Walt Sheldon is bitter-bright in this imaginative short satire of Man's
sell-out by a group of staunch believers in the infallibility of numbers.
by ... Walt Sheldon
The Computer could do no wrong. Then it was asked
a simple little question by a simple little man.
The little man had a head
like an old-fashioned light bulb
and a smile that seemed to say
he had secrets from the rest of
the world. He didn't talk much,
just an occasional "Oh," "Mm"
or "Ah." Krayton figured he must
be all right, though. After all
he'd been sent to Computer City
by the Information Department
itself, and his credentials must
have been checked in a hundred
ways and places.
"Essentially each computer is
the same," said Krayton, "but
adjusted to translate problems into
the special terms of the division
Krayton had a pleasant, well-behaved
impersonal voice. He
was in his thirties and mildly
handsome. He considered himself
a master of the technique of building
a career in Computer City—he
knew how to stay within the
limits of directives and regulations
and still make decisions, or rather
to relay computer decisions that
kept his responsibility to a minimum.
Now Krayton spoke easily and
freely to the little man. As public
liaison officer he had explained
the computer system hundreds of
times. He knew it like a tech
"But is there any real central
control, say in case of a breakdown
or something of that sort?"
The little man's voice was dry as
lava ash, dry as the wastes between
and beyond the cities. Tanter,
was the name he'd given—Mr.
Tanter. His contact lenses
were so thick they made his eyes
seem to bulge grotesquely. He
had a faint stoop and wore a
black tunic which made his look
like one of the reconstructed
models of prehistoric birds called
crows that Krayton had seen in
"Of course, of course," said
Krayton, answering the question.
"It's never necessary to use the
All circuit. But we could very
easily in case of a great emergency."
"The All circuit? What is that?"
Mr. Tanter asked.
Krayton gestured and led the
little man down the long control
bank. Their steps made precise
clicks on the layaplast floor. The
stainless steel walls threw back
tinny echoes. The chromium
molding glistened, always pointing
the way—the straight and
mathematical way. They were in
the topmost section of the topmost
building of Computer City.
The several hundred clean, solid,
wedding-cake structures of the
town could be seen from the
"The All circuit puts every
machine in the city to work on
any selection-problem that's fed
into our master control here. Each
machine will give its answer in its
own special terms, but actually
they will all work on the same
problem. To use a grossly simple
example, let us say we wish to
know the results of two-and-two,
but we wish to know it in terms of
total security. That is, we wish to
know that two-plus-two means
twice as many nourishment units
for the Department of Foods,
twice as many weapons for the
Department of War, but is perhaps
not necessarily true according
to the current situational adjustment
in the Department of
"At any rate, we would set up
our problem on the master, pushing
the button Two, then the button
Plus, and the button Two
again as on a primitive adding
machine. Then we would merely
throw the All switch. A short
time later the total answer to our
problem would be relayed back
from every computer, and the
cross-comparison factors canceled
out, so that we would have
the result in terms of the familiar
Verdict Statement. And, as everyone
knows, the electronically filed
Verdict Statements make the complete
record of directives for the
behavior of our society."
"Very interesting," said Mr.
Tanter, the little crow-like man.
He blinked rapidly, stared at the
switch marked All that Krayton
was pointing out to him.
Krayton now folded his hands
in front of his official gold-and-black
tunic, looked up into the air
and rocked gently back and forth
on his heels as he talked. He was
really talking to himself now although
he seemed to address Tanter.
"You can see that the Computer
System is quite under our
control in spite of what these rebellious,
"Underground groups?" asked
Mr. Tanter mildly. Just his left
eye seemed to blink this time.
And the edge of his mouth gave
the veriest twitch.
"Oh, you know," said Krayton,
"the organization that calls itself
the Prims. Prim for Primitive.
They leave little cards and pamphlets
around damning the Computer
System. I saw one the other
day. It had a big title splashed
across it: OUR NEW TYRANT—THE
COMPUTER. The article complained
that some of the new labor
and food regulations were the
result of conscious reasoning on
the part of The Computer. Devices
to build the Computer bigger
and bigger and bigger at the expense
of ordinary workers. You
know the sort of thing."
"But it is true that the living
standard is going down all the
time, isn't it?" asked Mr. Tanter,
keeping his ephemeral smile.
"What about those three thousand
starvation deaths up in Hydroburgh?"
Krayton waved an impatient
hand. "There will always be problems
like that here and there."
He turned and stared almost reverently
at the long control rack.
"Be thankful we have The Computer
to solve them."
"But the deaths were due to
diverting that basic carbon shipment
down here to Computer City
for computer-building, weren't
"Now, there—you see how
powerful the propaganda of the
Prims can be?" Krayton put his
hands on his hips. "That statement
is not true! It simply isn't
true at all! It was analyzed on The
Computer some days ago. Here,
let me show you." He took several
steps down the corridor again and
stopped at another panel.
"We first collected from the
various departments—Food, Production,
Labor and so forth—all
the possible causes of the starvation
deaths in Hydroburgh. Computer
Administration had its machine
translate them into symbols.
We're getting a huge new plant
and machine addition over at
Administration, by the way.
"At any rate, we simply registered
all the possible causes with
the Master Computer, threw in
this circuit marked Validity Selector.
Out of all those causes The
Computer picked the one that was
most valid. The Hydroburgh
tragedy was due to lack of foresight
on the part of Hydroburgh's
planners. If they'd had a proper
stockpile of basic carbon the thing
never would have happened."
"But no community ever stockpiles,"
said the little man.
"That," said Krayton, "doesn't
alter the fundamental fact. The
Computer never lies." He drew
himself up stiffly as he said this.
Then abruptly he consulted the
chronometer on the far wall.
"Excuse me just a moment, Mr.
Tanter," he said. "It's time to feed
the daily tax computation from
Finance. We have to start a little
earlier on that these days—the
new taxes, you know."
As Krayton moved off Tanter's
thin smile widened just a little.
As soon as Krayton was out of
sight he stepped with his odd,
crow-like stride to the numerical
panel, punched two-plus-two, then
adjusted the Operations pointer
to HOLD. After that he punched
three-plus-one, and HOLD once
He moved over to the Validity
Selector, switched the numerical
panel in, closed the circuit.
In his dry voice he murmured
to the whole control rack: "Three-plus-one
makes four, two-plus-two
makes four. Three-plus-one, two-plus-two—tell
me which is really
All through the master computer
relays clicked and tubes
glowed as the problem was sent
to all the sub-computers in their
own special terms. Food, Production,
Labor, Public Information,
War, Peace, Education, Science
and so forth.
All over Computer City the
solenoids moved their contacts
and the filaments turned cherry
red. Oscillating circuits hummed
silently to themselves in perfect
Q. The life warmth of hysteresis
pulsed and throbbed along wires
and channels. Three-plus-one,
two-plus-two—tell me which is
really true. The problem criss-crossed
in and out, around, about,
checking, cross-checking, re-checking
as The Computer
'thought' about the problem.
Which was really true?
Even before Krayton returned
parts of The Computer had begun
to get red hot. It hummed in
some places and in the other
places relays going back and forth
in indecision made an unhealthy
Little Mr. Tanter beamed
happily to himself as he recalled
the words of an old directive The
Computer itself had issued in the
matter of public thought control.
When a brain is faced with two
absolutely equal alternatives complete
breakdown invariably results.
Mr. Tanter kept smiling and
rocked back and forth on his
feet as Krayton had done. Before
nightfall The Computer would be
a useless and overheated mass of
plastic and metal!
He took a printed folder from
his pocket and casually dropped it
on the floor where someone would
be sure to find it. It was one of
the pamphlets the Prims were
always leaving around.
This etext was produced from Fantastic Universe March 1954.
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.