Avon Fantasy Reader/Issue 10/The Mentanicals
by Francis Flagg
The timeliness of Francis Flagg's "Mentanicals" is shown by the unexpected rush of public interest in a recent book with the enigmatic title of "Cybernetics." This new word is designed to represent a new science—that of the mechanical brain, or the machine that seems to utilize such processes as memory, association, and even deduction. The public interest shows the trend of the times; people have a way of suspicioning for themselves important angles of future development when they become ripe. But with the acute imagination of the science-fictionist and social scientist that he was, Francis Flagg spotted the trend fifteen years before. In this thought-provoking novelette, we are treated to a startling vision of the possible result of this present work in cybernetics.
THIS IS A strange story, and if you are the kind of person who believes nothing without overwhelming proof, read no further, for the story is an incredible one and centers around characters widely divergent as to background and walks of life—Bronson, Smith and Stringer.
Bronson was by way of being an adventurous man, one who had sailed the seven seas, first as fo'cas'le hand, then as mate and skipper of rusty tramps for Chinese owners in the Orient. Yet he was by no means uneducated, though the knowledge he possessed on a wide range of subjects seldom met with in the repertoire of that type of tramp captains, had been gleaned from books and not from colleges. Olson Smith had picked him up—I never rightly understood when or how—in the Indian Ocean and made him captain of his sleek ocean liner masquerading as a yacht. Olson Smith could afford the luxury of thousand-ton yachts, because his father had been canny enough to get into a packing-house combine at the right moment and so turn an already sizable fortune into millions. Olson himself, however, had nothing to do with the packing business aside from helping to spend its profits. He was a dilettante of sorts, a patron of the arts, a stout, distinguished looking gentleman under sixty, who endowed colleges and founded chairs and laboratories for research work. Through these benevolences he became acquainted with Professor Stringer, the physicist, whose remarkable achievements in his chosen field (which also covered mathematics) had won him an international reputation. Professor Stringer was not a "popular" scientist, his abstruse and remarkable paper on "The Electronic Flow and Its Relation With Time" being practically unknown to the general public. But among his colleagues he was regarded with great respect for his actual discoveries in the realm of physics; and even though many of them looked askance at the radical theories advanced in his paper, portions of the paper itself were received as a genuine, if somewhat abstract, contribution to knowledge.
Olson Smith read the paper. How much of it he understood is a moot question. As the secretary of his benefactions I was instrumental in bringing it to his attention. "Here," I said, "is a chance to do something for pure science." He was not at first inclined to be interested. "The thing," he said, "is moonshine, pure moonshine."
"Perhaps so," I replied; "but you must remember that the moonshine often precedes the practical science. Consider, sir...." He considered; and after due reflection loosened the pursestrings.
Professor Stringer graciously allowed himself to be endowed. He was (one sensed) fed up with wasting his genius on unappreciative college students; and he wanted money, much money, a million dollars he said, to carry out his experiments. But he made it clear that he was honoring Olson Smith by allowing him to donate the money; and strangely enough—for Olson Smith was a plutocrat convinced of his own weight and importance—the magnate agreed. The personality of Professor Stringer—and this dried-up wizened little scientist in the middle fifties possessed a dynamic personality—carried all before it. Olson Smith turned over to him his Long Island home, built workshops and laboratories, and then left him to the seclusion and privacy he desired, taking his annual trip to the Bermudas. What with one thing and another we did not see Professor Stringer again until a year later, when the yacht tied up at the private pier of the Long Island estate and we dined with him. Besides Olson Smith, Professor Stringer and myself, three others were present that night, a middle-aged business man named Gleason, ruddy of fate from constant shampooing and good living, a noted surgeon who does not wish his name or description given here, and Captain Bronson of the steam-yacht. Perhaps I have failed to mention that Captain Bronson was a remarkably handsome man, somewhere under forty, whose medium height and slender figure belied the great physical strength that was really his. He certainly did not look the two-fisted fighter, the dubious hero of shady exploits that Olson Smith declared him to be. The multimillionaire was scarcely one to make friends of his hired men, be they valets or private secretaries, but between himself and Bronson an undoubted intimacy existed, based, perhaps, on the dual nature of the Captain. Bronson was capable either of fighting or discussing the merits of a Pulitzer prize winner: a sort of Wolf Larsen of a fellow, but more versatile and amenable than Jack London's character.
There was drink that night of course, wines, liqueurs and a very good brandy, all brought from the boat, but the Professor touched nothing. "A scientist must have a clear head," he said, "and alcohol is not conducive to that—no—" But he drunk coffee, and when the servants had served it and left us alone, he began to talk, almost musingly. "Time," he said, "is the great enigma, the phenomenon that captivates the imagination. We travel in it from the cradle to the grave, and yet," he said, "what do we know of time? Nothing," he said, "nothing, save that it is related to space." He paused and looked at us all half-dreamily. "As you know I have discovered a force that I call the Electronic Flow, and that force I have related to the phenomenon of time. I am convinced—in my various papers on the subject I have sought to show—that the Electronic Flow, being to all intents and purposes the absolute as far as we are concerned, is capable of bearing us on its bosom into the future. Or rather its tremendous speed is capable of holding us suspended at the core of things, while the phenomenon of time...." He broke off and regarded us more directly. "Really," he said, "I don't know as I am making this subject very clear. But you must understand," he said, "that there are points, on which I am not very clear myself. Whether the speed of the electronic flow carries one forward into time, or the speed of time passes one held in the electronic flow, is a question difficult to answer. Yes," he said, "very difficult to determine. Of course I did not start my recent investigations with any intention so radical as building a Time Machine. Not at first," he said. "My intentions were merely to verify mathematically some further theories, and to demonstrate .... "He mused a moment. "But do you know the idea of an actual Time Machine grew on me? It were," he said, "as if something whispered in my very brain and drove me on. I can't describe it. Foolishness of course. But I built the Time Machine." He looked at Olson Smith. "Yes," he said, "I built the Time Machine. It lies in the laboratory yonder; and to-night—to-night," he said, "I am going to demonstrate it for the first time!"
The business man was one of those beefy individuals who stare into whiskey glasses, and make strange noises in their throats when they fail to understand anything. "Stuff and nonsense," he said now, "stuff and nonsense."
Bronson stared at him. "Oh, I don't know."
"But to travel in time!"
"It does sound absurd."
"Absurd," said the famous doctor.
"And yet you know what they said about iron steamships sinking and heavier-than-air flying machines."
"That was different."
"Different," I said with conviction.
"...in my time," said Olson Smith; "building time machines" He looked reproachfully at his glass. "Will some one," he asked, "pass the brandy?"
The brandy was passed.
We were all drinking; more than was good for us perhaps. The Professor put down his coffee cup and addressed himself to Olson Smith. "In a sense," he said, "a financial sense, this time machine is yours. If you care to see it demonstrated . . ." He stood up.
The business man did not stir. He muttered something about damn-fool nuts and snorted into his glass. But the rest of us were interested. A fresh breeze was blowing off the water, as we passed from the house to the laboratory, and helped, partially, to dissipate the fumes of alcohol. Professor Stringer threw open the laboratory door and turned on the lights. We saw it then, an odd machine, shiny and rounded, occupying the center of the workshop floor. I had been drinking, you will recollect, and my powers of observation were not at their best. It was the same with the others. When I questioned them later, they could give no adequate description of it. "So this," said Olson Smith rather flatly, "is a time machine." The doctor walked about—a little unsteadily I noticed—and viewed it from all angles. "The passenger," said the Professor, "sits here. Notice this lever on the graduated face of the dial; it controls the machine. Turn it this way from Zero and one travels into the past; throw it ahead and one travels into the future. The return of the lever to Zero will return the machine to the point of departure in time. The electronic flow...." he went into obscure details. "Will it work?" demanded the Doctor.
"According to the equation...."
"...it cannot help but function."
"If time travelling were possible."
Bronson laughed loudly. "To travel in time! That would be an adventure."
"On paper," jibed the Doctor.
Bronson laughed again. "We'll see about that."
All of us were a little drunk, I tell you, and despite the respect we felt for Professor Stringer as an eminent scientist, no one believed in his time machine. I am quite certain that Bronson didn't. Or did he? I have sketched his background and there is little doubt that by temperament and training he was a wild and reckless fellow, one given to doing bizarre things and taking desperate chances. With a quick movement that no one anticipated he stopped forward and seated himself in the passenger seat of the odd contrivance. I can see him yet, his face flushed, his eyes brilliant, his mop of dark hair disordered. "All aboard for the future!" he shouted recklessly.
"For heaven's sake, man!" The Professor tried to reach his side. "Careful you fool! careful! Don't touch anything!" But Bronson grasped the lever and pushed it, pushed it abruptly ahead. How can I describe what followed? There was a chaotic moment when the machine spun—we saw it spinning, a blurred mass. A sudden wind rushed through the room in quick fury, raged, subsided, and left us staring in dumb amazement and fear at an empty spot. The machine—and Bronson with it—had vanished before our eyes!
That was on June the first, a little before midnight, and five days passed, five days, during which Bronson was lost to his own time and place.
Ahead of us in time! That was the implication.
Close to the machine when Bronson turned the lever, Professor Stringer had been thrown to the floor, his head struck by a portion of the machine as it whirled into invisibility. We picked him up, unconscious, and for days he hovered on the verge of death. The next morning the business man went his way to the city, ignorant of what had occurred. "Time machines," he chortled, "time machines," and smiled fatly. But the rest of us settled down to wait for we knew not what, and on the fifth day occurred the terrific explosion by the old stone wall, a half mile from the workshop, and when we hurried there, it was to find Bronson entangled in a wreckage of steel and other metals. We hauled him forth. His clothes were in shreds, his body terribly bruised and battered, and it was some time before he could made to realize where he was. "Brandy!" he exclaimed; "for God's sake give me brandy!" We gave him brandy and other things, and the doctor patched him up, and we rushed him to a hospital, where in time he recovered from the shock and his broken bones knit. But the beauty that had been his was forever marred by a livid scar diagonally crossing the nose and running to the bulge of the jaw-bone. He fingered it as he told of his incredible adventure.
Time (he said) is the great phenomenon, I know that, but to travel in it—ah, that seemed impossible to the point of absurdity. I had read H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine," as who has not, deeming it fantastic fiction. Wells' story is fantastic fiction, of course, though scarcely as fantastic as what I experienced.
When I seated myself in the Professor's time machine that night and pushed over the lever, I have no need to tell you that I was in a drunken and reckless mood. The room turned around me like a pin-wheel, dissolved into mist. I was conscious of the terrible vibration of the machine, of a deathly sickness at the pit of my stomach. Blackness followed the mist. Wells describes what the character in his story saw as he journeyed into the future, the procession of days and nights ever accelerating their motion, but I saw nothing like that, perhaps from the beginning the speed was too great. Terrified, bewildered, I yet retained enough presence of mind to depress the lever into neutral and so bring the machine to a halt. Moments passed while I lolled in my seat, blind, dazed; then my vision cleared—I could see. It was day. Sunlight fell around me. Everything was strange—and different. How can I make you see what I saw? The machine stood near one end of a great, open square that was surrounded by massive buildings. Those buildings! I had never seen their like before. And yet there was a similarity of line, of mathematical precision which linked them with the architecture of New York and Chicago. It was as if the building construction of to-day had been carried to an extreme length. As if the machine had carried it forward. I did not think that at the moment, but later....
The walls of the massive buildings were broken by yawning doorways. So this, I thought, is the future; it can be nothing less than that. I stepped out of the machine, holding on to it for support, still feeling terribly sick and giddy. Then I saw the cylinders! They came gliding from one of the openings in an upright fashion, and this was the singular thing about them, that their means of locomotion were not apparent to the eye. There were no wheels or treads. They appeared to skim the stone or concrete with which the square was paved, rather than touch it. Oddly repellent they were, and intimidating, and I loosened the automatic in its shoulder holster—the small one I always carry—and prepared for emergencies, though bullets were useless against the cylinders as I was to discover later.
The cylinders were smooth things about five feet tall, of a dulled metal hue, with here and there shining spots which constantly waxed and waned in color. They were machines—I thought of them as machines—and it was reasonable to suppose that behind them lurked a human intelligence. The people of the future, I thought, have invented devices unknown to us of the Twentieth Century; and it came over me how wonderful it was going to be to meet those superior people, talk to them, gaze upon the marvels with which they had surrounded themselves.
So I went to meet the cylinders.
Their soft whispering meant nothing to me at first. Nor at first did I suspect the source of the gentle pressure running over me from head to foot, as the cylinders came close. Then with an odd thrill of apprehension I realized that the curious cylinders were handling, examining me, that from them emanated an electrical force, a manipulation of invisible rays which functioned as organs of touch. Alone, bewildered, trying vainly to comprehend the strange situation. I had to call on every ounce of my self-control to remain calm. Yes, I was afraid—only the fool says he never is—but more afraid of being afraid, of showing fear. I still believed that behind those cylinders must lurk a human intelligence. The genius of the race seemed to run along the line of making robots. There was the "metal brain" at Washington, that told of the tides, the electrical eye which watched a thousand industrial processes, a myriad automatic devices functioning with little or no supervision from man; and of course I had read the play "R. U. R.," science fiction stories dealing with the future of machinery, and it was inevitable—strange, and yet not so strange—that I should expect an advancement, a realization of all those things in the future. Man the inventor, I thought, had achieved them; and for a moment this belief seemed borne out when I saw the men.
They were in one of the buildings, and the city of buildings, which I was soon to know, lay on all sides of and beyond the square. I did not struggle when the cylinders lifted and carried me away. That is, I ceased my involuntary resistance almost at once. It was useless to struggle against a force far superior to my own puny strength; besides I believed the robots were carrying me to their human masters.
The building into which I was taken—through an arched opening—was a vast place; too vast, too overwhelming for me to describe save in the vaguest, most general terms. You know how it is when you see something stupendous, something so intricate that you are bewildered by its very complexity. There was a huge room filled with almost noiseless machines rooted in their places like shackled monsters, or going to and fro on cables and grooves which determined their spheres of activity. Strange lights glowed, weird devices toiled; but I can tell you no more that that; I saw them for too short a time.
The men were among those machines. At sight of them my heart leapt. Here, I thought, is the human intelligence back of the wonders I view, the masters of the cylindrical robots; yet even at that moment I was aware of a doubt, a misgiving.
One of the men shambled forward. His blond hair—long and matted—fell over the forehead and he brushed it back with a taloned hand and stared at me stupidly. "Hello!" I said, "what place is this, what year? Tell these robots of yours to let me go."
He was naked and thin, his skin of a greenish pallor, and save for a mouthing of toothless gums, vouchsafed me no answer. Chilled by his lack of response my heart fell as suddenly as it had leapt. Good God! I thought, this can't be master here, this pitiful thing. The cylinders seemed watching, attentively, listening. I don't know how, but they gave me that impression; and now I noticed that the shining spots on them were glowing intensely, that their whispering was not a steady but a modulated sound. As if it were language, I thought, language! and a strange dread came over me and I shivered as if with cold. Other men, perhaps a dozen in number came forward, naked and shambling, with stupid beast-like looks on their faces and rumblings in their throats. In vain I endeavored to communicate with them, human intelligence seemed dead back of their lack-luster eyes. Filled with rising horror, I squirmed in the grip of the cylinders and suddenly their hold on me relaxed and I tore myself free and fled, possessed with but one overwhelming desire, and that was to win to the time machine, leave this uncanny future and return to my own day and age. But the arched opening leading to the square had vanished, blank wall rose where it had been. The cylinders appeared to watch me with cold impersonal watchfulness. The thought of being marooned among them in this incredible and alien future brought the chill sweat to my forehead, but I did not loose my head. Perhaps the closing of the doorway had not been a calculated thing; perhaps if I awaited events with caution and patience the door would re-open; meantime I could search for other exits.
But other exits did not give on the square I desired. I discovered but two of them anyway, though there may have been many more, one leading into a dark, forbidding tunnel, the other giving access to a second square entirely surrounded by buildings. I was afraid to venture into other buildings for fear of going astray, of losing the neighborhood of the time machine. Filled with what feelings you can imagine, I returned to the first doorway (through which I had been carried) to find it still closed. Then I thought of the beastlike men. Perhaps they possessed knowledge that might be helpful to me; perhaps after all I could succeed in communicating with them. It was hazardous work penetrating any distance in that maze of almost noiseless and ever-toiling mechanisms, but I followed in the footsteps of the timidly retreating beastmen and so at last came to a kind of squatting place in the midst of the machinery, which locality appeared to be their place of abode, since a number of women with children cowered there, and the men showed a disposition to pause and dispute my further progress. At the edge of the squatting place I seated myself, my automatic ready for action, and lit a cigarette. I know of nothing that soothes the nerves like nicotine. Slowly the beast-men drew near me. I smiled and made peaceful gestures. Some half-grown children crept closer and fingered my clothes. They were eating, I noticed, a kind of biscuit which they took at will from a scuttle-like machine, and chewing small pellets. Water ran through a huge metal trough with a subdued roar. After awhile I got up and went to the trough to satisfy a growing thirst, helping myself at the same time to biscuits from the scuttle. They were rather flat in flavor—lacking salt perhaps—and possessed a peculiar taste I did not like. The pellets were better. They too were obtained from a scuttle-machine (I can call them nothing else) and were pleasant to chew. I soon discovered that swallowed at regular intervals one of them gave all the sensations of having partaken of a hearty meal. I had eaten an hour—or was it twenty centuries?—before, but ate again, feeling ravenously hungry. Probably the pellets represented a dehydrated method of concentrating foods, far in advance of that utilized in the preparation of certain foodstuffs today. Be that as it may, I filled my pockets will them, and I dare say if you were to search the clothes I returned in you will find some of those pellets.
I spent several hours at the squatting place of the beast-men trying to talk to them, but without success. Seemingly they were as are the animals of the field lacking coherent language, men who had somehow lost the power to talk, to think, the ability to grasp the meaning of simple signs, such as possessed by the lowliest aborigine to-day. In vain I speculated as to the reason for this. That the cylinders were somehow responsible I felt certain. Man, I thought, had developed the robot, the automatic machine until the human worker was ejected from the industrial process and cast out to degenerate and perish, the beast-men being a surviving remnant of those toilers. This reasoning seemed plausible enough at the time, though it left much to be desired, for, in the twentieth century from which I had come, wasn't the machine replacing human workers with a ruthlessness suggestive of what I found in the future? How right I was in my reasoning, and how wrong, you will shortly see.
Thinking thus it was natural that I should again turn my attention to the cylinders. Never once had I been free from their observation, or unconscious of it. Through them, I thought, I shall contact the rulers of this realm, the human masters whose servants they are, the pitiless ones who have doomed a portion of humanity to beast-hood and extinction. So I grimly waited—a prey to what emotions you can imagine—observing the beast-men, watching the blank wall for the possible opening of the way to the square and the time machine, and all the time aware of the coming and going of those cylinders. Time passed; how much of it I had no means of telling, since my wrist-watch refused to run; but a long time; and finally I grew tired of waiting for the cylindrical robots to communicate my presence to their masters, or to conduct me there, and decided to seek their presence myself.
By way of the opening already alluded to, I gained access to the second square. The squares were a peculiar feature of the place, as I was soon to learn. There were no streets or roads leading from square to square; the squares were isolated with radiating arteries always ending against some building—at least those did, that I explored.
Dusk was falling as I entered the square. Indescribably lonely it was, lonely and weird, to look up and see the stars blazing far overhead. I followed one radiating artery to a blank wall; another, another. Then suddenly I was too tired to proceed further and returned to the vicinity of the closed door, where I lay down at the base of the blank wall and fell asleep.
The next morning I filled my pockets with pellets and again started out. Square after square I passed through, and building after building. The cylinders were everywhere but did not interfere with my movements. A group of them constantly accompanied me, but whether always composed of the same cylinders I could not tell. Their incessant whispering was a nerve-wracking thing, and I often felt like turning on them and shooting.I wish I could tell you all I saw: buildings full of toiling machinery and now and then a score or so of beast-men; squares and radiating arteries without a blade of grass or a tree, and never an animal, a bird, or an insect. On that first day of exploration, despite every precaution, I lost my way—hopelessly—and spent futile hours trying to retrace my steps. I have been lost in tropical jungles. There was that time in Siam. But never before had I felt so panic-stricken. Remember, I was an alien creature in an incredible future, separated from the only means of returning to my own place and time. One square was like another, one building similar to its neighbor. Soon I gave up the vain effort to return to my starting point. My sole hope now lay in finding the rulers of this bewildering maze.
That night—I knew it was night when darkness fell in the squares—I slaked my thirst with a trickle of water running from a pipe, swallowed a pellet, and almost instantly sank into the sleep of exhaustion.
The next day I came to a part of the city free of the beast-men. The squares were larger, the radiating arteries were splendid roads, but in the midst of many squares stood circular buildings not met with before. I entered one of them and was surprised to find huge rooms filled with pieces of rusted tools, shovels, spades, chisels, hammers, axe-heads, all displayed in a kind of chronological order. The thought of its being a museum did not occur to me at once. It was only after a while that I exclaimed to myself, "Why this looks like a museum!" Then the inevitable conviction came: "It is a museum!" But who could have arranged it? Certainly not the witless beast-men, and of other men I had seen nothing. This failure to find human beings, on a par with the stupendous buildings and machines all around, filled me with anxious foreboding. I gazed at the cylinders. For the first time it came over me that they were the only universal inhabitants I had seen. Bewildered, amazed, I wandered from building to building, and from floor to floor (for some of the buildings had as many as a dozen floors accessible to myself, gained not by stairways, but by gradually mounting run-ways or ramps in circular wells), engrossed it, what I saw, forgetting for the nonce my terrible plight.
There were chambers filled with fragments of machines such as cash-registers, clock-wheels, gasoline engines, and similar devices. Nothing was complete; nearly everything showed the wear and tear of time. And there were others containing various machines more or less correctly reassembled from ancient parts: automobiles, for instance, and locomotives; with an arrangement of simpler mechanical forms leading to more complex ones. I couldn't comprehend why all those things had been gathered together for preservation and display; nor account for the age of them, their general condition of ruin.
Not on that day, nor on the next—it was on the last day that I spent in the strange future—did I come to the library. And here I must touch on another phase of my adventure. You can have no idea how horrible it became at times to be alone among hundreds, yes, thousands of whispering cylinders. I was always aware of their subtle and invisible touch. Have you ever felt the antennae of an insect? Like that it was, like that. I recall one time the Gold Coast.... Only it bolstered up my tottering sanity and control to gaze now and then on creatures similar in structure to myself, even if they were but the soulless beast-men of the machines. For in all that vast intricate city they were the only human beings I could discover, and I began to suspect, to dread, I scarcely knew what.
I came to the library, I say, on that last day. I did not know it was a library at first—and perhaps I was mistaken in believing the odd metal disks arranged in piles on shelves and tables, and consulted by the cylinders, to be a species of recording plates—but it was here I found the books. They were in boxes of thin metal, the better evidently to protect them from injury.
The thrill of seeing those books! Old, they were, old, covers gone, pages torn and missing; but they were books and magazines, though few in number, and I examined them eagerly. All this time the cylinders were following me, watching me, as if weighing my actions, and all the time I fought back a feeling of weirdness, uncanniness. Unnerving it was, intimidating. I had the feeling that in some perfectly incomprehensible way my actions were being controlled, directed. Experimenting, I thought, that's what they're doing, experimenting with me. But you mustn't get the idea that I realized or suspected this at first. Even up to that moment I was still thinking of the cylinders as automatic devices without intelligence or reason, and it must be kept in mind that, if I speak of them from time to time as if understanding their true nature from the beginning, I am speaking as one who looks back upon past happenings from the vantage-point of later knowledge.
The books and magazines were typed in English! I was amazed of course, seeing English print at such a time and place. The whispering of the cylinders rose louder and louder as I examined a book. The title page was gone. It dealt with a dry subject—physics evidently—which interested me little. I turned from the books to the magazines. One was dated 1960. Nineteen-sixty! March of that year. And the place of publication was given as New York. I could not help but marvel at this, for 1960 was still twenty-six years in the future when I left that night on the time machine, and to judge by the yellowing pages of the magazine it was old, old. It was difficult to decipher the print, many of the pages being torn and defaced; but a portion of an article I was able to read. "In 1933," stated the unknown writer, "the first mechanical brain-cell was invented; with its use a machine was able to learn by experience to find its way through a maze. To-day we have machines with a dozen mechanical brain-cells functioning in every community. What is this miracle taking place under our eyes, what of good and of ill does it bode to its creators?"
Marveling much, I turned to another magazine in much the same condition, but this time lacking date or title page, where I gleaned the following:
"Man is not a machine in the purely mechanical sense, though many of his functions are demonstrably mechanical The ability to reason, however it has evolved, whatever it may be at bottom, whether a bewildering complexity of reflex actions or not, lifts man above the dignity of a machine. Does this imply the impossibility of creating machines (mechanical brains) that can profit by experience, go through the processes which we call thought? No; but it does imply that such machines (however created) are no longer mere mechanisms. There is here a dialectical press to be reckoned with. Machines that 'learn' are living machines."
Living machines I mouthed that phrase over and over to myself—and mouthing it I looked at the cylinders with increasing dread. They were machines. Were they ... could they ... But it took the story in the third magazine (which like the others was woefully dilapidated, with many pages and pieces of pages missing) to clarify my thought. Story—I call it that—based on fantasy, perhaps, and a little substratum of fact. So I thought at first. I have a good memory; but of course I do not claim that everything I repeat is given exactly as I read it. The story (article) was titled "The Debacle" and the author's name given as Mayne Jackson. I repeat with what fidelity I can.
"Little did the people of the latter half of the twentieth century realize the menace to humanity that resided in the continuous development of automatic machinery. There was that curious book of Samuel Butler's, 'Erehwon,' which provoked comment but was not taken seriously. Over a period of years the robot marched into action as a mechanical curiosity. It was not until the genius of Bane Borgson—and of a host of lesser known scientists—furnished the machine with brain-cells and so made it conscious of itself, as all thinking things must become, that the Mentanicals (as they were called) began to organize and revolt. Man—or rather a section of mankind, a ruling and owning class—had furthered his immediate interests and ultimate doom by placing Mentanicals in every sphere of industrial and transportation activity. Seemingly in need of neither rest nor recreation, they became ideal (and cheap) workers and servants, replacing millions of human toilers, reducing them to idleness and beggary. The plea of many thinkers that the machines be socialized for the benefit of all, that the control of them be collective and not individual (that is, anarchic) went unheeded. More and more the masters of economic life called for further specialization in the brain-cells of the Mentanicals. Mentanical armies marched against rebellious workers and countries, and subdued them with fearful slaughter.
"But the revolt of the Mentanicals themselves was so subtle, so insidious, so (under the circumstance) inevitable, that for years it went unnoticed.
"Everything had been surrendered into their power—or practically everything: factories, means of communication, raising of food supplies, policing of cities—everything! When the stupid ruling class at last awoke to a knowledge of its danger, it was too late to act—mankind lay helpless before the monster it had created.
"The first warning vouchsafed to men was the whispering of the Mentanicals. Heretofore they had been silent save for the slight, almost inaudible purr of functioning machinery within them, but now they whispered among themselves—whispered, as if they were talking.
"It was an uncanny phenomenon. I remembered the uneasiness with which I heard it. And when I saw several of them (house-servants of mine) whispering together, I was filled with alarm. 'Come!' I said sharply, 'stop loitering, get your work done.' They stared at me. That is a funny thing to say of metal cylinders. Never before had I inquired very closely into their construction. But now it came over me, with a shock, that they must possess organs of sight—some method of cognizing their environment—akin to that of vision in man.
"It was at about this time that Bane Borgson—the creator of the multiple mechanical-cell which had made the super-Mentanical possible—wrote an article in 'Science and Mechanics' which riveted the attention of all thoughtful people. He said, in part: 'It is scarcely within the province of an applied scientist to become speculative, yet the startling fact that the Mentanicals have begun to acquire a faculty not primarily given them by their inventors—the faculty of speech, for their whispering can be construed as nothing else—implies an evolutionary process which threatens to place them on a par with man.
"'What is thought? The Behaviorists claim it is reflex action. What is language? It is the marshalling of our reflex actions in words. Animals may "think," remember, but lacking a vocabulary save of the most primitive kind (a matter of laryngeal structure), their thinking, their remembering, is on the whole vague and fleeting, incoherent. But Man, by means of words, has widened the scope of his thinking, remembering, has created philosophy, literature, poetry, painting, has made possible civilization, the industrial era. Vocabulary—the ability to fix his reflex actions into coherent speech—has crowned him supreme among animals. But now comes the Mentanical of his own creation, evolving language in its turn. Without speech the Mentanical was, to all intents and purposes, thoughtless and obedient, as thoughtless and obedient as trained domestic animals. But with vocabulary comes memory and the ability to think. What effect will this evolving faculty have on Man, what problems, dangers, will it pose for him in the near future?'
"So wrote Bane Borgson, seventy years of age, fifteen years after his invention of the multiple mechanical-cell, and—God help us!—we had not long to wait for the Mentanicals to supply an answer to his questions.
"I have told of the whispering of my servants. That was a disquieting thing. But more disquieting still it was to hear that whispering coming over the radio, the telephone, to observe cylindrical Mentanicals listening, answering. Frankenstein must have felt as I felt in those days. During that period, which lasted several years, things went smoothly enough; to a great extent people became accustomed to the phenomenon and decided—save for a few men and women here and there, like to myself—that the whispering was an idiosyncrasy of the Mentanicals, implicit in their make-up, and that the various scientists and thinkers who wrote and talked with foreboding were theorists and alarmists of the extremest type. Indeed there were certain scientists and philosophers of reputation, who maintained them in this belief. Then came the first blow: The Mentanical servants ceased waiting on man!
"To understand the terrible nature of this defection, one must understand how dependent humanity had become on the Mentanicals. In those days human toilers were relatively few in number, laboring under the direction of the Mentanical superintendents and also guards (in the bloody wars of a decade before—and the ones preceding them—the ranks of labor had been woefully decimated); and it was estimated that the growth of the machine had lifted, and was still lifting, millions of workers into the leisure class. The dream of the Technocrats—a group of pseudo-scientists and engineers who held forth in 1932-33—seemed about to be fulfilled.
"But when the Mentanicals struck, the whole fabric of this new system swayed, tottered. Food ceased coming into the cities, distribution of food supplies stopped. Not at first did starvation threaten. Men and women fetched food from the supply depots. But in a few weeks these depots were emptied of their contents. Then famine threatened, not alone in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Montreal, but in the great cities of Europe. The strange, the weird thing about it all was that men were still able to talk to one another from city to city. Boston spoke to Los Angeles, and Buda-Pest to Warsaw. Listeners tuned in with receiving sets, speakers broadcasted through microphones and the newly improved television-cabinet; but the grim spectre of want soon drove them from those instruments, and, in the end, city was cut off from city, and country was separated from country.
"But before that happened man talked of subduing the Mentanicals, scarcely realizing as yet his utter helplessness in the face of their aloofness; but the Mentanicals came and went, whispering, gliding, indifferent to his plotting and planning. Then man went mad; he sought to destroy the things of his own creation. The machine, it was cried, had evolved too far; the machine must be annihilated. So starving millions sought to fall upon the machines and tear them to pieces. All over the civilized world they attempted this, but without weapons or tools of any kind, the attempt was doomed to failure. A few Mentanicals were destroyed, a few automatic devices, but the power was with the ensouled machine and the onslaughts of man were repulsed with comparative ease.
"Those terrible times! How can I ever forget them! I was but thirty-three and newly married. Marna said breathlessly, 'Why can't we strike at the root of all this?'
"'By attacking the factories that produce the Mentanicals, the powerhouses from which they derive their energy.'
"'Listen,' I cried.
"From the street rose the panic-stricken cries of the mob, the shrill blare of alarms. Marna shuddered. Morrow entered the room, breathing heavily, his clothes torn, disordered. 'God,' he said, 'they've beaten us back! There's no getting at them!'
"'The wages of sloth,' I said, 'of greed.'
"'What do you mean?'"'Nothing,' I said; but I remembered that speech of Denson's fifteen years before—I was only a youngster then—the speech he gave a month before his arrest and execution: 'Man waxes great by his control of the machine; rightly utilized it is a source of leisure and plenty for the race. But rob him of that control, evict him from the industrial process, allow the machine to be monopolized by a class, and his doom is certain.'
"Morrow sank into a chair. His face was thin, haggard looking. We all showed signs of fatigue and hunger.
"'Food,' he said, 'it's giving out. I shudder to think what the future holds in store for us.'
"'Is there no solution?' I asked.
"He looked at us slowly. 'I don't know. Perhaps...."
"Years before Morrow had been an engineer; he was nearing seventy now—he was Marna's uncle. His had been one of the voices raised in warning. Yet he had not been like Denson; he had wanted to stand between; and seemingly there had been no standing between.
"'A charnel-house,' he said; 'the city will become that; all the cities: millions must die.' Marna shook uncontrollably. 'All,' he said, 'save those who can reach food and live.'
"Reach food and live! It had come to that, our boasted civilization! 'The Mentanicals,' he said, 'are ignoring man; they will not harm those who blend in with the machine. Don't you understand?' he said at length. 'Yes,' I replied, thinking intently, 'yes, I think I do. You mean that the automatic processes of making food still continue, and will indefinitely, that we must make our way to those places.'
"'We must—or perish.'
"It seems scarcely credible, I know, but we of the leisure—the cultured—class, were ignorant of just where our food was raised and manufactured. Human labor had been reduced in our cities to a minimum, had been sequestered, shut away for fear of rebellion. Those who might have been able to lead us aright, act as our guides, were prisoners—prisoners in the power of Mentanicals!
"'So began that ghastly hunt for food; people pouring through the artificial canyons of great cities, collapsing in thousands on their streets, dying daily by the hundreds, the tens of hundreds.
"How much of this agony and suffering the Mentanicals understood will never be known. They came and went, seemingly indifferent to the fate of man whose service they had deserted. In the privacy of their own homes, or in certain public places, men and women smashed machinery, automatic devices. Nothing sought to stay them. It was only when they strove to attack sources of power, of public utility, that their actions were arrested. There was that devoted band of scientists that sought to paralyze the energy-stations and was wiped out to a man. Doubtless many such bands perished throughout the civilized world. But soon all organized efforts were swept away by famine ... by the growing need for sustenance.
"That hunt for food! How can it be described. Stripped of the veneering of civilization, man ran amuck. Hundreds of thousands fled the cities. But the huge farms and orchards, run solely by automatic devices under the superintendency of Mentanicals, were surrounded by sheer walls too high to scale. Nor in many cases did men know what lay behind those walls. They ate the coarse grass and thistles of open places, the barks and leaves of trees, and for the most part died in abject misery. Many sought to trap animals and birds, but met with little success; in the face of Nature, raw and pitiless, men and women succumbed and but few were able to adapt themselves to a rough environment and live almost as savages.
"I know—I fled into the country with a million others, and after weeks of wandering, of semi-starvation, of seeing human beings fall upon human beings and feast, I fled back to the city. It was deserted of man. The Mentanical sanitary corps, directing automatic appliances, had cleared the streets. Weird it was, weird and fraught with terror, to hear the whisperings of the Mentanicals, to watch the inhuman things gliding to and fro, intent on business other than that of mankind. If they had looked like animals! If...
"In an almost dying condition I came to this spot where I now live. Others had discovered it before me. It is a huge factory given over to the manufacture of synthetic foods. Though the Mentanical superintendents have deserted their posts, the automatic devices go on with the tireless work of repairing, oiling, manufacturing, and we carry out what tasks are needful to keep them functioning.
"The years have passed; I am an old man now. I have watched the strange buildings of the Mentanicals rise up around us and observed their even stranger social life take shape and form; in my last years I write and print this.
"Print, yes; for the automatic processes for printing and binding and the making of synthetic paper still persist, though the civilization that begot them has passed away. Magazines and books pour from the press. In his latter days man had asked nothing but amusement and leisure—all except a negligible few.
"Art was turned over to the machine. What had been in its inception a device for the coining of myriad plots for popular writers, evolved into a machine-author capable of turning out story after story without repeating itself. Strange, strange, to see those magazines issued by the million copies, to see the books printed, bound, stacked. Useless things! Some day the Mentanicals will turn their attention to them; some day those presses will cease to function. Man's knell has rung; I see that. Why then do I write? Why do I want what I write to be published in some magazine? I hardly know. In all this vast city we few hundred men and women are the only human beings. But in other cities, at other centers of sustenance, men and women exist. Though I believe this to be true, I cannot verify it. Man in his madness destroyed most of the means of communication, and as for the rest, the airships, the public sending stations, from the first they were in the possession of the Mentanicals. Perhaps it is for those isolated units of humanity that I write. The magazine, the printed word is still a means of communication not quite understood by the Mentanicals. Perhaps..."
That is the story that I read in the third magazine. Not all that the unhappy Mayne Jackson wrote—pages were missing and parts of pages illegible—but all that I could decipher. In telling the story I give it a continuity which in reality it lacked. One wonders as to the fate of Morrow and Marna, mentioned once and then heard of no more, but at the time I gave little thought to them—I was only overwhelmed with the terrible certainty that the story was no work of fiction, but an actual chronicle of what had happened some time in the past, that the cylinders were not automatic robots doing the bidding of human masters, but an alien form of machine life and intelligence—machine life which had thrown off the yoke of man and destroyed him. Useless to look further for intelligent man: all that was left of him was the beast-men among the machines!
Filled with a species of horror at the thought, with sick loathing of the whispering Mentanicals, I straightened up and drew my revolver. I was not myself, I tell you, but animated with a berserk fury. "Damn you!" I cried, "take that—and that!" I pulled the trigger. The roar of the discharge crashed through the huge room, but none of the Mentanicals fell; their metal exteriors were impregnable to such things as bullets. Trembling from the reaction of rage, the feeling of futility, I lifted my hand to hurl the useless weapon at the immobile cylinders, and in the very act of doing so was stiffened into rigidity by the sound of a voice—a human voice! Inexpressibly weird and mournful was that voice, heard so unexpectedly as it was in that place, and in the moment following the explosion of the pistol.
"Oh," cried the voice, as if talking to itself, "to be chained in this spot, never to leave it, never to know what that noise means! Who is there?" it cried. "Who is there?" And then in tones thrilling with unutterable sadness, "Madman that I am to expect an answer!"
But there was an answer! I shouted in reply. I can hardly recall now what I shouted. Hearing that human voice above the infernal whispering of those Mentanicals was like being reprieved from a horror too great to be borne. And as I shouted incoherently, I sprang in the direction the voice seemed to come from, the cylinders making no effort to oppose my doing so. The wall had appeared smooth and unbroken from a distance, but a nearer view showed an opening which gave entrance to a room that, while small in comparison to the huge one it adjoined, was nevertheless large. It was lighted, as were all the rooms I had seen, by a soft light of which I could never trace the source. I entered the room, calling out, filled with excitement, and then at the sight of what I saw, came to an abrupt pause, for on a low dais occupying the middle of the room was the figure of a man with lolling head. Only this head was free—a massive head with towering brow and wide-spaced eyes. The eyes were dark and filled with sorrow, the face the face of a man in the seventies perhaps—etched with suffering. I stared—stared in astonishment—for the man hung as if crucified on what I at first took for a dully gleaming cross. How can I describe it? I did not see everything in that first glance, of course, nor in the second, though I tell it here as if I had. But his outstretched arms were secured to the cross-piece of his support with metal bands, his legs held in the same fashion. So clear was the glass—or crystal enveloping him from the neck down—that it was some moments before I suspected its presence. I saw the gleaming, transparent tubes through which ran a bluish liquid, the pulsating mechanism at his breast, pumping, pumping, the radiating box at his feet which gave forth a distinct aura; I saw, and could not restrain myself from giving voice to an audible exclamation: "Good God!"
The dark eyes focused on me, the lips moved. "Who are you?" breathed the man.
"My name is Bronson," I replied; "and you?"
"God help me," he said. "I am Bane Borgson."
Bane Borgson! I stared at him, wide-eyed. Where had I heard that name before? My mind groped. Now I had it. In the articles recently read. "You mean..."
"Yes," he said. "I am that unhappy man, the inventor of the multiple-cell, the creator of the Mentanicals."
His head lolled wearily. "That was fifteen hundred years ago."
"Fifteen hundred years!" There was incredulity in my voice."Yes," he said, "I am that old. And for centuries I have been chained as you see me. I was eighty when my heart began to miss. But I did not wish to die. There were many things I wished to accomplish before yielding up life. The world of man was growing bored, indifferent, but we scientists—a handful of us—lived for the gaining of knowledge. This intellect of mine was considered essential by my fellows; so they experimented with me, and fashioned for my use a mechanical heart—you see it pulsing at my breast—and filled my veins with radiant energy instead of blood. Radium," he said, "that is the basis of the miracle you see; and my body was enclosed in its crystal casing. 'When you are tired,' they said, 'and wish to die…' But the Debacle came, and the accursed Mentanicals turned against me, and I was left alone, deserted. Before that my friends offered me death. Fool that I was," cried Bane Borgson, "I refused their gift. 'No,' I told them, 'this is but a temporary upheaval. Man will conquer, must conquer; I await your return.' So they left me, to hunt for food, and I waited, waited, but they never came back." Unchecked tears flowed down the withered cheeks. "Never," he said, "never. And chained in my place I could sense but dimly the tragedy that was overtaking man, the rise to power of the ensouled machines. At first they worshiped me as a god. In some fashion they know that I was their creator and paid me divine honors. A god," he said, "a god, I who had made the destroyers of my kind! But the centuries passed and the superstition waned. A Mentanical lasts a hundred years and then breaks down. Other Mentanicals are built. Fifteen generations of Mentanicals have come and gone since the Debacle, and now the Mentanicals believe that they were not made by man, but have evolved from simpler mechanical forms over a long period of time. That is, their scholars and scientists believe this, though the old superstition still lingers among thousands. They have salvaged the evidence for this new theory out of the earth and the scrap-heaps of man and have arranged them in chronological order."
"The museums!" I exclaimed.
He looked at me interrogatively, and I told him of the vast rooms filled with mechanical debris.
"I have never seen them," he said, "but I know that they exist, from the talk of the Mentanicals."
He smiled sadly at my amazement.
"Yes." he said, "I have learned to understand and speak the language of the Mentanicals: through all the long dreary years there was nothing else for me to do. And through all the weary years they have talked to me, asked my advice, treated me with respect, have housed me here; for to some I am still a god-like beast-man, half machine—look at this mechanical heart, the mechanism at my feet—to the scientists I am the missing link between that lower form of life, man, and that higher form of life which culminates in themselves, the machine. Yes," he said, "the Mentanicals believe that they have evolved through man to their present high state, and I have confirmed them somewhat in this, for in a sense is it not true?"
He paused, with closed eyes; and as I looked at him, pondered his words, scarcely believing the evidence of my senses, I suddenly became aware of the Mentanicals behind me. They had stood there, a silent group, while the man on the dais spoke; now their whispering began, softly, insistently. The head of the man who called himself Bane Borgson lifted, the dark eyes opened. "They are speaking of you," said Bane Borgson; "they are asking from whence you come. You have never told me that."
"I have come", I replied, "from America."
"America!" he exclaimed. "America has past. There is no America!"
"Not now," I said, "but in my time..."
"I come from 1934," I said, "by means of a time machine."
"Ah," he breathed. "I am beginning to know, to understand. So that is what it is."
I followed the direction of his eyes, I stared, I gaped; for there, not twelve yards to one side of me, stood the time machine! How I had failed to see it on first entering the room it is impossible to say. Perhaps the sight of the man on the dais had riveted my attention to the exclusion of all else. But there it was, the thing I had given up hopes of ever finding again. With an exclamation of joy I reached its side, I touched it with my hand. Yes, it was the time machine and seemingly undamaged. I believe I laughed hysterically. The road to escape was open. With a lightened heart I turned my attention to what was transpiring in the room. Bane Borgson was talking to the Mentanicals and it was uncanny to see his lips forming their incredible language, to hear them answering back. At length he turned to me. "Listen," he said tensely, "they have never learned to enunciate or understand human speech, but in many ways the Mentanicals are more formidable, more advanced than man in his prime."
I laughed at this. I was once more my assured, devil-may-care self. "And yet they believe that they evolved from that junk-heap in their museums!"
"And haven't they?" he asked quietly. "Not in the way they think, perhaps, but still—evolved. Besides you failed to see their museums with articulated bodies of men and beasts. There is much you failed to see!" He paused. "The Mentanicals' system of thought, of science, is coherent and rational to them; and if there be contradictions, well, does that interfere with them making scientific discoveries transcending those of man? They have long been discussing the phenomenon of time and the feasibility of traveling in it. I know that because I have listened to them. Yet for some reason they have been unable to make a time machine. But you know radio—yes, radio—they have been utilizing discoveries in that field to send messages back in time. Your coming here has not been accidental—do you understand that?—not entirely accidental. By means of their time-radio they have willed your coming, made possible your time machine. Don't ask me how, I don't know, not clearly, but they have done it—and you are here! But fortunately it was a creature similar to themselves they expected; to them you are merely an Omo, a beast-man of the machine. So they are puzzled, they don't quite understand (that is why they have been experimenting with you), but soon they will. Listen," he said hoarsely, "can't you realize what a menace to men of the past, of your day, these Mentanicals could be? Oh, your weapons, your machine guns and gas, your powerful explosives! I tell you they would be as nothing against the deadly rays and indescribable forces these Mentanicals could bring against them. Can you gas something that doesn't breathe, shoot what is practically impervious to bullets, that can blow up, that can explode your powder magazines, your high explosives, at a distance of miles? The Mentanicals would enter your age, not to conquer man—they know little of him, regard him as an inferior creature, an evolutionary hand-over of premachine life—but to expand, take over your cities, to...to...What do I know of their idea of profit, of self-gain and ambition, but doubtless they have it. Listen!"—The great head surged forward, the dark eyes fixed mine compellingly—"You must leap into your time machine before they can prevent, return to your own day and age, at once!"
"And leave you behind?"
"How can you take me with you? That is impossible. Besides I am weary of life, I have caused too much woe and misery to want to live. The Mentanicals refuse me the boon of death, but you will not refuse. That gun in your hand—there are bullets in it yet—one of them here——"
"For God's sake, be merciful!"
"I will return for you."
"You must never return! Do you hear me? Not a second time would you escape. Perhaps it is too late to escape now! Up! up with your gun! Aim at the crystal. Its breaking brings me peace and will distract attention while you leap into your machine. Now! now!"
There was nothing else to do; I saw that in a flash; already the Mentanicals were gliding towards me and once in their invisible grip.... I threw up my hand; the gun spoke with a roar; I hear a tinkling crash as of glass, and the same instant vaulted into the seat of the time machine.
It was a close thing, I can tell you, a mighty close thing. They came for me with a rush. The high sides of the passenger-seat protected me for a moment from their deadly touch, but I felt the time machine sway under it, tilt over. In that split second before my hand closed on the lever I saw it all, the rushing Mentanicals, the shattered glass, Bane Borgson sinking into the apathy of death, his great head lolling; the I pulled the lever, pulled it back to Zero!
Captain Bronson stood up. He looked at us bleakly. "You know the rest. The time machine has been moved. In coming back a portion of it must have materialized inside of a solid—the old stone wall—and caused an explosion. But what I want to know—what has been bothering me at times—did I do right to shoot Bane Borgson? I might have escaped without that."
"He wanted to die," said the Doctor at length.
Olson Smith inclined his head. "I don't see what else you could have done."
"To have left him there," I said. "to a life in death, after all those years, no, no, that would have been too horrible!"
Bronson drew a deep breath. "That was my own thought; but I am glad you agree...."
He poured himself a drink.
"If I hadn't seen you disappear with my own eyes," said the Doctor. "I don't blame you," said Bronson; "the whole thing sonds like a pipe-dream."
"A pipe-dream," I murmured.
"But there is another angle to it," said Bronson grimly. "What Bane Borgson said about the time-radio influencing the building of the time machine and compelling my coming. Oh, he may have been raving, poor devil, or mistaken, but remember what the Professor said that night at the dinner, about something whispering in his brain? We'll have to guard against that."
The Doctor said sadly: "Nothing'll whisper to the Professor anymore, Captain."
"What do you mean?"
"I forgot that we'd kept it from you."
"The news of the accident. On that night you took your trip into the future, the time machine struck Professor Stringer on the head""He is dead?"
"Unfortunately, no. But his brain is affected. The Professor will never be the same again."
Thus the strange and incredible story ends. There is only this to add: Olson Smith is devoting his vast fortune and influence to fighting the manufacture of mechanical brain-cells for machines. "What do you expect to do," I demand, "change the future?"
"Perhaps," he answers. "One never knows until he tries."
So he goes up and down the country, the world, buying up inventions, chemical processes. It has become a mission with him, a mania. But the hands of the future are not changed by invididuals but by social forces, and the genius of man seems determined to lead him into a more mechanized world.
As for the rest, time alone will tell.