The Complete Stories (Page 59)

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"Sure."

"So if we go down to the museum, we can get to learn how to make words in squiggles. They’ll let us because I’m going to computer school."

Niccolo was riddled with disappointment. "Is that your idea? Holy Smokes, Paul, who wants to do that? Make stupid squiggles!"

"Don’t you get it? Don’t you get it? You dope. It’ll be secret message stuff/"

"What?"

"Sure. What good is talking when everyone can understand you? With squiggles you can send secret messages. You can make them on paper and nobody in the world would know what you were saying unless they knew the squiggles, too. And they wouldn’t, you bet, unless we taught them. We can have a real club, with initiations and rules and a clubhouse. Boy-"

A certain excitement began stirring in Niccolo’s bosom. "What kind of secret messages?"

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"Any kind. Say I want to tell you to come over my place and watch my new Visual Bard and I don’t want any of the other fellows to come. I make the right squiggles on paper and I give it to you and you look at it and you know what to do. Nobody else does. You can even show it to them and they wouldn’t know a thing."

"Hey, that’s something," yelled Niccolo, completely won over. "When do we learn how?"

"Tomorrow," said Paul. "I’ll get Mr. Daugherty to explain to the museum that it’s all right and you get your mother and father to say okay. We can go down right after school and start learning."

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"Sure!" cried Niccolo. "We can be club officers."

"I’ll be president of the club," said Paul matter-of-factly. "You can be vice-president."

"All right. Hey, this is going to be tots more fun than the Bard." He was suddenly reminded of the Bard and said in sudden apprehension, "Hey, what about my old Bard?"

Paul turned to look at it. It was quietly taking in the slowly unreeling book, and the sound of the book’s vocalizations was a dimly heard murmur.

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He said, "I’ll disconnect it."

He worked away while Niccolo watched anxiously. After a few moments, Paul put his reassembled book into his pocket, replaced the Bard’s panel and activated it.

The Bard said, "Once upon a time, in a large city, there lived a poor young boy named Fair Johnnie whose only friend in the world was a small computer. The computer, each morning, would tell the boy whether it would rain that day and answer any problems he might have. It was never wrong. But it so happened that one day, the king of that land, having heard of the little computer, decided that he would have it as his own. With this purpose in mind, he called in his Grand Vizier and said-"

Niccolo turned off the Bard with a quick motion of his hand. "Same old junk," he said passionately, "fust with a computer thrown in."

"Well," said Paul, "they got so much stuff on the tape already that the computer business doesn’t show up much when random combinations are made. What’s the difference, anyway? You just need a new model."

"We’ll never be able to afford one. Just this dirty old miserable thing." He kicked at it again, hitting it more squarely this time. The Bard moved backward with a squeal of castors.

"You can always watch mine, when I get it," said Paul. "Besides, don’t forget our squiggle club."

Niccolo nodded.

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"I tell you what," said Paul. "Let’s go over to my place. My father has some books about old times. We can listen to them and maybe get some ideas. You leave a note for your folks and maybe you can stay over for supper. Come on."

"Okay," said Niccolo, and the two boys ran out together. Niccolo, in his eagerness, ran almost squarely into the Bard, but he only rubbed at the spot on his hip where he had made contact and ran on.

The activation signal of the Bard glowed. Niccolo’s collision closed a circuit and, although it was alone in the room and there was none to hear, it began a story, nevertheless.

But not in its usual voice, somehow; in a lower tone that had a hint of throatiness in it. An adult, listening, might almost have thought that the voice carried a hint of passion in it, a trace of near feeling.

The Bard said: "Once upon a time, there was a little computer named the Bard who lived all alone with cruel step-people. The cruel step-people continually made fun of the little computer and sneered at him, telling him he was good-for-nothing and that he was a useless object. They struck him and kept him in lonely rooms for months at a time.

"Yet through it all the little computer remained brave. He always did the best he could, obeying all orders cheerfully. Nevertheless, the step-people with whom he lived remained cruel and heartless.

"One day, the little computer learned that in the world there existed a great many computers of all sorts, great numbers of them. Some were Bards like himself, but some ran factories, and some ran farms. Some organized population and some analyzed all kinds of data. Many were very powerful and very wise, much more powerful and wise than the step-people who were so cruel to the little computer.

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"And the little computer knew then that computers would always grow wiser and more powerful until someday-someday-someday-"

But a valve must finally have stuck in the Bard’s aging and corroding vitals, for as it waited alone in the darkening room through the evening, it could only whisper over and over again, "Someday-someday-someday."

The Author’s Ordeal

(with apologies to W. S. gilbert)

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Plots, helter-skelter, teem within your brain;

Plots, s.f. plots, devised with joy and gladness; Plots crowd your skull and stubbornly remain,

Until you’re driven into hopeless madness.

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