The repairman responded. “I’m afraid not, sir. But if you’ll give me your address I’ll have the sales department send you information. And if you want, a qualified representative can call on you at your convenience and describe the advantages of owning a swibble.”
“The first swibble was developed in 1963?” Hurley asked.
“That’s right.” The repairman’s suspicions had momentarily lulled. “And just in time, too. Let me say this—if Wright hadn’t got his first model going, there wouldn’t be any human beings left alive. You people here who don’t own swibbles—you may not know it—and you certainly act as if you didn’t know it—but you’re alive right now because of old R.J. Wright. It’s swibbles that keep the world going.”
Opening his black case, the repairman briskly brought out a complicated apparatus of tubes and wiring. He filled a drum with clear fluid, sealed it, tried the plunger, and straightened up. “I’ll start out with a shot of dx—that usually puts them back into operation.”
“What is dx?” Anderson asked quickly.
Surprised at the question, the repairman answered, “It’s a high-protein food concentrate. We’ve found that ninety per cent of our early service calls are the result of improper diet. People just don’t know how to care for their new swibble.”
“My God,” Anderson said feebly. “It’s alive.”
Courtland’s mind took a nose dive. He had been wrong; it wasn’t precisely a repairman who had stood gathering his equipment together. The man had come to fix the swibble, all right, but his capacity was slightly different than Courtland had supposed. He wasn’t a repairman; he was a veterinarian.
Laying out instruments and meters, the young man explained: “The new swibbles are a lot more complex than the early models; I need all this before I can even get started. But blame the War.”
“The War?” Fay Courtland echoed apprehensively.
“Not the early war. The big one, in ‘75. That little war in ‘61 wasn’t really much. You know, I suppose, that Wright was originally an Army engineer, stationed over in—well, I guess it was called Europe. I believe the idea came to him because of all those refugees pouring across the border. Yes, I’m sure that’s how it was. During that little war, back in ‘61, they came across by the millions. And they went the other way, too. My goodness, people were shifting back and forth between the two camps—it was revolting.”
“I’m not clear on my history,” Courtland said thickly. “I never paid much attention in school… the ‘61 war, that was between Russia and America?”
“Oh,” the repairman said, “it was between everybody. Russia headed the Eastern side, of course. And America the West. But everybody was in it. That was the little war, though; that didn’t count.”
“Little?” Fay demanded, horrified.
“Well,” the repairman admitted, “I suppose it looked like a lot at the time. But I mean, there were buildings still standing, afterward. And it only lasted a few months.”
“Who—won?” Anderson croaked.
The repairman tittered. “Won? What an odd question. Well, there were more people left in the Eastern bloc, if that’s what you mean. Anyhow, the importance of the ‘61 war—and I’m
your history teachers made that clear—was that swibbles appeared. R.J. Wright got his idea from the camp-changers that appeared in that war. So by ‘75, when the
war came along, we had plenty of swibbles.” Thoughtfully, he added, “In fact, I’d say the real war was a war over swibbles. I mean, it was the last war. It was the war between the people who wanted swibbles and those who didn’t.” Complacently, he finished, “Needless to say,
After a time Courtland managed to ask, “What happened to the others? Those who—didn’t want swibbles.”
“Why,” the repairman said gently, “the swibbles got them.”
Shakily, Courtland started his pipe going. “I didn’t know about that.”
“What do you mean?” Pesbroke demanded hoarsely. “How did they get them? What did they do?”
Astonished, the repairman shook his head. “I didn’t know there was such ignorance in lay circles.” The position of pundit obviously pleased him; sticking out his bony chest, he proceeded to lecture the circle of intent faces on the fundamentals of history. “Wright’s first A-driven swibble was crude, of course. But it served its purpose. Originally, it was able to differentiate the camp-shifters into two groups: those who had really seen the light, and those who were insincere. Those who were going to shift back… who weren’t really loyal. The authorities wanted to know which of the shifters had really come over to the West and which were spies and secret agents. That was the original swibble function. But that was nothing compared to now.”
“No,” Courtland agreed, paralyzed. “Nothing at all.”
“Now,” the repairman said sleekly, “we don’t deal with such crudities. It’s absurd to wait until an individual has accepted a contrary ideology, and then hope he’ll shift away from it. In a way, it’s ironic, isn’t it? After the ‘61 war there was really only one contrary ideology: those who opposed the swibbles.”
He laughed happily. “So the swibbles differentiated those who didn’t want to be differentiated by swibbles. My, that was quite a war. Because that wasn’t a messy war, with a lot of bombs and jellied gasoline. That was a
war—none of that random pulverizing. That was just swibbles going down into cellars and ruins and hiding places and digging out those Contrapersons one by one. Until we had all of them. So now,” he finished, gathering up his equipment, “we don’t have to worry about wars or anything of that sort. There won’t be any more conflicts, because we don’t have any contrary ideologies. As Wright showed, it doesn’t really matter what ideology we have; it isn’t important whether it’s Communism or Free Enterprise or Socialism or Fascism or Slavery. What’s important is that every one of us agrees completely; that we’re all absolutely loyal. And as long as we have our swibbles—” He winked knowingly at Courtland. “Well, as a new swibble owner, you’ve found out the advantages. You know the sense of security and satisfaction in being
that your ideology is exactly congruent with that of everybody else in the world. That there’s no possibility, no chance whatsoever that you’ll go astray—and that some passing swibble will feed on you.”
It was MacDowell who managed to pull himself together first. “Yeah,” he said ironically. “It certainly sounds like what the missus and I want.”
“Oh, you ought to have a swibble of your own,” the repairman urged. “Consider—if you have your own swibble, it’ll adjust you automatically. It’ll keep you on the right track without strain or fuss. You’ll always know you’re not going wrong—remember the swibble slogan: Why be
loyal? With your own swibble, your outlook will be corrected by painless degrees … but if you wait, if you just
you’re on the right track, why, one of these days you may walk into a friend’s living room and his swibble may just simply crack you open and drink you down. Of course,” he reflected, “a passing swibble may still get you in time to straighten you out. But usually it’s too late. Usually—” He smiled. “Usually people go beyond redemption, once they get started.”
“And your job,” Pesbroke muttered, “is to keep the swibbles working?”
“They do get out of adjustment, left to themselves.”
“Isn’t it a kind of paradox?” Pesbroke pursued. “The swibbles keep us in adjustment, and we keep them in adjustment… it’s a closed circle.”
The repairman was intrigued. “Yes, that’s an interesting way of putting it. But we must keep control over the swibbles, of course. So they don’t die.” He shivered. “Or worse.”
“Die?” Hurley said, still not understanding. “But if they’re built—” Wrinkling his brows he said, “Either they’re machines or they’re alive. Which is it?”
Patiently, the repairman explained elementary physics. “Swibble-culture is an organic phenotype evolved in a protein medium under controlled conditions. The directing neurological tissue that forms the basis of the swibble is alive, certainly, in the sense that it grows, thinks, feeds, excretes waste. Yes, it’s definitely alive. But the swibble, as a functioning whole, is a manufactured item. The organic tissue is inserted in the master tank and then sealed. I certainly don’t repair
I give it nutriments to restore a proper balance of diet, and I try to deal with parasitic organisms that find their way into it. I try to keep it adjusted and healthy. The balance of the organism, is, of course, totally mechanical.”
“The swibble has direct access to human minds?” Anderson asked, fascinated.
“Naturally. It’s an artificially evolved telepathic metazoan. And with it, Wright solved the basic problem of modern times: the existence of diverse, warring ideological factions, the presence of disloyalty and dissent. In the words of General Steiner’s famous aphorism: War is an extension of the disagreement from the voting booth to the battlefield. And the preamble of the World Service Charter: war, if it is to be eliminated, must be eliminated from the minds of men, for it is in the minds of men that disagreement begins. Up until 1963, we had no way to get into the minds of men. Up until 1963, the problem was unsolvable.”
“Thank God,” Fay said clearly.
The repairman failed to hear her; he was carried away by his own enthusiasm. “By means of the swibble, we’ve managed to transform the basic sociological problem of loyalty into a routine technical matter: to the mere matter of maintenance and repair. Our only concern is keep the swibbles functioning correctly; the rest is up to them.”
“In other words,” Courtland said faintly, “you repairmen are the only controlling influence over the swibbles. You represent the total human agency standing above these machines.”
The repairman reflected. “I suppose so,” he admitted modestly. “Yes, that’s correct.”
“Except for you, they pretty damn well manage the human race.”
The bony chest swelled with complacent, confident pride. “I suppose you could say that.”
“Look,” Courtland said thickly. He grabbed hold of the man’s arm. “How the hell can you be sure? Are you really in control?” A crazy hope was rising up inside him: as long as men had power over the swibbles there was a chance to roll things back. The swibbles could be disassembled, taken apart piece by piece. As long as swibbles had to submit to human servicing it wasn’t quite hopeless.
“What, sir?” the repairman inquired. “Of course we’re in control. Don’t you worry.” Firmly, he disengaged Courtland’s fingers. “Now, where is your swibble?” He glanced around the room. “I’ll have to hurry; there isn’t much time left.”
“I haven’t got a swibble,” Courtland said.
For a moment it didn’t register. Then a strange, intricate expression crossed the repairman’s face. “No swibble? But you told me—”
“Something went wrong,” Courtland said hoarsely. “There aren’t any swibbles. It’s too early—they haven’t been invented. Understand? You came too soon!”
The young man’s eyes popped. Clutching his equipment, he stumbled back two steps, blinked, opened his mouth and tried to speak. “Too—soon?” The comprehension arrived. Suddenly he looked older, much older. “I wondered. All the undamaged buildings… the archaic furnishings. The transmission machinery must have misphased!” Rage flashed over him. “That instantaneous service—I knew dispatch should have stuck to the old mechanical system. I told them to make better tests. Lord, there’s going to be hell to pay; if we ever get this mix-up straightened out I’ll be surprised.”
Bending down furiously, he hastily dropped his equipment back in the case. In a single motion he slammed and locked it, straightened up, bowed briefly at Courtland.
“Good evening,” he said frigidly. And vanished.
The circle of watchers had nothing to watch. The swibble repairman had gone back to where he came from.
After a time Pesbroke turned and signaled to the man in the kitchen. “Might as well shut off the tape recorder,” he muttered bleakly. “There’s nothing more to record.”
“Good Lord,” Hurley said, shaken. “A world run by machines.”
Fay shivered. “I couldn’t believe that little fellow had so much power; I thought he was just a minor official.”
“He’s completely in charge,” Courtland said harshly.
There was silence.
One of the two children yawned sleepily. Fay turned abruptly to them and herded them efficiently into the bedroom. “Time for you two to be in bed,” she commanded, with false gaiety.
Protesting sullenly, the two boys disappeared, and the door closed. Gradually, the living room broke into motion. The tape-recorder man began rewinding his reel. The legal stenographer shakily collected her notes and put away her pencils. Hurley lit up a cigar and stood puffing moodily, his face dark and somber.
“I suppose,” Courtland said finally, “that we’ve all accepted it; we assume it’s not a fake.”
“Well,” Pesbroke pointed out, “he vanished. That ought to be proof enough. And all the junk he took out of his kit—”
“It’s only nine years,” Parkinson, the electrician, said thoughtfully. “Wright must be alive already. Let’s look him up and stick a shiv into him.”
“Army engineer,” MacDowell agreed. “R.J. Wright. It ought to be possible to locate him. Maybe we can keep it from happening.”
“How long would you guess people like him can keep the swibbles under control?” Anderson asked.
Courtland shrugged wearily. “No telling. Maybe years … maybe a century. But sooner or later something’s going to come up, something they didn’t expect. And then it’ll be predatory machinery preying on all of us.”
Fay shuddered violently. “It sounds awful; I’m certainly glad it won’t be for a while.”
“You and the repairman,” Courtland said bitterly. “As long as it doesn’t affect you—”
Fay’s overwrought nerves flared up. “We’ll discuss it later on.” She smiled jerkily at Pesbroke. “More coffee? I’ll put some on.” Turning on her heel, she rushed from the living room into the kitchen.