Tall Tale Two: Power Corrupts

(written: 7 May 1990. Webbed: 12 October 1995)

This is the second in an extremely irregular series of three original Tall Tales I posted to the alt.callahans newsgroup in the early ’90s. If you’re not familiar with the way alt.callahans works, read the FAQ for background; if you’re not familiar with the Tall Tale concept, read Spider Robinson’s stories of Callahan’s Bar.

Jed, in bright blue pants, black “Claremont College Aikido Club” sweatshirt, bright blue scarf, and Birkenstocks with socks (it’s kinda cold out) steps into the bar, for the first time in quite a while.

“Hi, all,” he begins. "I’ve got a thesis due soon, so there’s no time to chat, and I probably won’t be back here after this for at least three weeks; but I thought I’d drop by and tell you all a quick story on my way to get some work done. As usual, apologies for potential disruption of serious moods and conversations.

“I just returned from a visit to my old friend Dr. Ronald Spark, the eccentric inventor. He invents all kinds of electric and electronic gadgets, and sometimes does research on folklore and magic on the side. Maybe you’ve heard of him? He was in the news a couple years ago for the last big invention he came up with, a new kind of film for electric cameras. I was there when he finally finished working on it.

“He told me that after this film had been used in any camera, processing it would cause the batteries to charge to capacity. I was dubious; the process seemed to work, but the photos (of various stray animals he’d picked up for just such harmless experiments) all turned out a nauseating shade of green. Nothing daunted, he told me the film would make millions. It wasn’t until two weeks later, in the middle of a national advertising campaign for the new film, that he discovered that each of the animals he’d photographed had died of a strange green mold that covered their entire bodies. Horrified, he re-checked his experimental notes and discovered that he’d inadvertantly incorporated an ancient death curse into his process. It was a revolting development."

Jed pauses just long enough for someone to mutter, "Ohm my. Not more electricity puns."

Ignoring the heckler, he goes on. “Dr. Spark also had an abortive political campaign a couple years ago, running under the slogan ‘Elect Ron!’ But everyone thought he was talking about Reagan, so nobody voted for him. His social skills were never much to speak of anyway. He never could bear kissing babies.

“Anyway, this evening when I arrived, he was really pleased with himself. When I asked why, he explained that he’d just about finished his latest gadget.

“‘What is it?’ I asked, marveling at the gigantic conglomeration of blinking lights, gears, levers, and dials, punctuated by a few stray puffs of smoke and various whistles and screeches. It looked like something out of Fritz Lang’s worst nightmares.

“‘It’s a power booster!’ declared Dr. Spark. ‘It takes small amounts of electricity and magnifies them, like using a magnifying glass to burn an ant with sunlight! Not only that, but once you get it running, it will drain electricity from anything you feed it.’ He indicated a large hopper built into one side. ‘It works especially well with static electricity, so I’ve been putting laundry through the dryer and then dumping the clothes into the hopper.’

“Well, it didn’t seem likely to me, but Dr. Spark is a famous scientist, and I’m only an undergrad, so I figured he knew what he was doing. ‘Can I see it in action?’ I asked.

“‘Sure,’ he replied. ‘I’ve been feeding it clothing all afternoon. It’s already got enough power stored up in it to run the state of New York for three weeks. Let me just toss in a little more.’ He reached into the laundry basket which was sitting nearby on the floor, and pulled out a pair of socks. ‘I started with my hat and I’ve been working my way down,’ he explained. ‘I’m almost out of clothing.’

“He dumped the socks into the hopper. The machine, already whirring and clicking and beeping at a fantastic rate, grew louder and faster. Buzzers whined. Smoke poured out of every available crevice in the machine’s gleaming body.

“Dr. Spark reached into the laundry basket once again and pulled out two more items, flat and roughly foot-shaped. I saw what he was about to do, and I yelled out, ‘Wait!’ But it was too late. He’d dumped them into the hopper.

“With a mighty roar, the contrivance exploded.

“When we came to, a few minutes later, his entire laboratory was a smoking, ruinous mess. Groaning and holding the side of his head, Dr. Spark turned to me. ‘I don’t understand!’ he said, more to himself than to me. He seemed to be in shock. ‘What went wrong?’

“I shook my head slowly as I stood and brushed debris from my pants-leg. ‘You should have known better,’ I said, ‘than to add insole to energy.’”

Jed shakes his head sadly. “Oh, well,” he says. "I’d better go get some work done. Good night, all." And he walks out the door.