Watchbird

by Robert Sheckley

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Strange how often the Millennium has been at hand. The idea is peace on Earth, see, and the way to do it is by figuring out angles.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

When Gelsen entered, he saw that the rest of the watchbird manufacturers were already present. There were six of them, not counting himself, and the room was blue with expensive cigar smoke.

“Hi, Charlie,” one of them called as he came in.

The rest broke off conversation long enough to wave a casual greeting at him. As a watchbird manufacturer, he was a member manufacturer of salvation, he reminded himself wryly. Very exclusive. You must have a certified government contract if you want to save the human race.

“The government representative isn’t here yet,” one of the men told him. “He’s due any minute.”

“We’re getting the green light,” another said.

“Fine.” Gelsen found a chair near the door and looked around the room. It was like a convention, or a Boy Scout rally. The six men made up for their lack of numbers by sheer volume. The president of Southern Consolidated was talking at the top of his lungs about watchbird’s enormous durability. The two presidents he was talking at were grinning, nodding, one trying to interrupt with the results of a test he had run on watchbird’s resourcefulness, the other talking about the new recharging apparatus.

The other three men were in their own little group, delivering what sounded like a panegyric to watchbird.

Gelsen noticed that all of them stood straight and tall, like the saviors they felt they were. He didn’t find it funny. Up to a few days ago he had felt that way himself. He had considered himself a pot-bellied, slightly balding saint.


He sighed and lighted a cigarette. At the beginning of the project, he had been as enthusiastic as the others. He remembered saying to Macintyre, his chief engineer, “Mac, a new day is coming. Watchbird is the Answer.” And Macintyre had nodded very profoundly--another watchbird convert.

How wonderful it had seemed then! A simple, reliable answer to one of mankind’s greatest problems, all wrapped and packaged in a pound of incorruptible metal, crystal and plastics.

Perhaps that was the very reason he was doubting it now. Gelsen suspected that you don’t solve human problems so easily. There had to be a catch somewhere.

After all, murder was an old problem, and watchbird too new a solution.

“Gentlemen--” They had been talking so heatedly that they hadn’t noticed the government representative entering. Now the room became quiet at once.

“Gentlemen,” the plump government man said, “the President, with the consent of Congress, has acted to form a watchbird division for every city and town in the country.”

The men burst into a spontaneous shout of triumph. They were going to have their chance to save the world after all, Gelsen thought, and worriedly asked himself what was wrong with that.

He listened carefully as the government man outlined the distribution scheme. The country was to be divided into seven areas, each to be supplied and serviced by one manufacturer. This meant monopoly, of course, but a necessary one. Like the telephone service, it was in the public’s best interests. You couldn’t have competition in watchbird service. Watchbird was for everyone.

“The President hopes,” the representative continued, “that full watchbird service will be installed in the shortest possible time. You will have top priorities on strategic metals, manpower, and so forth.”

“Speaking for myself,” the president of Southern Consolidated said, “I expect to have the first batch of watchbirds distributed within the week. Production is all set up.”


The rest of the men were equally ready. The factories had been prepared to roll out the watchbirds for months now. The final standardized equipment had been agreed upon, and only the Presidential go-ahead had been lacking.

“Fine,” the representative said. “If that is all, I think we can--is there a question?”

“Yes, sir,” Gelsen said. “I want to know if the present model is the one we are going to manufacture.”

“Of course,” the representative said. “It’s the most advanced.”

“I have an objection.” Gelsen stood up. His colleagues were glaring coldly at him. Obviously he was delaying the advent of the golden age.

“What is your objection?” the representative asked.

“First, let me say that I am one hundred per cent in favor of a machine to stop murder. It’s been needed for a long time. I object only to the watchbird’s learning circuits. They serve, in effect, to animate the machine and give it a pseudo-consciousness. I can’t approve of that.”

“But, Mr. Gelsen, you yourself testified that the watchbird would not be completely efficient unless such circuits were introduced. Without them, the watchbirds could stop only an estimated seventy per cent of murders.”

“I know that,” Gelsen said, feeling extremely uncomfortable. “I believe there might be a moral danger in allowing a machine to make decisions that are rightfully Man’s,” he declared doggedly.

“Oh, come now, Gelsen,” one of the corporation presidents said. “It’s nothing of the sort. The watchbird will only reinforce the decisions made by honest men from the beginning of time.”

“I think that is true,” the representative agreed. “But I can understand how Mr. Gelsen feels. It is sad that we must put a human problem into the hands of a machine, sadder still that we must have a machine enforce our laws. But I ask you to remember, Mr. Gelsen, that there is no other possible way of stopping a murderer before he strikes. It would be unfair to the many innocent people killed every year if we were to restrict watchbird on philosophical grounds. Don’t you agree that I’m right?”

“Yes, I suppose I do,” Gelsen said unhappily. He had told himself all that a thousand times, but something still bothered him. Perhaps he would talk it over with Macintyre.

As the conference broke up, a thought struck him. He grinned.

A lot of policemen were going to be out of work!


“Now what do you think of that?” Officer Celtrics demanded. “Fifteen years in Homicide and a machine is replacing me.” He wiped a large red hand across his forehead and leaned against the captain’s desk. “Ain’t science marvelous?”

Two other policemen, late of Homicide, nodded glumly.

“Don’t worry about it,” the captain said. “We’ll find a home for you in Larceny, Celtrics. You’ll like it here.”

“I just can’t get over it,” Celtrics complained. “A lousy little piece of tin and glass is going to solve all the crimes.”

“Not quite,” the captain said. “The watchbirds are supposed to prevent the crimes before they happen.”

“Then how’ll they be crimes?” one of the policeman asked. “I mean they can’t hang you for murder until you commit one, can they?”

“That’s not the idea,” the captain said. “The watchbirds are supposed to stop a man before he commits a murder.”

“Then no one arrests him?” Celtrics asked.

“I don’t know how they’re going to work that out,” the captain admitted.

The men were silent for a while. The captain yawned and examined his watch.

“The thing I don’t understand,” Celtrics said, still leaning on the captain’s desk, “is just how do they do it? How did it start, Captain?”


The captain studied Celtrics’ face for possible irony; after all, watchbird had been in the papers for months. But then he remembered that Celtrics, like his sidekicks, rarely bothered to turn past the sports pages.

“Well,” the captain said, trying to remember what he had read in the Sunday supplements, “these scientists were working on criminology. They were studying murderers, to find out what made them tick. So they found that murderers throw out a different sort of brain wave from ordinary people. And their glands act funny, too. All this happens when they’re about to commit a murder. So these scientists worked out a special machine to flash red or something when these brain waves turned on.”

“Scientists,” Celtrics said bitterly.

“Well, after the scientists had this machine, they didn’t know what to do with it. It was too big to move around, and murderers didn’t drop in often enough to make it flash. So they built it into a smaller unit and tried it out in a few police stations. I think they tried one upstate. But it didn’t work so good. You couldn’t get to the crime in time. That’s why they built the watchbirds.”

“I don’t think they’ll stop no criminals,” one of the policemen insisted.

“They sure will. I read the test results. They can smell him out before he commits a crime. And when they reach him, they give him a powerful shock or something. It’ll stop him.”

“You closing up Homicide, Captain?” Celtrics asked.

“Nope,” the captain said. “I’m leaving a skeleton crew in until we see how these birds do.”

“Hah,” Celtrics said. “Skeleton crew. That’s funny.”

“Sure,” the captain said. “Anyhow, I’m going to leave some men on. It seems the birds don’t stop all murders.”

“Why not?”

“Some murderers don’t have these brain waves,” the captain answered, trying to remember what the newspaper article had said. “Or their glands don’t work or something.”

“Which ones don’t they stop?” Celtrics asked, with professional curiosity.

“I don’t know. But I hear they got the damned things fixed so they’re going to stop all of them soon.”

“How they working that?”

“They learn. The watchbirds, I mean. Just like people.”

“You kidding me?”

“Nope.”

“Well,” Celtrics said, “I think I’ll just keep old Betsy oiled, just in case. You can’t trust these scientists.”

“Right.”

“Birds!” Celtrics scoffed.


Over the town, the watchbird soared in a long, lazy curve. Its aluminum hide glistened in the morning sun, and dots of light danced on its stiff wings. Silently it flew.

Silently, but with all senses functioning. Built-in kinesthetics told the watchbird where it was, and held it in a long search curve. Its eyes and ears operated as one unit, searching, seeking.

And then something happened! The watchbird’s electronically fast reflexes picked up the edge of a sensation. A correlation center tested it, matching it with electrical and chemical data in its memory files. A relay tripped.

Down the watchbird spiraled, coming in on the increasingly strong sensation. It smelled the outpouring of certain glands, tasted a deviant brain wave.

Fully alerted and armed, it spun and banked in the bright morning sunlight.

Dinelli was so intent he didn’t see the watchbird coming. He had his gun poised, and his eyes pleaded with the big grocer.

“Don’t come no closer.”

“You lousy little punk,” the grocer said, and took another step forward. “Rob me? I’ll break every bone in your puny body.”

The grocer, too stupid or too courageous to understand the threat of the gun, advanced on the little thief.

“All right,” Dinelli said, in a thorough state of panic. “All right, sucker, take--”

A bolt of electricity knocked him on his back. The gun went off, smashing a breakfast food display.

“What in hell?” the grocer asked, staring at the stunned thief. And then he saw a flash of silver wings. “Well, I’m really damned. Those watchbirds work!”

He stared until, the wings disappeared in the sky. Then he telephoned the police.

The watchbird returned to his search curve. His thinking center correlated the new facts he had learned about murder. Several of these he hadn’t known before.

This new information was simultaneously flashed to all the other watchbirds and their information was flashed back to him.

New information, methods, definitions were constantly passing between them.


Now that the watchbirds were rolling off the assembly line in a steady stream, Gelsen allowed himself to relax. A loud contented hum filled his plant. Orders were being filled on time, with top priorities given to the biggest cities in his area, and working down to the smallest towns.

“All smooth, Chief,” Macintyre said, coming in the door. He had just completed a routine inspection.

“Fine. Have a seat.”

The big engineer sat down and lighted a cigarette.

“We’ve been working on this for some time,” Gelsen said, when he couldn’t think of anything else.

“We sure have,” Macintyre agreed. He leaned back and inhaled deeply. He had been one of the consulting engineers on the original watchbird. That was six years back. He had been working for Gelsen ever since, and the men had become good friends.

“The thing I wanted to ask you was this--” Gelsen paused. He couldn’t think how to phrase what he wanted. Instead he asked, “What do you think of the watchbirds, Mac?”

“Who, me?” The engineer grinned nervously. He had been eating, drinking and sleeping watchbird ever since its inception. He had never found it necessary to have an attitude. “Why, I think it’s great.”

“I don’t mean that,” Gelsen said. He realized that what he wanted was to have someone understand his point of view. “I mean do you figure there might be some danger in machine thinking?”

“I don’t think so, Chief. Why do you ask?”

“Look, I’m no scientist or engineer. I’ve just handled cost and production and let you boys worry about how. But as a layman, watchbird is starting to frighten me.”

“No reason for that.”

“I don’t like the idea of the learning circuits.”

“But why not?” Then Macintyre grinned again. “I know. You’re like a lot of people, Chief--afraid your machines are going to wake up and say, ‘What are we doing here? Let’s go out and rule the world.’ Is that it?”

“Maybe something like that,” Gelsen admitted.

“No chance of it,” Macintyre said. “The watchbirds are complex, I’ll admit, but an M.I.T. calculator is a whole lot more complex. And it hasn’t got consciousness.”

“No. But the watchbirds can learn.”

“Sure. So can all the new calculators. Do you think they’ll team up with the watchbirds?”


Gelsen felt annoyed at Macintyre, and even more annoyed at himself for being ridiculous. “It’s a fact that the watchbirds can put their learning into action. No one is monitoring them.”

“So that’s the trouble,” Macintyre said.

“I’ve been thinking of getting out of watchbird.” Gelsen hadn’t realized it until that moment.

“Look, Chief,” Macintyre said. “Will you take an engineer’s word on this?”

“Let’s hear it.”

“The watchbirds are no more dangerous than an automobile, an IBM calculator or a thermometer. They have no more consciousness or volition than those things. The watchbirds are built to respond to certain stimuli, and to carry out certain operations when they receive that stimuli.”

“And the learning circuits?”

“You have to have those,” Macintyre said patiently, as though explaining the whole thing to a ten-year-old. “The purpose of the watchbird is to frustrate all murder-attempts, right? Well, only certain murderers give out these stimuli. In order to stop all of them, the watchbird has to search out new definitions of murder and correlate them with what it already knows.”

“I think it’s inhuman,” Gelsen said.

“That’s the best thing about it. The watchbirds are unemotional. Their reasoning is non-anthropomorphic. You can’t bribe them or drug them. You shouldn’t fear them, either.”

The intercom on Gelsen’s desk buzzed. He ignored it.

“I know all this,” Gelsen said. “But, still, sometimes I feel like the man who invented dynamite. He thought it would only be used for blowing up tree stumps.”

You didn’t invent watchbird.”

“I still feel morally responsible because I manufacture them.”

The intercom buzzed again, and Gelsen irritably punched a button.

“The reports are in on the first week of watchbird operation,” his secretary told him.

“How do they look?”

“Wonderful, sir.”

“Send them in in fifteen minutes.” Gelsen switched the intercom off and turned back to Macintyre, who was cleaning his fingernails with a wooden match. “Don’t you think that this represents a trend in human thinking? The mechanical god? The electronic father?”

“Chief,” Macintyre said, “I think you should study watchbird more closely. Do you know what’s built into the circuits?”

“Only generally.”

“First, there is a purpose. Which is to stop living organisms from committing murder. Two, murder may be defined as an act of violence, consisting of breaking, mangling, maltreating or otherwise stopping the functions of a living organism by a living organism. Three, most murderers are detectable by certain chemical and electrical changes.”

Macintyre paused to light another cigarette. “Those conditions take care of the routine functions. Then, for the learning circuits, there are two more conditions. Four, there are some living organisms who commit murder without the signs mentioned in three. Five, these can be detected by data applicable to condition two.”

“I see,” Gelsen said.

“You realize how foolproof it is?”

“I suppose so.” Gelsen hesitated a moment. “I guess that’s all.”

“Right,” the engineer said, and left.

Gelsen thought for a few moments. There couldn’t be anything wrong with the watchbirds.

“Send in the reports,” he said into the intercom.


High above the lighted buildings of the city, the watchbird soared. It was dark, but in the distance the watchbird could see another, and another beyond that. For this was a large city.

To prevent murder...

There was more to watch for now. New information had crossed the invisible network that connected all watchbirds. New data, new ways of detecting the violence of murder.

There! The edge of a sensation! Two watchbirds dipped simultaneously. One had received the scent a fraction of a second before the other. He continued down while the other resumed monitoring.

_Condition four, there are some living organisms who commit murder without the signs mentioned in condition three._

Through his new information, the watchbird knew by extrapolation that this organism was bent on murder, even though the characteristic chemical and electrical smells were absent.

The watchbird, all senses acute, closed in on the organism. He found what he wanted, and dived.

Roger Greco leaned against a building, his hands in his pockets. In his left hand was the cool butt of a .45. Greco waited patiently.

He wasn’t thinking of anything in particular, just relaxing against a building, waiting for a man. Greco didn’t know why the man was to be killed. He didn’t care. Greco’s lack of curiosity was part of his value. The other part was his skill.

One bullet, neatly placed in the head of a man he didn’t know. It didn’t excite him or sicken him. It was a job, just like anything else. You killed a man. So?

As Greco’s victim stepped out of a building, Greco lifted the .45 out of his pocket. He released the safety and braced the gun with his right hand. He still wasn’t thinking of anything as he took aim...

And was knocked off his feet.

Greco thought he had been shot. He struggled up again, looked around, and sighted foggily on his victim.

Again he was knocked down.

This time he lay on the ground, trying to draw a bead. He never thought of stopping, for Greco was a craftsman.

With the next blow, everything went black. Permanently, because the watchbird’s duty was to protect the object of violence--_at whatever cost to the murderer_.

The victim walked to his car. He hadn’t noticed anything unusual. Everything had happened in silence.


Gelsen was feeling pretty good. The watchbirds had been operating perfectly. Crimes of violence had been cut in half, and cut again. Dark alleys were no longer mouths of horror. Parks and playgrounds were not places to shun after dusk.

Of course, there were still robberies. Petty thievery flourished, and embezzlement, larceny, forgery and a hundred other crimes.

[Illustration]

But that wasn’t so important. You could regain lost money--never a lost life.

Gelsen was ready to admit that he had been wrong about the watchbirds. They were doing a job that humans had been unable to accomplish.

The first hint of something wrong came that morning.

Macintyre came into his office. He stood silently in front of Gelsen’s desk, looking annoyed and a little embarrassed.

“What’s the matter, Mac?” Gelsen asked.

“One of the watchbirds went to work on a slaughterhouse man. Knocked him out.”

Gelsen thought about it for a moment. Yes, the watchbirds would do that. With their new learning circuits, they had probably defined the killing of animals as murder.

“Tell the packers to mechanize their slaughtering,” Gelsen said. “I never liked that business myself.”

“All right,” Macintyre said. He pursed his lips, then shrugged his shoulders and left.

Gelsen stood beside his desk, thinking. Couldn’t the watchbirds differentiate between a murderer and a man engaged in a legitimate profession? No, evidently not. To them, murder was murder. No exceptions. He frowned. That might take a little ironing out in the circuits.

[Illustration]

But not too much, he decided hastily. Just make them a little more discriminating.

He sat down again and buried himself in paperwork, trying to avoid the edge of an old fear.


They strapped the prisoner into the chair and fitted the electrode to his leg.

“Oh, oh,” he moaned, only half-conscious now of what they were doing.

They fitted the helmet over his shaved head and tightened the last straps. He continued to moan softly.

And then the watchbird swept in. How he had come, no one knew. Prisons are large and strong, with many locked doors, but the watchbird was there--

To stop a murder.

“Get that thing out of here!” the warden shouted, and reached for the switch. The watchbird knocked him down.

“Stop that!” a guard screamed, and grabbed for the switch himself. He was knocked to the floor beside the warden.

“This isn’t murder, you idiot!” another guard said. He drew his gun to shoot down the glittering, wheeling metal bird.

Anticipating, the watchbird smashed him back against the wall.

There was silence in the room. After a while, the man in the helmet started to giggle. Then he stopped.

The watchbird stood on guard, fluttering in mid-air--

Making sure no murder was done.

New data flashed along the watchbird network. Unmonitored, independent, the thousands of watchbirds received and acted upon it.

_The breaking, mangling or otherwise stopping the functions of a living organism by a living organism. New acts to stop._

“Damn you, git going!” Farmer Ollister shouted, and raised his whip again. The horse balked, and the wagon rattled and shook as he edged sideways.

“You lousy hunk of pigmeal, git going!” the farmer yelled and he raised the whip again.

It never fell. An alert watchbird, sensing violence, had knocked him out of his seat.

A living organism? What is a living organism? The watchbirds extended their definitions as they became aware of more facts. And, of course, this gave them more work.

The deer was just visible at the edge of the woods. The hunter raised his rifle, and took careful aim.

He didn’t have time to shoot.


With his free hand, Gelsen mopped perspiration from his face. “All right,” he said into the telephone. He listened to the stream of vituperation from the other end, then placed the receiver gently in its cradle.

“What was that one?” Macintyre asked. He was unshaven, tie loose, shirt unbuttoned.

“Another fisherman,” Gelsen said. “It seems the watchbirds won’t let him fish even though his family is starving. What are we going to do about it, he wants to know.”

“How many hundred is that?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t opened the mail.”

“Well, I figured out where the trouble is,” Macintyre said gloomily, with the air of a man who knows just how he blew up the Earth--after it was too late.

“Let’s hear it.”

“Everybody took it for granted that we wanted all murder stopped. We figured the watchbirds would think as we do. We ought to have qualified the conditions.”

“I’ve got an idea,” Gelsen said, “that we’d have to know just why and what murder is, before we could qualify the conditions properly. And if we knew that, we wouldn’t need the watchbirds.”

“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.”

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