“We have assembled here the finest minds and judgments in the world; eight humans and one Ktistec machine, myself. Remember that there are nine of us. It might be important.”
The nine finest minds were: Epiktistcs, the transcendent machine who put the “‘K” in Ktistec; Gregory Smirnov, the large-souled director of the Institute; Valery Mok, an incandescent lady scientist: her over-shadowed and over-intelligent husband Charles Cogsworth; the humorless and inerrant Glasser; Aloysius Shiplap, the seminal genius; Willy McGilly, a man of unusual parts ( the seeing third finger on his left hand he had picked up on one of the planets of Kapteyn’s Star ) and no false modesty; Audifax O’Hanlon; and Diogenes Pontifex. The latter two men were not members of the Institute ( on account of the Minimal Decency Rule ) , but when the finest minds in the world are assembled, these two cannot very well be left out.
“We are going to tamper with one small detail in past history and note its effect,” Gregory said. “This has never been done before openly. We go back to an era that has been called ‘A patch of light in the vast gloom,’ the time of Charlemagne. We consider why that light went out and did not kindle others. The world lost four hundred years by that flame expiring when the tinder was apparently ready for it. We go back to that false dawn of Europe and consider where it failed. The year was 778, and the region was Spain.
“Charlemagne had entered alliance with Marsilies, the Arab king of Saragossa, against the Caliph Abd ar Rahmen of Cordova. Charlemagne took such towns as Pamplona, Huesca and Gerona and cleared the way to Marsilies in Saragossa. The Caliph accepted the situation. Saragossa should be independent, a city open to both Moslems and Christians. The northern marches to the border of France should be permitted their Christianity, and there would be peace for everybody.
“This Marsilies had long treated Christians as equals in Saragossa, and now there would be an open road from Islam into the Frankish Empire. Marsilies gave Charlemagne thirty-three scholars ( Moslem, Jewish and Christian ) and some Spanish mules to seal the bargain. And there could have been a cross-fertilization of cultures.
“But the road was closed at Roncevalles where the rear-guard of Charlemagne was ambushed and destroyed on its way back to France. The ambushers were more Basque than Moslems, but Charlemagne locked the door at the Pyrenees and swore that he would not let even a bird fly over that border thereafter. He kept the road closed, as did his son and his grandsons. But when he sealed off the Moslem world, he also sealed off his own culture.
“In his latter years he tried a revival of civilization with a ragtag of Irish half-scholars, Greek vagabonds and Roman copyists who almost remembered an older Rome. These weren’t enough to revive civilization, and yet Charlemagne came close with them. Had the Islam door remained open, a real revival of learning might have taken place then rather than four hundred years later. We are going to arrange that the ambush at Roncevalles did not happen and that the door between the two civilizations was not closed. Then we will see what happens to us.”
“Intrusion like a burglar bent,” said Epikt.
“Who’s a burglar?” Glasser demanded.
“I am,” Epikt said. “We all are. It’s from an old verse. I forget the author; I have it filed in my main mind downstairs if you’re interested.”
“We set out a basic text of Hilarius,” Gregory continued. “We note it carefully, and we must remember it the way it is. Very Soon, that may be the way it was. I believe that the words will change on the very page of this book as we watch them. Just as soon as we have done what we intend to do.”
The basic text marked in the open book read: The traitor, Gano, playing a multiplex game, with money from the Cordova Caliph hired Basque Christians ( dressed as Saragossan Mozarabs ) to ambush the rear-guard of the Frankish force. To do this it was necessary that Gano keep in contact with the Basques and at the same time delay the rear-guard of the Franks. Gano, however, served both as guide and scout for the Franks. The ambush was effected. Charlemagne lost his Spanish mules. And he locked the door against the Moslem world. That was the text by Hilarius.
“When we, as it were, push the button (give the nod to Epiktistes), this will be changed,” Gregory said. “Epikt, by a complex of devices which he has assembled, will send an Avatar (partly of mechanical and partly of ghostly construction), and something will have happened to the traitor Gano along about sundown one night on the road to Roncevalles.”
“I hope the Avatar isn’t expensive,” Willy McGilly said. “When I was a boy we got by with a dart whittled out of slippery elm wood.”
“This is no place for humor,” Glasser protested. “Who did you, as a boy, ever kill in time, Willy?”
“Lots of them. King WU of the Manchu, Pope Adrian VII, President Hardy of our own country, King Marcel of Auvergne, the philosopher Gabriel Toeplitz. It’s a good thing we got them. They were a bad lot.”
“But I never heard of any of them, Willy,” Glasser insisted.
“Of course not. We killed them when they were kids.”
“Enough of your fooling, Willy,” Gregory cut it off.
“Willy’s not fooling,” the machine Epikt said. “Where do you think I got the idea?”
“Regard the world,” Aloysius said softly. “We see our own middle-sized town with half a dozen towers of pastel-colored brick. We will watch it as it grows or shrinks. It will change if the world changes.”
“There’s two shows in town I haven’t seen,” Valery said. “Don’t let them take them away! After all, there are only three shows in town.”
“We regard the Beautiful Arts as set out in the reviews here which we have also taken as basic texts,” Audifax O’Hanlon said. “You can say what you want to, but the arts have never been in meaner shape. Painting is of three schools only, all of them bad. Sculpture is the heaps-of-rusted-metal school and the obscene tinkertoy effects. The only popular art, graffiti on mingitorio walls, has become unimaginative, stylized and ugly.
“The only thinkers to be thought of are the dead Teilhard de Chardin and the stillborn Sartre, Zielinski, Aichinger. Oh well, if you’re going to laugh there’s no use going on.”
“All of us here are experts on something,” Cogsworth said. “Most of us are experts on everything. We know the world as it is. Let us do what we are going to do and then look at the world.”
“Push the button, Epiktl” Gregory Smirnov ·ordered.
From his depths, Epiktistes the Ktistec machine sent out an Avatar, partly of mechanical and partly of ghostly construction. Along about sundown on the road from Pamplona to Roncevalles, on August 14 of the year 778, the traitor Gano was taken up from the road and hanged on a carob tree, the only one in those groves of oak and beech. And all things thereafter were changed.
“Did it work, Epikt? Is it done?” Louis Lobachevski demanded. “I can’t see a change in anything.”
“The Avatar is back and reports his mission accomplished,” Epikt stated. “I can’t see any change in anything either.”
“Let’s look at the evidence,” Gregory said.
The thirteen of them, the ten humans and the Ktistec, Chresmoeidec and Proaisthematic machines, turned to the evidence and with mounting disappointment.
“There is not one word changed in the Hilarius text,” Gregory grumbled, and indeed the basic text still read: The king Marsilies of Saragossa, playing a multiplex game, took money from the Caliph of Cordova for persuading Charlemagne to abandon the conquest of Spain (which Charlemagne had never considered and couldn’t have effected ) , took money from Charlemagne in recompense for the cities of the Northern marches being returned to Christian rule ( though Marsilies himself had never ruled them ) ; and took money from everyone as toll on the new trade passing through his city. Marsilies gave up nothing but thirty-three scholars, the same number of mules and a few wagonloads of book manuscripts from the old Hellenistic libraries. But a road over the mountains was opened between the two worlds; and also a sector of the Mediterranean coast became open to both. A limited opening was made between the two worlds, and a limited reanimation of civilization was affected in each.
“No, there is not one word of the text changed,” Gregory grumbled. “History followed its same course. How did our experiment fail? We tried, by a device that seems a little cloudy now, to shorten the gestation period for the new birth. It would not be shortened.”
“The town is in no way changed,” said Aloysius Shiplap. “It is still a fine large town with two dozen imposing towers of varicolored limestone and midland marble. It is a vital metropolis, and we all love it, but it is now as it was before.”
“‘There are still two dozen good shows in town that I haven’t seen,” Valery said happily as she examined the billings. “I was afraid that something might have happened to them.”
“There is no change at all in the Beautiful Arts as reflected in the reviews here that we have taken as basic texts,” said Audifax O’Hanlon. “You can say what you want to, but the arts have never been in finer shape.”
“It’s a link of sausage,” said the machine Chresmoeidy.
” ‘Nor know the road who never ran it thrice,” ” said the machine Proaisth. “That’s from an old verse; I forget the author; I have it filed in my main mind in England if you’re interested.”
“Oh yes, it’s the three-cornered tale that ends where it begins,” said the machine Epiktistes. “But it is good sausage, and we should enjoy it; many ages have not even this much.”
“What are you fellows babbling about?” Audifax asked without really wanting to know. “The art of painting is still almost incandescent in its bloom. The schools are like clustered galaxies, and half the people are doing some of this work for pleasure. Scandinavian and Maori sculpture are hard put to maintain their dominance in the field where almost everything is extraordinary. The impassioned-comic has released music from most of its bonds. Since speculative mathematics and psychology have joined the popular performing arts, there is considerably more sheer fun in life.
“There’s a piece here on Pete Teilhard putting him into context as a talented science-fiction writer with a talent for outre burlesque. The Brainworld Motif was overworked when he tackled it, but what a shaggy comic extravaganza he did make of it! And there’s Muldoom, Zielinski, Popper, Gander, Aichinger, Whitecrow, Hornwhanger – we owe so much to the juice of the cultists! In the main line there are whole congeries and continents of great novels and novelists.
“An ever popular art, graffiti on mingitorio walls, maintains its excellence. Travel Unlimited offers a ninety-nine day art tour of the world keyed to the viewing of the exquisite and hilarious miniatures on the walls of its own rest rooms. Ah, what a copious world we live in!”
“It’s more grass than we can graze,” said Willy McGilly. “The very bulk of achievement is stupefying. Ah, I wonder if there is subtle revenge in my choice of words. The experiment, of course, was a failure, and I’m glad. I like a full world.”
“We will not call the experiment a failure since we have covered only a third of it,” said Gregory. “Tomorrow we will make our second attempt on the past. And, if there is a present left to us after that, we will make a third attempt the following day.”
“Shove it, good people, shove it,” the machine Epiktistes said. “We will meet here again tomorrow. Now you to your pleasures, and we to ours.”
The people talked that evening away from the machines where they could make foolish conjectures without being laughed at.
“Let’s pull a random card out of the pack and go with it,” said Louis Lobachevski. “Let’s take a purely intellectual crux of a little later date and see if the changing of it will change the world.”
“I suggest Ockham,” said Johnny Konduly.
“Why?” Valery demanded. “He was the last and least of the medaeval schoolmen. How could anything he did or did not do affect anything?”
“Oh no, he held the razor to the jugular,” Gregory said. “He’d have severed the vein if the razor hadn’t been snatched from his hand. There is something amiss here, though. It is as though I remembered when things were not so stark with Ockham, as though, in some variant, Ockham’s Terminalism did not mean what we know that it did mean.”
“Sure, let’s cut the jugular,” said Willy. “Let’s find out the logical termination of Terminalism and see just how deep Ockham’s razor can cut.”
“‘We’ll do it,”‘ said Gregory. “Our world has become something of a fat slob; it cloys; it has bothered me all evening. We will find whether purely intellectual attitudes are of actual effect. We’ll leave the details to Epikt, but I believe the turning point was in the year 1323 when John Lutterell came from Oxford to Avignon where the Holy See was then situated. He brought with him fifty-six propositions taken from Ockham’s Commentary on the Sentences, and he proposed their condemnnation. They were not condemned outright, but Ockham was whipped soundly in that first assault, and he never recovered. Lutterell proved that Ockham’s nihilism was a bunch of nothing. And the Ockham thing did die away, echoing dimly through the little German courts where Ockham traveled peddling his wares, but he no longer peddled them in the main markets. Yet his viewpoint could have sunk the world, if indeed, intellectual attitudes are of actual effect.”
“We wouldn’t have liked Lutterell,” said Aloysius. “He was humorless and he had no fire in him, and he was always right. And we would have liked Ockham. He was charming, and he was wrong, and perhaps we will destroy the world yet. There’s a chance that we will get our reaction if we allow Ockham free hand. China was frozen for thousands of years by an intellectual attitude, one not nearly so unsettling as Ockham’s. India is hypnotized into a queer stasis which calls itself revolution, and which does not move – hypnotized by an intellectual attitude. But there was never such an attitude as Ockham’s.”
So they decided that the former chancellor of Oxford, John Lutterell, who was always a sick man, should suffer one more sickness on the road to A vignon in France, and that he should not arrive there to lance the Ockham thing before it infected the world.
“Let’s get on with it, good people,” Epikt rumbled the next day. “Me, I’m to stop a man getting from Oxford to Avignon in the year 1323. Well, come, come, take your places, and let’s get the thing started.”‘ And Epiktistes’ great sea-serpent head glowed every color as he puffed on a seven-branched pooka-dooka and filled the room with wonderful smoke.
“Everybody ready to have his throat cut?” Gregory asked cheerfully.
“Cut them,”‘ said Diogenes Pontifex, “but I haven’t much hope for it. If our yesterday’s essay had no effect, I cannot see how one English schoolman chasing another to challenge him in an Italian court in France, in bad Latin, nearly seven hundred years ago, on fifty six points of unscientific abstract reasoning, can have effect.”
“We have perfect test conditions here,” said the machine Epikt. “We set out a basic text from Cobblestone’s History of Philosophy. If our test is effective, then the text will change before our eyes. So will every other text, and the world.
“We have assembled here the finest minds and judgments in the world,” the machine Epiktistes said, “ten humans and three machines. Remember that there are thirteen of us. It might be important.”
“Regard the world,” said Aloysius Shiplap. “I said that yesterday, but it is required that I say it again. We have the world in our eyes and in our memories. If it changes in any way, we will know it.”
“Push the button, Epikt,” said Gregory Smirnov.
From his depths, Epiktistes the Ktistec machine sent out an Avatar, partly of mechanical and partly of ghostly construction. And along about sundown on the road from Mende to Avignon in the old Languedoc district of France, in the year 1323, John Lutterell was stricken with one more sickness. He was taken to a little inn in the mountain country, and perhaps he died there. He did not, at any rate, arrive at Avignon.
“Did it work. Epikt?” Is it done?” Aloysius asked.
“Let’s look at the evidence,” said Gregory. The four of them, the three humans and the ghost Epikt, who was a kachenko mask with a speaking tube, turned to the evidence with mounting disappointment
“There is still the stick and the five notches in it,” said Gregory. “It was our test stick. Nothing in the world is changed.”
“The arts remain as they were,” said Aloysius. “Our picture here on the stone on which we have worked for so many seasons is the same as it was. We have painted the bears black, the buffalos red and the people blue. When we find a way to make another color, we can represent birds also. I had hoped that our experiment might give us that other color. I had even dreamed that birds might appear in the picture on the rock before our very eyes.”
“There’s still rump of skunk to eat and nothing else,” said Valery. “I had hoped that our experiment would have changed it to haunch of deer.”
“All is not lost,” said Aloysius. “We still have the hickory nuts. That was my last prayer before we began our experiment. ‘Don’t let them take the hickory nuts away,’ I prayed.”
They sat around the conference table that was a large fat natural rock, and cracked hickory nuts with stone fist-hammers. They were nude in the crude, and the world was as it had always been. They had hoped by magic to change it.
“Epikt has failed us,” said Gregory. “We made his frame out of the best sticks, and we plaited his face out of the finest weeds and grasses. We chanted him full of magic and placed all our special treasures in his cheek pouches. So, what can the magic mask do for us now?”
“Ask it, ask it,” said Valery.
They were the four finest minds in the world-the three humans, Gregory, Aloysius and Valery ( the only humans in the world unless you count those in the other valleys ) , and the ghost Epikt, a kachenko mask with a speaking tube.
“What do we do now, Epikt?” Gregory asked. Then he went around behind Epikt to the speaking tube.
“‘I remember a woman with a sausage stuck to her nose,” said Epikt in the voice of Gregory. “Is that any help?”
“‘It may be some help,” Gregory said after he had once more taken his place at the flat-rock conference table. “It is from an old (what’s old about it? I made it up myself this morning) folk tale about the three wishes.”
“Let Epikt tell it,” said Valery. “He does it so much better than you do.”‘ Valery went behind Epikt to the speaking tube and blew smoke through it from the huge loose black-leaf uncured stogie that she was smoking.
“The wife wastes one wish for a sausage,” said Epikt in the voice of Valery. “‘A sausage is a piece of deermeat tied in a piece of a deer’s stomach. The husband is angry that the wife has wasted a wish, since she could have wished for a whole deer and had many sausages. He gets so angry that he wishes the sausage might stick to her nose forever. It does, and the woman wails, and the man realized that he had used up the second wish. I forget the rest.”
“You can’t forget it, Epiktl” Aloysius cried in alarm. “The future of the world may depend on your remembering. Here, let me reason with that damned magic mask!” And Aloysius went behind Epikt to the speaking tube.
“Oh yes, now I remember,” Epikt said in the voice of Aloysius. “The man used the third wish to get the sausage off his wife’s nose. So things were the way they had been before.”
“But we don’t want it the way it was before!” Valery howled. “That’s the way it is now, rump of skunk to eat, and me with nothing to wear but my ape cape. We want it better. We want deer skins and antelope skins.”
“Take me as a mystic or don’t take me at all,” Epikt signed off.
“Even though the World has always been so, yet we have intimations of other things,” Gregory said. “What folk hero was it who made the dart? And of what did he make it?”
“Willy McGilly was the folk hero,” said Epikt in the voice of Valery, who had barely got to the speaking tube in time, “and he made it out of slippery elm wood.”
“Could we make a dart like the folk hero Willy made?” Aloysius asked.
“We gotta,” said Epikt.
“Could we make a slinger and whip it out of our own context and into-”
“Could we kill an Avatar with it before he killed somebody else?” Gregory asked excitedly.
“We sure will try,” said the ghost Epikt, who was nothing but a kachenko mask with a speaking tube. “I never did like those Avatars.”
You think Epikt was nothing but a kachenko mask with a speaking tube! There was a lot more to him than that. He had red garnet rocks inside him and real sea salt. He had powder made from beaver eyes. He had rattlesnake rattles and armadillo shields. He was the first Ktistec machine.
“Give me the word, Epikt,” Aloysius cried a few moments later as he fitted the dart to the slinger.
“Fling it I Get that Avatar fink!” Epikt howled.
Along about sundown in an unnumbered year, on the Road from Nowhere to Eom, an Avatar fell dead with a slippery-elm dart in his heart.
“Did it work, Epikt? Is it done?” Charles Cogsworth asked in excitement. “It must have. I’m here. I wasn’t in the last one.”
“Let’s look at the evidence,” Gregory suggested calmly.
“Damn the evidence!” Willy McGilly cussed. “Remember where you heard it first.”
“Is it started yet?” Glasser asked.
“Is it finished?” Audifax O’Hanlon questioned.
“Push the button, Epiktl” Diogenes barked. “I think I missed part of it. Let’s try again.”
“Oh, no, no!” Valery forbade. “Not again. That way is rump of skunk and madness.”
A story by Raphael Aloysius Rafferty 1967