The Ideal

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Transcriber’s Note:
This etext was produced from A Martian Odyssey and Others published in 1949. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and typographical errors have been corrected without note.


“This,” said the Franciscan, “is my Automaton, who at the proper time will speak, answer whatsoever question I may ask, and reveal all secret knowledge to me.” He smiled as he laid his hand affectionately on the iron skull that topped the pedestal.

The youth gazed open-mouthed, first at the head and then at the Friar. “But it’s iron!” he whispered. “The head is iron, good father.”

“Iron without, skill within, my son,” said Roger Bacon. “It will speak, at the proper time and in its own manner, for so have I made it. A clever man can twist the devil’s arts to God’s ends, thereby cheating the fiend—Sst! There sounds vespers! Plena gratia, ave Virgo—”

But it did not speak. Long hours, long weeks, the doctor mirabilis watched his creation, but iron lips were silent and the iron eyes dull, and no voice but the great man’s own sounded in his monkish cell, nor was there ever an answer to all the questions that he asked—until one day when he sat surveying his work, composing a letter to Duns Scotus in distant Cologne—one day—

“Time is!” said the image, and smiled benignly.

The Friar looked up. “Time is, indeed,” he echoed. “Time it is that you give utterance, and to some assertion less obvious than that time is. For of course time is, else there were nothing at all. Without time—”

“Time was!” rumbled the image, still smiling, but sternly at the statue of Draco.

“Indeed time was,” said the Monk. “Time was, is, and will be, for time is that medium in which events occur. Matter exists in space, but events—”

The image smiled no longer. “Time is past!” it roared in tones deep as the cathedral bell outside, and burst into ten thousand pieces.

“There,” said old Haskel van Manderpootz, shutting the book, “is my classical authority in this experiment. This story, overlaid as it is with mediæval myth and legend, proves that Roger Bacon himself attempted the experiment—and failed.” He shook a long finger at me. “Yet do not get the impression, Dixon, that Friar Bacon was not a great man. He was—extremely great, in fact; he lighted the torch that his namesake Francis Bacon took up four centuries later, and that now van Manderpootz rekindles.”

I stared in silence.

“Indeed,” resumed the Professor, “Roger Bacon might almost be called a thirteenth century van Manderpootz, or van Manderpootz a twenty-first century Roger Bacon. His Opus Majus, Opus Minus, and Opus Tertium—”

“What,” I interrupted impatiently, “has all this to do with—that?” I indicated the clumsy metal robot standing in the corner of the laboratory.

“Don’t interrupt!” snapped van Manderpootz. “I’ll—”

At this point I fell out of my chair. The mass of metal had ejaculated something like “A-a-gh-rasp” and had lunged a single pace toward the window, arms upraised. “What the devil!” I sputtered as the thing dropped its arms and returned stolidly to its place.

“A car must have passed in the alley,” said van Manderpootz indifferently. “Now as I was saying, Roger Bacon—”

I ceased to listen. When van Manderpootz is determined to finish a statement, interruptions are worse than futile. As an ex-student of his, I know. So I permitted my thoughts to drift to certain personal problems of my own, particularly Tips Alva, who was the most pressing problem of the moment. Yes, I mean Tips Alva the ‘vision dancer, the little blonde imp who entertains on the Yerba Mate hour for that Brazilian company. Chorus girls, dancers, and television stars are a weakness of mine; maybe it indicates that there’s a latent artistic soul in me. Maybe.

I’m Dixon Wells, you know, scion of the N. J. Wells Corporation, Engineers Extraordinary. I’m supposed to be an engineer myself; I say supposed, because in the seven years since my graduation, my father hasn’t given me much opportunity to prove it. He has a strong sense of value of time, and I’m cursed with the unenviable quality of being late to anything and for everything. He even asserts that the occasional designs I submit are late Jacobean, but that isn’t fair. They’re Post-Romanesque.

Old N. J. also objects to my penchant for ladies of the stage and ‘vision screen, and periodically threatens to cut my allowance, though that’s supposed to be a salary. It’s inconvenient to be so dependent, and sometimes I regret that unfortunate market crash of 2009 that wiped out my own money, although it did keep me from marrying Whimsy White, and van Manderpootz, through his subjunctivisor, succeeded in proving that that would have been a catastrophe. But it turned out nearly as much of a disaster anyway, as far as my feelings were concerned. It took me months to forget Joanna Caldwell and her silvery eyes. Just another instance when I was a little late.

Van Manderpootz himself is my old Physics Professor, head of the Department of Newer Physics at N. Y. U., and a genius, but a bit eccentric. Judge for yourself.

“And that’s the thesis,” he said suddenly, interrupting my thoughts.

“Eh? Oh, of course. But what’s that grinning robot got to do with it?”

He purpled. “I’ve just told you!” he roared. “Idiot! Imbecile! To dream while van Manderpootz talks! Get out! Get out!”

I got. It was late anyway, so late that I overslept more than usual in the morning, and suffered more than the usual lecture on promptness from my father at the office.

Van Manderpootz had forgotten his anger by the next time I dropped in for an evening. The robot still stood in the corner near the window, and I lost no time asking its purpose.

“It’s just a toy I had some of the students construct,” he explained. “There’s a screen of photoelectric cells behind the right eye, so connected that when a certain pattern is thrown on them, it activates the mechanism. The thing’s plugged into the light-circuit, but it really ought to run on gasoline.”


“Well, the pattern it’s set for is the shape of an automobile. See here.” He picked up a card from his desk, and cut in the outlines of a streamlined car like those of that year. “Since only one eye is used,” he continued, “The thing can’t tell the difference between a full-sized vehicle at a distance and this small outline nearby. It has no sense of perspective.”

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