The Seeds of Life: A Golden Age SF Classic [MultiFormat]
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eBook by John Taine
eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: Is This the Book That Inspired "Flowers for Algernon" and the movie "Charlie"? Some sf historians think so. Here is the classic story of a main raised from subnormal to superman overnight! At first he plans to benefit human kind. But when the transformation proves temporary, he wonders if he should save humanity or expunge it from the face of the Earth. Seeds of Life is science fiction tragedy on the level of grand opera. It is also an enthralling hard science story with a very human heart, mixing such unlikely ingredients as a black widow spider, a two-million volt X-ray tube, chicken eggs which hatch out reptilian monsters, and other equally strange plot threads. When Dr. Andrew Crane of the Erickson Foundation tries to make a man of Neils Bork, his laboratory assistant, whose interest in bottled inspiration is his chief weakness, he succeeds in a spectacular manner. Bork himself contributes to the end result in his own drunken way, and there emerges Miguel De Soto, a superman in every sense of the word. His rate of thinking and perceiving has accelerated many thousand times beyond that of any human being who has ever lived. He is a partial, accidental anticipation of what humanity will become in the millenniums ahead. Seeds of Life is science fiction of a high order, a novel involving believable people in unusual situations, written in the smoothly entertaining style which characterized all of John Taine's novels. No wonder Analog magazine (then Astounding) hailed the first edition of Seeds of Life as "top notch Taine" and praised the author for his "unique, memorable science mysteries, full of outrageously daring flights of the scientific imagination." Analog critic P. Schuyler Miller wrote that "As in most of his books the theme is biological--the sources of life, and of the forces which mold life. An accident remakes the blundering alcoholic technician Neils Bork, into the mutant superman, Miguel de Soto, and at the same time sets in motion other processes which attract the attention of Bork's employer, Andrew Crane, and the very competent Dr. Brown. "the author keeps several mysteries at the boiling point--what has happened to Bork, to the black widow spider, to Bertha the hen; what is the theory of evolution and devolution around which the whole book is built." John Taine (1883-1960) was Eric Temple Bell, Professor of Mathematics at the California Institute of Technology. His sf novels were based on cutting edge science and experiments he learned first-hand from his the top scientists of his day. As Taine he was the author The Forbidden Garden, The Greatest Adventure, The Time Stream, The Iron Star, and other Golden Age sf classics.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, Published: 2006
Fictionwise Release Date: January 2006
CHAPTER I. THE BLACK WIDOW
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"DANGER. KEEP OUT." This curt warning in scarlet on the bright green steel door of the twenty million volt electric laboratory was intended for the curious public, not for the intrepid researchers, should one of the latter carelessly forget to lock the door after him.
The laboratory itself, a severe box of reinforced concrete, might have been mistaken by the casual visitor as a modern factory but for the fact that it had no windows.
This was no mere whim of the erratic architect; certain experiments must be carried out by their own light or in the dim glow of carefully filtered illumination from artificial sources. The absence of windows gave the massive rectangular block a singularly forbidding aspect. An imaginative artist might have said the laboratory had a sinister appearance, and only a scientist would have contradicted him. To the daring workers who tamed the manmade lightnings in it, the twenty million volt laboratory was more austerely beautiful than the Parthenon in its prime.
Of the thousands who passed the laboratory daily on their way to or from work in the city of Seattle, perhaps a scant half dozen gave it so much as a passing glance. It was just another building, as barren of romance as a shoe factory. The charm of the Erickson Foundation for Electrical Research was not visible to a casual inspection. Nevertheless, its fascination was a vivid fact to the eighty men who slaved in its laboratories twelve or eighteen hours a day, regardless of all time clocks or other devices to coerce the unwilling to earn their wages. Their one trial was the fussy Director of the Foundation; work was a delight.
About three o'clock of a brilliant May afternoon, Andrew Crane and his technical assistant, the stocky Neils Bork, gingerly approached the forbidding door, carrying the last unit of Crane's latest invention. This was a massive cylinder of Jena glass, six feet long by three in diameter, open at one end and sealed at the other by an enormous metal cathode like a giant's helmet. It had cost the pair four months of unremitting labor and heartbreaking setbacks to perfect this evil-looking crown to Crane's masterpiece. Therefore, they proceeded cautiously, firmly planting both feet on one granite step leading to the green door before venturing to fumble for the next.
Their final tussle in the workshops of the Foundation had endured nineteen hours. The job of sealing the cathode to the glass had to be done at one spurt, or not at all. During all that grueling grind neither man had dared to turn aside from the blowpipe for a second. In the nervous tension of succeeding at last, they had not felt the lack of food, water, or sleep. They had failed too often already, each time with the prize but a few hours ahead of them, to lose it again for a cup of water.
Crane planted his right foot firmly on the last, broad step. His left followed. He was up, his arms trembling from exhaustion. Bork cautiously felt for the top step. Then abused nature took her sardonic revenge for nineteen hours' flouting of her rights. The groping foot failed to clear the granite angle by a quarter of an inch. In a fraction of a second, four months' agonizing labor was as if it had never been.
Crane was a tall, lean Texan, of about twenty-seven, desiccated, with a long, cadaverous face and a constant dry grin about his mouth. He shunned unnecessary speech, except when a tube or valve suddenly burnt itself out owing to some oversight of his own. When Bork blundered, Crane as a rule held his tongue. But he grinned. Bork wished at such awkward moments that the lank Texan would at least swear. He never did; he merely smiled. Neils Bork was a true Nordic type, blue-eyed, yellow-haired, stockily built. From his physical appearance he should have been a steady, self-reliant technician. Unfortunately he was not as reliable as he might have been, had he given himself half a chance.
Viewing the shattered glass and the elaborate cathode, which had skipped merrily down the granite steps, and was now lying like a capsized turtle on its cracked back thirty feet away in the middle of the cement sidewalk, Crane grinned. Bork tried not to look at his companion's face. He failed miserably.
"I couldn't help it," he blurted out.
It was a foolish thing to have said. Of course he couldn't 'help it'--now. Only an imbecile would have deliberately smashed an intricate piece of apparatus that had taken months of sweating toil to perfect. Bork's indiscretion loosened Crane's reluctant tongue.
"You could help it," he snapped, "if you'd let the booze alone. Look at me! I'm as steady as a rock. You're shaking all over. Cut it out after this, or I'll cut you out."
"I haven't touched a drop for--" the wretched Bork began in self-defense, but Crane cut him short.
"Twenty hours! I smelt your breath when you came to work yesterday morning. Of course you can't control your legs when you're half-stewed all the time."
"It was working all night that made me trip. If you had let me take a layoff after we finished, as I asked, instead of carrying it over at once, I wouldn't--"
"All right. Keep your shirt on. Sorry I rode you. Well," Crane continued with a sour grin, "we shall have to do it again. That's all. I'm going to take a look around before I go to bed. Let's see if the baby can still kick."
Bork stood wretchedly silent while Crane unlocked the steel door.
"Coming?" Crane called, as he switched on the lights.
Bork followed, locked the door, and stood sullenly beside his chief on the narrow steel gallery overlooking the vast pit of the huge transformers. Forty of these towering giants, gray and evil as the smokestacks of an old time battleship, loomed up menacingly in the glaring light. Each stood firmly planted on its towering tripod--three twenty-foot rigid legs made up of huge mushroom insulators, like a living but immobile enemy from another planet. The whole battery of the forty devils presented a strangely half human aspect, and their massed company conveyed a sinister threat, as of seething whirlwinds of energy stored up against the men who had rashly created these hostile fiends. The two men, staring down on their half-tamed genii, felt something of this menace, although both were practical and one was daring almost to a fault. But in their present exhaustion, nature succeeded in making herself felt, if not heard, on a deeper, more intuitive level of their consciousness.
"Let's try out the two million volt baby," Crane proposed as a peace offering to the still surly Bork. "We haven't busted that, yet," he continued rather tactlessly, and Bork shot him a spiteful glance.
The 'two million volt' to which Crane referred was his first attempt to build a more powerful X-ray tube than any then in existence. By studying this two million volt baby minutely, Crane hoped to succeed with the full grown twenty million volt tube which he and Bork were constructing. Then, if theory for once should prove a trustworthy guide to the riddle of matter, they hoped to smash up the atoms of at least half a dozen of the elements. What might happen thereafter Crane refused to predict. He had seen too many ingenious theories exploded suddenly and finally by some unforeseen 'accident,' to have much faith in prophecies not founded on experimental evidence.
"Step it up two hundred and fifty thousand at a time," he ordered Bork, "and be careful. We don't want to blow out the tube."
Again Bork shot him a resentful glance as if his bruised conscience accused him of being a hopeless bungler. Nothing was farther from Crane's mind. He was merely repeating the routine instructions of the laboratory. To prevent possibly fatal mishaps, the experimenters invariably followed a rigid set of rules in their work, testing every switch and piece of apparatus in a definite order before touching anything, although they 'knew' that everything was safe.
Bork threw in the first switch and turned off the lights, plunging the laboratory into total darkness. There was a metallic clang, and the black air began to vibrate ominously with a rapid, surging hiss. A sombre eye of cherry red stole out on the darkness as two hundred and fifty thousand volts flashed to the cathode of the X-ray tube; then, almost instantly, the red flashed up to a dazzling white spot.
"All right," Crane ordered, "throw in the next."
Under half a million volts the twelve foot tube flickered and burned with a fitful green fluorescence, revealing the eight metal 'doughnuts,' like huge balloon tires, encircling the glass. These constituted the practical detail which balanced the terrific forces within the tube and prevented the glass from collapsing.
The outcome of any particular 'run' was always somewhat of a sporting venture. Until the shot was safely over, it was stupid to bet that the tube would not collapse or burn out. Crane waited a full two minutes before ordering the step up to seven hundred and fifty thousand volts. Under the increased pressure the surging dry hiss leapt up, shriller and angrier, and deep violet coronas of electricity bristled out, crackling evilly, in unexpected spots of the darkness.
Bork began to grow restless.
"Hadn't we better step it up to a million now, and quit?"
Crane laughed his dry laugh. "Getting nervous about what Dr. Brown told us?"
Bork grunted, and Crane, in his cocksure ignorance, elucidated. "All doctors are old women. What do the physiologists actually know about the effect of X-rays as hard as ours on human tissues? I've spent at least thirty hours the past eight months working around that tube going at capacity--two million volts and there isn't a blister or a burn anywhere on my body. I'll bet these rays are so hard they go straight through flesh, bone and marrow like sunlight through a soap bubble. What are you afraid of? If our bodies are so transparent to these hard rays that they stop none of the vibrations, I fail to see how the biggest cells in us are in any danger whatever. You've got to stop hard radiations, or at least damp them down, before they can do human bone, nerves or muscles any harm. All the early workers used soft rays. That's why they lost their eyesight, fingers, hands, arms, legs, and finally their lives."
"It takes months, or even years, for the bad burns to show up," Bork objected.
"Well," Crane retorted, "if there is anything in what Dr. Brown said, I should be a pretty ugly leper right now. Use your eyes. My skin's as smooth as a baby's."
"He said you will be sterilized for life," Bork muttered. "The same for me. I'm not going to live the next twenty years like a rotten half-man."
"Be a confirmed bachelor like me," Crane laughed, "and you'll never miss the difference. What's a family anyway but a lot of grief? Throw in the next switch and forget the girl."
Under the million volts, the glowing tube buzzed like a swarm of enraged hornets, and for the first time in all his months of work in the laboratory, Crane felt a peculiar dry itching over his whole body. As Bork stepped the voltage up to the full two million, the itching increased to the limit of endurance.
"Imagination," he muttered, refusing to heed nature's plain hint. "Hand me the fluoroscope, will you?"
Bork groped over the bench beneath the switches and failed, in the dark, to find what he sought.
"I'll have to turn on the lights."
"Very well. Make it snappy. I need my lunch and a nap. So do you."
Rather than admit that Bork's fears might not be wholly old-womanish, Crane would stick out his discomfort and delude his assistant into a false feeling of security by feigning an interest in the hardness of the rays.
Bork turned on the floodlights. Just as he was about to pick up the fluoroscope, he started back with an involuntary exclamation of disgust. His arm shot to his side as if jolted by a sharp shock.
"Short circuit?" Crane snapped. "Here, I'll pull the switches."
In two seconds the coronas were extinct, a succession of metallic clanks shot rapidly to silence, and the cathode of the two million volt tube dimmed to a luminous blood red. The tingling itch, however, on every inch of Crane's skin persisted. Bork for the moment was apparently beyond speech. In the glaring light his face had a greenish hue, as if he were about to be violently seasick.
"Short circuit?" Crane repeated.
"No," Bork gasped. "Black widow."
Crane failed to conceal his contempt. "Afraid of a spider? Why didn't you smash it?"
Bork swallowed hard before replying.
"It dropped off the bench and fell behind those boards."
"Rot! You're seeing things. It'll be snakes next. There have been no black widows found nearer than Magnolia Bluffs or Bainbridge Island--ten miles from here."
Crane's indifferent sarcasm stung Bork to cold fury. His nerves were undoubtedly on edge after nineteen hours exasperating work and months of more or less steady, immoderate soaking. He succeeded in keeping his voice level.
"Snakes? Then lift that board."
Without a word, Crane bent down and contemptuously tossed the top board aside. "There's nothing here," he remarked dryly, turning the next board. In his zeal to discomfit Bork he deliberately thrust his hand into the narrow space between the pile of boards and the wall, sweeping it methodically back and forth to dislodge the supposedly imaginary enemy. The sweat started out on Bork's forehead. Death by the bite of an aggressively venomous spider is likely to be unpleasant even to witness.
"Look out!" Bork yelled, as a jet black ball, the size of a tiny mouse, rolled from behind the pile, instantly took energetic legs to itself, and scurried with incredible speed straight up the concrete wall directly before Crane's face. Crane's action was instinctive. He straightened instantly to his full height, gave a convulsive leap and, with his clenched fist, smashed the loathsome thing just as it was about to scud beyond his reach. It fell, a mashed blob of evil black body and twitching legs, plop into the eyepiece of the fluoroscope.
"You win this time," Crane grinned, turning the black mess over on its back. "She's a black widow. Here's her trademark--the red hour glass on her underside. We had better post a warning to the fellows to go easy in the dark. This is the ideal breeding place for the brutes--dry and warm, with plenty of old packing cases lying about. I'll have to ask Mr. Kent to get this cluttered rats' nest cleaned up for once. Well, shall we finish our shot?"
"What for?" Bork demanded.
"Just to prove that we haven't lost our nerve. Here, I'll remove the evidence from the fluoroscope before you douse the lights. Better save the remains for the Director," he continued, carefully depositing the smashed spider in an empty cigar box, "or he'll say we've both been hitting the bottle. Ready? Shoot; I've got the fluoroscope."
As the lights went off, Crane caught the dull flash of anger on Bork's face. "I had better stop prodding him," he thought, "or he may stick a knife into me. He's a grouch; no sense of humor."
Crane was partly right. Bork, a poorly educated mechanic with a natural gift for delicate work, cherished a sour grudge against the world in general and against the eighty trained scientists of the Erickson Foundation in particular. They, he imagined, had profited by the undue advantages of their social position, and had somehow--in what particular way he could not define--swindled him out of the education he merited. He had been denied the fair opportunity, which a democracy is alleged to offer all comers, of making something of himself. Such was his aggrieved creed.
As a matter of fact a good third of all the scientists on the staff had earned their half starved way through high school, college and university with no greater resources at their command than Bork possessed when he was at the student age. That they preferred drudgery for a spell to boozy good fellowship for the term of their apprenticeship accounted for the present difference between their status and his. One of these men, a great specialist in X-ray crystal analysis, had paid his way while a student by stoking coal eight hours a night in the municipal gas plant. Bork, in all his flaming youth, had done nothing more strenuous than act as half time assistant, four hours a day, to a pattern maker.
Bork had brains; there was no denying so obvious a fact. But he was short on backbone. Being Crane's technical assistant, he naturally, if only half consciously, stored up all his spite against life for Crane's special amusement. Crane was the one man in the Foundation who could have tolerated the grouchy Bork for more than a week. The rest would have discharged him without compunction. Crane's wry sense of humor gave him a more human angle on the dour churl. Although he would have cut his tongue out, rather than acknowledge the fact, even to himself, Crane hoped to save Bork from his sourer fraction and make a man of him. This missionary drive lay behind his frequent digs at Bork's tippling. Crane sensed the man's innate ability. That all this high grade brain power should fritter itself away on peevish discontent and sodden conviviality seemed to him an outrage against nature.
The exasperations of this particular day, culminating in the wreck of the new cathode and the incident of the black widow, crystallized Bork's sullen irritation toward Crane into a definite, hard hatred. The uninitiated often marvel at the trivial grounds cited by the injured party in a divorce suit, overlooking the ten or fifteen years of constant fault-finding and mutual dislike concealed beneath the last, insignificant straw.
So it proved in Bork's case. Crane's superior contempt for his assistant's perfectly natural abhorrence of a venomous spider revealed the full measure of the stronger man's subconscious scorn for a weakling. Bork was no fool. He realized that although Crane had always looked down on him as a somewhat spineless parody of a full grown man, he himself had looked up to Crane, not with respect or affection, but with smouldering hatred and the unacknowledged desire to humble the better man to his own pygmy stature. And in that sudden flash of revelation, struck out on the darkness of his thwarted nature by a tactless jest, Bork saw himself as the appointed destroyer of his would-be friend and natural enemy. His bitter sense of inferiority was swallowed up in a yet more bitter certainty that his was the power to injure Crane in a way that would hurt.
As he switched off the floodlights, and silently threw in the full two million volts in eight perfectly timed steps of two hundred and fifty thousand each, he resolved to get blind drunk the moment he was free of Crane's supervision. He would not dull the edge of his projected spree by foolishly indulging in lunch or supper. No, he would hurl himself and all his forces raging and ravenously empty on the crudest, rawest Scotch whiskey he could buy. What should happen thereafter would be up to Crane alone. In any event Bork would win, in his perverse way, even if it cost him a term in the penitentiary.
"How's that for penetration?" Crane demanded enthusiastically, holding his hand before the fluoroscope in the path of the rays. They were standing about a hundred feet away from the tube. Not a shadow of flesh or bone showed on the fluoroscope. To those hard rays, the human body was as transparent as rock crystal to sunlight. Bork gave a grudging consent that it was pretty good. To test the penetration further, Crane next tried to cast a shadow of the heavy iron rail, against which he was leaning, on the fluorescent screen. Again the penetrating radiation passed clear through the obstacle as if it were air.
"And you're afraid," Crane exulted, "that rays which will pass like these through iron can affect the insignificant cells of your body. They wouldn't bother to stop for such stuff." Nevertheless it cost Crane all of his self control to keep from tearing at his own tingling, itching skin.
"Well, let's call it a day, and go home," he said.
On emerging from the laboratory they found a knot of curious idlers gathered about the cracked cathode, vainly trying to puzzle out whose the huge 'helmet' might be.
"We had better rescue that," Crane remarked, "before some loafer finds out that it's valuable. We can't afford to lose several hundred dollars worth of platinum on top of our other hard luck."
Crane's thoughtless allusion to their mishap was the last straw. With a smothered oath, Bork turned his back on the small crowd and strode off toward the street.
"See you tomorrow at eight," Crane called after him.
Bork made no reply. Grinning broadly, Crane picked up the cathode and started with it back to the workshops. The idlers, having thoughtfully selected choice souvenirs of broken glass, dispersed. Had Crane been as keen a student of human nature as he was of the physics of radiation, he would have followed Bork and let the crowd keep the costly cathode as a memento of a memorable blunder.