Dr. Clarence Peccary was an objective man. His increasing irritation was caused, he realized, by the fear that his conscience was going to intervene between him and the vast fortune that was definitely within his grasp. Millions. Billions! But he wanted to enjoy it.
He didn’t want to skulk through life avoiding the eyes of everyone he met--particularly when his life might last for centuries. So he sat glowering at the rectangular screen that was located just above the control console of Roger Staghorn’s great digital computer.
At the moment Peccary was ready to accuse Staghorn of having no conscience whatsoever. It was only through an act of scientific detachment that he reminded himself that Staghorn neither had a fortune to gain nor cared about gaining one. Staghorn’s fulfillment was in Humanac, the name he’d given the electronic monster that presently claimed his full attention. He sat at the controls, his eyes luminous behind the magnification of his thick lenses, his lanky frame arched forward for a better view of Humanac’s screen. Far from showing annoyance at what he saw, there was a positive leer on his face.
As well there might be.
On the screen was the full color picture of a small park in what appeared to be the center of a medium-sized town. It was a shabby little park. Rags and tattered papers waggled indolently in the breeze. The grass was an unkempt, indifferent pattern of greens and browns, as though the caretaker took small pains in setting his sprinklers. Beyond the square was a church, its steeple listing dangerously, its windows broken and its heavy double doors sagging on their hinges.
Staghorn’s leers and Dr. Peccary’s glowers were not for the scenery, however, but for the people who wandered aimlessly through the little park and along the street beyond, carefully avoiding the area beneath the leaning steeple. All of them were uniformly young, ranging from perhaps seventeen at one extreme to no more than thirty at the other. When Dr. Peccary had first seen them, he’d cried out joyfully, “You see, Staghorn, all young! All handsome!” Then he’d stopped talking as he studied those in the foreground more closely.
Their clothing, to call it that, was most peculiar. It was rags.
Here and there was a garment that bore a resemblance to a dress or jacket or pair of trousers, but for the most part the people simply had chunks of cloth wrapped about them in a most careless fashion. Several would have been arrested for indecent exposure had they appeared anywhere except on Humanac’s screen. However, they seemed indifferent to this--and to all else. A singularly attractive girl, in a costume that would have made a Cretan blush, didn’t even get a second glance from, a young Adonis who passed her on the walk. Nor did she bestow one on him. The park bench held more interest for her, so she sat down on it.
Peccary studied her more closely, then straightened with a start.
“I’ll be damned,” he said. “That’s Jenny Cheever!”
Staghorn continued to leer at the girl. “So you know her?”
“I know her father. He owns the local variety store. She’s only twenty today, and there she is a hundred years from now, not a day older.”
“Only her image, Dr. Peccary,” Staghorn murmured. “Only her image. But a very pretty one.”
Peccary came to his feet, unable to control his irritation any longer. “I won’t believe it!” he said. “Somehow a piece of misinformation has been fed into that machine. Its calculations are all wrong!”
Staghorn refused to be perturbed. “But you just said you recognize the girl on the bench. I’d say that Humanac has to be working with needle-point accuracy to put recognizable people into a prediction.”
“Then shift the scene! For all I know this part of town was turned into an insane asylum fifty years from now.” The use of the past tense when speaking of a future event was not ungrammatical in the presence of Humanac. “Do you have the volume up?”
“Certainly. Can’t you hear the birds twittering?”
“But I can’t hear anyone talking.”
“Perhaps it’s a day of silence.”
Staghorn took another long look at the girl on the parkbench and then turned to the controls, using the fine adjustment on the geographical locator. The screen flickered, blinked, and the scene changed. The two men studied it.
“Recognize it?” said Staghorn.
Peccary gave an affirmative grunt. “That’s the Jefferson grammar school on Elm Street. I’m surprised it’s still there. But, lord, as long as they haven’t built a new one, you’d think they’d at least keep the old one repaired.”
“Very shabby,” Staghorn agreed.
It was. Large areas of the exterior plaster had fallen away. Windows were shattered, and here and there the broken slats of Venetian blinds stuck through them. The shrubbery around the building was dead; weeds had sprung up through the cracks in the asphalt in the big play yard. There was no sign of children.
“Where is everyone?” Peccary demanded. “You must have the time control set for a Sunday or holiday.”
“It’s Tuesday,” Staghorn said. Then both were silent because at that moment a child appeared, a boy of about eleven.
He burst from the schoolhouse door and ran across the cracked asphalt toward the playground, glancing back over his shoulder as though expecting pursuit. Reaching the play apparatus he paused and looked around desperately. The metal standards for the swings were in place but no swings hung from them. The fulcrums for the seesaws were there but they held no wooden planks to permit teetering. The only piece of equipment that looked capable of affording pleasure was the slide.
It was a small one, only about six feet high, obviously designed for toddlers and not for a boy of eleven. Nonetheless, the boy headed for it eagerly.
But he’d hardly set foot upon the bottom step of the ladder when the schoolhouse door burst open a second time. A young woman charged toward him shouting, “Paul! Get down from there at once! Paul!”
She was an attractive woman, but her voice held a note of panic. She ran so swiftly that Paul, whose ascent of the ladder was accelerated rather than retarded by her command, hadn’t quite reached the top when she seized him around the legs and tried to drag him down.
“Please, Miss Terry!” he pleaded desperately. “Just this once let me get to the top! Let me slide down it just once!”
“Get to the top?” Miss Terry was aghast. “You could fall and kill yourself. Down you come this instant!”
“Just one time!” Paul wailed. “Let me do it just once!”
Miss Terry paid no heed to his anguished cries. She tugged at his legs while Paul clung to the handrails. But he was the weaker of the two, and in a few seconds Miss Terry had torn him loose and set him on the ground. Then, seizing him firmly by the hand, she led him back toward the schoolhouse.
Paul went along, sniveling miserably. They entered the building and the play yard was once more silent and deserted.
“By God, Staghorn,” Peccary thundered, “you’ve doctored it! You’ve deliberately fed false information into Humanac’s memory cells!”
Staghorn turned to glare at his guest, his eyes flaming at the outrageous suggestion. “The only hypothetical element I’ve fed into Humanac is your Y Hormone, Dr. Peccary! You saw me do it. You watched me check the computer before we started.”
“I refuse to believe that my Y Hormone will bring about the consequences that machine is predicting!”
“It’s the only new factor that was added.”
“How can you say that? During the next hundred years a thousand other factors can enter in.”
“But the Y Hormone bears an essential relationship to the whole. Sit down and stop waving your arms. I’m going to see if we can get into the school.”
Peccary sat down, seething.
It had been a mistake to bring his Y Hormone to Staghorn. It was simply that he’d been thinking of himself as such a benefactor to the human race that he couldn’t wait to see a sample of the bright future he intended to create.
“Think of it, Staghorn!” he’d said happily, earlier in the evening. “The phrase ‘art is long and time is fleeting’ won’t mean anything any more! Artists will have hundreds of years to paint their pictures. Think of the books that will be written, the music that will be composed, the magnificent cities that will be built! Everyone will have time enough to achieve perfection. Think of your work and mine. We’ll live long enough to unravel all the mysteries of the universe!”
Staghorn had said nothing. Instead, he’d uncorked the small bottle Dr. Peccary had given him and sniffed at it.
The bottle contained a sample of the Y Hormone which Dr. Peccary had spent many years developing. Its principal ingredient was a glandular extract from insects, an organic compound that controlled the insects’ aging process. If administered artificially, it could keep insects in the larval stage almost indefinitely.
Dr. Peccary’s great contribution had been to synthesize this extract--which affected only insects--with protein elements that could be assimilated by mammals and humans. It had required years of experimentation, but the result was his Y Hormone--Y for Youth.
In his laboratory he now had playful kittens that were six years old and puppies that should have been fully grown dogs. The only human he’d so far experimented on was himself. But because he’d started taking the hormone only recently, he was as yet unable to say positively that it was responsible for the splendid health he was enjoying. His impatience to know the sociological consequences of the hormone had made him bring a sample of it to Staghorn.
After sniffing at the bottle, Staghorn had poured its contents into Humanac’s analyzer.
The giant computer gurgled and belched a few seconds while it assessed the nature of the formula. Then Staghorn connected the analyzer with the machine’s memory units.
As far as Humanac was concerned, the Y Hormone was now an accepted part of human history.
But, except for this one added factor, the rest of Humanac’s vast memory was solidly based upon the complete known history of the earth and the human race. Its principles of operation were the same as those controlling other electronic “brains,” which could be programmed to predict tides, weather, election results or the state of a department-store inventory at any given date in the future. Humanac differed chiefly in the tremendously greater capacity of its memory cells. Over the years it had digested thousands of books, codifying and coordinating the information as fast as it was received. Its photocells had recorded millions of visual impressions. Its auditory units had absorbed the music and languages of the centuries. And its methods of evaluation had been given a strictly human touch by feeding into its resistance chambers the cephalic wave patterns produced by the brains of Staghorn’s colleagues.
An added feature, though by no means an original one, was the screen upon which Humanac produced visually the events of the time and place for which the controls were set.
This screen was simply the big end of a cathode-ray tube, similar to those used in television sets. It was adapted from I.B.M.’s 704 electronic computer used by the Vanguard tracking center to produce visual predictions of the orbits of artificial satellites.
Staghorn was constantly having trouble explaining to people that Humanac was not a time machine that could look into the past or future. Its pictures of past events were based upon information already present in its memory cells. Its pictures of future events were predictions calculated according to the laws of probability. But because Humanac, unlike a human, never forgot any of the million and one variables impinging upon any human situation, its predictions were startlingly accurate.
Humanac had never been exposed to pictures of Dr. Peccary’s home town nor to those of a girl named Jenny Cheever. It arrived at the likeness of both town and girl through a purely mathematical process.
Staghorn’s ultimate purpose in building the machine was to use it in developing a true science of history. Because Humanac was only a machine, Staghorn could alter its memory at will. By removing the tiny unit upon which the Battle of Hastings was recorded and then “re-playing” English history without it, he could find out what actual effect that particular battle had.
He was surprised to discover that it had very little. According to Humanac, the Normans would have conquered England anyway a few months later.
At another time, while reviewing the events leading up to the American Revolution, Humanac had produced a picture of Benjamin Franklin kissing a beautiful young woman in the office of his printing shop. On impulse Staghorn removed this seemingly insignificant event from Humanac’s memory and then turned the time dial forward to the present to see what effect, if any, the episode had had upon history.
To his amazement, with that single kiss missing, Humanac produced a picture of the American continent composed of six different nations speaking French, German, Chinese, Hindu, Arabic and Muskogean--the last being the language of an Indian nation occupying the Mississippi Valley and extending northward to Lake Winnepeg. It served as a buffer state between the Hindus and Chinese in the west and the French, Germans and Arabs to the east.
It was Humanac’s ability to predict the future consequences of any hypothetical event, however, that made it an instrument capable of revolutionizing history. Once its dependability was thoroughly established, it would be possible for a Secretary of State to submit to Humanac the contents of a note intended for a foreign country, then turn the time controls ahead and get Humanac’s prediction of the note’s consequences.
If the consequences were good, the note would then be sent.
If they were bad, the Secretary could destroy the note and try others--until he composed one that produced the desired result.
Humanac’s flaw was that it had no way of explaining the predictions produced on its screen. It merely showed what would happen when and if certain things were done. It left it up to the human operator to figure out why things happened that way.
This was what was troubling Dr. Peccary.
He could see not the remotest relationship between his Y Hormone and the fact that a mathematical probability named Miss Terry should refuse another mathematical probability named Paul permission to climb to the top of a six-foot playground slide.
Meanwhile Staghorn had been using the fine adjustment on the geographic locator and now grunted his satisfaction. “Good! We’re in the building, at least.”
On the screen was a dusky corridor. On either side of it were classroom doors, some closed, some ajar. Staghorn moved his hand from the fine adjustment to the even more delicate vernier control which permitted him to shift the geographic focus inches at a time. The focus drifted slowly forward to one of the half-open doors, and then he and Dr. Peccary were able to see into the classroom.
It was deserted. Desks were thick with dust. Books, yellow with age, were strewn on the floor.
Staghorn’s hand sought the vernier control again. The picture led them on down the corridor to another open door.
Again it was a scene of desolation.
“This can have nothing to do with my Y Hormone!” Peccary insisted.
“Then why is your picture on the wall there?” Staghorn said with a note of malicious pleasure.
Dr. Peccary looked and started. On the classroom wall was a faded photograph of himself. Except that he was wearing a different suit in the picture, he looked just as he looked at the present moment. Staghorn got a closer focus on the photograph so that Peccary could read the legend beneath it. _Dr. Clarence Peccary, the man who gave the world the Y Hormone._
“All right then,” said Peccary, somewhat mollified by this tribute. “If they put my picture on school room walls a hundred years from now, it means I’m an honored man, a man the world admires. And therefore the Y Hormone can’t be the cause of all this desolation!”
“I’ve found that Humanac’s reasoning and human reasoning differ in many ways,” said Staghorn. On the screen they were out in the corridor again when from somewhere ahead came a woman’s voice.
“You may recite now, Paul. Please stand up.”
“Ah, that sounds like Miss Terry,” said Staghorn. He fingered the vernier control. The focal point slid forward along the corridor.
“Stand up and recite, Paul,” Miss Terry said more sharply.
“I think they’re in the room on the left,” said Peccary.