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Authors: William Tenn

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BOOK: Time Waits for Winthrop
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“Oh, Winthrop—yes! He’s that delightful old man. I met him at a dream dispensary a week ago. What wonderful awareness he has! Such a total immersion in our culture! We’re very proud of Winthrop. We’d like to help him every way we possibly can.”

“If you don’t mind,” Dave Pollock said morosely, “we’re the ones who need help. We’ve got to get back.”

Stilia laughed. “Of course. We’d like to help everybody. But Winthrop is—
special
. He’s trying hardest. Now if you’ll just wait here, I’ll go in and put your problem before the Oracle Machine.”

She flexed her right arm at him and walked toward the yellow square. Pollock watched it expand in front of her, then, as she went through the opening it made, contract behind her. In a few minutes, she returned.

“I’ll tell you when to go in, Mr. Pollock. The machine is working on your problem. The answer you get will be the very best that can be made, given the facts available.”

“Thanks.” He mused for a while. “Tell me something. Doesn’t it seem to take something vital out of life—out of your thinking life—to know that you can take absolutely any problem—personal problem, scientific problem or work problem—to the Oracle Machine and it will solve it much better than you could?”

Stilia looked puzzled. “Not at all. To begin with, problem-solving is a very small part of today’s thinking life. It would be as logical to say that it took something vital out of life to make a hole with an electric drill instead of a hand gouge. In your time, no doubt, there are people who feel just that way; they have the obvious privilege of not using electric drills. Those who use electric drills, however, have their physical energy freed for tasks they regard as more important.

“The Oracle Machine is the major tool of our culture. It has been designed toward just one end—computing all the factors of a given problem and relating them to the totality of pertinent data that is in the possession of the human race. But even if people consult the Oracle Machine, they may not be able to understand and apply the answer. And if they do understand it, they may not choose to act on it.”

“T
hey may not choose to act on it?” Dave Pollock repeated incredulously. “Does that make sense? You said yourself the answers are the very best that can be made, given the facts available.”

“Human activities don’t necessarily have to make sense,” she explained. “That is the prevailing and rather comfortable modern view, Mr. Pollock. There is always the individual eccentric impulse.”

“Yeah, there’s always that,” he grumbled. “Resign your private personality by running with a howling mob at Shriek Field, lose all of yourself in an insane crowd—but don’t forget your individual eccentric impulse. Never,
never
forget your individual eccentric impulse!”

She nodded soberly. “That really sums it up, in spite of your unmistakable sarcasm. Why do you find it so hard to accept? Man is both a herd animal and a highly individualistic animal—what we call a self-realizable animal. The herd instincts must be satisfied at whatever cost, and have been in the past through various forms of ingroup and outgroup activities. The need to resign one’s personality and immerse in something larger than self has been recognized since earliest times: Shriek Fields and Panic Stadiums everywhere on the planet provide for this need and expend it harmlessly.”

“I wouldn’t say it was so harmless from the look of that mechanical rabbit, or whatever it was.”

“I understand that human beings who took the place of the mechanical rabbit in the past looked much worse when a herd of men was through with them.”

S
he locked eyes with him. “Yes, Mr. Pollock, I think you know what I mean. The self-realizable instincts, on the other hand, must be satisfied, too. Usually they can be satisfied in terms of one’s daily life and work, as the herd instincts can be fulfilled by normal group relationships and identification with humanity. But occasionally the self-realizable instincts must be expressed at abnormal strengths and then we have to have a kind of private Shriek Field—the concept of individual eccentric impulse. The two are opposite poles of exactly the same thing. All we require is that another human being will not be actively interfered with.”

“And so long as that doesn’t happen,
anything
goes!”

“Exactly. Anything a person may want to do out of his own individual eccentric impulse is permitted. Encouraged, actually. Ifs not only that we believe some of humanity’s greatest achievements to have come out of individual eccentric impulses, but that we feel the greatest glory of our civilization is the homage we pay to such intrinsically personal expression.”

Dave Pollock stared at her with reluctant respect. She was bright. This was the kind of girl he might have married, if he’d gone on to his doctorate, instead of Susie. Although Susie He wondered if he’d ever see Susie again. He was astonished at how bitterly homesick he felt.

“It sounds good,” he admitted. “But living with it is another thing entirely. I guess I’m too much a product of my own culture to swallow it all the way. I can’t get over how much difference there is between our civilizations. We talk the same language, but we sure as hell don’t think the same thoughts.”

Stilia smiled warmly and sat back. “One of the reasons your period was invited to exchange visitors with us is because it was the first in which most speech patterns became constant and language shifts came to an end. Your newly invented recording devices were responsible for that. But technological progress continued.”

A hum began in the distant wall. Stilia broke off and stood up. “The Oracle Machine is ready to give you the answer to your problem. Just go inside, sit down and repeat your question in its simplest form. I wish you well.”

I wish me well, too
, Dave Pollock thought as he went through the dilated yellow square and into the tiny cube of a room. For all of Stilia’s explication, he was supremely uncomfortable in this world of simply satisfied herd instincts and individual eccentric impulses. He was no misfit, no Winthrop—he very much wanted out and to return to what was familiar.

Above all, he didn’t want to stay any longer in a world where almost any question he might think of would be answered best by the bluish, narrow, throbbing walls which surrounded him.

But—he did have a problem he couldn’t solve. And this machine could.

H
e sat down. “What do we do about Winthrop’s stubbornness?” he asked, feeling idiotically like a savage interrogating a handful of sacred bones.

A deep voice, neither masculine nor feminine in quality, rumbled from the four walls, from the ceiling, from the floor:

“You will go to the time-travel bureau in the Temporal Embassy at the proper time.”

He waited.

Nothing more was forthcoming.

“It won’t do us any good to be there,” he pointed out finally. “Winthrop is stubborn; he won’t go back with us. And unless all five of us go back together, none of us can go. That’s the way the transferring device is set. So what I want to know is, how do we persuade Winthrop without—”

Again the enormous voice:


You will go to the time-travel bureau in the Temporal Embassy at the proper time.

And that seemed to be that.

Dave Pollock trudged out and told Stilia what had happened.

“It seems to me,” he commented a little nastily, “that the machine found the problem was just a bit too much for it and was trying hard to pass the buck to the Temporal Embassy.”

“All the same, I would do what it advised. Unless, of course, you find another, subtler interpretation of the answer.”

“Or unless my individual eccentric impulse gets in the way?”

This time the sarcasm was lost on her. She opened her eyes wide. “That would be best of all! Imagine if you should at last learn to exercise it!”

So Dave Pollock went back to Mrs. Brucks’ room and, thoroughly exasperated, told the others of the ridiculous answer the Oracle Machine had given him on the problem of Winthrop’s stubbornness.

A
t a few minutes to six, however, all four of them—Mrs. Brucks, Oliver T. Mead, Mary Ann Carthington, Dave Pollock—were in the time-travel bureau of the Temporal Embassy, having arrived in varying stages of upset by way of jumper. They didn’t have any particular hopes: there just wasn’t anything else to do.

At precisely one minute to six, a large group of twenty-fifth-century citizens came in to the transfer room. Among them were Gygyo Rablin, the temporal supervisor; Stilia, the attendant of the Oracle Machine; Flureet, wearing the drawn look of one awaiting major transformation; Mr. Storku, returned temporarily from the Odor Festival on Venus—and many others. They carried Winthrop to his proper seat and stood back with reverent expressions on their faces.

The transfer began.

Winthrop was an old man—sixty-eight, to be exact. He had, in the past two weeks, undergone much excitement. He had been on micro-hunts, undersea hunts, teleport jaunts to incredibly distant planets, excursions numerous and fantastic.

He had had remarkable things done to his body, spectacular things done to his mind. He had pounded in pursuit at Shriek Field, scuttled fearfully at Panic Stadium. And, above all, he had eaten plentifully and repeatedly of foods grown in distant stellar systems, of dishes prepared by completely alien entities, of meals whose composition had been totally unsuspected by his metabolism. He had not grown up with these activities, with this food, as had the people of the twenty-fifth century.

Winthrop was no longer stubborn. Winthrop was dead.

BOOK: Time Waits for Winthrop
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