Thursday, January 26, 2023

The Watchbird by Robert Sheckley

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https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/29579

The scary thing is that people are actually trying this now!
- Larry

***

Strange how often the Millennium has been at
hand. The idea is peace on Earth, see, and
the way to do it is by figuring out angles.

When Gelsen entered, he saw that the rest of the watchbird manufacturers
were already present. There were six of them, not counting himself, and
the room was blue with expensive cigar smoke.

“Hi, Charlie,” one of them called as he came in.

The rest broke off conversation long enough to wave a casual greeting at
him. As a watchbird manufacturer, he was a member manufacturer of
salvation, he reminded himself wryly. Very exclusive. You must have a
certified government contract if you want to save the human race.

“The government representative isn’t here yet,” one of the men told him.
“He’s due any minute.”

“We’re getting the green light,” another said.

“Fine.” Gelsen found a chair near the door and looked around the room.
It was like a convention, or a Boy Scout rally. The six men made up for
their lack of numbers by sheer volume. The president of Southern
Consolidated was talking at the top of his lungs about watchbird’s
enormous durability. The two presidents he was talking at were grinning,
nodding, one trying to interrupt with the results of a test he had run
on watchbird’s resourcefulness, the other talking about the new
recharging apparatus.

The other three men were in their own little group, delivering what
sounded like a panegyric to watchbird.

Gelsen noticed that all of them stood straight and tall, like the
saviors they felt they were. He didn’t find it funny. Up to a few days
ago he had felt that way himself. He had considered himself a
pot-bellied, slightly balding saint.

* * * * *

He sighed and lighted a cigarette. At the beginning of the project, he
had been as enthusiastic as the others. He remembered saying to
Macintyre, his chief engineer, “Mac, a new day is coming. Watchbird is
the Answer.” And Macintyre had nodded very profoundly–another watchbird
convert.

How wonderful it had seemed then! A simple, reliable answer to one of
mankind’s greatest problems, all wrapped and packaged in a pound of
incorruptible metal, crystal and plastics.

Perhaps that was the very reason he was doubting it now. Gelsen
suspected that you don’t solve human problems so easily. There had to be
a catch somewhere.

After all, murder was an old problem, and watchbird too new a solution.

“Gentlemen–” They had been talking so heatedly that they hadn’t noticed
the government representative entering. Now the room became quiet at
once.

“Gentlemen,” the plump government man said, “the President, with the
consent of Congress, has acted to form a watchbird division for every
city and town in the country.”

The men burst into a spontaneous shout of triumph. They were going to
have their chance to save the world after all, Gelsen thought, and
worriedly asked himself what was wrong with that.

He listened carefully as the government man outlined the distribution
scheme. The country was to be divided into seven areas, each to be
supplied and serviced by one manufacturer. This meant monopoly, of
course, but a necessary one. Like the telephone service, it was in the
public’s best interests. You couldn’t have competition in watchbird
service. Watchbird was for everyone.

“The President hopes,” the representative continued, “that full
watchbird service will be installed in the shortest possible time. You
will have top priorities on strategic metals, manpower, and so forth.”

“Speaking for myself,” the president of Southern Consolidated said, “I
expect to have the first batch of watchbirds distributed within the
week. Production is all set up.”

* * * * *

The rest of the men were equally ready. The factories had been prepared
to roll out the watchbirds for months now. The final standardized
equipment had been agreed upon, and only the Presidential go-ahead had
been lacking.

“Fine,” the representative said. “If that is all, I think we can–is
there a question?”

“Yes, sir,” Gelsen said. “I want to know if the present model is the one
we are going to manufacture.”

“Of course,” the representative said. “It’s the most advanced.”

“I have an objection.” Gelsen stood up. His colleagues were glaring
coldly at him. Obviously he was delaying the advent of the golden age.

“What is your objection?” the representative asked.

“First, let me say that I am one hundred per cent in favor of a machine
to stop murder. It’s been needed for a long time. I object only to the
watchbird’s learning circuits. They serve, in effect, to animate the
machine and give it a pseudo-consciousness. I can’t approve of that.”

“But, Mr. Gelsen, you yourself testified that the watchbird would not be
completely efficient unless such circuits were introduced. Without them,
the watchbirds could stop only an estimated seventy per cent of
murders.”

“I know that,” Gelsen said, feeling extremely uncomfortable. “I believe
there might be a moral danger in allowing a machine to make decisions
that are rightfully Man’s,” he declared doggedly.

“Oh, come now, Gelsen,” one of the corporation presidents said. “It’s
nothing of the sort. The watchbird will only reinforce the decisions
made by honest men from the beginning of time.”

“I think that is true,” the representative agreed. “But I can understand
how Mr. Gelsen feels. It is sad that we must put a human problem into
the hands of a machine, sadder still that we must have a machine enforce
our laws. But I ask you to remember, Mr. Gelsen, that there is no other
possible way of stopping a murderer before he strikes . It would be
unfair to the many innocent people killed every year if we were to
restrict watchbird on philosophical grounds. Don’t you agree that I’m
right?”

“Yes, I suppose I do,” Gelsen said unhappily. He had told himself all
that a thousand times, but something still bothered him. Perhaps he
would talk it over with Macintyre.

As the conference broke up, a thought struck him. He grinned.

A lot of policemen were going to be out of work!

* * * * *

“Now what do you think of that?” Officer Celtrics demanded. “Fifteen
years in Homicide and a machine is replacing me.” He wiped a large red
hand across his forehead and leaned against the captain’s desk. “Ain’t
science marvelous?”

Two other policemen, late of Homicide, nodded glumly.

“Don’t worry about it,” the captain said. “We’ll find a home for you in
Larceny, Celtrics. You’ll like it here.”

“I just can’t get over it,” Celtrics complained. “A lousy little piece
of tin and glass is going to solve all the crimes.”

“Not quite,” the captain said. “The watchbirds are supposed to prevent
the crimes before they happen.”

“Then how’ll they be crimes?” one of the policeman asked. “I mean they
can’t hang you for murder until you commit one, can they?”

“That’s not the idea,” the captain said. “The watchbirds are supposed to
stop a man before he commits a murder.”

“Then no one arrests him?” Celtrics asked.

“I don’t know how they’re going to work that out,” the captain admitted.

The men were silent for a while. The captain yawned and examined his
watch.

“The thing I don’t understand,” Celtrics said, still leaning on the
captain’s desk, “is just how do they do it? How did it start, Captain?”

* * * * *

The captain studied Celtrics’ face for possible irony; after all,
watchbird had been in the papers for months. But then he remembered that
Celtrics, like his sidekicks, rarely bothered to turn past the sports
pages.

“Well,” the captain said, trying to remember what he had read in the
Sunday supplements, “these scientists were working on criminology. They
were studying murderers, to find out what made them tick. So they found
that murderers throw out a different sort of brain wave from ordinary
people. And their glands act funny, too. All this happens when they’re
about to commit a murder. So these scientists worked out a special
machine to flash red or something when these brain waves turned on.”

“Scientists,” Celtrics said bitterly.

“Well, after the scientists had this machine, they didn’t know what to
do with it. It was too big to move around, and murderers didn’t drop in
often enough to make it flash. So they built it into a smaller unit and
tried it out in a few police stations. I think they tried one upstate.
But it didn’t work so good. You couldn’t get to the crime in time.
That’s why they built the watchbirds.”

“I don’t think they’ll stop no criminals,” one of the policemen
insisted.

“They sure will. I read the test results. They can smell him out before
he commits a crime. And when they reach him, they give him a powerful
shock or something. It’ll stop him.”

“You closing up Homicide, Captain?” Celtrics asked.

“Nope,” the captain said. “I’m leaving a skeleton crew in until we see
how these birds do.”

“Hah,” Celtrics said. “Skeleton crew. That’s funny.”

“Sure,” the captain said. “Anyhow, I’m going to leave some men on. It
seems the birds don’t stop all murders.”

“Why not?”

“Some murderers don’t have these brain waves,” the captain answered,
trying to remember what the newspaper article had said. “Or their glands
don’t work or something.”

“Which ones don’t they stop?” Celtrics asked, with professional
curiosity.

“I don’t know. But I hear they got the damned things fixed so they’re
going to stop all of them soon.”

“How they working that?”

“They learn. The watchbirds, I mean. Just like people.”

“You kidding me?”

“Nope.”

“Well,” Celtrics said, “I think I’ll just keep old Betsy oiled, just in
case. You can’t trust these scientists.”

“Right.”

“Birds!” Celtrics scoffed.

* * * * *

Over the town, the watchbird soared in a long, lazy curve. Its aluminum
hide glistened in the morning sun, and dots of light danced on its stiff
wings. Silently it flew.

Silently, but with all senses functioning. Built-in kinesthetics told
the watchbird where it was, and held it in a long search curve. Its eyes
and ears operated as one unit, searching, seeking.

And then something happened! The watchbird’s electronically fast
reflexes picked up the edge of a sensation. A correlation center tested
it, matching it with electrical and chemical data in its memory files. A
relay tripped.

Down the watchbird spiraled, coming in on the increasingly strong
sensation. It smelled the outpouring of certain glands, tasted a
deviant brain wave.

Fully alerted and armed, it spun and banked in the bright morning
sunlight.

Dinelli was so intent he didn’t see the watchbird coming. He had his gun
poised, and his eyes pleaded with the big grocer.

“Don’t come no closer.”

“You lousy little punk,” the grocer said, and took another step forward.
“Rob me? I’ll break every bone in your puny body.”

The grocer, too stupid or too courageous to understand the threat of the
gun, advanced on the little thief.

“All right,” Dinelli said, in a thorough state of panic. “All right,
sucker, take–”

A bolt of electricity knocked him on his back. The gun went off,
smashing a breakfast food display.

“What in hell?” the grocer asked, staring at the stunned thief. And then
he saw a flash of silver wings. “Well, I’m really damned. Those
watchbirds work!”

He stared until the wings disappeared in the sky. Then he telephoned
the police.

The watchbird returned to his search curve. His thinking center
correlated the new facts he had learned about murder. Several of these
he hadn’t known before.

This new information was simultaneously flashed to all the other
watchbirds and their information was flashed back to him.

New information, methods, definitions were constantly passing between
them.

* * * * *

Now that the watchbirds were rolling off the assembly line in a steady
stream, Gelsen allowed himself to relax. A loud contented hum filled his
plant. Orders were being filled on time, with top priorities given to
the biggest cities in his area, and working down to the smallest towns.

“All smooth, Chief,” Macintyre said, coming in the door. He had just
completed a routine inspection.

“Fine. Have a seat.”

The big engineer sat down and lighted a cigarette.

“We’ve been working on this for some time,” Gelsen said, when he
couldn’t think of anything else.

“We sure have,” Macintyre agreed. He leaned back and inhaled deeply. He
had been one of the consulting engineers on the original watchbird. That
was six years back. He had been working for Gelsen ever since, and the
men had become good friends.

“The thing I wanted to ask you was this–” Gelsen paused. He couldn’t
think how to phrase what he wanted. Instead he asked, “What do you think
of the watchbirds, Mac?”

“Who, me?” The engineer grinned nervously. He had been eating, drinking
and sleeping watchbird ever since its inception. He had never found it
necessary to have an attitude. “Why, I think it’s great.”

“I don’t mean that,” Gelsen said. He realized that what he wanted was to
have someone understand his point of view. “I mean do you figure there
might be some danger in machine thinking?”

“I don’t think so, Chief. Why do you ask?”

“Look, I’m no scientist or engineer. I’ve just handled cost and
production and let you boys worry about how. But as a layman, watchbird
is starting to frighten me.”

“No reason for that.”

“I don’t like the idea of the learning circuits.”

“But why not?” Then Macintyre grinned again. “I know. You’re like a lot
of people, Chief–afraid your machines are going to wake up and say,
‘What are we doing here? Let’s go out and rule the world.’ Is that it?”

“Maybe something like that,” Gelsen admitted.

“No chance of it,” Macintyre said. “The watchbirds are complex, I’ll
admit, but an M.I.T. calculator is a whole lot more complex. And it
hasn’t got consciousness.”

“No. But the watchbirds can learn .”

“Sure. So can all the new calculators. Do you think they’ll team up with
the watchbirds?”

* * * * *

Gelsen felt annoyed at Macintyre, and even more annoyed at himself for
being ridiculous. “It’s a fact that the watchbirds can put their
learning into action. No one is monitoring them.”

“So that’s the trouble,” Macintyre said.

“I’ve been thinking of getting out of watchbird.” Gelsen hadn’t realized
it until that moment.

“Look, Chief,” Macintyre said. “Will you take an engineer’s word on
this?”

“Let’s hear it.”

“The watchbirds are no more dangerous than an automobile, an IBM
calculator or a thermometer. They have no more consciousness or volition
than those things. The watchbirds are built to respond to certain
stimuli, and to carry out certain operations when they receive that
stimuli.”

“And the learning circuits?”

“You have to have those,” Macintyre said patiently, as though
explaining the whole thing to a ten-year-old. “The purpose of the
watchbird is to frustrate all murder-attempts, right? Well, only certain
murderers give out these stimuli. In order to stop all of them, the
watchbird has to search out new definitions of murder and correlate them
with what it already knows.”

“I think it’s inhuman,” Gelsen said.

“That’s the best thing about it. The watchbirds are unemotional. Their
reasoning is non-anthropomorphic. You can’t bribe them or drug them. You
shouldn’t fear them, either.”

The intercom on Gelsen’s desk buzzed. He ignored it.

“I know all this,” Gelsen said. “But, still, sometimes I feel like the
man who invented dynamite. He thought it would only be used for blowing
up tree stumps.”

” You didn’t invent watchbird.”

“I still feel morally responsible because I manufacture them.”

The intercom buzzed again, and Gelsen irritably punched a button.

“The reports are in on the first week of watchbird operation,” his
secretary told him.

“How do they look?”

“Wonderful, sir.”

“Send them in in fifteen minutes.” Gelsen switched the intercom off and
turned back to Macintyre, who was cleaning his fingernails with a wooden
match. “Don’t you think that this represents a trend in human thinking?
The mechanical god? The electronic father?”

“Chief,” Macintyre said, “I think you should study watchbird more
closely. Do you know what’s built into the circuits?”

“Only generally.”

“First, there is a purpose. Which is to stop living organisms from
committing murder. Two, murder may be defined as an act of violence,
consisting of breaking, mangling, maltreating or otherwise stopping the
functions of a living organism by a living organism. Three, most
murderers are detectable by certain chemical and electrical changes.”

Macintyre paused to light another cigarette. “Those conditions take care
of the routine functions. Then, for the learning circuits, there are two
more conditions. Four, there are some living organisms who commit murder
without the signs mentioned in three. Five, these can be detected by
data applicable to condition two.”

“I see,” Gelsen said.

“You realize how foolproof it is?”

“I suppose so.” Gelsen hesitated a moment. “I guess that’s all.”

“Right,” the engineer said, and left.

Gelsen thought for a few moments. There couldn’t be anything wrong
with the watchbirds.

“Send in the reports,” he said into the intercom.

* * * * *

High above the lighted buildings of the city, the watchbird soared. It
was dark, but in the distance the watchbird could see another, and
another beyond that. For this was a large city.

To prevent murder …

There was more to watch for now. New information had crossed the
invisible network that connected all watchbirds. New data, new ways of
detecting the violence of murder.

There! The edge of a sensation! Two watchbirds dipped simultaneously.
One had received the scent a fraction of a second before the other. He
continued down while the other resumed monitoring.

Condition four, there are some living organisms who commit murder
without the signs mentioned in condition three.

Through his new information, the watchbird knew by extrapolation that
this organism was bent on murder, even though the characteristic
chemical and electrical smells were absent.

The watchbird, all senses acute, closed in on the organism. He found
what he wanted, and dived.

Roger Greco leaned against a building, his hands in his pockets. In his
left hand was the cool butt of a .45. Greco waited patiently.

He wasn’t thinking of anything in particular, just relaxing against a
building, waiting for a man. Greco didn’t know why the man was to be
killed. He didn’t care. Greco’s lack of curiosity was part of his value.
The other part was his skill.

One bullet, neatly placed in the head of a man he didn’t know. It didn’t
excite him or sicken him. It was a job, just like anything else. You
killed a man. So?

As Greco’s victim stepped out of a building, Greco lifted the .45 out of
his pocket. He released the safety and braced the gun with his right
hand. He still wasn’t thinking of anything as he took aim …

And was knocked off his feet.

Greco thought he had been shot. He struggled up again, looked around,
and sighted foggily on his victim.

Again he was knocked down.

This time he lay on the ground, trying to draw a bead. He never thought
of stopping, for Greco was a craftsman.

With the next blow, everything went black. Permanently, because the
watchbird’s duty was to protect the object of violence– at whatever
cost to the murderer .

The victim walked to his car. He hadn’t noticed anything unusual.
Everything had happened in silence.

* * * * *

Gelsen was feeling pretty good. The watchbirds had been operating
perfectly. Crimes of violence had been cut in half, and cut again. Dark
alleys were no longer mouths of horror. Parks and playgrounds were not
places to shun after dusk.

Of course, there were still robberies. Petty thievery flourished, and
embezzlement, larceny, forgery and a hundred other crimes.

[Illustration]

But that wasn’t so important. You could regain lost money–never a lost
life.

Gelsen was ready to admit that he had been wrong about the watchbirds.
They were doing a job that humans had been unable to accomplish.

The first hint of something wrong came that morning.

Macintyre came into his office. He stood silently in front of Gelsen’s
desk, looking annoyed and a little embarrassed.

“What’s the matter, Mac?” Gelsen asked.

“One of the watchbirds went to work on a slaughterhouse man. Knocked him
out.”

Gelsen thought about it for a moment. Yes, the watchbirds would do that.
With their new learning circuits, they had probably defined the killing
of animals as murder.

“Tell the packers to mechanize their slaughtering,” Gelsen said. “I
never liked that business myself.”

“All right,” Macintyre said. He pursed his lips, then shrugged his
shoulders and left.

Gelsen stood beside his desk, thinking. Couldn’t the watchbirds
differentiate between a murderer and a man engaged in a legitimate
profession? No, evidently not. To them, murder was murder. No
exceptions. He frowned. That might take a little ironing out in the
circuits.

[Illustration]

But not too much, he decided hastily. Just make them a little more
discriminating.

He sat down again and buried himself in paperwork, trying to avoid the
edge of an old fear.

* * * * *

They strapped the prisoner into the chair and fitted the electrode to
his leg.

“Oh, oh,” he moaned, only half-conscious now of what they were doing.

They fitted the helmet over his shaved head and tightened the last
straps. He continued to moan softly.

And then the watchbird swept in. How he had come, no one knew. Prisons
are large and strong, with many locked doors, but the watchbird was
there–

To stop a murder.

“Get that thing out of here!” the warden shouted, and reached for the
switch. The watchbird knocked him down.

“Stop that!” a guard screamed, and grabbed for the switch himself. He
was knocked to the floor beside the warden.

“This isn’t murder, you idiot!” another guard said. He drew his gun to
shoot down the glittering, wheeling metal bird.

Anticipating, the watchbird smashed him back against the wall.

There was silence in the room. After a while, the man in the helmet
started to giggle. Then he stopped.

The watchbird stood on guard, fluttering in mid-air–

Making sure no murder was done.

New data flashed along the watchbird network. Unmonitored, independent,
the thousands of watchbirds received and acted upon it.

The breaking, mangling or otherwise stopping the functions of a living
organism by a living organism. New acts to stop.

“Damn you, git going!” Farmer Ollister shouted, and raised his whip
again. The horse balked, and the wagon rattled and shook as he edged
sideways.

“You lousy hunk of pigmeal, git going!” the farmer yelled and he raised
the whip again.

It never fell. An alert watchbird, sensing violence, had knocked him out
of his seat.

A living organism? What is a living organism? The watchbirds extended
their definitions as they became aware of more facts. And, of course,
this gave them more work.

The deer was just visible at the edge of the woods. The hunter raised
his rifle, and took careful aim.

He didn’t have time to shoot.

* * * * *

With his free hand, Gelsen mopped perspiration from his face. “All
right,” he said into the telephone. He listened to the stream of
vituperation from the other end, then placed the receiver gently in its
cradle.

“What was that one?” Macintyre asked. He was unshaven, tie loose, shirt
unbuttoned.

“Another fisherman,” Gelsen said. “It seems the watchbirds won’t let
him fish even though his family is starving. What are we going to do
about it, he wants to know.”

“How many hundred is that?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t opened the mail.”

“Well, I figured out where the trouble is,” Macintyre said gloomily,
with the air of a man who knows just how he blew up the Earth–after it
was too late.

“Let’s hear it.”

“Everybody took it for granted that we wanted all murder stopped. We
figured the watchbirds would think as we do. We ought to have qualified
the conditions.”

“I’ve got an idea,” Gelsen said, “that we’d have to know just why and
what murder is, before we could qualify the conditions properly. And if
we knew that, we wouldn’t need the watchbirds.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. They just have to be told that some things
which look like murder are not murder.”

“But why should they stop fisherman?” Gelsen asked.

“Why shouldn’t they? Fish and animals are living organisms. We just
don’t think that killing them is murder.”

The telephone rang. Gelsen glared at it and punched the intercom. “I
told you no more calls, no matter what.”

“This is from Washington,” his secretary said. “I thought you’d–”

“Sorry.” Gelsen picked up the telephone. “Yes. Certainly is a mess …
Have they? All right, I certainly will.” He put down the telephone.

“Short and sweet,” he told Macintyre. “We’re to shut down temporarily.”

“That won’t be so easy,” Macintyre said. “The watchbirds operate
independent of any central control, you know. They come back once a week
for a repair checkup. We’ll have to turn them off then, one by one.”

“Well, let’s get to it. Monroe over on the Coast has shut down about a
quarter of his birds.”

“I think I can dope out a restricting circuit,” Macintyre said.

“Fine,” Gelsen replied bitterly. “You make me very happy.”

* * * * *

The watchbirds were learning rapidly, expanding and adding to their
knowledge. Loosely defined abstractions were extended, acted upon and
re-extended.

To stop murder …

Metal and electrons reason well, but not in a human fashion.

A living organism? Any living organism!

The watchbirds set themselves the task of protecting all living things.

The fly buzzed around the room, lighting on a table top, pausing a
moment, then darting to a window sill.

The old man stalked it, a rolled newspaper in his hand.

Murderer!

The watchbirds swept down and saved the fly in the nick of time.

The old man writhed on the floor a minute and then was silent. He had
been given only a mild shock, but it had been enough for his fluttery,
cranky heart.

His victim had been saved, though, and this was the important thing.
Save the victim and give the aggressor his just desserts.

* * * * *

Gelsen demanded angrily, “Why aren’t they being turned off?”

The assistant control engineer gestured. In a corner of the repair room
lay the senior control engineer. He was just regaining consciousness.

“He tried to turn one of them off,” the assistant engineer said. Both
his hands were knotted together. He was making a visible effort not to
shake.

“That’s ridiculous. They haven’t got any sense of self-preservation.”

“Then turn them off yourself. Besides, I don’t think any more are going
to come.”

What could have happened? Gelsen began to piece it together. The
watchbirds still hadn’t decided on the limits of a living organism. When
some of them were turned off in the Monroe plant, the rest must have
correlated the data.

So they had been forced to assume that they were living organisms, as
well.

No one had ever told them otherwise. Certainly they carried on most of
the functions of living organisms.

Then the old fears hit him. Gelsen trembled and hurried out of the
repair room. He wanted to find Macintyre in a hurry.

* * * * *

The nurse handed the surgeon the sponge.

“Scalpel.”

She placed it in his hand. He started to make the first incision. And
then he was aware of a disturbance.

“Who let that thing in?”

“I don’t know,” the nurse said, her voice muffled by the mask.

“Get it out of here.”

The nurse waved her arms at the bright winged thing, but it fluttered
over her head.

The surgeon proceeded with the incision–as long as he was able.

The watchbird drove him away and stood guard.

“Telephone the watchbird company!” the surgeon ordered. “Get them to
turn the thing off.”

The watchbird was preventing violence to a living organism.

The surgeon stood by helplessly while his patient died.

* * * * *

Fluttering high above the network of highways, the watchbird watched and
waited. It had been constantly working for weeks now, without rest or
repair. Rest and repair were impossible, because the watchbird couldn’t
allow itself–a living organism–to be murdered. And that was what
happened when watchbirds returned to the factory.

There was a built-in order to return, after the lapse of a certain time
period. But the watchbird had a stronger order to obey–preservation of
life, including its own.

The definitions of murder were almost infinitely extended now,
impossible to cope with. But the watchbird didn’t consider that. It
responded to its stimuli, whenever they came and whatever their source.

There was a new definition of living organism in its memory files. It
had come as a result of the watchbird discovery that watchbirds were
living organisms. And it had enormous ramifications.

The stimuli came! For the hundredth time that day, the bird wheeled and
banked, dropping swiftly down to stop murder.

Jackson yawned and pulled his car to a shoulder of the road. He didn’t
notice the glittering dot in the sky. There was no reason for him to.
Jackson wasn’t contemplating murder, by any human definition.

This was a good spot for a nap, he decided. He had been driving for
seven straight hours and his eyes were starting to fog. He reached out
to turn off the ignition key–

And was knocked back against the side of the car.

“What in hell’s wrong with you?” he asked indignantly. “All I want to do
is–” He reached for the key again, and again he was smacked back.

Jackson knew better than to try a third time. He had been listening to
the radio and he knew what the watchbirds did to stubborn violators.

“You mechanical jerk,” he said to the waiting metal bird. “A car’s not
alive. I’m not trying to kill it.”

But the watchbird only knew that a certain operation resulted in
stopping an organism. The car was certainly a functioning organism.
Wasn’t it of metal, as were the watchbirds? Didn’t it run?

* * * * *

Macintyre said, “Without repairs they’ll run down.” He shoved a pile of
specification sheets out of his way.

“How soon?” Gelsen asked.

“Six months to a year. Say a year, barring accidents.”

“A year,” Gelsen said. “In the meantime, everything is stopping dead. Do
you know the latest?”

“What?”

“The watchbirds have decided that the Earth is a living organism. They
won’t allow farmers to break ground for plowing. And, of course,
everything else is a living organism–rabbits, beetles, flies, wolves,
mosquitoes, lions, crocodiles, crows, and smaller forms of life such as
bacteria.”

“I know,” Macintyre said.

“And you tell me they’ll wear out in six months or a year. What happens
now ? What are we going to eat in six months?”

The engineer rubbed his chin. “We’ll have to do something quick and
fast. Ecological balance is gone to hell.”

“Fast isn’t the word. Instantaneously would be better.” Gelsen lighted
his thirty-fifth cigarette for the day. “At least I have the bitter
satisfaction of saying, ‘I told you so.’ Although I’m just as
responsible as the rest of the machine-worshipping fools.”

Macintyre wasn’t listening. He was thinking about watchbirds. “Like the
rabbit plague in Australia.”

“The death rate is mounting,” Gelsen said. “Famine. Floods. Can’t cut
down trees. Doctors can’t–what was that you said about Australia?”

“The rabbits,” Macintyre repeated. “Hardly any left in Australia now.”

“Why? How was it done?”

“Oh, found some kind of germ that attacked only rabbits. I think it was
propagated by mosquitos–”

“Work on that,” Gelsen said. “You might have something. I want you to
get on the telephone, ask for an emergency hookup with the engineers of
the other companies. Hurry it up. Together you may be able to dope out
something.”

“Right,” Macintyre said. He grabbed a handful of blank paper and hurried
to the telephone.

* * * * *

“What did I tell you?” Officer Celtrics said. He grinned at the captain.
“Didn’t I tell you scientists were nuts?”

“I didn’t say you were wrong, did I?” the captain asked.

“No, but you weren’t sure .”

“Well, I’m sure now. You’d better get going. There’s plenty of work for
you.”

“I know.” Celtrics drew his revolver from its holster, checked it and
put it back. “Are all the boys back, Captain?”

“All?” the captain laughed humorlessly. “Homicide has increased by fifty
per cent. There’s more murder now than there’s ever been.”

“Sure,” Celtrics said. “The watchbirds are too busy guarding cars and
slugging spiders.” He started toward the door, then turned for a parting
shot.

“Take my word, Captain. Machines are stupid .”

The captain nodded.

* * * * *

Thousands of watchbirds, trying to stop countless millions of murders–a
hopeless task. But the watchbirds didn’t hope. Without consciousness,
they experienced no sense of accomplishment, no fear of failure.
Patiently they went about their jobs, obeying each stimulus as it came.

They couldn’t be everywhere at the same time, but it wasn’t necessary to
be. People learned quickly what the watchbirds didn’t like and refrained
from doing it. It just wasn’t safe. With their high speed and superfast
senses, the watchbirds got around quickly.

And now they meant business. In their original directives there had been
a provision made for killing a murderer, if all other means failed.

Why spare a murderer?

It backfired. The watchbirds extracted the fact that murder and crimes
of violence had increased geometrically since they had begun operation.
This was true, because their new definitions increased the possibilities
of murder. But to the watchbirds, the rise showed that the first methods
had failed.

Simple logic. If A doesn’t work, try B. The watchbirds shocked to kill.

Slaughterhouses in Chicago stopped and cattle starved to death in their
pens, because farmers in the Midwest couldn’t cut hay or harvest grain.

No one had told the watchbirds that all life depends on carefully
balanced murders.

Starvation didn’t concern the watchbirds, since it was an act of
omission.

Their interest lay only in acts of commission.

Hunters sat home, glaring at the silver dots in the sky, longing to
shoot them down. But for the most part, they didn’t try. The watchbirds
were quick to sense the murder intent and to punish it.

Fishing boats swung idle at their moorings in San Pedro and Gloucester.
Fish were living organisms.

Farmers cursed and spat and died, trying to harvest the crop. Grain was
alive and thus worthy of protection. Potatoes were as important to the
watchbird as any other living organism. The death of a blade of grass
was equal to the assassination of a President–

To the watchbirds.

And, of course, certain machines were living. This followed, since the
watchbirds were machines and living.

God help you if you maltreated your radio. Turning it off meant killing
it. Obviously–its voice was silenced, the red glow of its tubes faded,
it grew cold.

The watchbirds tried to guard their other charges. Wolves were
slaughtered, trying to kill rabbits. Rabbits were electrocuted, trying
to eat vegetables. Creepers were burned out in the act of strangling
trees.

A butterfly was executed, caught in the act of outraging a rose.

This control was spasmodic, because of the fewness of the watchbirds. A
billion watchbirds couldn’t have carried out the ambitious project set
by the thousands.

The effect was of a murderous force, ten thousand bolts of irrational
lightning raging around the country, striking a thousand times a day.

Lightning which anticipated your moves and punished your intentions.

* * * * *

“Gentlemen, please ,” the government representative begged. “We must
hurry.”

The seven manufacturers stopped talking.

“Before we begin this meeting formally,” the president of Monroe said,
“I want to say something. We do not feel ourselves responsible for this
unhappy state of affairs. It was a government project; the government
must accept the responsibility, both moral and financial.”

Gelsen shrugged his shoulders. It was hard to believe that these men,
just a few weeks ago, had been willing to accept the glory of saving the
world. Now they wanted to shrug off the responsibility when the
salvation went amiss.

“I’m positive that that need not concern us now,” the representative
assured him. “We must hurry. You engineers have done an excellent job. I
am proud of the cooperation you have shown in this emergency. You are
hereby empowered to put the outlined plan into action.”

“Wait a minute,” Gelsen said.

“There is no time.”

“The plan’s no good.”

“Don’t you think it will work?”

“Of course it will work. But I’m afraid the cure will be worse than the
disease.”

The manufacturers looked as though they would have enjoyed throttling
Gelsen. He didn’t hesitate.

“Haven’t we learned yet?” he asked. “Don’t you see that you can’t cure
human problems by mechanization?”

“Mr. Gelsen,” the president of Monroe said, “I would enjoy hearing you
philosophize, but, unfortunately, people are being killed. Crops are
being ruined. There is famine in some sections of the country already.
The watchbirds must be stopped at once!”

“Murder must be stopped, too. I remember all of us agreeing upon that.
But this is not the way!”

“What would you suggest?” the representative asked.

* * * * *

Gelsen took a deep breath. What he was about to say took all the courage
he had.

“Let the watchbirds run down by themselves,” Gelsen suggested.

There was a near-riot. The government representative broke it up.

“Let’s take our lesson,” Gelsen urged, “admit that we were wrong trying
to cure human problems by mechanical means. Start again. Use machines,
yes, but not as judges and teachers and fathers.”

“Ridiculous,” the representative said coldly. “Mr. Gelsen, you are
overwrought. I suggest you control yourself.” He cleared his throat.
“All of you are ordered by the President to carry out the plan you have
submitted.” He looked sharply at Gelsen. “Not to do so will be treason.”

“I’ll cooperate to the best of my ability,” Gelsen said.

“Good. Those assembly lines must be rolling within the week.”

Gelsen walked out of the room alone. Now he was confused again. Had he
been right or was he just another visionary? Certainly, he hadn’t
explained himself with much clarity.

Did he know what he meant?

Gelsen cursed under his breath. He wondered why he couldn’t ever be sure
of anything. Weren’t there any values he could hold on to?

He hurried to the airport and to his plant.

* * * * *

The watchbird was operating erratically now. Many of its delicate parts
were out of line, worn by almost continuous operation. But gallantly it
responded when the stimuli came.

A spider was attacking a fly. The watchbird swooped down to the rescue.

Simultaneously, it became aware of something overhead. The watchbird
wheeled to meet it.

There was a sharp crackle and a power bolt whizzed by the watchbird’s
wing. Angrily, it spat a shock wave.

[Illustration]

The attacker was heavily insulated. Again it spat at the watchbird. This
time, a bolt smashed through a wing, the watchbird darted away, but the
attacker went after it in a burst of speed, throwing out more crackling
power.

The watchbird fell, but managed to send out its message. Urgent! A new
menace to living organisms and this was the deadliest yet!

Other watchbirds around the country integrated the message. Their
thinking centers searched for an answer.

* * * * *

“Well, Chief, they bagged fifty today,” Macintyre said, coming into
Gelsen’s office.

“Fine,” Gelsen said, not looking at the engineer.

“Not so fine.” Macintyre sat down. “Lord, I’m tired! It was seventy-two
yesterday.”

“I know.” On Gelsen’s desk were several dozen lawsuits, which he was
sending to the government with a prayer.

“They’ll pick up again, though,” Macintyre said confidently. “The Hawks
are especially built to hunt down watchbirds. They’re stronger, faster,
and they’ve got better armor. We really rolled them out in a hurry,
huh?”

“We sure did.”

“The watchbirds are pretty good, too,” Macintyre had to admit. “They’re
learning to take cover. They’re trying a lot of stunts. You know, each
one that goes down tells the others something.”

Gelsen didn’t answer.

“But anything the watchbirds can do, the Hawks can do better,” Macintyre
said cheerfully. “The Hawks have special learning circuits for hunting.
They’re more flexible than the watchbirds. They learn faster.”

Gelsen gloomily stood up, stretched, and walked to the window. The sky
was blank. Looking out, he realized that his uncertainties were over.
Right or wrong, he had made up his mind.

“Tell me,” he said, still watching the sky, “what will the Hawks hunt
after they get all the watchbirds?”

“Huh?” Macintyre said. “Why–”

“Just to be on the safe side, you’d better design something to hunt down
the Hawks. Just in case, I mean.”

“You think–”

[Illustration]

“All I know is that the Hawks are self-controlled. So were the
watchbirds. Remote control would have been too slow, the argument went
on. The idea was to get the watchbirds and get them fast. That meant no
restricting circuits.”

“We can dope something out,” Macintyre said uncertainly.

“You’ve got an aggressive machine up in the air now. A murder machine.
Before that it was an anti-murder machine. Your next gadget will have to
be even more self-sufficient, won’t it?”

Macintyre didn’t answer.

“I don’t hold you responsible,” Gelsen said. “It’s me. It’s everyone.”

In the air outside was a swift-moving dot.

“That’s what comes,” said Gelsen, “of giving a machine the job that was
our own responsibility.”

* * * * *

Overhead, a Hawk was zeroing in on a watchbird.

The armored murder machine had learned a lot in a few days. Its sole
function was to kill. At present it was impelled toward a certain type
of living organism, metallic like itself.

But the Hawk had just discovered that there were other types of living
organisms, too–

Which had to be murdered.

–ROBERT SHECKLEY

Transcriber’s Note:

This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction February 1953.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
typographical errors have been corrected without note.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Planet Savers by Marion Zimmer Bradley

planet_savers-i113.jpg

Excerpted from the book.

Get it on Project Gutenberg - http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/31619

* * * * *

Carthon lay nestled under the outlying foothills of the Hellers, ancient
and sprawling and squatty, and burned brown with the dust of five
thousand years. Children ran out to stare at the ‘copter as we landed
near the city; few planes ever flew low enough to be seen, this near the
Hellers.

Forth had sent his crew ahead and parked them in an abandoned huge place
at the edge of the city which might once have been a warehouse or a
ruined palace. Inside there were a couple of trucks, stripped down to
framework and flatbed like all machinery shipped through space from
Terra. There were pack animals, dark shapes in the gloom. Crates were
stacked up in an orderly untidiness, and at the far end a fire was
burning and five or six men in Darkovan clothing–loose sleeved shirts,
tight wrapped breeches, low boots–were squatting around it, talking.
They got up as Forth and Kendricks and I walked toward them, and Forth
greeted them clumsily, in bad accented Darkovan, then switched to Terran
Standard, letting one of the men translate for him.

Forth introduced me simply as “Jason,” after the Darkovan custom, and I
looked the men over, one by one. Back when I’d climbed for fun, I’d
liked to pick my own men; but whoever had picked this crew must have
known his business.

Three were mountain Darkovans, lean swart men enough alike to be
brothers; I learned after a while that they actually were brothers,
Hjalmar, Garin and Vardo. All three were well over six feet, and Hjalmar
stood head and shoulders over his brothers, whom I never learned to tell
apart. The fourth man, a redhead, was dressed rather better than the
others and introduced as Lerrys Ridenow–the double name indicating high
Darkovan aristocracy. He looked muscular and agile enough, but his hands
were suspiciously well-kept for a mountain man, and I wondered how much
experience he’d had.

The fifth man shook hands with me, speaking to Kendricks and Forth as if
they were old friends. “Don’t I know you from someplace, Jason?”

He looked Darkovan, and wore Darkovan clothes, but Forth had forewarned
me, and attack seemed the best defense. “Aren’t you Terran?”

“My father was,” he said, and I understood; a situation not exactly
uncommon, but ticklish on a planet like Darkover. I said carelessly, “I
may have seen you around the HQ. I can’t place you, though.”

“My name’s Rafe Scott. I thought I knew most of the professional guides
on Darkover, but I admit I don’t get into the Hellers much,” he
confessed. “Which route are we going to take?”

I found myself drawn into the middle of the group of men, accepting one
of the small sweetish Darkovan cigarettes, looking over the plan
somebody had scribbled down on the top of a packing case. I borrowed a
pencil from Rafe and bent over the case, sketching out a rough map of
the terrain I remembered so well from boyhood. I might be bewildered
about blood fractions, but when it came to climbing I knew what I was
doing. Rafe and Lerrys and the Darkovan brothers crowded behind me to
look over the sketch, and Lerrys put a long fingernail on the route I’d
indicated.

“Your elevation’s pretty bad here,” he said diffidently, “and on the
‘Narr campaign the trailmen attacked us here, and it was bad fighting
along those ledges.”

I looked at him with new respect; dainty hands or not, he evidently knew
the country. Kendricks patted the blaster on his hip and said grimly,
“But this isn’t the ‘Narr campaign. I’d like to see any trailmen attack
us while I have this.”

“But you’re not going to have it,” said a voice behind us, a crisp
authoritative voice. “Take off that gun, man!”

Kendricks and I whirled together, to see the speaker; a tall young
Darkovan, still standing in the shadows. The newcomer spoke to me
directly:

“I’m told you are Terran, but that you understand the trailmen. Surely
you don’t intend to carry fission or fusion weapons against them?”

And I suddenly realized that we were in Darkovan territory now, and that
we must reckon with the Darkovan horror of guns or of any weapon which
reaches beyond the arm’s-length of the man who wields it. A simple
heat-gun, to the Darkovan ethical code, is as reprehensible as a
super-cobalt planetbuster.

Kendricks protested, “We can’t travel unarmed through trailmen country!
We’re apt to meet hostile bands of the creatures–and they’re nasty with
those long knives they carry!”

The stranger said calmly, “I’ve no objection to you, or anyone else,
carrying a knife for self-defense.”

“A _knife_?” Kendricks drew breath to roar. “Listen, you bug-eyed
son-of-a–who do you think you are, anyway?”

The Darkovans muttered. The man in the shadows said, “Regis Hastur.”

* * * * *

Kendricks stared pop-eyed. My own eyes could have popped, but I decided
it was time for me to take charge, if I were ever going to. I rapped,
“All right, this is my show. Buck, give me the gun.”

He looked wrathfully at me for a space of seconds, while I wondered what
I’d do if he didn’t. Then, slowly, he unbuckled the straps and handed it
to me, butt first.

I’d never realized quite how undressed a Spaceforce man looked without
his blaster. I balanced it on my palm for a minute while Regis Hastur
came out of the shadows. He was tall, and had the reddish hair and fair
skin of Darkovan aristocracy, and on his face was some indefinable
stamp–arrogance, perhaps, or the consciousness that the Hasturs had
ruled this world for centuries long before the Terrans brought ships and
trade and the universe to their doors. He was looking at me as if he
approved of me, and that was one step worse than the former situation.

So, using the respectful Darkovan idiom of speaking to a superior (which
he was) but keeping my voice hard, I said, “There’s just one leader on
any trek, Lord Hastur. On this one, I’m it. If you want to discuss
whether or not we carry guns, I suggest you discuss it with me in
private–and let me give the orders.”

One of the Darkovans gasped. I knew I could have been mobbed. But with a
mixed bag of men, I had to grab leadership quick or be relegated to
nowhere. I didn’t give Regis Hastur a chance to answer that, either; I
said, “Come back here. I want to talk to you anyway.”

He came, and I remembered to breathe. I led the way to a fairly deserted
corner of the immense place, faced him and demanded, “As for you–what
are you doing here? You’re not intending to cross the mountains with
us?”

He met my scowl levelly. “I certainly am.”

I groaned. “Why? You’re the Regent’s grandson. Important people don’t
take on this kind of dangerous work. If anything happens to you, it will
be my responsibility!” I was going to have enough trouble, I was
thinking, without shepherding along one of the most revered Personages
on the whole damned planet! I didn’t want anyone around who had to be
fawned on, or deferred to, or even listened to.

* * * * *

He frowned slightly, and I had the unpleasant impression that he knew
what I was thinking. “In the first place–it will mean something to the
trailmen, won’t it–to have a Hastur with you, suing for this favor?”

It certainly would. The trailmen paid little enough heed to the ordinary
humans, except for considering them fair game for plundering when they
came uninvited into trailman country. But they, with all Darkover,
revered the Hasturs, and it was a fine point of diplomacy–if the
Darkovans sent their most important leader, they might listen to him.

“In the second place,” Regis Hastur continued, “the Darkovans are my
people, and it’s my business to negotiate for them. In the third place,
I know the trailmen’s dialect–not well, but I can speak it a little.
And in the fourth, I’ve climbed mountains all my life. Purely as an
amateur, but I can assure you I won’t be in the way.”

There was little enough I could say to that. He seemed to have covered
every point–or every point but one, and he added, shrewdly, after a
minute, “Don’t worry; I’m perfectly willing to have you take charge. I
won’t claim–privilege.”

I had to be satisfied with that.

* * * * *

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Gifts of Asti by Andre Norton

gifts.jpeg
Original artwork from Project Gutenberg - public domain
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19029

The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Gifts of Asti, by Andre Alice Norton

* * * * *

THE GIFTS OF ASTI

ANDREW NORTH

She was the guardian of the worlds, but HER world was dead.

Even here, on the black terrace before the forgotten mountain retreat of
Asti, it was possible to smell the dank stench of burning Memphir, to
imagine that the dawn wind bore upward from the pillaged city the faint
tortured cries of those whom the barbarians of Klem hunted to their
prolonged death. Indeed it was time to leave–

Varta, last of the virgin Maidens of Asti, shivered. The scaled and
wattled creature who crouched beside her thigh turned his reptilian head
so that golden eyes met the aquamarine ones set slantingly at a faintly
provocative angle in her smooth ivory face.

“We go–?”

She nodded in answer to that unvoiced question Lur had sent into her
brain, and turned toward the dark cavern which was the mouth of Asti’s
last dwelling place. Once, more than a thousand years before when the
walls of Memphir were young, Asti had lived among men below. But in the
richness and softness which was trading Memphir, empire of empires, Asti
found no place. So He and those who served Him had withdrawn to this
mountain outcrop. And she, Varta, was the last, the very last to bow
knee at Asti’s shrine and raise her voice in the dawn hymn–for Lur, as
were all his race, was mute.

Even the loot of Memphir would not sate the shaggy headed warriors who
had stormed her gates this day. The stairway to Asti’s Temple was plain
enough to see and there would be those to essay the steep climb hoping
to find a treasure which did not exist. For Asti was an austere God,
delighting in plain walls and bare altars. His last priest had lain in
the grave niches these three years, there would be none to hold that
gate against intruders.
[Read more…]

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

24 Sci-Fi Novels You Can Read for Free

eedocsmith-tri.jpg

A true classic from the Golden Age of science fiction, written by a science fiction great. The pulpy space opera tale has aliens who secretly shape humanity’s destiny, nuclear war, space travel, genetic engineering, stellar pirates, and more. This was just the first part of the Lensman series, an expansive set of books that spans billions of years.

John Wenz writing for Popular Mechanics presents a nice article about public domain science fiction including works by Samuel R. Delaney and Harry Harrison.

https://www.popularmechanics.com/culture/web/a15831/gutenberg-sci-fi-books/

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Variable Man by Philip K. Dick

the_variable_man.jpg
From Project gutenberg - https://www.gutenberg.org/files/32154/32154-h/32154-h.htm

THE VARIABLE MAN

BY PHILIP K. DICK

ILLUSTRATED BY EBEL

He fixed things—clocks, refrigerators, vidsenders and destinies. But he had no business in the future, where the calculators could not handle him. He was Earth’s only hope—and its sure failure!

Security Commissioner Reinhart rapidly climbed the front steps and entered the Council building. Council guards stepped quickly aside and he entered the familiar place of great whirring machines. His thin face rapt, eyes alight with emotion, Reinhart gazed intently up at the central SRB computer, studying its reading.

“Straight gain for the last quarter,” observed Kaplan, the lab organizer. He grinned proudly, as if personally responsible. “Not bad, Commissioner.”

“We’re catching up to them,” Reinhart retorted. “But too damn slowly. We must finally go over—and soon.”

Kaplan was in a talkative mood. “We design new offensive weapons, they counter with improved defenses. And nothing is actually made! Continual improvement, but neither we nor Centaurus can stop designing long enough to stabilize for production.”

“It will end,” Reinhart stated coldly, “as soon as Terra turns out a weapon for which Centaurus can build no defense.”

“Every weapon has a defense. Design and discord. Immediate obsolescence. Nothing lasts long enough to—”

“What we count on is the lag,” Reinhart broke in, annoyed. His hard gray eyes bored into the lab organizer and Kaplan slunk back. “The time lag between our offensive design and their counter development. The lag varies.” He waved impatiently toward the massed banks of SRB machines. “As you well know.”

At this moment, 9:30 AM, May 7, 2136, the statistical ratio on the SRB machines stood at 21-17 on the Centauran side of the ledger. All facts considered, the odds favored a successful repulsion by Proxima Centaurus of a Terran military attack. The ratio was based on the total information known to the SRB machines, on a gestalt of the vast flow of data that poured in endlessly from all sectors of the Sol and Centaurus systems.

21-17 on the Centauran side. But a month ago it had been 24-18 in the enemy’s favor. Things were improving, slowly but steadily. Centaurus, older and less virile than Terra, was unable to match Terra’s rate of technocratic advance. Terra was pulling ahead.

“If we went to war now,” Reinhart said thoughtfully, “we would lose. We’re not far enough along to risk an overt attack.” A harsh, ruthless glow twisted across his handsome features, distorting them into a stern mask. “But the odds are moving in our favor. Our offensive designs

are gradually gaining on their defenses.”

“Let’s hope the war comes soon,” Kaplan agreed. “We’re all on edge. This damn waiting….”

The war would come soon. Reinhart knew it intuitively. The air was full of tension, the elan. He left the SRB rooms and hurried down the corridor to his own elaborately guarded office in the Security wing. It wouldn’t be long. He could practically feel the hot breath of destiny on his neck—for him a pleasant feeling. His thin lips set in a humorless smile, showing an even line of white teeth against his tanned skin. It made him feel good, all right. He’d been working at it a long time.

First contact, a hundred years earlier, had ignited instant conflict between Proxima Centauran outposts and exploring Terran raiders. Flash fights, sudden eruptions of fire and energy beams.

And then the long, dreary years of inaction between enemies where contact required years of travel, even at nearly the speed of light. The two systems were evenly matched. Screen against screen. Warship against power station. The Centauran Empire surrounded Terra, an iron ring that couldn’t be broken, rusty and corroded as it was. Radical new weapons had to be conceived, if Terra was to break out.

Through the windows of his office, Reinhart could see endless buildings and streets, Terrans hurrying back and forth. Bright specks that were commute ships, little eggs that carried businessmen and white-collar workers around. The huge transport tubes that shot masses of workmen to factories and labor camps from their housing units. All these people, waiting to break out. Waiting for the day.

Reinhart snapped on his vidscreen, the confidential channel. “Give me Military Designs,” he ordered sharply.

He sat tense, his wiry body taut, as the vidscreen warmed into life. Abruptly he was facing the hulking image of Peter Sherikov, director of the vast network of labs under the Ural Mountains.

Sherikov’s great bearded features hardened as he recognized Reinhart. His bushy black eyebrows pulled up in a sullen line. “What do you want? You know I’m busy. We have too much work to do, as it is. Without being bothered by—politicians.”

“I’m dropping over your way,” Reinhart answered lazily. He adjusted the cuff of his immaculate gray cloak. “I want a full description of your work

and whatever progress you’ve made.”

“You’ll find a regular departmental report plate filed in the usual way, around your office someplace. If you’ll refer to that you’ll know exactly what we—”

“I’m not interested in that. I want to see what you’re doing. And I expect you to be prepared to describe your work fully. I’ll be there shortly. Half an hour.”

Reinhart cut the circuit. Sherikov’s heavy features dwindled and faded. Reinhart relaxed, letting his breath out. Too bad he had to work with Sherikov. He had never liked the man. The big Polish scientist was an individualist, refusing to integrate himself with society. Independent, atomistic in outlook. He held concepts of the individual as an end, diametrically contrary to the accepted organic state Weltansicht.

But Sherikov was the leading research scientist, in charge of the Military Designs Department. And on Designs the whole future of Terra depended. Victory over Centaurus—or more waiting, bottled up in the Sol System, surrounded by a rotting, hostile Empire, now sinking into ruin and decay, yet still strong.

Reinhart got quickly to his feet and left the office. He hurried down the hall and out of the Council building.

A few minutes later he was heading across the mid-morning sky in his highspeed cruiser, toward the Asiatic land-mass, the vast Ural mountain range. Toward the Military Designs labs.

[Read more…]

Sunday, August 4, 2019

SNEGOROTCHKA by Edmund Dulac

SNEGOROTCHKA
by Edmund Dulac

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A RUSSIAN FAIRY TALE

The old wife sang merrily as she sat in the inglenook stirring the soup, for she had never felt so sad. Many, many years had come and gone, leaving the weight of their winters on her shoulders and the touch of snow on her hair without ever bringing her a little child. This made her and her dear old husband very sad, for there were many children outside, playing in the snow. It seemed hard that not even one among them was their very own. But alas! there was no hope for such a blessing now. Never would they see a little fur cap hanging on the corner of the mantelpiece, nor two little shoes drying by the fire.

The old husband brought in a bundle of wood and set it down. Then, as he heard the children laughing and clapping their hands outside, he looked out at the window. There they were, dancing with glee round a snow man they had made. He smiled as he saw that it was evidently meant to look like the Mayor of the village, it was so fat and pompous.

‘Look, Marushal’ he cried to the old wile. ‘Come and see the snow man they’ve made.’

As they stood together at the window, they laughed to see what fun the children got out of it. Suddenly the old man turned to her with a bright idea.

‘Let’s go out and see if we can’t make a little snow man.’

But Marusha laughed at him. ‘What would the neighbours say? They would poke fun at us; it’d be the joke of the village. Besides, we’re too old to play like children.’

‘But only a little one, Marusha; only a teeny-weeny little snow man, and I’11 manage it that nobody sees us.”

‘Well, well,’ she said, laughing; ‘have your own way, as you always did, Youshko.’

With this she took the pot from the fire, put on her bonnet, and they went out together. As they passed the children, they stopped to play with them a while, for they now felt almost like children themselves. Then they trudged on through the snow till they came to a clump of trees, and, behind this, where the snow was nice and white, and nobody could see them, they set to work to make their little man.

The old husband insisted that it must be very small, and the old wife agreed that it should be almost as small as a new-born babe. Kneeling down in the snow, they fashioned the little body in next to no time. Now there remained only the head to finish. Two fat handfuls of snow for the cheeks and face, and a big one on top for the head. Then they put on a wee dab for the nose and poked two holes, one on each side, for the eyes.

It was soon done, and they were already standing back looking at it, and laughing and clapping their hands like children. Then suddenly they stopped. What had happened? A very strange thing indeed. Out of the two holes they saw looking at them two wistful blue eyes. Then the face of the little snow man was no longer white. The cheeks became rounded and smooth and radiant, and two rosy lips began to smile up at them. A breath of wind brushed the snow from the head, and it all fell down round the shoulders in flaxen ringlets escaping from a white fur cap. At the same time some snow, loosened from the little body, fell down and took the shape of a pretty white garment. Then, suddenly, before they could open and shut their mouths, their snow mannikin was gone, and in his place stood the daintiest, prettiest little maiden they had ever seen.

They gave each other a look out of the corners of their eyes, and scratched their heads in wonderment. But it was as true as true. There stood the little girl, all pink and white before them. She was really alive, for she ran to them; and, when they stooped down to lift her up, she put one arm round the old wife’s neck and the other round the old man’s, and gave them each a hug and a kiss. They laughed and cried for joy; then, suddenly remembering how real some dreams can seem, they pinched each other in turn. Still they were not sure, for the pinches might have been a part of the dream. So, in fear lest they might wake and spoil the whole thing, they wrapped the little girl up quickly and hastened back home.

On the way they met the children, still playing round their snow man; and the snowballs with which they pelted them in the back were very real; but there again, the snowballs might have belonged to the dream. But when they were inside the house, and saw the inglenook, with the soup in the pot by the fire and the bundle of wood near by, and everything just as they had left it, they looked at each other with tears in their eyes and no longer feared that it was all a dream. In another minute there was a little white fur cap hanging on the corner of the mantelpiece and two little shoes drying by the fire, while the old wife took the little girl on her lap and crooned a lullaby over her.

The old man put his hand on his wife’s shoulder and she looked up.

‘Marusha’

‘Youshko’

‘At last we have a little girl! We made her out of the snow, so we will call her Snegorotchka.’

The old wife nodded her head, and then they kissed each other. When they had all had supper, they went to bed, the old husband and wife feeling sure that they would wake early in the morning to find the child still with them. And they were not disappointed. There she was, sitting up between them, prattling and laughing. But she had grown bigger, and her hair was now twice as long as at first. When she called them ‘Little Father’ and ‘Little Mother’ they were so delighted that they felt like dancing as nimbly as they had in their young days. But, instead of dancing, they just kissed each other, and wept for joy.

That day they held a big feast. The old wife was busy all the morning cooking all kinds of dainties, while the old man went round the village and collected the fiddlers. All the boys and girls of the village were invited, and they ate and sang and danced and had a merry time till daybreak. As they went home, the girls all talked at once about how much they had enjoyed themselves, but the boys were very silent ; they were thinking of the beautiful Snegorotchka with the blue eyes and the golden hair.

Every day after that Snegorotchka played with the other children, and taught them how to make castles and palaces of snow, with marble halls and thrones and beautiful fountains. The snow seemed to let her do whatever she liked with it, and to build itself up under her tiny fingers as if it knew exactly what shape it was to take. They were all greatly delighted with the wonderful things she made; but when she showed them how to dance as the snowflakes do, first in a brisk whirl, and then softly and lightly, they could think of nothing else but Snegorotchka. She was the little fairy queen of the children, the delight of the older people, and the very breath of life to old Marusha and Youshko.

And now the winter months moved on. With slow and steady stride they went from mountain top to mountain top, around the circle of the sky-line. The earth began to clothe itself in green. The great trees, holding out their naked arms like huge babies waiting to be dressed, were getting greener and greener, and last year’s birds sat in their branches singing this year’s songs. The early flowers shed their perfume on the breeze, and now and then a waft of warm air, straying from its summer haunts, caressed the cheek and breathed a glowing promise in the ear. The forests and the fields were stirring. A beautiful spirit brooded over the face of nature; spring was trembling on the leash and tugging to be free.

One afternoon Marusha was sitting in the inglenook stirring the soup and singing a mournful song, because she had never felt so full of joy. The old man Youshko had just brought in a bundle of wood and laid it on the hearth. It seemed just the same as on that winter’s afternoon when they saw the children dancing round their snow man; but what made all the difference was Snegorotchka, the apple of their eye, who now sat by the window, gazing out at the green grass and the budding trees.

Youshko had been looking at her; he had noticed that her face was pale and her eyes a shade less blue than usual. He grew anxious about her.

‘Are you not feeling well, Snegorotchka?’ he asked.

‘No, Little Father,’ she replied sadly. ‘I miss the white snow, oh! so much; the green grass is not half as beautiful. I wish the snow would come again.’

‘Oh! yes; the snow will come again,’ replied the old man. ‘But don’t you like the leaves on the trees and the blossoms and the flowers, my darling?’

‘They are not so beautiful as the pure, white snow.’ And Snegorotchka shuddered.

The next day she looked so pale and sad that they were alarmed, and glanced at one another anxiously.

‘What ails the child?’ said Marusha.

Youshko shook his head and looked from Snegorotchka to the fire, and then back again.

‘My child,’ he said at last, ‘why don’t you go out and play with the others? They are all enjoying themselves among the flowers in the forest; but I’ve noticed you never play with them now. Why is it, my darling?’

‘I don’t know, Little Father, but my heart seems to turn to water when the soft warm wind brings the scent of the blossoms.’

‘But we will come with you, my child,’ said the old man.’ I will put my arm about you and shield you from the wind. Come, we will show you all the pretty flowers in the grass, and tell you their names, and you will just love them, all of them.’

So Marusha took the pot off the fire and then they all went out together, Youshko with his arm round Snegorotchka to shield her from the wind. But they had not gone far when the warm perfume of the flowers was wafted to them on the breeze, and the child trembled like a leaf. They both comforted her and kissed her, and then they went on towards the spot where the flowers grew thickly in the grass. But, as they passed a clump of big trees, a bright ray of sunlight struck through like a dart and Snegorotchka put her hand over her eyes and gave a cry of pain.

They stood still and looked at her. For a moment, as she drooped upon the old man’s arm, her eyes met theirs; and on her upturned face were swiftly running tears which sparkled in the sunlight as they fell. Then, as they watched her, she grew smaller and smaller, until, at last, all that was left of Snegorotchka was a little patch of dew shining on the grass. One tear-drop had fallen into the cup of a flower. Youshko gathered that flower very gently and handed it to Marusha without a word.

They both understood now. Their darling was just a little girl made of snow, and she had melted away in the warmth of the sunlight.

Published in 1916 this story from “Edmund Dulac’s Fairy Book” is public domain.

https://archive.org/ … dulacsfair00dularich

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Blazing World

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THE
DESCRIPTION
OF A NEW
WORLD
CALLED
The Blazing-World.
WRITTEN
By The Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and Excellent
PRINCESSE
THE
Duchess of Newcastle
Printed by A. Maxwell, in the Year M.DC.LX.VIII.

Public Domain

A very early Science Fiction/Fantasy story by Margaret Cavendish published in 1666.

The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World.

A Merchant travelling into a foreign Country, fell extreamly in Love with a young Lady; but being a stranger in that Nation, and beneath her, both in Birth and Wealth, he could have but little hopes of obtaining his desire; however his Love growing more and more vehement upon him, even to the slighting of all difficulties, he resolved at last to Steal her away; which he had the better opportunity to do, because her Father’s house was not far from the Sea, and she often using to gather shells upon the shore accompanied not with above two to three of her servants it encouraged him the more to execute his design. Thus coming one time with a little leight Vessel, not unlike a Packet-boat, mann’d with some few Sea-men, and well victualled, for fear of some accidents, which might perhaps retard their journey, to the place where she used to repair; he forced her away: But when he fancied himself the happiest man of the World, he proved to be the most unfortunate; for Heaven frowning at his Theft, raised such a Tempest, as they knew not what to do, or whither to steer their course; so that the Vessel, both by its own leightness, and the violent motion of the Wind, was carried as swift as an Arrow out of a Bow, towards the North-pole, and in a short time reached the Icy Sea, where the wind forced it amongst huge pieces of Ice; but being little, and leight, it did by the assistance and favour of the gods to this virtuous Lady, so turn and wind through those precipices, as if it had been guided by some experienced Pilot, and skilful Mariner: But alas! Those few men which were in it, not knowing whither they went, nor what was to be done in so strange an Adventure, and not being provided for so cold a Voyage, were all frozen to death; the young Lady onely, by the light of her Beauty, the heat of her Youth, and Protection of the Gods, remaining alive: Neither was it a wonder that the men did freeze to death; for they were not onely driven to the very end or point of the Pole of that World, but even to another Pole of another World, which joined close to it; so that the cold having a double strength at the conjunction of those two Poles, was insupportable: At last, the Boat still passing on, was forced into another World; for it is impossible to round this Worlds Globe from Pole to Pole, so as we do from East to West; because the Poles of the other World, joining to the Poles of this, do not allow any further passage to surround the World that way; but if any one arrives to either of these Poles, he is either forced to return, or to enter into another World: and lest you should scruple at it, and think, if it were thus, those that live at the Poles would either see two Suns at one time, or else they would never want the Sun’s light for six months together, as it is commonly believed: You must know, that each of these Worlds having its own Sun to enlighten it, they move each one in their peculiar Circles; which motion is so just and exact, that neither can hinder or obstruct the other; for they do not exceed their Tropicks: and although they should meet, yet we in this World cannot so well perceive them, by reason of the brightness of our Sun, which being nearer to us, obstructs the splendor of the Sun of the other World, they being too far off to be discerned by our optick perception, except we use very good Telescopes; by which, skilful Astronomers have often observed two or three Suns at once. But to return to the wandering Boat, and the distressed Lady; she seeing all the Men dead, found small comfort in life; their Bodies which were preserved all that while from putrefaction and stench, by the extremity of cold, began now to thaw, and corrupt; whereupon she having not strength enough to fling them over-board, was forced to remove out of her small Cabine, upon the deck, to avoid the nauseous smell; and finding the Boat swim between two plains of Ice, as a stream that runs betwixt two shores, at last perceived land, but covered all with Snow: from which came, walking upon the Ice, strange Creatures, in shape like Bears, only they went upright as men; those Creatures coming near the Boat, catched hold of it with their Paws, that served them instead of hands; some two or three of them entred first; and when they came out, the rest went in one after another; at last having viewed and observed all that was in the Boat, they spake to each other in a language which the Lady did not understand; and having carried her out of the Boat, sunk it, together with the dead men.

The Lady now finding her self in so strange a place, and amongst such wonderful kind of Creatures, was extreamly strucken with fear, and could entertain no other Thoughts, but that every moment her life was to be a sacrifice to their cruelty; but those Bear-like Creatures, how terrible soever they appear’d to her sight, yet were they so far from exercising any cruelty upon her, that rather they shewed her all civility and kindness imaginable; for she being not able to go upon the Ice, by reason of its slipperiness, they took her up in their rough arms, and carried her into their City, where instead of Houses, they had Caves under ground; and as soon as they enter’d the City, both Males and Females, young and old, flockt together to see this Lady, holding up their Paws in admiration; at last having brought her into a certain large and spacious Cave, which they intended for her reception, they left her to the custody of the Females, who entertained her with all kindness and respect, and gave her such victuals as they used to eat; but seeing her Constitution neither agreed with the temper of that Climate, nor their Diet, they were resolved to carry her into another Island of a warmer temper; in which were men like Foxes, onely walking in an upright shape, who received their neighbours the Bear-men with great civility and Courtship, very much admiring this beauteous Lady; and having discoursed some while together, agreed at last to make her a Present to the Emperor of their World; to which end, after she had made some short stay in the same place, they brought her cross that Island to a large River, whose stream run smooth and clear, like Chrystal; in which were numerous Boats, much like our Fox-traps; in one whereof she was carried, some of the Bear- and Fox-men waiting on her; and as soon as they had crossed the River, they came into an Island where there were Men which had heads, beaks and feathers, like wild-Geese, onely they went in an upright shape, like the Bear-men and Fox-men: their rumps they carried between their legs, their wings were of the same length with their Bodies, and their tails of an indifferent size, trailing after them like a Ladie’s Garment; and after the Bear- and Fox-men had declared their intention and design to their Neighbours, the Geese- or Bird-men, some of them joined to the rest, and attended the Lady through that Island, till they came to another great and large River, where there was a preparation made of many Boats, much like Birds nests, onely of a bigger size; and having crost that River, they arrived into another Island, which was of a pleasant and mild temper, full of Woods and the Inhabitants thereof were Satyrs, who received both the Bear- Fox- and Bird men, with all respect and civility; and after some conferences (for they all understood each others language) some chief of the Satyrs joining to them, accompanied the Lady out of that Island to another River, wherein were many handsome and commodious Barges; and having crost that River, they entered into a large and spacious Kingdom, the men whereof were of a Grass-Green Complexion, who entertained them very kindly, and provided all conveniences for their further voyage: hitherto they had onely crost Rivers, but now they could not avoid the open Seas any longer; wherefore they made their Ships and tacklings ready to sail over into the Island, where the Emperor of the Blazing- world (for so it was call’d) kept his residence. Very good Navigators they were; and though they had no knowledg of the Load-stone, or Needle or pendulous Watches, yet (which was as serviceable to them) they had subtile observations, and great practice; in so much that they could not onely tell the depth of the Sea in every place, but where there were shelves of Sand, Rocks, and other obstructions to be avoided by skilful and experienced Sea-men: Besides, they were excellent Augurers, which skill they counted more necessary and beneficial then the use of Compasses, Cards, Watches, and the like; but, above the rest, they had an extraordinary Art, much to be taken notice of by Experimental Philosophers, and that was a certain Engin, which would draw in a great quantity of Air, and shoot forth Wind with a great force; this Engine in a calm, they placed behind their Ships, and in a storm, before; for it served against the raging waves, like Cannons against an hostile Army, or besieged Town; it would batter and beat the waves in pieces, were they as high as Steeples; and as soon as a breach was made, they forced their passage through, in spight even of the most furious wind, using two of those Engins at every Ship, one before, to beat off the waves, and another behind to drive it on; so that the artificial wind had the better of the natural; for, it had a greater advantage of the waves, then the natural of the Ships: the natural being above the face of the Water, could not without a down right motion enter or press into the Ships; whereas the artificial with a sideward-motion, did pierce into the bowels of the Waves: Moreover, it is to be observed, that in a great Tempest they would join their Ships in battel-aray: and when they feared Wind and Waves would be too strong for them, if they divided their Ships; they joined as many together as the compass or advantage of the places of the Liquid Element would give them leave. For, their Ships were so ingeniously contrived, that they could fasten them together as close as a Honey-comb, without waste of place; and being thus united, no Wind nor Waves were able to separate them. The Emperor’s Ships, were all of Gold; but the Merchants and Skippers, of Leather; the Golden Ships were not much heavier then ours of Wood, by reason they were neatly made, and required not such thickness, neither were they troubled with Pitch, Tar, Pumps, Guns, and the like, which make our Woodden-Ships very heavy; for though they were not all of a piece, yet they were so well sodder’d, that there was no fear of Leaks, Chinks, or Clefts; and as for Guns, there was no use of them, because they had no other enemies but the Winds: But the Leather Ships were not altogether so sure, although much leighter; besides, they were pitched to keep out Water.

Continued on Project Gutenberg

Here’s an essay about this work by Emily Lord Fransee on the Public Domain Review.

Mistress of a New World: Early Science Fiction in Europe’s “Age of Discovery”

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Seventeen Haikus

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Basho by Hokusai - public domain

Seventeen Haikus
by Larry Heyl

The first haiku was
the last one written. A glimpse
into the future.

Honored instructor,

I know this is not my assignment but I have just completed the most remarkable work. Against all dicta I was overtaken by a creative impulse. Three days ago seventeen haikus poured out as if written by the hand of God. Of course it was my hand and my brain so these haikus were quite flawed in form and substance. I have spent the last three days perfecting this work, still under the direction of the divine, and I can find no further way to improve them.

They are a masterwork, short as they may be. I know this in my soul. Although I know we are tasked with studying the work of our ancestors and we are foresworn against the production of new art I could not stop myself. It was as if I was possessed by angels. The words came alive. They forced my hand to write and revise. Now I am done.

I would like to read my work to you. I feel that is the best way to unfold it. The seventeen haikus are meant to be read aloud.

I feel I must include at least one. So here is the seventeenth haiku, about silence.

Silence permeates
the ethos. This is not death.
Still, this is silence.

As soon as I sent this message I had second thoughts. What if instead of allowing me to read to him he turned me in. He was a full professor after all. The Stasis could come down on him as well as me.

I had a sick feeling in my stomach. I was not worried about the enforcers. I was not afraid of death. But the seventeen haikus had to live. That was most important.

So I made a file, seventeenhaikus.txt, and I posted it to every group I was part of. Scholars all over the world would share this burden. It was the best I could do.

Three hours later the enforcers came. They were too late.

300 years later schools of the New Renaissance covered the planet teaching the seventeen haikus as their core curricula. They were a revered text but they could not be taught as revered. For as soon as they were read aloud all who heard them knew they too had to create. Some wrote haikus, some novels. Some played music. Some painted, danced, or sculpted. But it was all new art. The Stasis had ended.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Men Like Gods

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First US edition cover

Serialised in The Westminster Gazette, Dec 1922-Feb 1923
First book edition: Cassell & Co., London, 1923
First US edition: The Macmillan Company, New York, 1923
public domain

Men Like Gods is one of H.G. Wells utopian novels. Because it was published in 1923 it is now public domain in the United States.

Here’s a link to the entire text.

And here’s the first chapter.

Mr. Barnstaple found himself in urgent need of a holiday, and he had no one to go with and nowhere to go. He was overworked. And he was tired of home.

He was a man of strong natural affections; he loved his family extremely so that he knew it by heart, and when he was in these jaded moods it bored him acutely. His three sons, who were all growing up, seemed to get leggier and larger every day; they sat down in the chairs he was just going to sit down in; they played him off his own pianola; they filled the house with hoarse, vast laughter at jokes that one couldn’t demand to be told; they cut in on the elderly harmless flirtations that had hitherto been one of his chief consolations in this vale; they beat him at tennis; they fought playfully on the landings, and fell downstairs by twos and threes with an enormous racket. Their hats were everywhere. They were late for breakfast. They went to bed every night in a storm of uproar: “Haw, Haw, Haw—bump!” and their mother seemed to like it. They all cost money, with a cheerful disregard of the fact that everything had gone up except Mr. Barnstaple’s earning power. And when he said a few plain truths about Mr. Lloyd George at meal-times, or made the slightest attempt to raise the tone of the table-talk above the level of the silliest persiflage, their attention wandered ostentatiously…

At any rate it seemed ostentatiously.

He wanted badly to get away from his family to some place where he could think of its various members with quiet pride and affection, and otherwise not be disturbed by them…

And also he wanted to get away for a time from Mr. Peeve. The very streets were becoming a torment to him, he wanted never to see a newspaper or a newspaper placard again. He was obsessed by apprehensions of some sort of financial and economic smash that would make the Great War seem a mere incidental catastrophe. This was because he was sub-editor and general factotum of the Liberal, that well-known organ of the more depressing aspects of advanced thought, and the unvarying pessimism of Mr. Peeve, his chief, was infecting him more and more. Formerly it had been possible to put up a sort of resistance to Mr. Peeve by joking furtively about his gloom with the other members of the staff, but now there were no other members of the staff: they had all been retrenched by Mr. Peeve in a mood of financial despondency. Practically, now, nobody wrote regularly for the Liberal except Mr. Barnstaple and Mr. Peeve. So Mr. Peeve had it all his own way with Mr. Barnstaple. He would sit hunched up in the editorial chair, with his hands deep in his trouser pockets, taking a gloomy view of everything, sometimes for two hours together. Mr. Barnstaple’s natural tendency was towards a modest hopefulness and a belief in progress, but Mr. Peeve held very strongly that a belief in progress was at least six years out of date, and that the brightest hope that remained to Liberalism was for a good Day of Judgment soon. And having finished the copy of what the staff, when there was a staff, used to call his weekly indigest, Mr. Peeve would depart and leave Mr. Barnstaple to get the rest of the paper together for the next week.

Even in ordinary times Mr. Peeve would have been hard enough to live with; but the times were not ordinary, they were full of disagreeable occurrences that made his melancholy anticipations all too plausible. The great coal lock-out had been going on for a month and seemed to foreshadow the commercial ruin of England; every morning brought intelligence of fresh outrages from Ireland, unforgivable and unforgettable outrages; a prolonged drought threatened the harvests of the world; the League of Nations, of which Mr. Barnstaple had hoped enormous things in the great days of President Wilson, was a melancholy and self-satisfied futility; everywhere there was conflict, everywhere unreason; seven-eighths of the world seemed to be sinking down towards chronic disorder and social dissolution. Even without Mr. Peeve it would have been difficult enough to have made headway against the facts.

Mr. Barnstaple was, indeed, ceasing to secrete hope, and for such types as he, hope is the essential solvent without which there is no digesting life. His hope had always been in liberalism and generous liberal effort, but he was beginning to think that liberalism would never do anything more for ever than sit hunched up with its hands in its pockets grumbling and peeving at the activities of baser but more energetic men. Whose scrambling activities would inevitably wreck the world.

Night and day now, Mr. Barnstaple was worrying about the world at large. By night even more than by day, for sleep was leaving him. And he was haunted by a dreadful craving to bring out a number of the Liberal of his very own —to alter it all after Mr. Peeve had gone away, to cut out all the dyspeptic stuff, the miserable, empty girding at this wrong and that, the gloating on cruel and unhappy things, the exaggeration of the simple, natural, human misdeeds of Mr. Lloyd George, the appeals to Lord Grey, Lord Robert Cecil, Lord Lansdowne, the Pope, Queen Anne, or the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (it varied from week to week), to arise and give voice and form to the young aspirations of a world reborn, and, instead, to fill the number with —Utopia! to say to the amazed readers of the Liberal: Here are things that have to be done! Here are the things we are going to do! What a blow it would be for Mr. Peeve at his Sunday breakfast! For once, too astonished to secrete abnormally, he might even digest that meal!

But this was the most foolish of dreaming. There were the three young Barnstaples at home and their need for a decent start in life to consider. And beautiful as the thing was as a dream, Mr. Barnstaple had a very unpleasant conviction that he was not really clever enough to pull such a thing off. He would make a mess of it somehow…

One might jump from the frying-pan into the fire. The Liberal was a dreary, discouraging, ungenerous paper, but anyhow it was not a base and wicked paper.

Still, if there was to be no such disastrous outbreak it was imperative that Mr. Barnstaple should rest from Mr. Peeve for a time. Once or twice already he had contradicted him. A row might occur anywhen. And the first step towards resting from Mr. Peeve was evidently to see a doctor. So Mr. Barnstaple went to a doctor.

“My nerves are getting out of control,” said Mr. Barnstaple. “I feel horribly neurasthenic.”

“You are suffering from neurasthenia,” said the doctor. “I dread my daily work.”

“You want a holiday.”

“You think I need a change?”

“As complete a change as you can manage.”

“Can you recommend any place where I could go?”

“Where do you want to go?”

“Nowhere definite. I thought you could recommend—”

“Let some place attract you—and go there. Do nothing to force your inclinations at the present time.”

Mr. Barnstaple paid the doctor the sum of one guinea, and armed with these instructions prepared to break the news of his illness and his necessary absence to Mr. Peeve whenever the occasion seemed ripe for doing so.


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Men Like Gods first edition. Click to continue reading.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Hegel, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein

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Photo by PhotoVision on pixabay - public domain

Hegel, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein
by Larry Heyl

It was my brother Jeff who was the doer. Always making things, working on this or that, good at math and physics in school.

I was the thinker. Always gazing off into the distance pondering the big questions. What is life? What is death? What is man? What is woman?

It’s that last one that really puzzled me. Jeff got married, started his own business, got rich. I got tongue tied around girls, took a philosophy degree, and had an income commensurate with my degree. I check the want ads daily. Never have I seen Philosopher Needed - Top Dollar.

So I never understood why the aliens abducted me. It was Jeff they wanted. They must have got their wires crossed.

Now I’m not gay but I didn’t mind the anal probe so much. Learning the alien language wasn’t too bad either. They put a silver disc on my forehead and I started talking to them. It was the interview that really got them.

They kept asking about stuff I didn’t know, technology, armaments, rocket ships, manufacturing. I wasn’t much help. But I gave them a good dose of Hegel, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein. I don’t think they were ready for that. They started babbling. They sent me up the ladder. I kept expounding and their confusion deepened. Evidently philosophy wasn’t their strong suit. Like I said they got the wrong guy.

They could only deal with me for so long. Before I knew it they had beamed me back home and departed Earth post haste. And that’s how I saved the world with philosophy.

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

Sweet Mary

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Artwork by Arthur Rackham - public domain

Sweet Mary
by Larry Heyl

Sweet Mary was born in the spring. Her parents were well off and unconventional. Which in itself was strange because Mary was quite conventional. She occupied herself with being a very normal baby until Christmas. Even though she was only nine months old when Kris Kringle came she got a big sparkle in her eye and you could see joy radiate from her and light the room. She was brighter than the tree.

As she grew she remained very conventional. She would read, draw, and walk in the forest. And when Christmas came each year Kris Kringle brought her books, paper, charcoal, crayons, and walking boots. It wasn’t the presents that made her glow. She just loved Christmas in an extraordinary way. It is normal for children to love Christmas but for Sweet Mary her joy of Christmas was unconventionally exuberant.

And so Mary would walk in the woods, reading and drawing, and the years drifted by. Until one fall, at the top of the hill, she found a fairy circle of big beautiful mushrooms and unknowingly she walked through it. She made friends in Feyland, Puck, Took, and Willow. For fairies they were still young and the four of them would romp through the woods playing fairy games almost as if Sweet Mary belonged there. But she loved her parents very much and after a few hours she would always go home. She was still conventional enough not to eat between meals so she could always find the fairy circle and the path back to her house. When she greeted her parents she had that sparkle in her eye they had only seen at Christmas and they very much approved. They quickly grew used to her radiating joy after returning from her walks in the woods.

Then one year she grew up, as girls do, and in the fall when she found the fairy circle she was a maid, even though she didn’t really know what that meant yet. Puck, Took, and Willow knew what it meant and since they were in Feyland it wasn’t long before they were enjoying themselves as fairies do for fairies have no thought for the future and no concerns about morality, they live and love in the presnt moment only concerned about their own pleasure and enjoyment.

And Mary in Feyland was the same. Conventional no more she also lived for pleasure in the present and greatly enjoyed Puck, Took, and Willow.

When she came home for supper her glow would light the room. Here parents could see she had changed but they were unconventional and left Mary to her pursuits. Mary said nothing of her time in Feyland to her parents. It was her secret.

But when winter came and the fairy circle was gone and her belly began to swell it could be a secret no more. Her mother loved her very much and took her into her confidence explaining the ways of the world to Sweet Mary. But she did not ask after the father because she feared if they found the father he would soon become a husband and take Sweet Mary away. And Mary did not talk about the father either, whether Puck or Took she did not know, and she certainly did not know how do explain her time in Feyland.

In early summer the babe was born and it was a good thing Mary’s parents were unconventional because little Pookie was clearly fey. Her parents were well aware of the dangers of raising a fey child and so they set up all night, every night, taking watches, so the fairies could not steal the babe away. And Sweet Mary, with a babe at her breast forego her trips through the fairy circle, perhaps Puck, Took, and Willow missed her, perhaps not.

In fact, her parents were well pleased with their grandchild. They were unconventional and aware of the fey blood in their own ancestry, weak as it was. They married each other to preserve their heritage and were glad for the fresh infusion of fey blood into their family line. And they were overjoyed when they set up the tree and the babe just smiled and giggled, loving the Christmas spectacle.

So when little Pookie was three and safe from abduction they encouraged Mary to go back to the woods where she once again walked through the fairy circle. Puck, Took, and Willow were most pleased to see her and Sweet Mary once more enjoyed afternoons full of pleasure and companionship. But she said nothing of little Pookie. She had learned, in her life, to keep secrets.

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Friday, December 28, 2018

Fredric Brown - Experiment

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Illustrated by STONE

Experiment
By FREDRIC BROWN

“The first time machine, gentlemen,” Professor Johnson proudly informed
his two colleagues. “True, it is a small-scale experimental model. It
will operate only on objects weighing less than three pounds, five
ounces and for distances into the past and future of twelve minutes or
less. But it works.”

The small-scale model looked like a small scale–a postage scale–except
for two dials in the part under the platform.

Professor Johnson held up a small metal cube. “Our experimental object,”
he said, “is a brass cube weighing one pound, two point three ounces.
First, I shall send it five minutes into the future.”

He leaned forward and set one of the dials on the time machine. “Look at
your watches,” he said.

They looked at their watches. Professor Johnson placed the cube gently
on the machine’s platform. It vanished.

Five minutes later, to the second, it reappeared.

Professor Johnson picked it up. “Now five minutes into the past.” He set
the other dial. Holding the cube in his hand he looked at his watch. “It
is six minutes before three o’clock. I shall now activate the
mechanism–by placing the cube on the platform–at exactly three
o’clock. Therefore, the cube should, at five minutes before three,
vanish from my hand and appear on the platform, five minutes before I
place it there.”

“How can you place it there, then?” asked one of his colleagues.

“It will, as my hand approaches, vanish from the platform and appear in
my hand to be placed there. Three o’clock. Notice, please.”

The cube vanished from his hand.

It appeared on the platform of the time machine.

“See? Five minutes before I shall place it there, it _is_ there!”

His other colleague frowned at the cube. “But,” he said, “what if, now
that it has already appeared five minutes before you place it there, you
should change your mind about doing so and _not_ place it there at three
o’clock? Wouldn’t there be a paradox of some sort involved?”

“An interesting idea,” Professor Johnson said. “I had not thought of it,
and it will be interesting to try. Very well, I shall _not_ …”

There was no paradox at all. The cube remained.

But the entire rest of the Universe, professors and all, vanished.

Included in “Two Timer”, public domain. Available on Project Gutenberg.