Classic Roger #5: The Fifth Gift, An SF Story

The Fifth Gift

was originally published to Sat Aug 20, 2005.

[Editor’s Note: If you enjoy localroger’s fiction, don’t miss The Mortal Passage Trilogy complete package which includes all three stories in the original trilogy, as well as a fourth bonus story set in the same universe.]

Making a new tunic reminded me of how far I had to go. I was using a lock-stitching awl, which was a manufactured artifact, and waxed cotton thread which was not of my own making. The leather was mine; I had killed the pig, skinned it, and tanned its hide myself. I had colored it with soot and vegetable dyes. But I had used a razor knife to cut it, more technology. One day I would have to take up flintknapping.

I wanted nothing to do with the world of other humans or their tools, but my childhood was spent working toward the Ph.D. I would eventually receive in Physics, not learning the survival arts any hunter-gatherer would take for granted. Still, I had made much progress. I sowed and I planted, I kept my own seasonal calendar, I hunted and I preserved and prepared my own food. I built and thatched my own small cabin. I did not use electricity or refined fuel. It was a calming way to live, and I was more physically fit than I had ever been. It was almost possible, sometimes, to forget that I was never really alone.

But while I was making my new tunic, the phone rang.

The Iridium satellite phone spends its days connected to a little solar panel that keeps it charged. It is the one bit of high technology I cannot get rid of. If it were ever to ring and I were to fail to answer it, I would not be the only one to die.

“I’m here,” I said irritably.”

“The helicopter is on its way. Be ready.”

An hour later I was flying, an old dream of men we have managed to turn into a terrifying bore. The pilot and guards didn’t know who I was or why I had been summoned; they had only been told to kill me if I offered any resistance.

“Well if it isn’t Daniel Boone,” Agent Smith said mockingly as I jumped out. I waited for the chopper to be gone before answering.

“I take it there’s another one.”

“Of course. Why else would we annoy ourselves with your troublesome presence?”

The First Gift

The first time I had met Smith and Jones I was still young enough to be idealistic and patriotic, and their offer to let me help my country seemed like a wonderful opportunity.

After I signed all the forms and passed the tests, I was taken to this remote and nearly empty facility in Idaho where I became the ninth person in the entire world to learn of the Gift. It had been left outside the door of a farmer who lived near Indianola, Mississippi. It was an artifact, a solid cubic box about twenty centimeters on a side and with a small array of pure copper posts sticking out of one face. It came with a small booklet written in a dense and confusing mix of technical jargon, maths, and attempted explanations in several human languages. None of the other eight people who knew about it could make sense of this instruction manual, but I found that it made a certain kind of weird sense to me.

I had been working on the problem for a week when I learned that the family who had received it were all dead. It wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted to know, but it impressed on me the seriousness of what I was doing.

The aliens called the box a “matter generator,” but we’d be more inclined to call it a matter duplicator. By connecting switches and potentiometers between the copper posts it was possible to make the box mark off two cubic rectangular areas of volume. Make a certain contact, and these areas would be isolated within perfectly reflective fields. They could be expanded or contracted by altering resistances between other posts. As I worked out the user interface I built a little control panel for the device. It was actually a clever way for the aliens to do things; instead of trying to build controls we could use, they built us an interface we could attach to controls that made sense to us. It could also be automated.

Once you had made the contact that established the shielded volumes, if you made another certain contact the contents of the first volume were copied to the second. The machine copied metal, plastic, steel, and diamond with equal ease. Copies of copies of copies of copies were indistinguishable from the originals at any magnification, even using techniques like X-ray crystallography.

The machine would also make copies of itself. The copies worked exactly the same way the original did.

Smith and Jones wanted to know where the copies came from. The instructions were quite clear on that, once you penetrated the alien jargon; they were created whole. The matter was not taken from some other place in the universe. It was made by the “matter generator.” The generators also didn’t seem to require a power source; they were powered by whatever first principle generated the copies. Nor was there any obvious limit on their use. A single such device could yield an endless stream of oil, fresh water, cool air, or any other commodity of interest. Not to mention an endless stream of perfect manufactured goods based on a single carefully built prototype.

It did have limitations. It wouldn’t copy living things, although it would copy dead things and food. It wouldn’t copy certain intensely radioactive elements, and it would copy any radionuclide to its most stable and common isotope. Copies of bits of wood emerged containing no carbon-14 at all; copies of an old radium dial wristwatch did not glow. Copies of chemical high explosive did, however, explode quite normally.

The matter generator itself seemed to be made of ordinary enough matter, which was presumably why it was able to copy itself. Chemically it was a hard semiconductive ceramic material. If you drilled into one more than a couple of millimeters it would stop working, but no matter how we destroyed them there was no indication of dangerous energies stored within. The electron microscope revealed a very detailed but wholly mysterious structure at nanometer scale.

When I had learned all that I could, Smith and Jones locked up all the matter generators and their copies and all the copies of things we had made and warned me that if I told anyone about this they would die. I protested that it was an awesome opportunity we were throwing away; with this technology we could remake and clean up our entire world. And Smith had smiled and warned me that my enthusiasm made them suspicious, and any friends of mine who might have been told of my work might have to be eliminated on principle.

“What sane reason could there be for locking this thing up instead of using it?” I demanded.

“Suppose we do remake our world with these things. Then suppose one day they all stop working. Can we risk that? You tell me we have no way to even begin to know how they work. Can we know that they aren’t booby trapped in some way? Unless we do know that, we have to make sure nobody even learns that they exist. Because this is too seductive. It really is too good to be true.”

It was a good point, which I’d eventually take to heart.

— — — — —

“This one has two terminals,” Jones said. “The instructions are even more opaque than usual.”

“I’ll handle that,” I said, and they looked at me sharply. It irritated them to need me.

“This one was found in the central square of a village west of Veracruz, Mexico.”

“A village square, eh? That must have been awkward.”

“It’s too bad you don’t take the news. You might have heard about the terrible industrial accident they had down there. It sent a cloud of poison gas…”

“There’s a reason I don’t take the news,” I snapped, and Jones smiled wickedly.

The Second Gift

When the second Gift was found I had already made myself alone. I had found a reason to break up with Jennifer and had distanced myself from all my old university friends. Somewhere there was a Swiss bank account with a large amount of money that was allegedly mine, but I had also inherited my parents’ modest estate and I was living on that, in an apartment near Spokane Washington. I found the mountain view refreshing.

This Gift had two very large fat terminals on opposite sides of the cubic box, and a small terminal central to them on a third face. I gleaned from the documentation that if I applied a voltage between either large terminal and the small one, the same voltage would appear between the two large terminals. Up to seven hundred and twenty volts at five hundred fifteen amperes.

This was a much simpler Gift than the first Gift, but the first Gift was central to its utility; for the matter generator could generate copies of the energy generator, and they could be ganged in series and parallel. Using ten of them in parallel I made a piece of rebar glow like the filament of a light bulb, flashing incandescent white before it melted. Using them in series I made lightning play across the shop parking lot. Using three of them, since the building has three-phase power, I used a little battery powered transistor oscillator to tickle them into powering our entire facility. This was just a parlor trick; I explained to Smith and Jones that with enough of these you could easily replace every power plant in the world. Because they could be distributed where they were needed, you could also get rid of the ugly and expensive distribution grid we used to move electricity around. One of these boxes would power an entire city block. A couple of dozen of them would power even the hungriest industrial processes.

But again I got the lecture about becoming too dependent on something we didn’t understand. When I allowed as to how it might be too important to keep to ourselves Smith told me, very gently, that they had grave doubts about my dedication to the secrecy clause in my contract. In particular they worried that I might have let Jennifer know too much. If they got too worried, Jennifer would have to die.

I took the hint. But I also took another lesson. It wasn’t just alien Gifts I decided might not be trustworthy, and I started looking for a place where I could be alone.

— — — — —

The Gift with two terminals sat on a lab table. The lab was exactly as I had left it two years before; nobody else ever went there. The other Gifts, the copies made by the matter generators, and so on were stored in glass cabinets at the far end of the room.

I started reading, or rather scanning, the booklet. The aliens didn’t seem to understand our culture very well, which was one of the more worrisome things about their Gifts. How could they know that these powerful things would not harm us? Their poor understanding of our own communication methods was not encouraging. After some brainstorming I realized that this was some kind of field generator. Short out the terminals, and the field would be established. I wasn’t too clear on what the field was supposed to do, but one thing was very clear. It would encompass the entire planet, and probably our Moon as well.

When I told Smith and Jones this they became very dour. “I’m not sure we can risk testing it then,” Smith said. “I’ll have to check upstairs.” “Upstairs” would mean one of the other six people who knew about all this shit.

“Well, if they wanted to destroy us they could have made the very first box do that. Do you want me to keep working on the purpose of this field?”

“Oh, absolutely. But under no conditions try to test it. This could very well be the thing we fear most.”

“I understand.”

The Third Gift

By the time the third Gift was found I was living high in the mountains of Washington State, far from the nearest road. I was still pretty dependent on technology; I cheated a bit and used a chain saw to build my cabin. But I had gotten books and I was practicing the skills I’d need to survive on my own. While I was working on my cabin, though, Smith arrived by helicopter with a Gift of his own. It was the Iridium phone with its solar charger. He allowed as to how a bit of solitude might help my demeanor. He elaborated that a reliable communication link would help me and my old friends to live to a nice old age.

The third Gift was called a “force generator.” It had a pair of terminals on each face. Establishing a low resistance path between the terminals would cause the box to generate a force pushing away from that face. The maximum force, corresponding to a dead short between the terminals, would be nearly ten thousand pounds. Just bridging a pair of terminals with your fingers would make it slide away across a desktop.

I sent Jones out to find an old car, and we spent an afternoon gutting the engine compartment and mounting a copy of the original force generator to the frame. With an old game controller replacing the accelerator the car would silently do zero to sixty in less than three seconds. Since the maximum force was greater than the weight of the car it would easily pull itself out of gullies and mud. The maximum speed was limited only by the tires and suspension; I pegged the speedometer at 120 MPH several times. Like the other Gifts it didn’t seem to require fuel or maintenance.

I spent some time with the force generator trying to figure out how it sensed the control resistance. I couldn’t detect any sense voltage across the terminals, or any current flow when they were shorted, even with my most sensitive instruments. But then a technology that can create matter, energy, and force out of thin air might not need the usual methods to measure electrical resistance.

When Smith and Jones were satisfied that I had learned all I could, I went back to my cabin without complaining about the benefits such a device could have for humanity. Humanity had already betrayed my expectations far more effectively than any aliens might hope to, and I didn’t really care any more.

— — — — —

“This is the key passage,” I said as Smith and Jones looked on stonily. “‘Within the field established by this device the functioning of any self-directed goal-seeking information processing system is optimized.’ Then there’s a lot of math, which would probably be of a lot of interest to anybody doing AI research.”

“Self-directed goal-seeking what?” Smith said. “What are they talking about, our computers?”

“No,” I said. “I think they’re talking about us.”

The Fourth Gift

The fourth Gift was different. It was small, a personal thing not meant to be industrialized. It was the size of a stopwatch, flat and round, with a big flat contact on one side. The working was simple but vague; it claimed to generate a zone of safety around any person whose skin was in contact with its single electrode.

“Safety from what?” Jones asked sensibly.

“There are a lot of suggestions. High velocity impactors. Bullets? Fists? I’m not sure. Also a lot about the atmosphere. Apparently it keeps the air pure. And excludes harmful radiation.”

“Electromagnetic or nuclear radiation?”

“Might be both.”

“Testing it will be risky.”

“If we get test subjects, you’ll kill them after the tests, won’t you?”

Smith and Jones looked at one another. “There isn’t much choice.”

“Then I’ll test it.”

“We need your skills.”

“Not so much that you wouldn’t kill me if I didn’t answer the phone.”

Smith shrugged. “It’s a bad situation. Test it yourself then, but try to be careful.”

“Your voice just drips with concern for my welfare.”

But I was careful. It did indeed repel kinetic attacks; anything that would be likely to form a bruise was repelled. I worked my way up from the thwack of a ruler to more robust weapons, finally asking Smith to shoot me. I think he enjoyed that test a little too much. The bullet stopped dead about half an inch from my skin and fell to the floor. There was no force pushing me back, and it didn’t bounce.

Yet the amulet did not seem to interfere with normal activities like touching and manipulating things, or eating.

“I’m going to give this thing a real test,” I announced after a couple of weeks. “I don’t expect you to like this, but I’m going to do it.” They watched warily as I pulled an large old pallet board out of the shipping bay, and bolted three force generator copies to it. I pulled the passenger seat out of the force generator powered car and bolted it to the center of the pallet. And I bolted a couple of large boxes to the front corners flanking the front force generator.

I needed controls for what I planned to do, and thinking of where I was going to be going I used my TI-83 graphing calculator. I told Smith and Jones that I wanted certain gauges and the next morning a large box arrived packed with the things I’d asked for. By the second evening after I had my idea I was ready to try it.

“A flying car,” Smith said dryly. “I’d never have thought of that.”

“It might be more than that,” I said, making sure the safety generator was solidly taped to my thigh. “Maybe a lot more.” I tapped keys and the pallet board lifted off, slowly at first. I tapped more keys and it swivelled, dipped, swooped. I found a bug and landed, made some code changes, took off again. This time it performed as I had hoped and I nudged it smartly upward.

At first there was a stiff breeze from my acceleration but it soon thinned. At the front corner of the pallet, the air pressure was dropping perilously; it was down to two tenths of a bar, and dropping. But the gauge on my wrist was pegged at seven tenths of a bar, and I was breathing easily. A little later the gauge on the pallet had dropped to zero and the sky had turned black, but my wrist still said seven tenths of an atmosphere.

I was in outer space and the fucking thing was keeping me alive.

The Moon was up, big and tempting, and I pointed my little craft toward it and hauled ass. I accelerated at about half a gravity for three hours and then reversed thrust. At turnaround I figure I was going about forty kilometers a second. I could have gone a lot faster, but it wouldn’t have been good if the chair or one of the force generators had loosened itself from the pallet board.

As the Moon became a world hovering above me I aimed near the edge in case I’d miscalculated the deceleration; then I floated out over the far side.

I found a crater and set my craft down. I don’t know much lunar geography so I can’t really give you a very good idea where it was. I loaded up the front boxes with rocks and walked around, the thirteenth person of my species to do so. Lucky thirteen! The naked Sun was brutal, but my skin was cool and I was comfortable. I didn’t seem to be getting sunburned. I took deep breaths and the air was cool and clean and dry and there was no indication at all of where it was coming from or where it went when I exhaled. I looked directly at the Sun, and its brightness some how dialed down to a range that made it observable.

It occurred to me that I had finally attained a measure of solitude that few humans ever experienced. All I had to do was rip the tape from my thigh, separate myself from the safety generator, and I could die on my own terms.

But if I didn’t return, all of my friends would also die. I no longer cared whether I continued to live, but I wasn’t yet at the point where I could accept responsibility for that.

So I got back on the seat, strapped myself in, and floated up into the infinite blackness. From here I could go to Mars or Jupiter or even some distant star; and with very little effort one could use a gang of these force generators to outfit a properly equipped craft that might actually return home from such a journey. But instead I went back, with more difficulty than I expected found the installation in Idaho, and delivered my load of Moon rocks to a pair of rather dumbfounded agents.

They made me take a physical, which showed no ill effects from my day trip in space. Clearly, the “safety generator” was as much space suit as it was mugger repellant. With such devices it would be a trivial matter for humans to colonize all of the solid worlds of our solar system. But then again, what would happen if they just stopped working one day? I had my trip in space, and I took one rock with me as a souvenir when I went home.

The Fifth Gift

“We’ve had an idea,” Smith told me.

“That must have hurt,” I said.

“The matter generator creates a perfect shield before the duplication process is triggered. We think you could test the new device within the duplication shield.”

“It’s certainly a better shield than anything we’ve ever built, but the book suggests that this new thing is much more advanced. They seem quite proud of it.”

“Well, the other thing would be to trigger it with a timer. Do you think the field would cut off if the circuit was interrupted?

“Yes, the book is very clear on that.”

“Then let’s test it in the duplicator shield, with a timed cutoff. Upstairs they think this is an acceptable approach.”

“Well who am I to argue with upstairs?”

So we set it up with big alligator clips on the new Gift and on my matter generator panel. I set the matter generator controls to duplicate the test room into another empty room, and wired up a trigger. The trigger would fire one time delay relay that would hold the matter generator’s shield up for ten seconds, and another that would trigger a second relay in two seconds, and that third time delay relay would hold the new device online for five seconds. I figured that would give me time to sample its effects while hopefully isolating the rest of the world.

We made the arrangements, and I entered the test room. The agents watched through a CCTV link which we all knew would go blank while the shield was up. I used a big screwdriver to tighten all the wires and then hit the trigger.

The walls turned mirror; I was within the shield, just like the time we tried to see if the matter generator would duplicate me. It had copied the chair I was sitting on and my clothes and my jewelry and my wallet and even some threads we identified as being the permanent sutures from my hernia repair, but it didn’t copy my body. This time we wouldn’t even be triggering the copy function…

The second relay clicked, and the new device came online. The walls were no longer mirrored. I found myself saying “Shit…” and then…

The Sanity Generator

Five Seconds

The fifth gift simply turned off the matter generator, which was a relatively primitive thing by the standards of our benefactors. As the field established itself it overshot, and for one bright moment it seemed that I was sharing the thoughts of every single human being on the planet. I could sense Jones and Smith outside the door, reeling from the same sense I was. Further afield was a dim murmer, except for people I had some connection with. I could feel the friends I’d abandoned, who were suddenly aware of me as I was of them. In that moment we knew everything about one another, and I knew that if Smith and Jones recovered their wits they’d all be killed, and my friends knew that too, and they forgave me.

And I felt Jennifer. She had been seeing other men, but only because she thought I didn’t care. I had abandoned her without explanation. Now she knew why, and the people I worked for would come to kill her.

Four Seconds

My consciousness reeling I tried to find someone, anyone else to sense who wasn’t going to die soon. Instead I found someone so deep in gambling debt that he was staring down the barrel of a hit man’s gun. The hit man was trying to pull the trigger, and his face was a mask of pain and confusion. “I can’t kill you,” he was screaming. “It’s my fucking job but I can’t kill you, I can’t kill you, and I don’t fucking know why.”

I reeled again, to some military training ground. The cadets who had been marching smartly had halted and were standing at ease, shifting about, suddenly assaulted by doubts about the very nature of what they were doing. And their sergeant, who had moments before been barking orders, was saying that maybe they needed to take a break.

Three Seconds

All violence, the very drumbeat of human existence for more than a hundred thousand years, had come to a halt everywhere on Earth. It was a thing I could feel in my very bones. And more than that, in the marbled halls where policies were set that might doom a generation to poverty, priorities had been suddenly and drastically rearranged. The men in those chambers had barely had time to lift their pens from the contracts they were signing but things were suddenly very different with them.

Somewhere, I don’t know where because the sanity field made distance a bit meaningless, a gang of young men were beating someone in a hidden alley. It was clear in their minds that they had intended to kill their victim, but now suddenly the beating stopped and the leader pulled out a cellular phone and dialed 911 to call an ambulance.

I could still feel Jennifer, and she could feel me. And her reaction was not the hatred I expected and deserved, but delight. Her faith in me had been vindicated. I had only acted to protect her, and under the old rules that had been a sensible thing. But now it wasn’t necessary.

At least for two more seconds.

Two Seconds

Somewhere in the Middle East a man was riding the subway with twelve pounds of explosive strapped to his body and a trigger in his pocket. He had been clutching the trigger, playing with it, steeling himself for his final act in the war between his people and their oppressors. But now he left the trigger alone, and when the doors opened he left the train and returned to the world. Out in the open air of a nearby park he would unwire and take off the explosives.

Deep in a London slum a room was filled with torpid bodies which suddenly, quietly awakened. The heroin was no longer at work in them, but neither were they now addicted. They looked around with dawning expressions of horror and hope as if to ask, “What the hell am I doing here?”

The field was levelling out; I was losing the sense of other peoples’ thoughts and getting more of an idea of what the field was designed to do. And now I knew why the aliens were willing to trust us with the gifts we had thought so dangerous. To them, we were children, and these were the educational toys you’d give a child so that he might develop to the point where first principles could be taught. This fifth and final Gift was the most important of all because, I understood implicitly, our benefactors had developed it first for themselves. This is why we did not have to fear the other Gifts being suddenly denied. We would soon feel the same way toward all of our own, and to do such harm would simply be unthinkable.

One Second

There wasn’t a single human being anywhere on Earth now who wasn’t aware of the Gifts. There wasn’t a single human being anywhere whose urges to violence and self-destruction hadn’t been suddenly and more sensibly redirected.

No wonder the aliens were so proud of the fucking thing.

Except that the timer was about to go off…

— — — — —

Smith and Jones came in with solder and a torch. I was holding the screwdriver across the Sanity Generator’s terminals, and I held it there while they fixed a permanent jumper across it.

“You might as well take copies of the other Gifts with you,” Smith said. “We’ll have to figure out how to distribute them.”

“It shouldn’t be hard. We can duplicate our own panels along with the matter generators, and with them driving the process it should be exponential. Within a few days we’ll have the whole planet covered.”

“It’s hard to see exactly where it will go,” Smith said. “I’m not sure what we’ll do.” He looked at Jones.

“You’ll find something,” I said. “You’ll still be competent, well controlled people. Nobody will resent what you did.”

“No, I guess they won’t,” Jones said.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll take the pallet flyer. I want to find Jennifer.”

“Of course.” They helped me load copies of the Gifts into the boxes. “Don’t forget this,” Jones said. He handed me a second copy of the safety generator. “You might want to take your girl on vacation.”

“Fuck vacation. I might want to take her to live some place where even an Iridium phone won’t reach.”

And that’s exactly what I did.

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