Selling’s ‘A Start in Life’

Selling’s ‘A Start in Life’

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Cover of Galaxy Science Fiction Vol8 No5 1954

Image of the cover of Galaxy Science Fiction Vol8 No5 1954

Sellings, A. (1954, September) A Start in Life. In Galaxy Science Fiction magazine,


By Arthur Sellings

What a problem for a robot . . . having all of the answers, but not knowing when to give them!

C-A-T spells Cat,” said Em.

“But what is a cat?” said Paul.

“Why, here’s a cat. Look at his big striped tail.”

But Paul only pushed the book away petulantly. “I want a cat. A real cat I can pull the tail of.”

“Cats aren’t made for you to pull their tails,” said Em. “Now, C-A-T spells—”

“Cat, cat, CAT!” he wailed, kicking his little heels on the floor.

Em hesitated, then returned to her task. “Very well. The cat sat on the mat. M-A-T, Mat. And here’s a mat.” She held it up. “A real mat.”

Paul sniffed contemptuously and, with a child’s unanswerable logic, said, “How can you say what a cat’s made for “and what a cat’s not made for, if we haven’t got a cat?”

If Em had been human, she would have sighed. As it was, she wondered whether the child’s question was good or bad. It was good because it showed power of reasoning; bad because it might get in the way of his studies. Helen now was different. She just listened and repeated the words, but Em was never sure whether she really understood.

“Why can’t I have a real cat, Em?” said Paul. “In the book, the boy’s got a cat. Why can’t I have a cat, a real alive cat, not one in a book? An alive cat, same as we’re alive.”

IN the web of Em’s mind floated several thoughts. One was that she wasn’t really alive — not really. And that brought the feeling of something a human would have called pain. It wasn’t pain, though, but something worse, because a robot couldn’t feel pain.

Another was that it was bad enough as it was, having to teach them from books showing children in circumstances that they themselves knew nothing of; having to avoid their questions, putting them off and off —

“In the story Jay was reading me the other bedtime, they buyed a cat in a shop. Why can’t we buy a cat in a shop !” He screwed up his face and added in a plaintive little voice, “And how do you buy?”

Really, thought Em, she would have to have a word with Jay and suggest that he be more careful about what he read to them. He was too good-natured, too easy-going.

“How do you buy?” Paul said again, tugging at her metal kneejoint.

“Well, it’s giving something for something else. Like …” she floundered. It did involve giving something for something else. She’d heard the grownups mention it — in the days when there had been grownups. They had joked about it the way humans did joke, because here buying and — what was it? — selling had no meaning.

“It isn’t important,” she said.

“What’s important?”

“That you learn your lessons.”

“No, I mean what does important mean?”

“If you learn your lessons, you’ll learn what important means.” As she said it she realized it couldn’t be very convincing, especially to a six-year-old. So she added hastily, “You’ll learn what all the long words mean, and then you’ll be able to read all the books there are. All the big books with long words in them.”

To her surprise, the mention of big books did not brighten his eyes as it always had before.

“They’re all lies!” he burst out. “I don’t want to learn anything. They’re all lies about things that don’t happen. There ain’t such things as cats and trees and — and …” He broke into bitter sobbing.

“Not ain’t— aren’t,” said Em, cursing herself the next moment. As if that really mattered when there were only the four of them. She reached out a hand to comfort him. But he shrugged it away.

“Come on,” she said, trying to modulate her voice like a human, trying to be soft and gentle and comforting and knowing that she couldn’t manage it. “We do have trees, anyway.”

He looked up, his face flushed and indignant. “They’re not trees,” he retorted vehemently. “They’re only a lot of old weeds. You can climb up real trees.”

“I thought you said those were lies in the books about trees,” she said. This time she did manage to get a whisper into her voice so that he would understand that she was only kidding him — she hoped. But he only burst into a renewed fit of sobbing.

“THERE are trees,” she persisted. “Leastways, there have been trees. And there will be again.” She didn’t like to think what the odds were against that, so she didn’t. “I’ve seem them with my own eyes. You believe Em, don’t you?” She put out her hand again, and this time he did not reject it. He threw himself into her hard, cold, metallic lap.

“Oh, Em,” he sobbed. “Oh, Em!” But his tears now were not the tears of anger and separation, but of union in a common loss, so that Em, too, might have wept had she been human.

Instead she ran her clumsy, inadequate fingers through his damp blond hair, and said, “There, there,” but this time it was far too loud and mechanical, so she stopped talking and cradled him in her arms, rocking him till his weeping subsided.

She was still rocking him when Jay came back from the gardens with Helen.

Bursting through the doorway, Helen yelled excitedly, “Look what I’ve got. A flower! A real flower!”

“Ss-sh,” said Em in a whisper like a steam valve going off.

“Oh,” said Helen, “can’t I wake him to show him my flower?” She held the sickly yellowish bloom in front of her face.

“No,” said Em, “he’s tired. I shouldn’t have given him an extra lesson.” She turned to Jay. “What is this flower?”

“It just grew, Em,” said Jay. “I found it in the beds along with the plants.”

“Jay, is that the truth?”

It wasn’t conscience that made Jay shake his head, but knowing that Em knew the truth. “I — I planted a couple of seeds. One of the seed bags in the stores was split open and I found the seeds on the floor. It won’t do any harm, Em.”

“I thought we agreed that nothing like that must be touched. We don’t know what might happen.”

“Don’t worry about it, Em. I read all about it in a book before I planted them. I thought the children ought to have something. They get so little — ”

“Don’t you think if s time to put the children to bed?” said Em warningly. She noticed that Helen had hidden the pitiful flower behind her back.

“Sure, sure,” said Jay. “But about these seeds, Em. I thought perhaps we could …”

He faltered. Neither robot had anything like facial muscles with which to express a meaning with- out words, but the way Em was looking at him now — head lowered, shining eyes leveled at him from beneath her rounded brow — was warning enough.

“All right, Em. Let me have the boy. Come along, Helen. Bedtime.”

But Helen did not turn. She looked up at Em. “I may keep the flower, Em, mayn’t I?”

“Of course, Helen,” said Em after only a moment’s hesitation. If any harm had been done, it was done by now. “I’ll put some water in a glass and you can have it near your bed. How’s that?”

“Oh, thank you, Em, thank you!” She rushed over and clasped Em about the legs. Em lifted her gently up, but held her at arm’s length. Otherwise, she knew, the child would kiss her, for she was more demonstrative than the boy. And the thought that she was all in the nature of a mother the child had to kiss — only cold unyielding metal — made Em feel inadequate. And whether she was supposed to be able to feel that or not, she did — and too often.

As she set Helen down, Em noticed the disappointed expression that always came when she had to frustrate her childlike impulses. But the look she gave Em before she turned to follow Jay was somehow different from any Em had noticed before.

EM stood there looking after her for quite a long time. In fact, she was still looking after her, standing in the same awkward, unhuman stance, when Jay returned. As he sat down, she sat down in the chair facing him. Sitting was another habit they’d long ago acquired from humans and not relinquished when the humans had died.

Jay stirred. “Helen didn’t want to hear a story tonight,” he said.

“Oh?” she said. There was a long pause..

“Em,” he said at last. “You’re not really mad at me, are you? About the flowers, I mean.”

“I think you’re a fool, that’s all,” she said. “We can’t afford to take risks like that. Germs, spores — we just don’t know what might come from something new.”

“But we inoculated them against everything, didn’t we? Don’t you remember, Em? Didn’t I hold them when you put the needle in?”

“Oh, stop it,” she said crossly. Of course she remembered. How could she forget? Those first years when there had been so many things to remember from the last hurried instructions. How to change and bathe babies with hands that had never been made for it. How to nurse them through the childhood ailments that came in spite of all the inoculations. How to teach things that had never been taught to oneself, bcause they’d either been unnecessary or built in.

Nervous breakdown couldn’t happen to a robot, because a robot’s system wasn’t like a human’s. But bringing up a human baby was an almost hopeless task for a robot, Em thought. One mental image had become a recurring and fearful one — the fantastic image of herself exploding under the strain, of cogs and springs and synthetic brain-cells flying in all directions.

That was the image that came back now to frighten and confound her.

It was different with Jay. She looked at him as he sat there, silent after the sharpness of her admonition. Her mind went back to the first days, the very first days before this great burden of responsibility had been laid upon them.

How carefree it had been then! The way, for instance, the humans had come to treat her and Jay like male and female. It was only coincidence that Jay’s prefix made a man’s name and hers a woman’s. Being an earlier model, which accounted for the alphabetical precedence, he was clumsier, bulkier, squarer, while she was neater, smaller, more agile and more smoothly shaped. More delicate of voice, too. But besides, she had a quicker intuition than his, a more gentle manner and certainly a greater tendency to worry. It had been he who had joined in the jokes of the men, trying to understand them, dancing clumsy dances to amuse everyone when spirits were low. Meanwhile, she had learned to cook, although it was no more part of her job than dancing was his.

In human company they had gradually assumed the positions of man and wife — he boasting sometimes of being older and more experienced, she slyly pointing out that that didn’t make him necessarily wiser. He, since the last human grownups had all gone, thinking more of making the children happy — she of keeping them safe.

And, like a wife who knows she is more intelligent than her husband, she tried to use it by not demonstrating it too often. But now she felt she had to speak.

“If anything ever happens to them we’ll be alone. I don’t think you properly realize just how delicate human beings are.”

“Of course I do, Em.”

“And not only in their bodies,” she went on, as if she hadn’t heard him. “You’ll have to be more careful what you read to them.”

“Now what have I done?”

“Don’t read them any stories about children having things they can’t have. Stick to fairy stories.”

“But there aren’t many fairy stories. They know them all by heart by now. Anyway, humans wouldn’t have had these books for the children if they were bad for them, would they?”

“Oh, oh, oh! Sometimes I wonder what goes on inside that big square head of yours. Don’t you see that it wouldn’t matter if they had their own mothers and fathers to tell them?”

“Of course I see. I just didn’t think that—”

“Well, think, then,” she said sharply.

He lowered his gaze. “I do think,” he said after a pause.

Then he looked up and said, “I think, for instance, that before long we’ll just have to tell them. The truth, I mean.”

“Why do you say that now?” she said, suddenly fearful.

“Oh, just things they say sometimes. The way they ask about the big door, the way their eyes stray toward it. Little things like that.”

“I know,” Em said at length, “but I’m frightened. Frightened about how they’ll take it, about what knowing will do to them.”

They were silent for long minutes. Then Jay said, “Can’t we invent a fairy story? One big fairy story about everything, so that we never have to tell them the truth.”

Em laid her metal hand on his. “Dear Jay. Can you invent even a little fairy story?”

He shook his head dumbly.

“And neither can I,” said Em.

“Even if we could, it wouldn’t last long. It would only be one long evasion, instead of the little evasions we make now. And anyhow, in two or three years they’ll have the strength to open the big doors themselves. And we won’t be able to stop them. They’ve got to learn by then. They should understand enough of the little truths so that the big truth won’t be too great a shock to them.”

“Well, for my part,” said Jay, “I don’t see how learning that C-A-T spells Cat or that two and two bolts make four would prepare them.”

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she said and her tone was sharp again. Because she knew that, in his simple, direct way, he had come closer to the truth than she cared to admit. “It’s a question of developing their minds. Disciplining them. Preparing them.”

“It was only a thought,” said Jay hastily. “You know best, Em. You always do.”

But it became evident to Em before very long that one couldn’t teach the small truths if one kept dodging the big one all the time. For the children’s growing puzzlement blocked their will to learn.

They were still struggling through the first-year lessons of a five-year-old. Em studied the teaching manuals through the long hours while the children were asleep, trying to perfect herself as a teacher, trying to find out where she had gone wrong.

Their minds were keen enough. Their questions didn’t abate. They became more subtle, more suddenly sprung in the attempt to get past the tightening mesh of their guardians’ evasions. And it became increasingly clear to Em that each evasion was a step backward.

She tried answering their questions in meaningless polysyllables and, when they pressed for explanations, telling them that there was no easier way of putting it, that only by learning would they be able to understand. That device she gave up for they soon came to see through it. She could tell by the look that came into their faces — the by now familiar look of hurt mistrust.

The crux came when Paul asked a question she just couldn’t avoid answering. It was a question that every child asks his mother sooner or later, but Em didn’t know that. Her awkwardness when he suddenly asked her in the middle of a tediously slow arithmetic lesson, “Em, where did I come from?” was not of the same kind that an ill-prepared mother might feel. But it was awkward, none the less.

Her first impulse was to hedge, telling him not to ask general questions during class. But one look at his anxious little face stopped her. She was also aware of Helen’s gaze upon her, a half-smile on her lips, but the rest of her face set, obdurate — and yes, accusing.

“Why,” she said, “well …”

Jay was there and she looked at him for help, even knowing that he could not give it. The helpless gesture he made with his hands was unnecessary.

“Helen says,” said Paul, “that a big machine made us. She says that sometimes she can hear it throbbing. She says that when it’s throbbing it’s making babies.”

Oh, no, thought Em, not this! This wasn’t right at all. They couldn’t be allowed to think like that. Machines were not the masters. Men made machines. A machine could never make men. But how else could they be expected to think? Wasn’t it natural when they knew no other humans, when two machines controlled their lives?

“Do you believe that, Helen?” she asked. But Helen only dropped her eyes.

“And you, Paul, do you believe that?”

“I don’t know what to believe.”

“Have you ever heard machines, Paul?”

Helen broke in. “I don’t hear them, I feel them. I feel them throb, throb, throbbing.” She stopped abruptly, dropping her gaze again.

“But you both know that they’re just the machines that give us our air and light and everything. They’re buried down and down. They just go on working away like all good machines.”

“Then, if machines didn’t make us,” said Paul, “where did we come from? We must have come from somewhere. Somewhere where there’s trees and cats and — and other boys and girls.” His shrill little voice mounted. “Why do you keep us locked away from them?”

“What?” said Em, startled. How could she begin to tell them the truth, if that was what they thought?

“Why can’t we ever join them and play in the trees with them? Why do you keep the big door locked all the time?” His eyes filled with tears, but he did not cry aloud, It was that fact, that he did not cry, that decided Em more than anything else.

“I’ll tell you,” she said. She took one look at Jay. He nodded once, slowly. Even Jay saw there was no avoiding it this time.

THE children’s eyes widened. They looked at each other and back to Em.

“Before I begin,” said Em, “you must promise to be brave. You will hear things you did not expect. You were each made by a mother and a father. Jay and I are only here to see that you grow up well and strong and clever. Your father and mother, Paul, and yours, Helen, are dead. Once there were twenty people here and they are all dead now.”

‘We know what that means,” said Helen. “Not alive — like the mat and the chair. But where are they? Why aren’t they here, even if they are dead?”

Em realized with something like relief that they had no real conception of death. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so difficult, after all. That could be explained later, when it had been revealed to them why it was so important to be alive. Or would they think it important after she told them what she had to tell them?

“Because the dead have no place with the living. That is, except in their thoughts. Jay and I often think of your parents and the others with them. Don’t we, Jay?”

“Eh? Oh, yes, yes.”

“Because they made us, too,” went on Em. “Well, not your actual mothers and fathers, but other clever people like them. We’re grateful and happy that they made us. That’s why we’re happy to look after you. And that’s why you must try to be as clever as they were.”

The children looked puzzled.

“You mean,” piped Paul, “so that we can make people like you?”

“I didn’t mean that,” said Em. “You will have to make others like yourselves.”

“But we couldn’t do that,” said Helen, aghast. “We’re not clever enough.”

“I don’t think,” said Em, “that you’ll need to be clever to do that when the time comes. There are other reasons for you to be clever.” She rose, crossing to the big door. “Come with me,” she said.

They stood looking after her for a moment, not believing their eyes. Then they rushed after her shouting excitedly.

“Em’s going to take us outside.”

“Can we climb the trees, Em?”

“Are there shops there?”

She turned, one metal hand on the bolt, looking down at them as they skipped about her legs.

“There aren’t any trees out there. Nor shops.”

They looked up at her in shocked surprise, suddenly motionless.

“Then— it is all lies in the books?” said Paul slowly.

“No, it’s not lies. It’s just that we haven’t got them. They’re in the past.”

“You mean like the fairy stories? Once upon a time? All once upon a time?”

And Helen said, “There’s just nothing?”

Em faced Jay as she said slowly, “I told you that you would hear things you did not expect. Are you really sure you want to go on?”

She looked from one to the other. She had expected them to be frightened. But she’d underestimated the effect on them of living all their lives in one confined space, their wonder at being able to step out of it at last. “Yes. Please, Em,” said Helen.

“Yes, Em,” said Paul. “Please.”

As she slid the bolt back she had the same feeling as when the last humans had died. The feeling of inadequacy. The disquieting knowledge that when one was dealing with inanimate objects two and two made four and nothing else, but when one was dealing with humans, even little humans — especially little humans — the answer might be something entirely different.

She slid the door open. The dimly lit passages confronted them.

“Oh!” they cried, sounding disappointed.

“Come along,” she said quickly. She took their hands. Then she saw that Jay had not come to the door with them. He hung back, awkwardly. “Aren’t you coming, Jay?”

“Oh, sure, sure,” he said and lumbered after them.

“No pranks, now,” said Em to the children. “Keep hold of my hands.”

As they walked down the corridor Helen said, “I feel it” “I feel it, too, now,” said Paul.

The slight vibration of the engines increased. They passed down a short flight of steps. “Now I hear it,” said Helen.

“Now you see it,” said Em as they turned a bend.

And there were the engines, the great engines, purring and purring, the lights winking over the panels.

“Oooh!” breathed the boy. “Look at that great wheel spinning.”

“That’s the one that supplies us with air,” said Em. Paul took a deep breath. “It smells funny here.”

“That’s ozone,” Em said.

“What’s ozone?”

“I’m not sure,” said Em. “It s some special kind of air. It’s all explained in the books. All about how to stop the machines and how to start them and how to make them go faster. You should see them when they’re really going. They’re only ticking over now. But, my, when they really cut loose if s wonderful.”

“Why, what do they do then, Em?”

It was going right, she thought. They would understand, because now they would want to.

“Come along,” she said, “and I’ll show you.” She led them along the walk to the control room. But there she felt doubt return. Her hand hesitated on the switch. And then, because she knew there was no turning back now, she pressed it.

The children gasped and fell back a step, stumbling, fearing they would fall. Em laid her hands upon their shoulders. “There, it’s all right,” she said.

The screen seemed to curve above and beneath and all around them. It was as if they were suspended in the breathing heart of the Universe. But because the children had no notion of the word Universe, this being the first time they had even seen the stars, to them it was like floating in a great dream, a great and wonderful dream.

It was Paul who, after many moments, broke the silence. And then he only whispered the one word, “Stars!” and he was not speaking to Helen or Em or Jay —or even to himself. He was addressing them, the stars.

“They’re “diamonds,” said Helen. “Like in the story. Diamonds and rubies and emeralds. Reach out and get one for me, Em, so I can hold it in my hand.”

“I can’t,” said Em. “How far away do you think they are?” realizing even as she asked it that the question could have no meaning for them.

But Helen was too excited to pursue that one. “Look,”” she said. “Look at that great big cloud.”

In the infinitely clear depths of infinite space it was like a cloud. It couldn’t have been anything but a cloud to a child who had never seen the skies of Earth. But the teacher in Em could not help saying, “That’s a nebula.”

But Helen did not hear her. She danced up and down, clapping her hands. “That’s my cloud. I’m going to find a wonderful name for it. What about you, Paul? Do you want that big blue star and red star together?”

But Paul had turned away puzzledly from the screen.

“What is it, Paul?” Em asked.

“I’m just wondering,” he said.

“Wondering what?”

“Why you had to keep this away from us all this time.”

“Because …” Em faltered. “Because I didn’t know whether you were ready for it.”

“Ready?” he said, and though his voice asked a question, his tone held a strange confidence. “But why not?” Helen, too, turned away from the screen to look puzzled.

Heavens, thought Em, had all those precautions been unnecessary, then? She had only been carrying out instructions as best she could. And her own reasoning had told her they were wise ones. But had they been? Perhaps she and the parents alike had overestimated the dangers. Perhaps because they had known what it was like to have a wide world under one’s feet, they had not understood that it would not be the same for children born in space. But no, she told herself. They don’t know all of it yet.

And then she told them.

How this was the first starship and probably the last for a long, long time, because starships couldn’t be made every day of the week to launch into space. Nor could men and women be found so easily to volunteer for the years of journeying that it entailed — the years of journeying and possibly never arriving, possibly dying before reaching their goal, but having children before they died, so that the children would carry on.

And how it had gone wrong. How they had died too soon. How the disease had struck the first generation before they were far out in interstellar space — too far out to return. How unknown radiations had produced an unknown germ that had stricken all the adults, attacking their nervous systems. How this had broken out not long before the two children had been born. And how Em helped as best she could at the births because there had been so few of the crew left by then, and those that were still alive had been stricken by the uncontrollable palsy that was the herald of death.

And then the mothers had died, and the other remnants of the crew. And they died, not quite without hope now. Not quite.

Em suddenly realized, in the middle of telling it, that talk of stars and starships could have little meaning for the children. So she digressed to explain something of what she knew of the Universe, of its vast depths and distances, of how great a venture it was to be crossing them. She explained that this was why she and Jay had to watch over them so carefully, why she and Jay had to teach them to read and understand the books, so that they would be able to carry on the great venture. Because one day the ship would have to be piloted down to a new world. She and Jay couldn’t do that unaided.

Jay told them the original purpose for which they had been brought along — to navigate the ship under the stresses of landing — and the stresses of that first takeoff from Earth. That, and to explore any worlds that might be difficult for humans to explore. But they couldn’t do it without the help of humans to plan and direct.

Jay was silent. Em also waited silently. That was too much to ask of the children all at once. So they just waited.

Paul spoke first and his words seemed strangely irrelevant. He turned to Em. “Then you don’t die — you and Jay?”

“Why, no,” she answered. “We go on looking after you and then after the children you will have. We just go on and on, like all good machines.” Now, she could admit the difference between them. It was better this way.

“You’re not machines,” said Helen stoutly. “You’re too wise to be machines.”

“Well, we’re wise machines, then,” Em said, and then, thinking they were getting off the subject, “so, you see, that’s why there aren’t any trees or cats or other children. They’re too far away, like the stars.”

“Which one of those stars is Earth?” said Paul. The word sounded odd on his lips.

“You can’t see Earth from here,” said Em. “It’s much too far away. Besides, it isn’t a star. It’s a planet going around a star.”

“Which star?” said Paul, and Em realized that she didn’t know.

“I’ll look it up in the charts,” she said hastily, hoping she could read them correctly, “and then I’ll point it out to you. How’s that?”

“Could you see all this,” said Helen, “back on Earth?”

“Oh, no, never like this. Half the time you couldn’t see it at all because the Sun was too bright.”

Paul excitedly said, “But then it’s only just a long way away. Back on Earth there’s trees and cats and all those things. And — children just like us seeing them every day. Why, right now . . .”

“But there were other things,” Em said quickly. “Bad things as well. Things we’re free of here, thank goodness.”

“What bad things?” said Helen. “Like being dizzy because of going around and around all the time?”

“No,” said Em. “Nobody ever got dizzy from that. We’re traveling at a great speed now, but we don’t get dizzy, do we? No, but believe Em, there were bad things — lots of them.” A sudden thought struck her. “Otherwise your parents and the others wouldn’t have wanted to leave Earth, would they?”

“No,” admitted Paul, but he didn’t seem very convinced.

It was Jay — Jay who had been silent most of the time for fear of upsetting things — who said impulsively, “Don’t you see? They just got tired of going around and around the same little star all the time. They didn’t get giddy, they just got tired of it, sick and tired. And they didn’t want that for their children. They wanted to give them a better life, a real start in life — ”

He stopped as abruptly as he had begun. He turned away as if fearing he had said the wrong thing.

Em touched his square shoulder. One look at the children’s faces told her that he had said the right thing, the supremely right thing. Jay turned back and Em nodded, her hand still resting gratefully on his shoulder.

Paul said, “And when we get to a new world, will there be trees and cats?”

“There might be trees,” said Em. “There might be cats.” She had heard the humans discussing these things. “There might be — anything.”

She felt a sudden pang of guilt. Was it right not to tell them the rest? She started to, then checked herself. No, the crisis had been met and surmounted. That was the important thing now.

“Anything?” said Paul.

“Giants, even?” said Helen, her eyes round with wonder. “Wizards? Fairy castles?”

“Yes,” said Em, “there might be all of those and more. Nothing guaranteed, mind you, but anything is possible. Anything at all.”

And so she did not add that it wouldn’t be for another hundred and twenty years. That could be told later.



From <>

Arthur Selling. A Start in Life. In Galaxy Science Fiction, (September 1954) pps46-58