- Author: Murray Leinster
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Transcribers note. This etext was produced from Amazing Stories December 1957. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.THE MACHINE THAT SAVED THE WORLD By MURRAY LEINSTER
They were broadcasts from nowhere—sinister emanations flooding in from space—smashing any receiver that picked them up. What defense could Earth devise against science such as this?
Did the broadcasts foretell flesh-rending supersonic blasts?
The first broadcast came in 1972, while Mahon-modified machines were still strictly classified, and the world had heard only rumors about them. The first broadcast was picked up by a television ham in Osceola, Florida, who fumingly reported artificial interference on the amateur TV bands. He heard and taped it for ten minutes—so he said—before it blew out his receiver. When he replaced the broken element, the broadcast was gone.
But the Communications Commission looked at and listened to the tape and practically went through the ceiling. It stationed a monitor truck in Osceola for months, listening feverishly to nothing.
Then for a long while there were rumors of broadcasts which blew out receiving apparatus, but nothing definite. Weird patterns appeared on screens high-pitched or deep-bass notes sounded—and the receiver went out of operation. After the ham operator in Osceola, nobody else got more than a second or two of the weird interference before blowing his set during six very full months of CC agitation.
Then a TV station in Seattle abruptly broadcast interference superimposed on its regular network program. The screens of all sets tuned to that program suddenly showed exotic, curiously curved, meaningless patterns on top of a commercial spectacular broadcast. At the same time incredible chirping noises came from the speakers, alternating with deep-bass hootings, which spoiled the ju-ju music of the most expensive ju-ju band on the air. The interference ended only with a minor break-down in the transmitting station. It was the same sort of interference that the Communications Commission had thrown fits about in Washington. It threw further fits now.
A month later a vision-phone circuit between Chicago and Los Angeles was unusable for ten minutes. The same meaningless picture-pattern and the same preposterous noises came on and monopolized the line. It ceased when a repeater-tube went out and a parallel circuit took over. Again, frantic agitation displayed by high authority.
Then the interference began to appear more frequently, though still capriciously. Once a Presidential broadcast was confused by interference apparently originating in the White House, and again a three-way top-secret conference between the commanding officers of three military departments ceased when the unhuman-sounding noises and the scrambled picture pattern inserted itself into the closed-circuit discussion. The conference broke up amid consternation. For one reason, military circuits were supposed to be interference-proof. For another, it appeared that if interference could be spotted to this circuit or this receiver it was likely this circuit or that receiver could be tapped.
For a third reason, the broadcasts were dynamite. As received, they were badly scrambled, but they could be straightened out. Even the first one, from Osceola, was cleaned up and understood. Enough so to make top authority tear its hair and allow only fully-cleared scientific consultants in on the thing.
The content of the broadcasts was kept considerably more secret than the existence of Mahon units and what they could do. And Mahon units were brand-new, then, and being worked with only at one research installation in the United States.
The broadcasts were not so closely confined. The same wriggly patterns and alien noises were picked up in Montevideo, in Australia, in Panama City, and in grimly embattled England. All the newspapers discussed them without ever suspecting that they had been translated into plain speech. They were featured as freak news—and each new account mentioned that the broadcast reception had ended with a break-down of the receiving apparatus.
Guarded messages passed among the high authorities of the nations that picked up the stuff. A cautious inquiry went even to the Compubs.
The Union of Communist Republics answered characteristically. It asked a question about Mahon units. There were rumors, it said, about a new principle of machine-control lately developed in the United States. It was said that machines equipped with the new units did not wear out, that they exercised seeming intelligence at their tasks, and that they promised to end the enormous drain on natural resources caused by the wearing-out and using-up of standard-type machinery.
The Compub Information Office offered to trade data on the broadcasts for data about the new Mahon-modified machines. It hinted at extremely important revelations it could make.
The rest of the world deduced astutely that the Compubs were scared, too. And they were correct.
Then, quite suddenly, a break came. All previous broadcast receptions had ended with the break-down of the receiving instrument. Now a communicator named Betsy, modified in the Mahon manner and at work in the research installation working with Mahon-modified devices, began to pick up the broadcasts consistently, keeping each one on its screen until it ended.
Day after day, at highly irregular intervals, Betsy's screen lighted up and showed the weird patterns, and her loudspeakers emitted the peepings and chirps and deep-bass hootings of the broadcasts. And the high brass went into a dither to end all dithers as tapes of the received material reached the Pentagon and were translated into intelligible speech and pictures.
This was when Metech Sergeant Bellews, in charge of the Rehab Shop at Research Installation 83, came into the affair. Specifically, he entered the picture when a young second lieutenant came to the shop to fetch him to Communications Center in that post.
The lieutenant was young and tall and very military. Sergeant Bellews was not. So he snorted, upon receipt of the message. He was at work on a vacuum cleaner at the moment—a Mahon-modified machine with a flickering yellow standby light that wavered between brightness and dimness with much more than appropriate frequency. The Rehabilitation Shop was where Mahon-modified machines were brought back to usefulness when somebody messed them up. Two or three machines—an electric ironer, for one—operated slowly and hesitantly. That was occupational therapy. A washing-machine churned briskly, which was convalescence. Others, ranging from fire-control computers to teletypes and automatic lathes, simply waited with their standby lights flickering meditatively according to the manner and custom of Mahon-modified machines. They were ready for duty again.
The young lieutenant was politely urgent.
"But I been there!" protested Sergeant Bellews. "I checked! It's a communicator I named Betsy. She's all right! She's been mishandled by the kinda halfwits Communications has around, but she's a good, well-balanced, experienced machine. If she's turning out broadcasts, it's because they're comin' in! She's all right!"
"I know," said the young lieutenant soothingly. His uniform and his manners were beautiful to behold. "But the Colonel wants you there for a conference."
"I got a communicator in the shop here," said Sergeant Bellews suspiciously. "Why don't he call me?"
"Because he wants to try some new adjustments on—ah—Betsy, Sergeant. You have a way with Mahon machines. They'll do things for you they won't do for anybody else."
Sergeant Bellews snorted again. He knew he was being buttered up, but he'd asked for it. He even insisted on it, for the glory of the Metallurgical Technicians' Corps. The big brass tended to regard Metechs as in some fashion successors to the long-vanished veterinary surgeons of the Farriers' Corps, when horses were a part of the armed forces. Mahon-modified machines were new—very new—but the top brass naturally remembered everything faintly analogous and applied it all wrong. So Sergeant Bellews conducted a one-man campaign to establish the dignity of his profession.
But nobody without special Metech training ought to tinker with a Mahon-modified machine.
"If he's gonna fool with Betsy," said the Sergeant bitterly, "I guess I gotta go over an' boss the job."
He pressed a button on his work-table. The vacuum cleaner's standby light calmed down. The button provided soothing sub-threshold stimuli to the Mahon unit, not quite giving it the illusion of operating perfectly—if a Mahon unit could be said to be capable of illusion—but maintaining it in the rest condition which was the foundation of Mahon-unit operation, since a Mahon machine must never be turned off.
The lieutenant started out of the door. Sergeant Bellews followed at leisure. He painstakingly avoided ever walking the regulation two paces behind a commissioned officer. Either he walked side by side, chatting, or he walked alone. Wise officers let him get away with it.
Reaching the open air a good twenty yards behind the lieutenant, he cocked an approving eye at a police-up unit at work on the lawn outside. Only a couple of weeks before, that unit had been in a bad way. It stopped and shivered when it encountered an unfamiliar object.
But now it rolled across the grass from one path-edge to another. When it reached the second path it stopped, briskly moved itself its own width sidewise, and rolled back. On the way it competently manicured the lawn. It picked up leaves, retrieved a stray cigarette-butt, and snapped up a scrap of paper blown from somewhere. Its tactile units touched a new-planted shrub. It delicately circled the shrub and went on upon its proper course.
Once, where the grass grew taller than elsewhere, it stopped and whirred, trimming the growth back to regulation height. Then it went on about its business as before.
Sergeant Bellews felt a warm sensation. That was a good machine that had been in a bad way and he'd brought it back to normal, happy operation. The sergeant was pleased.
The lieutenant turned into the Communications building. Sergeant Bellews followed at leisure. A jeep went past him—one of the special jeeps being developed at this particular installation—and its driver was talking to someone in the back seat, but the jeep matter-of-factly turned out to avoid Sergeant Bellews. He glowed. He'd activated it. Another good machine, gathering sound experience day by day.
He went into the room where Betsy stood—the communicator which, alone among receiving devices in the whole world, picked up the enigmatic broadcasts consistently. Betsy was a standard Mark IV communicator, now carefully isolated from any aerial. She was surrounded by recording devices for vision and sound, and by the most sensitive and complicated instruments yet devised for the detection of short-wave radiation. Nothing had yet been detected reaching Betsy, but something must. No machine could originate what Betsy had been exhibiting on her screen and emitting from her speakers.
Sergeant Bellews tensed instantly. Betsy's standby light quivered hysterically from bright to dim and back again. The rate of quivering was fast. It was very nearly a sine-wave modulation of the light—and when a Mahon-modified machine goes into sine-wave flicker, it is the same as Cheyne-Stokes breathing in a human.
He plunged forward. He jerked open Betsy's adjustment-cover and fairly yelped his dismay. He reached in and swiftly completed corrective changes of amplification and scanning voltages. He balanced a capacity bridge. He soothed a saw-tooth resonator. He seemed to know by sheer intuition what was needed to be done.
After a moment or two the standby lamp wavered slowly from near-extinction to half-brightness, and then to full brightness and back again. It was completely unrhythmic and very close to normal.
"Who done this?" demanded the sergeant furiously. "He had Betsy close to fatigue collapse! He'd ought to be court-martialed!"
He was too angry to notice the three civilians in the room with the colonel and the lieutenant who'd summoned him. The young officer looked uncomfortable, but the colonel said authoritatively:
"Never mind that, Sergeant. Your Betsy was receiving something. It wasn't clear. You had not reported, as ordered, so an attempt was made to clarify the signals."
"Okay, Colonel!" said Sergeant Bellews bitterly. "You got the right to spoil machines! But if you want them to work right you got to treat 'em right!"
"Just so," said the colonel. "Meanwhile—this is Doctor Howell, Doctor Graves, and Doctor Lecky. Sergeant Bellews, gentlemen. Sergeant, these are not MDs. They've been sent by the Pentagon to work on Betsy."
"Betsy don't need workin' on!" said Sergeant Bellews belligerently. "She's a good, reliable, experienced machine! If she's handled right, she'll do better work than any machine I know!"
"Granted," said the colonel. "She's doing work now that no other machine seems able to do—drawing scrambled broadcasts from somewhere that can only be guessed at. They've been unscrambled and these gentlemen have come to get the data on Betsy. I'm sure you'll cooperate."
"What kinda data do they want?" demanded Bellews. "I can answer most questions about Betsy!"
"Which," the colonel told him, "is why I sent for you. These gentlemen have the top scientific brains in the country, Sergeant. Answer their questions about Betsy and I think some very high brass will be grateful.
"By the way, it is ordered that from now on no one is to refer to Betsy or any work on these broadcasts, over any type