The cold equations

Download 0.91 Mb.
Size0.91 Mb.
1   ...   7   8   9   10   11   12   13   14   15



There had been utter silence from the first; the silence enclosing him and the dark eyes watching him. Why did the doctor move so quietly? Was it because he was dying; was it because people always walk softly in the presence of the dying? 

Of course! His doctor was showing him the respect that is due the dead—and the soon-to-be-dead. 

For a moment the tide of insanity almost broke through the bulwark built around his mind by the antihysteria drugs; the insanity he so desperately longed for; the insanity that would let him die in mindless, unfrightened madness. 


The urge to laugh came to him. It was funny! The doctor wouldn't reduce the acceleration until he gave the order and he couldn't give the order until the doctor reduced the acceleration. 

Funny! The butterscotchmen couldn't run unless they were hot and couldn't get hot unless they ran . . .  Couldn't run unless they were hot—Couldn't get hot unless they ran . . .  Couldn't run—Couldn't hot . . . run . . . hot . . . run . . . hot . . . vicious circles and circles vicious, spinning around and around . . . spin around and around and around and around till your mind flies off into the darkness where someone is laughing . . .  How pleasant to go laughing and spinning into the darkness, around and around . . . laughing and spinning and spinning and laughing . . .  around and around and . . .  

Sanity jolted into his mind with all its cold, grim reality and the comfort of the brief delirium vanished. The doctor was standing over him, injecting the antihysteria drug into his bloodstream. 

The desperate fear ran through him again, terrible in its helpless impotency. It was always the same; the doctor watched him ceaselessly, ready to move forward and deny him the solace of madness at the first sign of its coming. 

The doctor didn't hate him—WHY MUST THE DOCTOR TORTURE HIM SO?

* * *

It was a year later, with the ship six days from the morning of its test flight, that Russo-Asia completed the about-face in its foreign policy and promised the freedom of Western representatives to inspect their "greatly reduced military strength." It was not, to Knight, a surprising or mysterious thing. Russo-Asia had been built on false promises and deceit; this last action, he feared, could have but one reason behind it.

It was the other, happening five days later, that sent the chill certainty, too late, into his mind—the discovery that a tentacle of Cullin's presumably dead espionage system was in the very heart of Center . . . 

* * *

It was with relief that Knight led General Gordon and his five-star superior, General Marker, to the control room of the ship. He had shown them the ship from bottom to top, explaining its workings and answering questions until he was beginning to feel like a tourist's guide. Furthermore, it was late in the night—or early in the morning, rather—and he would have little sleep before returning to be on hand for the ship's first take-off.

"And this is the control room," he said. "The first seat, with its control and instrument board over there, is for the pilot. This one is for the observer." He indicated the seat and instrument board immediately behind the pilot's. "You'll notice the observer has only a few instruments, but several viewscreens. The pilot can control the ship manually, with those buttons on his control board, or by voice command to the robot drive control—a D-Twenty-three. In an emergency, the observer can control the ship by voice command to the drive control, but his panel is not equipped with manual control buttons. The observer's duties are to observe and record, as well as to maintain constant contact with Earth."

He pointed to a small viewscreen in the center of the observer's panel. "This is his contact with the auxiliary control station. You both saw it—that little steel building two hundred feet west of this one. A man will be on duty at all times in it." He flipped a switch and the screen came to life, to show the back of an empty chair and a steel door beyond. "No one on duty right now, of course, but there will be when the ship takes off."

"What is the purpose of this ground-control station?" General Marker asked. "I know, of course, that it's an auxiliary means of controlling the ship, but why?"

"It's a safety measure we hope we won't have any need for. We're convinced that the ship has no bugs, but we don't want to take any chances with men's lives. So we have the constant communication with the observer plus the auxiliary control of the ship's drive. Should something go wrong, such as both pilot and observer becoming unconscious, we can bring the ship safely back to Earth from our ground-control station."

"Which method of controlling the ship takes precedence, the pilot's manual control, his oral orders to the drive control, or the means of controlling the ship from the ground-control station?"

"The control from the ground overrides all forms of control from within the ship. It might possibly be that a man would crack, and if he did he might give any kind of orders to the robot drive control—even such a one as ordering the disintegrators turned on Earth. We don't expect anything like that to happen, you understand—Miles and Vickson were selected for their mental stability—but we like to play safe."

"Will the crew include a doctor?"

"The very best, so far as technical skill goes. But circumstances might arise where more than technical skill would be needed, so that's why we have the auxiliary control station."

General Gordon tentatively touched a red knob on the observer's panel. "Does this turn the disintegrators on?" he asked.

Knight nodded. "It turns them on, and also controls the maximum range. The Computer gave us that safety gadget I spoke of when you were here a year ago, so now we don't have to worry about them being turned on accidentally and destroying the ship." He spun the red knob to the right and the generals exchanged nervous glances. "It's on full intensity, right now. This safety gadget prevents the closing of the circuit so long as the ship is within an atmosphere dense enough to produce a feedback of the rays."

He turned it off again and General Marker remarked, "You certainly go all the way in trusting your gadgets here."

"A soundly built gadget can be trusted."

"Then why your five-word slogan—the same as you have on the Master Computer—in big letters here on the observer's panel?"

"It's different when a gadget has an intelligence. The observer, in an emergency, would have to control the ship through a robotic brain. That five-word sentence, which is actually a sound philosophy to keep in mind when dealing with machines, is to remind the observer that he is not giving orders to a human pilot."

"Although it's six hours until take-off, I suppose the ship is ready to go right now?" General Gordon asked.

"Ready to go, and Miles and Vickson are now getting their last hours of sleep—the last hour, to be exact. They'll be back down here in less than two hours, together with myself, Dr. Clarke, and about a platoon of technicians to make the last-minute check of all the other checking. We have something too big in space flight to chance any errors on the first attempt."

"I'm glad this ship's first flight will not be as a weapon of war," General Marker said, "but I trust it's well guarded—just to play safe, as you said of your ground-control station."

"You saw the guards outside," Knight answered. "And there are guards outside the door of the ground-control station—this ship can't lift while enclosed in this steel building and the controls that lower the roof and walls into recesses in the ground are inside that station. We still have the machine-gun towers that we erected seven years ago when war seemed just around the corner. The antiaircraft artillery is still stationed in a wide circle around Computer Center—no one ever got around to ordering their removal and the guns were still manned twenty-four hours a day, the last I heard."

"Well, if Russo-Asia has any plans for this ship, they've certainly kept them well concealed," General Marker said. "Our Intelligence reports no indications whatever of any such thing. And now, I think we had all better get out of here and take advantage of that less-than-two-hours sleep we'll get before the preliminaries start."

* * *

Knight noticed, as they went down out of the ship, that George was still in the drive room, checking the control panel to drive circuits. The robot did not look up from its work, though it saw them pass. Robots confined their speaking to necessary answers and wasted no time with such amenities as "Good morning" and "Good night."

He parted company with the two generals at the Computer area gate; they to return to their Center hotel and he to drive through the slumbering streets to his own cottage. Tired and sleepy, he set the alarm to arouse him in an hour and a half and went to bed.

He had been asleep an hour and fifteen minutes when he was awakened by the ringing of the doorbell and June's voice. "Blacky—wake up!"

"What is it?" he called, swinging his feet to the floor and reaching for his clothes.

"Come over to Tim's house." There was both indignation and urgency in June's tone. "See if you can straighten things out."

He heard her hurry back to the Miles' cottage, her footsteps clicking sharp and fast on the walk. He grinned, despite his worry that Tim might be in some kind of trouble—the manner of her walking indicated that June was beginning to get mad.

He put on his clothes and went out into the pre-dawn darkness. The lights were on in the Miles' cottage and there was a black sedan parked at the curb before it. It had a government-service license plate, but there was nothing about the number on the plate to indicate the type of service it represented.

Tim Miles' voice came from within the house, angry and incredulous, and a vaguely familiar voice answered him. Knight went to the door and entered without knocking.

There were four in the room; Tim Miles, Connie, June, and a cold-eyed man in a gray suit. Knight recognized him with a start; his name was Whitney and he was a Security man. He returned Knight's "Hello" with a nod of recognition and Connie, sitting in a chair by the card table, said, "Hello, Blacky." Miles, red-faced and scowling, hardly glanced away from Whitney, while June sat one-hipped on the card table beside Connie, her eyes smoldering and her hands gripping the edge of the table until the knuckles were white.

Knight stopped beside Whitney. "What is this?" he asked.

"The ship has been sabotaged," Whitney replied.

"It's a lie!" Miles declared.

"Just a minute—" Knight looked from Miles back to Whitney. "It wasn't sabotaged when I left it an hour ago."

"It was sabotaged a year ago," Whitney said. "We didn't learn of it until tonight—in fact, not over half an hour ago."

"Are you sure?" Knight asked.

"I'm supposed to have done it!" Miles burst out wrathfully. "I'm supposed to have cross-wired the circuits from the control panel to the drive so that the drive will explode on take-off."

Knight made his reply to Whitney. "I can't believe that. I've known Miles and worked with him for several years. Of course, I realize that Security wants more positive proof of a suspected man's innocence than the personal opinion of his friends. If you will give me the details, perhaps I can help."

"He isn't exactly accused, yet," Whitney said, "but he's very much under suspicion of performing the work of sabotage. As for the reasons for our suspicions, they are these:

"The robot, George, has been helping Miles and Vickson check the ship today; an extra safety measure, I understand, to make sure there will be no mechanical failures on the ship's trial flight tomorrow. Miles completed his share of the work early in the afternoon and went home. Vickson was through about an hour later and he went home, leaving the robot to check the control-panel-to-drive circuits—a precautionary measure that Miles, here, admits he insisted was not necessary. It was about thirty minutes ago that the robot finished checking the circuits. He then phoned Security—a thing he had been ordered to do if he ever found any evidence of sabotage—and informed us that the drive circuits had been so cross-circuited that the drive would explode the moment it was activated for take-off."

* * *

Miles sighed heavily. "I tell you, those circuits are not sabotaged! I installed them myself, and I personally welded the control panel seals."

"You say this sabotage was supposed to have been done a year ago?" Knight asked.

"That's right," Whitney said. "Miles admits that he, himself, installed the circuits and sealed the panel at that time—and the panel is still sealed."

"Yes, I admit it!" Miles snapped. "Those circuits are not cross-wired. I don't know what this is all about, but I do know the kind of job I did on those circuits."

"The robot traced the circuits and found them to be cross-wired," Whitney said. "Isn't it true that a robot never lies?"

A look of helplessness passed over Miles' face. "Yes, it's true—but there's some mistake."

Whitney turned his cold eyes on Connie who was sitting quietly in her chair, watching Whitney with a composure that was in such striking contrast to the ever-growing wrath of the hot-eyed June.

"There's something else—" he said, and June froze into a waiting tenseness. "Why do you so often go to the park at Saguaro and Third, Mrs. Miles?"

Connie's eyes went wide with surprise. "I go there because it happens to be along the route I usually follow when taking the daily walks my doctor prescribed. Why?"

"You usually sit for a while beside the rock monument in the center of the park, don't you?"

"I always do. Why do you ask?"

"Why do you choose that spot to sit?"

"For two reasons; because there is a stone bench there to sit on while resting and because I like to feed the chipmunk that has a nest in the monument."

"Get to the point, Whitney." Miles could restrain himself no longer. "Quit beating around the bush—is my wife under suspicion, too?"

"We received an anonymous phone call this afternoon," Whitney said. "It enabled us to intercept a note, although the message meant nothing to us then. It was just a slip of paper in a tin box, and it read: 'Crisscross O.K. No suspicion. Ill on schedule.' "

"What does that have to do with my wife?" Miles demanded.

"After the robot told us of the sabotage, the meaning of the message became clear. It was an absurdly easy message to understand. 'Crisscross O.K. No suspicion' could only mean that the drive controls were still cross-circuited and no one suspected it. As for 'Ill on schedule'—we could only take that to mean that the person guilty of sabotaging the drive controls would pretend to be ill on the day of the ship's take-off—too ill to be in the ship when its drive exploded."

Whitney turned his eyes on Connie again. "As I say, an anonymous phone call tipped us off. This person suggested we look at the monument and we found the message in a crevice inside the monument. That, Mrs. Miles, was only a few minutes after you had left there."

There was a moment of dead silence, then Whitney's voice lashed at Connie like the crack of a whip.

"What do you know about that message?" 

June reacted then, and in a manner typical of her. She shoved herself away from the card table with a violence that sent it crashing to the floor and advanced on Whitney with her eyes blazing. "Nothing, you fool!" The words came like the spitting of an infuriated cat. "My sister isn't a spy and she doesn't know anything about that message, you . . . you—"

Her small hand flashed out to rip her nails down Whitney's face and Knight moved quickly to stop her, catching her wrist, then the other hand as she tried to whirl away from him, bringing her arms down tight against her stomach. She struggled furiously to tear loose, her heart pounding against his arm like that of a small, wild animal.

"June—don't!" Connie was beside them, to lay her hand on June's shoulder. "Quit spitting and fighting, kitten—he's only trying to do his job."

June ceased struggling but the hate still blazed in her eyes. "He called you a spy—nobody is going to call my sister a spy!"

"He didn't call me a spy, honey—he just asked me what I know about that message."

"I understand your problem, Whitney," Knight said, releasing June but keeping a wary eye on her, lest she should renew her attack. "Someone is guilty of sabotage and it's your job to find who that person is. But aren't you jumping to conclusions on flimsy evidence?"

"I have no desire to cause anyone embarrassment or discomfort," the cold-eyed Whitney replied. "My business is to sort people into two different classes—guilty and innocent. An unexpected question suddenly snapped at a suspect will often go a long way toward indicating the person's guilt or innocence."

"Then why don't you snap some questions at a few others?" June demanded. "Vickson and the workmen who helped build the ship and George— What makes you so sure—"

"Sit down, June," Connie ordered, going back to her own chair. "Give him a chance to ask his own questions."

June hesitated, half turning away to do as her sister had ordered, then Whitney made the mistake of seconding the order. "Yes, sit down," he commanded, unconsciously rubbing his hand down the cheek that had been her intended target.

She whirled back to face him, the rebellion flaring hotly. "Never mind any such details as dictating our posture—just get on with your questions!"

She waited for him to dare repeat his order, standing erect and defiant before him, and an expression of helpless defeat flitted over his face. Knight watched with combined sympathy for him and amusement. The cold-eyed Whitney was accustomed to dealing with dangerous men and awing them—but how does a man go about awing a hundred and five pounds of fuming, spitting female wildcat?

* * *

"I have no more questions to ask—now," Whitney said. He spoke to Knight. "Dr. Clarke was in Yuma—we contacted him by phone and he's on his way back, now. He's given orders for public announcement of the postponement of the ship's test flight and when he returns we'll continue the questioning—of everyone connected with the ship, including the robot."

"Have you questioned George at all?" Knight asked.

"Very briefly," Whitney said with a wry smile. "Questioning a robot isn't too informative—a robot does no more than answer each question as it's given. It requires time plus a great many questions to get the entire picture. We questioned the robot briefly, as I say, and learned only that his check showed the drive controls to be cross-circuited. When Dr. Clarke returns, we'll do a thorough job of the questioning."

"Have you questioned Vickson?"

"He was spending the night with friends in Center Junction, we learned. A man was sent after him and they should return any minute."


"We'll all meet at the Computer area gate, then we'll go to Lab Four and find just who is guilty." Whitney turned to Miles. "Since the evidence against your wife is so uncertain, and since she is in frail health, she will remain here. If we need her, we can send a man after her. I'm afraid you'll have to go with me, now. At present, the evidence points only to you. If you're innocent, we'll do everything in our power to prove it. And if you're guilty"—he smiled grimly—"we'll do everything in our power to prove it."

"Thanks," Miles replied with the same grimness. "That's exactly what I want you to do."

Connie got to her feet. "There's no question about his innocence—it's all a ridiculous mistake. But I realize there is no way you can know that until everyone is questioned and the guilty one found. As for the message in the monument—I know nothing whatever about it. I always sit by the monument and feed the chipmunk, but I certainly never knew someone was using it as a place to leave messages for foreign agents."

"This anonymous phone call—doesn't that sound a little fishy?" Knight asked. "Have you traced it?"

"We're trying to," Whitney answered. "We're not at all convinced that Mrs. Miles is guilty of any connection with the affair. With her husband, it's different—he personally installed the circuits and they have been found to have been installed in such a manner as to destroy the ship."

"Couldn't the robot have made a mistake?" Connie asked. "Maybe they aren't cross-circuited at all—maybe the robot just made a mistake in his checking."

"I'm afraid not," Whitney answered. "Your husband will tell you that robots neither make mistakes nor false statements."

"That's true, Connie," Miles said, going to her. "But it's also true that I didn't sabotage the drive." He put his arm around her. "I'll be back in a few hours, and everything will be all right."

Whitney moved toward the door, his eyes on Miles. Miles gave Connie's shoulders a quick squeeze and followed Whitney through the door without looking back.

Knight spoke to Whitney as they went through the door. "I'll follow you down in my own car." Whitney said, "All right," then he and Miles went on up the walk. Knight turned back to the two women in the room.

"There's no question about there being a mistake," he said. "What, I don't know. We do know that someone sabotaged the drive controls, but who? We'll rip out the drive-control panel and trace the leads that way—George had to depend upon tracing them with instruments. I'll go down right now—and you'd better go with me, June. Before it's over they'll want everyone who was ever around the ship, and you've been around it almost as much as I have."

June went to the door where Knight waited, then stopped to say to Connie, "Don't you do any worrying about this while we're gone, Connie. We'll be back with Tim's name cleared before noon, you wait and see."

"Of course you will," Connie answered, but it seemed to Knight that she was, for all her composure, suddenly very small and lonely as she stood in the empty room and watched them leave.

* * *

The sky was shell-pink in the east, lighting the world with the half-light of dawn, when he backed out of the driveway. June sat silent and thoughtful beside him; worried, despite her assurances to her sister. He drove slowly, trying to fit together the two facts he was convinced were true; Tim Miles had not sabotaged the ship, yet a robot had no incentive to lie.

There were certain characteristics of the robotic brain:

A machine is constructed to obey commands; it does not question those commands. 

A machine has no volition; it neither acts nor informs unless ordered to do so. 

And then he had the answer; so simple that, he felt, a child should have seen it.

A machine would not voluntarily make a false statement, but the prime function of a machine was prompt, unquestioning obedience. The robot, George, would never make a false statement by its own volition, but it would if ordered to do so. 

He slowed the car to a barely moving crawl as he considered the implications and June looked at him questioningly. "We're still three blocks from the gate—what's wrong?"

"The drive controls have never been sabotaged. George was ordered to make that statement, and no one thought to ask him if it were true."

"But why? What would anyone gain by getting Tim into trouble like this?"

"It wasn't for personal reasons. Someone didn't want that ship tested today!"

"Then it was—" June stopped as a dull, distant roaring came to them. "It must have been—"

She stopped again as the roaring increased, coming from above them and to the southwest, filling the air like the hum of a billion bees. "What's that?"

He stopped the car and jumped out, to look into the sky and see the source of the sound. Planes, wave upon wave of them, coming in and down on Center from the southwest—from toward the Gulf of California. They were coming as fast as their jets could send them; almost as fast as the sound that preceded them. The first wave parted in definite formations as it came in, part of it dissolving to strike at the six antiaircraft gun positions that surrounded Center and the main body coming in on Center, itself.

"What is it?" June was beside him with her hand on his arm. "They couldn't be ours—"

"No," he said tonelessly, "they're not ours."

They stood and watched—there was nothing else they could do. The first wave passed low above them with a deafening, ground-shaking roar and was gone in the space of two breaths. The bombs shot downward in fast, flat arcs and their explosions raced through the city at the speed of the planes that had dropped them; red and yellow spurts of flame that leaped upward and hurled strange, broken things into the air, to be silhouetted momentarily against the pale dawn.

The second wave came close behind the first; a roar that swelled into a crescendo then boomed into the distance with the bomb bursts a thunderous staccato racing along on the ground behind them. Then the antiaircraft guns came to life, licking thin, defiant tongues of flame at the invaders. The third wave concentrated on the gun positions and some of them plunged to earth, trailing black plumes of smoke, but three of the guns were still when the others had passed on.

For a few seconds Center was almost quiet by contrast to the thunder and fury that had filled it and a dog could be heard somewhere among the wreckage, barking and whining anxiously as it ran back and forth in a vain search for its master. A woman screamed, a sound that cut through the morning air like a thin, sharp knife, then the alarm siren began to moan and wail, half drowning the sound of cold motors breaking into life and the shouted orders of men.

The next attack on Center was a wave of fighters, boring in on the machine-gun towers in the Computer and laboratory area. The machine guns in the towers met their fire and tracer bullets were golden lances that met and crossed and struck the towers, to ricochet away in beautiful parabolic curves. Two of the attacking planes wavered and spun to the ground, but when the others turned to renew the attack there were no guns left to oppose them.

They began to strafe the streets and the cars that were trying to make their way through the debris, patrolling the area around Lab 4 and concentrating vicious fire on any vehicle that attempted to go in that direction. They had not bombed the laboratory area or the adjacent landing strip, and Knight realized, as he watched them, that there could be but one reason.

Russo-Asia had planned for this day for a long time. They had planned well; so well that even America's own Intelligence agents had thought the talks of peace were sincere. They had stressed the desirability of friendship between East and West and the West had hoped, and half-believed, and let themselves be caught unawares and unprepared. The anonymous phone call implicating Connie had been only a touch to add weight to the evidence against Miles; the evidence that had resulted in the postponement of the ship's flight and had insured that neither Miles nor anyone else would be inside the ship and in position to prevent its seizure when the attack came.

It had all been done with exact and detailed precision; the timing of the robot's phone call to Security, the attack in the early dawn before Clarke or Vickson had time to appear—or was Vickson their agent, and already inside the ship?

He would have to move fast—if it wasn't already too late.

He swung the door wide and thrust June into the car. "Get behind that wheel and drive like hell back to where Connie is. If a plane comes at you, jump and run—don't stay in the car or they'll get you. I'll have to try to get to the ship—"

* * *

A plane roared over them and its tracers made a bright splash of yellow phosphorescence on the pavement beside them. The tires of an army truck screamed at the intersection a hundred feet behind them and June, watching, cried, "Connie!"

Connie was coming toward them across the intersection, trying to run as best she could, and the army truck was braking and slewing desperately to avoid hitting her. Then the plane banked and turned and came roaring back at them and June half sobbed a terrified "No!" as its tracers licked down at the truck and across it, to lash at Connie who had reached the curb. She crumpled to the walk and the plane went its way, while the army truck wandered aimlessly down the street with the dead driver slumped over the wheel.

"No!" June shoved past him, her face white with fear, and ran to her sister. He followed, sick at heart with the foreknowledge of what he would see.

Connie was lying very still, her face like that of a pale, waxen doll that had gone to sleep. June was kneeling beside her, holding her hand and saying over and over in a dazed voice: "Connie . . . Connie . . . why did you do it?"

"She had to," he said softly. "She was going to you because you might need her. She was a nurse and she was going to you and Tim and all those who might be hurt and in need of her."

The siren whimpered off into silence and the bark of one lone antiaircraft gun came to them, to falter and stop as another attack of bombers roared over it.

"They killed her!" June's voice was numb with the shock. She held Connie's hand between both her own, a bright red splotch on her knee where it touched Connie's side as she knelt beside her. "They killed her—they killed my sister!"

She raised her face to look at the planes circling above them and a terrible, savage hatred blazed through the hurt and pain in her eyes.

Then the tears, that the first shock had held back, came and he hurried quietly away, leaving her crying with shaking, muffled sobs beside her sister. There was nothing he could do to comfort her and it would be better for her to not follow him.

He ran in a steady trot, two blocks to the highway that paralleled the western boundary of the laboratory area, then down along it. Trees had been transplanted beside the highway in years past and he kept under the shelter of their concealment as he ran. He stopped once, to dart out on the pavement where a jeep lay overturned and riddled with machine-gun bullets. A soldier was sprawled lifelessly beside it, his heavy automatic rifle still in his hands. Knight seized the rifle and the belt of cartridge clips and ran back to the shelter of the trees as a plane spotted him. Its bullets cut twigs from the limbs above him and made a thunk-thunk sound as they buried themselves in the trunk of the tree. Then the plane was gone and he ran on toward the western entrance that was the closest to Lab 4.

The fighter planes widened in their circling to leave a clear space above the laboratory area as he reached the gate, then the troop-transport planes came in—six of them. The sky blossomed with chutes, the Russo-Asian paratroopers firing even as they descended. Other rifles were firing from within Center and from the area outside the main gate, and occasionally a paratrooper would jerk, then dangle limply in his harness as he drifted downward.

The last group of planes came in; a light, fast bomber surrounded by a protecting ring of fighters. The objective of the light bomber, he saw, was the landing strip nearest to Lab 4.

The bomber's mission would not be to bomb the landing strip, and there could be no doubt as to the identity of the passenger it carried. It slowed and dropped to make its landing and he began to run toward the ground-control station and Lab 4 that set two hundred feet beyond it.

He was protected from the fighter planes by their own paratroopers and the aim of the paratroopers, shooting from their swinging suspension, was uncertain as they tried to catch his running, weaving figure in their sights. Bullets kicked up puffs of dust beside and behind him but none touched him. He had reached the ground-control station when the first paratrooper reached the ground. The vicious rip of a burst of well-aimed bullets slammed against the steel corner of the building a split-second after he had rounded it. Two more paratroopers landed even as he ran for the door of the station, adding their fire to their comrade's. It was two hundred feet to the ship and, now that they were on the ground, the aim of the paratroopers would be deadly and certain. He would never live to run a tenth of the distance to the ship. And the others were landing, by three's and four's.

But it didn't matter—he would be in supreme control of the ship from the auxiliary station.

* * *

The guards were lying before the door of the station, dead, and the door was ajar. Simultaneously, he saw the other thing that was happening; the roof of Lab 4 was sliding back and the walls were dropping into the ground. He leaped through the doorway and to one side as paratrooper bullets hammered at him, the automatic rifle held ready before him.

The room was deserted but for the robot, George. George turned away quickly from the control panel at the far end of the room, and Knight saw the switch was on that lowered the walls of Lab 4.

"Turn that switch off!" he commanded. "Raise those walls again."

The robot stepped toward him with long, swift strides, seeming not to hear him. The metal arms were half outstretched before it and a sudden, icy premonition ran a cold finger up his spine.


It came on without slackening its speed, the dark eyes thoughtful and the steel hands reaching out toward him—hands that had the strength to tear his head from his body.


The steel hands swooped toward his throat and he leaped to one side. It spun with him, as quick as he for all its ponderous bulk, and then it sprang like a great cat.

There was no time to wonder why the robot wanted to kill him, no time to dodge. The rifle was still leveled before him and he pressed the trigger. The great mass of the robot lurched and shuddered as twenty bullets, each with a muzzle energy of three thousand foot pounds, tore through its body within a space of two seconds. It reeled and crashed to the floor, to lay inert while the dark eyes stared up at him with their same expression of thoughtful, patient waiting.

But it was dead. Its brain was a riddled wreckage and it was as dead as ever a robot could be.

He ran to the control board and slapped the switch that would re-erect the walls and roof of Lab 4, wondering why the robot had tried to kill him. A machine has no volition, yet it had walked toward him with the deliberate intent to kill him, heedless of his command for it to stop. It might as well have been deaf—

Of course! It had been deaf! It had been sent recently from Lab 4 with orders to lower Lab 4 into the ground and to kill anyone who entered the ground-control station. Then, after the orders were given, the microphones that were its ears had been disconnected and it had gone on its mission, stone-deaf and unable to hear any orders that would countermand the ones given it.

He hurried back to the door, slipping a fresh clip of cartridges into the rifle as he went. He opened it a quick, cautious ten inches and saw that the paratroopers were taking up positions in a wide circle around the ship. Two of them saw the partial opening of the door and he had time only for one quick glance before their bullets pounded against it as he slammed it shut.

He had had time to see the ship, standing bright and naked in the first rays of the sun. The walls that had enclosed it had disappeared. The air lock of the ship had been open and a man had been standing there, the rising sun red on his face—Vickson. He had been looking toward the landing strip and a car racing toward the ship—a car whose dust trail led back to the light bomber.

He locked the door to prevent anyone entering the station, while the bullets hammering methodically against the outside of it informed him that they were seeing to it that no one left it. He went back to the control board and looked at the switch that he had closed before going to the door; the switch that should have re-erected Lab 4 around the ship. It had not, and he saw the reason why; George had ripped out the wires behind the panel that led to the switch. They were lying tangled on the floor behind the panel and he could never, in the short time he had, reconnect them.

He seated himself in the chair before the control board and turned on the observer's viewscreen. His own viewscreen came to life, showing the interior of the ship's control room. It was still empty.

He closed the switch that would give his own commands precedence over any given inside the ship and said: "Ship's drive control—disregard all orders given you by anyone in the ship's control room. Disregard all impulses from the pilot's control panel."

Only silence answered him and he said sharply, with sudden anxiety, "Ship's drive control—acknowledge that order!"


He tried again, coldly, unpleasantly certain that it would be in vain. "Ship's drive control—acknowledge!"

Again the dead silence was his answer and he knew there was no use to try any more. The units that permitted the ground-control station to control the ship had been sabotaged and he was helpless to prevent the ship's take-off. Bullets continued to rattle against the door, warning him how fatal would be any attempt to leave the station. He was helpless so long as he remained in the station; he would be both helpless and dead a split-second after he opened the door to leave the station. Yet, he had to do something.

He estimated the time that had gone by since he had seen the car speeding from the bomber to the ship. It would have been Cullin, of course; it would be Cullin and Vickson who took the ship into the sky, with Vickson at the pilot's seat and Cullin behind him, watching him. Vickson knew as well as Miles how to operate the manual drive controls, and there was no hope that he would make a mistake and wreck the ship in a take-off. Even Cullin, alone, could lift the ship by simple voice command to the drive control. The Center forces would be closing in on the ship as the fighter planes exhausted the ammunition they were forced to use so continually, but they would be too late.

* * *

A sound broke the silence of the observer's viewscreen, the sound of someone entering the control room. It was Cullin, wearing the black and gray uniform of a high official of the State Police, and he was alone. He took one quick look at the room, then walked straight to the observer's chair in the manner of a man who knew exactly what he was going to do.

At the sight of Knight's face in the observer's viewscreen he smiled in sudden, pleased surprise. Knight spoke the same greeting he had spoken at Punta Azul: "Going somewhere, Cullin?"

Cullin seated himself in the observer's chair, still smiling and taking his time about answering. "Why, yes," he said, "I am going somewhere. Vickson was telling me you were in there, but I was afraid you had been rendered permanently speechless by your faithful George." Cullin shifted his eyes to look past Knight at the robot lying on the floor across the room. "I see you had sufficient intelligence to destroy the robot before it destroyed you. It was very useful to me—via Vickson's orders to it—but it's just as well that it failed to carry out its last order; to throttle anyone who entered the station. You and I can now chat pleasantly about cabbages and kings and sealing wax and a man named Cullin who is, as you feared, going somewhere."

"Alone?" Knight asked. "Where's Vickson?"

"Outside. He was rather surprised that he couldn't go with me."

"He is a pilot as well as observer—why don't you take him along?"

"You builders of this ship thoughtfully gave it a robotic brain for the drive that makes the pilot's manual controls unnecessary. Whoever controls this ship can write his own ticket, so I'll take it up alone and there'll be no danger of a doublecross, no doubt as to who will write the ticket."

Cullin reached out and turned the red knob to the right. "No pilot is needed," he said. "You've made the ship foolproof."

"How did you manage to keep Vickson from taking the ship up before you ever got to it?"

"He was selected, Knight, years ago. For all his passing of the tests for superior mental stability, Vickson is a man who places a very high value on his own life. Of all the men who had full access to the ship, Vickson was the best suited to our purpose. There are various ways of persuading various types of men and compelling them to co-operate. With Vickson it was very easy and simple—we used the y drug.

"Perhaps you've heard rumors of it. Our own scientists whipped it up for us several years ago, and it's very efficient. Thirty days after the administration of the drug the subject is stricken with intense pain. This pain increases by the hour and only the antidote, made from a batch of the original drug, can stop the increasing pain and eventual death. We have occasionally let Vickson wait a few hours extra just to keep him convinced of the desirability of wholehearted co-operation with us. Had he been foolish enough to take the ship he would have died in a great deal of agony within six hours, since everything was timed very carefully, including the last administration of the y drug."

"And what becomes of Vickson now?"

"I wouldn't know." Cullin shrugged his shoulders with disinterest. "He's served his purpose for me—I have no further use for him."

"And no antidote for him?"

"I rather doubt that the good citizens of what is left of Center will permit him to suffer very long."

No, thought Knight, they won't, but it was Cullin who had planned it, coldly, deliberately—

"I've planned this for a long time," Cullin said, as though he had been reading Knight's mind. "All my life I've played second-fiddle to someone else. Now, the world will dance to my tune."

Knight looked at him sharply and Cullin laughed with genuine mirth. "No, I'm not insane. This ship is my whip; I'll use the threat of it to whip the world into billions of gentle, obedient horses."

"Obedience seems to be a mania with you."

"It produces the desired results. That's why I liked your robot; no threats were necessary, no y drugs. It accepted orders without question and carried them out without question."

The bullets were no longer banging against the door, Knight noticed. That would mean that the Center forces had gathered in strength and had drawn in closer; that the paratroopers had no time to spare for watching the door. Cullin liked the unquestioning obedience of a robot and he, Knight, could not keep him from giving the order to the drive control that would lift the ship. The robotic brain that was the drive control would obey instantly and without question, but if Cullin should not word his command in the proper manner—

"Once more I'm leaving you. Listen while I give the order to your own ship."

Cullin smiled once more, triumphant and exultant, and gave the order: "Ship's drive control—accelerate!"

* * *

It was the command Knight had hoped he would give. It was a command the robotic brain would obey instantly and Cullin could never countermand.

It required slightly less than three seconds for the primary activation of the ship's drive, then the thrust of acceleration came and the ship hurled itself upward. Cullin was shoved deep into the cushioned seat by it, pinned and chained by it. He tried vainly to speak, the horror of sudden realization and fear in his eyes, then the blankness of unconsciousness clouded them. Knight turned away from the viewscreen. Cullin would be conscious when he returned to it later in the day. Cullin would not die for a long, long time—the doctor in the control room was very competent.

He went to the door and stepped outside. The ship was gone, already beyond sight, and the last of the paratroopers were throwing down their guns and surrendering to the Center forces that surrounded them. The planes were gone; back to carriers somewhere in the Pacific, he presumed, there to depend upon the threat of the disintegrator rays to shield them and the carriers from retaliation.

But there would be no war. Russo-Asia had put all her eggs in one basket and one wrong word had sent that basket away forever.

Someone was lying near Lab 4; motionless on the ground, his rimless glasses knocked askew by the bullet that had killed him and looking mild and apologetic, even in death. Knight felt a sense of relief. Vickson had paid the penalty and it had been gentle compared with the penalty Cullin would pay. It was as it should be.


June was coming toward him, a cartridge belt sagging from her waist and a rifle in her hands.

"We've lost, haven't we?" she asked, stopping before him. "They took the ship and we couldn't stop them."

"The ship will never come back," he said. He looked down at her, her grimy hands clutching the rifle, her clothes torn and her face scratched and dirty and tear-streaked. He saw that most of the clips were gone from the cartridge belt.

"They got Tim," she said. "They must have killed him in the first bombing. I ought to go back and try to help—there are so many people in need of help and it's what Connie would want me to do. But first"—she looked up at him, tears suddenly threatening to wash a new channel through the dirt on her face—"can't we take her—home?"

He took the rifle she still held and let his hand rest on her shoulder.

"First, we'll take Connie home."


Download 0.91 Mb.

Share with your friends:
1   ...   7   8   9   10   11   12   13   14   15

The database is protected by copyright © 2022
send message

    Main page