The Revolt of the Machines - Cover

The Revolt of the Machines

by Nathan Schachner

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Something in the many-faceted mind of the master machine spurs it to diabolical revolt against the authority of its human masters.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

For five thousand years, since that nigh legendary figure Einstein wrote and thought in the far-off mists of time, the scientists endeavored to reduce life and the universe to terms of a mathematical formula. And they thought they had succeeded. Throughout the world, machines did the work of man, and the aristos, owners of the machines, played in soft idleness in their crystal and gold pleasure cities. Even the prolat hordes, relieved of all but an hour or two per day of toil, were content in their warrens--content with the crumbs of their masters.

Then the ice began to move, down from the north and up from the south. Slowly, inexorably, the jaws of the great vise closed, till all that was left of the wide empire of man was a narrow belt about the equator. Everywhere else was a vast tumbled waste of cold and glaring whiteness, a frozen desert. In the narrow habitable belt were compacted the teeming millions of earth’s peoples.

In spite of the best efforts of the scientists among them, the crowding together of the myriads of earth’s inhabitants brought in its train the inevitable plagues of famine and disease. Even with the most intensive methods of cultivation, even with the synthetic food factories running day and night, there could not be produced enough to sustain life in the hordes of prolats. And with the lowering of resistance and the lack of sufficient sanitary arrangements, disease began to spread with ever increasing rapidity and virulence.

The aristos trembled, for they were few, and the prolats many. Already were arising loud and disheveled orators, inciting the millions to arise against their masters. The aristos were few, but they were not helpless. In the blackness of a moonless, clouded night there was a whispering of many wings, and from dark shapes that loomed against the dark sky, great beams swept over the tented fields where the prolats lay huddled and sleeping. And when the red sun circled the ice-chained earth he found in his path heaps of dust where on his last journey he had warmed the swarming millions.

The slaves thus ruthlessly destroyed could well be spared, for the machines did the work of the world, even to the personal care of the aristos’ pampered bodies. Only for direction, and starting and stopping, was the brain and the hand of man required. Now that the inhabited portion of the terrestrial globe was so straitly circumscribed, radio power waves, television and radio-phone, rendered feasible the control of all the machines from one central station, built at the edge of the Northern Glacier. Here were brought the scant few of the prolats that had been spared, a pitiful four hundred men and women, and they were set to endless, thankless tasks.

I was one of those few; and Keston, my friend, who was set at the head of the force. I was second in command. For a decade we labored, whipped our fellows to their tasks, that the aristos might loll careless in the perfume and silks of their pleasure palaces, or riot in wild revel, to sink at last in sodden stupor. Sprawled thus they would lie, until the dressing machines we guided would lift them gently from their damasked couches, bathe them with warm and fragrant waters, clothe their soft carcasses in diaphanous, iridescent webs, and start them on a new day of debauchery.

But the slow vengeance of an inscrutable Omnipotence they mockingly denied overtook them at last, and I saw the rendering and payment of the long past due account.

As I entered the vast domed hall wherein all my waking hours were spent, the shrill whistle of an alarm signal told me that something had been wrong. Instinctively I looked toward the post of Abud. Three times in the past week had Keston or I been called upon for swift action to right some error of that dull witted prolat. On the oval visor-screen above the banked buttons of his station I saw the impending catastrophe. Two great freight planes, one bearing the glowing red star that told of its cargo of highly explosive terminite, were approaching head-on with lightning rapidity. The fool had them on the same level.

Abud was gaping now at the screen in paralyzed fright, with no idea of how to avoid the cataclysm. Just below I glimpsed the soaring towers of Antarcha. In a moment that gold and crystal pleasure city would be blasted to extinction, with all its sleeping thousands. Swift would be the vengeance of the aristos. Already I could see Abud and Keston and a hundred others melting in the fierce rays of the Death Bath!

But, even as my face blanched with the swift and terrible vision, the little controller’s car ground to a smoking stop at Abud’s back. With one motion Keston’s lithe form leaped from his seat and thrust aside the gaping prolat. His long white fingers darted deftly over the gleaming buttons. The red starred plane banked in a sudden swerve; the other dipped beneath. Distinct from the speaker beneath the screen came the whoosh of the riven air as the fliers flashed past, safe by a margin of scant feet. Another rippling play of the prolat chief’s fingers and the planes were back on their proper courses. The whistle ceased its piercing alarm, left a throbbing stillness.

Chief Keston turned to the brute faced culprit. Cold contempt tautened the thin, ascetic features of his face. Somehow I was at his side: I must have been running across the wide floor of the Control Station while the crisis had flared and passed. In measured tones, each word a cutting whip-lash, came his well merited rebuke:

“Don’t try me too far, Abud. Long before this I should have relieved you of your post, and ordered you to the Death Bath. I am derelict in my duty that I do not do so. By my weak leniency I imperil the lives of your comrades, and my own. It is your good fortune that a Council delegate has not been present at one of your exhibitions. But I dare not risk more. Let the warning whistle come from your station just once again and I shall report you as an incompetent. You know the law.”

I looked to see the man cringe in abasement and contrition. But the heavy jaw thrust forth in truculent defiance; hate blazed forth from the deep-set eyes; the florid features were empurpled with rage. He made as if to reply, but turned away from the withering scorn in Keston’s face.

“Ha, Meron, here at last.” A warm smile greeted me. “I’ve been waiting for you impatiently.”

“I’m an hour before my time,” I replied, then continued, exasperatedly: “Chief, I hope this latest imbecility will convince you that you ought to turn him in. I know it hurts you to condemn a prolat to the Death Bath, but if you let him go on, his mistakes will bring us all to that end.”

I glanced toward where a black portal broke the circle of switchboards, and shuddered. Behind that grim gate leaped and flared eternally the flame of the consuming Ray, the exhaust flue of the solar energy by which the machines were fed. Once I had seen a condemned man step through that aperture at the order of an aristo whom he had offended. For a moment his tortured body had glowed with a terrible golden light. Then--there was nothing.

My friend pressed my arm, calmingly. Again he smiled. “Come, come, Meron, don’t get all worked up. It isn’t his fault. Why, look at him. Can’t you see that he is a throwback, lost in this world of science and machines? Besides”--his voice dropped low--”it doesn’t matter any more. Man-failure will no longer trouble the even tenor of the machines. I’ve finished.”

A tremor of excitement seized me. “You’ve completed it at last? And it works?”

“It works. I tested it when the shifts changed at midnight; kept the oncoming force outside for five minutes. It works like a charm.”

“Great! When will you tell the Council?”

“I’ve already sent the message off. You know how hard it is to get them away from their wines and their women--but they’ll be here soon. But before they come, I’ve something to tell you. Let’s go back behind the screens.”

As we walked toward the huge tarpaulin-screened mass that bulked in the center of the great chamber, I glanced around the hall, at the thousand-foot circle of seated prolats. Two hundred men and women were there; two hundred more were sleeping in the dormitories. These were all that were left of the world’s workers. Before each operative rose the serried hundreds of pearl buttons, dim lit, clicking in and out under the busy fingers. Above each, an oval visor-screen with its flitting images brought across space the area the switches controlled. Every one of the ten score was watching his screen with taut attention, and listening to the voices of the machines there depicted--the metallic voices from the radio speakers broadcasting their needs.

The work was going on as it had gone on for ten years, with the omnipresent threat of the Death Bath whipping flagged, tired brains to dreary energy. The work kept going on till they dropped worn out at last in their tired seats. Only in Keston’s brain, and in mine, flamed the new hope of release. Tomorrow the work would be done, forever. Tomorrow, we would be released, to take our places in the pleasure palaces. To loll at ease, breathing the sweet perfume of idleness, waited on by machines directed by a machine.

For, as we stood behind the heavy canvas folds that Keston had drawn aside, there towered, fifty feet above me, halfway to the arching roof, a machine that was the ultimate flowering of man’s genius. Almost man-form it was--two tall metal cylinders supporting a larger, that soared aloft till far above it was topped by a many-faceted ball of transparent quartz. Again I had a fleeting, but vivid, impression of something baleful, threatening, about it. Small wonder, though. For the largest cylinder, the trunk of the man-machine Keston had created, was covered thick with dangling arms. And the light of the xenon tube that flooded the screened space was reflected from the great glass head till it seemed that the thing was alive; that it was watching me till some unguarded moment would give it its chance.

A long moment we stood, going again over each detail of the thing, grown so familiar through long handling as it was slowly assembled. Then my friend’s voice, low pitched as was its wont, dissipated the visions I was seeing. “Two hours ago, Meron, with none here but me to see, those arms were extended, each to its appointed station. And, as the sensitive cells in the head received the signals from the visor-screens and the radio-speakers the arms shot about the key-boards and pressed the proper buttons just as our men are doing now. The work of the world went on, without a falter, with only the master machine to direct it. Yet a year ago, when I first spoke to you of the idea, you told me it was impossible!”

“You have won,” I responded; “you have taken the last step in the turning over of the functions of man to machines--the last step but one. Routine control, it is true, can now be exercised by this--those fellows out there are no longer necessary--but there will still be the unexpected, unforeseen emergencies that will require human intelligence to meet and cope with them. You and I, I’m afraid, are still doomed to remain here and serve the machines.”

Keston shook his head, while a little smile played over his sharp-featured face, and a glow of pride and triumph suffused his fine dark eyes. “Grumbling again, old carper. What would you say if I told you that I have solved even that problem? I have given my master machine intelligence!”

My wide-eyed, questioning stare must have conveyed my thought to him, for he laughed shortly, and said, “No, I’ve not gone insane.”

“It was an accident,” he went on with amazing calm. “My first idea was merely to build something that would reduce the necessary supervisory force to one or two humans. But, when I had almost completed my second experimental model, I found that I was out of the copper filaments necessary to wind a certain coil. I didn’t want to wait till I could obtain more from the stores, and remembered that on the inside of the door to the Death Bath there was some fine screening that could be dispensed with. I used the wire from that. Whether the secret of life as well as of death lies in those waste rays from the sun, or whether some unknown element of the humans consumed in the flame was deposited on the screening in a sort of invisible coating, I do not know. But this I do know: when that second model was finished, and the vitalizing current was turned on, things happened--queer things that could be explained only on the ground that the machine had intelligence.”

He fell silent a moment, then his thin pale lips twisted in a wry smile. “You know, Meron, I was a little scared. The thing I had created seemed possessed of a virulent antagonism toward me. Look.” He bared an arm and held it out. A livid weal ran clear around the fore-arm. “One of the tentacles I had given it whipped around my arm like a flash. If I had not cut off the current at once it might have squeezed through flesh and bone. The pressure was terrific.”

I was about to speak, when from the screen nearest the entrance door a beam of green light darted out, vanished, came again. Once, twice, three times.

“Look, Chief, the signal. They’re coming. The Council will soon be here.”

“They’re over-prompt. My message must have aroused their curiosity. But listen:

“I incorporated my new thought coil, as I called it, in the large master machine. But I don’t know just what will happen when the current flows through that. So I shunted it. The machine will work, routinely, without it. There is a button that will bring it into action. When I shall have taken the proper precautions I will switch it on, and then we shall see what happens.”

We saw, sooner than Keston expected.

Again the green beam flashed out. The great portals slowly opened. Through them glided the three travel cars of the Supreme Council of the aristos.

It had been almost a year since I saw them, the Over Lords of the World, and I had forgotten their appearance. Sprawled on the glowing silks of their cushioned couches, eyes closed in languid boredom, they were like huge white slugs. Swollen to tremendous size by the indolent luxuriousness of their lives, the flesh that was not concealed by the bright hued web of their robes was pasty white, and bagged and folded where the shrunken muscles beneath refused support. Great pouches dropped beneath swollen eyelids. Full-lipped, sensual mouths and pendulous cheeks merged into the great fat rolls of their chins. I shuddered. These, these were the masters for whom we slaved!

As we bent low the gliding cars came to rest, and a warm redolence of sweet perfume came to me from the fans softly whirling in the canopies over the aristos’ heads. Strains of music rose and fell, and ceased as a flat, tired voice breathed: “Rise, prolats.”

I straightened up. The eyes of the Council were now opened, little pig’s eyes almost lost in the flesh about them. They glinted with a cold, inhuman cruelty. I shuddered, and thought of the night of terror ten years before. And suddenly I was afraid, deathly afraid.

Ladnom Atuna, head of the Council, spoke again. “We have come at your petition. What is this matter so grave that it has led you to disturb us at our pleasures?”

Keston bowed low. “Your Excellency, I would not have presumed to intrude upon you for a small matter. I have so greatly ventured because I have at length solved the final step in the mechanization of the world. I have invented a master machine to operate the switchboards in this hall and replace the workers thereat.”

The flabby faces of the aristos betrayed not the slightest interest, not the least surprise. Only Atuna spoke: “Interesting, if true. Can you prove your statement?”

Keston strode to the canvas screen and pulled a cord. The great canvas curtains rolled back. “Here is the machine, my Lords!” His face was lit with the glow of pride of achievement. His voice had lost its reverence. Rapidly he continued: “The head of this contrivance is a bank of photo and sono-electric cells, each facet focussed on one of the screens. Through a nerve-system of copper filaments any combination of lights and sounds will actuate the proper arm which will shoot out to the required bank of buttons and press the ones necessary to meet any particular demand. That is all the prolats are doing out there, and they make mistakes, while my master machine cannot. The--”

But Ladnom Atuna raised a languid hand. “Spare us these technical explanations. They bore us. All we desire to know is that the machine will do as you say.”

The chief flushed, and gulped. His triumph was not meeting with the acclaim he had expected. But he bowed. “Very well. With your gracious permission I shall demonstrate its operation.” Atuna nodded in acquiescence.

Keston’s voice rang out in crisp command. “Attention, prolats. Cease working.” The long circling row suddenly jerked around; their flying fingers halted their eternal dartings. “Quickly, down to the space in front of the door to the Death Bath.” A rush of hurried feet. These men and women were accustomed to instant, unquestioning obedience. “Absolute silence. Keep clear of the floor on peril of your lives.”

The chief wheeled to the master machine and pressed a button. Instantly, the hundreds of dangling arms telescoped out, each to a button bank where a moment before a prolat had labored. And, with a weird simulation of life, the ten forked ends of each arm commenced a rattling pressing of the buttons. Rapidly, purposefully, the metallic fingers moved over the key-boards, and on the screens we could see that the machines all over the world were continuing on their even course. Not the slightest change in their working betrayed the fact that they were now being directed by a machine instead of human beings. A great surge of admiration swept me at the marvelous accomplishment of my friend.

Not so the aristos. Expressionless, they watched as the maze of stretching tentacles vibrated through the crowded air. Yet not quite expressionless. I thought I could sense in the covert glances they cast at one another a crafty weighing of the implications of this machine; a question asked and answered; a decision made. Then their spokesman turned languidly to the waiting, triumphant figure of Keston.

“Evidently your claims are proven. This means that the force of prolat operatives are no longer necessary.”

“Yes, Your Excellency. They may now be released to a well earned reward.”

The aristo ignored the interruption. “We take it that only two will now be required to operate this Control Station, to supply the last modicum of human intelligence required to meet unforeseen emergencies.”

I saw that Keston was about to interrupt once more, to tell the Council of the thought coil, the most unbelievable part of the miracle he had wrought. But something seemed to warn me that he should not speak. Standing behind him I nudged him, while I myself replied: “Yes, Your Excellency.” The chief flung me a startled look, but did not correct me.

From the packed crowd of prolats at the other end of the hall I could hear a murmuring. While I could not make out the words, the very tones told me that in the hearts of those weary slaves new hope was rising, the same hope that glowed in Keston’s face. But I was oppressed by an unreasoning fear.

Atuna was still talking, in his cold, unemotional monotone. “This being so, hear now our decision. Keston and Meron, you will remain here to meet all emergencies. You others, your function is done. You have done your work well, you are now no longer needed to control the machines. Therefore,”--he paused, and my heart almost stopped--”therefore, being no longer of value, you will be disposed of.”

A click sounded loud through the stunned silence. Beyond the white crowd the huge black portal slid slowly open. A shimmering radiance of glowing vapors blazed from the space beyond.

“Prolats, file singly into the Death Bath!” Atuna raised his voice only slightly with the command. I glanced at Keston. He was livid with fury.

Incredible as it may seem, so ingrained was the habit of obedience to the aristos in the prolats that not even a murmur of protest came from the condemned beings. The nearest man to the flaming death stepped out into the void. His doomed body flared, then vanished. The next moved to his turn.

But suddenly a great shout rang out.


It was Keston’s voice, but so changed, so packed with fury and outrage, that I scarcely recognized it.

His spare, tall form was drawn tensely straight as he shook a clenched fist at the Council. He was quivering with anger, and his eyes blazed.

“Aristos, you do wrong! These men have served you faithfully and well. I demand for them the reward they have earned--rest and leisure, and the pleasures that for ten years they have seen you enjoy while they worked here for you. They have worked for you, I say, and now that I have released them you would destroy them. Aristos, I demand justice!”

For the first time I saw expression on the flaccid faces of the Council--surprise and astonishment that a prolat should dare dispute an aristo command. Then a sneer twisted Atuna’s countenance.

“What is this? Who are you to demand anything from us? We spared these prolats because we needed them: we need them no longer, hence they must die. What madness has seized you? Reward! Justice! For prolats! As well say we should reward the stone walls of our houses; dispense justice to the machines. Proceed, prolats!”

Keston made as if to spring for the aristo’s throat. I put out a hand to stop him. An invisible shield of death rays rimmed the platforms the Council used. It was suicide! But suddenly he turned and sprang to the master machine. He grasped a switch lever and threw it down.

A long tentacle left its keys and swished menacingly through the air. “Meron, prolats, under the key-boards!” came Keston’s shout. I dived to obey. Steel fingers clutched my jerkin and tore it loose as I landed with a thud against the wall. Keston thumped alongside of me. He was breathing heavily and his face was deathly pale.

“Look!” he gasped.

Out on the floor was a shambles. I saw one snakelike arm whip around the stout form of Atuna, then tighten. A shriek of agony rang through the hall. Another tentacle curled about the couch of a second aristo, pinning the occupant to it. Then couch and all were swung a hundred feet in the air to be crashed down with terrific force on the stone floor. Two arms seized the third at the same time...

“Too sluggish to get out of the way in time, damn them!” I heard Keston mutter. True, but not all the prolats had moved fast enough at the warning shout. Cowering under the saving key-boards, shrinking from the metallic arms not quite long enough to reach them, I could count only a score. The others--but what use to describe the slaughter out there! I see it in nightmares too often.

A thunder from the speakers grew till it drowned out the agonized shrieks in the great hall. On the screens horror flared. All over the world, it appeared, the machines had gone mad. I saw Antarcha crash as a dozen air freighters plunged through the crystal towers. I saw a huge dredge strip the roof from a great playhouse, and smash the startled crowd within with stones it plucked from an embankment. I saw untenanted land cars shooting wild through packed streets. Great ponderous tractors left the fields and moved in ordered array on the panic-stricken cities. Methodically they pursued the fleeing aristos, and crushed them beneath their tread like scurrying ants.

I realized that the scraping of the tentacles reaching for us had ceased, that the arms had all returned to the button banks. Then it dawned on me that Keston’s master machine was directing all the destruction I was watching, that the intelligence he had given it was being used to divert the machines from their regular tasks to--conquer the world. “You sure started something, Keston,” I said.

“Yes,” he gasped, white-faced, “something that I should have expected when that model machine went for me. Do you understand? I’ve given the machines intelligence, created a new race, and they are trying to wipe out the humans; conquer the world for themselves. The possibility flashed on me when I was half-mad with rage and disappointment at the callous cruelty of the aristo Council. I threw that switch with the thought that it would be far better for all of us to be wiped out. But now, I don’t know. After all, they are men, like ourselves, and it hurts to see our own race annihilated. If only I can get to that switch.”

He started to push out from under the scant shelter, but an alert tentacle hissed through the air in a swift stab at him, and he dodged back, hopelessly.

“Don’t be a damn fool,” I snapped at him. “Forget that mushy sentimentality. Even if you save the aristos, we’re due for extinction just the same. Better that the whole human race be wiped out together.”

Then a thought struck me. “Maybe we have a chance to get out of this ourselves.”

“Impossible. Where could we hide from the machines?” He waved a hand at the screens. “Look.”

“The Glacier, man, the Glacier!” He started. “There are no machines out there. If we can get to the ice we are safe.”

“But the aircraft will find us.”

“They won’t know we’re there. There are no microphones or radio-eyes in the wastes.”

A rough voice came from the cowering files behind us. “Hey, Keston, let’s get a move on. You’re the smart guy around here: get us out of this mess you’ve started.”

It was Abud. When so many better prolats had perished, he was alive and whole.

We got out, crawling under the key-boards till we could make a dash for the door. We emerged into a world ablaze with the light of many fires, and reverberating with the far off crashing of destruction. To the right we could see the tumbled remains of what a short hour before had been our barracks. Two digging machines were still ponderously moving about among the ruins, pounding down their heavy buckets methodically, reducing the concrete structure to a horrible dead level. Ten score prolats had been sleeping there when I left.

As we rushed into the open, the machines turned and made for us; but they had not been built for speed, and we easily outdistanced them. The rest of that day will always remain a dim haze to me. I can remember running, running, Abud’s broad form always in the lead. I can remember long minutes of trembling under tangled underbrush, while from above sounded the burring of an air machine searching ceaselessly for us. I can remember seeing at last the tall white ramparts of the Glacier. Then a blackness swallowed me up, hands tugged at me, and I knew no more...

The great white waste of hummocky ice dazzled under the blinding sun. My eyes were hurting terribly. There was a great void in my stomach. For two days I had not eaten.

Keston, tottering weakly at my side, was in an even worse state. His trembling hand could scarcely hold the primitive bone-tipped spear. God knows I had difficulty enough with mine.

Yet, tired, hungry, shivering as we were, we forced our dragging feet along, searching the interminable expanse for sign of polar bear or the wild white dogs that hunted in packs. We had to find flesh--any kind--to feed our shriveled stomachs--or go under.

Keston uttered a weak shout. I looked. From behind a frozen hummock a great white bear padded. He saw us, sniffed the air a moment, then turned contemptuously away. He must have sensed our weakness.

Almost crying in his eagerness, Keston raised his spear and cast it with what strength he had at the animal that meant food and warmth for our bodies.

The weapon described a slow arc, and caught the shaggy bear flush in the shoulder. But there had been no force behind the throw. The sharpened bone tip stuck in the flesh, quivered a bit, and dropped harmlessly to the ice.

Aroused, the creature whirled about. We caught a glimpse of small, vindictive eyes. Then, with a roar, it made for us.

“Look out!” I cried. Keston started to run, but I knew he could not match the wounded animal in speed. I threw my futile spear, but the bear shook it off as though it were a pin prick, and would not be diverted from his prey.

I ran after, shouting for help. Then Keston stumbled and went down in a sprawl on the rough gray ice. The bear was almost on him and there was nothing I could do.

Then the figure of a man darted from behind a sheltering mound. It was Abud, swathed in warm white furs, brawny of body, strong, well fed, heavy jowled. He swung easily a long spear, far heavier than ours, and pointed with keen barbs.

He stopped short at the sight of us, and his brutal features contorted in merriment. The desperate plight of my friend seemed to afford him infinite amusement. Nor did he make any move to help.

I shouted to him. “Quick, kill it before it’s too late!”

“So it is Abud you turn to now,” he sneered heavily. “Abud, whom you thought deserving of the Death Bath not so long ago. No, my fine friends, let me see you help yourselves, you two who thought you were king pins down in the valley. Men? Bah! Weaklings, that’s all you are!”

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