"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.
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.
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?"
"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.