"Well, the pattern it's set for is the shape of an automobile. See here." He picked up a card from his desk, and cut in the outlines of a streamlined car like those of that year. "Since only one eye is used," he continued, "The thing can't tell the difference between a full-sized vehicle at a distance and this small outline nearby. It has no sense of perspective."
He held the bit of cardboard before the eye of the mechanism. Instantly came its roar of "A-a-gh-rasp!" and it leaped forward a single pace, arms upraised. Van Manderpootz withdrew the card, and again the thing relapsed stolidly into its place.
"What the devil!" I exclaimed. "What's it for?"
"Does van Manderpootz ever do work without reason back of it? I use it as a demonstration in my seminar."
"To demonstrate what?"
"The power of reason," said van Manderpootz solemnly.
"How? And why ought it to work on gasoline instead of electric power?"
"One question at a time, Dixon. You have missed the grandeur of van Manderpootz's concept. See here, this creature, imperfect as it is, represents the predatory machine. It is the mechanical parallel of the tiger, lurking in its jungle to leap on living prey. This monster's jungle is the city; its prey is the unwary machine that follows the trails called streets. Understand?"
"Well, picture this automaton, not as it is, but as van Manderpootz could make it if he wished. It lurks gigantic in the shadows of buildings; it creeps stealthily through dark alleys; it skulks on deserted streets, with its gasoline engine purring quietly. Then--an unsuspecting automobile flashes its image on the screen behind its eyes. It leaps. It seizes its prey, swinging it in steel arms to its steel jaws. Through the metal throat of its victim crash steel teeth; the blood of its prey--the gasoline, that is--is drained into its stomach, or its gas-tank. With renewed strength it flings away the husk and prowls on to seek other prey. It is the machine-carnivore, the tiger of mechanics."
I suppose I stared dumbly. It occurred to me suddenly that the brain of the great van Manderpootz was cracking. "What the--?" I gasped.
"That," he said blandly, "is but a concept. I have many another use for the toy. I can prove anything with it, anything I wish."
"You can? Then prove something."
"Name your proposition, Dixon."
I hesitated, nonplussed.
"Come!" he said impatiently. "Look here; I will prove that anarchy is the ideal government, or that Heaven and Hell are the same place, or that--"
"Prove that!" I said. "About Heaven and Hell."
"Easily. First we will endow my robot with intelligence. I add a mechanical memory by means of the old Cushman delayed valve; I add a mathematical sense with any of the calculating machines; I give it a voice and a vocabulary with the magnetic-impulse wire phonograph. Now the point I make is this: Granted an intelligent machine, does it not follow that every other machine constructed like it must have the identical qualities? Would not each robot given the same insides have exactly the same character?"
"No!" I snapped. "Human beings can't make two machines exactly alike. There'd be tiny differences; one would react quicker than others, or one would prefer Fox Airsplitters as prey, while another reacted most vigorously to Carnecars. In other words, they'd have--individuality!" I grinned in triumph.
"My point exactly," observed van Manderpootz. "You admit, then, that this individuality is the result of imperfect workmanship. If our means of manufacture were perfect, all robots would be identical, and this individuality would not exist. Is that true?"
"Then I argue that our own individuality is due to our falling short of perfection. All of us--even van Manderpootz--are individuals only because we are not perfect. Were we perfect, each of us would be exactly like everyone else. True?"
"But Heaven, by definition, is a place where all is perfect. Therefore, in Heaven everybody is exactly like everybody else, and therefore, everybody is thoroughly and completely bored! There is no torture like boredom, Dixon, and--Well, have I proved my point?"
I was floored. "But--about anarchy, then?" I stammered.
"Simple. Very simple for van Manderpootz. See here; with a perfect nation--that is, one whose individuals are all exactly alike, which I have just proved to constitute perfection--with a perfect nation, I repeat, laws and government are utterly superfluous. If everybody reacts to stimuli in the same way, laws are quite useless, obviously. If, for instance, a certain event occurred that might lead to a declaration of war, why, everybody in such a nation would vote for war at the same instant. Therefore government is unnecessary, and therefore anarchy is the ideal government, since it is the proper government for a perfect race." He paused. "I shall now prove that anarchy is not the ideal government--"
"Never mind!" I begged. "Who am I to argue with van Manderpootz? But is that the whole purpose of this dizzy robot? Just a basis for logic?" The mechanism replied with its usual rasp as it leaped toward some vagrant car beyond the window.
"Isn't that enough?" growled van Manderpootz. "However,"--his voice dropped--"I have even a greater destiny in mind. My boy, van Manderpootz has solved the riddle of the universe!" He paused impressively. "Well, why don't you say something?"
"Uh!" I gasped. "It's--uh--marvelous!"
"Not for van Manderpootz," he said modestly.
"But--what is it?"
"Eh--Oh!" He frowned. "Well, I'll tell you, Dixon. You won't understand, but I'll tell you." He coughed. "As far back as the early twentieth century," he resumed, "Einstein proved that energy is particular. Matter is also particular, and now van Manderpootz adds that space and time are discrete!" He glared at me.
"Energy and matter are particular," I murmured, "and space and time are discrete! How very moral of them!"
"Imbecile!" he blazed. "To pun on the words of van Manderpootz! You know very well that I mean particular and discrete in the physical sense. Matter is composed of particles, therefore it is particular. The particles of matter are called electrons, protons, and neutrons, and those of energy, quanta. I now add two others, the particles of space I call spations, those of time, chronons."
"And what in the devil," I asked, "are particles of space and time?"
"Just what I said!" snapped van Manderpootz. "Exactly as the particles of matter are the smallest pieces of matter that can exist, just as there is no such thing as a half of an electron, or for that matter, half a quantum, so the chronon is the smallest possible fragment of time, and the spation the smallest possible bit of space. Neither time nor space is continuous; each is composed of these infinitely tiny fragments."
"Well, how long is a chronon in time? How big is a spation in space?"
"Van Manderpootz has even measured that. A chronon is the length of time it takes one quantum of energy to push one electron from one electronic orbit to the next. There can obviously be no shorter interval of time, since an electron is the smallest unit of matter and the quantum the smallest unit of energy. And a spation is the exact volume of a proton. Since nothing smaller exists, that is obviously the smallest unit of space."
"Well, look here," I argued. "Then what's in between these particles of space and time? If time moves, as you say, in jerks of one chronon each, what's between the jerks?"
"Ah!" said the great van Manderpootz. "Now we come to the heart of the matter. In between the particles of space and time, must obviously be something that is neither space, time, matter, nor energy. A hundred years ago Shapley anticipated van Manderpootz in a vague way when he announced his cosmo-plasma, the great underlying matrix in which time and space and the universe are embedded. Now van Manderpootz announces the ultimate unit, the universal particle, the focus in which matter, energy, time, and space meet, the unit from which electrons, protons, neutrons, quanta, spations, and chronons are all constructed. The riddle of the universe is solved by what I have chosen to name the cosmon." His blue eyes bored into me.
"Magnificent!" I said feebly, knowing that some such word was expected. "But what good is it?"
"What good is it?" he roared. "It provides--or will provide, once I work out a few details--the means of turning energy into time, or space into matter, or time into space, or--" He sputtered into silence. "Fool!" he muttered. "To think that you studied under the tutelage of van Manderpootz. I blush; I actually blush!"
One couldn't have told it if he were blushing. His face was always rubicund enough. "Colossal!" I said hastily. "What a mind!"
That mollified him. "But that's not all," he proceeded. "Van Manderpootz never stops short of perfection. I now announce the unit particle of thought--the psychon!"
This was a little too much. I simply stared.
"Well may you be dumbfounded," said van Manderpootz. "I presume you are aware, by hearsay at least, of the existence of thought. The psychon, the unit of thought, is one electron plus one proton, which are bound so as to form one neutron, embedded in one cosmon, occupying a volume of one spation, driven by one quantum for a period of one chronon. Very obvious; very simple."
"Oh, very!" I echoed. "Even I can see that that equals one psychon."
He beamed. "Excellent! Excellent!"
"And what," I asked, "will you do with the psychons?"
"Ah," he rumbled. "Now we go even past the heart of the matter, and return to Isaak here." He jammed a thumb toward the robot. "Here I will create Roger Bacon's mechanical head. In the skull of this clumsy creature will rest such intelligence as not even van Manderpootz--I should say, as only van Manderpootz--can conceive. It remains merely to construct my idealizator."
"Of course. Have I not just proven that thoughts are as real as matter, energy, time, or space? Have I not just demonstrated that one can be transformed, through the cosmon, into any other? My idealizator is the means of transforming psychons to quanta, just as, for instance, a Crookes tube or X-ray tube transforms matter to electrons. I will make your thoughts visible! And not your thoughts as they are in that numb brain of yours, but in ideal form. Do you see? The psychons of your mind are the same as those from any other mind, just as all electrons are identical, whether from gold or iron. Yes! Your psychons"--his voice quavered--"are identical with those from the mind of--van Manderpootz!" He paused, shaken.
"Actually?" I gasped.
"Actually. Fewer in number, of course, but identical. Therefore, my idealizator shows your thought released from the impress of your personality. It shows it--ideal!"
Well, I was late to the office again.
A week later I thought of van Manderpootz. Tips was on tour somewhere, and I didn't dare take anyone else out because I'd tried it once before and she'd heard about it. So, with nothing to do, I finally dropped around to the professor's quarter, found him missing, and eventually located him in his laboratory at the Physics Building. He was puttering around the table that had once held that damned subjunctivisor of his, but now it supported an indescribable mess of tubes and tangled wires, and as its most striking feature, a circular plane mirror etched with a grating of delicately scratched lines.
"Good evening, Dixon," he rumbled.
I echoed his greeting. "What's that?" I asked.
"My idealizator. A rough model, much too clumsy to fit into Isaak's iron skull. I'm just finishing it to try it out." He turned glittering blue eyes on me. "How fortunate that you're here. It will save the world a terrible risk."
"Yes. It is obvious that too long an exposure to the device will extract too many psychons, and leave the subject's mind in a sort of moronic condition. I was about to accept the risk, but I see now that it would be woefully unfair to the world to endanger the mind of van Manderpootz. But you are at hand, and will do very well."
"Oh, no I won't!"
"Come, come!" he said, frowning. "The danger is negligible. In fact, I doubt whether the device will be able to extract any psychons from your mind. At any rate, you will be perfectly safe for a period of at least half an hour. I, with a vastly more productive mind, could doubtless stand the strain indefinitely, but my responsibility to the world is too great to chance it until I have tested the machine on someone else. You should be proud of the honor."
"Well, I'm not!" But my protest was feeble, and after all, despite his overbearing mannerisms, I knew van Manderpootz liked me, and I was positive he would not have exposed me to any real danger. In the end I found myself seated before the table facing the etched mirror.
"Put your face against the barrel," said van Manderpootz, indicating a stove-pipe-like tube. "That's merely to cut off extraneous sights, so that you can see only the mirror. Go ahead, I tell you! It's no more than the barrel of a telescope or microscope."
I complied. "Now what?" I asked.
"What do you see?"
"My own face in the mirror."
"Of course. Now I start the reflector rotating." There was a faint whir, and the mirror was spinning smoothly, still with only a slightly blurred image of myself. "Listen, now," continued van Manderpootz. "Here is what you are to do. You will think of a generic noun. 'House,' for instance. If you think of house, you will see, not an individual house, but your ideal house, the house of all your dreams and desires. If you think of a horse, you will see what your mind conceives as the perfect horse, such a horse as dream and longing create. Do you understand? Have you chosen a topic?"
"Yes." After all, I was only twenty-eight; the noun I had chosen was--girl.
"Good," said the professor. "I turn on the current."
There was a blue radiance behind the mirror. My own face still stared back at me from the spinning surface, but something was forming behind it, building up, growing. I blinked; when I focused my eyes again, it was--she was--there.
Lord! I can't begin to describe her. I don't even know if I saw her clearly the first time. It was like looking into another world and seeing the embodiment of all longings, dreams, aspirations, and ideals. It was so poignant a sensation that it crossed the borderline into pain. It was--well, exquisite torture or agonized delight. It was at once unbearable and irresistible.
But I gazed. I had to. There was a haunting familiarity about the impossibly beautiful features. I had seen the face--somewhere--sometime. In dreams? No; I realized suddenly what was the source of that familiarity. This was no living woman, but a synthesis. Her nose was the tiny, impudent one of Whimsy White at her loveliest moment; her lips were the perfect bow of Tips Alva; her silvery eyes and dusky velvet hair were those of Joan Caldwell. But the aggregate, the sum total, the face in the mirror--that was none of these; it was a face impossibly, incredibly, outrageously beautiful.
Only her face and throat were visible, and the features were cool, expressionless, and still as a carving. I wandered suddenly if she could smile, and with the thought, she did. If she had been beautiful before, now her beauty flamed to such a pitch that it was--well, insolent; it was an affront to be so lovely; it was insulting. I felt a wild surge of anger that the image before me should flaunt such beauty, and yet be--non-existent! It was deception, cheating, fraud, a promise that could never be fulfilled.
Anger died in the depths of that fascination. I wondered what the rest of her was like, and instantly she moved gracefully back until her full figure was visible. I must be a prude at heart, for she wasn't wearing the usual cuirass-and-shorts of that year, but an iridescent four-paneled costume that all but concealed her dainty knees. But her form was slim and erect as a column of cigarette smoke in still air, and I knew that she could dance like a fragment of mist on water. And with that thought she did move, dropping in a low curtsy, and looking up with the faintest possible flush crimsoning the curve of her throat. Yes, I must be a prude at heart; despite Tips Alva and Whimsy White and the rest, my ideal was modest.
It was unbelievable that the mirror was simply giving back my thoughts. She seemed as real as myself, and--after all--I guess she was. As real as myself, no more, no less, because she was part of my own mind. And at this point I realized that van Manderpootz was shaking me and bellowing, "Your time's up. Come out of it! Your half-hour's up!"
He must have switched off the current. The image faded, and I took my face from the tube, dropping it on my arms.
"O-o-o-o-o-oh!" I groaned.
"How do you feel?" he snapped.
"Feel? All right--physically." I looked up.
Concern flickered in his blue eyes. "What's the cube root of 4913?" he crackled sharply.
I've always been quick at figures. "It's--uh--17," I returned dully. "Why the devil--?"
"You're all right mentally," he announced. "Now--why were you sitting there like a dummy for half an hour? My idealizator must have worked, as is only natural for a van Manderpootz creation, but what were you thinking of?"
"I thought--I thought of 'girl'," I groaned.
He snorted. "Hah! You would, you idiot! 'House' or 'horse' wasn't good enough; you had to pick something with emotional connotations. Well, you can start right in forgetting her, because she doesn't exist."
I couldn't give up hope, as easily as that. "But can't you--can't you--?" I didn't even know what I meant to ask.
"Van Manderpootz," he announced, "is a mathematician, not a magician. Do you expect me to materialize an ideal for you?" When I had no reply but a groan, he continued. "Now I think it safe enough to try the device myself. I shall take--let's see--the thought 'man.' I shall see what the superman looks like, since the ideal of van Manderpootz can be nothing less than superman." He seated himself. "Turn that switch," he said. "Now!"
I did. The tubes glowed into low blue light. I watched dully, disinterestedly; nothing held any attraction for me after that image of the ideal.
"Huh!" said van Manderpootz suddenly. "Turn it on, I say! I see nothing but my own reflection."
I stared, then burst into a hollow laugh. The mirror was spinning; the banks of tubes were glowing; the device was operating.
Van Manderpootz raised his face, a little redder than usual. I laughed half hysterically. "After all," he said huffily, "one might have a lower ideal of man than van Manderpootz. I see nothing nearly so humorous as your situation."
The laughter died. I went miserably home, spent half the remainder of the night in morose contemplation, smoked nearly two packs of cigarettes, and didn't get to the office at all the next day.
Tips Alva got back to town for a week-end broadcast, but I didn't even bother to see her, just phoned her and told her I was sick. I guess my face lent credibility to the story, for she was duly sympathetic, and her face in the phone screen was quite anxious. Even at that, I couldn't keep my eyes away from her lips because, except for a bit too lustrous make-up, they were the lips of the ideal. But they weren't enough; they just weren't enough.
Old N. J. began to worry again. I couldn't sleep late of mornings any more, and after missing that one day, I kept getting down earlier and earlier until one morning I was only ten minutes late. He called me in at once.
"Look here, Dixon," he said. "Have you been to a doctor recently?"
"I'm not sick," I said listlessly.