The Machine That Floats - Cover

The Machine That Floats

by Joe Gibson

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: What if you invented a space ship? Would you give it to the world? And what if you decide NOT to! Are you a criminal to be hunted down?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Bill Morrow fished his cigarettes out, shook one loose, and poked it between his lips. He lighted it with hands that shook badly, he leaned back on the workbench and blew smoke in a long, heavy sigh.

His gaze remained fixed on the compact little chunk of glittering grids, coils, and metal loops that floated in the center of the room. Floated, by Isaac Newton--floated!

It worked. It worked beautifully! He’d merely inserted the four dry-cell flashlight batteries into their clamps and thumbed the switch on the little face-panel. The tiny pilot-light winked on, the needle jiggled on the single instrument dial--

And it worked. It had risen gently from the workbench, floating into the air...

Then, seemingly, it had fostered a dislike for the workbench. It slid off and bounced toward the floor--bounced, up and down in the air, gently--and floated on across the cellar toward the oil furnace in the corner.

But as it approached the oil furnace, it had decided it didn’t like that either--so it deflected its course and floated toward the concrete cellar wall.

But it didn’t like the wall. So it reversed its course and retreated to the center of the room. There it hovered, four feet above the cement floor, four feet below the rafters of the cellar roof.

It hovered in mid-air.

Morrow stared at it, critically. He could capture it--get it between himself and the wall, and reach out and grab it before it could slip away--and touching it wouldn’t harm him. The magneto-gravitic coils didn’t need high voltage.

It was working on its lowest “volume” setting. The only word applicable was “volume” because he used an ordinary volume-control grid and knob to adjust its power--and, again, “power” was the only applicable word. He might have to invent a few new words for it.

But on its lowest volume setting, it was supporting its own weight--suspending itself in the Earth’s gravitic field.

And since gravitic forces were also magnetic forces, he would weigh a fraction of a pound lighter when he grabbed hold of the mechanism--just he, himself, since he wore rubber-soled shoes. If he turned up its volume, it would exert greater influence on the molecular structure of itself and of his body--and perhaps of a few grains of dust on the cement floor beneath his feet--by simple mass-attraction and conductivity.

Of course, “mass-attraction” and “conductivity” were also obsolete terms--except that they described two different results of the same natural phenomenon. The floating mechanism affected the basic phenomenon itself--

And [equation] was the closest Einstein could come to explaining that!

Still, a word could be invented for it, Morrow supposed. Not that he understood what the new word was supposed to define--but then, had Edison known what electricity was? No! He had merely experimented and learned what it would do, and then designed mechanisms which would utilize it.

Morrow didn’t know what “gravity and magnetic moment” was, either--nor “angular momentum”--but he had discovered what it would do. It, not they--it was all the same thing. And he designed a mechanism. And the mechanism worked.

It defied “gravity.”

With its volume turned up, it could very probably lift him to any height above the Earth he desired, with its ability growing weaker only as it rose out of the Earth’s gravity and magnetic field. And it would keep him suspended, if he desired, until its batteries burned out.

There would be limitations, of course. Perhaps the Earth’s gravity and magnetic fields would be too weak at, say, an altitude of fifty miles for the mechanism to function. There were probably limits to the mass and weight it could lift. There would have to be extensive tests--

And a cellar workshop was no place to conduct them!

He straightened up from the workbench and moved forward on the balls of his feet. He spread his arms wide as he approached the mechanism, like a basketball player approaching a wary opponent who had the ball. Smoke from the cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth streamed up and stung his eye. He wished he had left it back on the workbench.

At first, the little mechanism ignored him. Then, almost instinctively, it seemed to notice him. It went sliding away from him, toward the wall.

Morrow moved forward, cautiously.

It glided close to the wall, then rebounded gently. It came drifting back toward him--then hesitated, started off in a tangent--and he grabbed for it. A faint, tingling shock went up his arm as he clawed at the shiny metal loops, but that was all. He hung on grimly as it tugged at his fingertips; then, as its influence swept through him and attuned his body to it, it snuggled up to him, suddenly friendly.

He snapped it off and felt its inert weight settle down familiarly in his hands. He carried it back to the workbench, set it down, and threw a rag over it.

Then he pulled off his coveralls, went upstairs to the kitchenette, and washed his hands.

There were other factors to consider, of course. Especially the ones he didn’t want to think about--the frightening ones--

He stared down at his hands, feeling the cool water run pleasantly over them. Strong, supple hands. Well-proportioned, muscular. A little bit like the rest of him. Not fat or skinny, not soft-muscled nor, again, as bulgingly muscular as a wrestler. Just firm flesh, strong and not too much of it, on a strong-boned skeleton frame. Nerves well-coordinated, reflexes good. But tired. Mentally fatigued, the psycho-therapists said, from living in a world of raw tensions. According to them, ninety percent of the American public suffered mental fatigue. There had been a slew of magazine articles and several books about it.

The Cold War, the war that wasn’t a war. The Russkies.

Morrow turned off the cold-water tap and glanced at his image in the shaving mirror. A slender face, a good nose, a firm mouth with slightly too much jaw. Dark hair tumbled in comfortable looseness over a lined forehead. Gray eyes that mocked him as he mocked himself.

He dried his hands and got a couple of cans of beer out of the refrigerator. Grabbing a can-opener and a glass, he strolled in through the small, dark bedroom to the front living room and sprawled himself out in the deep chair beside the television set. It was a small home, a comfortable home, and he enjoyed prowling around in it in his socks, loafers, and shorts. He scratched his left leg and opened a can of beer.

He was, Morrow concluded, the product of an age of terror. East was Russia and west was the Allied Nations, and in between was a veritable No Man’s Land. Radar blanketed the skies, rocket missiles stood on their firing-racks, long-range bombers waited to deliver atomic death and swift jet-fighters waited to do battle with them. The diplomats called it a balance of power; the military strategists, a balance of forces, wherein neither side could launch an atomic war without suffering complete annihilation by the other.

And so, said the statesmen, there would be no atomic war.

The only trouble was, they couldn’t convince the people. Too many self-minded individuals saw the world situation as two sticks of dynamite rubbing against each other. At any moment, both might explode. Massive war industry and compulsory military training for their youngsters didn’t make the public feel any more secure.

Nor, of course, did the generals want them to feel secure. The Allied generals moved their armies in threatening maneuvers near critical borders to increase the fear of the peoples in communist-dominated countries; the Russian generals did likewise to increase the fear of people in the Allied Nations. And the diplomats hurled threats back and forth in the United Nations’ assemblies to achieve the same purpose.

Militarily, the two sides had reached a stalemate. The final weapon was the people. Each side hoped the people of the other side would rise up in revolt, thus breaking the deadlock and winning the struggle, but humanity is notoriously stubborn. It was, nonetheless, rather hard on the people.

Individual lives were deeply affected, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

Morrow’s life had, so far, been for the better. In high school, certain aptitude tests had placed him in advance physics classes; upon graduation, at seventeen, he had spent a year in a government-sponsored engineering school. At eighteen, further tests had placed him in the Air Force, assigned as radar-operator to the rear cockpit of a sleek, all-weather jet-fighter. He spent two years patrolling the stratosphere over the vast, white expanse of the Arctic Ocean. At twenty, he was reassigned to engineering school and spent four years studying electronics, during which time he was returned to civilian status. He was placed at Western Electronics as a production engineer; by the time he was twenty-seven, he had worked his way up to the Research Division. His flying experience helped considerably, but it wasn’t all. He was deeply in love with electronics. He had studied Einstein’s equations, for example, and got something out of them that most of the others missed. No one knew exactly what it was--neither did Morrow--but he began to have “hunches” that often paid off.

In electronics, that was a priceless faculty. A great deal of it, especially in the research department, was still pretty much of a hit-or-miss affair. There still wasn’t a man who knew exactly what electricity was!

Now, at twenty-nine, he had gotten another of those “hunches.” It worked, too! The machine floated!

He gazed thoughtfully out the broad picture window at the stretch of green lawn, the sidewalks, the trees along the street and the other little prefab houses of his neighbors. The evening shadows were cool and deepening as night approached. Warm, yellow light poured from the windows across the street.

He was comfortable here in his little, company-owned bachelor’s home. Most of the town of Westerton was owned by Western Electronics, with its huge, sprawling plant buildings on the other side of the small valley, across the railroad tracks. Like most of the bachelor engineers, he ate most of his meals over at the company cafeteria. A cleaning-woman came twice a week to tidy up his little house, though he was a fairly conscientious housekeeper himself.

And like practically all the engineers, he had a small workshop patched together in his cellar, built from odds and ends salvaged from the company’s junk-pile of rejected parts, a few pieces scrounged from the laboratories, and some odd bits made in the machine-shop over the protests of its foreman. There were nine amateur radio-hams sharing the wave-bands in Westerton and vicinity, and no office-clerk’s housewife ever had any difficulty getting a recalcitrant dishwasher or electric iron fixed.

It was here, in his private workshop, that he had developed his “hunch” to startling reality. Working in his spare time, figuring out its mathematical components, then working those components into theoretical diagrams, then designing and building the machine to fit the diagrams--and it worked!

Also, it was fantastic. It had been a little too fantastic for him to mention it to any of the others at the labs. His fellow-engineers--some of whom were considerably older than he was--were a little too staid for that. They, too, were products of the age; their entire efforts and, indeed, most of their interests were tied up in the one, basic problem of making better electronic devices for better weapons for the Armed Forces. They couldn’t be blamed for that, the world situation being what it was, but it did make them somewhat hide-bound.

The idea of controlling the pull of gravity was a little too fanciful for them, Morrow feared--or if they had any interest in the idea at all, it would be in the possible uses of it as a military weapon. That was the way to get ahead as a scientist, these days!

Morrow shuddered involuntarily.

There was the thing he actually feared!

He drew it into his thoughts, slowly, and analysed it. Item: he had discovered a means of controlling gravity. Item: he had developed a mechanism which worked on that principle. Addenda: the mechanism could lift a human being, quite possibly as much mass as a heavy tank, and it might even open the way to interplanetary travel.

Quite obviously, it had terrific potentialities as a weapon of war.

And it was his patriotic duty, as a citizen of the United States, to turn his discovery over to the authorities.

Well, suppose he did? It would come as an even greater shock than was the development of the atomic bomb--of that, he was sure. It would become a top-secret project. Gradually, each individual unit of the entire Armed Forces would be made airborne. The Infantry would take to the skies, supported by airborne artillery and tanks; the Air Force and Navy would combine to send giant battleships gliding through the stratosphere, unhindered by any shore-line and capable of both artillery fire and aerial bombardment.

How could anything as big as that be kept secret? The answer was, it couldn’t. Such a program would hardly have begun when some Russian agent handed the entire secret over to his bosses in the Kremlin. Then Russia would launch the same sort of program.

And world tension was already terrific. Mankind was already teetering on the brink of atomic war. What psychological effect would this new threat have on them? What insults would the diplomats think of, then? What charges and counter-charges would hurl between them? What final “incident” would spark the entire civilization into a raging holocaust?

Or would the officials in Washington realize that outcome? Would they order his discovery destroyed, forgotten, and himself assigned to some well-guarded hunting lodge in the Canadian Northwest where he could be kept in comfortable isolation, with no one around to pluck the dreadful secret from his mind?

The present balance of power had at least some promise of averting an atomic war. His discovery would destroy that balance of power, and do it suddenly, frighteningly. Someone might get just scared enough to start shooting. After that, there’d be no turning back. There would be atomic war.

They probably wouldn’t want their balance of power destroyed. At least, not that way.

Well, then, why shouldn’t he save them--and himself--a lot of trouble and simply destroy the thing himself? Forget about it, forget he’d ever thought of it?

That wasn’t so good, either.

Personally, he was deeply anxious to begin the tests on the mechanism. There was so little he knew, actually, about what its limitations were, how they could be surmounted--

But there was more to it than that.

The mechanism did work, and it would lift considerable weight. Therefore, it would certainly have its uses.

Air travel could be made perfectly safe. That fact prompted a vision into his mind of everybody flying around in little, teardrop plexiglass shells, landing on their roofs--and living in homes scattered over a peaceful countryside. Cities could be smaller, devoted exclusively to office-buildings and industrial plants, and would suffer less congestion.

Also, people would become accustomed to travelling greater distances. A thousand miles might be a comfortable afternoon’s ride. This, in turn, would mean greater travelling and exchange between various nations.

Then, there was the fact that commercial shipping would be revolutionized. Transporting air cargoes would be cheap and dependable, even for the heaviest kinds of freight. Thus, factories could be built near their power or raw material sources. They wouldn’t have to be built near large railroad centers or harbors; commercial shipping would no longer be a problem. And thus, industrial areas could spread out, become less congested, have better surroundings for employee-morale and pay less property taxes.

Also, they would be able to ship their products to more distant markets. International trade would increase tremendously. The world-wide competition would shatter unfair national cartels--that would take time, and many governments would fight it, but eventually they’d have to accept it or intensive smuggling would undermine their economy. In times of economic stress, black markets were often a blessing to backward, underdeveloped areas.

The whole result of it would be that the entire world would be bound together far more closely. Economic ties would be predominantly international. The increased flow of travellers between nations would gradually break down prejudices and differences of custom and misunderstanding.

And that would create a far stronger basis for tomorrow’s world government. As civilization stood, it needed a world government desperately. Either that, or atomic energy would destroy it. Either world government or war.

So there it is! Morrow concluded.

He had a mechanism for controlling the pull of gravity.

Either that mechanism was destroyed and forgotten, or the world’s present balance of power would be destroyed and humanity plunged into atomic war.

But if the mechanism was destroyed, humanity wouldn’t have it for the future development of world government and civilization. And they needed it. The present automobiles, trains, and aircraft were all very streamlined and marvelous when compared to the horse and buggy, but they were still too limited, too cumbersome and too costly. There had to be something for the average man, earning the average salary, that would haul him--and extend his interests--to the far corners of the world.

The mechanism would do that.

Mankind would need it to develop a sound, productive future.

But if it wasn’t destroyed, there would be atomic war. There wouldn’t be any future!

It was after midnight when he rose from his chair, pulled on a pair of slacks and a sweater, and left the house. He locked the front door and walked around to the garage. Swinging the door back, he felt his way into the darkness, touched the familiar surfaces of his little motor-bike, and rolled it out to the drive-way. Mounting, he kicked the starter, and the little one-cylinder, 15 horsepower engine exploded into a throaty chatter.

He rode down the dark, tree-lined streets, the cool air whipping over his body. Swinging into Railroad Avenue, he pulled over to the curb and stopped before the lighted windows of the telegraph office. He strode in, scribbled off a telegram, and paid for it.

The office girl, counting the words, stopped and frowned. She shoved it back across the counter to him. “Does that make sense?” she asked dubiously.

Morrow glanced over it again and smiled. It read:

August 6, 1960
He shoved it back to her. “It makes sense, all right. And I’m expecting a quick reply, so I’ll be waiting across the street in Switzer’s Cafe.”

“It may take some time--”

“That reply will come as quickly as you people can handle it,” Morrow retorted. “A crop-dusting pilot is accustomed to getting telegrams in the middle of the night--and answering them, before some other outfit can grab the job being offered!”

The girl shrugged her thin shoulders. “All right, then. You’ll be over at Switzer’s--”


She scribbled a note on a memo pad. Morrow turned and strode out.

A feeling of elation tingled through him as he crossed the street. Calling on D.P. Smith had been a natural reaction, once the plan had begun forming in his mind. If he’d ever wanted anyone murdered, Smitty was the one man he could trust!

But there was a more immediate cause for elation. It was after midnight, and Gwyn went on shift at Switzer’s Cafe at midnight. She’d been on the dawn patrol for the past week, and the only time he’d seen her was when he dropped in for a quick breakfast coffee every morning.

Gwyn Davidson was the only daughter of old Pat Davidson, the plant superintendent at Western Electronics. Bill had worked under Pat as a production engineer; he’d met Gwyn two months earlier when she returned home from college. Gwyn’s mother had died the year before from cancer, after a lifetime of suffering and hospital bills. Old Pat was still paying off those bills, and Gwyn had been working her own way through school. Now, she was a waitress with an M.A. degree, helping out with the expenses at home.

He saw her through the front window, leaning on the counter in the deserted cafe, reading the comics in a newspaper. She was a small, curvaceous girl in a blue waitress’ uniform carefully chosen to fit to her best advantage. Soft, dark hair tumbled back from a tanned, healthy face that sported only a trace of lipstick.

Her wide, steady gaze flicked up as he strode in, then she smiled warmly. “Hi, Bill. What’re you doing up at this ungodly hour?” Pretty, firm-fleshed, and bouncy.

Even though her feet are killing her! Bill thought. “Hello, Gwyn,” he said. “I came down to send a telegram. Pour me some coffee, huh?” He straddled a stool before her.

“I’ll give you what we serve as coffee,” she answered brightly, “but you’ll have to pay for it!”

“Fair warning. How’s tricks?”

“Haven’t seen her lately. What’s with this telegram all of a sudden?” She grabbed cup and saucer, turned, and drew a cupful from the chrome coffee-maker.

“Invitation to an old friend,” Bill replied half-truthfully. “All of a sudden, I’m lonesome.”

She swung back and slid the coffee before him. Her eyes were teasing. “Wouldn’t a wife do just as well?”

“A good question,” he quipped back. “Come sit down and have coffee with me, and we’ll talk it over!”

What?“ She grinned brightly, wide-eyed. “Don’t go ‘way, now!” She whirled, grabbed a cup and saucer, and filled it. “I’ll be right there!” She moved briskly around the end of the counter and perched herself on the stool beside him. “Now! Tell me more!” She began ladling spoon-fulls of sugar into her coffee.

It was a good comedy act, done with a natural flair for perfect timing. Morrow leaned weakly on the counter, laughing silently.

Gwyn gave him a glare of feigned contempt. “Oh! Just another fast-talker, huh? I might have known!” She stirred her coffee furiously. “You engineers are all alike. If father warned me once--”

“Don’t overdo it, honey,” he cautioned her, lightly. “You know perfectly well I’ve enjoyed those long goodnight kisses when I’ve walked you home.”

She sobered reflectively. “All right, Bill. But just what was this mid-morning telegram about--or don’t you want to tell me?”

It was a casually-spoken question, and the circumstances made it a perfectly logical one. As a research engineer, Morrow worked on a number of things which had top-secret classification, and Gwyn knew he did.

And I’d better classify this, too! Morrow thought slyly.

“Afraid I can’t,” he answered her, calmly.

She nodded and sipped her coffee in silence. Finally, she asked, “Will you be glad when I’m back on a day-shift?”

Morrow took his turn sipping coffee and took his time forming an answer. “I want to take you swimming out at the Lakeshore Lodge, again,” he said. “I still dream about the way you rolled up your two-piece suit so it was a Bikini model--”

“Uh huh,” she interrupted. Her tone was hardly enthusiastic. “If we do, you’d better not try making the passes at me you did the last time!”

“You expect me to resist the temptation of all that beautiful skin?” he retorted, grinning down at her.

She gave a pert shake of her head. “When I give in to a man, he’ll be my husband,” she said firmly. “And he’ll be my husband because he loves me--not because he drools over my body!”

“Ummm,” Morrow ummed, doubtfully. He decided it would be best to change the subject. “Read the latest Universe?”

“Uh huh! What’d you think of Sturgeon’s story?” She was at once bright, smiling, interested. “Wasn’t it wonderful? I mean, the way he so perfectly defined an alien being’s intelligence--”

That was science-fiction. Gwyn read the science-fiction magazines avidly, from cover to cover. Morrow read a few, along with his other reading--the Post, Harper’s, the Digest, and half a dozen technical journals--and he’d even written and sold a science-fiction story once. Nineteen editors rejected it, but the twentieth bought it after having him revise it three times.

But that one mutual interest had gone a long way in winning his esteem in Gwyn’s mind, slight though it was. And she was cute as a bug, the sort of female who set a man’s blood a-tingle.

So they talked science-fiction. Alien creatures that inhabited other planets, trips across space and out to the other stars, travels through time and into other dimensions, civilizations which spread clear across the galaxy...

It was over an hour before a young messenger boy came in with the expected telegram. Morrow tipped the boy, excused himself to Gwyn, and ripped open the envelope.

The message read:
AUGUST 6 1960
Grinning, Morrow folded the yellow sheet and stuffed it into his pocket.

“Everything okay?” Gwyn asked, forcing all concern from her voice.

“Everything is okay,” Morrow affirmed quietly. “How much do I owe you?”

“Four coffees? Forty-five cents.”

He laid the change on the counter, then stooped and kissed her cheek lightly. “I gotta go home and get some sleep,” he murmured.

She smiled, a little wistfully. “Thanks for coming.”

He went out into the cool darkness, then hurried down to the bar on the corner and went in to use the men’s room. Then he came out, crossed the street, and climbed aboard his little motor-bike.

Thoughts drifted lazily through his mind as he chugged contentedly homeward...

Thoughts--and memories. They were cruising along peacefully at 40,000 feet. Morrow felt as if he were molded into the snug rear cockpit, an integral part of the tons of sleek, deadly metal that was the old F-94 jet-fighter. But he’d experienced that feeling so often it no longer mattered, then.

Before him was the familiar maze of instrument dials and signal lights and switches crammed around a glowing, green-blotched radar scope. Around him was the clear, transparent canopy, with the round crash-helmet of Smitty’s head poking up from the front cockpit ahead of him. Below, off the edge of the razor-thin wing, was the criss-crossed gray surface of the Arctic ice-pack. The sky was an intense blue-black sprinkled with the hard, bright sparks of stars.

There were faint, rhythmic sounds around him. Familiar sounds. The warm, dry air blowing through his flight suit, circulating over his body. The air pushing into his face-mask. The rolling motion of the seat-cushions, massaging his backside with mechanical dispassion.

Then the flat, metallic voice in his earphones. “Forty-three degrees left. Contact in five minutes!

Roger!“ Smitty’s voice answered.

The ship tilted gently. Centrifugal force pressed Morrow against his seat. The world turned slowly beneath them. Forty-three degrees.

Two minutes later, a bright spark appeared on his radar scope. “Air spotted!“ he spoke into his mike. “Two degrees right!

Over to you!“ the metallic voice from ground radar answered. And the jet shifted slightly. Two degrees.

Contact in two minutes,” Morrow chanted. “One-thirty ... One ... Thirty--

Contact!“ Smitty’s voice cracked.

The F-94 whipped over into a turn. The force of two gravities shoved Morrow down in his seat.

For a brief moment--a breathless, eternal moment, all of two seconds--another F-94 exactly like theirs appeared directly before them. Long enough for red lights to glow and camera guns to record a direct hit. The practice mission was completed--almost.

Then Smitty snap-rolled the ship, missing the other ship almost by inches. The g’s piled up, cramming Morrow down in his seat, pulling at his facial muscles. Then his vision cleared and he straightened up, bruised and somewhat battered.

It was the old bomber-interceptor game. That other F-94 could have been an enemy bomber, plowing toward American cities with a load of atomic death--

Smitty turned his head and looked back. His eyes crinkled into a smile under the green glaze of his goggles.

Smitty. Captain Daniel Purcell Smith, then--or “D.P.” Smith, which were also the initials for “Displaced Person.” A cool, thoughtful, and smart jet-fighter pilot in those days, and a darned good guy. They had taken Seattle apart at the seams on their one furlough, preferring the devilment of their own companionship to going home to Mom’s apple pie.

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