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|Publisher:||Open Road Integrated Media LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
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By Clifford D. Simak
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Clifford D. Simak
All rights reserved.
It was Friday afternoon. The final class was finished, the last of the students walking out the door. Edward Lansing stood at his desk, gathering up his lecture notes and papers, stuffing them into his briefcase. He had the weekend free, and it felt good to have a free one — no civic or extracurricular duties chopping out a part of it. Although as yet he had not decided what he would do with it. He could drive out into the hills and have a look at the autumn color, which this weekend would reach its greatest glory. He could phone Andy Spaulding and suggest a hiking expedition. He could ask Alice Anderson to have dinner with him and let subsequent events take their course. Or he could just do nothing — hole up in his apartment, build a pleasant fire, stack the player with Mozart and do some of the reading that had been piling up.
He tucked the briefcase underneath his arm and walked out the door. The slot machine stood against the wall, halfway down the corridor. Out of sheer habit he thrust his hand into his pocket, his fingers running through the coins that he had dropped there. His fingers found a quarter and he took it out. At the slot machine he halted and inserted the quarter in the slot, reaching out to haul down on the lever. The machine chuckled at him, and the wheels in its face were spinning. Without waiting for the results, he walked away. There was no point in staying. No one ever won. At various times there would be rumors about a monstrous jackpot someone hit, but all these stories, he suspected, were no more than propaganda floated by the welfare people.
Behind him the machine ended its chuckling clatter, slamming to a stop. He turned around and looked. A pear, a lemon and an orange — for this was one of the machines made to ape those of many years ago, a circumstance calculated to appeal to the juvenile sense of humor among the undergraduates.
So he'd lost again. But that was not unusual. He could not remember ever winning. No one ever won. Perhaps (although he could not be sure of this) one played the slots out of a sense of patriotic duty, a sort of enlarged, rather nebulous civic duty. For they did provide the funding for the national welfare operation, and as a result the vicious bite of the income tax had been softened. He thought about it briefly, wondering once again if he approved or not. There was, it seemed to him, a slight moral taint to the whole idea, but, taint or not, it had worked out. He could well afford, he reminded himself, to lose a quarter now and then for the succor of the poor and a smaller income tax.
The machine blinked out, leaving him standing in the empty hall. He swung about and headed for his office. In a few minutes, after he had divested himself of the briefcase and closed the door behind him, he'd be on his way to a free weekend.
As he turned the corner he saw someone waiting for him beside his office door, leaning against the wall in that infuriating loose-jointed attitude invariably assumed by a waiting student.
He walked past the man, fumbled with his keys.
"You are waiting for me?" he asked the leaning one.
"Thomas Jackson, sir," the student said. "You left a note in my box."
"Yes, Mr. Jackson, I believe I did," said Lansing, remembering now. He held the door open and the student walked in. Following Jackson, Lansing switched on his desk light.
"The chair over there," he said, motioning to the one that stood before his desk.
"Thank you, sir," the student said.
Lansing went around his desk, pulled out his chair and sat down in it. What he wanted was in a pile of papers on the left-hand corner of the desk. He shuffled through them until he found the theme.
Glancing up at Jackson, he could see the man was nervous.
Lansing glanced out the opposite window. Beyond it lay a section of the campus mall. The afternoon, he noted, was a typical sleepy New England autumn with a mellow sun turning to a molten gold the leaves of the ancient birch tree just outside the window.
He picked up the sheaf of papers in front of him and riffled through the pages, making a pretense of studying them.
"Mr. Jackson, I wonder if you'd mind discussing your paper with me?" he asked. "In many ways I find it fascinating."
The student gulped and said, "I am pleased you like it."
"It is one of the finest pieces of criticism I have ever read," said Lansing. "You must have spent a great deal of time and thought on it. That is evident. You developed an unusual feeling for one particular scene in Hamlet and your deductions are brilliant. There is something that puzzles me, however — some of the sources that you quote."
He laid the paper on the desk and stared at the student. The student tried to match the stare, but his eyes were glassy and soon he turned his head.
"What I want to know," said Lansing, "is who might Crawford be? And Wright? And Forbes? Well-known Shakespeare scholars, I am sure, although I've never heard of them."
The student said nothing. "What puzzles me," said Lansing, "is why you should have used the names. The paper stands on its own without them. If it had not been for them, I would have considered, although perhaps with some reluctance in view of your past scholarship, that you had finally gotten down to business and done an honest job of work. On your past record that would have seemed unlikely, but I am inclined to think I would have given you the benefit of doubt. Mr. Jackson, if this is a hoax of some sort, I fail to find much humor in it. Perhaps you have an explanation; if so, I shall listen to it."
The student spoke in a sudden flare of bitterness. "It was that damn machine!" he said.
"I don't believe I follow you. What machine?"
"You see," said Jackson, "I had to get a good mark. I knew that if I screwed up on this assignment, I would flunk the course. And I can't afford a failure. I made an honest try at it, but I couldn't hack it, so I went to the machine and —"
"I ask you again," said Lansing. "What has a machine to do with it?"
"It's a slot machine," said Jackson. "Or, rather, it looks like a slot machine, although I think it must be something else. Not too many people know of it. It wouldn't do to let it become common knowledge."
He looked beseechingly at Lansing, and Lansing asked, "If this machine is a secret thing, why are you telling me about it? I should think you would try to bluff it out. I know that if I were involved in such a conspiracy as you suggest, I would take my medicine and not reveal a word of it. I would protect the others."
Not believing the slot-machine tale, of course, not thinking for an instant there was any truth in it. Just putting pressure on the man across the desk from him, hoping that by doing so he might arrive at something like the truth.
"Well, you see, sir, it's this way," Jackson said. "You maybe think that it's a stupid hoax or that I hired someone else to write it — I don't know, you could think a lot of things and if you keep on thinking them, you'll give me a failing grade and, as I told you, I can't take another failure. If you want me to, I can explain why I can't stand much more of it. I'm on the ragged edge. So I thought if I told you the truth — you see, I'm just gambling that I can make a point or two by telling you the truth."
"Well, that is very decent of you," Lansing said. "Yes, extremely decent. But a slot machine ..."
"It's in the Union building, sir. The Student Union."
"Yes. I know where the building is."
"Down in the basement area," said Jackson. "Just off the Rathskeller. There is a door to one side of the bar. No one ever goes in there, almost no one ever. It's a sort of storeroom, although it's not used. Not at the moment, it isn't. Maybe once it was. There are a few things in there. Things shoved in long ago and forgotten now. Over in one corner is this slot machine, or what looks like a slot machine. People who might happen to go into the room wouldn't give it a second look. It kind of huddles there, squatted in the corner. Anyone who did happen to see it would think that it was broken and —"
"Except, of course," said Lansing, "someone who knew what it really was."
"That's exactly right, sir. You mean you are believing me?"
"That's not what I said," Lansing told him. "I was simply helping you along. You were bogging down. I made the remark to put you back on track."
"Well, thank you, sir. That was kind of you. I was wandering a bit. You go over, sir, and put a quarter in the slot. The quarter wakes it up and it speaks to you, asking what you want, and —"
"You mean the slot machine speaks to you?"
"That's exactly right, sir. It asks you what you want and you tell it, and it tells you what it'll cost, and when you pay for it, it cranks it out for you. It can crank out a paper on almost any subject. You tell it what you want —"
"So that is what you did. Would you mind telling me how much it might have cost you?"
"Not at all. Two dollars. That's all."
"Dirt cheap," Lansing said.
"Yes, you're right, sir. It really is a bargain."
"Sitting here," said Lansing, "I'm thinking of how unfair it is that only a chosen few should know about this wondrous machine. Think of all of those hundreds sitting out there now, hunched above their desks, beating out their brains to scribble down a paragraph that has some meaning in it, when, if they only knew it, down there in the Union building there is an answer to all the problems that they face."
Jackson's face was frozen. "You don't believe me, sir. You think it's just a story. You think that I am lying."
"What did you think I'd think?"
"I really didn't know. It seems so simple to me because it really is the truth. You don't believe me when I tell the truth. I would have done better lying."
"Yes, Mr. Jackson, I think perhaps you might have."
"What are you going to do, sir?"
"Nothing at the moment. I'll give the matter some thought over the weekend. When I reach a decision, I will let you know."
Jackson rose stiffly and stalked out of the office. Lansing listened to him clumping down the hall until the sound of the clumping faded out. Then he placed Jackson's paper in a drawer and locked the desk. Picking up his briefcase, he headed for the door. Halfway there he swung about and dropped the briefcase on the desk top. Today he'd carry nothing home with him. The weekend was free, and he was going to keep it free.
Walking down the hall to the entrance that opened on the mall, he felt strange to be deprived of the briefcase. It had become a part of him, he thought. As much a part of him as his slacks and shoes. It was a part of the uniform he wore. For years he had carried it, and without it he felt slightly naked, as if it might somehow be indecent to expose himself to the public view without it clutched beneath his arm.
As he was walking down the building's broad stone steps, someone hailed him from half a block away. He turned and saw that it was Andy Spaulding, who was hurrying up the sidewalk to intercept him.
Andy was an ancient and a trusted friend, but something of a windbag who at times could be slightly pompous. He was a sociologist and had a good head on him, a head bubbling with ideas. The only trouble was that he never kept the ideas to himself. Whenever he could corner someone, he'd zero in on his cringing victim and talk his ideas out, clinging tightly to the lapels of the victim so that he could not get away, arguing with himself even as he expounded on that mighty tide of thought that surged within himself. But for all of this, he was a good and loyal companion, and Lansing was marginally pleased to see him.
He waited at the foot of the stairs until Andy came up.
"Let's wander over to the club," said Andy. "I'll stand you drinks."CHAPTER 2
The faculty club was on the top floor of the Student Union. The entire outer wall was a series of plate-glass windows looking out over a placid, well-tended little lake hemmed in by birch and pine.
Lansing and Andy sat at one of the tables next to the wall.
Spaulding lifted his glass and looked over it, speculatively, at Lansing.
"You know," he said, "I have been thinking the last few days how fortunate it would be if there should be visited upon us another medieval plague such as wiped out a third of Europe's population in the fourteenth century. Or another world war or even a second biblical flood — anything that would force us to start over once again, to erase some of the mistakes that we have made in the last thousand years or so, giving us the opportunity to arrive at some new social and economic principles. A chance to escape from mediocrity, the chance to organize ourselves more sanely. The work-and-wage system has become obsolete, it defeats itself, and still we cling to it...."
"Don't you think," Lansing suggested mildly, "that the methods you suggest might prove rather drastic?"
Not meaning to argue by saying it. No one argued with Andy; he simply overrode anyone who tried. He rumbled on and on, in a voice that was just short of a monotone, marshaling his thoughts and cataloguing them, spreading them out for one to see, as one might fan out a deck of playing cards.
Not wanting to argue, not intending to, but entering into the spirit of the game, which required that at certain intervals Andy's victim or victims murmur some appropriate response.
"One of these days," said Andy, "we will suddenly realize — I have no thought how such a realization will come about — but we'll realize that our human effort so far is a futile effort because it is being pushed in the wrong direction. For centuries we have sought for knowledge, pursuing it in the name of reason, in the same reasonable manner as the ancient alchemists pursued their search for a method that would transform base metals into gold. We may find that all this knowledge is a dead end, that beyond a certain point all meaning ceases. In astrophysics we seem to be nearing that point. In a few years more, all the old and solid theories about space and time may collapse to nothing, leaving us standing in the rubble of shattered theories that we then will know are worthless and always have been worthless. There may then exist no reason to make further study of the universe. We may find that there are, in actuality, no universal laws, that the universe may operate on pure randomness, or worse. All this frantic study, all this pursuit of knowledge, not only about the universe but other things as well, has come about because we seek some advantage in it. But let us ask ourselves if we have the right to seek advantage. Basically we may have no right to expect a thing from the universe."
Lansing played the game. "You seem, this afternoon," he said, "to be more pessimistic than is your usual style."
"I am not the first," said Andy, "to indulge in this brand of pessimism, although mine is pitched from a slightly different viewpoint. There was a school of thinkers, some years ago, who advanced a similar argument. That was at a time when the cosmologists were convinced that we existed in a finite universe. At the moment the cosmological viewpoint is not that rigid. Right now we are undecided what kind of universe we're in. It may be finite, it may be infinite; no one really knows. It all depends on how much matter there may be in the universe, and estimates of the matter present fluctuate from year to year, if not from month to month. But that's neither here nor there. At the time, some years ago, when the conviction of a finite universe still obtained, the theory then was that scientific knowledge, based on a finite universe, must itself be finite. That somewhere there was a boundary to the universe and therefore a boundary to knowledge. There was only so much to be learned, and once we learned that much, that was the end of it. If knowledge was advancing and accumulating, doubling every fifteen years, as was estimated at the time, then it was said that it would not take long, perhaps a few centuries at the most, to reach a point at which the limiting factors of a finite universe would call a halt to any further accumulation of knowledge. The men of that day who supported this kind of thinking went so far as to conjure up exponential curves by which they professed to show at what point scientific and technological knowledge would finally reach an end."
Excerpted from Special Deliverance by Clifford D. Simak. Copyright © 1982 Clifford D. Simak. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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