of them have children—but the fact that a government could keep its mouth perfectly shut for so many years. There are so many ridiculous conspiracy theories and they are all worthless. Anyone who has every worked for the government—local, regional or national—can tell you that they are slow, inefficient, and leaky as sieves. For one thing, they are stuffed to the gills with petty bureaucratic despots desperate to hang onto or even increase their share of the pie; for another, they never pay their people enough. Information is power; it’s also currency. Gets traded all the time. No, if some schoolgirl were abducted in broad daylight, there would be headlines in The Sun within a fortnight, and questions in Parliament within a month.

Don’t get restless. If you keep perfectly still I’ll give you a much more plausible ending.

So Libby has figured out that the formula works, only having been raised a good middle class child with an accountant as a father she understands the value of proprietary information. She doesn’t tell her penfriends how to manufacture the stuff. Instead, she demonstrates her work and its effects for her parents and Miss Ferrar, and makes them a proposal. The four of them formed a company, Humpty Dumpty Ltd, patented the formula, and, eschewing the big-business front-end marketing model opt instead for the viral marketing techniques pioneered by the makers of Tupperware. They go into the homes of mothers and housewives and leave tiny trial samples of the colourless liquid, and within two months have had to hire seventeen employees to keep up with demand. Sales are exponential, and by the time Libby is nineteen, she is head of a multi-national corporation with her father as CFO and her mother running daily operations as the COO. Miss Ferrar, unfortunately, had been forced out in a previous reorganisation; her management skills were abysmal. Somehow she’d never been able to leave behind the hectoring tone of a grade school teacher.

The catch here, or the interesting part depending upon your perspective, is that more than half the employees of Humpty Dumpty PLC were men. They didn’t care about the sex of the victims, as long as there was profit to be made. Even more notable is the fact that fully fifty percent of the buyers of the product were also men. It’s a dog eat dog world, and if you can make it impossible for your corporate rival–or the man who is after your wife, or the vandal who the whole neighbourhood knows is responsible for defacing parked cars, especially those of foreign manufacturers–to leave his house, you are automatically ahead of the game. A significant percentage of sales was to various government agencies, and to various civil rights groups, such as NOW. Sales kept climbing. What pushed the company over the edge and reaped such huge profits for the principles at the IPO, however, was Libby’s formulation of the antidote and its sale in tiny pre-packaged quantities: everyone now had to carry an emergency dosage in their pocket or wallet or backpack or jacket. It was argued for years whether or not it was brilliance on the part of the Thomas family, that is, Libby, or happenstance, that dictated the temporary effect of the antidote. The original formula would last for several days, if the climate was cold enough and wet enough; the antidote lasted only six hours. There were two types: to spray on the ground, and to ingest. The ingestible version was more convenient for the consumer–and more profitable for the company–because all they had to do was take a twice daily prophylactic dose and they were safe. There was one rather large snag: sadly, fourteen percent of the users turned into women. In another brilliant example of making lemonade when life hands you lemons, Humpty Dumpty Inc. decided to spin off an independent division devoted to investigating the profit potential of seeking FDA approval of marking the antidote as a sex-change drug.

Oh, stop complaining. So what if you’re getting all muddled up. It does a body good to see the world less in terms of black and white and more in shades of grey. You don’t like this ending, then think up your own. Go on. You have, oh, at least five minutes’ worth of oxygen left. What else do you have to waste your time on. I’m listening.

Uh-hum. Men and women learn to live together in perfect peace and harmony. I see. And this would be because the men, having been momentarily powerless, and women, having been powerful, are filled with empathy and understanding of the problems of the other half?  I thought so. So, listen to me, and pay very careful attention: nine times out of ten, when you treat someone badly, they just get mad. They find a way to strike back, preferably with five times the original force. Well of course they’d be able to fight back! You think all women would band together against all men? Why on earth would they want to do that? No, half of the women would help their men. A goodly percentage of the men would help their women. Pretty soon everyone would be really confused about whose side they were on.

Oh, don’t be ridiculous. Education never changed anything, not in the global sense. On the individual—

Well. At last. You’re absolutely right: there is no perfect ending. There never is. Just as there is never a global understanding or consensus on anything, especially what does or doesn’t constitute a problem. Local and particular and personal solutions are rarely scalable.

Sshh. Do you hear that? Then take my word for it: I think now would be the appropriate time to give in to that panic, to shout and rock about a bit: your mother and father and several concerned neighbours are picking their way over the dump in your direction. You will be unconscious by the time they open the door, but you should survive. That’s it. Shout, bang, rattle. Here they come. Don’t forget: just because your mother tells you not to experiment, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, but do try to keep alert for assumptions, and do make sure you’re prepared for a variety of consequences. It will make a very interesting conversation when next we meet.

First published (in slightly different form) in Realms of Fantasy, ed. Shawna McCarthy, June 2000