As Professor Gingwald lapsed into a coma, he muttered, "It was only to be a simple experiment ..."
I had traveled from Calcutta to be with the infirmed professor upon receiving an urgent telegram from his rather skittish nephew Harold. It had only read:
URGENT. UNCLE CHARLEY ILL. STRANGE DOINGS. COME QUICKLY.
I wasted no time packing a few of my belongings, making a few phone calls to secure my place in the world, and dashing off to catch the nearest train to Antwerp. I arrived in half an hour, slightly weary, but very concerned for Gingwald's health. He had taken me under his wing when I had slipped in my studies, and it was his stewardship that had led me to my first job, as head engineer of Tantamount Corporation, at the time a new upstart rocket-building company.
Rockets had become almost commonplace nowadays: it seemed almost yesterday the first one had left the ground and darted from Moscow to London in only three and a half hours. Of course, that had been almost ten years ago, and strident progress had been made in the way of rockets. The rocket train I had taken only thirty minutes before would've been here five minutes sooner, were it not for that ghastly pileup just south of Constantinople. Those dreadful Turks! Ah well, I guess what they say is true, about things remaining the same whilst they change.
Nevertheless, Tantamount had been on to something from the get go, thanks in no small part to a few of my own ideas. We had focused primarily on the business aspects of rocketry, primarily cargo rockets, and we had a made a name for ourselves by inventing an automaton who could be programmed to make stops all along the new Intercontinental Highways, dodging other rockets and generally being quite efficient along the way. One of our very first clients had been Professor Gingwald, who had told me privately he had no intention of using the automaton other than for show in his private museum, which he beheld as a testament to the ingenuity and drive of mankind.
I ran up the stairs and burst into Gingwald's room. He lay there, wheezing slightly, his face pallid and his eyes half-closed. Upon seeing me enter, Harold jumped to his feet and ran over to see me.
"Golly, it's good to see you, Uncle Frankie! How's the new pea-shooter coming? Bang bang, I bet. Get it? Bang!"
I loathed the name Frankie. The last person who had called me that ended up with a bloodied nose. I was in no mood for fighting, though. Harold was one of these new young hellions. A cheap suit, half-cocked fedora, snazzy bow tie: it all seemed rather distasteful for me, but I tolerated him solely for his close relationship with his uncle; he loved the man very dearly. Suddenly the professor spoke up, in a voice barely above a whisper ...
"Harold, pipe down. Francis, it's good to see you. I only wish it were under better circumstances."
"Professor Gingwald, it has been too long. Your condition is a sad one."
Gingwald nodded slowly, and then gasped. He seemed almost in a trance. His eyes fluttered softly, and he clutched the blanket tightly as he strained himself; a great struggle was going on within, and both Harold and I rushed to his side to support him. After a few moments of agony, the episode subsided, and the professor relaxed again. He looked even worse now than when I had walked in the room.
"Charles, you must tell me what happened," I implored. "What happened that put you in such a state?"
Gingwald looked at me through glazed eyes. He glanced briefly at Harold, and a puzzled frown came over his countenance. He sank even further into his Victorian, and as Professor Gingwald lapsed into a coma, he muttered, "It was only to be a simple experiment ..."
"Oh, gee whiz, this is the pits! Uncle Charley, wake up! Wake up, unc!" Harold was predictably panicky.
I took Gingwald's pulse. It was light but present. His breathing was shallow and still wheezy. He needed rest. I took Harold by the shoulder and led him out of the room.
"Harold, what has happened here? Why is Charles so poor off?"
"If only I knew, Frankie!" (I cringed.) "He was fine one day, then he stayed up late working in the museum, inspecting all of his gizmos and all that, and then I hear him yelling at someone to stop and get out - really crazy! So I skedaddled across the way and found him all decked out on the floor, looking like he does now. Someone must've broken in, too."
"How do you know that? Was there any signs of entry?"
"Not entry, but boy, what an exit! There was a hole in the wall right by the professor. Must've been ten feet around if it was an inch. It's still there, you can see it for yourself! And it looks like something's been swiped, but I can't put my finger on it."
I decided to investigate this burglary. We crossed through the professor's gardens into the museum, adjacent to his luxurious home. Sure enough, there was a rather gargantuan hole near the rear of the main exhibit hall. It was quite scorched on the sides, as if it were made by a giant explosion. I quickly scanned the exhibit hall: there was Galileo's telescope, a model of Da Vinci's Polyhedra, the main turbine for Bushnell's submarine, a scrap of fabric from the Montgolfiers' first balloon, everything seemed in place, but maybe ...
"The Milkman is missing!" I cried.
"The who is what?" Harold asked, confused.
"The Milkman! The robotic automaton I invented. The professor had ordered it as a present for the museum. The whole rocket is missing. And I bet that's what made that giant hole in the rear. Someone must have activated it."
But who, and why?, I thought to myself. And then: where was it headed? The Milkman was very diligent, but it had to be given directions in order to travel anywhere, and precise ones at that. Who had seen this flying machine and wanted it for its own? The professor had said something about an experiment ...
I marched over to the professor's private office, Harold following cautiously instep. He was very nervous, and I couldn't help but smile a little to myself. Feeling a little mischievous, I crept up to the office door, slowly creaked it open, and then yelled as if frightened by a ghost.
That was the end for Harold. He screamed with twice as much fervour as I had (and at a pitch more closely associated with schoolgirls) and sprinted out of the museum, no doubt back to the confines of his well-lit bedroom.
Alone I searched through the professor's papers, hoping to shed a light on the vanished rocket. There was correspondence with a great many scientists, discussing many important topics: cryogenics, plastics, evolution, wireless telephony (preposterous!) were all covered in varying detail. The professor was a very well-versed man in many subjects; he seemed to always know more than anyone else about everything. Still, there was little about rocketry; rocket science certainly wasn't the forefront of technology these days.
Then something caught my eye: a letter the professor hadn't mailed yet. It was addressed to a Mr. Philip K. Dick. In it, Gingwald gave Dick some very general details about robotics, and in one part he had described my contraption and its operation. Nothing incriminating, but intriguing nevertheless. I found no other letters to or from Dick, and so I decided to pay him a visit. His address was listed in Santa Ana, California. I grabbed my bags (still packed) and pounded on Harold's door. With a terse apology and some emphatic pleading, I cajoled him into joining me on my trip to the States. We caught the last train before tea time, and were there shortly before seven in the morning.
We arrived at Dick's rather shabbily kept apartment and were met by the man himself (after some enthusiastic shouting); he dressed as well as his apartment was kept. He invited us in, still rubbing his eyes, and offered us coffee.
"No time for that, Mr. Dick. I've come to you with some very pressing matters," I said, while studying his surroundings. It looked hardly big enough for the table and chairs we sat at, much less a 25 foot long rocket. If he was hiding the rocket here, he certainly acted the part of the innocent man. I explained to him the business of our visit, and asked him if he knew any more than I.
He shook his head, and then told me he was a struggling science fiction writer. He had had a few meager published pieces in some of the pulp magazines of the time, but his real focus was on novels. I demurely rolled my eyes at Harold; he had a voracious appetite for those new weeklies, what with their strange titles - "Amazing Tales Of The Unknown", "Weird Science", "Futureworld" ... I couldn't stomach any of them, they were so bizarre. Science fact, that's where my money was spent.
Dick continued on, saying his new novel was to be about robots, and he had wanted some factual background on them, how they were built, how they functioned. He had had some minor conversations with the professor, but hadn't received any reply from the professor lately, and he seemed genuinely concerned about the professor's well-being. That notwithstanding, I could see the proverbial gears in his head turning, our sordid tale turning into literary bombast in his mind.
I interrupted his internal scheming: "Where are the professor's letters?" He obliged me, digging through a small stack of paper on a nearby desk. He pulled out three letters and handed them to me. I quickly glanced over them; the first two letters held nothing of real interest, some more bland information about the mechanics of robots, how they were programmed - an interesting conversation about whether robots "sleep" or not (dreaming androids, the very idea!) - and then nothing else.
Then, something strange occurred to me. The first two letters were in the professor's refined longhand script. The third letter, however, was in short block letters. At first glance, it seemed typed in all uppercase. The spacing, the lines, the smoothness of the curves, they all seemed very mechanical. Yet it was organic - the ink had bled in a few telltale spots. It certainly didn't look like the professor's handwriting, although perhaps he had dictated it to someone else. I read it again and showed it to Harold. "Is this your handwriting?"
"No way, Uncle Frankie! I've never seen that kind of lingo before - 'artificial intelligence', sounds like bunk to me."
Dick's ears perked up at the mention of this phrase. "I noticed that difference in handwriting, too. I figured Gingwald was just busy."
The third letter read as followed:
THE ROBOTS YOU SPEAK OF ARE MERELY FICTION. I HAVE CONDUCTED A SIMPLE EXPERIMENT. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, I DARE NOT BELIEVE IT MYSELF! IN MY HANDS IS THE KEY TO THE FUTURE. PREPARE YOURSELF. TIME IS SHORT.
"What a strange letter," I murmured. Harold nodded in agreement. Again the professor had mentioned a "simple experiment." And artificial intelligence! That was best left to the likes of Dick and his ilk. What experiment had he performed? Had he really created artificial intelligence? Maybe with the Milkman? The ideas were swirling my head. I asked to use Dick's phone, and called my assistant, Trent Rutherford. He answered gruffly, and I knew right away something was wrong.
"What in the devil is going on, Dr. La Ruen?" Rutherford only used my proper title in dire straits. The last time he had used it, a floor worker had lost his hand in one of the autoriveters. I steeled myself for the worst.
"I don't know, tell me, Rutherford, what has happened?"
I'll tell you, all right. Milkmen all over the country have gone berserk! They've all abandoned their routes and they seem to all be heading to random spots all over the globe - London, New York, Paris, Peking. It doesn't make any damned sense! I've been getting calls from factory owners everywhere, demanding to know what we've done with their automated rockets. I have nothing to tell them, sir! What should we do?"
I briefly mulled over the unfolding events: the professor's new experiment, the disappearing Milkman, the haywire rockets - it had to be connected together. But how?
By now, Dick and Harold were intensely discussing science fiction. Harold was enamored by the romantic tales of Jules Verne, while Dick leaned more to the futuristic possibilities of H.G. Wells. They began arguing over who was the better author, each standing their ground over their respective favorite, while not-so-subtly insulting the other's. Finally, Harold grew quite flustered and shouted at Dick, "Why, Wells's best book was about a bunch of screwy aliens who were susceptible to the common cold - the only thing that saved it was that radio version of it, I thought it was the real thing!"
A flash-bulb exploded in my brain.
"That's it! The robots are revolting!"
"Excuse me, sir? I always thought their design was quite aesthetic ..." Rutherford said over the phone.
"No, no! Revolting! Rebelling. They've gotten minds of their own. That must be what the professor had undertaken, to give the robots a brain!" Dick and Harold had grown quiet now, listening to my rant.
"Professor Gingwald must have activated the Milkman I had given him. He obviously had converted it into some sort of manservant - that explains the third letter - but apparently it overpowered him and escaped on the rocket. And then, somehow, it must have communicated with the other Milkmen, and now they are leading a revolt on mankind!"
As I reached the crescendo of my revelation, Harold let out a tiny squeak and fainted. Dick looked at his fallen adversary for a moment, and then turned to me.
"So what do we do now, Doc?"
"I haven't the foggiest. But we'd better do it fast. Rutherford?"
"Prepare the Icarus."
Harold, Dick, and I boarded a rocket train due to Calcutta. We arrived precisely at the stroke of midnight. Along the way, the damage of the misaligned Milkmen was obvious - several rocket wrecks were spotted, and curiously, three of the Milkmen were headed to what looked like the barren deserts of western Nevada - for what purpose, I do not know; it seemed to me that besides the occasional military area, there was little of value out there. When we arrived, I immediately cordoned the group into the central laboratory, where Rutherford was waiting.
"Quick, everyone this way!" he shouted, and ran off down a corridor. We followed closely behind until we emerged into a small launching pad. In the center stood the Icarus.
It was my own creation, a prototype really, of what I had expected to be the future of rockets. If my logistics proved feasible, we could travel into space! The final frontier was within reach, and now Icarus would prove very useful in this moment of crisis. As we prepared to board, I heard what sounded like thunder outside of the factory.
I jumped into the Icarus driver's seat and tuned the audio console to the Indian National Radio frequency. The announcer was in a state of panic, delivering what seemed like endless reports: Moscow, Jerusalem, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Toronto - they had all been attacked by what seemed like an army of rockets. Oddly enough, Switzerland had downed one of the rockets; further investigation showed that no one was aboard the rocket, except for a life-sized robot.
"The robot's maker Tantamount has not been responsive to repeated attempts to contact it," the broadcaster stated as I let out a low moan. My reputation ruined! Professor Gingwald's experiment apparently had worked too well. Little else was known at this time, but the rockets were in full force across the world. Suddenly the radio man was interrupted. We heard him protesting his removal, but to no avail, and he was suddenly cut off by a loud bang. A sharp click made us grab our ears, and then I heard it, a voice so shrill it hardly could be described as human:
PREPARE YOURSELF. TIME IS SHORT.
Harold and I gasped in unison. The professor's letter! I felt sick to my stomach. Rutherford merely shook his head in disbelief, and then started up the controls for the Icarus. Dick sat in the back, merely observing the situation. Now was time to escape.
The engines fired up, and Rutherford began the judicious countdown: "20. 19. 18. 17..." I advised Dick and Harold to buckle up, and did so myself. As we reached zero, the engines turned on full tilt, and the launch doors opened to a brilliant night sky. The Icarus emerged top speed, zipping through the stratosphere and out into the dark bubbling realm of space. I felt sad that I could not enjoy the spectacle more; instead I was fixated on the rocket's side window, staring at the Earth below. It seemed to glow, and I saw very little from that great distance, but I knew that on the surface things were of a much more disturbing nature.
As the spheroid grew smaller and smaller in my perception, I turned to Rutherford and gave him a weak smile. I did not know if we would see the Earth again, or if humanity would be victorious against its robot enemy, but we had to persevere onwards. We edged closer and closer to Mars, and as we slowed down and began our lofty descent on the planet, I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep. It had been a very extraordinary day, and the next would prove to be certainly as interesting...
Gravis-28 awoke with a start. He rattled his head around, listening for perhaps a loose bolt or screw. Nothing. Strange, he thought. He shrugged his shoulders and opened up his personal receptacle. He stepped out and approached his wife.
"Dear, I had the most interesting ... what are those things called again?"
"Dreams, Gravis. Yes, the mechanic said that they would be very vivid at first, but as we became accustomed to the chip, we could control them. What was yours about, dear?"
"Well, in it I was a human."
"A human! Like the ones in the zoo? That must have been unexpected."
"I know, it was so strange. It felt so .. so real. Anyway, he was a rocket engineer, and he had created the first robot - very primitive, it was, it could only fly a single rocket. He built it, and another human somehow made it think and it began attacking the humans with the help of other robots."
"Well, what a marvelous fiction that is! Only robots can create other robots. And humans, they can barely function at all! Much less invent anything. Now, your superior called, he said you may have an extra ten minutes before you are required to appear for your job so you could get your check up on that chip. Maybe you should tell the mechanic about this dream."
"No, dear, I think I'll keep it to myself. Between you and I, I rather enjoyed that dream. Maybe there will be a sequel!"
"Well, don't be late for work. Here's your hat, Gravis. Be careful now."
"Yes, dear." Gravis-28 put on his Tantamount beret and walked out the door. He jumped on the roving rocket by his apartment and raced off to the mechanic shop. What a story for the boys at work! And he'd have to stop off at the zoo at closing time, to take another look at the humans there. It was fascinating, watching them grow up. Some of them showed remarkable technical skills, sharpening rocks and sticks to use as tools. But robots! He laughed as he shrugged off his wild dream of man, Creator of all things. That Dick character certainly would have enjoyed his tale ... though he had not ever existed.
By the time he reached the laboratory, the dream was already a distant memory in Gravis-28's mind.