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Title: Double or Nothing
Author: Sharkey, Jack, 1931-
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Double or Nothing" ***

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                          DOUBLE or NOTHING

                           By JACK SHARKEY

    [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Fantastic Stories
    of Imagination May 1962. Extensive research did not uncover any
    evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

     _The mind quails before certain contemplations?_

     _The existence of infinity, for instance._

     _Or finity, for that matter._

     _Or 50,000 batches of cornflakes dumped from the sky._

I don't know why I listen to Artie Lindstrom. Maybe it's because at
times (though certainly not--I hope--on as permanent a basis as Artie)
I'm as screwy as he is. At least, I keep letting myself get sucked into
his plans, every time he's discovered the "invention that will change
the world". He discovers it quite a bit; something new every time.
And, Artie having a natural mechanical aptitude that would probably
rate as point-nine-nine-ad-infinitum on a scale where one-point-oh was
perfection, all his inventions work. Except--

Well, take the last thing we worked on. (He usually includes me in his
plans because, while he's the better cooker-upper of these gadgets,
I've got the knack for building them. Artie can't seem to slip a radio
tube into its socket without shattering the glass, twist a screwdriver
without gouging pieces out of his thumb, nor even solder an electrical
connection without needing skin-grafts for the hole he usually burns in
his hand.)

So we're a team, Artie and me. He does the planning, I do the
constructing. Like, as I mentioned, the last thing we worked on. He
invented it; I built it. A cap-remover (like for jars and ketchup
bottles). But not just a clamp-plus-handle, like most of the same
gadgets. Nope, this was electronic, worked on a tight-beam radio-wave,
plus something to do with the expansion coefficients of the metals
making up the caps, so that, from anyplace in line-of-sight of her home,
the housewife could shove a stud, and come home to find all the caps
unscrewed on her kitchen shelves, and the contents ready for getting at.
It did, I'll admit, have a nice name: The Teletwist.

Except, where's the point in unscrewing caps unless you're physically
present to make use of the contents of the jars? I mentioned this to
Artie when I was building the thing, but he said, "Wait and see. It'll
be a novelty, like hula hoops a couple of decades back. Novelties always
catch on."

       *       *       *       *       *

Well, he was wrong. When we finally found a manufacturer softheaded
enough to mass-produce a few thousand of the gadgets, total sales for
the entire country amounted to seventeen. Of course, the price was kind
of prohibitive: Thirteen-fifty per Teletwist. Why would a housewife
lay that kind of money on the line when she'd already, for a two-buck
license, gotten a husband who could be relied upon (well, most of the
time) to do the same thing for her?

Not, of course, that we didn't finally make money on the thing. It was
just about that time, you'll remember, that the Imperial Martian Fleet
decided that the third planet from Sol was getting a bit too powerful,
and they started orbiting our planet with ultimatums. And while they
were waiting for our answer, our government quietly purchased Artie's
patent, made a few little adjustments on his cap-twister, and the _next_
thing the Martians knew, all their airlocks were busily unscrewing
themselves with nothing outside them except hungry vacuum. It was also
the _last_ thing the Martians knew.

So Artie's ideas seem to have their uses, all right. Only, for some
reason, Artie never thinks of the proper application for his latest
newfound principle. That neat little disintegrator pistol carried by the
footsoldiers in the Three Day War (with Venus; remember Venus?) was a
variation on a cute little battery-powered device of Artie's, of which
the original function had been to rid one's house of roaches.

At any rate--at a damned _good_ rate, in fact--the government always
ended up paying Artie (and me, as his partner-confederate-cohort) an
anything-but-modest fee for his patents. We weren't in the millionaire
class, yet, but neither were we very far out of it. And we were much
better off than any millionaires, since Artie had persuaded the
government to let us, in lieu of payment for another patent of his
(for his Nixsal; the thing that was supposed to convert sea-water into
something drinkable, and did: Gin.), be tax-free for the rest of our

(It was quite a concession for the government to make. But then, the
government-produced "George Washington Gin" is quite a concession in

So I guess you could say I keep listening to Artie Lindstrom because
of the financial rewards. I must admit they're nice. And it's kind of
adventurous, when I'm working on Artie's latest brainstorm, to let
myself wonder what--since I generally scrap Artie's prognosis for the
gadget's future--the damned thing will _actually_ be used for.

Or, at least, it _was_ kind of adventurous, until Artie started in on
his scheme of three weeks ago: a workable anti-gravity machine. And now,
I'm feeling my first tremors of regret that I ever hooked up with the
guy. Because--Well, it happened like this:

       *       *       *       *       *

"It looks great," I said, lifting my face from the blueprint, and
nodding across the workbench at Artie. "But what the hell does it do?"

Artie shoved a shock of dust-colored hair back off his broad, dull pink
forehead, and jabbed excitedly with a grimy forefinger at the diagram.
"Can't you _tell_, Burt? What does _this_ look like!"

My eyes returned to the conglomeration of sketchy cones beneath his
flailing finger, and I said, as truthfully as possible, "A pine forest
on a lumpy hill."

"Those," he said, his tone hurt as it always was when I inadvertently
belittled his draftmanship, "are flywheels."

"Cone-shaped flywheels?" I said. "Why, for pete's sake?"

"Only," he said, with specious casualness, "in order to develop a
centrifugal thrust that runs in a _straight line_!"

"A centr--" I said, then sat back from the drawings, blinking. "That's
impossible, Artie."

"And why should it be?" he persisted. "Picture an umbrella, with the
fabric removed. Now twirl the handle on its axis. What do the ribs do?"

"I suppose they splay out into a circle?"

"Right," he exulted. "And if they _impeded_ from splaying out? If,
instead of separate ribs, we have a hollow, bottomless cone of metal?
Where does the force go?"

I thought it over, then said, with deliberation, "In _all_ directions,
Artie. One part shoving up-to-the-right, one part up-to-the-left, like

"Sure," he said, his face failing to fight a mischievous grin. "And
since none of them move, where does the _resultant_ force go?"

I shrugged, "Straight up, I guess--" Then my ears tuned in belatedly on
what I'd said, and a moment later I squeaked, "Artie! Straight _up_!"

       *       *       *       *       *

He nodded eagerly. "Or, of course, straight east, straight west, or
whichever way the ferrule of this here theoretical umbrella was pointed
at the time the twirling began. The point is, we can generate pure force
in _any_ direction. What do you think? Can you build it?"

"It'd be child's play. In fact, Artie, it's _too_ damned simple to be
believed! What's the hitch? Why hasn't anyone tried it before _now_?"

"Who knows?" he said, his blue eyes dancing. "Maybe no one ever thought
of it before. You could sit down and twist a paper clip out of a hunk
of soft wire, couldn't you? Easy as pie. But someone had to invent the
thing, first. All the great inventions have been simple. Look at the

"Okay, okay," I said, since I'd been sold on his gadget the moment
I pictured that umbrella moving ferruleward like a whirling arrow.
"Still, it looks like you're getting something for nothing. A kind of
by-your-own-bootstraps maneuver...."

"An inventor," said Artie, quoting his favorite self-coined aphorism,
"must never think like a scientist!"

"But"--I said, more to stem the tide I expected than to really make a
coherent objection.

"An inventor," he went dreamily onward, "is essentially a dreamer; a
scientist is an observer. An inventor tries to make a result he wants
happen; a scientist tries to tell the inventor that the result cannot be

"Please. Artie. Don't tell me about the bee again."

But Artie told me about the bumblebee, and how there were still some
scientists who insisted, according to the principles of aerodynamics,
that it was not constructed properly to enable it to fly. And about
how men of this short-sighted ilk were still scoffing at the ancient
alchemist's talk of the Philosopher's Stone for transmuting metals, even
though transmutation of metals was being done every day in atomic piles.
And how he'd theorized that there _was_ once a genuine Philosopher's
Stone, probably a hunk of pure U-235, that someone had managed to make,
which might explain why so many alchemists (lacking, unfortunately, any
knowledge of heavy radiations or Geiger counters) sort of died off in
their quest for the stone.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was nearly lunchtime when he finished his spiel, and I was kicking
myself in my short-memoried brain for having let him get onto the
subject, when abruptly the joyous glow behind his eyes damped its
sparkle a bit.

"There _is_ one little hitch--"

"I thought it looked too easy," I sighed, waiting for the clinker.
"Don't tell me it has to be made out of pure Gallium, which has the
regrettable tendency to liquiefy at about thirty degrees centigrade? Or
perhaps of the most elusive of its eleven isotopes?"

"No, no, nothing like that," he murmured almost distractedly. "It's the
force-per-gram part that's weak."

"Don't tell me," I said unhappily, "that this thing'll only generate
enough force to lift itself?"

A feeble ghost of his erstwhile grin rode briefly across his lips.
"That's the way it works out on paper," he said.

"Which means," I realized aloud, "that it's commercially useless,
because what's the good of an anti-gravity machine that can't lift
anything except _itself_! It falls into the class of lifeboats that
float up to the gunwales in the water while still _empty_. Fun to watch,
but impossible to use. Hell, Artie, if that's the setup, then this
thing wouldn't be any more help to a space-aiming government than an
aborigine's boomerang; it flies beautifully, but not if the aborigine
tries to go _with_ it."

"However," he said, a bit more brightly, "I've been wrong on paper
before. Remember the bumblebee, Burt! _That_ theory still holds up on
paper. But the bee still flies."

He had me, there. "So you want I should build it anyhow, just on the
off-chance that it _won't_ follow the rules of physical logic, and will
decide to generate a force above and beyond its own gravitic drag?"

"That's it," he said happily. "And even if it only manages to negate
its own weight, we'll have an easier time ironing the bugs out of a
model than we would out of a diagram. After all, who'd have figured that
beyond _Mach I_, all the lift-surfaces on a plane work in _reverse_?"

It wasn't, I had to admit, anything that an inventor could have
reasonably theorized at the outset.... So I locked myself in the lab for
a week, and built his gadget, while he spent his time pacing through his
fourteen-room mansion across the way from the lab building (the "way"
being the flat grassy region on Artie's estate that housed his swimming
pool, private heliport, and movie theatre), trying to coin a nifty name
for the thing. We both finished in a dead heat.

       *       *       *       *       *

I unlocked the door of the lab, blinked hard against the sting of warm
yellow sunlight after a week of cool blue fluorescents, and just as I
wheezed, "Got it," Artie was counterpointing with, "We'll call it The
_Uuaa_!" (He made four syllables out of it.)

"The Oo-oo-_ah_-ah?" I glottaled. "In honor of the fiftieth state, or
what? I know 'aa' is a type of lava, but what the hell's 'uu', besides
the noise a man makes getting into an overheated bath?"

Artie pouted. "'Uuaa' is initials. For 'Up, up, and away!' I thought it
was pretty good."

I shook my head. "Why feed free fodder to the telecomics? I can hear
them now, doing monologues about people getting beri-beri flying from
Walla Walla to Pago Pago on their Uuaas...."

"So what would _you_ call it!" he grunted.

"A bust," I sighed, left-thumbing over my shoulder at the lab. "It sits
and twirls and whistles a little, but that's about the size of it,

He spanieled with his eyes, basset-hounded with his mouth, and
orangutaned with his cheeks, then said, with dim hope, "Did you weigh
it? Maybe if you weighed it--"

"Oh, it lost, all right," I admitted. "When I connected the batteries,
the needle on the scale dropped down to zero, and stopped there. And I
found that I could lift the machine into the air, and it'd stay where it
was put, just whistling and whirling its cones. But then it started to
settle." I beckoned him back inside.

"Settle? Why?" Artie asked.

"Dust," I said. "There's always a little dust settling out of the air.
It doesn't weigh _much_, but it made the machine weigh at least what the
dust-weight equalled, and down it went. Slow and easy, but down."

Artie looked at the gadget, sitting and whistling on the floor of the
lab, then turned a bleak-but-still-hopeful glance my way. "Maybe--If we
could make a _guy_ take on a cone-shape, and whirled him--"

"Sure," I muttered. "Bend over, grab his ankles, and fly anywhere in
the world, with his torso and legs pivoting wildly around his peaked
behind." I shook my head. "Besides the manifestly undignified posturing
involved, we have to consider the other effects; like having his
eyeballs fly out."

"If--If we had a bunch of men lie in a circle around a kind of
Maypole-thing, each guy clutching the ankles of the next one...."

"Maybe they'd be weightless, but they _still_ wouldn't go _up_," I
said. "Unless they could be towed, somehow. And by the time they
landed, they'd be too nauseous to be of any use for at least three
days. Always assuming, of course, that the weak-wristed member of the
sick circlet didn't lose his grip, and have them end up playing mid-air
crack-the-whip before they fell."

"So all right, it's got a couple of bugs!" said Artie. "But the
principle's sound, right?"

"Well--Yeah, there you got me, Artie. The thing _cancels_ weight,

"Swell. So we work from there," He rubbed his hands together joyously.
"And who knows what we'll come up with."

"_We_ never do, that's for sure," I mumbled.

But Artie just shrugged. "I like surprises," he said.

       *       *       *       *       *

The end of the day--me working, Artie inventing--found us with some
new embellishments for the machine. Where it was originally a sort
of humped metal box (the engine went inside the hump) studded with
toothbrush-bristle rows of counter-revolving cones (lest elementary
torque send the machine swinging the other way, and thus destroy the
thrust-effect of the cones), it now had an additional feature: A helical
flange around each cone.

"You see," Artie explained, while I was torching them to order from
plate metal, "the helices will provide _lift_ as the cones revolve."

"Only in the atmosphere of the planet," I said.

"Sure, I know. But by the time the outer limits of the air are reached,
the machine, with the same mass-thrust, will have less gravity-drag
to fight, being that much farther from the Earth. The effect will be
cumulative. The higher it gets, the more outward thrust it'll generate.
Then nothing'll stop it!"

"You could be right," I admitted, hammering out helix after helix on an
electric anvil (another gadget of Artie's; the self-heating anvil--The
Thermovil--had begun life as a small inspiration in Artie's mind for a
portable toaster).

It was just after sunset when we figured the welds were cool enough so
we could test it. Onto the scale it went again, I flicked the toggle,
and we stood back to watch the needle as the cones picked up speed.
Along with the original whistling sound made by the cones we began to
detect a shriller noise, one which abruptly became a genuine pain in the
ear. As Artie and I became somewhat busy with screaming (the only thing
we could think of on the spur of the moment to counteract the terrible
waves of noise assaulting our tympana), it was all at once much easier
to see the needle of the scale dropping toward zero, as the glass disc
facing the dial dissolved into gritty powder, along with the glass panes
in every window in the lab, the house, the heliport, and the movie
theatre. (Not to mention those of a few farmhouses a couple of miles
down the highway, but we didn't find that out till their lawyers showed
up with bills for damages.)

Sure enough, though, the thing lifted. Up it bobbed, like a metal
dirigible with agonizing gas pains, shrieking louder by the second.
When the plaster started to trickle and flake from the walls, and the
fillings in my teeth rose to a temperature just short of incandescence,
I decided it was time to cancel this phase of the experiment, and, with
very little regret, I flung a blanket-like canvas tarpaulin up and over
the ascending machine before it started using its helices to screw into
the ceiling. The cones bit into the tarpaulin, tangled, jammed, and the
machine--mercifully noiseless, now--crashed back onto the scale, and
lost a lot of symmetry and a couple of rivets.

"What's Plan C?" I said to Artie.

"_Quiet!_" he said, either because I'd interrupted his thinking or
because that was our next goal.

       *       *       *       *       *

The next four days were spent in the arduous and quite tricky business
of reaming acoustically spaced holes along the flanges. Artie's theory
was that if we simply ("simply" was his word, not mine) fixed it so
that the sound made by each flange (anything whirly with a hole or two
in it is bound to make a calculated noise) was of the proper number of
vibrations to intermesh with the compression/rarefaction phases of the
sounds made by the other flanges, a veritable sphere of silence would be
thereby created, since there'd be no room for any sound waves to pass
through the already crowded atmosphere about the machine.

"It'll make less noise than a mouse in sneakers drooling on a blotter!"
enthused Artie, when I had it rigged again, and ready to go.

"Still," I said uncertainly, "whether we _hear_ it or not, all that
soundwave-energy has to do _something_, Artie. If it turns ultrasonic,
we may suddenly find ourselves in a showerbath of free electrons and
even _worse_ subatomic particles from disrupted air molecules. Or the
lab might turn molten on us. Or--"

"Oh, turn it _on_, Burt!" said Artie. "That's just a chance we have to

"Don't see why we _have_ to take it...." I groused, but I'm as curious
as the next man, so I turned it on. (I could have arranged to do it by
remote control, except for two pressing deterrents: One--At a remote
point of control, I wouldn't be able to watch what, if anything,
the machine did, and Two--Who knows where the _safe_ spot is where
soundwaves are concerned? With some sonic forces, you're safer the
_nearer_ you get to the source.) So, like I said, I turned it on.

Silence. Beautiful, blissful, silence. There before us twirled the rows
of shiny cones, lifting slowly into the air, and there was nothing
to hear at all. Beside me, Artie's lips moved, but I couldn't catch
a syllable. This time around, we'd looped a rope through a few metal
grommets in the base of the machine, and as it rose, Artie slipped the
trailing ends under his arms from behind, and proceeded to lash it
across his chest, to test the thing's lift-power. As he fumbled with the
knot, I shouted at him, "Use a firm hitch!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Nothing came out, but Artie wasn't a bad lip-reader. He scowled, and
his lips made a "_What?!_" motion, so I repeated my caution. Next thing
I knew, he was taking a poke at me, and I, to fend him off, ended up
wrestling on the floor with him, while the untended machine burred its
way into the ceiling, until the engine overheated and burned away the
electrical insulation on the wires, and the machine, plus a good two
feet square of lab-ceiling, once more descended to demolish the scale.

"--your language!" Artie was snarling, as sound returned.

"All I said was 'Use a firm hitch!'" I pleaded, trying to shove his
shins off my floor-pinned biceps.

Artie stared at me, then rocked off my prostrate body, convulsed in
a fit of laughter. "Say it silently in front of a mirror, sometime,"
he choked out. Before I had time to see what he was talking about,
I smelled smoke, above and beyond that engendered by the scorched

I ran to the door, and opened it to observe the last glowing,
crackling timbers of the house, the theatre, and the heliport vanish
into hot orange sparks, in the grip of a dandy ring of fire that--in
a seventy-yard path--had burned up everything in a sixty-five to
hundred-thirty-five yard radius of the lab.

"I told you those soundwaves had to do something," I said. "Ready to
give up?"

But Artie was already staring at the debris around the scale and making
swift notes on a memo pad....

       *       *       *       *       *

"It looks awfully damned complex--" I hedged, eight days later,
looking at the repaired, refurbished, and amended gadget on the table.
"Remember, Artie, the more parts to an invention, the more things can go
wrong with it. In geometric progression...."

"Unh-uh," he shook his head. "Not the more parts, Burt. The more
_moving_ parts. All we've done is added a parabolic sound-reflector, to
force all the waves the cones make down through a tube in the middle of
the machine. And we've insulated the tube to keep extraneous vibration
from shattering it with super-induced metal fatigue."

"Yeah," I said, "but about that _insulation_, Artie--"

"You got a _better_ idea?" he snapped. "We tried rubber; it charred
and flaked away. We tried plastics; they bubbled, melted, extruded,
or burned. We tried metal and mineral honeycombs; they distorted,
incandesced, fused or vaporized. Ceramic materials shattered. Fabrics
tore, or petrified and cracked. All the regular things failed us. So
what's wrong with trying something new?"

"Nothing, Artie, nothing. But--_Cornflakes_?"

"Well, we sogged 'em down good with water, right? And they've still got
enough interstices between the particles to act as sound-baffles, right?
And by the time they get good and hot and dry, they'll cook onto the
metal, right? (Ask anyone who ever tried to clean a pot after scorching
cereal just how hard they'll stick!) And even when most of them flake
away, the random distribution of char will circumvent any chance the
soundwaves have of setting up the regular pulse-beat necessary to
fatigue the metal in the tube, okay?"

"Yeah, sure, Artie, it's okay, but--_Cornflakes_?"

"I take it your objections are less scientific than they are esthetic?"
he inquired.

"Well, something like that," I admitted. "I mean, aw--For pete's sake,
Artie! The patent office'll laugh at us. They'll start referring us to
the copyright people, as inventors of cookbooks!"

"Maybe not," he said philosophically. "The thing _still_ may not _work_,
you know."

"Well, _there's_ one bright spot, anyhow!" I agreed, fiddling with the
starting switch. "So okay, I'm game if you are."

"Let 'er rip," he pontificated, and I flicked the switch.

       *       *       *       *       *

It worked beautifully. Not even a faint hum. The only way we could tell
it was working was from the needle on the--rebuilt again--scale, as it
dropped lazily down to the zero mark. Our ears didn't sting, no glass
went dusting into crystalline powder, and a quick peek through the door
showed no ring of fire surrounding the lab.

"We may just have _done_ it!" I said, hopefully, as the silver-nosed
machine began to float upward (We hadn't _had_ to mount the parabolic
reflector in the position of a nose-cone, but it made the thing look
neater, somehow.)

It seemed a little torpid in its ascent, but that could be credited to
the extra weight of the reflector and cornflakes, not to mention the
fact that the helices had to suck all their air in under the lip of the
silvery nose-cone before they could thrust properly. But its rise was
steady. Six inches, ten inches--

Then, at precisely one foot in height, something unexpected happened.
Under the base of the machine, where the sound-heated air was at its
most torrid, a shimmering disc-like thing began to materialize, and
warp, and hollow out slightly, and beside it, a glinting metal rod-thing
flattened at one end, then the flat end went concave in the center and
kind of oval about the perimeter, and something brownish and shreddy
plopped and hissed into the now-very-concave disc-like thing.

"Artie--!" I said, uneasily, but by then, he, too, had recognized the
objects for what they were.

"Burt--" he said excitedly. "Do you realize what we've done? We've
invented a _syntheticizer_!"

Even as he was saying it, the objects completed their mid-air
materialization (time: five seconds, start to finish), and clattered
and clinked onto the scale. We stood and looked down at them: A bowl of
cornflakes and a silver spoon.

"How--?" I said, but Artie was already figuring it out, aloud.

"It's the soundwaves," he said. "At ultrasonic, molecule-disrupting
vibrations, they're doing just what that Philosopher's Stone was
supposed to: Transmuting. Somehow, we didn't clean out the reflector
sufficiently, and some of the traces of our other trial insulations
remained inside. The ceramics formed the bowl, the metals formed the
spoon, the cornflakes formed the cornflakes!"

"But," I said logically (or as logically as could be expected under the
circumstances), "what about the rubber, or the fabrics?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Artie's face lit up, and he nodded toward the machine, still hovering at
one foot above the scale. In its wake, amid the distorting turbulence of
the sound-tortured air, two more objects were materializing: a neatly
folded damask napkin, and a small rubber toothpick. As they dropped down
to join their predecessors, the machine gave a satisfied shake, and
rose steadily to the two-foot level. I was scribbling frantically in my
notebook: _Bowl + cereal + spoon: 5 seconds. Lag: 10 seconds. Napkin +
toothpick: 3 seconds. Total synthesizing time: 18 seconds. Allowance for
rise of machine per foot: 2 seconds._

"Burt--!" Artie yelled joyously, just as I completed the last item,
"Look at that, will you?!"

I looked, and had my first presentiment of disaster. At two feet, the
machine was busily fabricating--out of the air molecules themselves, for
all I knew--_two_ bowls, _two_ spoons, and _two_ bowlfuls of cereal.

"Hey, Artie--" I began, but he was too busy figuring out this latest

"It's the altimeter," he said. "We had it gauged by the foot, but it's
taking the numerical calibrations as a kind of output-quota, instead!"

"Look, Artie," I interrupted, as twin napkins and toothpicks dropped
down beside the new bowls on the table where the scale lay. "We're going
to have a little problem--"

"You're telling _me_!" he sighed, unhappily. "All those damned _random_
factors! How many times did the machine have to be repaired after each
faulty test! What thickness of ceramics, or fabric, or rubber, or metal
remained! What was the precise distribution and dampness of each of
those soggy cornflakes! Hell, Burt, we may be _forever_ trying to make a
duplicate of this!"

"Artie--" I said, as three toothpick-napkin combinations joined the
shattered remains of triple bowl-cereal-spoon disasters from the
one-yard mark over the scale, "that is _not_ the problem I had in mind."

"Oh?" he said, as four shimmering discs began to coalesce and shape
themselves. "What, then?"

"It's not that I don't appreciate the side-effect benefits of free
cornflake dinners," I said, speaking carefully and somberly, to hold
his attention. "But isn't it going to put a crimp in our anti-gravity
machine sales? Even at a mere mile in height, it means that the spot
beneath it is due for a deluge of five-thousand-two-hundred-eighty bowls
of cornflakes. Not to mention all those toothpicks, napkins and spoons!"

Artie's face went grave. "Not to mention the
five-thousand-two-hundred-seventy-nine of the same that the spot beneath
would get from the gadget when it was just one foot _short_ of the mile!"

"Of course," I said, calculating rapidly as the five-foot mark produced
a neat quintet of everything, a quintet which crashed noisily onto the
ten lookalikes below it as the machine bobbed silently to the six-foot
mark, "we have one interesting thing in our favor: the time element."

"How so?" said Artie, craning over my shoulder to try and read my lousy
calligraphics on the pad.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Well," I said, pointing to each notation in turn, "the first batch,
bowl-to-toothpick, took twenty seconds, if we include the time-lapse
while the machine was ascending to the one-foot mark."

"Uh-huh," he nodded. "I see. So?"

"So the second batch took double. Forty seconds. Not only did it require
thirty-six seconds for the formation of the stuff, it took the machine
twice as many seconds to reach the two-foot mark."

"I get it," he said. "So I suppose it took three times the base number
for the third batch?"

"Right. A full minute. And the materialization of the objects is--Boy,
that's noisy!" I interrupted myself as batch number six came smashing
down. "--always at a point where the objects fit into a theoretical
conical section below the machine."

"How's that again?" said Artie.

"Well, bowl number one formed just below the exhaust vent of the central
cylinder. Bowls two and three, or--if you prefer--bowl-batch two,
formed about six inches lower, edge to edge, at the cross-section of an
imaginary cone (whose rather truncated apex is the exhaust vent) that
seems to form a vertical angle of thirty degrees."

"In other words," said Artie, "each new formation comes in a spot
beneath this cone where it's possible for the new formations to
materialize side-by-side, right?" When I nodded, he said, "Fine. But so

"It means that each new materialization occurs at a steadily increasing
height, but one which--" I calculated briefly on the pad "--is never
greater than two-thirds the height of the machine itself."

Artie looked blank. "Thank you very kindly for the math lesson," he said
finally, "but I still don't see what you are driving at, Burt. How does
this present a problem?"

I pointed toward the un-repaired hole in the lab ceiling, where the
machine, after dutifully disgorging the number-seven load, was slowly
heading. "It means that unless we grab that thing before it gets too
much higher, the whole damn planet'll be up to its ears in cornflakes.
And the one-third machine-height gap between artifacts and machine means
that we can't even use the mounding products to climb on and get it.
We'd always be too low, and an _increasing_ too-low at that!"

"Are you trying to say, in your roundabout mathematical way, let's grab
that thing, fast?"

"Right," I said, glad I had gotten through to him. "I would've said as
much sooner, only you never listen until somebody supplies you with all
the pertinent data on a crisis first."

       *       *       *       *       *

Load number nine banged and splintered down into the lab, bringing the
cumulative total of bowl-cereal-spoon-napkin-toothpick debris up to

"Come on, Burt," said Artie. "We'll have to get to the roof of the lab.
There's a ladder up at the--"

He'd been going to say "house", but realized that there wasn't a house
anymore. "Quick!" he rasped, anxiously. "We can still get there by--" He
stopped before saying "helicopter", for similar reasons.

"Burt--" he said, after a pause that allowed the total to rise to
fifty-five with a crash. "What'll we _do_?"

"As usual with your inventions," I said, "we get on the phone and alert
the government."

"The phone," said Burt, his face grey, "was in the house."

I felt the hue of my face match his, then. "The car," I blurted. "We'll
have to drive someplace where there's a phone!"

We ran out of the lab, dodged a few flying shards of pottery that
sprayed out after us from load-eleven-total-sixty-six, and roared off
down the road in Artie's roadster. He did the driving, I kept my eyes on
my watch, timing the arrivals of each new load. (Formula: _n × 20 = lag
between loads in seconds_.)

By the time Artie discovered we were out of gas in the middle of a
deserted country road, load number twenty had fallen.

By the time we arrived on foot at the nearest farmhouse, and were
ordered off the property by the irate farmer who still had bare boards
on his windowless house, and a shotgun in his gnarled brown hands, load
twenty-five had fallen.

By the time we hitchhiked into town and got on the phone in time to find
all the governmental agencies had closed their offices for the day, load
thirty had fallen.

By the time we finally convinced the Washington Operator that this
was a national emergency that could _not_ (though she kept suggesting
it) be handled by the ordinary Civil Defense members (the town had a
population of two hundred, and a one-percent enrollment in CD. Those
two guys wouldn't be any more help than we were, ourselves.), and were
able to locate Artie's congressional contact (he was out at a movie),
load fifty had dropped, and I was bone-tired, and it was (since load
fifty took a thousand seconds to form, load one had taken twenty, and
their total--one thousand twenty seconds--divided by two made an
average formulation-time of five hundred ten seconds per formulation)
over seven hours since that first bowl had started to appear, and my
mind, whether I wanted it to or not, gave me the distressing information
that by now Artie's estate was cluttered with a numbing totality of
one-thousand-two-hundred-seventy-five bowl-cereal-spoon-napkin-toothpick
sets. And fifty-one more due in seventeen minutes.

       *       *       *       *       *

"What's he say?" I asked Artie, leaning into the phone booth.

"He thinks I'm drunk!" Artie groaned, slamming down the receiver. "I
only wish I were!"

I gave a stoical shrug, and pointed to the bright red neon lure across
the street. "Don't just stand there wishing. Join me?" I started across
toward the bar.

"But Burt--" Artie babbled, hurrying along beside me. "We can't just
_forget_ about it...."

"We did our bit," I said. "You told your contact, right? Well, by
tomorrow morning, when the total is up to over three thousand (I
calculated five-thousand-fifty sets by the time the machine reaches the
hundred-foot mark, a little better than twenty-eight hours from the
starting time), somebody's sure to notice all the birds in the region,
if only an ornithologist, and--"


"Eating the cornflakes," I said, and when he nodded in comprehension,
went on, "--pretty soon the word'll get to the government."

"Or," said Artie, hopefully, "the batteries and engine'll wear out....
Won't they?"

"It's a radium-powered motor," I said, as we slipped into the coolness
of a booth at the rear of the bar. "The power-source will deplete itself
by half in about six hundred years, maybe. Meantime, what'll we do with
all those cornflakes?"

The waiter came by and we ordered two beers.

"Wait--" said Artie, gripping my sleeve. "As the machine reaches the
upper atmosphere, the soundwaves'll thin out, weaken, as the medium
grows scarce."

"Sure," I said, prying my cuff free of his fingers, "so we only get
bombarded with _badly made_ artifacts by the time the thing gets ten
miles up. But that's about fifty-thousand artifacts per foot rise,
Artie, at that height! No, I take that back. Fifty thousand _sets_! And
at five items per set (if we don't count the precise number of flakes
per batch of cereal), we have twenty-five thousand items per foot per
batch, merely a _rough_ estimate!"

The beers came, and we ordered two more, the orders to keep coming until
we said whoa.

       *       *       *       *       *

"You know," said Artie, after draining half the bottle, "I just had a
horrible thought--"

"Horrible above and beyond the _present_ horrors?" I said, horrified.

He nodded, thoughtfully. "What happens to anything that gets sucked into
the machine under the lip of the reflector? Does the machine just use it
as more raw material ... Or does it start duplicating _that_?"

"Holy hell!" I choked. "As if there weren't too many pigeons already!"

"There's no room for a pigeon to fit under that lip," said Artie,
patting the back of my hand as though he thought it was soothing me (it
wasn't), "or any other bird, for that matter. What I was thinking of was
stuff like nits and gnats and mosquitoes and--"

"Stop!" I shuddered, reaching for my beer and finding the bottle empty.
I looked for the waiter, but he was at the front window, watching
a crowd that was gathering in the street. They were looking in the
direction of the lab. It was a few miles away, of course, but that
machine was--if on time, and why shouldn't it be?--due to deliver
fifty-two sets just about now, and even a few miles away, fifty-two
bowl-spoon-napkin-toothpick-cereal combinations, shimmering in the air
as they took form, would be hard to miss if you were looking in the
right direction. I said as much to Artie, but he shook his head.

"It's ten o'clock of a moonless night, Burt. They couldn't see a damned
thing, unless there were some kind of illumination--" I saw by his face
that he'd thought of a possible source.

"What?" I said.

"Fireflies?" he hypothesized weakly.

       *       *       *       *       *

We got out of the booth and joined our waiter as he hurried out into the
street. And there, in the distant blackness of the skies, was a sight
like a Fourth of July celebration gone berserk. From the number of those
fireflies, I figure the first one got sucked in at about the fifteen
mark, and possibly a few of his pals with him.

"Despite everything--" said Artie, softly, "it sure is beautiful."

"A gorgeous sight," I had to agree. "But--What the hell is that thing in
the air under the fireflies? You can just make it out in the reflected
flashes. It kind of looks like the--the _lab_...."

Artie's fingers sank into my forearm. "But. It _is_ the lab! Not _the_
lab, but another like it! With all those falling bowls and things,
enough plaster-dust and wood-splinters and glass-spicules must've been
sucked in to let the machine make a dupl--_There it goes!_"

A one-story building dropping from a height of around thirty feet onto
another one-story building covered over with spoons, crunchy cereal,
and broken pottery makes much more racket than can be absorbed by the
cushioning effect of thousands of napkins and rubber toothpicks. We were
a few miles off, so the sound--when it finally got to us--was muted by
distance, but it was still a lulu.

"And to think," Artie murmured, "that this is happening because we tried
to make it _noiseless_!"

"What I'm worried about," I said sickly, "is that new cloud of dust
rising from the latest debris. There are crumbs of _two_ smashed
buildings in it, Artie. And in roughly twenty minutes the process is
going to repeat, and there'll be crumbs from _four_ labs in the air; two
labs that'll be the second duplicate of the original, and two that'll be
the first duplicate of the original-plus-first-duplicate!"

Artie shook his head sadly. "Crumbs from _six_, Burt. Remember, when
those four new labs fall in twenty minutes, they're going to raise dust
from the wreckage of the two _already_ on the ground!"

"Maybe," I said, less lackadaisically than I'd spoken when we left the
phone booth for the bar, "you'd better get your man in Washington,

"He'll never believe I'm sober, _now_!" Artie complained.

"Oops--Never mind, Artie," I said, resignedly, looking at the latest
development in the distant sky. "He'll get the word indirectly, from the
forest rangers."

"Huh?" said Artie, and looked toward the machine.

       *       *       *       *       *

Amid the sparking cloud of fireflies, fluttering cornflakes, glinting
spoons, and a foursome of hazy, still-processing new labs, there was a
newcomer to the chaos. Something in one of the plunging artifacts must
have rubbed something else the wrong way, made a spark, and--Well, the
machine was complacently sucking in raw blazing energy, now, tongue upon
tongue of orange flame and black, spiralling smoke that rose from the
pyre of shattered synthetics. It was the first geometrically cone-shaped
blaze I'd ever seen in my life, but that suction was going pretty good,
now. And all that glaring heat was going to be suddenly re-created going
in the _other_ direction in about twenty minutes. But--

"Flames go _up_," said Artie, his thought-processes apparently running
parallel to mine. "So the new fires...."

"Will be sucked in with the next batch," I finished. "And come out
double-strength next time around."

"Burt--" said Artie, "What's the temperature at which water breaks down
into free hydrogen and oxygen again?"

"A little less than the melting point of iron," I said. "Figure about
fifteen hundred degrees Centigrade. Why?"

"I just wondered if perhaps the machine might not only double the amount
of the fire, but its temperature as well...."

I didn't _want_ to theorize about _that_. It was summer, and the air
was pretty humid, and that meant an awful lot of free hydrogen and
oxygen, all at once, ready to re-combine explosively in the heat from
the flames that had separated them in the first place, thence to become
disrupted again, thence to explode again.... The mind refuses certain
contemplations. I turned away from the chaotic display in the distant
skies, and said to Artie, "How's chances of the _machine_ getting melted

He shook his head with great sadness. "We made it out of damn near
heat-proof metals, remember? So it wouldn't burn up at entry speeds from
outer space?"

"Oh, yeah," I said. "So what'll we do, now?"

He glanced at the increasing holocaust on the horizon. "Pray for rain?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Well, that was yesterday. Today, as I write this, the government has
finally gotten wind of the thing, and the area is under martial law. Not
that all those uniformed men standing just out of heat-range about the
ever-increasing perimeter are going to be of much help. Maybe to keep
the crowds back, they'd help, except no one in his right mind is heading
any direction but away from the mound. A few trees went up in smoke
during the blaze, too, and now, every _n_-times-twenty seconds, a whole
uprooted forest is joining the crash.

No one knows quite what to do about it. The best weapon we possess is
Artie's inadvertent disintegrator pistol (remember Venus?), and ever
since the Three Day War, they've been banned. There's a proposition up
before Congress to un-ban the things and blast the machine, of course,
but the opposition keeps putting the kibosh on things by simply asking,
"What if the machine doesn't vanish? And what if, during the attempted
shooting, it starts duplicating disintegrator-beams?"

The vote was negative.

We figure it'll take quite a few years before the machine gets
beyond the point where the atmosphere stops acting as a medium for
the soundwaves. And that, of course, is only if the machine isn't
duplicating the atmosphere, too. And why couldn't it be?

In the meantime, the avian population in the region is on the increase,
thanks to all those cornflakes-and-firefly dinners. Not to mention the
birds the machine has started to produce since a few foolish sparrows
got incinerated in the blaze.

Artie figures that if enough snow falls on the machine, it may weight
it down and stop the process. So far, that's the only hope we have.
Meantime, it's still the middle of June.

It looks like a long summer.


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