The Love Machine & Other Contraptions (7 page)

BOOK: The Love Machine & Other Contraptions
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Finally Schwartz intervened, with typical impatience, and said, “You’re not allowed to eat corn here anyway.”

Consequently a terrible row broke out. Elijah argued against the discrimination against corn, and Schwartz reasoned that you can’t eat granular food in zero-gravity conditions. I proposed that due to our sincere love of corn, we would eat it all without leaving any, and Schwartz inquired whether I loved corn so much I would be willing to sleep with it. Elijah proposed opening the tin in the lavatory centrifuge, and Schwartz told him that if he wants to spend a month and a half in a sealed spaceship with a plumbing problem, may he do so in good health.

“Or maybe you prefer,” he added, “instead of going in the bathroom, to go into the airlock?”

That settled it.

~

A month post-launch, Elijah looked quite Robinson-Crusoeish. He had achieved this feat without ever setting foot on the soil of an alien planet. His hair had grown long, he had stopped shaving and his eyes stared into space while his tongue licked his lips incessantly. He had been eating nothing but crackers for a fortnight, after discovering that the liver-flavored eggplant pâté reminded him too much of meat, despite the happy “beep beep” of the VegeStuck.

I put it plainly that the aforementioned consumer good reminded me of a failed high-school biology class experiment, while the smell reminded Schwartz, more than anything else, of boot camp.

Elijah mumbled something about spoiling the environment, but we managed to convince him that space is infinite and that it would probably not take too much note of an eggplant or two, while for us, confined in a closed area, the issue was more critical. Thus a few pounds of liver-flavored eggplant pâté were thrown into space, where they probably cause a hazard to commercial routes to this very day.

~

After that, Elijah spent his time delving into the depths of the datasheets we had received regarding “our” planet. The unmanned probe had determined a high Earth-compatibility level—about ninety-five percent. A little more oxygen, a little less nitrogen, but bacteria and plants had already been discovered before the hasty survey was completed and the probe was launched to another destination. The galaxy is full of these, of course, and so any planet that does not show clearer signs of life is abandoned to its fate until gallant and intrepid researchers such as ourselves show up.

By the week before the landing, Elijah knew all the data, as well as the content of his toy’s operations manual, word for word. He used the VegeSchnook to ascertain the content of the crackers, the ketchup (completely a meat product by this time—Schwartz’s handiwork), the frozen food, and even us. It transpired that the device could recognize a human person, although it did take it some time—unless the victim yawned, sneezed or just breathed heavily on it, which caused it to cry out immediately.

“Why are you checking us?” I asked. “We’re animals, I promise. It’s no use eating us.”

“In any case, it’s two against one,” Schwartz added, practical as always. “You don’t stand a chance.”

Elijah fixed him with a frightful stare.

“Okay, enough,” I proclaimed. “It’s only
food
!”

“Let’s see
you
after a month of crackers. Then you should talk.”

“Come on,” I said, “it can’t be that bad!”

“You wouldn’t believe,” said Elijah and threw me a dark look, “How bad it can be.”

“You could always take food from us,” said Schwartz, surprisingly generous.

“As opposed to some of those present,” Elijah said, “I have principles. I do
not
end lives.”

“They’re not alive anymore,” said Schwartz, but his words fell on deaf ears.

~

The sun of Eta Pegasi gradually grew as we approached the solar system’s plane. Eta Pegasi I is a piece of rock very close to the sun itself, in an orbit similar to that of Mercury’s around Sol. E.P. II is a bit smaller than Venus and has no atmosphere. E.P.III, on the other hand, looks like a classic globe from school days, with cloud decorations and everything. In other words—exactly the way Earth used to look, once upon a time.

~

Landing day.

Elijah woke up early in the morning so that he would have enough time to check and recheck and re-recheck his protective suit. The latter’s helmet rested, neglected, in the laundry basket, after the “security vs. comfort” argument was decided by a coin toss. Schwartz suggested we vote on who descended first, but in a burst of compassion I granted the right of way to Elijah.

“Look at him,” I said. “Don’t you think he’s suffered enough?”

We landed the Bummel in the center of a green plain, a bit to the north of the equatorial line. To the west, snowy-peaked mountains could be seen, to the south and east spread a threateningly thick jungle. Above us the sky was beautifully bright blue, and underneath the spaceship there was, it goes without saying, a large black pit. Schwartz mumbled something about possible damage to alien life forms, but I was more interested in those familiar to us, especially the one which was gaily prancing out of the airlock, VegeSpade in hand.

“I don’t like this,” said Schwartz.

“Let him wind down,” I said. “He’ll be much more amiable later.”

This idea made Schwartz happy, and thus, encouraged, we made our way outside.

~

Elijah spent the morning grazing in the pasture, pushing the VegeSplat into every hole.

The grass reminded me of a football field, and Schwartz of boot camp. We spent a while pleasantly arguing, until Elijah’s voice on the comlink cut us off.

“Yeeeee-haaa!” he yelled. “You’ve got to come and see this!”

“What are you yelling about?” I said. “We’re coming, we’re coming.”

“And relax,” said Schwartz.

We sauntered over to the small figure which was Elijah, a few hundred yards to the north.

“What a
nudnik
,” I said.

“What a
nudnik
,” I thought faintly.

“Huh?” said Schwartz.

“Huh?” I thought, more assuredly.

Elijah waved his VegeStain excitedly and pointed to a green lump, some form of strange distorted vegetation on the ground beside him.

“Hey!” I said.

“Hey!” I thought, almost aloud.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I thought.

Schwartz looked at me.

“I think so,” I thought, in a slightly different voice.

“See how wonderful it is!” Elijah yelled. “Exactly what I’ve been looking for!” —and my thoughts immediately repeated his words.

“Wait a second,” I said and thought, “Something strange is going on.”

The plant seemed, upon closer inspection, like an old tent stricken with Elephant Man’s disease. Bluish crystals glittered on the ground around it.

“This thing reads thoughts and sends them back?” I thought, and understood that the thought came from Schwartz.

“Probably,” I thought. “Hold on a moment. Let’s try something.
Hello! Who are you?

“Hello! Who are you?”

“Just perfect!” said Elijah. “Would you believe this, and right on the first day?”

“I am Schwartz,” I thought strongly, “and who are you?”

“Me... you...” I thought in a foreign voice.

It seemed as if the green blob was shaking one of its tendrils, but I wasn’t absolutely sure. Perhaps the crystals shined a little as well. Who knows.

“Look!” Elijah exulted. He pointed the VegeScatt to the green glob and pressed the button.

“I... not you...” I thought.

“This thing is talking to us!” said Schwartz. “I don’t believe it!”

“Beep beep!” said the VegeSnot, and a green light shone valorously.

“Perfect!” said Elijah, plucked the green plant, stuffed it in his mouth and began to chew.

~

We searched for many weeks following, but could not find any other vegetation like it. Schwartz and I (Elijah had an upset stomach) mapped out the entire continent. We sent out telepathic messages over land, sea and air—to no avail. It could be that the other plants had learned a lesson from the tragic fate of their friend. And who could blame them?

Elijah spent the rest of his time on the planet gulping down any plant he could get his hands on. We could not explain to him what he had done.

In the end, we didn’t report it. Try and explain that a vegetarian ate—devoured!—the first intelligent alien life mankind had ever discovered.

~

On the way home, one night while Elijah was asleep, we threw the VegeSchmuck out of the airlock.

Contraption: Light Machine

Someone shut down the sun. It’s up to you to save us. Build us a machine which creates light. It shouldn’t be very big. It should be energy-efficient. It should be good for the environment. It should be yellow, so as to remind us of our old sun. It should be green, using recycled materials. It should be blue and white and red, for obvious reasons. Or maybe just blue and white? Or maybe red and white? Anyway, it should have a cross on it. Or a crescent. Or a Star of David. It should be named appropriately. It should belong to everybody, give equal light and heat to all. We here, of course, should get a bit more than the rest. And hurry, we’re freezing.

Know what? Don’t do it. Let’s give this job to a committee.

Love Machine

“Anyone attempting to produce random sins by purely arithmetic means is, of course, in a state of numbers.”

—John von Neumann

There was a man who could not fall in love.

Or so, at least, he thought. Galileo—that was the name his parents had given him in a fit of creativity, his mother having adamantly refused such names as “Tycho” or “Nicholaus” (Copernicus, of course), which just goes to show you what happens to people who let their hobbies influence the naming of their children—Galileo Cohen, then, would spend whole nights pondering this issue. Not his name—he had long since gotten used to that. He had even grown fond of it, in a deep conviction that it is better to be called Galileo than Moses or Jerachmiel (he was an atheist anyhow). It was not his name that troubled his sleep and turned his life into a morass of useless meditation and pointless self-reflection. No—it was the aforementioned problem. Namely: Galileo was unable to fall in love.

Or so he thought.

~

His life wasn’t a particularly unhappy one. Galileo loved physics, astronomy, cheap cybernetics and electronics. He spent his days and nights—the nights he did not devote to reflection—constructing and disassembling all sorts of odd devices. He was also very much into girls, but could never fall in love with them.

Galileo didn’t realize it, but he was a Backyard Scientist, one of the last ones, in fact. Backyard Scientists had been much more pervasive in an earlier age, back when a single person could become well-educated in a substantial portion of the contemporary sciences. The Backyard Scientist—unlike Campus Scientists (e.g., Ludwig Boltzmann), Home Scientists (Einstein), or even the rarest of specimens, the Alley Scientists (an appropriate example will soon be provided)—is sometimes unjustly known as a “Mad Scientist,” and is typified by the ability to construct almost any kind of device in his backyard, anything from a time machine to a dishwasher.

Many a story has been written about the Backyard Scientist who builds a spaceship on his own back lawn. But these stories are patently false, since Backyard Scientists by and large lack the persistence that such an undertaking requires. In fact, in many cases the Backyard Scientist’s mind tends to wander so wildly that not a single idea of his attains full realization. Thus his yard is filled with half-concocted teleportation devices, the rusted remains of cold-fusion reactors, dilapidated Turing machines and the miscellaneous parts and pieces of as-yet-unnamed inventions.

The Backyard Scientist usually builds only one successful invention in his lifetime, and even that never receives the recognition it deserves. Instead, it is doomed to be forgotten. That is the reason why, even in this modern age, we have no time machine. Or love machine.

A brief description: if anyone was to see Galileo without his worn laboratory coat, the multifunctional walkman, the light pencil stuck behind his ear or the wealth of knick-knacks that decorate his pockets, they would think him to be a young, promising truck driver—despite the fact that the stereotype of the thin, bespectacled geek had been abandoned years before.

Galileo’s best childhood friend was Johnny Kepler—a redheaded, thin, bespectacled, semi-mad geek who, in complete defiance of the glorious tradition embodied in his name, had no interest whatsoever in celestial bodies, but only in mathematics’ sillier derivatives. Galileo despised mathematics vehemently. He also, despite his great affection for Johnny, envied the latter’s ability to fall in love twice a week, not always with the same girl.

Johnny didn’t realize it, but he was in fact an Alley Scientist—the rarest and most ludicrous kind. He could usually be found jotting down equations with chalk on public benches, or with a pen, when he could afford one, on tiny scraps of paper. Unlike E. M. Ampere, he had never written equations on the door of a Parisian taxicab, but only because he had never been to Paris. Also, he couldn’t afford a cab.

Johnny had a natural propensity for poetry, a propensity that found expression in his dubious habit of sketching, sometimes even humming, equations in rhyme. Einstein’s famous equation, for example, he chalked into:

And if a skeptic should claim that this was physics, not art, he or she could rest assured that Johnny would argue for hours on end to prove beyond a doubt the “truthfulness” of the poem (if one should be so forgiving as to name it so) and specifically, its relation to the realm of mathematics.

Because ultimately, his final conclusion was always this: that science and art complete one another, and the very fact of the poem being “true” contradicts, or at least skirts around, science, or it would never have been a part of it to begin with. Galileo was of the opinion that all this was pure nonsense, but could ordinarily avoid the debate only on days when Johnny was too much in love to carry on the argument to its ridiculous conclusion.

Both Galileo and Johnny lived in our very own City of Lights: one, in the basement at the corner of Ether Avenue and 42nd street, and the other with no fixed address, moving, apparently randomly, from one abandoned building to another.

~

One day, Galileo met Johnny Kepler in the street. It was no chance meeting—Galileo wasn’t the sort to wander about outside, and Johnny could normally be traced only through the chalk marks he distractedly left after him. It was by this very method that Galileo managed to locate him. He wanted to consult Johnny on a matter of some importance.

“Johnny!” said Galileo, when he found his friend at last, fervently leafing through an old newspaper, tearing its pages and jotting down notes with a magic marker, while lying on a bench in a park near the Marconi and Munchhausen street crossing. Never having had the knack for small talk, he got right to the point.

“Listen,” he said, “I want to talk to you about—”

“Look!” said Johnny happily, and spread a piece of the torn newspaper out on his lap. On it were pictures of some male models, which had been decorated with some random doggerel:

“What’s that?”

“Goldblum Numbers. Or Goldbach. One of them, anyway. Every natural even number is the sum of two prime numbers. I proved that yesterday, somewhere along Pi Street, I think, but...”

“But you forgot,” said Galileo.

“I lost the note,” said Johnny sadly. “It was a rather simple proof. Wait—if we let
A
be equal to, say...”

“Oh, no,” said Galileo, “You can do that when I’m gone. Why male models?” The matter for which he had searched out Johnny had completely left his memory.

“Oh!” said Johnny, a dreamy look in his eyes, “I have to buy clothes.”

“What’s her name?”

“Her
name
?” asked Johnny in astonishment.

“Yes. What’s her name?”

“Oh,” said Johnny. “I... I don’t know. I hadn’t considered that.”

“I would like,” said Galileo, “to see if I have this straight. You have fallen in love with someone—
again—
only this time you haven’t bothered, for some reason, to find out her name. Correct?”

“We never talked about that.”

“Did you talk about anything at all?”

“Not really. It was...” Johnny had a glint in his eyes that Galileo had learned to fear years ago. “It was...”

“Yes,” said Galileo, “I’m sure that indeed it
was
.” And sadly turned away. Johnny’s loves always made him a little melancholic. “Goodbye.”

“Wait!” said Johnny, leaping off the bench. “Are you going already? What’s wrong? Trouble with your girlfriend?”

That, Galileo remembered suddenly, was why he had been looking for Johnny in the first place. “Yes,” he said. “I...”

“It’s the same thing every time,” said Johnny, and he was right. “Let me guess: you don’t really love her.”

“I... I don’t know. She’s okay, I’m okay, we’re okay, but I... well, we broke up. Say, what do you feel when you, you know...?”

“What?”

“When you’re with someone? Like this new girl?”

“What? When you look at her? When you’re having sex?”

“No, no,” said Galileo hurriedly. Hearing a description of sex coming from the mouth of a mathematician isn’t a great contribution to one’s mental health. “What do you feel like when you fall in love?”

Johnny thought about it. “It’s hard to describe. It’s like... The world is prettier, as if you’ve solved Fourier’s Last Theorem without even thinking about it, or as if you’ve found a new and different way for Faster-Fermat-Transformation, or...”

“Okay,” said Galileo, despairing. “Thanks. See you.”

“You’re welcome,” said Johnny happily and returned to his newspaper.

On his way home, Galileo mused on the pathetic state of human communication.
Johnny
, he thought,
knows what it is to be in love, but cannot explain it
.
Why?
Lost in thought, he entered a second-hand junk shop and bought, on a whim, a second-hand electric shrink in fair-to-good condition.

~

Johnny’s current love interest was a most incredibly-cute waitress that he had met while trying to sneak into a rock concert held by some anonymous band in a darkened club somewhere in Underhill Street, which was by the ocean. She had no idea of the intensity of the emotions she had awoken in the heart of the disturbed redhead. Her name, the one that Johnny had neglected to ask for, was Ada.

~

Galileo placed the shrink on his desk, clearing away some of the assorted debris—a remote-controlled food processor, a bussard scooter, a pair of semi-automatic nylon stockings and other such junk. He plugged in the device. Immediately it announced, in an authoritative baritone: “Partly cloudy OJ to clear sinuses, with assorted asses all ’round the—” and stalled.
Intriguing
, thought Galileo, and replaced the power supply unit.

“Hello,” said the device in a pleasant tenor. “Call me Alice. How may I help you?”

Galileo, it must be mentioned, was suddenly feeling very silly. To ask a bunch of wires to explain the vagaries of love?

“Hello,” said the shrink after a while, “Call me Alice. How may I help you?”

Bravely, or so he thought, Galileo decided that he had nothing to lose.

“The problem is this,” he said. “I do not know how to love.”

“Well then,” said the device in the tone of a court bailiff. “The problem is this: The problem is this: I do not know how to love. Correct?”

“You have a problem,” said Galileo. “You said ‘the problem is this’ twice.”

“Well then,” corrected the device. “The problem is this: You have a problem. You said ‘the problem is this’ twice. Correct?”

“The problem is yours, not mine,” said Galileo. “You said ‘the problem is this’ twice.”

“It is determined,” explained the device, “That the problem is this: The problem is yours, not mine. You said ‘the problem is thi—” and no more, for Galileo hurriedly unplugged it and opened its rear panel. As he had suspected, the motherboard was moldy and the internal logic generator was disconnected from the electro-empathizer, the component that allowed the electric shrink to pick up intuitively on the patient’s emotions. Fixing it took slightly less than a minute. Galileo cleaned the board with a moist cloth, reconnected the generator, and shined and polished the thing until the wires and couplings glittered.

This time, when he activated the device, it cried piteously and begged to be turned off. Somewhat amazed, Galileo obliged and mused on the many inherent faults in buying a used product. After a time he had an idea. Reaching into the innards of the contraption, he turned the sensitivity of the empathizer to half of its previous setting.

“Ah,” said the shrink as it was being reactivated. “That’s much better.”

“Why were you crying earlier?” asked Galileo, for if his emotions could create so much suffering in such a simple machine—

“I don’t want to talk about it,” said the device. “Hello. Call me Alice. How may I assist you?”

“I want to know,” said Galileo. “What you were feeling exactly. It would help me a great deal.”

“No,” said the recalcitrant gizmo. “I can’t. Hello. Call me Alice. How may I assist you?”

“Tell me how you felt!”

“No way! Hello. Call me Alice. How—”

Galileo grabbed the stubborn machine angrily, dismantled it and took the empathizer out. Then he turned in on again.

BOOK: The Love Machine & Other Contraptions
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