IT WOULD BE WISE to explain what Courtland was doing just before the doorbell rang.
In his swank apartment on Leavenworth Street where Russian Hill drops to the flat expanse of North Beach and finally to the San Francisco Bay itself, David Courtland sat hunched over a series of routine reports, a week's file of technical data dealing with the results of the Mount Diablo tests. As research director for Pesco Paints, Courtland was concerning himself with the comparative durability of various surfaces manufactured by his company. Treated shingles had baked and sweated in the California heat for five hundred and sixty-four days. It was now time to see which pore-filler withstood oxidation, and to adjust production schedules accordingly.
Involved with his intricate analytical data, Courtland at first failed to hear the bell. In the corner of the living room his high-fidelity Bogen amplifier, turntable, and speaker were playing a Schumann symphony. His wife, Fay, was doing the dinner dishes in the kitchen. The two children, Bobby and Ralf, were already in their bunk beds, asleep. Reaching for his pipe, Courtland leaned back from the desk a moment, ran a heavy hand through his thinning gray hair . . . and heard the bell.
"Damn," he said. Vaguely, he wondered how many times the demure chimes had sounded; he had a dim subliminal memory of repeated attempts to attract his attention. Before his tired eyes the mass of report sheets wavered and receded. Who the hell was it? His watch read only nine-thirty; he couldn't really complain, yet.
"Want me to get it?" Fay called brightly from the kitchen.
"I'll get it." Wearily, Courtland got to his feet, stuffed his feet into his shoes, and plodded across the room, past the couch, floor lamp, magazine rack, the phonograph, the bookcase, to the door. He was a heavy-set middle-aged technologist, and he didn't like people interrupting his work.
In the halls stood an unfamiliar visitor. "Good evening, sir," the visitor said, intently examining a clipboard; "I'm sorry to bother you."
Courtland glared sourly at the young man. A salesman, probably. Thin, blond-haired, in a white shirt, bow tie, single-breasted blue suit, the young man stood gripping his clipboard in one hand and a bulging black suitcase with the other. His bony features were set in an expression of serious concentration. There was an air of studious confusion about him; brow wrinkled, lips tight together, the muscles of his cheeks began to twitch into overt worry. Glancing up he asked, "Is this 1846 Leavenworth? Apartment 3A?"
"That's right," Courtland said, with the infinite patience due a dumb animal.
The taut frown on the young man's face relaxed a trifle. "Yes, sir," he said, in his urgent tenor. Peering past Courtland into the apartment, he said, "I'm sorry to bother you in the evening when you're working, but as you probably know we've been pretty full up the last couple of days. That's why we couldn't answer your call sooner."
"My call?" Courtland echoed. Under his unbuttoned collar, he was beginning to glow a dull red. Undoubtedly something Fay had got him mixed up in; something she thought he should look into, something vital to gracious living. "What the hell are you talking about?" he demanded. "Come to the point."
The young man flushed, swallowed noisily, tried to grin, and then hurried on huskily, "Sir, I'm the repairman you asked for; I'm here to fix your swibble."
The facetious retort that came to Courtland's mind was one that later on he wished he had used. "Maybe," he wished he had said, "I don't want my swibble fixed. Maybe I like my swibble the way it is." But he didn't say that. Instead, he blinked, pulled the door in slightly, and said, "My what!"
"Yes, sir," the young man persisted. "The record of your swibble installation came to us as a matter of course. Usually we make an automatic adjustment inquiry, but your call preceded that -- so I'm here with complete service equipment. Now, as to the nature of your particular complaint. . ." Furiously, the young man pawed through the sheaf of papers on his clipboard. "Well, there's no point in looking for that; you can tell me orally. As you probably know, sir, we're not officially a part of the vending corporation. . . we have what is called an insurance-type coverage that comes into existence automatically, when your purchase is made. Of course, you can cancel the arrangement with us." Feebly, he tried a joke. "I have heard there're a couple of competitors in the service business."
Stern morality replaced humor. Pulling his lank body upright, he finished, "But let me say that we've been in the swibble repair business ever since old R.J. Wright introduced the first A-driven experimental model."
For a time, Courtland said nothing. Phantasmagoria swirled through his mind: random quasi-technological thoughts, reflex evaluations and notations of no importance. So swibbles broke right down, did they? Big-time business operations . . . send out a repairman as soon as the deal is closed. Monopoly tactics . . . squeeze out the competition before they have a chance. Kickback to the parent company, probably. Interwoven books.
But none of his thoughts got down to the basic issue. With a violent effort he forced his attention back onto the earnest young man who waited nervously in the hall with his black service kit and clipboard. "No," Courtland said emphatically, "no, you've got the wrong address."
"Yes, sir?" the young man quavered politely, a wave of stricken dismay crossing his features. "The wrong address? Good Lord, has dispatch got another route fouled up with that new-fangled --"
"Better look at your paper again," Courtland said, grimly pulling the door toward him. "Whatever the hell a swibble is, I haven't got one; and I didn't call you."
As he shut the door, he perceived the final horror on the young man's face, his stupefied paralysis. Then the brightly painted wood surface cut off the sight, and Courtland turned wearily back to his desk.
A swibble. What the hell was a swibble? Seating himself moodily, he tried to take up where he had left off. . . but the direction of his thoughts had been totally shattered.
There was no such thing as a swibble. And he was on the in, industrially speaking. He read U.S. News, the Wall Street Journal. If there was a swibble he would have heard about it -- unless a swibble was some pip-squeak gadget for the home. Maybe that was it.
"Listen," he yelled at his wife as Fay appeared momentarily at the kitchen door, dishcloth and blue-willow plate in her hands. "What is this business? You know anything about swibbles?"
Fay shook her head. "It's nothing of mine."
"You didn't order a chrome-and-plastic a.c.-d.c. swibble from Macy's?"
Maybe it was something for the kids. Maybe it was the latest grammar-school craze, the contemporary bolo or flip cards or knock-knock-who's-there? But nine-year-old kids didn't buy things that needed a service man carrying a massive black tool kit -- not on fifty cents a week allowance.
Curiosity overcame aversion. He had to know, just for the record, what a swibble was. Springing to his feet, Courtland hurried to the hall door and yanked it open.
The hall was empty, of course. The young man had wandered off. There was a faint smell of men's cologne and nervous perspiration, nothing more.
Nothing more, except a wadded-up fragment of paper that had come unclipped from the man's board. Courtland bent down and retrieved it from the carpet. It was a carbon copy of a route-instruction, giving code-identification, the name of the service company, the address of the caller.
The numbers, the information, meant nothing to Courtland. He closed the door and slowly returned to his desk. Smoothing out the crumpled sheet of paper, he reread the dull words again, trying to squeeze some meaning from them. The printed letterhead was:
That was it. The meager printed statement: Established in 1963. Hands trembling, Courtland reached mechanically for his pipe. Certainly, it explained why he had never heard of swibbles. It explained why he didn't own one. . . and why, no matter how many doors in the apartment building he knocked on, the young repairman wouldn't find anybody who did.
Swibbles hadn't been invented yet.
After an interval of hard, furious thought Courtland picked up the phone and dialed the home number of his subordinate at the Pesco labs.
"I don't care," he said carefully, "what you're doing this evening. I'm going to give you a list of instructions and I want them carried out right away."
At the other end of the line Jack Hurley could be heard pulling himself angrily together. "Tonight? Listen, Dave, the company isn't my mother -- I have some life of my own. If I'm supposed to come running down --"
"This has nothing to do with Pesco. I want a tape recorder and a movie camera with infrared lens. I want you to round up a legal stenographer. I want one of the company electricians -- you pick him out, but get the best. And I want Anderson from the engineering room. If you can't get him, get any of our designers. And I want somebody off the assembly line; get me some old mechanic who knows his stuff. Who really knows machines."
Doubtfully, Hurley said, "Well, you're the boss; at least, you're boss of research. But I think this will have to be cleared with the company. Would you mind if I went over your head and got an okay from Pesbroke?"
"Go ahead." Courtland made a quick decision. "Better yet, I'll call him myself; he'll probably have to know what's going on."
"What is going on?" Hurley demanded curiously. "I never heard you sound this way before . . . has somebody brought out a self-spraying paint?"
Courtland hung up the phone, waited out a torturous interval, and then dialed his superior, the owner of Pesco Paint.
"You have a minute?" he asked tightly, when Pesbroke's wife had roused the white-haired old man from his after-dinner nap and got him to the phone. "I'm mixed up in something big; I want to talk to you about it."
"Has it got to do with paint?" Pesbroke muttered, half humorously, half seriously. "If not --"
Courtland interrupted him. Speaking slowly, he gave a full account of his contact with the swibble repairman.
When Courtland had finished, his employer was silent. "Well," Pesbroke said finally, "I guess I could go through some kind of routine. But you've got me interested. All right, I'll buy it. But," he added quietly, "if this is an elaborate time-waster, I'm going to bill you for the use of the men and equipment."
"By time-waster, you mean if nothing profitable comes out of this?"
"No," Pesbroke said. "I mean, if you know it's a fake; if you're consciously going along with a gag. I've got a migraine headache and I'm not going along with a gag. If you're serious, if you really think this might be something, I'll put the expenses on the company books."
"I'm serious," Courtland said. "You and I are both too damn old to play games."
"Well," Pesbroke reflected, "the older you get, the more you're apt to go off the deep end; and this sounds pretty deep." He could be heard making up his mind. "I'll telephone Hurley and give him the okay. You can have whatever you want. . . I suppose you're going to try to pin this repairman down and find out what he really is."
"That's what I want to do."
"Suppose he's on the level. . . what then?"
"Well," Courtland said cautiously, "then I want to find out what a swibble is. As a starter. Maybe after that --"
"You think he'll be back?"
"He might be. He won't find the right address; I know that. Nobody in this neighborhood called for a swibble repairman."
"What do you care what a swibble is? Why don't you find out how he got from his period back here?"
"I think he knows what a swibble is -- and I don't think he knows how he got here. He doesn't even know he's here."
Pesbroke agreed. "That's reasonable. If I come over, will you let me in? I'd sort of enjoy watching."
"Sure," Courtland said, perspiring, his eye on the closed door to the hall.
"But you'll have to watch from the other room. I don't want anything to foul this up . . . we may never have another chance like this."
Grumpily, the jury-rigged company team filed into the apartment and stood waiting for Courtland to instruct. Jack Hurley, in aloha sports shirt, slacks, and crepe-soled shoes, clodded resentfully over to Courtland and waved his cigar in his face. "Here we are; I don't know what you told Pesbroke, but you certainly pulled him along." Glancing around the apartment, he asked, "Can I assume we're going to get the pitch now? There's not much these people can do unless they understand what they're after."
In the bedroom doorway stood Courtland's two sons, eyes half-shut with sleep. Fay nervously swept them up and herded them back into the bedroom. Around the living room the various men and women took up uncertain positions, their faces registering outrage, uneasy curiosity, and bored indifference. Anderson, the designing engineer, acted aloof and blase. MacDowell, the stoop-shouldered, pot-bellied lathe operator, glared with proletarian resentment at the expensive furnishings of the apartment, and then sank into embarrassed apathy as he perceived his own work boots and grease-saturated pants. The recording specialist was trailing wire from his microphones to the tape recorder set up in the kitchen. A slim young woman, the legal stenographer, was trying to make herself comfortable in a chair in the corner. On the couch, Parkinson, the plant emergency electrician, was glancing idly through a copy of Fortune.
"Where's the camera equipment?" Courtland demanded.
"Coming," Hurley answered. "Are you trying to catch somebody trying out the old Spanish Treasure bunco?"
"I wouldn't need an engineer and an electrician for that," Courtland said dryly. Tensely, he paced around the living room. "Probably he won't even show up; he's probably back in his own time, by now, or wandering around God knows where."
"Who?" Hurley shouted, puffing gray cigar smoke in growing agitation. "What's going on?"
"A man knocked on my door," Courtland told him briefly. "He talked about some machinery, equipment I never heard of. Something called a swibble."
Around the room blank looks passed back and forth.
"Let's guess what a swibble is," Courtland continued grimly. "Anderson, you start. What would a swibble be?"
Anderson grinned. "A fish hook that chases down fish."
Parkinson volunteered a guess. "An English car with only one wheel."
Grudgingly, Hurley came next. "Something dumb. A machine for house-breaking pets."
"A new plastic bra," the legal stenographer suggested.
"I don't know," MacDowell muttered resentfully. "I never heard of anything like that."
"All right," Courtland agreed, again examining his watch. He was getting close to hysteria; an hour had passed and there was no sign of the repairman. "We don't know; we can't even guess. But someday, nine years from now, a man named Wright is going to invent a swibble, and it's going to become big business. People are going to make them; people are going to buy them and pay for them; repairmen are going to come around and service them."
The door opened and Pesbroke entered the apartment, overcoat over his arm, crushed Stetson hat clamped over his head. "Has he showed up again?" His ancient, alert eyes darted around the room. "You people look ready to go."
"No sign of him," Courtland said drearily. "Damn it -- I sent him off; I didn't grasp it until he was gone." He showed Pesbroke the crumpled carbon.
"I see," Pesbroke said, handing it back. "And if he comes back you're going to tape what he says, and photograph everything he has in the way of equipment." He indicated Anderson and MacDowell. "What about the rest of them? What's the need of them?"
"I want people here who can ask the right questions," Courtland explained. "We won't get answers any other way. The man, if he shows up at all, will stay only a finite time. During that time, we've got to find out -- -" He broke off as his wife came up beside him. "What is it?"
"The boys want to watch," Fay explained. "Can they? They promise they won't make any noise." She added wistfully, "I'd sort of like to watch, too."
"Watch, then," Courtland answered gloomily. "Maybe there won't be anything to see."
While Fay served coffee around, Courtland went on with his explanation. "First of all, we want to find out if this man is on the level. Our first questions will be aimed at tripping him up; I want these specialists to go to work on him. If he's a fake, they'll probably find it out."
"And if he isn't?" Anderson asked, an interested expression on his face. "If he isn't, you're saying. . ."
"If he isn't, then he's from the next decade, and I want him pumped for all he's worth. But --" Courtland paused. "I doubt if we'll get much theory. I had the impression that he's a long way down on the totem pole. The best we probably can do is get a run-down on his specific work. From that, we may have to assemble our picture, make our own extrapolations."
"You think he can tell us what he does for a living," Pesbroke said cannily, "but that's about it."
"We'll be lucky if he shows up at all," Courtland said. He settled down on the couch and began methodically knocking his pipe against the ashtray. "All we can do is wait. Each of you think over what you're going to ask. Try to figure out the questions you want answered by a man from the future who doesn't know he's from the future, who's trying to repair equipment that doesn't yet exist."
"I'm scared," the legal stenographer said, white-faced and wide-eyed, her coffee cup trembling.
"I'm about fed up," Hurley muttered, eyes fixed sullenly on the floor. "This is all a lot of hot air."
It was just about that time that the swibble repairman came again, and once more timidly knocked on the hall door.
The young repairman was flustered. And he was getting perturbed. "I'm sorry, sir," he began without preamble. "I can see you have company, but I've rechecked my route instructions and this is absolutely the right address." He added plaintively, "I tried some other apartments; nobody knew what I was talking about."
"Come in," Courtland managed. He stepped aside, got himself between the swibble repairman and the door, and ushered him into the living room.
"Is this the person?" Pesbroke rumbled doubtfully, his gray eyes narrowing.
Courtland ignored him. "Sit down," he ordered the swibble repairman. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Anderson and Hurley and MacDowell moving in closely; Parkinson threw down his Fortune and got quickly to his feet. In the kitchen, the sound of tape running through the recording head was audible . . . the room had begun moving into activity.
"I could come some other time," the repairman said apprehensively, eyeing the closing circle of people. "I don't want to bother you, sir, when you have guests."
Perched grimly on the arm of the couch, Courtland said, "This is as good a time as any. In fact, this is the best time." A wild flood of relief spilled over him: now they had a chance. "I don't know what got into me," he went on rapidly. "I was confused. Of course I have a swibble; it's set up in the dining room."
The repairman's face twitched with a spasm of laughter. "Oh, really," he choked. "In the dining room? That's about the funniest joke I've heard in weeks."
Courtland glanced at Pesbroke. What the hell was so funny about that? Then his flesh began to crawl; cold sweat broke out on his forehead and the palms of his hands. What the hell was a swibble? Maybe they had better find out right away -- or not at all. Maybe they were getting into something deeper than they knew. Maybe -- and he didn't like the thought -- they were better off where they were.
"I was confused," he said, "by your nomenclature. I don't think of it as a swibble." Cautiously, he finished, "I know that's the popular jargon, but with that much money involved, I like to think of it by its legitimate title."
The swibble repairman looked completely confused; Courtland realized that he had made another mistake; apparently swibble was its correct name.
Pesbroke spoke up. "How long have you been repairing swibbles, Mr. . . ." He waited, but there was no response from the thin, blank face. "What's your name, young man?" he demanded.
"My what?" The swibble repairman pulled jerkily away. "I don't understand you, sir."
Good Lord, Courtland thought. It was going to be a lot harder than he had realized -- than any of them had realized.
Angrily, Pesbroke said, "You must have a name. Everybody has a name."
The young repairman gulped and stared down red-faced at the carpet. "I'm still only in service group four, sir. So I don't have a name yet."
"Let it go," Courtland said. What kind of a society gave out names as a status privilege? "I want to make sure you're a competent repairman," he explained. "How long have you been repairing swibbles?"
"For six years and three months," the repairman asserted. Pride took the place of embarrassment. "In junior high school I showed a straight-A record in swibble-maintenance aptitude." His meager chest swelled. "I'm a born swibble-man,"
"Fine," Courtland agreed uneasily; he couldn't believe the industry was that big. They gave tests in junior high school? Was swibble maintenance considered a basic talent, like symbol manipulation and manual dexterity? Had swibble work become as fundamental as musical talent, or as the ability to conceive spatial relationships?
"Well," the repairman said briskly, gathering up his bulging tool kit, "I'm all ready to get started. I have to be back at the shop before long. . . I've got a lot of other calls."
Bluntly, Pesbroke stepped up squarely in front of the thin young man. "What is a swibble?" he demanded. "I'm tired of this damn fooling around. You say you work on these things -- what are they? That's a simple enough question; they must be something."
"Why," the young man said hesitantly, "I mean, that's hard to say. Suppose -- well, suppose you ask me what a cat or a dog is. How can I answer that?'
"We're getting nowhere," Anderson spoke up. "The swibble is manufactured, isn't it? You must have schematics, then; hand them over."
The young repairman gripped his tool kit defensively. "What in the world is the matter, sir? If this is your idea of a joke -- " He turned back to Courtland. "I'd like to start work; I really don't have much time."
Standing in the corner, hands shoved deep in his pockets, MacDowell said slowly, "I've been thinking about getting a swibble. The missus thinks we ought to have one."
"Oh, certainly," the repairman agreed. Color rising in his cheeks, he rushed on, "I'm surprised you don't have a swibble already; in fact, I can't imagine what's wrong with you people. You're all acting -- oddly. Where, if I may ask, do you come from? Why are you so -- well, so uninformed?"
"These people," Courtland explained, "come from a part of the country where there aren't any swibbles."
Instantly, the repairman's face hardened with suspicion. "Oh?" he said sharply. "Interesting. What part of the country is that?"
Again, Courtland had said the wrong thing; he knew that. While he floundered for a response, MacDowell cleared his throat and inexorably went on. "Anyhow," he said, "we've been meaning to get one. You have any folders with you? Pictures of different models?"
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 sure 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 real 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, we won."
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 scientific 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 certain 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 half loyal? With your own swibble, your outlook will be corrected by painless degrees . . . but if you wait, if you just hope 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 that; 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.
While she was filling the Silex with water, the doorbell quietly rang.
The roomful of people froze. They looked at each other, mute and horrified.
"He's back," Hurley said thickly.
"Maybe it's not him," Anderson suggested weakly. "Maybe it's the camera people, finally."
But none of them moved toward the door. After a time the bell rang again, longer, and more insistently.
"We have to answer it," Pesbroke said woodenly.
"Not me," the legal stenographer quavered.
"This isn't my apartment," MacDowell pointed out.
Courtland moved rigidly toward the door. Even before he took hold of the knob he knew what it was. Dispatch, using its new-fangled instantaneous transmission. Something to get work crews and repairmen directly to their stations. So control of the swibbles would be absolute and perfect; so nothing would go wrong.
But something had gone wrong. The control had fouled itself up. It was working upside down, completely backward. Self-defeating, futile: it was too perfect. Gripping the knob, he tore the door open.
Standing in the hall were four men. They wore plain gray uniforms and caps. The first of them whipped off his cap, glanced at a written sheet of paper, and then nodded politely at Courtland.
"Evening, sir," he said cheerfully. He was a husky man, wide-shouldered, with a shock of thick brown hair hanging over his sweat-shiny forehead. "We -- uh -- got a little lost, I guess. Took a while to get here."
Peering into the apartment, he hitched up his heavy leather belt, stuffed his route sheet into his pocket, and rubbed his large, competent hands together.
"It's downstairs in the trunk," he announced, addressing Courtland and the whole living room of people. "Tell me where you want it, and we'll bring it right up. We should have a good-sized space -- that side over there by the window should do." Turning away, he and his crew moved energetically toward the service elevator. "These late-model swibbles take up a lot of room."