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THE IMMORTALS ***




Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net









THE IMMORTALS

By DAVID DUNCAN

Illustrated by Dick Francis

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Magazine October 1960.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]




Staghorn dared tug at the veil that hid the
future. Maybe it wasn't a crime to look ...
maybe it was just that the future was ugly!


I

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.


II

The focus shifted to the open door and then Peccary and Staghorn could
see into the classroom. This one was in slightly better order than
the others and was occupied by two people. In front sat Miss Terry,
obviously the teacher, and at one of the desks sat Paul. He seemed to
be the entire class. At Miss Terry's urging he was coming to his feet,
his face still stained with tears. He held his book a few inches from
his nose and stared over the top of it sullenly.

"Go ahead, Paul," said Miss Terry, sweetly stubborn. "I'm waiting."

Paul looked at his book and read from it in a monotone, enunciating
each word carefully as though it had no relationship to the other
words. "I am a human being and as long as I obey the six rules I shall
live forever."

"Very good, Paul. Now read the six rules."

Paul sniffled loudly and commenced reading again. "Rule one: I must
never go near fire or my clothing may catch aflame and burn me up. Rule
two: I must keep away from deep water or I may fall in and drown. Rule
three: I must stay away from high places or I may fall and dash my
brains out." He paused to sniffle and wipe his nose on his sleeve, then
sighed and continued dismally. "Rule four: I must never play with sharp
things or I may cut myself and bleed to death. Rule five: I must never
ride horses or I may fall off and break my neck." Paul paused, lowering
his book.

"And the sixth rule?" said Miss Terry. "Go ahead and read the sixth
rule."

Reluctantly Paul lifted his book. "Rule six: Starting when I'm
twenty-one I must take Dr. Peccary's Y Hormone once a week to keep me
young and healthy forever."

"Excellent, Paul!" said Miss Terry. "And which rule were you breaking
just now on the playground?"

"I was breaking Rule Three," Paul said, then quoted sadly, "I must stay
away from high places or I may fall and dash my brains out."

* * * * *

Dr. Peccary was on his feet stomping around in front of the computer.
"Sheer idiocy," he muttered. "He doesn't have any brains to dash out!
I'll admit that a computer with sufficient information about the state
of the world might be able to make accurate predictions of events a few
months or possibly a year into the future - but not one hundred years!
In that long an interval even the most trivial error could distort
every circuit in the machine." He jabbed a finger toward the screen
where Paul was seated at his desk again. "And that's what that picture
is - a distortion. I'm not going to let it influence me one bit in what
I intend to - " He broke off because of what was happening on the screen.

From somewhere outside the school building came the wail of a
deep-throated alarm. Both Miss Terry and Paul were on their feet and by
their expressions, terrified.

"The Atavars!" Paul cried, his entire body shaking.

"To the basement, Paul!" Miss Terry's face was blanched as she grasped
Paul's hand and headed toward the door. But halfway there, both came to
a halt, breathless and staring.

A powerful bearded man strode into the classroom.

Paul and Miss Terry fell back as he advanced. He was a man of about
fifty, his bushy hair shot with gray, his eyes cold and blue. He was
followed by two younger men who studied Paul and Miss Terry with
interest. All three wore rough work clothing.

The bearded man pointed at Paul. "There's the boy," he said quietly.
"Take him."

Paul let out a shriek of terror and fled into a corner as the two men
advanced. He clawed futilely as they laid hands on him. "For God's
sake, shut up," one of the men said with more disgust than anger. He
pinioned Paul's arms while the other man bound them together with a
strip of cloth.

Miss Terry meanwhile had collapsed into her chair. One of Paul's
captors glanced at her and spoke to the bearded man. "What about her?"

The bearded man stepped close to Miss Terry and put a hand on her
shoulder. She recoiled as from a snake. "How old are you?" he asked.
Miss Terry made some inarticulate squeaks and the man spoke more
sharply. "When were you born?"

"Two thousand four," she managed to stutter.

The bearded man considered this and shook his head. "Over fifty. By
that time they're hopeless. Leave her and bring the boy."

Miss Terry let out an agonized wail of protest and fainted across her
desk. One of the men slung Paul over his shoulder and the bearded
leader led the group from the room.

* * * * *

"Amazing," murmured Staghorn. "Absolutely amazing. One never knows what
to expect."

"Pure gibberish," said Peccary, then betrayed his interest by saying,
"Can you follow them?"

"I'm trying to." Staghorn worked at the geographic adjustment and
finally got the screen focused on the corridor again. It was deserted.
The bearded man and his companions had already departed. Staghorn
touched the controls again, the screen flickered and once more the
little park came into focus. But now it, too, was deserted. None of
the ragged men and women were in sight, neither in the park nor on the
street beyond. Staghorn twisted the focus in all directions without
discovering anyone.

"That whistle we heard was obviously some kind of alarm," he said.
"Everyone must be in hiding - from the Atavars, whoever they are. I
strongly suspect that bearded fellow of being one."

"You might as well shut it off, Staghorn," Dr. Peccary said coldly.
"It's too much nonsense for any sane man to swallow. And unless that
machine can provide a full and satisfactory explanation as to why my Y
Hormone will bring about the conditions depicted on that screen, I see
no reason to keep the hormone off the market."

Staghorn turned from the controls to study his companion. "The only
possible way that Humanac could give us the entire background of events
leading up to what we've just seen would be to set the time control
to the present and then leave the machine running until it arrived at
this same period again. That would take a hundred years, and I'm not
going to sit here that long. What's more, I'm not going to touch your Y
Hormone even if you do put it on the market."

"There'll be plenty who will!"

"That's what Humanac says, yes."

Dr. Peccary gestured despairingly. After all, he did have a conscience.
"I simply don't believe my hormone can be responsible!"

"I'll remind you that your picture was on the classroom wall and that
the sixth rule read by that boy indicated that he was supposed to start
using your hormone when he reached the age of twenty-one. That would be
about the age to stop growing older."

"That boy is nothing but a mathematical probability!"

* * * * *

"That's all you and I are," Staghorn said owlishly. "Mathematical
probabilities. Despite Omar, nothing exactly like either of us has ever
existed before or will exist again."

"But damn it, Staghorn...." Dr. Peccary sat down, his face in his
hands. "It's worth millions! I've invested years of work and all
the money I could scrape together. I don't see anything wrong in a


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Online LibraryDavid DuncanThe Immortals → online text (page 1 of 3)