Miracle by Price
MIRACLE BY PRICE
BY IRVING E. COX, JR.
They said old Doctor Price was an inventive
genius but no miracle worker. Yet—if he didn't
work miracles in behalf of an over-worked
little guy named Cupid, what was he doing?
Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, October 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Memo to: Clayton, Croyden and Hammerstead, Attorneys
Attention: William Clayton
From: Walter Gordon
Enclosed is the itemized inventory of the furnishings of the late Dr.Edward Price's estate. As you requested, I personally examined thelaboratory. Candidly, Bill, you needed a psychiatrist for the job, nota graduate physicist. Dr. Price was undoubtedly an inventive genius adecade ago when he was still active in General Electronics, but his labwas an embarrassing example of senile clutter.
You had an idea, Bill, that before he died Price might have beenplaying around with a new invention which the estate could develop andpatent. I found a score of gadgets in the lab, none of them finishedand none of them built for any functional purpose that I could discover.
Only two seemed to be completed. One resembled a small, portable radio.It was a plastic case with two knobs and a two-inch speaker grid. Therewas no cord outlet. The machine may have been powered by batteries, forI heard a faint humming when I turned the knobs. Nothing else. Dr.Price had left a handwritten card on the box. He intended to call ita Semantic-Translator, but he had noted that the word combination wasawkward for commercial exploitation, and I suppose he held up a patentapplication until he could think of a catchier name. One sentence onthat card would have amused you, Bill. Price wrote, "Should wholesalefor about three-fifty per unit." Even in his dotage, he had an eye forprofit.
The Semantic-Translator—whatever that may mean—might have hadpossibilities. I fully intended to take it back with me to GeneralElectronics and examine it thoroughly.
The second device, which Price had labeled a Transpositor, was largeand rather fragile. It was a hollow cylinder of very small wires,perhaps a foot in diameter, fastened to an open-faced console crowdedwith a weird conglomeration of vacuum tubes, telescopic lenses andmirrors. The cylinder of wires was so delicate that the motion of mybody in the laboratory caused it to quiver. Standing in front of thewire coil were two brass rods. A kind of shovel-like chute was fixed toone rod (Price called it the shipping board). Attached to the secondrod was a long-handled pair of tongs which he called the grapple.
The Transpositor was, I think, an outgrowth of Price's investigationof the relationship between light and matter. You may recall, Bill,the brilliant technical papers he wrote on that subject when he wasstill working in the laboratories of General Electronics. At the timePrice was considered something of a pioneer. He believed that light andmatter were different forms of the same basic element; he said thateventually science would learn how to change one into the other.
I seriously believe that the Transpositor was meant to do preciselythat. In other words, Price had expected to transpose the atomicstructure of solid matter into light, and later to reconstruct theoriginal matter again. Now don't assume, Bill, that Price was wanderingaround in a senile delusion of fourth dimensional nonsense. The theorymay be sound. Our present knowledge of the physical world makes thebasic structure of matter more of a mystery than it has ever been.
Not that I think Price achieved the miracle. Even in his mostbrilliant and productive period he could not have done it. As yetour accumulation of data is too incomplete for such an experiment. Ibelieve that Price created no more than a very realistic illusion withhis arrangement of lenses and mirrors.
I saw the illusion, too; I used the machine.
There were two dials on the front of the console. One was lettered"time", and the other "distance". The "time" dial could be set foreons, centuries or hours, depending upon the position of a three-wayswitch beneath it; the "distance" dial could be adjusted to lightyears, thousand-mile units, or kilometers by a similar device. Sincethere was no indication which position would produce what results,I left the dials untouched. I plugged the machine into an electricoutlet and pushed the starter button. The coil of wire blazed withlight and the chute slid rapidly in and out of the cylinder.
That was all, at first. The starter button was labeled "the shipper",and I gathered that Price had visualized the practical application ofthe Transpositor as a device for transporting goods from one point toanother.
I looked around the lab for something I could put into the chute.There was a card, written in red, warning me not to load beyondthe dimensional limits of the chute. The only thing I saw that wassmall enough was the little radio-like gadget Price had called aSemantic-Translator. Loaded horizontally, it just barely fit the chute.
I pushed the shipper button a second time. Again there was a blazeof light, brighter than before, which temporarily blinded me. For amoment I saw the Semantic-Translator in the heart of the fragile, wirecylinder. It had the glow of molten steel, pouring from a blast furnace.
Then it was gone. The chute shot back to the front of the machine. Thetray was empty.
Was it an illusion? I believe that, Bill, because later on, when Ithought of using the grapple....
Miss Bertha Kent walked back the gravel trail from the dressing room.The early morning sun was bright and warm, but she held her woolenrobe tight across her throat. She tried to avoid looking at the othercamps—at the sleepy-eyed women coming out of tents, and the menstarting morning fires in the stone rings.
Bitterness was etched in acid in her soul. She made herself believeit was because she hated Yosemite. The vacation had been such adisappointment. She had expected so much and—as usual—it had all gonewrong.
Her hope had been so high when school closed; this year was going to bedifferent!
"Are you going anywhere this summer?" Miss Emmy asked after the lastfaculty meeting in June.
"To Yosemite for a couple of weeks, I think."
"The Park's always crowded. You ought to meet a nice man up there,Bertha."
"I'm not interested in men," Miss Kent had replied frostily. "I'm abotany teacher and it helps me professionally if I spend part of thesummer observing the phenomenon of nature."
"Don't kid me, Bertha. You can drop the fancy lingo, too; school's out.You want a man as much as I do."
That was true, Miss Kent admitted—in the quiet of her own mind.Never aloud; never to anyone else. Six years ago, when Bertha Kenthad first started to teach, she had been optimistic about it. Shewanted to marry; she wanted a family of her own—instead of wastingher lifetime in a high school classroom playing baby sitter for otherpeople's kids. She had saved her money for all sorts of exotic summervacations—tours, cruises, luxury hotels—but somehow something alwayswent wrong.
To be sure, she had met men. She was pretty; she danced well; she wasnever prudish; she liked the out-of-doors. All positive qualities: sheknew that. The fault lay always with the men. When she first met astranger, everything was fine. Then, slowly, Miss Kent began to see hisfaults. Men were simply adult versions of the muscle-bound knot-headsthe administration loaded into her botany classes.
Bertha Kent wanted something better, an ideal she had held in her mindsince her childhood. The dream-man was real, too. She had met himonce and actually talked to him when she was a child. She couldn'tremember where; she couldn't recall his face. But the qualities of hispersonality she knew as she did her own heart. If they had existed oncein one man, she would find them again, somewhere. That was the miracleshe prayed for every summer.
She thought the miracle had happened again when she first came toYosemite.
She found an open campsite by the river. While she was putting upher tent, the man from the camp beside hers came to help. At firsthe seemed the prototype of everything she hated—a good-looking,beautifully co-ordinated physical specimen, as sharp-witted as ajellyfish. The front of his woolen shirt hung carelessly unbuttoned.She saw the mat of dark hair on his chest, the sculpted curves ofsun-tanned muscle. No doubt he considered himself quite attractive.
Then, that evening after the fire-fall, the young man asked her togo with him to the ranger's lecture at Camp Curry. Bertha discoveredthat he was a graduate physicist, employed by a large, commerciallaboratory. They had at least the specialized area of science incommon. By the time they returned from the lecture, they were callingeach other by first names. The next day Walt asked her to hike up themist trail with him to Nevada Falls.
The familiar miracle began to take shape. She lay awake a long timethat night, looking at the dancing pattern of stars visible through theopen flap of her tent. This was it; Walt was the reality of her dream.She made herself forget that every summer for six years the same thinghad happened. She always believed she had found her miracle; and alwayssomething happened to destroy it.
For two days the idyll lasted. The inevitable awakening began theafternoon they drove along the Wawona highway to see the Mariposa Groveof giant sequoias. They left their car in the parking area and walkedthrough the magnificent stand of cathedral trees. The trail was steepand sometimes treacherous. Twice Walt took her arm to help her. Forsome reason that annoyed her; finally she told him,
"I'm quite able to look after myself, Walt."
"So you've told me before."
"After all, I've been hiking most of my life. I know exactly what todo—"
"There isn't much you can't take care of for yourself, is there,Bertha?" His voice was suddenly very cold.
"I'm not one of these rattle-brained clinging vines, if that's what youmean. I detest a woman who is always yelping to a man for help."
"Independence is one thing, Bertha; I like that in a woman. But somehowyou make a man feel totally inadequate. You set yourself up as hissuperior in everything."
"That's nonsense, Walt. I'm quite ready to grant that you know a gooddeal more about physics than I do."
"Say it right, Bertha. You respect the fact that I hold a PhD." Hesmiled. "That isn't the same thing as respecting me for a person. Iknew you didn't need my help on the trail, but it was a normal courtesyto offer it. It seems to me it would be just as normal for you toaccept it. Little things like that are important in relations betweenpeople."
"Forget it, Walt." She slipped her hand through his. "There, see? I'lldo it just the way you want."
She was determined not to quarrel over anything so trivial, though whathe said seemed childish and it tarnished the dream a little. But therest was still good; the miracle could still happen.
Yet, in spite of all her effort, they disagreed twice more before theyleft the Mariposa Grove. Bertha began to see Walt as he was: brilliant,no doubt, in the single area of physical science, but basically nodifferent from any other man. She desperately wished that she couldlove him; she earnestly wished that the ideal, fixed so long in hermind, might be destroyed.
But slowly she saw the miracle slip away from her. That night, afterthe fire-fall, Walt did not ask her to go with him to the lecture.Miserable and angry, Bertha Kent went into her tent, but not to sleep.
She lay staring at the night sky, and thinking how ugly the pin-pointlights of distant suns were on the velvet void. As the hours passed,she heard the clatter of pans and voices as people at the othercampsites retired. She heard Walt when he returned, whistlingtunelessly. He banged around for nearly an hour in the camp next tohers. He dropped a stack of pans; he overturned a box of food; hetripped over a tent line. She wondered if he were drunk. Had theirquarreling driven him to that? Walt must have loved her, then.
After a time all the Coleman lanterns in the camp were out. StillBertha Kent did not sleep. The acid grief and bitterness tormentedher