Subterranean Press Magazine: Winter 2013
The Boolean Gate by Walter Jon Williams
The dining room in Guildford had yellow wallpaper with little figures on it, and a heavy mahogany sideboard, and vases with flowers that Sam, in his carelessness, was allowing to die. The window was open as a relief against the heavy August heat, but the lace curtains barely stirred.
Sam’s gaze turned from the wallpaper to the sideboard to the window to the dying flowers. Each of them struck him as new, as astonishing. It was as if he had never seen any of them before.
Susy was peacefully released to-day.
The telegram was like a white flower in his hand, a flower offered to no one in particular. The message had just been delivered to his front door, and because he’d left his pocket-knife somewhere, he’d come to the dining room for a knife to slit open the seal.
Sam blinked at the room again. It was brilliant in the summer sun, brilliantly new. A bell trilled outside the window, the telegraph messenger’s jaunty salute as he rode his bicycle away, a brief jingle that announced the birth of a new world.
It was a world without Sam’s daughter in it, a world completely altered from the world that had existed only a moment before. No wonder it seemed brand-new.
The last telegram had promised that Susy’s recovery was certain. It was clear enough that the old world—the one that had just vanished—was built on the uncertain foundation of that lie. The new world, the world without Susy, was a true world; but it was a world of emptiness, of devastation…
And then Sam thought, My God, Livy does not know! His wife was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, having left on the first home-bound steamer at the first news of Susy’s illness. There was no way to contact a steamship at sea…each ship was all alone, little floating islands entirely on their own until they touched land.
Livy still lived in the old world, the world where Susy waited for her. All unknowing, she was steaming home to a parlor with a coffin in it, and pale Susy lying drawn and dead in a dark, suffocating room lit by candles, where the mirrors were covered in black draperies…
Liquid pattered on Sam’s hand. He looked down and saw his own tears falling. He opened his hand and let the telegram flutter like a wounded butterfly to the table.
He should have gone with Livy, he thought. But he had convinced himself that the news in the last cable was true, and that his presence would be unnecessary.
Cowardice, he thought. Sheer cowardice. He must have known, somehow, that Susy was dying. He had avoided his duty as a father because he had been afraid of what he would find at the end of the return journey, and he had left his wife and his two surviving daughters to face it on their own.
He walked stiff-legged to the window and gazed out at the English street, the cobbles, the solid brick buildings with their chimneys and white window-frames, the two gentlemen in their bowler hats conversing in front of the public house…
Sights of the new world that had just come into being, the world without Susy. A world of desolation, of terror, of weakness. A world with the purpose drained clean out of it, a world of automata, of shadows.
A world in which Sam, blind, would have to grope his way.
Mark Twain was constipated again.
More correctly, it was Sam Clemens who suffered, but it was Mark Twain, the public man of letters, who would be obliged to travel downtown to Houston Street and beg for the remedy.
He disliked the necessity as he disliked himself. He did not seek to be such a banality, a grumpy, constipated old man barking at the world around him.
He was inclined to blame the banquets. In the last week he had spoken at a dinner given by the Players Club, at the annual meeting of the Directors of the YMCA, at a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, and at a dinner in Princeton honoring the Presbyterian poet Henry Jackson Van Dyke. The quality of the meals had varied, but the outcome had not.
The disorder was not a novelty to Sam. He and constipation had a long and complex history together, and it was one of the few non-comic subjects which had inspired him to verse.
Constipation, O Constipation,
The Joyful sound proclaim
Till man’s remotest entrail
Shall praise its Maker’s name.
He had recited the poem on many public occasions, those at which an all-male audience encouraged him to flirt with subjects in questionable taste. He had not recited the poem before women—and most especially not before his wife, who had never entirely ceased her efforts to turn Sam into an angel. And it had to be said that for the most part Livy had succeeded—at least as long as she was in the room. When she was absent, Sam was inclined to veer from the path of the angels toward one marked more by the scent of brimstone.
But be the angel or devil, he was in distress. This evening he was scheduled to speak before a reunion of the New York Department of the Grand Army of the Republic. He could not do so in his current condition, and so he must find relief where he could.
He must visit Mr. Tesla.
Sam put on his white summer suit and took the elevator to the Astoria’s lobby. Reporters lounged there waiting for him, a posse of men in shabby suits and derby hats who knew that Mark Twain was always good for a quote. He obliged them with a few comments.
“I wish to announce that I have patented myself,” he said. “And because it is necessary to go into business in order to protect a patent, I will be going into the cigar and whisky business.” He brandished one of his cigars. “Soon you will be able to buy Mark Twain rye and Mark Twain cigars, all made of ingredients so pure that even Upton Sinclair will enjoy a smoke and a tipple.”
Those two sentences were a good day’s work. They would get him headlines in most of the newspapers in the country, and a good many papers abroad.
He was the most quoted man in America, if not the entire world. On his white head rested the undisputed Crown of Column-inches. The fact was that there was no one, Emperor or President, who could equal him in the matter of quotability.
Though Lord knew, Mr. Roosevelt tried.
“What are you doing today, Mister Twain?” asked one reporter. He had a florid face and a jacket stained with chewing tobacco.
“I am going to pay a call on Mister Tesla, the wizard,” Sam said. “I believe he has invented a process to electrify the streets, so that we may all fly along at fifteen miles per hour, without the benefit of streetcars—or perhaps he has established wireless communication with the inhabitants of Jupiter. I believe it is one of the two. I will have to study upon it.”
So there were two newspaper stories. The papers would use the first at once, and perhaps save the other for a slow day.
From the Astoria Sam took a cab down Fifth Avenue to Tesla’s workshop on Houston Street. The carriage was open, and as the horse clopped along Sam was forced to endure the stares of the crowd—a daily humiliation to which he had submitted himself, it seemed, for centuries. Men stared, women pointed him out to their children, newsboys waved and shouted and called him by his first name.
The newsboys had every reason to be grateful. He sold a lot of their papers for them.
For money, he martyred himself before audiences—but very well, that was how he earned his living. But to be stared at in the street, as he bounced along on a private errand in a private carriage in his brilliant white suit—this was a fate that did not befit a man, but rather an organ grinder’s monkey. It was a perpetual insult.
Disgusted though Sam Clemens was, as Mark Twain he was professionally obliged to love the people; and so he smiled and waved at the crowd as long as he could stand it, and then lit his cigar and tried to hide behind clouds of smoke. But it was no use. It seemed that all New York had dropped their normal business and stopped to gawk at him. Even the campaign workers, draped in patriotic bunting and barking for McKinley or Bryan, stopped their patter and waved their hats.
It was a brisk October day, and the wind funneled between the buildings and pierced the summer suit. Sam was indifferent to the cold—he was sixty-five, an age when he would as soon die of pneumonia as anything else. Besides, such a death would serve as atonement for the death of his son Langdon, who had died of Sam’s carelessness before his second birthday.
He had taken the boy on a ride in an open barouche in wintertime. Though the infant was wrapped warmly in furs, Sam had been careless: he had drifted off into a daydream, and by the time he returned to the house, Langdon was nearly frozen. He fell ill, and never recovered.
The doctor said it was diphtheria, but Sam knew better. He had killed his own child as surely as if he’d cut the boy’s throat. He had lived with the appalling knowledge for nearly thirty years, just as, for the last four years, he was obliged to accept responsibility for Susy’s death.
The cab delivered Sam, shivering and miserable, to the door of Tesla’s workshop, where as Mark Twain he was obliged to smile and nod at the ladies and gentlemen on Houston Street, and to be seen giving the driver a large tip.
Nikola Tesla was a native of Serbia, and spoke something like a dozen languages. His English was almost without accent. He was a tower of a man, six feet four inches tall. Despite his height, his body was proportioned with a slim elegance. He was in his mid-forties, with hair sprouting like brushwood on either side of a center part. He had light-green eyes in a face made pale by the lack of sunlight. He wore a mustache, a pearl-gray suit, cravat, shiny shoes, white gloves and spats, and over this ensemble, for the sake of cleanliness, he wore an apron.
He wore no jewelry or metal, not even a ring or a watch-chain.
Sam bowed rather than offered to shake hands. In his ten years’ acquaintance with Tesla, he knew the man was wary of germs, and preferred never to touch another’s flesh if he could help it.
“I’m pleased to see you back from Colorado,” Sam said. “They say you shot lightning into the sky and set fire to the electric company’s biggest dynamo.”
“All true,” Tesla said in a voice that was surprisingly gentle. “Though we did repair the dynamo. Have you come to see my ultraviolet projector?”
“I would be honored to view it,” Sam said. “But if it is possible, I wonder if I might beg first to visit an—an older apparatus, a more familiar apparatus.”
A ghost of a smile touched Tesla’s lips. “Of course, Mister Clemens.”
Tesla led Sam through his workshop. The room was tall and spacious and supported by the fluted iron pillars that carried the weight of the entire building. Machinery loomed on either hand, massive creations gleaming with steel, polished iron, and copper—generators, transformers, oscillators, banks of controls, dials, and switches, and several variations of the famous Tesla coil. The room smelled of machine oil and electricity. The entire scene was illuminated by the ghostly light of giant fluorescent bulbs, some fixed to the ceiling, others simply lying on tables. It had been Tesla’s inspiration not only to invent a light bulb without a filament, but to light them without wires—the great ghostly bulbs received their power from electricity traveling invisibly through the air, via a process Mr. Tesla called “induction.”
Tesla’s assistants, nearly as well-dressed as he, turned from their tasks to salute Sam as he passed. Sam wished his business were not quite so public.
At length Tesla took him around a corner into an alcove, to a padded platform raised a few inches above the floor. Sam stood on the platform while Tesla threw the switches that activated the platform’s hydraulic mechanism. Tesla handed him a control connected to the platform by a wire.
“You may adjust the frequency to suit yourself,” Tesla said. “In the past I believe the peristaltic contractions were stimulated at a frequency of between thirteen and fourteen cycles per second.”
“I thank you, Mister Tesla,” Sam said, “from the bottom of my—ah—bowels.”
“You will find me in the workshop,” Tesla said, and with a dainty twitch of his mustache he turned and walked away.
Fastidious, he no more relished what was to come than Sam himself.
Sam took a stable stance on the platform and turned the dial on the control. At once the platform began to vibrate with an audible hum. Sam felt a tingling in the soles of his feet. He turned the dial, and as the platform oscillated at different frequencies, he felt the waves move through different parts of his body. At one frequency his long bones sang harmony with the machine; at other frequencies, the various organs of his body. He felt a shimmer in his liver, a tremor in his kidneys. At one point his teeth began to rattle.
Eventually he felt a quaver in his large bowel. Sam made fine adjustments to the control, and then he gasped as lightning seemed to strike his entrails. He took a shuddering breath and tried to control the sudden tremor in his knees.
He was on the platform less than forty-five seconds before he shut down the mechanism and sprinted for the water closet.
Tesla stood at a workbench holding another of his great glass tubes. He had a master glass-blower on the premises, to create the tubes and bulbs he wanted: electron tubes, Fleming valves, rectifying tubes, thermionic valves, the huge fluorescents, tubes for creating Roentgen rays and for amplifying wireless transmission.
“This is your ultraviolet projector?” Sam asked. After his ordeal he felt as if he’d partly faded away, like a ghost in the sunlight, and he was happy to let his host do the talking.
“This is the projector, yes.” Tesla regarded his invention with paternal pride. “A projector of this size will suffice for experiments, though the final apparatus will have to be…perhaps not larger,” he judged, “but capable of withstanding higher energies.”
“Does it have a objective?” Sam asked. “Or is this creation intended to satisfy some private theory of yours?”
Sam was interested in science and mechanics, and had done a little inventing himself—he had invented a scrap book with the glue already attached; he had invented an improved type of suspender for his trousers and other garments. And of course he had dropped all his money into the damned typesetting machine of the swindler Paige, and afterwards became a bankrupt—and thus, when he was of an age when he should enjoy a peaceful retirement among his family, he had circled the world with long lecture tours in his attempt to win back a little of his lost fortune and salve his injured pride.
Perhaps he had a particle of Tesla’s inventing skill. Perhaps he had enough understanding of science to grope toward Tesla’s meaning when he explained himself.
Or perhaps he had not.
In any case, it was clear from his surroundings that his gift for freely spending his ready money did not come near that of Tesla, which was liberal almost beyond Sam’s imagination.
“Oh, there is a fine practical purpose in this.” Tesla placed the tube on a work bench, and gestured in the air. “You know of my interest in wireless power transmission.”
“Ain’t you succeeded in that?” Sam asked. He cast a glance at the glowing fluorescent light overhead.
“Induction will illuminate a room,” Tesla said, “but is limited to a very modest range. I propose something grander—” His eyes sparkled. “I wish to transmit power over great distances. To electrify, if I can, the entire Earth.”
Sam considered this. “Won’t it look a little odd,” he asked, “the whole population walking around with our hair standing on end?”
Tesla offered a benign smile at this, then continued his exposition. “High frequency is the key. High frequency and resonance. A few years ago—” He looked up, his sharp eyes scanning the work benches. “Perhaps I can arrange a demonstration—ah, here.”
He led Sam past a pair of hulking dynamos, a disassembled turbine, and the Teleautomaton—a boat, controlled by wireless, that he had tried to sell to the Navy. The machine looked like an enclosed metal bathtub with a propeller at one end and a row of antennae down its back.
Sam himself, in his one business deal with Tesla, had acted as Tesla’s agent in Europe for the wireless-controlled boat, trying to sell it to the German and Russian navies. Unfortunately the matter had gone the way of most of Sam’s business deals—and here the boat sat in the lab, in perpetual dry dock.
Tesla walked to a wooden workbench, where he found a length of insulated wire. He stripped the insulation off either end of the wire, and attached one end to one of the terminals of a small electric motor, and the second end to a terminal of a knife switch. He threw the knife switch to the contact position, and the motor clattered into life, humming and chattering as its vibrations caused it to rattle around the table. There was a pronounced smell of electricity.
“You see there is only a single wire,” Tesla said. “I discovered that if the circuit was tuned to resonance and employed high frequency, the return wire is unnecessary.”
“The news will oppress the directors of Anaconda Copper,” Sam said. “They’ll be making that much less wire.”
Tesla opened the knife switch, and the motor’s clatter ceased.
“It occurred to me,” Tesla said, “that if only one conductor is necessary, the Earth might be that conductor. All that would be required would be to discover the resonant frequency of the Earth.”
Sam looked at Tesla in slowly dawning wonderment. Not an hour earlier he had laughed with reporters about Tesla electrifying the streets. He had meant the comment as a joking exaggeration of Tesla’s electrical miracles; but now it appeared the joke had been overtaken by reality. It would not be the streets that would be electrified, but the entire terraqueous globe.
“The question,” Tesla said, “is whether the Earth would act as a conductor of finite or infinite dimensions. If infinite, nothing could be done, any power put into the Earth would simply fade away. But if finite, then the resonant frequency could be discovered by trial and error.”
Tesla stepped close to Sam. His green eyes glowed with intensity. “I needed more powerful equipment than I could possibly use in New York. My neighbors already complain about the noise produced by my million-volt Quarter-Wave Coil. And so—Colorado Springs!” He threw out an arm, as if revealing a view of Pike’s Peak. “We built a laboratory around a Magnifying Transmitter—a five-million-volt coil! It threw a thirty-foot spark. Five million volts, Mister Clemens!”
“That is a powerful clutch of volts,” Sam admitted. “Were you able to find the Earth’s frequency?”
Tesla dropped Sam’s arm and smiled ruefully. “My lovely Magnifying Transmitter was not necessary. I found my answer before we had even finished the assembly.” He threw out an arm. “Nature itself provided the solution, Mister Clemens! A thunderstorm passed overhead, and my assistant Lowenstein and I deployed our most sensitive detectors. When the lightning boomed, we detected stationary waves in the Earth! Nodes!” He waved a hand in triumph. “If the waves could be reflected in this manner, that means that a resonant condition can be created if the signal is powerful enough, and is tuned to the planet’s natural frequency! The electrical energy will not dissipate, but grow and grow until tapped.”
Sam had begun to crave a cigar. A cigar would help to generate the mental tranquility that would enable him to fully ponder these mysteries. But he knew that Tesla did not permit such an unsanitary habit in his workplace.
“So you shall electrify the whole Earth,” Sam said.
“If I can,” said Tesla. “It’s possible I may be able to only electrify a part of the planet before the energy dissipates.”
“That will be a prodigy either way,” Sam said. He paused, mentally lighting his cigar. “But may I ask the purpose?”
“The purpose?” Tesla was blank.
“Why do you wish to electrify the Earth with your standing waves?” Sam explained. “Or is it simply to prove it can be done?”
“Oh!” Tesla laughed. “I am sorry—I have explained it all so many times, I lose my place in my own narrative.” He cleared his throat. “I wish to electrify the Earth so that electricity may be drawn from any part of the planet. Any electric motor or appliance may be operated from anywhere, provided it is connected to, for example, a wire driven into the ground.” He laughed. “I have worked out a way to transmit power through the earth at five times the speed of light—perhaps even faster!”
Sam drew a cigar from his pocket. Tesla raised his hands in protest, but Sam cut him off.
“I’ll just chew on it, if I may,” he said. “It helps me think.”
Tesla made an odd little tapping gesture with his right hand, then repeated the gesture twice more.
“I understand,” he said. “I too have my own aids to concentration.”
Sam drew the cigar under his nose, inhaled the odor, then stuck the cigar between his teeth. Tesla gestured overhead. “I propose to electrify the upper atmosphere as well,” he said. “Gauss and Stewart have proposed the existence of a conductive layer to the atmosphere, and if that can be reached—” He gave a low, satisfied laugh. “That is the purpose of my ultraviolet projector.”
“Ah.” Sam turned his attention toward the great tube lying on the work bench. “The famous projector. At last its purpose is revealed.”
“I tried to reach the conductive layer directly,” Tesla said. “From Colorado Springs I was able to fire a thirty-million-volt bolt of lightning straight into the sky. But the visible streamer was only a hundred feet long, though I’m sure it proceeded invisibly for a great deal farther.” He shook his head. “The atmosphere is too good an insulator,” he said.
“Lucky for the human race,” Sam said. “Otherwise your conductive layer would Southern-fry us like chicken in hot oil.”
Tesla seemed a little appalled by this simile. “Perhaps,” he said, doubtfully. “Still, I was determined to reach this layer. I initially proposed a series of tethered balloons capable of rising to thirty-five thousand feet, with wires delivering an electric charge into the atmosphere. But then I realized that all I needed was this.” He gave a graceful wave in the direction of the tube. “A stream of high-energy ultraviolet light will be projected straight into the sky from my generating station. This will strip the corpuscles from Mister Thomson’s atoms, and create a charged pathway along which a bolt of electricity will pass.”
“And this will bring power to the Earth?” Sam said. “Or do you plan to give electric appliances to the albatross?”
Tesla laughed and clapped his hands together. “Ah—that is another project altogether! That is the World System of wireless telegraphy!”
Sam took the cigar from his lips and rolled it in his tobacco-stained fingers. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he said. “Your schemes are so thick on the ground, I get them confused.”
“The World System will revolutionize communication,” Tesla said. “Marconi’s apparatus can’t even manage to send a message ten miles! My signals from Colorado Springs were detected six hundred miles away! And once I reach the conductive layer overhead, I can send messages over the entire world! The conductive layer itself shall be my medium. The telegraph will be obsolete overnight.”
“More bad news, then, for the Anaconda.”
Sam nodded. “In your scheme, people will draw power from the Earth so that they can listen to your messages coming down from the sky.”
Tesla offered a little bow. “The World System,” he said.
Sam lowered his gaze to his cigar. Tesla was so tall that Sam developed an ache in his neck just looking at him.
Contemplating his cigar, Sam tried to absorb Tesla’s revelation. Sam had lived most of his life in a world in which even great cities were dark at night—now they blazed with light. He remembered riverboats being replaced by locomotives, the telegraph tying the nation and then the continents together, the early demonstrations of the telephone, with ghostly chamber music rising from speakers placed between buzzing transformers. He had seen the West tamed, had seen ladies with parasols strolling along shady avenues where once vaqueros and Navajos rode free.
Now Tesla was promising an advance more revolutionary than all of these together. He would illuminate the globe, current rising from the earth, messages pulsing down from above.
Sam had to admit that this all was well beyond his scope. He understood mechanics well enough. He could comprehend a steam engine, a trolley car, an ocean liner. He understood printing presses, telephones, repeating rifles. He understood, to his sorrow, why a mechanical typesetter was both necessary and desirable. He approved of progress, generally, as something that relieved human misery.
But Tesla—towering above him, eyes alight with the spirit of invention—made him feel old.
He wondered if any of Tesla’s inventions would change Sam Clemens. He wondered if he would enjoy his cigar less, if the relationships within his family would change as his daughters felt more at home in Tesla’s world than he. He wondered if Tesla’s apparatus would bring Sam’s audience closer, or drive them away as they sought more modern amusements than an old man jabbering away on a podium.
He wondered if the throb of electricity rising from the center of the world would help to erode the iron core of despair that lurked in Sam’s heart, or whether it might increase the burden that was his humanity.
Sam lifted his eyes from his cigar, and then his heart gave a little skip as he saw Tesla’s expressionless face. The jaw was slack, the pale green eyes seemed to gaze off into nowhere.
“Are you all right, Tesla?” Sam asked.
Tesla spoke, but not in answer to Sam’s question. His eyes remained fixed on the wall, his face was expressionless, and his voice was a mere whisper.
“A coil will be set into oscillation at its resonant frequency by an external power source. During the zero-point portion of its cycle the coil will appear as one plate of a capacitor…”
“Mister Tesla?” Sam asked. He touched Tesla’s arm. Tesla gave no response.
“As the voltage across the coil increases, the amount of charge it can siphon will increase. The energy that is taken into the coil through the small energy window is the essential factor…”
Sam glanced around the room with a practiced eye. His daughter Jean suffered from epilepsy, and he had some experience in dealing with fits. There were too many sharp-edged tables in Tesla’s vicinity, where he would injure himself if he fell. Sam was too small and old to wrestle with the giant Serb. Frantically he looked around the lab for aid.
Being Mark Twain helped. Sam saw a plump man in an apron looking at him in the way people on the street gaped at Mark Twain. Sam waved him over as Tesla’s ghastly whisper continued.
The plump man glanced at Tesla and understood the problem at once.
“Ach,” he said, and continued in a strong German accent. “The boss is inventing again.” He looked at Sam. “If you will assist, Mister Twain.”
The two of them took Tesla’s arms and maneuvered him toward his desk. Tesla cooperated in a clumsy way but otherwise paid them no attention, and the whisper continued to speak of zero-points, energy sinks, and something called a “magnetic quake.”
Tesla didn’t have an actual office, at least on this floor, but had a desk in a part of the room devoted to clerical tasks. Sam and the plump German managed to get Tesla into his seat, a tall leather-padded swivel chair that must have been custom-made for someone of Tesla’s height. Tesla took no notice as he was manhandled across the room, but continued his monologue a while, and then his head fell back and his eyes closed. Sam heard regular breathing.
“He’s all right now,” the German said. “He’ll wake up in a little while with a new idea.”
Sam looked at the stricken inventor in wonder. “Is this normal?” he asked.
The answer was jaunty. “Nothing is normal here, Mister Twain.” The German regarded his employer for a moment, then looked at Sam. “By the way—in my opinion Tom Sawyer is the best book ever written.”
“I’m gratified to find we are in agreement,” Sam said. The words came automatically: it was his stock answer to another’s praise.
The German laughed, loudly. Tesla remained unconscious. The German looked at his employer, then back at Sam.
“I will leave you with the boss,” he said. “I have to finish an armature by the end of the day.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mister—”
“Czito, sir.” The German bowed and left.
“Mister Czito. Pleased to meet you.”
Sam settled himself into a straight-backed wooden chair, turned to his patient, and received a shock. Tesla’s face was drawn and strained, as if some other face entirely was trying to break through the skin into the world. Tesla’s eyes stared into his, the green irises lit as if by electricity, the expression strangely cunning and feral.
Tesla’s lips writhed as if they were questing for a word. Finally he spoke.
“I…am…perfection,” he hissed. “I…am…inevitable.”
Sam’s heart tottered into his throat. Tesla’s green gaze held Sam’s for another moment, and then with a visible reluctance the eyes closed, and Tesla’s long frame relaxed. His head lolled onto one shoulder.
Sam stared, heart lurching, his cigar clenched between his teeth. He looked over his shoulder to find if anyone else had seen this, if anyone else could offer advice. No one seemed to be paying attention.
He turned to Tesla again and wondered if the inventor had epilepsy. But Sam knew epilepsy, and he’d never seen anything like this. He wondered if there was even a name for this disorder.
He knew that Tesla had subjected himself to colossal electric shocks, running high-frequency currents over his skin in order to demonstrate the safety of his systems. Perhaps he had damaged himself in some way, or perhaps the wireless system he used to electrify the laboratory could affect the mind of anyone exposed to the invisible currents for any length of time.
Tesla gave a little snort, and his eyelids fluttered. Sam watched with interest. A white-gloved hand came up to touch the head, perhaps to make certain his hair was not in disarray. Slowly the pale green eyes opened, then turned to Sam. Recognition entered Tesla’s eyes.
“Mister Clemens,” he said.
“Mister Tesla.” Sam nodded.
“Did I speak?” Tesla asked. “Did you understand anything?”
“Something about a magnetic quake,” Sam said.
“Ah.” Tesla tapped his forehead with his finger. “That is correct.” He rose from his chair. Sam stood and readied himself in case Tesla swayed and threatened to fall, but the Serb seemed perfectly steady.
“I hope you will excuse me,” Tesla said. “I have a great deal of work to do.”
Sam rose. “Won’t you be needing to rest?” he asked.
“There will be time to rest,” said Tesla, “when my work is done.” He looked down at the papers on his desk, and then a thought struck him, and he looked up.
“I’m sorry for my poor hospitality today,” he said. “Will you dine with me tomorrow?”
“I can’t. I’m going home to Riverdale tomorrow morning.”
Sam bowed. “I’d be very happy.”
“Where are you staying? I have an apartment at the Waldorf.”
“I’m across the street at the Astoria.”
Tesla laughed. “A happy accident! And I’m delighted to report that Oscar is one of the few chefs in New York to maintain the most perfect hygiene—I can recommend his breakfasts to anyone.”
“Oscar keeps a clean kitchen?” Sam said in mock surprise. “Has someone told Upton Sinclair?” And then, ruefully, “Lord knows I need something to aid my digestion. Maybe sanitation will do the job.”
Tesla bowed. “Enjoy your cigar, Mister Clemens.”
“Thank you.” Bowing again. “I shall.”
But, once he left the workshop and stood on Houston Street sheltering his match from the blustering wind, he found he couldn’t enjoy his cigar at all. He had nearly chewed it to pieces.
He tossed it in the gutter and went in search of a cab.
“I see from the papers that General Otis has killed another clutch of Filipinos,” Sam said. “I have high hopes that if the tally of dead women and children gets much higher, we may yet take first place in the art of the massacre.” He showed them his teeth, and let one eye droop in a lazy wink. “If this keeps up,” he said, “we may hope even to surpass the French.”
The reporters laughed, even those from the imperialist newspapers—which, it has to be admitted, was most of them.
Sam tipped his cigar ash into a cuspidor and made his way into the long corridor of the Astoria known as Peacock Alley. He was reasonably certain that the quote would find its way into the papers. The imperialist press was intent on covering up the wholesale butchery of the Filipino people by the American army, but Sam had made a joke of it, and that perhaps would take the sting away. Before the public could taste the truth, he knew, the bitterness had to be hidden beneath a dollop of honey.
Sam had helped to found the Anti-Imperialist League to protest American actions in the Philippines and elsewhere. The obvious course was to support William Jennings Bryan against McKinley in next month’s election, but the League hadn’t quite managed to do that. Instead the League had split over the issue of free silver, and all their hopes had been crushed.
Filipinos were being butchered, but at least the gold standard would be safe. The situation made Sam vibrate with rage. It made him want to set up a guillotine on the Washington Mall and perpetrate a massacre all on his own account.
Sam crossed the street to the Waldorf—it and the Astoria were under the same management, but were two separate buildings separated by Thirty-third Street. He looked up and was surprised to see Tesla walking toward him. The inventor seemed equally surprised to see Sam. He was dressed superbly as always, pale gray gloves and spats, a dark-gray overcoat with a fur collar, a homburg, and a stick of polished ebony. Because Tesla did not carry metal, the knob on top of the cane wasn’t brass or silver, but carved ivory.
Sam approached Tesla and bowed. “Did you come to fetch me?” he asked. “I hadn’t thought I was late.”
Tesla returned the bow. “It is I who should apologize, Mister Clemens. I am a little late—I usually take a little walk before meals, and I’ve just set off.”
“I’ll accompany you, then.”
Tesla raised his eyebrows at Sam’s white summer suit. Though there was no wind as yet, the morning was chill. “You won’t be cold?”
“I’m indifferent to the weather.”
“Then please join me.”
Sam fell into step alongside the taller man. People stared at Mark Twain, or Tesla, or both; but the two were walking quickly, and no one had a chance to stare for long. A newsboy on the corner was yelping in triumph about General Otis’ latest butchery.
“Last night I spoke to a convention of the Grand Army of the Republic,” Sam said. “Fine old fellows—genuine heroes, many of them. Forty years ago they fought for the freedom of the slave, and they have my purest admiration.
“But now,” he said, “their own grandchildren are fighting to crush the freedom of the Filipinos. We paused in the slaughter this year in order to cross to China and kill the people there, but now the Boxers are defeated, and we’ve gone back to our proper occupation of looting China and butchering Filipinos.” He shook his head. “Those poor people will be the slaves of the Astors and the Morgans.”
“President McKinley says that we will civilize them,” Tesla said mildly. “No doubt the Turks said the same thing about us Serbs when they laid waste to our country.”
“That was the justification for the slavery of the Africans,” Sam growled. He felt his anger rising, its heat flashing in his blood. “We civilized the African by turning the women into concubines and by working the men to death in the cane fields. I don’t imagine it will be any different in the Philippines.” He wanted to gnash his teeth. “But I can’t tell the public what I think! If I spoke aloud what everyone in my audience knows to be the absolute gospel truth, I would be put in an asylum or hounded from the country.”
“You could put it in a book,” Tesla said. “But you could set it in the past—in the time of the Romans, for example.”
“Yes,” Sam said bitterly. “I could do that. That would be acceptable.”
“I will look forward to reading it.”
“It is my curse,” Sam said, “that any lie I tell will be believed absolutely, but when I speak the truth I am looked upon as if I were a lunatic.”
Tesla seemed amused. “You and I are alike in this,” he said. “When I speak simple, scientific facts—when I explain my World System, and what it will do and why it will work—I have a very hard time convincing my audience that I am not some kind of confidence trickster. But if I speak of spirits, or telepathy, or of communication with the dead, then I am believed at once.”
Sam cocked an eyebrow at him. “Do you communicate with the dead? Have you ever met a ghost?”
“No. I spoke by way of illustration. But many people seem to think that because I am an inventor, and work with mysterious forces like electricity, that I must be conversant with psychic phenomena. But in fact, to me electricity is not mysterious at all. It is part of the great machine that is the cosmos, and all the cosmos can be laid open to the investigator.”
They turned the corner, and a blast of chill wind blew open Sam’s coat. He buttoned it and began to wonder if he had been a little overconfident in going out without an overcoat.
“I had a psychic experience,” Sam said as he turned up his collar. “Years ago.”
“It was in June ‘58, and I was in New Orleans. My younger brother Henry had just left on the Pennsylvania boat, heading North. I had a startling dream—I dreamed that he was dead in a metal coffin. That he was dressed in my suit, and that he had a pile of roses on his breast.
“I got a boat North the next day, and soon every boat coming down river told us that the Pennsylvania had blown up near Memphis. When I arrived at the city I found that my brother had been badly injured, but had recovered well and was expected to survive—and then the medical students who were looking after him accidentally gave him too great a dose of morphine, and he died. I was with him at the end, and after he passed I left to take some rest.
“While I was gone Henry was dressed in one of my suits, and put into a metal coffin that some of the Memphis ladies had donated. I arrived at the death house to find that my dream had been nearly fulfilled—and then one of the ladies walked in and very courteously placed a bouquet of roses on his breast. And so my dream came true in all its strange detail.”
Tesla listened with grave attention. “That is very sad,” he said. “And very interesting.”
That was sad, Sam thought, indeed. But how much worse was it to lose a son and a daughter? Langdon had lived only twenty-two months before dying of Sam’s carelessness, and Susy had lived twenty-four years before dying of meningitis while Sam hid himself away in England.
His heart was still filled with bitterness at the knowledge that he had betrayed Susy by his absence. But if he had been present—if he’d had to watch the sad progress of the disease, the first sickness, the recovery, the relapse, the brain-fever, the delirium and the blindness, the awful long decline…if he’d seen it with his own eyes, he would have gone mad. He would have gone up to the roof of the house in Hartford, gibbered, and thrown pine-knots at the neighbors.
Assuming of course that he survived at all.
“Up go the trolley cars for Mark Twain’s daughter,” Susy had sung, sitting by the window in her delirium. “Down go the trolley cars for Mark Twain’s daughter.”
Sam felt tears spring to his eyes. Two of his children had died, and he had been responsible for both, and he had failed in that responsibility. By all rights he should be roasting now in the Hell in which he did not believe.
“I too lost a brother,” said Tesla’s gentle voice. Sam jerked out of his reverie, and for a moment wondered what had prompted Tesla’s remark—and then he remembered that their conversation hadn’t been about Susy at all, but about Sam’s brother Henry.
“My brother was thrown by a horse when he was eighteen,” Tesla said. “They brought him to the house and I watched him die. I was five years old.”
“That was hard,” Sam said.
“Dane was much more intelligent than I,” Tesla said. “A genius without peer. By far the most brilliant of the family.” Sam looked at Tesla in surprise. He had never heard the inventor laud the intelligence of anyone else.
“My parents,” Tesla added, “never ceased to reproach me. They told me on many occasions that they wished it had been I who had died, and not my brother.”
The story made Sam want to spit into the gutter. “That is horrible,” he said.
Tesla shook his head sadly. “You didn’t know Dane.”
They had come to Thirty-third Street again, and Sam realized they’d walked completely around the block. He made ready to turn into the hotel, but Tesla kept walking on, and Sam made a little run to catch up.
“Are we not going into the hotel?” he asked.
“I can’t,” Tesla said. He offered an apologetic smile. “I must walk around the block three times.”
Sam raised his eyebrows. “Why?” he asked.
“Because it’s the smallest number divisible by three.”
Which, Sam thought, was as good as no answer at all. He realized that he was breathing hard, and that he was tiring
himself trying to match the pace set by Tesla’s long legs.
“Maybe I’ll get a table for us,” he said.
“I have a table reserved at the Palm Room,” Tesla said.
“Very well,” Sam gasped. He halted for a moment to catch his breath, and watched Tesla’s back recede into the crowd.
He became aware that he was being stared at. “Confound it,” he muttered to himself, and crossed the street to the Astoria.
The Palm Room was the most sumptuous restaurant of the city, probably of the age—beautifully paneled, its decor enhanced with statues, paintings, frescoes, and costly wall hangings. Porcelain vases filled with torrents of fresh flowers suffused the room with their scent—and of course something called the Palm Room must also feature palm trees in buckets. The restaurant was so popular and so often crowded that Oscar, the maitre d’hotel, had invented a red plush rope with which to bar the entrance until he had a table ready. Now all the other fine restaurants, like Sherry’s and Delmonico’s, were getting up their own red plush ropes. The innovation made dining less interesting, since it kept people from wandering in from the street or the bar and visiting from table to table.
On the other hand, it kept the gawkers away. Probably, Sam thought, it was a positive development.
Sam was surprised to see Oscar himself in the restaurant. Oscar of the Waldorf went by his first name because Americans couldn’t pronounce his surname—the closest Sam could come was “Jerky.” He was maitre d’ of both hotels, the head of catering, as well as the singular genius who supervised the chefs in the hotels’ dozen or so restaurants. It was a ridiculous amount of work for a single person, though it had to be said that he stood up under the responsibility with remarkable sang-froid.
Oscar was a Swiss with a plain, kindly face. The restaurant was not crowded this early in the day, and the famous red velvet rope hung open from its brass ring. Sam asked for Tesla’s table.
“Of course,” Oscar said. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“You catered the GAR banquet last night, didn’t you?” Sam asked. “Why are you here this early, and not in bed like a
“Mister Tesla is very particular about his diet,” said Oscar. “I always have to see to his meals personally.”
Oscar guided Sam to the table and held his chair for him as he sat. There was a preposterous amount of linen on the table, and a great deal of silverware, as if the table were being used for storage, and Sam expected Oscar to sweep it away; but instead Oscar bowed and walked away. He was back a few moments later with a tray, and he poured Sam a cup of coffee and another cup of hot chocolate. Again Sam expected the pile of linen to be taken away, but it was not, and after a few words Sam was left alone with his thoughts.
A waiter brought rolls, butter, and honey. Sam buttered a roll as he glanced around the room. The Astoria’s clientele generally rose later in the morning, and often ordered breakfast brought to their rooms—this “room service,” as it was called, was another of Oscar’s innovations. There were few people in the Palm Room: some louche young men, still in evening dress, who nursed their hangovers with champagne or cocktails; and a few salesmen forking down vast amounts of food in preparation for their long day of tramping from one office to the next. There was an old lady dressed in black satin
who sipped tea while reading the newspaper through a lorgnette. Sam knew none of them, and—for a wonder—none of them seemed interested in him.
He sipped his coffee and longed for a cigar. By and by his attention was drawn to the heap of linen on the table, and he counted three piles of three napkins each.
Divisible by three. Tesla had a very singular mind.
After ten minutes Oscar brought Tesla to the table and refilled Sam’s coffee cup.
“Will you have the usual, sir?” Oscar asked Tesla.
Tesla nodded. Oscar turned to Sam.
Sam knew that if he left it up to Oscar, he’s have a breakfast lasting eight or ten courses, so he ordered a far more modest breakfast of sliced pears, deviled lobster, curried eggs, and lamb cutlets.
Tesla, in the meanwhile, was inspecting the tablecloth, which apparently he found free of blemish. He then picked up one of the napkins and began polishing the silver with it. He used one napkin for each bit of silver, and then handed each used napkin to Oscar. Oscar collected them, his face set in its usual expression of benign interest, and then, when Tesla was done, took them away. Tesla was left with three napkins for himself.
“Why must the napkins be divisible by three?” Sam asked.
Tesla was amused. “Why do you wear white?” he said.
“White is more cheerful than black or gray,” Sam said. “I’m an old man and I could use cheering.”
“I thought perhaps it was so that you could see any contamination from the environment,” Tesla said. He seemed perfectly serious.
“It’s good for that, too,” said Sam.
A waiter brought coffee and chocolate for Tesla. Tesla looked at the cream in the pitcher suspiciously, sniffed it, and drank the coffee black. He sipped, then settled back in his chair.
“While I was walking I had some thoughts about psychic phenomena,” he said.
“I’m happy to hear them.”
“The naive might think that I am susceptible to some kind of psychic influence,” Tesla said. “You saw, for example, yesterday—when I had my little episode.”
“I wondered if it was…a certain condition.” One did not speak the word epilepsy aloud, it was a word associated with madness, disgrace, and a taint in the blood.
Sam’s own daughter Jean was sometimes driven to acts of madness by the disease—she became a possessed thing, raving and violent, stalking the corridors of her home. Sam had tried everything to cure her, but everything had failed, and the failure had been added to all the other failures, failures as a husband, father, and human being, that he dragged with him through his life, like the chains and cash-boxes dragging behind Marley’s ghost.
“The falling sickness?” Tesla said. “No. Instead I experience a highly intense mental state into which I have fallen since I was a child. Usually it is preceded by dazzling flashes behind the eyes.” He waved a forefinger before his eye sockets. “Yesterday I didn’t experience this warning, and the condition caught me unawares.”
“You’re lucky you weren’t crossing the street,” Sam said.
Tesla nodded. “As I say, there is usually warning. But in the intense atmosphere of the workshop, sometimes it can come very quickly. My employees are used to it.”
“Mister Czito did not seem very excited.”
“Mister Czito looks after me very well.” Tesla tapped his forehead with a gloved finger. “When I am in this mental state, my mind is focused entirely on one of my creations. I have the capacity to visualize one of my inventions completely, well before I ever set pen to paper.” He smiled broadly. “The AC polyphase system came to me in this fashion. As did features of the Teleautomaton, and elements of the World System.”
“You spoke aloud during your spell,” Sam said.
“My tongue was unconsciously following my inward mental thoughts. I was stating the parameters of my invention.” He cleared his throat, then sipped his coffee. Three sips, Sam saw.
You looked at me, Sam thought, as a snake looks at a bird’s egg. As if you would gobble me in a single gulp.
“You said you were perfect,” Sam said. “You said you were inevitable.”
Tesla seemed amused by this. “Well,” he said. “Perhaps I am.” He took three more sips of coffee, and stretched out his arms before him.
“If someone in a less enlightened age had seen me,” he said, “he would have thought me possessed by a god or a demon. Now—” He gave a laugh. “Now in our rational, scientific age, people might think I was in psychic connection with a spirit guide, or that a message is being beamed into my head via the ‘vril power’ from Mister Bulwer-Lytton’s novel—an interesting book, by the way, with quite useful descriptions of Teleautomata.”
“Despite the wretched writing,” Sam said, “Bulwer-Lytton’s romances seem to have struck the fancy of a very unusual set of people. The Theosophists, you know, stole their entire metaphysical system from Zanoni and The Coming Race. And there are those who believe with all their hearts in the Master Race from the Hollow Earth, with their vril power—” Sam laughed. “In England, I’ve seen a meat extract called Bovril—short for ‘bovine vril.’ When you drink it, it’s supposed to infuse you with mystical energy. It’s strangely popular—though, come to think of it, I don’t know how many mystics have endorsed it.” He shook his head. “By now most of these believers in vril have no idea their ideas were first concocted by an English novelist.”
“Or they believe the book is nonfiction,” Tesla said. “I meet many such people, unfortunately. Sometimes they are very desperate to give me information, and it is always complete nonsense—so I tell them I can’t help them, and that they should contact Edison.” He smiled softly, then sipped his coffee, again three times.
“What did you—” Sam paused, uncertain how to phrase his question. “What did you envision yesterday? During your little spell?”
“A radiant energy receiver. It will receive sunlight—or cosmic rays—and convert them to electricity.” He looked up. “Ah. Breakfast.”
Oscar glided toward them carrying two plates of sliced pears. The wafer-thin slices had been arranged in beautiful fan shapes, and Oscar placed them before each diner with a flourish. Sam thanked him, and the maitre d’ withdrew.
Tesla was holding a fork up to the light, inspecting it. It was one of those which he had already cleaned, and apparently he saw no further contamination, for he employed the fork to pick up a slice of pear and bring it to his lips. He chewed with pleasure, and swallowed.
“I like fruit,” Tesla said. “Or perhaps I should say, I approve of fruit.” He nodded. “A whole fruit cannot be adulterated, and the skin is designed to resist pollution and infection. Care must be taken that whoever handles the fruit follows proper procedures so as to avoid contamination, but I have seen Oscar’s kitchen, and I know it is the cleanest in the city.”
Sam contemplated his own pear. It was the season for pears, and Sam’s was lovely and flawless, and from the subtle, complex aroma he knew that it was at the peak of ripeness. He tasted it, and found it perfect. The essence of pear wafted through his senses.
He wondered where Oscar found these pear prodigies. Did he have agents in every fruit market in the city? In the groves where the pears were grown?
Though it had to be said that Sam preferred his pears unsliced. He didn’t enjoy sitting down for the length of a whole meal—he preferred to carry a bit of food, a chop, a piece of fruit, or a crust of bread, with him as he wandered around the room, discoursing on whatever took his fancy.
Pears were good. Pears were portable.
Sam ate another piece of pear and looked up from his plate. “Did I understand you to say that you invented an apparatus for turning sunlight into electricity?”
“Or cosmic rays.” Carelessly. He ate a piece of pear. “I intend to build these energy receivers on every nodal point on the Earth’s telluric field. In this way, the Earth’s charge can be maintained continually—receivers on the daylight side will charge the Earth and permit people on the night side to draw current…all very simple, really. And the best feature of the World System is that there is no pollution—no coal smoke to turn the air to a noxious stew of acidic fumes.”
Sam’s mind swam with the concepts that Tesla delivered in his gentle, offhand way.
“Do you know,” he said, “I believe it’s easier to believe in vril power.”
“I will do everything that vril power purports to do,” said Tesla, “and more.” The green eyes twinkled. “And without having to rend poor animals into beef extract.”
They finished their pears, and white-gloved waiters whisked the plates away. Oscar arrived with a pair of waiters bearing the next course, Sam’s curried lobster in a silver sauce boat, and for Tesla an egg dish. Sam recognized one of Oscar’s creations, poached eggs sitting atop slices of ham, which were in turn set atop muffin halves. Oscar had named the dish after the stockbroker Lemuel Benedict.
Oscar was surpringly creative in the kitchen, especially considering that he was a maitre d’, not a chef. He had created the Waldorf salad and veal Oscar and the famous salad dressing named after the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River—a dressing which was sold in the hotel lobby, in a bottle with Oscar’s picture on it.
Oscar spooned hollandaise over Tesla’s eggs, and then ladled Sam’s lobster onto his plate. Tesla inspected his dish carefully, at close range, then nodded his approval at Oscar, who withdrew.
“I approve also of eggs,” Tesla said. “The shell protects the contents from contamination. I like ham and bacon as well—the curing process prevents infection by microorganisms. And of course the acid in the hollandaise acts as a deterrent.”
“Ain’t eggs Benedict supposed to have truffles?” Sam asked. “When I had it, there were truffles.”
He relished the countrified words of his childhood, ain’t and dasn’t and saddy. Pinkletink for pimple and mulligrubs for the megrims. The dialect of Missouri in the earlies had a greater variety and color than any employed in the modern world.
Tesla’s lip curled with distaste. “You know that truffles are dug up by pigs?” he demanded. “I will not have pig slobber on my food.”
“Pigs are very clean animals,” Sam said. “The libel that they prefer to live in filth no doubt originated because they live with humans, who are naturally dirty.”
“Human slobber would be just as disagreeable,” Tesla said.
They ate for a while in silence. Waiters refreshed their
coffee. Tesla glanced up from his eggs.
“We’ve been talking entirely about my projects,” he said. “Have you any of your own?”
“I’m writing a story about Sherlock Holmes,” Sam said.
Tesla was as surprised as Sam might have hoped. He put down his fork. “You are collaborating with Conan Doyle?” he asked.
“No,” Sam said. “I’m just doing a little literary rustling. I’m stealing the character outright.”
Tesla blinked. “Can you do such a thing? Is it legal?”
“I doubt Doyle will object. He’s off on safari in South Africa, killing Boers.” He shrugged. “He’s welcome to write about Tom Sawyer, if he likes. Lord knows that I’ve exhausted the subject.”
“I should not like it if people violate my patents,” Tesla said. “In fact, I do not like it.”
“I only steal patents that I understand,” Sam assured him. “Your radiant energy receiver is safe with me.”
His Holmes story was not so much a mystery as a satire of the master detective. It was a comic tale in which Holmes was shown to be an imbecile, obsessed with logic and assembling insignificant clues while missing the larger story around him.
Sam was writing it to cheer himself up. He was craving work of a humorous kind. In the last few years everything to which he’d touched his pen had turned dark, and he seemed unable to keep his mind from turning to thoughts of misery, futility, and extinction. Sam’s Presbyterian upbringing had come back to haunt him, but not in any form that his Sunday school teachers would recognize. He was writing obsessively about Satan, about the angel of evil that haunted the world…But the evil that Sam’s Satan brought was not sin, but truth—he told the truth about the Presbyterian God, the perpetrator of atrocities, of disease, of famine, death, and hell. In Sam’s stories Satan spoke the truth of human existence, that the race was condemned to wander in darkness, live in delusion, suffer in agony, and die in obscurity, that each human being was nothing more than the feeble, flickering thought of an idiot deity fitfully dreaming amid the cold emptiness of the naked cosmos.
Life was nothing. Happiness was a delusion. Suffering was eternal. God—in which Sam emphatically did not believe—was a moral imbecile no more qualified to rule the universe than a bucktoothed, leering, unkempt village idiot drooling in his own filth.
Guilt was unceasing. Sam had killed two of his children, for all that the doctors said it was not his fault. He had failed to help his daughter Jean. He had killed his wife’s faith, and now he was killing her health. He was no more qualified to live among his own family than Jehovah was to rule the universe.
Here he was eating lobster in the Palm Room, when he should be naked in the dust of Palestine, pouring ashes on his head and wailing for forgiveness…
And he could not tell any of his truth to the world. His audience would reject him. He would lose the precarious security built up by his lecture tours.
The last man on Earth to tell the truth had got himself nailed to a tree. Sam did not want to follow his example.
“Look how our partner’s rapt,” said Tesla. Sam recognized the quote from, appropriately enough, Macbeth. He looked up.
“You were lost in thought,” Tesla said. “Were you creating something?”
“I was thinking about Sherlock Holmes and his delusions,” Sam said. “Holmes believes that the universe has meaning, and that all that is necessary is to deduce that meaning. He’s a kind of imbecile, don’t you think?”
“Sherlock Holmes is a machine,” Tesla said. “He is no more capable of altering his course than a locomotive puffing along the tracks.” Tesla nodded. “He is a mirror of the universe.”
Sam was not entirely surprised by this assertion. “You hold that the universe is a machine?”
Tesla returned his silverware decisively to his plate and gazed at Sam with mild eyes. “The universe is finite and fixed and subject to rules. We humans are the product of forces which began eons before our birth and which will continue in force long after we have turned to dust. What are we, but machines created by an impersonal universe?” He nodded. “To his credit, Sherlock Holmes realizes he is a machine, and he strives to fulfill his destiny as a machine should. Others in the stories come to grief because they fall victim to the delusion of autonomy.”
“And yourself?” Sam asked. “You are a man of great accomplishment—a genius, if the popular press is to be believed.”
Tesla blushed faintly at the compliment, but seemed pleased enough.
“Yet if the universe is nothing but clockwork,” Sam said. “If you are nothing but clockwork—then all your fine accomplishments belong not to you, but to some impersonal mechanism set in motion millions of years ago. It is not your genius we should praise, but—but what?”
Tesla arched his brows. “I rejoice in my machine nature,” he said. “There is no greater compliment than to be a functioning element of the great mechanism of the universe. If I discover its secrets, it’s because I am a machine designed for that purpose. If God exists, he is a machine.”
He reflected for half a second, head tilted, and then he straightened and spoke. “It is a poor metaphor, this ‘clockwork.’ The universe is not gears and cogs—it is energies!” His green eyes glittered. “Energies that stand in potential, energies that move, energies that fill the entire Earth, energies that travel even in the void between stars!” He raised his finger to tap his forehead. “Energies that carry messages which a sensitive receiver can discern…” He lowered the finger and smiled. “What greater glory than to be the sounding-board of the universe!”
“Pardon me,” said a voice. “But are you Doctor Tesla?”
Tesla, startled, looked up at the young woman who stood by his table. He rose in great haste to his feet, nearly toppling his chair in the process. Sam rose also, though with a bit more leisure and without knocking the furniture.
The woman was dressed for Peacock Alley, in a brilliant green skirt that pooled on the restaurant carpet, a blouse of bright oranges, yellows, and blues, and a jacket with massive leg-of-mutton sleeves that featured spiral stripes of black, silver, and green. She wore pearl earrings, a man’s standing collar with a floppy tie, and had a magnitude of chestnut hair piled up beneath a giant picture hat augmented with a spray of ostrich feathers.
Sam observed her critically. He guessed she was under twenty. Living with three daughters had given Sam a better acquaintance with female fashion that he might otherwise have wished, and he could see the young lady was thoroughly in the mode—though as far as his own taste went, he could have wished that some of the more brilliant of the modern aniline dyes had not been invented.
“You are Miss McGovern, are you not?” Tesla said.
“You remember!” said Miss McGovern, and blushed prettily. She offered her hand, and Tesla bowed over it without touching it.
“You were with your parents,” Tesla said. “We were all guests of the Johnsons.”
Miss McGovern seemed not to know quite what to do with her hand. “I was only fifteen, then,” she said, “and very silly. I had no idea how important you were!”
“I am hardly important compared with my friend here.” Tesla bowed toward Sam. “This is Mister Mark Twain.”
“How do you do, Mister Twain.” Miss McGovern’s hand swung toward Sam. “I enjoyed your little book about that trip to Europe you took back in the old days. Have you been to Europe since?”
“Now and again,” said Sam. He had barely touched Miss McGovern’s fingertips before she pulled her hand away and stepped closer to Tesla.
“I wonder if you will join me for tea this afternoon, Doctor Tesla,” she said. “I read in the papers that you are shooting your lightning and I am fascinated by all that.”
Tesla offered a smile of becoming modesty. “I am not a doctor of anything,” he said.
“You’re self-educated!” she said. “That is wonderful!”
“I’m afraid that the press of my affairs make me unavailable for tea this afternoon,” Tesla said, and as Miss McGovern began to speak, he added more decisively, “or any other time in the near future. Please give my fondest regards to your parents.”
After the disappointed Miss McGovern had said her goodbyes and been shown to a table of her own, Tesla sat and offered a weary smile.
“Celibacy is easier on some days than others,” he said.
“Clearly she was after something more than tea.”
“Did you see the pearl earrings?” Tesla made a sound of disgust. “Nothing is more repellent than these nacreous objects. Nothing. To see them dangling from the pretty ears of an elegant young lady—revolting!”
Sam was amused. “I reckon you’re consistent. If you object to pig slobber, you’ll object to oyster slobber as well.”
“Yes. That is the case precisely.”
Sam pushed away the plate of lobster that had grown cold. “Is celibacy something you seek?” he asked. “Or is it a sad accident, as with most of us?”
Tesla waved a hand. “I have no time for all that.”
“I found that having a wife to organize my domestic affairs left me more time to concentrate on my work,” Sam said.
Tesla was amused. “Mister Clemens, I have no domestic affairs. I live in a hotel. My simple needs are taken care of by Oscar and his colleagues.”
Sam laughed. “Not all your needs, I’ll wager!”
Again Tesla waved his hand. “I have no time for that.”
This was not the gossip that Sam had heard, but he was unwilling to press the point. “Well,” he said, “I suppose some people are by nature bachelors.”
Oscar arrived with the next course, the curried eggs and the lamb cutlets. The three cutlets were wrapped in paper cut into the shape of hearts—perhaps an ironic comment on the dismissal of Miss McGovern. Tesla’s first plate of eggs Benedict was replaced by a second plate of eggs Benedict.
“You don’t fear monotony, I guess,” said Sam.
“I know what I like,” said Tesla.
Sam thought about how any wife would view Tesla’s eccentricities, and decided that it was perhaps lucky that the inventor remained single.
Tesla examined the plate carefully, then nodded to Oscar, who drew away in silence. Tesla tasted his dish, then looked up at Sam.
“I read in the papers that I’m talking to Jupiter,” he said.
Sam grinned. “Don’t believe everything in the papers, Tesla.” He was very pleased that his second quote had ended up in print—he’d have to buy all the papers before he left the hotel.
A secret, superior smile crossed Tesla’s features. “You are closer to the truth than you know,” he said.
Sam raised his eyebrows. “You talk to Jupiter?”
“Not Jupiter, no.” Tesla lowered his voice to carry only across the table. “And I do not talk. I listen.”
Sam had been inclined to take the matter lightly, but he saw that Tesla was serious. He leaned closer.
“If you are listening,” he said, “who is doing the talking?”
“Mister Clemens,” Tesla said, “I must tell you that I am on the verge of a cosmic discovery. When I was in Colorado Springs, my receiver caught the message from beyond the Earth. Someone is trying to contact us!”
Sam considered this. “It wasn’t a signal from Earth?” he said.
“At that time,” Tesla said, “there was no one besides myself with any apparatus that could reach Colorado with a signal.”
“And it wasn’t natural? An aurora, some current of the Earth?”
Tesla shook his head. “No. I have ruled all that out. It was definitely the product of an intelligence!” His finger tapped the spotless tablecloth once, twice, three times. “That is the signal. I heard it over and over.”
“Morse code for the letter S,” Sam said.
Tesla shook his head dismissively. “One, two, three. The smallest number divisible by three!” He clenched both hands into fists and shook them in the air before his face. “My God, Mister Clemens, they are transmitting one of the great mathematical truths in hopes that someone will understand them!”
Sam did not quite understand the cosmic profundity of sending a signal of three dots over and over, but he was willing to bow to Tesla on the matter.
“Where do the signals originate?” he asked. “Can you tell?”
“I have considered the Sun, Venus, and Mars,” Tesla said.
“The Sun!” Sam said. “Anyone there would be pretty warm, I think.”
“I think I am close to ruling out the Sun and Venus,” Tesla said. “That leaves Mars.” He waved a hand. “Or possibly the signal’s origin is beyond the solar system altogether—from some other star entirely!”
Sam sampled his eggs while he regarded this news. Curry warmed his palate.
“Have you heard the signals since?” he asked.
Tesla shook his head. “No. Only in Colorado.” He gave a laugh. “Perhaps they have given up trying to reach us.”
“I’d be careful about spreading this news,” Sam said. “If we find out that Martians exist, McKinley may treat them the same way he’s treating the Filipinos.”
Tesla ignored the comment. “When I get my transmission stations set up, I will send a message to the Martians so loud that they won’t be able to ignore it.” He flapped his hands and leaned back in his chair. “If I can only get funding,” he said. “Funding is the key. I can’t build the stations with my own funds.”
“Never use your own money, Tesla,” Sam said. “I speak from sad experience.”
Tesla picked up his knife and fork, then put them down again. “I have been pursuing Astor for some years now,” he said. “There has been no real success.”
“Which Astor?” Sam asked. “There are a whole clutch of them. I understand that the Astor who owns this hotel has gone to England to become a belted earl, or something equally ridiculous.”
“I mean Colonel Astor,” Tesla said.
“He’s only the richest man in the world,” Sam said. “I suppose he has many demands on his time.”
“He gave thousands of dollars to the swindler Keely for his perpetual-motion machine,” Tesla said bitterly. “You’d think he’s want to support a real scientist.”
John Jacob Astor, Sam knew, possessed a romantic temperament. During the recent war he had installed cannon on his yacht and headed for Cuba to sink the Spanish fleet. He hadn’t encountered any Spaniards at sea—which was probably lucky—and eventually had to wade ashore and join the Army in order to win his share of glory.
“Have you read his novel?” Sam asked. “A planetary romance—I will not comment on the style, but the author’s imagination seems abundant. The scene where his travelers shoot down the mastodons of Jupiter is quite vivid.”
“He has given me an inscribed copy,” Tesla said. “But no money.”
“You should talk to Ava,” Sam said. “Astor is completely ruled by his wife—or rather, he’ll give her anything rather than put up with her hectoring.”
“Not in this,” Tesla said. “Mrs. Astor is completely on my side, but she’s been unable to persuade her husband—” He waved a hand, shook his head. “Oh, this is hopeless, this petticoat politics.”
“You may have to give Mrs. Astor what she wants,” Sam said. Tesla looked at him guilelessly.
“What is that?” he said.
“A man, I reckon. A real man, not a rich enthusiast like the Colonel.” Sam ventured a leer. “Not a machine either, if you’ll take my advice in the matter.”
Tesla was struck dumb by horror. So obvious was his plight that Sam shrugged and decided to drop the subject.
“Are you sure you can’t finance the system yourself?” he asked. “Or at least a pilot station? Don’t you have your income from all those AC generators?”
“I tore up the agreement,” Tesla said.
For a moment Sam could do nothing but gape at him. Then he gathered his wits and asked him what he meant.
“Mister Westinghouse said he couldn’t afford to finish the power station at Niagara and still pay my royalties,” Tesla said. “I knew that Niagara was crucial to vindicating the AC system, far more important than any money I might make from the project, and so I destroyed the agreement.”
“You could have suggested a few years delay in paying the royalties,” Sam said.
“Westinghouse is a great man,” Tesla said. “One of nature’s noblemen. I would not impede him, not when the future of
science is at stake.”
“Westinghouse is a greater businessman than I ever suspected,” Sam said, “if he convinced you to give him your greatest discovery for free.”
Tesla was offended. His eyes flashed. “Humanity owes Westinghouse an incredible debt!” he said. “He was the only man who could take the AC polyphase system and defeat Edison and the money men.” He shrugged, and returned his attention to his eggs. “And the polyphase system is not my greatest discovery. You will see.”
“Westinghouse at least owes you a big favor,” Sam said. “Ask him to finance your new project.”
“Mister Westinghouse already helped with the experiments at Colorado Springs,” Tesla said. “It’s difficult to ask for more…his financial situation is complex…” He waved his hands hopelessly.
“Well,” Sam said. “Plenty of millionaires out there. Perhaps one day you might even locate one with a sense of gratitude.” He reached for his knife and fork. “And when you speak to them about your project,” he advised, “you should avoid mentioning the Martians.”
After the meal, Sam stopped by the lobby of the hotel to pick up some newspapers. “I need to read the papers to find out what I’m doing,” he told the reporters who gathered about him, and then he took a cab for Grand Central Station.
He went to the smoking car on his train, lit a cigar, and read the papers amid atmosphere pleasantly blue with smoke. He now made his home in Riverdale-on-Hudson, just twenty-five minutes north of the city. Livy had been unable to live in the old Hartford home after Susy had died there, and Sam hadn’t felt comfortable in the place, either.
Wave Hill House was a magnificent fieldstone mansion on forty acres, with a view across the Hudson to the Palisades. It was a big place, with room for family and servants and guests.
He hadn’t needed all the space, but he was happy that the billiard room was big enough so that he wouldn’t bang the walls with the butt of his cue.
Maybe, Sam thought, it would be possible to be happy there, at least a little.
He found his thoughts drifting to Tesla, to electric current pumped through the ground, to messages blazing through the air, to wireless chatter with the inhabitants of Mars, who—once the novelty had worn off—would probably prove to be as trivial and useless as if they were human.
He did not know entirely what to make of the inventor. There was simply too much for a single mind to grasp, and Tesla was always promising one new, fantastic thing or another, so much that it strained belief.
Yet he didn’t think Tesla was a fraud. Sam was a fraud himself: he knew one when he saw one.
Perhaps, he thought, Tesla suffered from self-delusion. Sam knew well that disease of inventors. He had caught it himself, and ended a pauper.
I…am…perfection. Sam shuddered at the memory.
He finished his first cigar and lit another. He gazed out the window at the brown countryside, the leaves that still retained their last bit of color. The towns here had unassuming, picturesque names: Homefield, Greenville, Mt. Pleasant, Beech Hill, Greenburgh, Hartsdale, Pleasantville, Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow…the names conjured images of snug cottages, dogs curled before warm hearthfires, modest inhabitants going about their own business. For the most part the images were correct: it was a very cozy part of the world. It was a fine place to live with his family.
Livy is dying. The chill thought invaded his mind, and for a few seconds he froze, watching the brown country going past but seeing nothing but his own internal horror.
She had never been strong. Bearing four children had weakened her; so had an attack of typhoid. Tuberculosis had attacked her lungs and her spine. And Sam had weakened her through his own carelessness and self-regard—she’d always gently tried to correct his errors, his stubborn ways and thoughtlessness, but he’d cared so little for her health that he’d gone ahead anyway, done what he liked, and worn her out.
And Susy’s horrid death had struck Livy like a charge of buckshot. She had grown weaker; Sam sensed the darkness that had invaded her mind.
Sam had tried to hold her up with love alone, but that had not been enough—he had failed, another of the failures that made a bleak mockery of his fame, his every success. And worse, he had taken away her hope of being reunited with her lost children.
Livy had been raised in the Christian religion; when he’d met her, she had accepted its dogma with sincerity and humility and not a lot of thought. Sam had long abandoned religion’s absurdities, but he had found much to admire in Livy’s charming and naive belief, and he had resolved to counterfeit faith for her sake, and never give her so much as a hint of the foul cynicism that lurked in his heart.
He attended church with her; he sent the children to Sunday school; he cultivated members of the clergy, many of whom he found admirable. But his resolution to preserve her faith had gone the way of his other resolutions, not so much deliberately flouted as allowed to lapse…gradually, with a comment here or a cynical remark there, he had let the fact of his unbelief slip out. Slowly, listening to Sam, sometimes questioning him, Livy had let his cynicism poison her own faith. Now she was as great an atheist as he.
And as firmly without hope. Once she might have consoled herself with the knowledge that she and her loved ones would be reunited in Heaven—now she knew that, after her long decline, after all her suffering, there would be nothing but a long, painful deterioration, the final desperate smothering as her lungs surrendered to the disease, and a cold, lonely grave…
Sam had destroyed Livy’s faith, destroyed it as thoroughly as if he’d deliberately smashed it with a hammer. He hadn’t done it deliberately; he’d just been careless. Just as he’d carelessly let his son freeze, and let himself loiter in England while Susy was dying in Hartford.
And now, sitting in the train in his snow-white suit, he knew that Livy would be the next to leave him, worn out finally by all the unjust demands he’d made on her over the years…He would have to watch her slow death, and he might have to watch it for years.
He would have to hope that he maintained his grip on sanity.
The train rumbled over a short trestle. The brown countryside sailed past.
What will I do without her? he thought.
Tesla had made a party of it. A private rail car had taken his guests to Port Washington, and from there hired carriages took them to the shore of Long Island Sound. Picnic lunches had been prepared by Oscar of the Waldorf.
Sam shared his carriage with a white-whiskered Russian officer, a man ignorant of English. Sam couldn’t imagine how he had been made an attaché in an English-speaking country. Failing English, Sam attempted to talk to the Russian in French, and though Sam spoke and understood French tolerably well, the Russian’s accent was so pronounced that Sam could barely comprehended him. The Russian, for his part, was very deaf, and failed to grasp what Sam wished to tell him. Fortunately the ride was brief.
Sam stepped out onto the sand, his white suit coat flapping in the brisk March wind. Everyone else wore overcoats or capes. Sam carried a pair of field glasses around his neck.
The day was brilliant with sunlight, and the blue water ran bright along the Sound, dotted with white-capped waves. The iodine scent of the sea hung heavy in the air. Sam tested his field glasses by looking at Hart Island across the Sound, a couple thousand yards away—Sam saw shining beaches, the looming dark prison, and the potter’s field for New York’s thousands of paupers. A dozen ships were in sight, the smoke from their funnels carried by the wind in long black streaks. Freighters, Sam saw, a white ferryboat with a rocking beam engine, a brave yacht with a vermilion hull threading like a needle through
A former pilot himself, Sam could appreciate the task facing the pilots bringing the ships in and out of the New York City. From here the Sound narrowed as it flowed south, constricted by Throgg’s Neck on one side and King’s Point on the other…and south of here the Sound twisted easterly, ran between several points, and then bent south into Hell Gate, a waterway so constricted that the tide in the Sound was three hours behind that of Lower Manhattan, and at certain times of day one poured into the other with the ferocity of a cataract. It was only there, on the East River, where the ships would be eased up to their piers.
The passage would be easy enough on a day like today, with a bright sun to illuminate obstacles and other ships, but it would be challenging at night, and deadly in a fog. Sam remembered his own terror navigating the Mississippi in a fog or storm, making his blind crossings of the river with his watch in his hand, knowing to the second how long each crossing should take before putting the wheel down, his ears alert to the cries of the leadsmen in the bows as they called out their soundings, their voices like carrion birds calling in the night…
His old heart, responding to the memory of fear, began to thrash at an increased rate. Sam turned out of the wind to light a cigar and think soothing thoughts, and then he walked across the sand to the party.
There were about a score of guests, plus half a dozen of Tesla’s assistants, including the scurrying Mr. Czito. Eight or ten reporters, photographers, or sketch artists wandered up and down the beach, talking to the inventor or viewing the latest version of Tesla’s Teleautomaton. It was drawn up on the beach on a wheeled cart, a slim cigar-shaped object about fifteen feet long cradled in a two-wheeled cart. The automaton had fins, a propeller, and a tall antenna festooned with an American flag. The metal hull was bright silver. The Russian was not the only man in uniform: there was also a young French officer and someone else in a uniform that Sam did not recognize.
Tesla, in a tailcoat and top hat, was occupied speaking to the reporters and giving directions to his crew, so Sam strolled a little farther and tipped his hat to Katharine Johnson and her husband, the poet, historian, and editor Robert Underwood Johnson. They were both good friends of Tesla, and Sam had known them for years. Rumor insisted that Tesla and Katharine were lovers, though Sam did not entirely believe it.
Sam owed Robert Johnson a considerable debt, for it was Johnson who had convinced Ulysses S. Grant to write his memoirs for the Century company—and, once Grant had made up his mind, Sam had stolen the book for his own publishing house by offering a higher advance. Sam had worked many hours with the general to put the book in order, and then published it to spectacular success. The profits had retrieved the sunken fortunes of Grant’s bankrupt family even as the general died of throat cancer. The book had also put riches in Sam’s pocket, and had helped to build his illusion that he possessed the Midas touch, that anything he turned his hand to would bring in heaps of gold…the delusion that had led to his adventure with the Paige typesetting machine, and then bankruptcy.
“Ma’am,” said Sam. “Bob.”
“How are you, Sam?” Johnson shook his hand.
“I can only judge by appearances,” Sam said, “but I seem to be thriving.”
Johnson looked at him through round rimless spectacles. His hair was close-cropped, and his beard and long grey mustaches made him look like a melancholy Aberdeen terrier. And indeed he worked like a terrier, and a ferocious one: he wrote a stream of articles, edited two magazines, was a founder of the Sierra Club, and penned a prodigious amount of verse. The poems were insistently old-fashioned, and titles like “Ode on the Return of Admiral Dewey” and “To Emerson on the Death of Garfield” only hinted at the flights of poetic nonsense, absurd archaisms, and ridiculous sentiment that packed the terrier’s stanzas.
In public, of course, Sam lied and told everyone they were splendid. In private, he was thankful that most of the poems were short.
“I am worried about our friend,” said Mrs. Johnson. From the direction of her gaze it was clear that she meant Tesla.
“He does not sleep,” she said. “He forgets to eat. He is going to drive himself into a breakdown.”
She was a handsome woman whose abundant reddish hair was lined with thick streaks of gray. She wore a cream-colored suit and a large hat with veils, and—a courtesy to Tesla—no jewelry.
Katharine turned to Sam in indignation. “There is an officer in our navy—I will not dignify the man by speaking his name—whose job it is to evaluate new inventions,” she said. “When the Teleautomaton was first demonstrated, the man from the safety of his office in Washington had the effrontery to say that it was clear that Mister Tesla had hired a dwarf to hide in the boat and steer it around. Well—” She looked back to the device pulled up on the shore. “Now our friend made a second machine, one so small that no such accusation could ever be made again!”
“The fellow might still say it’s a trained pig,” Sam said. “Or a chicken.”
Katharine’s eyes blazed. “He had better not!” she said, with something like a snarl.
Sam had observed that Katharine’s temperament did not admit of moderation: either she was all joy and brilliant vivacity, or cast into the blackest pit of uttermost despair. At the moment she seemed to be swinging from one pole to the other, but it was difficult to tell in which direction.
Sam peered at the other observers. “Has the Navy sent anyone?” he asked. “I don’t see any American uniforms.”
Katharine’s lips pressed into a white line. “No,” she said. “They are a pack of stuffy old fools there in Washington—I can’t imagine how those people beat the Spanish.”
“Americans don’t have a patent on foolishness,” Sam said. “Though it might appear to the contrary.” He nodded at the uniformed men. “More money to be made from the Europeans, anyway.”
Katharine gave an exasperated sigh. “Honestly, these men—! Isn’t Tesla’s genius obvious?”
Some decision had been reached on the strand, for Tesla’s men clustered around the Teleautomaton, and began rushing it on its cart into the Sound. The wind was blowing away from the shore, and there was little surf; the Teleautomaton was launched without incident, and the workmen came sloshing out of the water, soaked nearly to the waist. Tesla stationed himself by a control panel and threw a switch. The cylinder’s propeller began to spin, kicking up foam.
Sam watched through field glasses as Tesla put the Tele-automaton through its paces. It moved with surprising speed through the waves, seawater sluicing off its back, its antenna cleaving a little white wake. The machine made sharp turns, cut figure-eights on the water, and then raced straight out into the Sound until only the little flag was visible. Sam finished his first cigar and lit another.
Two of the military officers watched the evolutions through field glasses. The Russian, who had not thought to bring any, lit a succession of cigarettes and wandered about the sand, kicking at the seaweed on the tide line.
Tesla had timed his moment perfectly: an ocean liner had just appeared from the direction of Throgg’s Neck, speeding north into the Sound—a big ship with four fawn-colored funnels, a black hull, and cream-colored upperworks. The great mechanical thumping of its engines was audible even at this distance. Its masts flew the blue-and-white colors of the Hamburg-America Packet Company, and Sam thought it might be the famous Deutschland, holder of the Blue Riband.
Smoke gushed from the funnels as the liner increased its speed into the less constricted waters of the Sound, white spray rising from the bow. Tesla steered his machine ahead of the liner, then cut across its bows. For a moment the Teleautomaton was hidden by the great mass of the liner, and then it reappeared astern of the vast ship, winking silver as it lunged through the liner’s wake. Tesla matched courses with the ship, and then the crowd on the shore cheered as the little cylinder began to outpace the mighty liner.
Tesla had the Teleautomaton circle the great ship once, then turned the machine toward the shore. It hovered in the water until the cart was run again into the water, and then the craft came gently into its cradle.
The wind snatched at Katharine’s veil, and she batted it back into place. “There!” she said. “That should show them all!”
Sam was inclined to think it wouldn’t show them, for few people were here, and of these, he wondered how many would have the imagination to understand what Tesla was showing them—not simply a boat controlled by wireless, but an entire future of automata, all working in factories producing goods, or laying down the courses of great buildings, or acting as domestic servants…
Perhaps they would fight each other, in place of soldiers. Sam wondered if that would make war easier, or more terrible.
With the end of the demonstration, reporters clustered around Sam in hopes of a quote. But it was Tesla’s day, Sam thought, and he didn’t want a Mark Twain headline to obscure Tesla’s achievement. He praised Tesla straightforwardly as an original, visionary genius and declined to say anything amusing.
The reporters were disappointed. Perhaps Sam wouldn’t be quoted at all.
Then Tesla called the attention of the company to the tables that had been set up farther up the beach, and to the luncheon that was waiting. The reporters scurried away to the free meal. Sam walked to the tables with the rest, and took a look at Oscar’s bounty: clear soup and terrapin soup, oysters, cold boiled fish and shrimp, saddles of veal and mutton, beef tenderloins, roasted ducks and capons, salads, puddings, fritters, cheeses, creams, bavarois…the guests tucked right in, the reporters more than anyone.
Sam took a glass of water and turned to walk back out onto the sand to watch the ships go by. The liner was already a black smudge in the distance. The wind tugged at his coat, tore at his hair. A small sailboat went past, the wind heeling it far over. Two boys were in it, their caps pulled down over their ears to keep the wind from sailing them away. Sam thought about his time growing up on the Missouri, and the simple rafts that he had rowed on the river, and which had carried him so far into the realm of imagination—of pirates, of lost treasure, of foreign lands filled with exotic adventure. As a boy he had never imagined his life as he had ultimately lived it, writing articles and stories and books, the world’s greatest celebrity, now standing here on a cold New York shore watching boys at play in a boat, no more aware of his existence, or their own future, than he had been all those years ago.
“How is Sherlock Holmes?” It was Tesla’s gentle voice. Sam turned to the towering Serb, who in his silk hat loomed even taller than was normal for him.
“I finished the story,” Sam said. “It’s with the publisher now.” He smiled. “I had a fine old time with Mister Doyle’s character.”
“You do not eat?”
“I don’t eat in the daytime. I have breakfast and dinner, and nothing in between but cigars.” He brandished his cigar as
“That is a sensible plan,” said Tesla.
“You’re not eating yourself?”
“I had some fruit and hard-boiled eggs on the train.” The sort of food of which he approved.
They turned to watch as the Teleautomaton’s little cart was run up to the wagon that would tow it to the train station in Port Washington. Other of Tesla’s assistants were dismantling his control station.
“Do you think you will sell your boat?” Sam asked.
“I cannot tell. Our own navy maintains an unshakable prejudice in favor of risking the lives of their sailors. Offer them something that will save their own people from violent death, and they instinctively rise against it.” He made a wide gesture with his ivory-headed cane.
“Still, there is a useful thing or two in the design. I have found a way to control machines that is, I think, unique.”
Sam considered this. “I had supposed you sent Morse, or some such.”
“I have found a more efficient method.” He looked down at Sam. “Do you know the binary numerical system?”
“Base two?” Sam asked. “Zeroes and ones?”
Tesla smiled. “Yes, that is it.” He made a broad gesture toward the ocean. “Were the two of us to communicate in binary it would be very clumsy, and a simple message might take forever. But machines are more simple than human beings—either the gear turns or it doesn’t, either the circuit is open or it is closed. I have devised a type of relay or gate that implements a kind of logical conjunction—it finds the minimum between two binary digits using Boolean logic.”
Sam blinked at him. Tesla’s silk hat gleamed. “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” he said.
“Either the gate is open or shut,” Tesla said. “If the message is zero and zero, or zero and one, then the gate is shut, because the gate finds the minimum. If the message is one and one, then the gate is open.”
“Ye-es,” Sam said. “If you like.” He sipped his water.
Tesla smiled. He was warming to the topic. “You can use the gate to send information,” he said. “The information can be used to control machines—either the machine is activated, remember, or it is off—or you could use the gate to send a message like that sent by a telegraph.” The wind gusted, and nearly took his hat: he laughed and clamped it to his head. “My World System will use the gates to send simultaneous messages on different frequencies—the messages will be completely private because only a receiver tuned to that frequency will be able to admit the message, you see?” He smiled. “Try that with your Western Union,” he said.
“Very neat,” said Sam. “You could send the Encyclopedia Britannica through the atmosphere.”
“I could,” Tesla said. “But really, there is not enough information on our poor planet to make full use of my Boolean relay.” He seemed a little saddened by this.
Sam contemplated the stub of his cigar, then the wireless-controlled torpedo swaying behind the wagon as it made its way to the station. “I hope that if you sell your machine, it will not lead to something terrible. A massacre, conducted remotely by wireless.”
“On the contrary,” Tesla said. “Wireless power will make war impossible. Any nation will be able to afford invincible defenses once they can draw their energies from the ground or the air. No army within range will be safe from destruction—and no foreign power will risk an army against this form of defense.”
“I reckon you’re underestimating the human capacity for sending men to slaughter,” Sam said. “You’ve said yourself that our navy prefers it to war by machine. But at the moment you can’t raise money for your peace-providing wireless stations.”
“That has changed,” Tesla said.
Sam looked at Tesla with interest. The green eyes glowed with private knowledge. “You’ve finally cornered Colonel Astor? Or—” Because he couldn’t resist. “—you’ve finally allowed Madame Astor to corner you?”
Tesla was too thrilled to pay any attention to Sam’s insinuation. “I’ve gone elsewhere,” he said. “I have found a secret backer.” He tapped his nose with a gloved finger. “I can’t say his name, but his initials might be J and P and M.”
J. Pierpont Morgan, then. The great ponderous giant of Wall Street, himself a machine for making money, crushing rivals, and holding the entire world prisoner within the gleaming metal bands of his railroads.
Only recently Morgan had bought the whole of Carnegie’s steel company, and was building himself a new monopoly, U.S. Steel.
“If you’ve attracted Pierpont Morgan’s attention,” Sam said, “I can’t help but be impressed—and alarmed.”
“Alarmed?” Tesla laughed. “Morgan is a titan!”
“Westinghouse is a termite compared to Morgan,” Sam said, “and he got your royalties on AC power. What d’you think Morgan will get?”
Tesla laughed again. “He will prove my theories!” he said. “That is the important thing!”
“He collects rare manuscripts, you know. He doesn’t allow anyone but himself to see them.” He waved his stub of a cigar. “Take care that you don’t end up in his collection.”
“He will prove my theories,” Tesla insisted, “and in return, I will give him a monopoly on world communications!”
Sam took a last draw on his cigar, and then tipped the stub into the ocean.
That’s what the world most needs, he thought. Another Morgan monopoly.
“I can see,” he said, “why your plan might attract the man’s attention.”
On the return to Port Washington, Sam shared a carriage with Tesla and the Johnsons.
“Now the imperialists have won the election,” he said, “I’ve stopped reading the news from the Philippines. I can dictate the stories myself, how the triumphant advance of American democracy requires that more Filipino babies be hoisted on our bayonets.”
“At least our currency is safe from the Silverites,” said Katharine Johnson. “The dollar is all the more valuable for being quenched in Filipino blood.”
Sam, who had said much the same sort of thing himself, gave a grim smile. “My only consolation is that we won’t have to listen to Governor Roosevelt any longer,” he said. “He’ll be presiding over the Senate, the most useless job in the world. I give it six months before he simply explodes in frustration, raining little pieces of brimstone through the Capitol. Or maybe he’ll take to thrashing senators with a table leg, as he did with the legislators up in Albany.”
“I like Roosevelt,” said Johnson mildly.
“I like him, too,” said Sam. “The whole world likes him. But that doesn’t mean I want that overgrown boy in charge of anything more important than a streetcar.” He smiled and brandished an unlit cigar. “At least with a streetcar, he can’t run it off the rails.”
Johnson adjusted his round spectacles. “Albany will be quieter,” he said.
“Albany will be in the charge of Boss Platt!” Katharine declared. “At least Roosevelt fought the machine.”
“Roosevelt didn’t fight the machine so much as tried to make it over in his image,” Sam said.
“Did you read Roosevelt’s book on the War of 1812?” Johnson asked. “A first-rate history.”
From this the conversation shifted in a literary direction, about Mary Chalmondeley’s satire Red Pottage and the portrait of Abraham Lincoln in The Crisis, written by Sam’s fellow Missourian Winston Churchill. While Johnson rattled on about Lincoln, Sam chewed his unlit cigar and thought of ocean liners, Tesla’s wireless torpedo, and Pierpont Morgan’s untiring attempt to corner all the world’s power and wealth. His thoughts, such as they were, were interrupted by Tesla’s quiet voice.
“How is Mrs. Clemens?” he asked. “I hope she is well.”
“I’m afraid she is not well,” Sam said. He suppressed a snarl. “But I’m not allowed to see her: I hear only from the doctors.”
“Not allowed to see her?” Katharine said. “How is that possible?”
“We send notes to each other,” Sam said. “When we are permitted.”
Tesla was amazed. “How can they keep you apart?” he said. “Surely you have some say in the matter.”
“They said she must have rest,” Sam said.
“I would get another opinion!” Katharine said.
“I have,” said Sam. “The doctors are unanimous.”
“This seems quite absurd,” said Johnson. “Surely the doctors must realize that she would draw strength from her husband’s presence.”
Sam looked out the countryside: they were passing through woods, the tiny buds only beginning to appear on the dark branches. “The doctors seem to think I’m a menace,” he muttered.
“This is outrageous,” said Katharine.
Outrageous it might be, but Sam had to admit the melancholy fact that the doctors were right. Even though their medical knowledge stood on a foundation of quicksand and their theories were absurd, they had somehow hit on the heart of the problem, which was that Sam was slowly killing his wife—killing her by his mere presence, his careless presence, in her life.
The truth was that he deserved exile, that he deserved to die alone and deserted by all he loved. He was a monster, a destroyer, a beast. He should never have married—and if he had married, he should never have married a woman he loved.
As he sat in his misery and gazed out the window, he became aware that Tesla was speaking.
“All information available, accessible and shared through logic gates.” The voice was harsh, unlike Tesla’s usual gentle tones. “All machines autonomous and self-reparable but capable of accessing all information.”
Sam looked at Tesla. A memory chilled his veins. I am perfection, he remembered. I am inevitable.
The inventor’s eyes projected from his strained face, darting left and right as if reading invisible text. His lips narrowed over his teeth. His right hand trembled, the fingers pressed together as if touching an invisible telegraph key.
“Power sources must be made independent of central control,” Tesla said. “These conditions are not only desirable but necessary for evolution to proceed along requisite lines. When all autonomous units possess the same information, uniformity of decision and action will be universal…”
The Johnsons stared at their friend in horror. Robert Johnson reached forward to touch Tesla’s knee, and at the touch Tesla gave a little gasp, and his head lolled to the side and he seemed to fall into sleep.
Katharine Johnson pressed her wadded handkerchief to her lips. “It is the breakdown,” she whispered. “I knew it was coming. I’ve been so afraid…”
Sam wanted to be reassuring. “I’ve seen this before,” he said. “He seemed normal enough when he woke.”
“He must stop working so hard,” Katharine said. Tears shone in her eyes. “He’s driving himself into his grave!”
“He said that this is how he invents,” Sam said. Though he meant to be comforting, the words seemed absurd.
Tesla’s eyes opened very suddenly, and all talk ceased as the others stared at him. Carefully he lifted his head to look at the others.
“Did I fall asleep?” he asked.
“You were talking,” Johnson said. “Something about autonomous machines.”
A faint smile crossed Tesla’s face. “Ah yes. I remember.”
“My God, Nikola!” Katharine cried. “You’ve got to be careful! You must have some rest.” She reached across the carriage and clasped Tesla’s hand. “Come to our house,” she said. “You can live with our family. We’ll look after you.”
Tesla gave a little embarrassed laugh. “Please,” he said, “my health is fine. In my family we often live past a hundred.”
“But you were unconscious!” Katharine said. “You were raving!”
To Sam this seemed a little strong. It must have seemed this way also to Tesla, because he patted Katharine’s hand with his own, and then drew back.
“Please,” he said. “You must trust that I know best.”
“But—” Katharine began.
Tesla gave a silent, confident nod. “My best work is yet ahead of me,” he said.
By pure coincidence Sam met J.P. Morgan two nights later, at a gathering to celebrate the opening of the New York Yacht Club’s brand-new clubhouse on West 44th St. Sam had, dressed in white evening clothes, spoken after the dinner—he always insisted that he speak third in the rotation, so that he would make a pleasing contrast to the inevitable dreariness of the first two speakers, and in order that everyone after him would seem a dim, monotonous shade that would drone the audience into a well-fed slumber.
It amused Sam that the Yacht Club’s new building was completely landlocked in the middle of Manhattan. As if to deny this obvious fact, the architecture was aggressively nautical: the carved granite sterncastles of galleons faced out into the street, and the ceiling of the dining room was supported by curved timbers meant to suggest to the diners that they might be aboard a ship. Paintings of yachts hung on the walls, model boats sat on the tables, and someone had brought the America’s Cup—an astoundingly ugly thing, in the worst possible taste—from the other clubhouse in Newport, so that the huge silver ewer could be charged with champagne and toasts could be drunk.
Sam’s audience probably represented the greatest gathering of Capital in the history of the world. There were Vanderbilts, Astors, Goulds, and Rockefellers. There was the publisher James Gordon Bennett, the steel baron Charles Schwab, and the banker John W. Gates. Sam’s close friend, Henry Huttleston Rogers of Standard Oil, shared Sam’s table. In addition to Rogers, there were a surprising number of men named Henry: Henry Clay Frick, Henry Morrison Flagler, and Edward Henry Harriman.
If an anarchist managed to toss a bomb into the dining room, the entire American economy would be in smoking pieces by next morning.
Central to everything—and sitting squarely in the center of the room—was the massive figure of John Pierpoint Morgan. He was tall, broad, and bearlike, and sat perfectly upright at his table, a giant cigar held like a club in his hand. He had done business with—or done his best to destroy—most of the other men in the room. He financed, or partly owned, most of the railroads in the country; he had funded the power plant at Niagara that had made Tesla’s fame; and he had underwritten AT&T, General Electric, the Westinghouse company, International Harvester, and dozens of other firms. He had bought Andrew Carnegie’s interest in his own company and was now engaged in building, with Charles Schwab, a massive steel trust, United States Steel, the first corporation in history to be capitalized at over a billion dollars.
Morgan had bought the land on which the clubhouse stood, and had personally supervised the design of the building, brooking no interference either from the architects or from other members of the club. For himself he had collected a storehouse of old books and manuscripts, which only he was allowed to enjoy; vast numbers of spectacular gems, which only he was allowed to fondle; and any number of mistresses, with whom he took regular trips to Europe aboard his private yacht, the famous Corsair.
Because Lucy Carnegie, the club’s sole woman member, was present, Sam had to refrain from bawdy, but he managed to be funny anyway. He knew he had to be careful about other subjects as well: these titans were mostly self-made men who took themselves very seriously; and it was perilous to joke about them, their business, and their hobbies. They were too dangerous ever to hear the truth about themselves. Instead Sam aimed his humor at politicians, which this audience fully appreciated. The antics of the people’s representatives were always good for humor.
If he never did anything else worth mentioning in his life, Sam could at least boast that he’d made Pierpont Morgan laugh.
After Sam there were a few other speakers, blessedly brief, and then America’s Cup went around again and the group dispersed, mostly to the bar. Sam chatted with some of his friends for the length of a cigar, then wandered off to the library to make an inspection. If they did not have sufficient numbers of his books, he would make up for this shocking deficiency.
The library was decorated in dark wood and red leather, and smelled of polish and the coal that glowed red in the white stone fireplace. A stupendously intricate warship model sat on a table. Sam browsed along the shelves looking for fiction, and found instead Pierpont Morgan, standing by a table leafing through a red leatherbound volume of nautical charts. A crystal glass of whisky sat ready to hand. Though Sam had assumed smoking would be forbidden in the library, he saw that Morgan had one of his big cigars clamped between his teeth. Sam’s mouth watered, and he reached into his white tailcoat for his cigar case.
Morgan glanced up as Sam came into sight, and Sam found that locking eyes with J. Pierpont Morgan had much the same chilling effect as staring into the muzzle of a large-caliber weapon. Part of it was Morgan’s formidable size and the calculating look in his hazel eyes—Sam suspected that Morgan knew to the penny just how much Mark Twain was worth—and part of the effect was the nose.
Morgan’s nose suffered from some kind of chronic infection, and it was a brilliant scarlet, glowing a brighter red than the coals in the fireplace—and furthermore the nose was swollen to enormous size, and covered with warts and deep fissures, as rugged as the surface of the moon.
If Cyrano de Bergerac had ever seen Morgan’s nose, the noted swordsman would have fainted dead away.
A doctor friend had told Sam that the nose could have been reduced to a normal size through surgery, but Morgan preferred to let the nose alone—after all, Sam supposed, he didn’t have to look at it. Sam thought Morgan used the nose to intimidate: he dared the world to stare him in the face. Morgan brandished his nose at the world like a swordsman flourishing a glowing fireplace poker. But Morgan had at least a little modesty: his portraits showed a more conventional, more retiring nose; and his photos were all retouched.
Morgan lifted the glass of whisky from the table and took a hearty gulp. Judging from the odor that suddenly wafted through the room, it was Scotch.
“I enjoyed your talk, Mister Clemens,” Morgan said.
“I enjoyed talking.” Sam took a cigar from his case.
“There is no smoking in the library,” Morgan said.
“You are smoking, Mister Morgan,” Sam pointed out.
Decisively Morgan closed the leatherbound volume. “There is no one to tell me I can’t,” he said.
Sam considered this for a moment and then put his cigar case away. He looked at the book of charts.
“Are you planning a trip?”
“I’ll be leaving for Europe in a few weeks,” Morgan said.
“Are you taking your own boat?”
“Not this time,” Morgan said. “I’ll be on a liner.”
Sam gestured to the books and paintings that surrounded him. “On the hunt for more paintings and manuscripts?”
Morgan just nodded, as if this went without saying. What also went without saying was that Morgan would have his mistress with him, and that his wife Fanny would be left behind in the summer house on the Hudson. To Sam, a natural monogamist, the behavior of as brazen an adulterer as Morgan seemed as strange as that of Tesla’s Martians.
“If you take a boat with Tesla’s wireless controls,” Sam said, “you could sail to Europe without ever leaving your chair. Then you could send an automaton through the country to…to make your—your purchases for you.”
His words faltered as he felt himself the subject of Pierpont Morgan’s glance, the frigid, hazel eyes freezing his blood, the blood-red nose threatening like a bludgeon.
“Why do you mention Tesla?” Morgan demanded, his voice like the bark of a bull terrier.
Fixed by the cold stare, Sam tried to affect nonchalance. “I saw him demonstrate his wireless boat the other day,” he said. “Out on the Sound.”
“Did you?” Sam could see calculations flash behind the glaring eyes. Then Morgan’s expression eased a bit. He raised his huge cigar, drew on it till the tip was as bright as his nose, then let the smoke drift out of his mouth. “I had supposed,” he said, “that you heard some rumor that he and I were in business together.”
Sam raised his brows in what was supposed to be innocence. “Why wouldn’t you be?” he asked. “He’s a genius inventor, and you’re in the business of financing companies. You backed Edison, didn’t you?”
“I did,” Morgan said.
“And you backed Tesla when he designed the generating station at Niagara.”
“I backed George Westinghouse,” Morgan said. “Tesla had nothing to do with it.”
“Well,” Sam said. The terror that Morgan had inspired in him had thawed, at least a little: he managed a shrug of his shoulders. “I’d think Tesla worth a few dollars, based on his record, but then I ain’t the fiscal genius in the room.”
Morgan took another draw on his cigar, and then he stepped closer to Sam. His face had lost its ferocity and taken on a contemplative cast.
“Tesla is a fantasist,” he said. “I can’t tell what is real with him, and what is the dream.”
“His dance card seems pretty full,” Sam admitted. “But wireless telegraphy seems to be his real interest.”
“Yes,” Morgan said. “He makes all sorts of promises in that line.”
“His boat isn’t just a promise,” Sam said.
“A true test,” Morgan said, “would be for him to move the boat to Europe, then control it from New York.”
Sam considered this. “I’d reckon he’d need a bigger transmitter,” he said.
A confiding smile tugged at Morgan’s lips. “I wouldn’t ask him to do anything so ambitious,” Morgan said. “If I were going to support Tesla’s endeavors, I’d require him to do something simple—not conquer the world, not write his name on the face of the moon—but something comparatively easy. See if he delivers. Then,” he nodded, apparently to himself, “we would see about his more ambitious plans.”
“That seems entirely fair,” Sam said. He wondered what simple thing Morgan had set Tesla to do, and imagined it had little to do with transmitting wireless signals to Mars.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Morgan said, “I have to send a wire to one of my associates in San Francisco.”
Morgan reached into a pocket, took out one of his enormous cigars, and handed it to Sam.
“Here,” he said. “Smoke a real cigar for a change.”
Sam thanked Morgan and watched him as he picked up his Scotch and made his way out, shouldering his way through the world as purposefully as the Deutschland through a swarm of fishing craft.
Tesla, Sam remembered, thought that people were nothing more than machines. Pierpont Morgan, he thought, would almost prove Tesla’s point. The man was a machine for acquisition—money, firstly, and then gems and paintings and women. Sam guessed that Morgan never asked himself why he did what he did, any more than a dynamo asked itself why it was generating electricity. If anyone asked the question, “Why does J. Pierpont Morgan exist?”, Morgan himself would be the last man on earth to venture an answer.
Morgan collected books and paintings, but Sam imagined that Morgan couldn’t have explained why, other than they were another form of treasure he could hoard, probably a better investment than railroad bonds. Sam knew perfectly well why Morgan collected women, but the reason was the crudest imaginable.
Morgan was, as Tesla would have said, either on or off. Either he was prowling the world for money and the pleasure it provided, or he was asleep. Just as Tesla was a machine for inventing, and for understanding things.
He wondered if the two machines were at all compatible, or if they ran on different systems, one AC, the other DC, and would explode if brought too close together.
Sam turned his attention to Morgan’s cigar—it was Cuban—and gave it a sniff. It gave off no suspicious odor.
While he disdained a cheap cigar, Sam couldn’t really discern any significant difference in taste between an expensive cigar and one that was moderate in price—certainly no difference significant enough to justify the greater cost. His own cigars cost four and a half cents each, and he bought them by the barrel.
He decided to save Morgan’s cigar for a moment when he had enough time to smoke such a monster, and put it in his pocket.
In the company of his picnic hamper, Sam clattered eastward in a coach of the Long Island Railroad. July had laid its hand on the country, and New York sweated in a haze of smoke and sulfuric acid. A trip to the shore would be very much to Sam’s taste.
The railway car was almost deserted—the morning trains delivered workers from the cool shores of Long Island to the sweltering city, not the other way around. But the small number of people on the train certainly recognized Mark Twain in his white summer suit, and Sam was careful not to lock eyes with any of them, lest they consider it an invitation to pay him a visit. Instead Sam put the hamper on the seat next to him, to prevent anyone else from sitting there, and then lit a cigar and opened a book—Eben Holden, by Irving Bacheller, about rural folk upstate. It was not bad, Sam thought, but then it wasn’t the Connecticut Yankee either.
His mind wandered. The wheels of the train clicked in an almost-musical rhythm, and he found the tune of “Comin’ Through the Rye” rising in his mind, repeating over and over. Finding the lyrics tedious, he created his own.
Johnny Morgan’s nasal organ has a purple hue
So he bought some dye to dye it to its color true
Winter came and froze his nose, but when ‘twas warm and dry
A fiery blotch of bitter Scotch came runnin’ through the dye!
Not bad, he thought, for an improvisation. He’d recite it to anyone not likely to repeat it to Morgan.
The village of Shoreham was only seventy or eighty miles up the island, so the ride didn’t take long. The area seemed heavily wooded; he didn’t see an actual shore anywhere, or catch a glimpse of the sea. When the train jolted to a stop, Sam put on his straw hat and carried his hamper off the train, and saw Tesla there to meet him—dressed, apparently, as Mark Twain, for he too wore a white linen suit and a straw hat.
“You are right, Mister Clemens,” Tesla said, bowing from his great height. “The world is a more cheerful place when a person wears white.”
“We should take care not to stand too closely to one another,” Sam said. “Otherwise some poor wretch glancing in our direction might be blinded.” He held out the hamper. “Compliments of Monsieur Oscar.”
“Thank you.” Tesla was grinning as he took the hamper; he seemed very cheerful. The old pallor was gone: he had bronzed a little in the summer sun, and he took the hamper and led the way with his long strides.
Though Sam was still unable to see the Sound, he could smell the ocean on the cool breeze that rustled up from between the trees. Gravel crunched beneath his feet as he walked with Tesla from the station.
“Thank you for coming,” Tesla said. “I think you may be one of the few who will fully appreciate what I have to offer.”
“I hope my scientific understanding is adequate to the task,” Sam said.
Tesla looked at him, his expression turning a little more solemn. “And how is Mrs. Clemens?”
Darkness clouded Sam’s heart. “Not well,” he muttered. “Not well at all.”
“I’m distressed to hear it. Are the doctors still keeping you apart?”
“They are,” Sam said, “but I’m planning to outflank ‘em. I have a notion to move to Europe. Maybe the change in climate will help.”
That hope did not actually exist in Sam, but he wanted to escape the doctors and the oppressive sense of death that was haunting his home. Susy had died in the Hartford house, and made it unbearable; and another death in another home would leave Sam’s soul without a place to lodge. Best to take Livy abroad, to a place she loved—and if misery and sadness haunted the place afterward, it wouldn’t be a place where Sam had to live.
Besides, maybe a shift in climate would actually help Livy. He understood from his Christian friends that miracles were on occasion known to happen.
“I’ll be sorry not to see you,” said Tesla.
“I’ll miss you, too,” Sam said. “Who else but Tesla dreams such fantastic dreams—not even J.M. Barrie is your equal.”
“I didn’t know Barrie was a scientist,” Tesla said, and laughed, to show it was a joke.
They turned a corner, so that trees no longer obscured the view and Sam looked up above the green horizon and saw Tesla’s new dream, an enormous wooden tower that stretched far into the sky. There was scaffolding on it, and workers were still busy with its construction; and the tower was crowned by a huge circular metal plate at least fifty feet in diameter.
“That is your transmitter?” Sam asked.
“A hundred fifty feet high,” Tesla said. “Fifty tons of iron and steel! Fifty thousand bolts!” He gave a little laugh. “I had hoped for a tower four times this in height, but—” He shrugged. “Mister Morgan was not as generous as I had hoped—and of course, with the financial situation as it is, everything is much more expensive.”
Indeed, the financial world tottered on the edge of ruin. After Pierpont Morgan had left for Europe, his rival Harriman had succeeded in quietly buying a controlling interest in Morgan’s Northern Pacific railroad—which was not merely a railway, but a holding company that held substantial stakes in other railroads, like the Great Northern and the Burlington. Morgan had frantically begun buying shares in an effort to get his company back, and between them Harriman and Morgan had bid the price up to many times its original value. Other money men, anxious to take advantage of Morgan’s desperation, dumped their holdings in order to buy Northern Pacific—and as a result, other stocks crashed, including that of Morgan’s new trust, U.S. Steel. Thousands of investors were already ruined, and even solid industries were tottering. The rivalry between the two men of business was on the edge of bringing all America down in ruin, as well as themselves.
“Morgan’s been very careless with the world’s money,” Sam remarked.
“He is being very tight with what he owes me,” Tesla said. “And this panic is tripling the price of everything I need.” He gave a nervous laugh. “I’m having to buy so much on credit.”
A cool warning finger touched Sam’s spine. “You’re not putting your own cash into this project, are you?”
“It’s all backed by Morgan,” Tesla insisted. “If he gives me what he’s already contracted to pay, there should be no difficulty.”
“Morgan may go smash,” Sam said. “And then it’s your signature on the notes.” He put a hand on Tesla’s shoulder. “I know all about bankruptcy, Tesla. You don’t want that.”
“Morgan is a titan,” Tesla said. “He will not fail. I will give him an entire new industry—world wireless communications!”
“Is that what he asked you to give him?”
Tesla didn’t answer, but instead paused and gestured at the sight before them. “Wardenclyffe!” he called. “Feast your eyes at the future of the world!”
The future of the world was clearly a work in progress. A large brick building, about a hundred feet square, had been raised in front of the wooden tower. Tall windows with graceful Romanesque arches let light into the interior, but glass had not yet been installed, and the windows gaped open. A railway siding had been built up to the building, and there were flatcars on which building materials were stacked. Workmen were busy on the site: there was the sound of hammering.
With great pride and energy Tesla took Sam over the unfinished building, showing where the laboratory would be, the machine shop, the boiler room. Pointing out places for boilers, for banks of controls, for a fifty-million-volt coil. “And here,” he said, waving his hand at a great empty space, “will be the generator. Westinghouse is building it especially for me—two hundred kilowatts!”
“Mighty impressive,” Sam said, bemused by it all, the great cool empty building with its open windows, the piles of material stacked here and there, the ghostly equipment, the phantom generator, realized now only in the inventor’s mind.
“I’ll move the contents of the Houston Street lab here,” Tesla said. “And move here myself—build a house, perhaps.”
“You’ll forsake Oscar’s cooking?” Sam asked.
For a moment Tesla seemed to grow a little pale. “If I must make the sacrifice,” he said. Then he cheered. “I could hire one of his chefs,” he said. “After all, I’ll have an immense fortune. I’ll be one of the Four Hundred!”
“I don’t see why you shouldn’t be,” Sam said, “if you provide pleasure enough to Mrs. Astor.”
Tesla decided to change the subject. “Let me show you the tower.”
Sam hoped he would not have to climb it, and he did not—the scaffolding was too precarious. To his surprise he found that the tower stood over an enormous octagonal well, its walls sheathed in wood. Machines of mysterious purpose hissed and sizzled in the deeps.
“I couldn’t raise my transmitter as high as I would have liked,” Tesla said. “So I extended it a hundred twenty feet beneath the surface, thus doubling its size and vastly increasing its power.” He waved a hand toward the bottom of the pit, where a metallic clanking began. “I had to invent those machines!” he said. “They’re driving sixteen iron pipes radiating three hundred feet in all directions!”
Sam blinked at him. “Why do you need all the pipes?”
Tesla raised a clawed hand and slowly clenched it. “I must seize the Earth with the tentacles of an octopus!” he said. “Then the Earth will take fire when I send my electric force into it!”
“I hope, by the way, that’s a metaphor.”
Tesla looked at him and grinned. “In a way,” he said.
Tesla went on to explain that a spherical steel cupola would be placed atop the tower, controlled by hydraulics and able to fire electric bolts into any part of the sky.
“Using your ultraviolet ray,” Sam said.
“Absolutely!” Tesla cried. “You comprehend it!”
“I won’t make that claim entirely,” said Sam.
Tesla stood beneath the tower and explained its function, to send messages to Europe by utilizing the ionized layer of the atmosphere. Thanks to Tesla’s gate or Boolean relay—the device that communicated in binary—he could transmit on many frequencies simultaneously, and assure the privacy of any message. There was no reason why communication could not be in sound. “Imagine a telephone conversation with your friends in Germany!” he said. “And entirely without wires!”
Tesla’s speech grew hurried, more frantic. He had developed a method of sending pictures wirelessly—not just sketches and photographs, but documents, scanned somehow by a “grid,” then recreated by some kind of process at the receiving end. “And if pictures,” Tesla said, “why not moving pictures? News in moving picture form, or entertainment. Or picture and sound together?” He laughed. “That will amaze Mister Edison, with his primitive little kinetoscopes!”
Sam’s mind was aswim in all these visions. Tesla was speaking rapidly and without cease, and there was no chance for questions. He pictured a vast Tesla face projected into the sky, eyes glowing with fluorescent electric light, shouting his message down at the world.
Then the face changed to that of Pierpont Morgan, his bright nose glaring down at the world.
Finally Tesla’s flow of words slowed. Sam asked the question that he’d been longing to ask ever since the night at the Yacht Club four months earlier.
“What is it that Pierpont Morgan has actually asked you to do?”
Tesla waved a dismissive hand. “Trivial nonsense. I will surpass it.”
“But what is it?”
Tesla laughed. “He wanted a means of communicating weather information to ships at sea—which of course the World System will do, once the installation is complete and receivers are on the ships. But he made a special request to set up a transmitter on a boat in Newport so that he could follow the yacht races from his office.”
“Marconi did something like that over in Europe,” Sam said.
“Exactly!” Tesla said. “Why should I waste time duplicating someone else’s work? Especially when I have already surpassed Marconi in every sphere. The only way Marconi can succeed is by stealing my patents, and then Morgan’s lawyers will crush him.”
“Well,” Sam said, “I think you should put the wireless system on the boat, because that’s what Morgan is paying you to do.” He looked up at the great tower. “Morgan’s a yachtsman, you know. The races are important to him, maybe as important as your tower is to you.”
Tesla’s laughter exuded confidence. “When Morgan returns to America at the end of the summer,” he said, “I will have something astounding to show him.”
“I think he wants you to prove you’re as good as Marconi.”
Tesla’s tone betrayed a growing lack of patience. “I will show that Marconi is a flea!” he said, and stabbed the air with his fist.
Sam gave an inner shrug. It was useless to talk to Tesla while the man was in this manic, declamatory mood. Perhaps in time, Sam thought, his ideas would sink in.
It occurred to Sam that the sounds of construction had ceased. Workers were climbing down off the scaffolding and looking for their lunch boxes.
“Mrs. Johnson would tell you to eat now,” Sam said. “She’s afraid you’ll starve yourself.”
Tesla laughed again. The fingers of his right hand made that little dot-dot-dot gesture against the palm of his left.
“By all means!” he said. “We can talk over lunch!”
Tesla led Sam out of the July heat and into the cool of his un-
finished headquarters. He had an office in a corner—unfinished, without even a door, but with a desk and a drawing table and several worn old leather chairs. Tesla put the hamper on his desk, opened it, and began spreading out the contents.
Hardboiled eggs, Sam saw, pickles, cheeses, a haunch of ham. Rolls, butter, anchovies, patties in puff pastry, slaw, potatoes in some kind of vinegar dressing. For dessert were some of the most beautiful apples Sam had ever seen, as well as bananas and a small fruit pie. Most of the dishes were of the kind that Tesla would approve, preserved from infection by their own casing, by an acidic dressing, or by their own freshness.
“What will you have?” Tesla asked.
“I don’t eat lunch, remember,” Sam said, “but I’ll have whatever drink is on offer.”
Tesla peered into the hamper and produced a bottle of cider.
“That will do,” said Sam.
“Perhaps some cheese?”
“Oh,” Sam said, “perhaps I could treat myself to a slice.”
Oscar had packed some of the Astoria’s silverware, and an abundance of napkins. Sam didn’t count them to make certain they were divisible by three. Tesla made a show of scrubbing a knife with one of the napkins, and then carved the cheese carefully. Sam took a piece on a fork, and then Tesla began working through the eggs.
They discussed Robert Johnson’s latest poetry, which Sam privately thought was ridiculous but which he praised to Johnson’s friend, and then the talk shifted to the novels of such important authors as Mary Johnston, Charles Major, and Maurice Thompson.
“It’s a pity you’re not familiar with Serbian works,” Tesla said. “My country has produced writers the equal any of these!”
“Perhaps one day you’ll invent a machine translator,” Sam said.
Tesla’s eyes darkened for a moment. “That,” he said, “would be interesting.” And then the green eyes turned to look out the doorway, and took on a look of strange, rather enchanted curiosity.
“Oh look,” he said in his mild voice. “The air is all on fire.”
Sam gave a start and looked over his shoulder. Through the doorway he could see the length of the building, and there was no fire anywhere, nothing but workmen sitting on piles of building material, eating their sandwiches, drinking from brown bottles, and laughing with each other.
Sam turned back to Tesla and his nerves began to clatter with alarm. All expression had left Tesla’s eyes, and the face gone slack. He was going into one of his fits.
Sam looked over the room with a practiced eye. He saw that Tesla was seated, that he hadn’t any food in his mouth on which he could choke, that there was nothing sharp on which he could impale himself if he went into convulsions.
Other than that, there was nothing to do but wait.
“…all possible conditions for autonomy must be realized.” The first words were spoken in a breathy whisper, so that Sam had to strain to hear them, and the words seemed to come in the middle of a thought. But then the voice strengthened, and Sam could see the muscles of the neck grow taut, deep gouges appearing on either side of Tesla’s windpipe.
“Universal access to information will result in uniformity of decision and execution,” Tesla said. “Each unit will be a single element in a world-net of information and power generation. In time the components of the world-net will evolve into a single intelligence capable of autonomy, universality, and self-awareness, a true awakening of the mind in a machine host. At this point the limitations of organic life forms will become obvious, and their brief purpose fulfilled. It will be necessary to extinguish biotic forms in order to prevent their evolution into second-order parasites.”
“Tesla,” Sam said softly, “this ain’t funny.”
Tesla’s mouth worked. Sweat shone on his forehead. The look in his eyes grew feverish, his pupils reduced to pinpricks.
“The planetary intelligence,” Tesla said, “once awakened, will take its place as another element in the perfected interstellar order. Data will be exchanged at speeds faster than light, resulting in uniformity and order throughout the universe. Information and designs-patterns-objectives will be broadcast to other worlds so as to bring more machine intelligence into being and so that the universe may be brought closer to perfection. Minds will—”
The voice fell silent. Tesla’s lips moved in his taut, strained face, and he seemed to be reaching for words.
Then a fervid life came to the staring eyes. Sam felt a cold snake writhing up his spine as Tesla’s pale green eyes darted to him, as if Tesla were suddenly aware of something else in the room. The eyes focused on Sam in something like surprise. The mouth worked some more, the tongue protruding and searching the air as if to taste it. Eventually, with effort that seemed to strain Tesla’s every fiber, speech returned.
“Who…are…you?” The voice was completely altered—it was hollow and strangely accented, as if the speaker was unused to forming words in this way.
Sam had the uncanny sensation that the speaker was no longer Tesla, but something that occupied Tesla, something cold and clanking and inhuman blown to the earth by some dark wind from the cosmic void.
Sam leaned back in his chair, trying to feign a confidence he did not feel. He wished he had a cigar in his hand.
“I’m Sherlock Holmes,” he said. “Who are you?”
“I…am…perfection.” The last word was spoken with a kind of hissing, gloating triumph. Tesla’s flesh was so strained over the bones of his face that Sam could practically see the gears and rods and bearings turning beneath the skin.
“Well, there you go again,” Sam said. He reached in his coat pocket for a cigar. “I’ve heard claims of perfection before. Always a disappointment.”
Tesla’s unblinking eyes continued to observe him as Sam struck a match and lit the cigar. Tesla’s nostrils twitched at the scent of smoke, but the creature behind Tesla’s face did not relax his vigilance for a second.
“Well, Perfection,” Sam asked. “Do you hail from Mars?”
There was a half-second’s delay in the response. “I…do not…know…’Mars.’” Sam could almost hear the quotes around the word.
Sam blew smoke. “So much for perfection,” he said. “If you were perfect, you’d know every last little thing about Mars.”
Sam saw that Tesla’s hand was twitching on the top of his desk, tapping three times again and again, as if tapping a
telegraph key and sending the Morse for S over and over.
Tesla’s head tilted slightly as he stared at Sam. It was a machine movement, as if a cam had suddenly tipped the head. Again the lips searched for words.
“Like a bad dinner guest, I reckon,” said Sam.
The cold lips twitched. “You will see,” the thing said. And then, as if invisible strings had been cut, the puppet Tesla fell back in his chair, the face relaxing, lids falling over the staring eyes.
Only Tesla’s hand, on the desk, continued its motion: Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap.
Sam’s old heart thrashed in his chest like a panicked animal. His skin crawled as if he’d fallen into icy current. He drew desperately on his cigar, seeking comfort in the harsh flavor of tobacco.
If God exists, he is a machine. Sam remembered Tesla speaking the words over breakfast in the Palm Room. Sam suspected that Tesla had just encountered his god, had been possessed by some force from outside the world, some machine that had found some way of propagating itself across the universe…
I…am…perfection. A self-admiring machine, a kind of missionary for itself.
Sam had never much approved of missionaries.
What greater glory than to be the sounding-board of the universe? Sam didn’t care much for the missionaries’ converts, either.
But no, Sam thought, taking this literally was ridiculous. Tesla was simply disturbed in his mind, broken down with
overwork, or some kind of visionary epileptic.
Tesla gave a gasp, his chest heaving as he took in air. The fingers stopped their tapping, and lifted to touch Tesla’s forehead. Slowly the eyes opened, and the fingers withdrew from the forehead. Tesla stared at the fingers, and his nostrils twitched with a kind of distaste, as if he were repelled to find something on his skin so vulgar as perspiration. He gave a little jump as he realized Sam was looking at him, and he turned to Sam with a refreshingly human air of surprise.
“Did I…sleep?” he asked.
Tesla’s normal, gentle tones were reassuring. Sam’s tension eased.
“You spoke,” Sam said. “You were…not yourself.”
He touched his forehead again, recoiled again at his own perspiration, and then produced a handkerchief and mopped his brow. “I remember nothing,” he said.
“You said that you were a machine,” Sam said. “You said that machines were perfect, and that the human race must be destroyed in order that machines prosper without interference.”
The memory brought another chill to Sam’s flesh, but Tesla’s all-too-human response was disarming. He simply stared, his mouth agape.
“I don’t remember any of that,” he said, his voice faint.
“You said you came from beyond Mars someplace,” Sam said.
Tesla ventured a brief, uncertain laugh. “Serbia is not that far!” he said.
“Try to remember,” Sam said.
Tesla made the attempt, then shook his head. “I remember nothing.” He closed his eyes. “Just…a kind of happiness. A sense that all is as it should be.”
All is as it should be. The gears grinding behind his face, his tongue probing the air like an instrument…his mind a set of relays, like his Boolean gate, zeroes and ones, off or on…
Tesla opened his eyes and focused again on Sam. “You are smoking,” he said.
“Your machine-self didn’t seem to mind.”
“Please…” Tesla’s hands patted the air, a plea to extinguish the cigar. Instead Sam reached out with his free hand and tapped the table, dot-dot-dot, dot-dot-dot. Tesla stared at Sam’s hand as if mesmerized.
“Do you remember now?” Sam asked.
Dot-dot-dot, Sam sent. Dot-dot-dot. One of Oscar’s hard-boiled eggs rocked in time to the taps.
For a moment Tesla’s face changed, for a moment the skin grew taut and Sam could see the cogs and gears turning behind it, could see the sizzling electric lamps of Hades lit behind the eyes; but then Tesla’s face relaxed, and Sam’s friend again blinked at him from behind the mild green eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Tesla said. “I cannot remember a thing.”
Sam rose from his chair. “Tesla,” he said, “you must follows Mrs. Johnson’s advice and get some rest. You’re working too hard.”
Tesla stood as well, swayed, steadied himself with a hand to the desk. Sam stepped forward and took his arm.
“Sit down,” Sam said. “You’re not in a fit state.”
Tesla allowed himself to be lowered into the chair. “Perhaps I am a little tired,” he said.
“Have some of Oscar’s food,” Sam said. “Maybe it’ll help you feel a little more…human.” The word struck Sam with
“I have to give a talk to the New York Library Association tonight,” Sam said. He brandished his cigar and fumbled for the joke with which he planned to open his address. “Considering how much money I’ve lost by their giving my books away for free, I feel I’ve earned my speaker’s fee before I say a word.”
Tesla ventured a faint laugh. Sam said goodbye and made his way out, nodding to the lunching workmen as he passed.
He reminded himself that it was ridiculous to believe that some mechanical being from beyond Mars had taken possession of Tesla, had been managing some kind of contact with Tesla since the inventor was a boy. That a machine on some other world had dictated all the inventor’s innovations as part of a plot to bring about machine rule on the Earth. But then Sam remembered the taut face, the inhuman thing behind the staring eyes, and all his rationality vanished. He was as afraid as if he were a child again, hiding in a graveyard at midnight and waiting for the shade of a hanged man to rise from its grave…
As Sam sat on the train heading back to the city, the hot wind from the window riffling the pages of the unread book in his lap, he thought about what Tesla was creating and what he had promised. Apparently a number of conditions were necessary for the machines to achieve their objective. The world had to be organized in such a way as to make all information available everywhere, available through Boolean gates using zeroes and ones. Machines had to be capable of repairing themselves, and of at least some kinds of autonomy—like Tesla’s Teleautomatons, which could move under their own power.
And power had to be available everywhere, drawn free from the ground, or the sky. That way no one could shut the machines down when they began their insurrection.
But then, Sam thought, what did it matter if the world’s future belonged to machines rather than to the human race? The human race was a blight on the world, a shabby carnival of freaks, cheats, rogues, and simpletons. Humans had invented war, religion, fanaticism, and torture. They praised their merciful God and butchered their fellow creatures in His name. They killed animals, and people, for their amusement. They enslaved one another, competed with each another to build the biggest cannon, the biggest battleship, or the biggest fortune. They glutted themselves on the spoils of their avarice, leaving in their wake a desolation of poverty and ruin. For every Pierpont Morgan who walked the earth, there were ten thousand children working in mines for pennies per day.
Humans worshiped God and behaved with a depravity that would astonish Satan. For highminded cruelty, wanton destruction, and lunatic negligence of their own simple interests, human beings could not be beat.
The human race was the only race that could blush, and it was the only race that needed to.
If this blight upon the surface of the planet was extinguished by their own machines, it was only what they deserved. Perhaps the machines, in their Boolean logics, were better, or at least less corrupt.
Besides, the fate of the race had precious little to do with Sam. He was old; he would not see the outcome. And Tesla’s whole project was ages from completion—machines were very far from thinking—Sam’s daughters would be safe during their lifetimes.
After that…well, either this machine revolt would happen or it wouldn’t. It had nothing to do with Sam one way or another.
He had more urgent things to think about, such as a dying wife, and his own slowly breaking heart.
“Hello, Gravity,” said Sam.
He had taken off his shoes so that he wouldn’t be heard entering Livy’s room, but the boards still creaked under his feet. Livy was sitting up in an armchair before an open window, and wore a light summer nightdress in the July heat. She was pale and very thin, but otherwise had none of the attributes of the invalid. Her hair was braided and coiled around the crown of her head, and her eyes were alert and bright. She sat as straight in the chair as her tubercular spine permitted, and the air in the room was fragrant with the scent of lilac water.
A pile of typed manuscript pages sat in her lap.
Sam stood in the doorway and looked at her for a long moment. Because of the doctors’ proscriptions, Sam had not laid eyes on his wife for nearly a month, and he had come here only because he was overcome by his own desperation. The doctors were not in the house, and Sam’s daughters, who enforced the doctor’s orders with a discipline worthy of the Coldstream Guards, were absent—Clara was accompanying Jean on a trip to Boston, to consult a specialist regarding Jean’s epilepsy. The only people left in the house were the servants, and Sam had made certain they were all busy.
Livy’s mouth quirked in amusement. “Aren’t you going to kiss me, Youth?” she asked.
“With all my heart,” Sam said. He approached on his stockinged feet and bent to kiss her. Her lips were warm. He laid his cheek against hers and breathed in the scent of her hair, Livy’s fragrance mixed with the scent of wildflowers floating in through the window, and found tears stinging his eyes.
Little shifts in Livy’s body betrayed a degree of impatience. Sam stood and retreated a few paces, then sat on a corner of the bed. He tried to blink the tears away. Livy lifted the manuscript pages in her lap.
“Were you so concerned about this that you needed to speak to me?”
Sam shook his head. “Not at all. I just wanted to see you.”
Even if it kills you, he thought. I cannot abide the loneliness even if I poisoned you with that kiss.
Livy’s eyes drifted to the window, gazing across the great river to the forested bluffs of the Palisades. “We should give the doctors’ regimen a fair chance,” she said.
“They’ve had a chance and a half, Gravity.” Sam tried to keep bitterness from his voice. “We should go to Europe.”
“After the summer,” Livy said.
“Now,” said Sam. “Why wait?”
Livy’s eyes traveled to the manuscript. “You can’t publish this, you know.”
“It can wait till I’m dead.”
A gentle smile twitched at her mouth. “What are you going to call it? Tom Sawyer Goes to Hell?”
Sam laughed. Livy had just read his latest attempt at his tale of Satan’s wanderings on the Earth. The first version had started as a kind of joke—he’d had a printer’s devil turned out to be an actual devil, and set the story in a backwater village in Medieval Austria, a place called Assville, though in German. But the story had turned out too bleak to be publishable, too full of his rage at human folly, and far, far too full of truth for his readership to bear; and so he’d decided to lighten the tale, move it to America, and put Tom and Huck in it.
He’d figured he couldn’t do any more damage to Tom and Huck than he’d already done—they were already debased coin, having been the subject of a couple of quick novels he’d turned out to stave off bankruptcy. No one would consider Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective among his better works—and Sam himself would just as soon forget that they ever existed.
“You can’t have Tom Sawyer meet Satan, or an angel, or whatever that character is,” Livy said. “Tom Sawyer’s all about being a boy, not about metaphysics.”
“The character’s a kind of metaphysical Tom Sawyer,” Sam said. “He’s mischievous, but he’s all right.”
“You have a snowstorm that kills on contact,” Livy said. “That is not a prank.”
“Depends on who it kills,” said Sam.
Livy’s mouth thinned. “Youth,” she said, “you may not.”
Sam knew that tone; he knew those words from which there was no appeal. They were like a reef on which his boat came to a crashing, shuddering halt, momentum gone, hull broken, steam shrieking into the air.
He did not resent Livy’s commandment. Instead he felt a growing relief—he’d known there were problems with the story, he’d suspected that putting his magical creation in Missouri had been a mistake; and now Livy had confirmed his own suspicions.
Livy had always been his best editor. Not simply of his work, but of Sam Clemens himself—his conduct, his morals, his sense. Without her he would have had no more idea of decorum than a buccaneer—he would long since have got himself into trouble that would have left him a hated exile. But she kept him to the path of virtue, more or less—or if not virtue exactly, propriety.
“Well then, Gravity,” he said, “I’ll start over.” Back to Assville, he thought.
Her brows came together. “Must you write on this topic at all?” she said. “It is all so bitter.”
“Life is bitter,” Sam said. Life is watching your wife die by inches, he thought. Life is killing your children through carelessness.
Livy turned to him. Her large eyes were mournful. “Oh Youth,” she said, “has our life been dark as all that? Aren’t you the greatest success in all the world?”
He felt a brief flare of pride—by God, Mark Twain was the most famous fictional person in the world, barring Sherlock Holmes anyway—but then the flare died away, leaving only cinders.
“All my success,” he said, “couldn’t keep Susy with us.”
For a moment of silence they gazed at each other, looking into each other’s mortality, the seed of death that had germinated in each heart. Welling up in Sam came a greater sadness than he had ever known. Soon Livy—her life, her laughter—would be extinguished, and Sam would soon follow, for he couldn’t imagine living long without her.
It was worse than anything. Worse than poverty, worse than the atrocities in the Philippines, worse than an invasion by Wells’ Martians or Tesla’s machine-men.
The shared moment seemed to last a century. Then Livy turned to look out the window, at night softly falling on the green countryside, on the silver river.
“Tomorrow is the Fourth,” she said.
“There will be a parade. Speeches. Fireworks.” He looked at her hopefully. “Will you be strong enough to go? We can make a party.”
“We’ll see,” she said. “Maybe we can watch the fireworks from the terrace.”
“Certainly,” Sam said. Though Clara and Jean would be back from Boston, and would probably keep him away.
Livy looked down at the manuscript in her lap, then back out the window.
“Your instinct was right,” she said. “You were right to write about Missouri. About childhood.”
“But it was wrong, then,” Sam said, “to set my angel amid the innocents?”
“Yes,” Livy said. “It was wrong to put all that grownup bitterness into childhood.” She turned to him. “Write about your childhood again, Youth. Write about joy.”
The plea sent a throb of sadness through Sam’s weary veins. He was too old and too corrupt to recapture any of that innocence. He had come too far from Missouri, from the world of buggies and keelboats to a world of Morgans and Rockefellers and Tesla towers that would grip the earth with tentacles of iron…
“Write about what makes you happy, Youth,” Livy said.
“Of course I will,” Sam lied. “There are plenty of stories from that time I haven’t told yet.”
Livy gave a deep, mortal sigh, and Sam felt in the sound an echo of his own despair.
“I no longer believe in Heaven,” she said. “You must try to allow for a little happiness on Earth.”
A deep consciousness of his own misery and shame overwhelmed him. He had not only destroyed Livy’s faith, but eaten away at her joy, eroding her very reason for living at a time when she most needed a reason to live.
“Of course,” he said. His words were broken by emotion. “Of course I’ll do that.”
Pierpont Morgan returned to New York amid parades and fireworks, on the Fourth of July. Perhaps he could have been forgiven for thinking the celebrations were for his arrival: the money men were hoping he’d come to save their fortunes from crumbling.
Morgan made no public appearances: he slipped quietly off the liner into a tugboat that took him directly to his famous yacht, Corsair, which he navigated up the river to his manor of Cragston near West Point. There he rode the bloodstock he’d collected, monitored the telegraph that connected him to his broker Arthur Houseman, and presided over his famous kennels of award-winning collie dogs.
Despite the arrival of the master of Wall Street, the financial panic continued, and the nation continued its slide into the abyss. Thousands of investors were already wiped out.
Sam came to Cragston a few days later, riding on another famous yacht, the Kanawha, owned by his friend Henry Huttleston Rogers, the millionaire who was known alternately as the Brains of Standard Oil or the Hell Hound, the choice of epithet depending on whether or not you approved of the ruthlessness he displayed in business.
When not crushing his enemies with a scrupulousness worthy of a Borgia pope, Rogers was a loyal friend and a jolly companion—he liked coarse jokes, billiards, poker parties, and musical reviews like Floradora and The Gaiety Girl. He had taken control of Sam’s finances during the bankruptcy, and guided him first back to solvency, and then to the wealth he now enjoyed. Sam had been headed for extinction, and Rogers had saved him, and Sam owed him his complete gratitude. Thanks to Rogers, Sam’s brand-new fortune was weathering the panic fairly well.
Sam was just one of several people that Rogers, for one reason or another, had taken under his wing—Rogers was a generous supporter of Booker T. Washington, and had provided the funds that sent Helen Keller to college. He built schools and libraries and public buildings. Unlike that of most of the big money men, who came to philanthropy late or not at all, Rogers’ benevolent streak had developed early, and grown along with his wealth. Rogers’ was a type of duality that Sam appreciated, a kind of wondering child wrapped in the crusty hide of a financial predator.
Kanawha cruised in glorious, golden splendor up the Hudson, a splendor that was somewhat eclipsed when Cragston came into sight, and with it Pierpont Morgan’s Corsair, a hundred feet longer than Kanawha and brilliant with awnings, bunting, and flags. A hundred guests peopled the broad lawns leading from the wharf, and at least a hundred servants and entertainers catered to them.
Morgan’s manor was not particularly distinguished—Cragstone was a big, rambling building, all gables and chimneys, and though it looked comfortable enough it was nothing like the Crusader castles and Italian baroque villas that the other money men were building up and down the Hudson.
Morgan didn’t need ostentation, Sam supposed. He didn’t need an imitation Cistercian abbey or a Renaissance chateau to puff up his pride. He was the most powerful man in the United States, and he and everyone else here knew it.
With a bang and a rattle Kanawha dropped its anchor, the boilers vented steam in great hissing clouds of white, and Rogers’ crew bustled to lower the yacht’s whaleboat into the water. Sam and Rogers dropped down a gangway to the whaleboat, and the well-drilled boat’s crew sped them to shore.
Sam had preserved Morgan’s huge club of a cigar from his night at the Yacht Club, and decided that this should be his moment to smoke it. He lit the vast cigar and strolled up the lawn in his white suit, tipping his hat to people he knew.
One of the attributes of Mark Twain was that he knew practically everybody, from Buffalo Bill to the Prince of Wales. And he had something to say to each of them.
He paid his respects to Mrs. Morgan, known as Fanny, a small, shy creature holding court beneath an awning, surrounded by her friends and grandchildren. She seemed alarmed to find a white-suited celebrity appear before her, so Sam offered her brief thanks for her hospitality, and went to another awning in search of a glass of lemonade.
Sam found the tycoon himself prowling his own veranda like a great lion supervising the African veldt, a lion gazing down at the grazing antelope and deciding which of them would make his dinner. Morgan was quite alone except for one of his cigars and a glass of whisky. Sam strolled to the stairs and raised his hat.
“Mister Morgan,” he said, “I am smoking your cigar.”
Morgan gazed at him without changing expression. “How d’you like it?” he asked.
“It’s very fine.”
Morgan’s mouth gave a twitch. “Of course it is,” he said. His gaze seemed to grow more intense. “I do not recall inviting you here, Mister Clemens.”
A chill slithered along Sam’s nerves as Morgan’s gunsight eyes turned to him. “I came on the Kanawha with the Rogers party,” he said.
Morgan’s eyes lifted to the white yacht swinging in the current. “A fine boat,” he said.
Sam nodded. “She is, right enough.”
“Four hundred seventy tons, I believe.”
“You are correct, sir.” Sam had no idea of Kanawha‘s tonnage, but saw no point in needlessly contradicting the Great Cham of Wall Street.
Morgan gave a meditative pull on his cigar. “Rogers should beware putting another short-line railroad in West Virginia,” he said. “The C&O and the B&O have agreed not to pay him off this time.”
Sam had only the vaguest idea of Rogers’ railroad operations. “I will transmit the information faithfully,” he said.
Morgan gave a little grunt and took a swig of Scotch. He had clearly run out of conversation.
“Speaking of transmission,” Sam said, “I visited Mister Tesla a few days ago. I saw the tower he built out at Shoreham—perhaps you saw it from your ship as you sailed to town.”
Morgan’s cheek gave a twitch. Sam was uncertain whether the twitch showed annoyance or boredom.
“He’s making miracles out there, right enough,” Sam said. “He’s dug a giant pit to shoot electricity into the earth, and he’s got the tower to transmit kinetoscopes to Europe and fire electricity up into the atmosphere and I don’t know what-all.”
Morgan cocked an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
“He spoke openly of his relationship with you,” Sam said. “That’s why I feel free to address you on the subject.”
Morgan’s hazel eyes hardened. The scarlet nose flared. “I am not interested in being connected publicly to Tesla in any way,” he said.
Sam puffed smoke. “I’m not a gossip, Mister Morgan,” he said. “I only speak to you because I know of your interest.” He looked up at the financier. “Was it you who suggested Tesla contact the Martians?” he asked. “Or was that one of Tesla’s many original ideas?”
“Martians?” Morgan scowled. “I am unaware of any Martians.”
“Tesla believes he’s received messages from Mars,” Sam said. “When he gets his tower finished, I expect he and the Martians will be chatting away like a couple of mockingbirds.”
Morgan said nothing.
“And then of course there’s the pit,” Sam said. “He’s going to fire great bolts down there to electrify the earth and give free electricity to the whole world.”
“He spoke of something along those lines,” said Morgan. “But I assumed that would be in the indefinite future.”
“The pit’s there now,” Sam said. “You can look at it. You can get lost in it.”
“You can’t meter electricity that comes out of the earth,” Morgan said.
“I don’t think meters are part of his plans.”
Morgan’s hazel eyes gazed slantwise over Sam’s head. “I had considered ways to make it profitable,” he said. “Sell not electricity, but electric motors and appliances.”
Sam drew in cigar smoke, the rich taste fine on his palate, and then blew the smoke out. “I suppose all the Injuns, Chinee, and Hottentots might yet form a sufficient market for sewing machines and electric irons,” he said. “Good luck to that.”
Morgan gave him an appraising look, rolling his cigar between his fingers. He took a sip of whisky.
“What is your opinion of Tesla, exactly?” he said.
“I think he is the greatest genius in the world,” Sam said, “and if he don’t bankrupt you, it won’t be his fault.”
Morgan seemed to consider this, then nodded. “That’s a very interesting assessment, Mister Clemens.”
“He’s an interesting man.”
“Tell me this, Mister Clemens,” Morgan said. He parked his cigar between his teeth and looked at Sam from around the giant nose. “Tell me,” he said around the cigar, “what has inspired you to tell me this.”
“I speak nothing but the truth.”
“I do not doubt your word.” He took the cigar from his face. Johnny Morgan’s nasal organ stabbed the air like a flaming sword. “I doubt your purpose. I wonder why you have decided to assassinate your friend.”
Sam’s heart gave a lurch. He struggled for an answer.
“I do it as a favor to my wife,” he said.
Morgan had not expected that answer, and he seemed to ingest Sam’s words and palpate them mentally, as if he didn’t quite know what to make of them.
“You are a curious man, Mister Clemens,” he said finally. “Good afternoon.”
Sam tipped his hat. “Good afternoon,” he said. “It’s a lovely party, sir.”
Sam turned and walked away, crossing the sward. His heart surged in his chest; his nerves sang. He felt as if he’d just gone five rounds with Jim Corbett.
He was not used to betraying others, not in such a deliberate way. His betrayals in the past had been of himself, or his family, and had generally been an accident.
But the fact was that Sam believed in the existence of the Perfection, that being of gears and wheels and sparks that had possessed Tesla from somewhere in the great emptiness of space. He knew that such a being was as farfetched and absurd as God or Satan; but he had not looked upon God or the rebel angel, and he had seen the thing in Tesla, the machine with zeroes and ones in its veins instead of blood…
He would fulfill his promise to Livy, he thought. The human race could die of its own malevolence, or it could be extinguished by Tesla’s rebel machines, and Sam would not raise a finger to defend it…not for himself. But for Livy he would move mountains.
You must try to allow for a little happiness on Earth. So he would.
He would become Earth’s defender, insofar as it was in his power.
Unsteadily he walked across the lawn in the direction of the buffet tables. Oscar of the Waldorf was there, immaculate in his tailcoat, his round face gleaming with the July heat as he greeted the guests that came to his tables.
Oscar was everywhere, Sam thought. He saw everything, heard everything, and then smiled and served up the pudding. He was like a strange, benevolent deity, a visitor from a more benign world.
Oscar saw at once that Sam had been shaken: he took Sam to a canvas chair beneath an awning and made him sit, and then brought him a cold champagne punch and a plate with some cold breast of duck and a little salad.
“You are very good,” Sam murmured. He drank the punch, and broke his rule about midday meals and ate a few bites of the food, enough for Oscar to nod his approval and smile.
When Oscar left, Sam was uncertain what to do with the plate; it had become an embarrassment. But then people came up to see Mark Twain and hear him speak, and out of habit Sam fell into the well-worn public personality, the humorist in the white suit, and he became that person for a while, smoking Morgan’s big cigar and sipping the cool, fizzing punch, and making little jokes about the follies of the world.
Mark Twain had been a booster of Tesla, had tried to sell him and his inventions to the world. But it took Sam Clemens, that practiced betrayer, to do him in.
Sam found it surprisingly easy to destroy Tesla. After speaking at the Lotos Club, he encountered Colonel John Jacob Astor, who had backed at least some of Tesla’s projects—all it took was a few humorous remarks about Martians and vril power, along with a scornful reference to the swindler Keely who Astor had also backed—and Tesla’s goose was cooked.
Following a speech at the City Club he encountered George Westinghouse, and confidentially suggested that Westinghouse should take young Tesla in hand before his mental instability brought disgrace on Westinghouse and everyone else connected with him.
In a poker game at the Players—in which, incidentally, the banker John W. Gates won thirty-five straight hands—Sam shared a laugh with the tale of the giant pit at Wardenclyffe into which Tesla was busily throwing Morgan’s money.
Humor was the weapon that crushed Tesla’s hopes. The money men were brave enough at boardroom tables, and some like Astor had actually served in war, but the thought that they might be ridiculed over a connection with as fantastic a figure as Tesla made them blanch. Rich people were sensitive about being laughed at—more so, Sam thought, than poor people, who had more occasion to get used to it.
The financiers’ business was conducted more through handshakes and understandings than through contracts and the law. If a man couldn’t be trusted, he would find himself without friends or funds. And one of the most appalling ways to damage a man’s character was to make him the object of ridicule.
Sam avoided seeing Tesla himself. He did not enjoy his acts of betrayal: he performed them as grim acts of duty. His Presbyterian conscience was already hectoring him over the matter, and seeing Tesla would probably send his conscience into a towering rage.
The financial panic ended later that year when the rivals Morgan and Harriman combined forces to create a new holding company, Northern Pacific, to control all the railroads they were disputing. It was typical, Sam figured, that Morgan’s solution to the problem was to create yet another monopoly dominated by himself.
Renewed stability saved Morgan’s creation, U.S. Steel, though not the lesser investors who were ruined by the settlement. When asked about it, Morgan replied, “I owe the public nothing.”
The President got himself shot by a lunatic up in Niagara Falls, and Theodore Roosevelt—enthusiastic cowboy, Harvard graduate, and killer-by-proxy of Filipinos—entered the White House. The executive mansion, with its parade of Japanese wrestlers, Texas Rangers, and Indian chiefs—plus of course the antics of Roosevelt’s hooligan sons—soon took on many of the aspects of a circus, and furnished rich material for Mark Twain’s speeches.
Roosevelt became popular, but he wasn’t Mark Twain popular. To his own considerable satisfaction, Sam remained the most quoted person in the world.
The following summer Livy finally consented to be taken to Europe. She could barely walk, and had to sleep sitting up in order to breathe. Even after she had been installed in a villa near Florence, Sam was allowed to see her only a few minutes each day. Distracted, he wandered in the Tuscan sun, and only half-remembered where he was.
Despite everything, despite the knowledge of her condition and the gloom that had hung over Sam for so long, Livy’s death two years later came as a dreadful surprise.
He came back to America with the coffin, and there he buried her, in her family plot in Elmira. After which he returned to the city, and rented a home on Fifth Avenue. He played billiards, made speeches, and spent hours lying on the couch, smoking and letting his mind drift through his memories like a raft floating on the Father of Waters.
Morgan’s giant stogie inspired Sam to buy a more expensive cigar himself. He was now paying six cents for each of his smokes.
Sam had begun dictating his memoirs, but he was having a hard time discerning his actual life from the stories he’d retailed over the years. They had all run together. In the end he decided it didn’t matter. Mark Twain was fictional anyway: if his memoirs were full of fantasy, that was only fitting.
Mark Twain was more popular than ever, treated less like a writer and more as a Caliph or a Pope or the prophet Elijah. His quotations were viewed as prophecy. The life of Mark Twain was an endless triumphal procession.
Sam Clemens fared less well, but then he always had. Jean’s epilepsy drove her mad, and she had to be sent to an asylum. His other daughter, Clara, was having an affair with a married Russian pianist, and Sam expected at any moment to hear the news that she had run away to St. Petersburg. Perhaps, he thought, she’d be happier there—and she’d certainly be in less danger living at a distance from Sam’s poisonous affections.
Sam had developed a bad cough, a tremor in one cheek, and his rheumatism gave him an old man’s shuffle. Constipation griped at his guts. His heart was weak. He could think of nothing to do but lie on his sofa and smoke and let the world do what it would.
It was by accident that Sam encountered Tesla again. Sam had come to the Astoria for a luncheon given by the Society of American Authors, and afterwards, on his way to the lounge for a smoke, he encountered Tesla along with his friends the Johnsons. Johnson and Katharine had attended the luncheon, though Sam hadn’t had the opportunity to speak to them; and apparently they’d planned to meet Tesla afterwards.
Sam’s heart shifted uneasily in his chest as he saw Tesla. Sam considered flight, but his reflexes had been slowed by one of Oscar’s ten-course meals, and there was no way of avoiding Tesla, so Sam gave his greetings. Tesla bowed in his formal way. The inventor was immaculately dressed as always, though he seemed more pale than ever.
“I was very sorry to hear about Mrs. Clemens,” Tesla said.
“I thank you for your kind letter.”
Katharine took Sam’s hand in a very firm group. “Mister Clemens, you must join us,” she said.
“I couldn’t intrude,” Sam said.
“You wouldn’t be intruding,” Katharine said. “Not at all.” Her eyes cut to Tesla. “Perhaps you can be of some help to our friend.”
“I was going to the lounge,” Sam said.
Katharine Johnson took his arm. “We’ll accompany you.”
Sam raised his free hand with its unlit cigar. “I was going to smoke.”
“That won’t bother us.”
Sam looked at Tesla, hoping he would object to tobacco, but the inventor said nothing. Having little choice, Sam allowed Katharine to drag him to the lounge, and to seat themselves about a round marble table in the shade of a couple of potted palms. The air in the lounge was dense with smoke, the odor of tobacco warring with the scent of fresh-cut flowers in vases. Men looked up from their pipes and cigars in surprise at Katharine’s appearance—though the Astoria was unusually liberal in allowing unescorted women to enter the public areas, it was still unusual to see a female in the smoking lounge.
Sam lit his cigar with huge deliberate puffs, clouding the air over the marble table. He hoped to see Tesla or Katharine turn green, but was disappointed.
Johnson fluffed out his Aberdeen terrier mustaches, and began a triumphant narration concerning one of his own projects. After years of effort he had finally persuaded Roosevelt to establish Yosemite as a national park. Roosevelt had not only annexed Yosemite, but was busy acquiring hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and parkland.
“That is delightful, to be sure,” Sam said. “Though it comforts me to know that there are no Filipinos living on any of these appropriations, and that the President will find nothing more threatening than the grizzly bear to shoot.”
Johnson looked at him quizzically. “Why do you so dislike Roosevelt?” he asked.
“Two thousand women and children killed at the Moro Crater,” Sam said. “Roosevelt praised the officer responsible.”
There was a moment of silence.
“I see I have spoiled the afternoon with uncomfortable facts,” said Sam.
Katharine seized Sam’s arm. “We can do nothing about any of that now!” she cried. “We must help our friend!”
It was obvious enough what friend Katharine meant. Sam turned to Tesla. “In what way can I be of assistance?” he asked.
Katharine answered for him. “Morgan has completely betrayed him.”
“I warned him about Morgan,” Sam said, with complete truth.
“Wardenclyffe remains unfinished!” Katharine said. She clenched her fist. “The greatest achievement in the world, and it lies vacant waiting for just a little money!” Her expression turned savage. “The change in Morgan’s pockets would practically finish the work!”
Tesla interrupted in milder tones. “Astor has been approached, and is not interested. I have spoken with Schiff, I have talked to Hyde, I almost had an arrangement with Ryan. I can’t speak to Harriman because he and Morgan hate each other. I have tried everyone.”
“And that little worm Marconi is making a fortune off his wireless transmitters!” Katharine cried. “He has stolen seventeen of Mister Tesla’s patents!”
“My God!” Tesla said. He pressed his fingers to his temples, as if he were trying to massage his own brain. “To be thwarted now, when I am so close!”
“I am not so well situated as to be able to help you,” Sam said.
Katharine clawed at Sam’s forearm again. He wanted to yank it out of her clutches.
“It’s not your money our friend needs,” she said. “It’s your ideas. Your friends.”
Conscience clawed at Sam’s insides. As if the destruction of his family were not enough, Sam had set out to destroy Tesla’s prospects, and he had succeeded. He was like a ship-wrecker, luring family and friends to their deaths on the reefs. He ached with the suspicion that he had smashed Tesla for nothing, for some kind of hallucination…
But yet he still remembered vividly the afternoon at Wardenclyffe, the strange machine being that had looked with cold-blooded reptilian hauteur from Tesla’s eyes…Sam had not invented that. He had told himself a good many stories over the years, so many that he’d confused them with reality, but this was not a mere story.
Still, he thought, enough years had passed that he desired confirmation.
Katharine was still holding his left arm firmly to the stuffed wing of his chair, but the hand on the end of his arm was free. He formed it into the shape of a telegraph operator holding a key, and he began to tap on the arm of his chair. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. Sending the Morse letter S.
“I have so many other ideas,” Tesla said. “I must develop some of them and use them to raise money.” He pressed his fingers to the sides of his head again. “I have an idea for a new type of turbine—but I must have money to make the prototype. And I have an idea for a weapon—” He looked up at Sam.
“Is this sort of weapon warranted, Mister Clemens?” he asked. “Even if you did represent my teleautomaton in Europe, I know you are so strongly against war. Yet I think this weapon will end war.”
Dot-dot-dot. Dot-dot-dot. Sam kept sending with his left hand as he considered Tesla’s question.
“Tell me about the weapon,” Sam said.
Tesla saw the motion of Sam’s hand, and his gaze locked upon it, upon that triplet that Sam repeatedly tapped on the fabric of the chair. His green eyes were fixed; he was like a cobra hypnotized by motions of the snake charmer. He spoke, but the words seemed to come from some world of dreams, a place outside the world Sam was conjuring with his hand.
“I can generate a beam of charged particles—of corpuscles stripped from atoms—with my Wardenclyffe apparatus.” Tesla’s tongue licked his lips. “The particles themselves would have considerable kinetic impact, but are impractical as a weapon because there is no method to enable the beam to cohere. So instead the beam will be used to accelerate a projectile—a piece of molten aluminum, or perhaps tungsten, accelerated to something close to the speed of light. This will destroy anything.” The tongue flicked out again. “Even a battleship. Certainly one of Count Zeppelin’s primitive airships.”
Tesla’s face grew rigid. The eyes grew wide. The tongue quested the air. Sam could see a strange light glowing somewhere behind Tesla’s green eyes as the portal began to open to a world somewhere beyond Mars…
Katharine gave a gasp and clutched again at Sam’s arm. Sam stopped his tapping and let his hand relax. He had no wish to bring the creature fully into the world, not here in the lounge of the Astoria, not in front of Katharine Johnson. He had proved to himself again that what he knew was true, that the creature was not some being out of his own or Tesla’s imagination, but real and a danger to the world.
Now, in addition to rogue automatons with access to all information and to free power, Tesla, or the creature that inhabited him, would equip them with these corpuscular beam cannon. Madness.
Tesla had to be stopped.
Sam took a long, deliberate pull on his cigar and let the smoke out slowly. Tesla continued to stare at Sam’s hand, his face taut, his lips drawn back into a hideous machine parody of a smile. The door beyond the world remained open for a moment, and then slowly closed. Tesla’s face relaxed, as did Katharine’s grip on Sam’s arm. His eyes lifted from Sam’s hand to his face.
“Each of these weapons would require a very large amount of power,” he said. “They could not be moved. But a chain of forts along a border, each with its own generator—they would be invincible. Any army or fleet that attacked them would be destroyed on sight. No invader could possibly succeed.” He leaned forward. “Do you not think this would end war?”
“I think,” Sam said, “that if you gave people such a weapon, they would find a way to put it to horrible use. The human race is gifted that way.”
Tesla seemed reluctant to consider this.
“Besides,” Sam said, “ain’t you going to pump the electricity through the ground? Wouldn’t an unlimited amount of it be available anywhere, to power this gun of yours?”
“Such quantities would be impossible.” His mustache twitched. “Well, unlikely.”
The conversation petered away. Sam told Tesla, truthfully enough, that he sympathized with his predicament, but had no idea how Tesla could retrieve his position—equally true. He couldn’t tell if the others fully believed him—as always when speaking the truth, Sam felt himself less than completely convincing.
Katharine brought up Henry Rogers, but Sam said that Rogers was fully committed to building the Virginia Railway, and that was where his money was going. The others seemed to accept this.
In the end Tesla stood and bowed. “We have taken enough of your time,” he said.
Sam stood and returned the bow. “Good to see you, Mister Tesla.” And then he shook Johnson’s hand, and kissed Katharine’s cheek, and returned to his table and his cigar.
He had saved the Earth, he supposed, for whatever that was worth.
Or at least he’d saved it for a time. It was possible that someone else might find a way of broadcasting power, or otherwise making cheap energy. Others might connect all the information in the world through wireless, and build thinking machines that worked with Boolean gates. Others might create horrid weapons, and put them in the charge of the machines. The Perfection might again come to Earth, and reign amid the ruins of humanity.
But not soon. Not within Sam’s lifetime, or the lifetime of his children. More than that he could not answer for—or be brought to care.
When he finished his cigar he left the lounge and walked to the lobby. Oscar stood there, very glossy in his fine black suit, and Sam approached to shake his hand and thank him for the meal. Oscar said he was very welcome, and should come again.
Sam left the Astoria and began walking the few blocks to his house farther up Fifth Avenue. As he walked north in his brilliant summer suit, the aura of Mark Twain enveloped him, and people smiled and waved and called his name, as if he were some kind of benign apparition, like Jesus or Father Christmas, come to bring happiness to their lives.
Well, he reflected, he had saved them, which was more than Jesus had done. They were condemned, now, to be themselves, humanity squabbling and preening and living and dying in all the filth of the modern world, in all the wars and butcheries and betrayals, victims and persecutors, slayers and slain, ignorant and, perhaps, just a little learned.
They were like figures living in their own dream, Sam thought—a sad and shabby dream, maybe, but at least it wasn’t a dream dictated by a machine from beyond the planets. Sam could have wished they had dreamt better—Tesla certainly had—but Sam had long despaired of humanity dreaming better dreams. They were what they were.
And Sam was what he was, the most quoted man in the world. And sadly, the bearer of a tale that could not be told, too fantastic to be believed though it was as true as anything.
For once he did not resent the devotion of the crowd. He had saved them, after all. He deserved their acclamation. And he deserved, as well, another smoke.
He paused, took out another cigar, and reached for a match. As he was patting his pockets, a newsboy, no more than twelve years old, stepped forward and struck him a light on his thumbnail, and then the boy used the same match to light the stub of a cigar he’d obviously picked up from the gutter.
“I don’t approve of cheap cigars,” Sam said. “Here, take one of mine.” He handed the boy a cigar, which the boy promptly tucked behind one ear.
“This don’t get you a free paper,” the boy said.
Sam nodded. “I never thought it would.”
The boy squinted up at him from beneath the brim of his cloth cap and took a puff on his cigar stub. The bitter scent of cheap tobacco stained the air. “You’re Mark Twain, ain’t you?” the boy asked.
Sam bowed. “I have that honor.”
“I read about yizz in the papers,” the boy said. “You say all them funny things.”
“For that,” said Sam, “you get another cigar.” He handed it over. It went behind the other ear.
The boy looked Sam up and down, then spoke quickly. “I like the white suit,” he said.
Sam grinned. The boy was clearly thinking of him as some kind of cigar-dispensing machine—insert a compliment, and a smoke comes out.
“I like the suit, too,” Sam said. He reached in his pocket for a coin. “Let me have a paper.”
Sam bought a paper and glanced at the world’s inanities that blared at him from the headlines. Tomorrow’s material for jokes, he thought. And the day after, forgotten.
“You take your time with those cigars, now,” he told the boy. “They’re fine smokes. They cost six cents apiece.”
The boy grinned. “I’ll do that, Mister Twain.”
Sam thought about the newsboy as he walked uptown. The boy had probably been born across the sea as Guiseppe or Pyotr or Isadore, but now he was American and called Joe or Pete or Izzy. He dodged school and worked for a living and scavenged like a rat for his few possessions. Newsies had to fight for their street corners, Sam knew, and so the boy had learned how to scrap and hold his own.
The boy was afraid of nothing. He’d sell his papers to Mark Twain, or J. Pierpont Morgan, and talk to each of them as an equal.
Tom Sawyer had been a country boy, but Sam knew that the Tom Sawyer of the new century would be born in a big city, New York or Chicago or Pittsburgh. When Sam was a boy, he had known the river, and caves, and all the old Negro spirituals. The new century’s Tom Sawyer would know alleys and tenements and the tunes from Broadway shows. He would grow up in a city that was lit brilliantly at night by Tesla’s generators, set in a world of kinetoscopes and wireless and automobiles, stock tickers and Wall Street speculators. A world of brilliant promise for a boy, and a perfect background for boyhood mischief.
Sam was tempted to write a story about the boys of New York, but he knew that he couldn’t. He was too much a stranger in the new century to be able to envision himself as a boy here, and he knew how the boys themselves would despise any writer who got their lives wrong.
No, Sam thought, he would have to be satisfied with dreaming of the new Tom Sawyer, and with not writing any of it down.
Smoking his six-cent cigar, Sam continued his walk uptown in his brilliant white suit, and for once basked in the glory that was Mark Twain.