For Philip K. Dick.
There was a professor who, one summer away from University, decided to build a mechanical fly. He labored for days attaching its wings and legs and eyes -- and finally brought it to life with a fateful zap of electricity.
The professor’s work bench was down in the basement of his small suburban home. His wife could hear him laughing from upstairs in the kitchen and she knew he had done it. Now he could rest and she could be with her husband who had been absent, like he always was, while working on an invention.
He came barreling up the stairs, grinning from ear to ear, dancing and singing. He grabbed his wife’s hand and escorted her down into the basement where it was dim and dry and cold. He tried to show his creation off to her, but the fly had perched itself somewhere in the shadows and he could not find the tiny, metallic insect. Later, he promised her. Later, he would catch the fly -- for in his haste he had forgotten to program it. Then he would take it down to the lab at the University, show it to his colleagues, and they would become as rich as he had always dreamed.
But, first they were going to celebrate. They locked up the house and dined at their favorite restaurant downtown. While they were gone, the fly simply stayed in the shadows, quietly waiting. Then, in an instant, it took flight and began charting and mapping its surroundings, measuring air temperature and remembering what it was learning. The mechanical fly escaped into the house propper at some point (perhaps through an air duct, the professor later thought) and on its second night, it woke the professor in the middle from a deep slumber. Buzzing, always buzzing, never letting up. He swatted at the thing absentmindedly, forgetting his pledge to capture it, and went back to sleep. He saw the fly numerous times the next day, but every time he went to catch it, the damned thing darted away. He tried under a glass, in a net, and with some electronic pulses from a Tesla coil as bait. None of them worked and the fly went on ticking like a well-built clock.
At first the professor was amused. Then he was boastful -- he’d built a fly that even he could not catch. This tickled his wife, who saw it as a joke that would help pass the long days of summer. But, like all things in his life, the professor soon became possessed with the will to catch this fly. And so he began to examine other means of entrapment.
- - -
He toiled many more days and, on the fifth day, his wife watched him emerge from the basement, looking tired and hungry, with a bell jar in his hand. He held it up to the kitchen window and marveled at his mechanical spider.
The abdomen of the arachnid glowed a tiny orange with the power of a micro-combustion engine inside (five times the size of the one he’d built the fly from). It almost growled, a tiny vibration when the professor held the bell jar. He opened the glass, shook the spider onto the kitchen counter, where it landed and scuttled off and away.
The next morning, the professor awoke to find that the spider had spun a magnificent web across the kitchen window. And, low and behold, she had caught the mechanical fly also. It was still alive (of course it was still alive) as he plucked the thing from the web and dropped it into the bell jar. The spider was nowhere to be seen as the professor kissed his wife goodbye, and headed off to the University to show off his invention and get rich.
- - -
His colleagues had always been weary of the professor. He was quiet, reserved, often seemed to be working out complex problems in his head. For he was always inventing. Sometimes his calculations were wrong. He would be graced with what he called “open thoughts,” where suddenly and idea would be fully clear to him. In this instant, he knew exactly how to produce what he imagined. These windows were short, and most of the time closed too quickly for the professor to remember much. It was his memory that often failed him.
But his colleagues were impressed by the fly. They told him that they needed to see more before investing any time or money. He had neglected to tell them about the spider he’d built, but their interest goaded him. He would dash home and collect his mechanical spider for their inspection.
- - -
When the professor returned home, he could not wait to tell his wife the good news. He would find the spider and return immediately to see his colleagues. Instead, his wife was nowhere to be found. He called out to her and looked everywhere, until he came to the basement door and opened it to find the stairwell beyond thick with mechanical spider webs! Shocked, he made his way through the tangles of webbing and down into the basement where he found his wife encased in the strands, wound tight against her body like a spool of wire.
With much haste, he cut her loose and brought her up to the kitchen where he made her some tea to calm her nerves, for she was very upset from the whole ordeal. She explained to him that she had been down in the basement doing the wash when she was attacked by dozens of arachnids. The professor scoffed at her, clearly pointing out that he had only built one of the things...
As the professor leaned against the kitchen sink, discussing with his wife what to do next, a whole phalanx of mechanical spiders came clinking up the drain. They were all exact copies of the one he’d built and they moved in synchronization -- meaning they could communicate. The one spider alone had somehow managed to clone itself down in his laboratory; to build in its own image. This frightened the professor and the sight of the little things emerging from the sink almost made him faint. He gasped for air and then brought his fists down upon the mechanical spiders, smashing their tiny torsos to bits, pieces of their metal legs getting stuck in his palms like twitching splinters. With each spider killed, there was a tiny explosion and a small sliver of smoke, like a match going out. After smashing a dozen or so, the rest stopped their ascent and began retreating down the drain. How could there be this many? He guessed that, after catching the fly, the spider had gone on to other things -- things the professor hadn’t told her to do in the first place. All he had programmed her with was the will to survive, to be more successful than the fly in every way. He certainly hadn’t anticipated this...
The professor knew then what he must do. There would be no way for him to get at the mechanical spiders without dismantling his entire house. If they were in the pipes, then they must also be in the walls, in the attic, in the floors. No, his wife would never allow him to run amuck tearing the house apart. He would have to build something else to do it for him.
- - -
He worked quickly and, in eight days, his creation was complete. It took him most of the time to work out the tongue -- a synthetic pad of electrodes that would zap the spiders on contact. He was very proud of the final touch: a sleep cycle so that he and his wife would not be up all night listening to its fluttering wings.
Then, in a spark, the mechanical bird was awake. It hovered upon first flight, then zipped across the room, leaving a sputtering, sparking trail of smoke behind as it went. The engine of the bird contained one single piston that the professor purloined from their station wagon.
By now, the workshop was infested with spiders. The bird hovered for a few more moments, its scanners recognizing their tiny heat signatures -- then it went to work. It lashed its tongue and struck the first spider dead.
The professor whooped at this as he gathered up the lifeless spider into a bell jar. The bird got another, then another, all the while the professor collected them for his colleagues to marvel at. Just as they had done at the sink, the mechanical spiders began to retreat. They scurried back into tiny holes, and the bird did a remarkable thing: it lashed its tongue out, striking the wall, and let it hang there as it cycled through several electrical sequences, charging up for an attack. Suddenly, the entire room was electrified, current arcing here and there on the professor’s metal workbench. The professor watched as, all across his workshop, the spiders tumbled from the walls, their micro-motors flickering, dead. The bird simply hovered there as the professor approached, the wind from its wings mussing what little hair he had left on his head. Just as he reached out to shut the thing down, it took off up the stairs and tore right through the metal door that guarded the workshop from outsiders. Heat radiating from its body cauterized the edges of the hole it punched right through the steel... A shrill scream from upstairs sent the professor dashing up to the kitchen where he found his wife cowering in the corner as the bird fluttered around the, shocking the walls and various appliances.
The professor calmed his wife by showing her the dead spiders he had collected. The bird cleared the kitchen and darted down the hallway toward the living room. They could hear its tongue charging -- ZZAPP! He smiled at his wife, who looked frazzled, and he promised to repair the basement door when he returned home from the University.
- - -
The bird, however, was incorrigible. Once it cleared the house of spiders (the professor filled several more bell jars), the bird flew to the rear of the living room and perched on the fireplace mantle where it went to sleep, in effect. The Professor rubbed his hands together and approached, ready to disassemble the bird now that it’s task was complete. He reached out and grabbed the thing -- suddenly its eyes blinked, its single-piston motor whirred to life, glowing red the both of them.
The professor let go just before the wings engaged and the bird lifted off, flitted away from the professor.
Behind him, his wife chuckled at the sight of the bird retreating, as if it knew the professor planned to take it apart, to make it no more. “What catches birds?” She wondered aloud, mocking the cycle of artificial life her husband had begun.
There was a zipping sound and the professor felt his hair blow in a sudden wind. He looked to where the bird hovered, but the space was empty. He looked to his wife to see that the bird had done to her what it had done to the basement door. Right through her heart.
The professor ran to his wife as she collapsed, dead already. She didn’t make a sound as the professor lowered her weight to the carpet. Behind him, the bird went manic. It proceeded to mow through the walls and floors, even once dipping back down into the living room from their bedroom, as it made swiss cheese out of their house. The professor simply rocked back and forth amidst the whirring and puncturing of dry-wall.
* * *
The house was a ruin, unsalvageable. The professor carried his wife’s body down to his workshop, where he was crushed by the unbearable weight of despair. What more could he lose? In his anger at himself -- for never planning, for finishing too quickly, for this whole chain of events -- he had in his mind one last “open thought.” Deep in the shadows of his workshop lay abandoned projects that the professor hid, even from himself.
Failure to build a successful creation would cause him to spend days disassembling what he’d slaved away on, amassing a large heap of broken machines on the far side of the room. A garbage heap to the heavens. This was his solution, his answer. For even though he did not have all the parts to make a champion breed out of the rubbish pile, he knew he could at least construct a mutt. A mechanical mutt to finish what he started.
* * *
He tore through the junk pile, fixating on a V6 engine to start out with. This was going to be a haphazard creation, one that he knew he could not control. The professor did not want control anymore.
He built and built -- and brought the dog to life on the ninth day. The amount of electricity it took to wake the beast drained the light from the room for a moment, so that when that V6 turned over, all the professor could see was the flamed ribcage of the beast’s torso ignite a furious red. After a moment, the lights returned and the creature eyed its creator for the first time. The mutt was sucking all the ogygen out of the room, spewing a black exhaust. The professor could feel its gaze, knew it was... thinking. Suddenly, it tore up the stairs and ripped the basement door right off its hinges. The professor had to catch his breath as he heard it hulking around one floor up.
The professor crawled up the stairs where the house rumbled with sounds of destruction and mayhem. He could not bare to see any more obliteration. All he wanted was some fresh air, he was gulping for it. He pushed through what used to be the kitchen, into the back yard. He hadn’t been outside of the house in so long that he’d forgotten what the sun felt like on his face. He was entranced by it for a moment, by the cool summer breeze. It was going to be fall soon and he should be returning to the University.
There was silence, then a revving of engine as the mutt exploded through the back of the house, through brick and wood, where it rolled to a stop. Sure enough, the mutt had the bird trapped in its mouth. The professor watched its powerful jaws clamping down, as the bird slashed its electrode tongue, repeatedly shocking the dog. Then the bird flashed in an eruption of fire. The mutt’s mouth was left smoking with the wreckage.
The dog dropped its kill and pawed at it. It was soon bored by the dead bird. The grass around it began to turn brown, then crackled with flames.
The professor knew what was coming next. The air around him drew tight and thin, every breath he tried for was stifling. The grass by his feet began to curl and ignite, but he didn’t make any effort to get out of the way. He was tired and he could do no more. “It all started with a fly. Such a tiny thing.” He said this aloud.
The mechanical mutt bit its master.
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