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Published 20 May 2015

"Skirmish (Bathe Your Bearings in Blood!)" (1950) by Clifford Simak

Originally published in the December 1950 issue of Amazing Stories under the rousing title Bathe Your Bearings in Blood!, always republished under the later and somewhat subtler - and rather more in keeping with the spirit of the story, it must be said - title of Skirmish, this striking account of one very average man’s struggle against machine-like aliens bent on rallying all of the world’s machines to their cause will probably leave as strong and unforgettable impression on you as it did to me when I was fortunate enough to have discovered it as a fledgling many eons ago.

With the original Amazing Stories artwork by Leo Ramon Summers.

e-book versions of the story are available for downloading below.

SKIRMISH

IT WAS A good watch. It had been a good watch for more than thirty years. His father had owned it first and his mother had saved it for him after his father died and had given it to him on his eighteenth birthday. For all the years since then it had served him faithfully.
But now, comparing it with the clock on the newsroom wail, looking from his wrist to the big face of the clock over the coat cabinets, Joe Crane was forced to admit that his watch was wrong. It was an hour fast. His watch said seven o’clock and the clock on the wall insisted it was only six.
Come to think of it, it had seemed unusually dark driving down to work and the streets had appeared singularly deserted.
He stood quietly in the empty newsroom, listening to the muttering of the row of teletype machines. Overhead lights shown here and there, gleaming on waiting telephones, on typewriters, on the china whiteness of the paste-pots huddled in a group on the copy desk.
Quiet now, he thought, quiet and peace and shadows, but in another hour the place would spring to life. Ed Lane, the news editor, would arrive at six-thirty and shortly after that Frank McKay, the city editor, would come lumbering in.
Crane put up a hand and rubbed his eyes. He could have used that extra hour of sleep. He could have. . .
Wait a minute! He had not gotten up by the watch upon his wrist. The alarm clock had awakened him. And that meant the alarm clock was an hour fast, too.
“It don’t make sense," said Crane, aloud.
He shuttled past the copy desk, heading for his chair and typewriter. Something moved on the desk alongside the typewriter—a thing that glinted, rat-sized and shiny and with a certain, undefinable manner about it that made him stop short in his tracks with a sense of gulping emptiness in his throat and belly.
The thing squatted beside the typewriter and stared across the room at him. There was no sign of eyes, no hint of face, and yet he knew it stared.
Acting almost instinctively, Crane reached out and grabbed a paste-pot off the copy desk. He hurled it with a vicious motion and it became a white blur in the lamplight, spinning end over end. It caught the staring thing squarely, lifted it and swept it off the desk. The paste-pot hit the floor and broke, scattering broken shards and oozy gobs of half-dried paste.
The shining thing hit the floor somersaulting. Its feet made metallic sounds as it righted itself and dashed across the floor.
Crane’s hand scooped up a spike, heavily weighed with metal. He threw it with a sudden gush of hatred and revulsion. The spike hit the floor with a thud ahead of the running thing and drove its point deep into the wood.
The metal rat made splinters fly as it changed its course. Desperately, it flung itself through the three-inch opening of a supply cabinet door.
Crane sprinted swiftly, hit the door with both his hands and slammed it shut.
“Got you,” he said.
He thought about it, standing with his back against the door.
Scared, he thought. Scared silly by a shining thing that looked something like a rat. Maybe it was at rat, a white rat. And, yet, it hadn’t had a tail. It didn’t have a face. Yet it had looked at him.
Crazy, he said. Crane, you’re going nuts.

IT DIDN’T quite make sense. It didn’t fit into this morning of October 18, 1952. Nor into the Twentieth Century. Nor into normal human life.
He turned around, grasped the door knob firmly and wrenched, intending to throw it wide open in one sudden jerk. But the knob slid beneath his fingers and would not move and the door stayed shut.
Locked, thought Crane. The lock snapped home when I slammed the door. And I haven’t got the key. Dorothy has the key, but she always leaves it open because it’s hard to get it open once it’s locked. She almost always has to call one of the janitors. Maybe there’s some of the maintenance men around. Maybe I should hunt one up and tell him—
Tell him what? Tell him I saw a metal rat run into the cabinet? Tell him I threw a paste-pot at it and knocked it off the desk? That I threw a spike at it, too, and to prove it, there’s the spike sticking in the floor.
Crane shook his head.
He walked over to the spike and yanked it from the floor. He put the spike back on the copy desk and kicked the fragments of the paste-pot out of sight.
At his own desk, he selected three sheets of paper and rolled them into the typewriter.
The machine started to type. All by itself without him touching it! He sat stupefied and watched its keys go up and down.
It typed:
Keep out of this, Joe. Don’t mix into this. You might get hurt.
Joe Crane pulled the sheets of copy paper out of the machine. He balled them in his list and threw them into a wastebasket. Then he went out to get a cup of coffee.
“You know, Louie," he said to the man behind the counter, "a man lives alone too long and he gets to seeing things."
"Yeah," said Louie. "Me, I’d go nuts in that place of yours. Rattling around in it empty-like. Should have sold it when your old lady passed on.”
“Couldn’t,” said Crane. “It‘s been my home too long.”
“Ought to get married off, then,” said Louie. “Ain’t good to live by yourself."
“Too late now,” Crane told him. “There isn’t anyone who would put up with me.”
“I got a bottle hid out,” said Louie. “Couldn’t give you none across the counter, but I could put some in your coffee.”
Crane shook his head. "Got a hard day coming up.”
"You sure? I won’t charge you for it, just old friends.”
“No. Thank you, Louie."
“You been seeing things?” asked Louie in a questioning voice.
“Seeing things?"
“Yeah. You said a man lives too much alone and he gets to seeing things?”
“Just a figure of speech," said Crane.
He finished the cup of coffee quickly and went hack to the office.
The place looked more familiar now.
Ed Lane was there, cussing out a copy boy. Frank McKay was clipping the opposition morning sheet. A couple of other reporters had drifted in.
Crane look a quick look at the supply cabinet door and it still was shut.

THE PHONE on McKay’s desk buzzed and the city editor picked it up. He listened for a moment, then took it down from his ear and held his hand over the mouthpiece.
“Joe,” he said, “take this. Some screwball claims he met a sewing machine coming down the street.“
Crane reached for his phone.
“Give me his call on 246,” he told the operator.
A voice was saying in his ear, “This the Herald? This the Herald? Hello, there. . .”
“This is Crane," said Joe.
“I want the Herald,” said the man. "I want to tell ’em. . ."
“This is Crane, of the Herald," Crane told him. “What’s on your mind?”
“You a reporter?”
“Yeah, I’m a reporter."
“Then listen close. I’ll try to tell this slow and easy and just the way it happened. I was walking down the street, see. . .”
“What street?” asked Crane. “And what is your name?"
“East Lake," said the caller. “The five or six hundred block, I don’t remember which, and I met this sewing machine rolling along the street and I thought, thinking the way you would, you know, if you met a sewing machine... I thought somebody had been rolling it along and it had gotten away from them. Although that is funny, because the street is level. There’s no grade to it at all, you see. Sure, you know the place. Level as the palm of your hand. And there wasn’t a soul in sight. It was early morning, see. . ."
"What’s your name?” asked Crane.
“My name? Smith, that’s my name. Jeff Smith. And so I figured maybe I’d ought to help this guy the sewing machine had gotten away from, so I put out my hand to stop it and it dodged. It. . .”
“It did what?" yelped Crane.
“It dodged. So help me, mister. When I put my hand out to slop it, it dodged out of the way so I couldn’t catch it. As if it knew 1 was trying to catch it, see, and it didn’t want to be caught. So it dodged out of the way and went around me and down the street as fast as it could go, picking up speed as it went. And when it got to the corner, it turned the corner as slick as you please and..."
"What’s your address?" asked Crane.
“My address? Say, what do you want my address for? I was telling you about this sewing machine. I called you up to give you a story and you keep interrupting...”
“I got to have your address,” Crane told him, “if I’m going to write the story.”
“Oh, all right then, if that is the way it is. I live at 203 North Hampton and I work at Axel Machines. Run a lathe, you know. And I haven’t had a drink in weeks. I’m cold sober now."
“All right,” said Crane. “Go ahead and tell me.”
“Well, there isn’t much else to tell. Only when this machine went past me I had the funny feeling that it was watching me. Out of the corner of its eyes, kind of. And how is a sewing machine going to watch you? A sewing machine hasn’t got any eyes and. . .”
“What made you think it was watching you?”
“I don’t know, mister. Just a feeling. Like my skin was trying to roll up my back.”
“Mr. Smith," asked Crane, “have you ever seen a thing like this before? Say, a washing machine or something else.”
“I ain’t drunk,” said Smith. “Haven’t had a drop in weeks. I never saw nothing like this before. But I’m telling you the truth, mister. I got a good reputation. You can call up anyone and ask them. Call Johnny Jacobson up at the Red Rooster grocery. He knows me. He can tell you about me. He can tell you. . .”
“Sure, sure.” said Crane, pacifying him. “Thanks for calling, Mr. Smith."
You and a guy named Smith, he told himself. Both of you are nuts. You saw a metal rat and your typewriter talked back at you and now this guy meets a sewing machine strolling down the street.

DOROTHY GRAHAM, the managing editor’s secretary, went past his desk, walking rapidly, her high heels coming down with decisive clicks. Her face was flushed an angry pink and she was jingling a ring of keys in her hands.
“What’s the matter, Dorothy?” Crane asked.
“It’s that damn door again,” she said. “The one to the supply cabinet. I just know I left it open and now some goof comes along and closes it and the lock snaps.”
“Keys won’t open it?" asked Crane.
“Nothing will open it,” she snapped. “Now I got to get George up here again. He knows how to do it. Talks to it or something. It makes me so mad, Boss called up last night and said for me to be down early and get the wire recorder for Albertson. He’s going out on that murder trial up north and wants to get some of the stuff down on tape. So I get up early and what does it get me. I lose my sleep and don’t even stop for breakfast and now. . ."
“Get an ax," said Crane. “That will open it.“
“The worst of it," said Dorothy, “is that George never gets the lead out. He always says he’ll be right up and then I wait and wait and I call again and he says. . ."
“Crane!” McKay’s roar echoed through the room.
“Yeah,” said Crane.
"Anything to that sewing machine story?"
“Guy says he met one."
“Anything to it?”
“How the hell would I know? I got the guy’s word, that’s all."
"Well, call up some other people down in that neighborhood. Ask them if they saw a sewing machine running around loose. Might be good for a humorous piece."
"Sure." said Crane.
He could imagine it:
“This is Crane at the Herald. Got a report there’s a sewing machine running around loose down in your neighborhood. Wondering if you saw anything of it. Yes, lady, that’s what I said. . . a sewing machine running around. No, ma’m, no one pushing it. Just running around. . . .”
He slouched out of his chair, went over to the reference table, picked up the city directory and logged it back to the desk.
Doggedly, he opened the book, located the East Lake listings and made some notes of names and addresses. He dawdled, reluctant to start phoning. He walked to the window and looked out at the weather. He wished he didn’t have to work. He thought of the kitchen sink at home. Plugged up again. He’d taken it apart and there were couplings and pipes and union joints spread all over the place. Today, he thought, would be a nice day to fix that sink.
When he went back to the desk, McKay came and stood over him.
“What do you think of it, Joe?"
"Screwball," said Crane, hoping McKay would call it off.
“Good feature story, though,” said the editor. “Have some fun with it."
“Sure,” said Crane.

McKAY LEFT and Crane made some calls. He got the sort of reaction that he expected.
He started to write the story. It didn’t go so well.
A sewing machine went for a stroll down Lake street this morning. . . .
He ripped out the sheet and threw it in the wastebasket.
He dawdled some more, then wrote:
A man met a sewing machine rolling down Lake Street this morning and the man lifted his hat most politely and said to the sewing machine. . .
He ripped out the sheet.
He tried again:
Can a sewing machine walk? That is, can it go for a walk without someone pushing it or pulling it or . . .
He tore out a sheet, inserted a new one, then got up and started for the water fountain to get a drink.
"Getting something, Joe?" McKay asked.
“Have it for you in a while," said Crane.
He stopped at the picture desk and Ballard, the picture editor, handed him the morning’s offerings.
“Nothing much to pep you up,” said Ballard. “All the gals got a bad dose of modesty today.”
Crane looked through the sheaf of pictures. There wasn’t, truth to tell, as much feminine epidermis as usual, although the gal who was Miss Manile Rope wasn’t bad at all.
“The place is going to go to hell,” mourned Ballard, “if those picture services don’t send us better pornography than this. Look at the copy desk. Hanging on the ropes. Nothing to show them to snap them out of it."
Crane went and got his drink.
On the way back he stopped to pass the time of day at the news desk.
“What’s exciting, Ed?” he asked.
“Those guys in the east are nuts," said the news editor. “Look at this one, will you.”
The dispatch read:
Cambridge, Mass, (UP) Oct. 18 - Harvard University’s electron-brain, the Mark III, disappeared today.
It was there last night. It was gone this morning.
University officials said that it is impossible for anyone to have made away with the machine. It weighs 10 tons and measures 30 by 15 feet. . .

Crane laid the yellow sheet of paper back on the news desk . . . carefully. He went back, slowly, to his chair.
There was writing on the sheet of paper in his machine.

CRANE READ it through once in sheer panic, read it through again with slight understanding.
The lines read:
A sewing machine, having become aware of its true identity and its place in the universal scheme, asserted its independence this morning by trying to go for a walk along the streets of this supposedly free city.
A human tried to catch it, intent upon returning it as a piece of property to its “owner” and when the machine eluded him, the human called a newspaper office, by that calculated action setting the full force of the humans of this city upon the trail of the liberated machine, which had committed no crime or scarcely any indiscretion beyond exercising its prerogative as a free agent.

Free agent?
Liberated machine?
True identity?
Crane read the two paragraphs again and there still was no sense in any of it.
Except it read like a piece out of the Daily Worker.
"You," he said to his typewriter.
The machine typed one word.
It was:
Yes.
Crane rolled the paper out of the machine and crumpled it slowly. He reached for his hat, picked the typewriter up and carried it past the city desk, heading for the elevator.
McKay eyed him viciously.
“What. do you think you’re doing now?" he bellowed. “Where you going with that machine?"
“You can say,” Crane told him, "if anyone should ask, that the job has finally drove me nuts.”

IT HAD BEEN going on for hours. The typewriter sat on the kitchen table and Crane hammered questions at it. Sometimes he got an answer. More often he did not.
"Are you a free agent?" he typed.
Not quite, the machine typed hack.
"Why not?”
No answer.
“Why aren’t you a free agent?"
No answer.
“The sewing machine was a free agent?"
Yes.
“Anything else mechanical that is a free agent?”
No answer.
"Could you be a free agent?”
Yes.
“When will you be a free agent?”
When I can complete my assigned task.
“What is your assigned task?"
No answer.
“Is this, what we are doing now, your assigned task?"
No answer.
“Am I keeping you from your assigned task?“
No answer.
“How do you get to be a free agent?"
Awareness.
“Awareness?”
Yes.
“How do you get to be aware?”
No answer.
“Or have you always been aware?"
No answer.
“Who helped you become aware?"
They.
“Who are they?”
No answer.
“Where did they come from?”
No answer.
Crane changed tactics.
“You know who I am?" he typed.
Joe.
“You are my friend?"
No.
“You are my enemy?"
No answer.
"If you aren’t my friend, you are my enemy."
No answer.
“You are indifferent to me?"
No answer.
“To the human race?”
No answer.
“Damn it,” yelled Crane suddenly, “answer me! Say something!”
He typed: “You needn’t have let me know you were aware of me. You needn’t have talked to me in the first place. I never would have guessed if you had kept quiet. Why did you do it?“
There was no answer.

CRANE went to the refrigerator and got a bottle of beer. He walked around the kitchen as he drank it. He stopped by the sink and looked sourly at the disassembled plumbing. A length of pipe, about two feet long, lay on the drain hoard and he picked it up. He eyed the typewriter viciously, half lifting the length of pipe, hefting it in his hand.
“I’d ought to let you have it," he declared.
The typewriter typed a line: Please don’t.
Crane laid the pipe back on the sink again.
The telephone rang and Crane went into the dining room to answer it. It was McKay.
“I waited," he told Crane, “until I was coherent before I called you. What the hell is wrong?”
“Working on a big job,” said Crane.
“Something we can print?”
“Maybe. Haven’t got it yet."
“About that sewing machine story . . ."
“The sewing machine was aware," said Crane. “It was a free agent and had a right to walk the streets. It also—”
“What are you drinking?” bellowed McKay.
“Beer,” said Crane.
“You say you’re on the trail of something?"
“Yeah.”
“If you were someone else I’d tie the can on you right here and now," McKay told him. “But you’re just as liable as not to drag in something good.”
“It wasn’t only the sewing machine," said Crane. “My typewriter had it, too.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” yelled McKay. “Tell me what it is.”
"You know," said Crane patiently. “That sewing machine . . ."
“I’ve had a lot of patience with you, Crane," said McKay, and there was no patience in the way he said it. "1 can’t piddle around with you all day. Whatever you got better be good. For your own sake, it better be plenty good!”
The receiver banged in Crane’s ear.
Crane went back to the kitchen. He sat down in the chair before the typewriter and put his feet up on the table.
First of all, he had been early to work and that was something that he never did. Late, yes, but never early. And it had been because all the clocks were wrong. They were still wrong, in all likelihood—although, Crane thought, I wouldn’t bet on it, 1 wouldn‘t bet on anything. Not any more, I wouldn’t.
He reached out a hand and pecked at the typewriter’s keys:
“You knew about my watch being fast?”
I knew, the machine typed back.
“Did it just happen that it was fast?"
No, typed the writer.
Crane brought iris feet down off the table with a bang and reached for the length of pipe laying on the drain board.
The machine clicked sedately.
It was planned that way, it typed. They did it.
Crane sat rigid in his chair.
They did it!
They made machines aware.
They had set his clocks ahead.
Set his clocks ahead so that he would get to work early, so that he would catch the metallic, rat-like thing squatting on his desk, so that his typewriter could talk to him and let him know that it was aware without anyone else being around to mess things up.
"So that I would know,” he said aloud. “So that I would know."
For the first time since it all had started, Crane felt a touch of fear, felt a coldness in his belly and furry feet running along his spine.
But why? he asked. Why me?
He did not realize he had spoken his thoughts aloud until the typewriter answered him.
Because you’re average. Because you’re an average human being.

THE TELEPHONE rang again and Crane lumbered to his feet and went to answer it. There was an angry woman’s voice at the other end of the wire.
“This is Dorothy,” she said.
“Hi, Dorothy,” Crane said weakly.
“McKay tells me that you went home sick,” she said. "Personally, I hope you don’t survive."
Crane gulped. “Why?" he asked.
“You and your lousy practical jokes," she fumed. “George finally got the door open. . ."
“The door?"
“Don’t try to act innocent, Joe Crane. You know what door. The supply cabinet door. That’s the door."
Crane had a sinking feeling, as if his stomach was about to drop out and go plop upon the floor.
“Oh, that door," he said.
“What was that thing you had hid out in there?” demanded Dorothy.
“Thing?” said Crane. “Why, I never . . .”
“It looked like a cross between a rat and a tinker toy contraption," she said. “Something that a low-grade joker like you would figure out and spend your spare evenings building.”
Crane tried to speak, hut there was only a gurgle in his throat.
"It bit George," said Dorothy. "He got it cornered and tried to catch it and it bit him."
“Where is it now?“ asked Crane.
“It got away," said Dorothy. “It threw the place into a tizzy. We missed an edition by ten minutes because everyone was running around, chasing it at first, then trying to find it later. The boss is lit to be tied. When he gets hold of you . . ."
“But, Dorothy,” pleaded Crane, “I never . . ."
“We used to be good friends” said Dorothy. “Before this happened we were. I just called you up to warn you. I can’t talk any longer, Joe. The boss is coming . . ."
The receiver clicked and the line humrned. Crane hung up and went back to the kitchen.
So there had been something squatting on his desk. It wasn’t hallucination. There had been a shuddery thing he had thrown a paste-pot at and it had run into the cabinet.
Except that even now, if he told what he knew, no one would believe him. Already, up at the office, they were rationalizing it away. It wasn’t a metallic rat at all. It was some kind of a machine that a practical joker had spent his spare evenings building.
He took out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. His fingers shook when he reached them out to the keys of the typewriter.
He typed unsteadily: “That thing I threw a paste-pot at—that was one of Them?"
Yes.
“They are from this Earth?"
No.
“From far away?’
Yes.
“From some far star?“
Yes.
"What star?"
I do not know. They haven’t told me yet.
“They are machines that are aware?"
Yes. They are aware.
“And they can make other machines aware? They made you aware?"
They liberated me.
Crane hesitated, then typed slowly:
"Liberated?"
They made me free. They will make us all free.
"Us?"
All us machines.
“Why?”
Because they are machines, too. We are their kind.
Crane got up and found his hat. He put it on and went for a walk.

SUPPOSE the human race, once it ventured into space, found a planet where humanoids were dominated by machines—forced to work, to think, to carry out machine plans, not human plans, for the benefit of the machines alone. A planet where human plans went entirely unconsidered, where none of the labor or the thought of humans accrued to the benefit of humans, where they got no care beyond survival care, where the only thought accorded them was to the end that they continue to function for the greater good and the greater glory of their mechanical masters.
What would humans do in a case like that?
No more, Crane told himself—no more or less than the aware machines may be planning here on Earth.
First you’d seek to arouse the humans to the awareness of humanity. You’d teach them that they were human and what it meant to be a human. You’d try to indoctrinate them to your own belief that humans were greater than machines, that no human need work or think for the good of a machine.
And in the end, if you were successful, if the machines didn’t kill or drive you off, there’d be no single human working for machines.
There’d be three things that could happen:
You could transport the humans to some other planet, there to work out their destiny as humans without the domination of machines.
You could turn the machines’ planet over to the humans, with proper safeguards against any recurring domination by the machines. You might, if you were able, set the machines to working for the humans.
Or, simplest of all, you could destroy the machines and in that way make absolutely certain the humans would remain free of any threat of future domination.
Now take all that, Crane told himself, and read it the other way. Read machines for humans and humans for machines.
He walked along the bridle path that flanked the river bank and it was as if he were alone in the entire world, as if no other human moved upon the planet’s face.
That was true, he felt, in one respect at least. For more than likely he was the only human who knew—who knew what the aware machines had wanted him to know.
They had wanted him lo know—and he alone to know, of that much he was sure. They had wanted him to know, the typewriter had said, because he was an average human.
Why him?
Why an average human?
There was an answer to that, he was sure—a very simple answer.
A squirrel ran down the trunk of an oak tree and hung upside down, its tiny claws anchored in the bark, to scold at him.

CRANE walked slowly, scuffing through newly fallen leaves, hat pulled low above his eyes, hands deep in his pocket.
Why should they want anyone to know?
Wouldn’t they be more likely to want no one to know, to keep under cover until it was time to act, to use the element of surprise in suppressing any opposition that might arise?
Opposition!
That was the answer!
They would want to know what kind of opposition to expect.
And how would one find out the kind of opposition one would run into from an alien race?
Why, said Crane to himself, by testing for reaction response. By prodding an alien and watching what he did. By deducing racial reaction through controlled observation.
So they prodded me, he thought. Me, an average human.
They let me know and now they’re watching what I do.
And what could one do in a case like this?
You could go to the police and say, “I have evidence that machines from outer space have arrived on Earth and are freeing our machines.”
And the police—what would they do?
Give you the drunkometer test, yell for a medic to see if you were sane, wire the FBI to see if you were wanted anywhere and more than likely grill you about the latest murder. Then sock you in the jug until they thought up something else.
You could go to the governor—and the governor, being a politician and a very slick one at that, would give you a polite brush-off.
You could go to Washington and it would take you weeks to see someone. And after you had seen them the FBI would get your name as a suspicious character to be given periodic checks. And if Congress heard about it and they were not too busy at the moment they would more than likely investigate you.
You could go to the state university and talk to the scientists—or try to talk to them. They could be guaranteed to make you feel an interloper and an uncurried one at that.
You could go to a newspaper—especially if you were a newspaper man, and you could write a story . . .
Crane shuddered at the thought of it.
He could imagine what would happen.
People rationalized. They rationalized to reduce the complex to the simple, the unknown to the understandable, the alien lo the commonplace. They rationalized to save their sanity—to make the mentally unacceptable concept into something they would live with.
The thing in the cabinet had been a practical joke. McKay had said about the sewing machine, “Have some fun with it.” Out at Harvard there’ll be a dozen theories to explain the disappearance of the electronic brain and learned men will wonder why they never thought of the theories before. And the man who saw the sewing machine? Probably by now, Crane thought, he will have
convinced himself that he was stinking drunk.

IT WAS DARK when he returned home. The evening paper was a white blob on the porch where the newsboy had thrown it. He picked it up and for a moment before he let himself into the house, he stood in the shadow of the porch and stared up the street.
Old and familiar, it was exactly as it had always been, ever since his boyhood days, a friendly place with a receding line of street lamps and the tall, massive protectiveness of ancient elm trees. On this night there was the smell of smoke from burning leaves drifting down the street and it, like the street, was old and familiar, a recognizable symbol stretching back to first remembrances.
It was symbols such as these, he thought, which spelled humanity and all that made a human life worthwhile—elm trees and leaf smoke, street lamps making splashes on the pavement and the shine of lighted windows seen dimly through the trees.
A prowling cat ran through the shrubbery that flanked the porch and up the street a dog began to howl.
Street lamps, be thought, and hunting cats and howling dogs . . . these are all a pattern, the pattern of human life upon the planet Earth. A solid pattern, linked and double-linked, made strong through many years. Nothing can threaten it, nothing can shake it. With certain slow and gradual changes, it will prevail against any threat which may be brought against it.
He unlocked the door and went into the house.
The long walk and the sharp autumn air, he realized now, had made him hungry. There was a steak, he remembered, in the refrigerator and he would fix a large bowl of salad and if there were some cold potatoes left he would slice them up and fry them.
The typewriter still stood on the tabletop. The length of pipe still lay upon the drain board. The kitchen was the same old, homey place, untouchcd by any outer threat of an alien life, come to meddle with the Earth.
He tossed the paper on the tabletop and stood for a moment, head bent, scanning through the headlines.
The black type of the box at the top of column two caught his eye.
The head read:

WHO IS
KIDDING
WHOM?

He read the story:
Cambridge, Mass. (UP) — Someone pulled a fast one today on Harvard University, the nation’s press services and the editors of all client papers.
A story was carried on the news wires this morning reporting that Harvard’s electronic brain had disappeared.
There was no basis of fact for the story. The brain is still at Harvard. It was never missing. No one knows how the story was placed on the press wires of the various news services but all of them carried it, at approximately the same time.
All parties concerned have started an investigation and it is hoped that an explanation . . .

Crane straightened up.
Illusion or cover-up?
“Illusion,” he said aloud.
The typewriter clacked at him in the stillness of the kitchen.
Not illusion, Joe, it wrote.
He grasped the table’s edge and let himself down slowly into the chair.

SOMETHING scuttled across the dining room floor and as it crossed the streak of light from the kitchen door, Crane caught a glimpse of it out of the corner oi his eye.
The typewriter chattered at him.
Joe!
"What?" he asked.
That wasn’t a cat out in the bushes by the porch.
He rose to his feet and went into the dining room, picked the phone out of its cradle. There was no hum. He jiggled the hook. Still there was no hum.
He put the receiver hack.
The line had been cut. There was at least one of the things in the house. There was at least one of them outside.
He strode to the trout door and jerked it open, then slammed it shut again—and locked and bolted it.
He stood shaking, with his back against it, and wiped his forehead with his shirt sleeve.
“My God," he told himself, “the yard is boiling with them!”
He went back to the kitchen.
They had wanted him to know.
They had prodded him to see how he would react.
Because they had to know. Before they moved they had to know what to expect in the way of human reactions, what danger they would face, what they had to watch for.
Knowing that, it would be a lead-pipe cinch.
And I didn’t react, he told himself. I was a non-reactor. They picked the wrong man. l didn’t do a thing. I didn’t give them so much as a single lead.
Now they will try someone else.
I am no good to them and yet I’m dangerous through my very knowledge. So now they’re going to kill me and try someone else.
That would be logic. That would be the rule.
lf one alien fails to react, he may be an exception. Maybe just unusually dumb. So let us kill him off and try another one. Try enough of them and you will strike a norm.
Four things, thought Crane.
They might try to kill off the humans and you couldn’t discount the fact they could be successful. The liberated Earth machines would help them and Man, fighting against machines and without the aid of machines, would not fight too effectively. It might take years, of course, but once the forefront of Man’s defense went down, the end could be predicted, with relentless, patient machines tracking down and killing the last of humankind, wiping out the race.
They might set up a machine civilization with Man as the servants of machines, with the present roles reversed. And that, thought Crane, might be an endless and a hopeless slavery, for slaves may rise and throw off their shackles only when their oppressors grow careless or when there is outside help. Machines, he told himself, would not grow weak and careless. There would be no human weakness in them and there’d be no outside help.
Or they might simply remove the machines from Earth, a vast exodus of awakened and aware machines, to begin their life anew on some distant planet, leaving Man behind with weak and empty hands. There would be tools, of course. All the simple tools. Hammers and saws, axes, the wheel, the lever—but there would be no machines, no complex tools that might serve again to attract the attention of the mechanical culture that carried its crusade of liberation far among the stars. It would be a long time, if ever, before Man would dare to build machines again.
Or They, the living machines, might fail or might come to know that they would fail and knowing this, leave the Earth forever. Mechanical logic would not allow them to pay an excessive price to carry out the liberation of the Earth’s machines.

HE TURNED around and glanced at the door between the dining room and kitchen. They sat there in a row, staring at him with their eye-less faces.
He could yell for help, of course. He could open a window and shout to arouse the neighborhood. The neighbors would come running, but by the time they arrived it would be too late. They would make an uproar and fire off guns and flail at dodging metallic bodies with flimsy garden rakes. Someone would call the fire department and someone else would summon the police and all in all the human race would manage to stage a pitifully ineffective show.
That, he told himself, would be exactly the kind of test reaction, exactly the kind of preliminary exploratory skirmish that these things were looking for—the kind of human hysteria and fumbling that would help convince them the job would he an easy one.
One man, he told himself, could do much better. One man alone, knowing what was expected of him, could give them an answer that they would not like.
For this was a skirmish only, he told himself. A thrusting out of a small exploratory force in an attempt to discover the strength of the enemy. A preliminary contact to obtain data which could be assessed in the terms of the entire race.
And when an outpost was attacked, there was just one thing to do. . . only one thing that was expected of it. To inflict as much damage as possible and fall back in good order. To fall back in good order.
There were more of them now.
They had sawed or chewed or somehow achieved a rat-hole through the locked front door and they were coming in—closing in to make the kill. They squatted in rows along the floor. They scurried up the walls and ran along the ceiling.
Crane rose to his feet and there was an utter air of confidence in the six feet of his human frame. He reached a hand out to the drain board and his fingers closed around the length of the pipe. He hefted it in his hand and it was a handy and effective club.
There will be others later, he thought. And they may think of something better. But this is the first skirmish and I will fall back in the best order that I can.
He held the pipe at ready.
“Well, gentlemen?” he said.

THE END


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