MASTERS OF SPACE
By EDWARD E. SMITH & E. EVERETT EVANS
Illustrated by BERRY
The Masters had ruled all space with an unconquerable iron fist. But the Masters were gone. And this new, young race who came now to take their place—could they hope to defeat the ancient Enemy of All?
"But didn't you feel anything, Javo?" Strain was apparent in every line of Tula's taut, bare body. "Nothing at all?"
"Nothing whatever." The one called Javo relaxed from his rigid concentration. "Nothing has changed. Nor will it."
"That conclusion is indefensible!" Tula snapped. "With the promised return of the Masters there must and will be changes. Didn't any of you feel anything?"
Her hot, demanding eyes swept the group; a group whose like, except for physical perfection, could be found in any nudist colony.
No one except Tula had felt a thing.
"That fact is not too surprising," Javo said finally. "You have the most sensitive receptors of us all. But are you sure?"
"I am sure. It was the thought-form of a living Master."
"Do you think that the Master perceived your web?"
"It is certain. Those who built us are stronger than we."
"That is true. As they promised, then, so long and long ago, our Masters are returning home to us."
* * * * *
Jarvis Hilton of Terra, the youngest man yet to be assigned to direct any such tremendous deep-space undertaking as Project Theta Orionis, sat in conference with his two seconds-in-command. Assistant Director Sandra Cummings, analyst-synthesist and semantician, was tall, blonde and svelte. Planetographer William Karns—a black-haired, black-browed, black-eyed man of thirty—was third in rank of the scientific group.
"I'm telling you, Jarve, you can't have it both ways," Karns declared. "Captain Sawtelle is old-school Navy brass. He goes strictly by the book. So you've got to draw a razor-sharp line; exactly where the Advisory Board's directive puts it. And next time he sticks his ugly puss across that line, kick his face in. You've been Caspar Milquetoast Two ever since we left Base."
"That's the way it looks to you?" Hilton's right hand became a fist. "The man has age, experience and ability. I've been trying to meet him on a ground of courtesy and decency."
"Exactly. And he doesn't recognize the existence of either. And, since the Board rammed you down his throat instead of giving him old Jeffers, you needn't expect him to."
"You may be right, Bill. What do you think, Dr. Cummings?"
The girl said: "Bill's right. Also, your constant appeasement isn't doing the morale of the whole scientific group a bit of good."
"Well, I haven't enjoyed it, either. So next time I'll pin his ears back. Anything else?"
"Yes, Dr. Hilton, I have a squawk of my own. I know I was rammed down your throat, but just when are you going to let me do some work?"
"None of us has much of anything to do yet, and won't have until we light somewhere. You're off base a country mile."
"I'm not off base. You did want Eggleston, not me."
"Sure I did. I've worked with him and know what he can do. But I'm not holding a grudge about it."
"No? Why, then, are you on first-name terms with everyone in the scientific group except me? Supposedly your first assistant?"
"That's easy!" Hilton snapped. "Because you've been carrying chips on both shoulders ever since you came aboard ... or at least I thought you were." Hilton grinned suddenly and held out his hand. "Sorry, Sandy—I'll start all over again."
"I'm sorry too, Chief." They shook hands warmly. "I was pretty stiff, I guess, but I'll be good."
"You'll go to work right now, too. As semantician. Dig out that directive and tear it down. Draw that line Bill talked about."
"Can do, boss." She swung to her feet and walked out of the room, her every movement one of lithe and easy grace.
Karns followed her with his eyes. "Funny. A trained-dancer Ph.D. And a Miss America type, like all the other women aboard this spacer. I wonder if she'll make out."
"So do I. I still wish they'd given me Eggy. I've never seen an executive-type female Ph.D. yet that was worth the cyanide it would take to poison her."
"That's what Sawtelle thinks of you, too, you know."
"I know; and the Board does know its stuff. So I'm really hoping, Bill, that she surprises me as much as I intend to surprise the Navy."
* * * * *
Alarm bells clanged as the mighty Perseus blinked out of overdrive. Every crewman sprang to his post.
"Mister Snowden, why did we emerge without orders from me?" Captain Sawtelle bellowed, storming into the control room three jumps behind Hilton.
"The automatics took control, sir," he said, quietly.
"Automatics! I give the orders!"
"In this case, Captain Sawtelle, you don't," Hilton said. Eyes locked and held. To Sawtelle, this was a new and strange co-commander. "I would suggest that we discuss this matter in private."
"Very well, sir," Sawtelle said; and in the captain's cabin Hilton opened up.
"For your information, Captain Sawtelle, I set my inter-space coupling detectors for any objective I choose. When any one of them reacts, it trips the kickers and we emerge. During any emergency outside the Solar System I am in command—with the provision that I must relinquish command to you in case of armed attack on us."
"Where do you think you found any such stuff as that in the directive? It isn't there and I know my rights."
"It is, and you don't. Here is a semantic chart of the whole directive. As you will note, it overrides many Navy regulations. Disobedience of my orders constitutes mutiny and I can—and will—have you put in irons and sent back to Terra for court-martial. Now let's go back."
In the control room, Hilton said, "The target has a mass of approximately five hundred metric tons. There is also a significant amount of radiation characteristic of uranexite. You will please execute search, Captain Sawtelle."
And Captain Sawtelle ordered the search.
"What did you do to the big jerk, boss?" Sandra whispered.
"What you and Bill suggested," Hilton whispered back. "Thanks to your analysis of the directive—pure gobbledygook if there ever was any—I could. Mighty good job, Sandy."
* * * * *
Ten or fifteen more minutes passed. Then:
"Here's the source of radiation, sir," a searchman reported. "It's a point source, though, not an object at this range."
"And here's the artifact, sir," Pilot Snowden said. "We're coming up on it fast. But ... but what's a skyscraper skeleton doing out here in interstellar space?"
As they closed up, everyone could see that the thing did indeed look like the metallic skeleton of a great building. It was a huge cube, measuring well over a hundred yards along each edge. And it was empty.
"That's one for the book," Sawtelle said.
"And how!" Hilton agreed. "I'll take a boat ... no, suits would be better. Karns, Yarborough, get Techs Leeds and Miller and suit up."
"You'll need a boat escort," Sawtelle said. "Mr. Ashley, execute escort Landing Craft One, Two, and Three."
The three landing craft approached that enigmatic lattice-work of structural steel and stopped. Five grotesquely armored figures wafted themselves forward on pencils of force. Their leader, whose suit bore the number "14", reached a mammoth girder and worked his way along it up to a peculiar-looking bulge. The whole immense structure vanished, leaving men and boats in empty space.
Sawtelle gasped. "Snowden! Are you holding 'em?"
"No, sir. Faster than light; hyperspace, sir."
"Mr. Ashby, did you have your interspace rigs set?"
"No, sir. I didn't think of it, sir."
"Doctor Cummings, why weren't yours out?"
"I didn't think of such a thing, either—any more than you did," Sandra said.
Ashby, the Communications Officer, had been working the radio. "No reply from anyone, sir," he reported.
"Oh, no!" Sandra exclaimed. Then, "But look! They're firing pistols—especially the one wearing number fourteen—but pistols?"
"Recoil pistols—sixty-threes—for emergency use in case of power failure," Ashby explained. "That's it ... but I can't see why all their power went out at once. But Fourteen—that's Hilton—is really doing a job with that sixty-three. He'll be here in a couple of minutes."
And he was. "Every power unit out there—suits and boats both—drained," Hilton reported. "Completely drained. Get some help out there fast!"
* * * * *
In an enormous structure deep below the surface of a far-distant world a group of technicians clustered together in front of one section of a two-miles long control board. They were staring at a light that had just appeared where no light should have been.
"Someone's brain-pan will be burned out for this," one of the group radiated harshly. "That unit was inactivated long ago and it has not been reactivated."
"Someone committed an error, Your Loftiness?"
"Silence, fool! Stretts do not commit errors!"
* * * * *
As soon as it was clear that no one had been injured, Sawtelle demanded, "How about it, Hilton?"
"Structurally, it was high-alloy steel. There were many bulges, possibly containing mechanisms. There were drive-units of a non-Terran type. There were many projectors, which—at a rough guess—were a hundred times as powerful as any I have ever seen before. There were no indications that the thing had ever been enclosed, in whole or in part. It certainly never had living quarters for warm-blooded, oxygen-breathing eaters of organic food."
Sawtelle snorted. "You mean it never had a crew?"
"Bah! What other kind of intelligent life is there?"
"I don't know. But before we speculate too much, let's look at the tri-di. The camera may have caught something I missed."
It hadn't. The three-dimensional pictures added nothing.
"It probably was operated either by programmed automatics or by remote control," Hilton decided, finally. "But how did they drain all our power? And just as bad, what and how is that other point source of power we're heading for now?"
"What's wrong with it?" Sawtelle asked.
"Its strength. No matter what distance or reactant I assume, nothing we know will fit. Neither fission nor fusion will do it. It has to be practically total conversion!"
The Perseus snapped out of overdrive near the point of interest and Hilton stared, motionless and silent.
Space was full of madly warring ships. Half of them were bare, giant skeletons of steel, like the "derelict" that had so unexpectedly blasted away from them. The others were more or less like the Perseus, except in being bigger, faster and of vastly greater power.
Beams of starkly incredible power bit at and clung to equally capable defensive screens of pure force. As these inconceivable forces met, the glare of their neutralization filled all nearby space. And ships and skeletons alike were disappearing in chunks, blobs, gouts, streamers and sparkles of rended, fused and vaporized metal.
Hilton watched two ships combine against one skeleton. Dozens of beams, incredibly tight and hard, were held inexorably upon dozens of the bulges of the skeleton. Overloaded, the bulges' screens flared through the spectrum and failed. And bare metal, however refractory, endures only for instants under the appalling intensity of such beams as those.
The skeletons tried to duplicate the ships' method of attack, but failed. They were too slow. Not slow, exactly, either, but hesitant; as though it required whole seconds for the commander—or operator? Or remote controller?—of each skeleton to make it act. The ships were winning.
"Hey!" Hilton yelped. "Oh—that's the one we saw back there. But what in all space does it think it's doing?"
It was plunging at tremendous speed straight through the immense fleet of embattled skeletons. It did not fire a beam nor energize a screen; it merely plunged along as though on a plotted course until it collided with one of the skeletons of the fleet and both structures plunged, a tangled mass of wreckage, to the ground of the planet below.
Then hundreds of the ships shot forward, each to plunge into and explode inside one of the skeletons. When visibility was restored another wave of ships came forward to repeat the performance, but there was nothing left to fight. Every surviving skeleton had blinked out of normal space.
The remaining ships made no effort to pursue the skeletons, nor did they re-form as a fleet. Each ship went off by itself.
* * * * *
And on that distant planet of the Stretts the group of mechs watched with amazed disbelief as light after light after light winked out on their two-miles-long control board. Frantically they relayed orders to the skeletons; orders which did not affect the losses.
"Brain-pans will blacken for this ..." a mental snarl began, to be interrupted by a coldly imperious thought.
"That long-dead unit, so inexplicably reactivated, is approaching the fuel world. It is ignoring the battle. It is heading through our fleet toward the Oman half ... handle it, ten-eighteen!"
"It does not respond, Your Loftiness."
"Then blast it, fool! Ah, it is inactivated. As encyclopedist, Nine, explain the freakish behavior of that unit."
"Yes, Your Loftiness. Many cycles ago we sent a ship against the Omans with a new device of destruction. The Omans must have intercepted it, drained it of power and allowed it to drift on. After all these cycles of time it must have come upon a small source of power and of course continued its mission."
"That can be the truth. The Lords of the Universe must be informed."
"The mining units, the carriers and the refiners have not been affected, Your Loftiness," a mech radiated.
"So I see, fool." Then, activating another instrument, His Loftiness thought at it, in an entirely different vein, "Lord Ynos, Madam? I have to make a very grave report...."
* * * * *
In the Perseus, four scientists and three Navy officers were arguing heatedly; employing deep-space verbiage not to be found in any dictionary. "Jarve!" Karns called out, and Hilton joined the group. "Does anything about this planet make any sense to you?"
"No. But you're the planetographer. 'Smatter with it?"
"It's a good three hundred degrees Kelvin too hot."
"Well, you know it's loaded with uranexite."
"That much? The whole crust practically jewelry ore?"
"If that's what the figures say, I'll buy it."
"Buy this, then. Continuous daylight everywhere. Noon June Sol-quality light except that it's all in the visible. Frank says it's from bombardment of a layer of something, and Frank admits that the whole thing's impossible."
"When Frank makes up his mind what 'something' is, I'll take it as a datum."
"Third thing: there's only one city on this continent, and it's protected by a screen that nobody ever heard of."
Hilton pondered, then turned to the captain. "Will you please run a search-pattern, sir? Fine-toothing only the hot spots?"
The planet was approximately the same size as Terra; its atmosphere, except for its intense radiation, was similar to Terra's. There were two continents; one immense girdling ocean. The temperature of the land surface was everywhere about 100 deg.F, that of the water about 90 deg.F. Each continent had one city, and both were small. One was inhabited by what looked like human beings; the other by usuform robots. The human city was the only cool spot on the entire planet; under its protective dome the temperature was 71 deg.F.
Hilton decided to study the robots first; and asked the captain to take the ship down to observation range. Sawtelle objected; and continued to object until Hilton started to order his arrest. Then he said, "I'll do it, under protest, but I want it on record that I am doing it against my best judgment."
"It's on record," Hilton said, coldly. "Everything said and done is being, and will continue to be, recorded."
The Perseus floated downward. "There's what I want most to see," Hilton said, finally. "That big strip-mining operation ... that's it ... hold it!" Then, via throat-mike, "Attention, all scientists! You all know what to do. Start doing it."
Sandra's blonde head was very close to Hilton's brown one as they both stared into Hilton's plate. "Why, they look like giant armadillos!" she exclaimed.
"More like tanks," he disagreed, "except that they've got legs, wheels and treads—and arms, cutters, diggers, probes and conveyors—and look at the way those buckets dip solid rock!"
The fantastic machine was moving very slowly along a bench or shelf that it was making for itself as it went along. Below it, to its left, dropped other benches being made by other mining machines. The machines were not using explosives. Hard though the ore was, the tools were so much harder and were driven with such tremendous power that the stuff might just have well have been slightly-clayed sand.
Every bit of loosened ore, down to the finest dust, was forced into a conveyor and thence into the armored body of the machine. There it went into a mechanism whose basic principles Hilton could not understand. From this monstrosity emerged two streams of product.
One of these, comprising ninety-nine point nine plus percent of the input, went out through another conveyor into the vast hold of a vehicle which, when full and replaced by a duplicate of itself, went careening madly cross-country to a dump.
The other product, a slow, very small stream of tiny, glistening black pellets, fell into a one-gallon container being held watchfully by a small machine, more or less like a three-wheeled motor scooter, which was moving carefully along beside the giant miner. When this can was almost full another scooter rolled up and, without losing a single pellet, took over place and function. The first scooter then covered its bucket, clamped it solidly into a recess designed for the purpose and dashed away toward the city.
Hilton stared slack-jawed at Sandra. She stared back.
"Do you make anything of that, Jarve?"
"Nothing. They're taking pure uranexite and concentrating—or converting—it a thousand to one. I hope we'll be able to do something about it."
"I hope so, too, Chief; and I'm sure we will."
"Well, that's enough for now. You may take us up now, Captain Sawtelle. And Sandy, will you please call all department heads and their assistants into the conference room?"
* * * * *
At the head of the long conference table, Hilton studied his fourteen department heads, all husky young men, and their assistants, all surprisingly attractive and well-built young women. Bud Carroll and Sylvia Bannister of Sociology sat together. He was almost as big as Karns; she was a green-eyed redhead whose five-ten and one-fifty would have looked big except for the arrangement thereof. There were Bernadine and Hermione van der Moen, the leggy, breasty, platinum-blonde twins—both of whom were Cowper medalists in physics. There was Etienne de Vaux, the mathematical wizard; and Rebecca Eisenstein, the black-haired, flashing-eyed ex-infant-prodigy theoretical astronomer. There was Beverly Bell, who made mathematically impossible chemical syntheses—who swam channels for days on end and computed planetary orbits in her sleekly-coiffured head.
"First, we'll have a get-together," Hilton said. "Nothing recorded; just to get acquainted. You all know that our fourteen departments cover science, from astronomy to zoology."
He paused, again his eyes swept the group. Stella Wing, who would have been a grand-opera star except for her drive to know everything about language. Theodora (Teddy) Blake, who would prove gleefully that she was the world's best model—but was in fact the most brilliantly promising theoretician who had ever lived.
"No other force like this has ever been assembled," Hilton went on. "In more ways than one. Sawtelle wanted Jeffers to head this group, instead of me. Everybody thought he would head it."
"And Hilton wanted Eggleston and got me," Sandra said.
"That's right. And quite a few of you didn't want to come at all, but were told by the Board to come or else."
The group stirred. Eyes met eyes, and there were smiles.
* * * * *
"I myself think Jeffers should have had the job. I've never handled anything half this big and I'll need a lot of help. But I'm stuck with it and you're all stuck with me, so we'll all take it and like it. You've noticed, of course, the accent on youth. The Navy crew is normal, except for the commanders being unusually young. But we aren't. None of us is thirty yet, and none of us has ever been married. You fellows look like a team of professional athletes, and you girls—well, if I didn't know better I'd say the Board had screened you for the front row of the chorus instead of for a top-bracket brain-gang. How they found so many of you I'll never know."
"Virile men and nubile women!" Etienne de Vaux leered enthusiastically. "Vive le Board!"
"Nubile! Bravo, Tiny! Quelle delicatesse de nuance!"
"Three rousing cheers for the Board!"
"Keep still, you nitwits! Let me ask a question!" This came from one of the twins. "Before you give us the deduction, Jarvis—or will it be an intuition or an induction or a ..."
"Or an inducement," the other twin suggested, helpfully. "Not that you would need very much of that."
"You keep still, too, Miney. I'm asking, Sir Moderator, if I can give my deduction first?"
"Sure, Bernadine; go ahead."
"They figured we're going to get completely lost. Then we'll jettison the Navy, hunt up a planet of our own and start a race to end all human races. Or would you call this a see-duction instead of a dee-duction?"
This produced a storm of whistles, cheers and jeers that it took several seconds to quell.
"But seriously, Jarvis," Bernadine went on. "We've all been wondering and it doesn't make sense. Have you any idea at all of what the Board actually did have in mind?"
"I believe that the Board selected for mental, not physical, qualities; for the ability to handle anything unexpected or unusual that comes up, no matter what it is."
"You think it wasn't double-barreled?" asked Kincaid, the psychologist. He smiled quizzically. "That all this virility and nubility and glamor is pure coincidence?"
"No," Hilton said, with an almost imperceptible flick of an eyelid. "Coincidence is as meaningless as paradox. I think they found out that—barring freaks—the best minds are in the best bodies."
"Could be. The idea has been propounded before."
"Now let's get to work." Hilton flipped the switch of the recorder. "Starting with you, Sandy, each of you give a two-minute boil-down. What you found and what you think."
* * * * *
Something over an hour later the meeting adjourned and Hilton and Sandra strolled toward the control room.
"I don't know whether you convinced Alexander Q. Kincaid or not, but you didn't quite convince me," Sandra said.
"Nor him, either."
"Oh?" Sandra's eyebrows
"No. He grabbed the out I offered him. I didn't fool Teddy Blake or Temple Bells, either. You four are all, though, I think."
"Temple? You think she's so smart?"
"I don't think so, no. Don't fool yourself, chick. Temple Bells looks and acts sweet and innocent and virginal. Maybe—probably—she is. But she isn't showing a fraction of the stuff she's really got. She's heavy artillery, Sandy. And I mean heavy."
"I think you're slightly nuts there. But do you really believe that the Board was playing Cupid?"
"Not trying, but doing. Cold-bloodedly and efficiently. Yes."
"But it wouldn't work! We aren't going to get lost!"
"We won't need to. Propinquity will do the work."
"Phooie. You and me, for instance?" She stopped, put both hands on her hips, and glared. "Why, I wouldn't marry you if you ..."
"I'll tell the cockeyed world you won't!" Hilton broke in. "Me marry a damned female Ph.D.? Uh-uh. Mine will be a cuddly little brunette that thinks a slipstick is some kind of lipstick and that an isotope's something good to eat."
"One like that copy of Murchison's Dark Lady that you keep under the glass on your desk?" she sneered.
"Exactly...." He started to continue the battle, then shut himself off. "But listen, Sandy, why should we get into a fight because we don't want to marry each other? You're doing a swell job. I admire you tremendously for it and I like to work with you."
"You've got a point there, Jarve, at that, and I'm one of the few who know what kind of a job you're doing, so I'll relax." She flashed him a gamin grin and they went on into the control room.
It was too late in the day then to do any more exploring; but the next morning, early, the Perseus lined out for the city of the humanoids.
* * * * *
Tula turned toward her fellows. Her eyes filled with a happily triumphant light and her thought a lilting song. "I have been telling you from the first touch that it was the Masters. It is the Masters! The Masters are returning to us Omans and their own home world!"
* * * * *
"Captain Sawtelle," Hilton said, "Please land in the cradle below."
"Land!" Sawtelle stormed. "On a planet like that? Not by ..." He broke off and stared; for now, on that cradle, there flamed out in screaming red the Perseus' own Navy-coded landing symbols!
"Your protest is recorded," Hilton said. "Now, sir, land."
Fuming, Sawtelle landed. Sandra looked pointedly at Hilton. "First contact is my dish, you know."
"Not that I like it, but it is." He turned to a burly youth with sun-bleached, crew-cut hair, "Still safe, Frank?"
"Still abnormally low. Surprising no end, since all the rest of the planet is hotter than the middle tail-race of hell."
"Okay, Sandy. Who will you want besides the top linguists?"
"Psych—both Alex and Temple. And Teddy Blake. They're over there. Tell them, will you, while I buzz Teddy?"
"Will do," and Hilton stepped over to the two psychologists and told them. Then, "I hope I'm not leading with my chin, Temple, but is that your real first name or a professional?"
"It's real; it really is. My parents were romantics: dad says they considered both 'Golden' and 'Silver'!"
Not at all obviously, he studied her: the almost translucent, unblemished perfection of her lightly-tanned, old-ivory skin; the clear, calm, deep blueness of her eyes; the long, thick mane of hair exactly the color of a field of dead-ripe wheat.
"You know, I like it," he said then. "It fits you."
"I'm glad you said that, Doctor...."
"Not that, Temple. I'm not going to 'Doctor' you."
"I'll call you 'boss', then, like Stella does. Anyway, that lets me tell you that I like it myself. I really think that it did something for me."
"Something did something for you, that's for sure. I'm mighty glad you're aboard, and I hope ... here they come. Hi, Hark! Hi, Stella!"
"Hi, Jarve," said Chief Linguist Harkins, and:
"Hi, boss—what's holding us up?" asked his assistant, Stella Wing. She was about five feet four. Her eyes were a tawny brown; her hair a flamboyant auburn mop. Perhaps it owed a little of its spectacular refulgence to chemistry, Hilton thought, but not too much. "Let us away! Let the lions roar and let the welkin ring!"
"Who's been feeding you so much red meat, little squirt?" Hilton laughed and turned away, meeting Sandra in the corridor. "Okay, chick, take 'em away. We'll cover you. Luck, girl."
And in the control room, to Sawtelle, "Needle-beam cover, please; set for minimum aperture and lethal blast. But no firing, Captain Sawtelle, until I give the order."
* * * * *
The Perseus was surrounded by hundreds of natives. They were all adult, all naked and about equally divided as to sex. They were friendly; most enthusiastically so.
"Jarve!" Sandra squealed. "They're telepathic. Very strongly so! I never imagined—I never felt anything like it!"
"Any rough stuff?" Hilton demanded.
"Oh, no. Just the opposite. They love us ... in a way that's simply indescribable. I don't like this telepathy business ... not clear ... foggy, diffuse ... this woman is sure I'm her long-lost great-great-a-hundred-times grandmother or something—You! Slow down. Take it easy! They want us all to come out here and live with ... no, not with them, but each of us alone in a whole house with them to wait on us! But first, they all want to come aboard...."
"What?" Hilton yelped. "But are you sure they're friendly?"
"How about you, Alex?"
"We're all sure, Jarve. No question about it."
"Bring two of them aboard. A man and a woman."
"You won't bring any!" Sawtelle thundered. "Hilton, I had enough of your stupid, starry-eyed, ivory-domed blundering long ago, but this utterly idiotic brainstorm of letting enemy aliens aboard us ends all civilian command. Call your people back aboard or I will bring them in by force!"
"Very well, sir. Sandy, tell the natives that a slight delay has become necessary and bring your party aboard."
The Navy officers smiled—or grinned—gloatingly; while the scientists stared at their director with expressions ranging from surprise to disappointment and disgust. Hilton's face remained set, expressionless, until Sandra and her party had arrived.
"Captain Sawtelle," he said then, "I thought that you and I had settled in private the question or who is in command of Project Theta Orionis at destination. We will now settle it in public. Your opinion of me is now on record, witnessed by your officers and by my staff. My opinion of you, which is now being similarly recorded and witnessed, is that you are a hidebound, mentally ossified Navy mule; mentally and psychologically unfit to have any voice in any such mission as this. You will now agree on this recording and before these witnesses, to obey my orders unquestioningly or I will now unload all Bureau of Science personnel and equipment onto this planet and send you and the Perseus back to Terra with the doubly-sealed record of this episode posted to the Advisory Board. Take your choice."
Eyes locked, and under Hilton's uncompromising stare Sawtelle weakened. He fidgeted; tried three times—unsuccessfully—to blare defiance. Then, "Very well sir," he said, and saluted.
* * * * *
"Thank you, sir," Hilton said, then turned to his staff. "Okay, Sandy, go ahead."
Outside the control room door, "Thank God you don't play poker, Jarve!" Karns gasped. "We'd all owe you all the pay we'll ever get!"
"You think it was the bluff, yes?" de Vaux asked. "Me, I think no. Name of a name of a name! I was wondering with unease what life would be like on this so-alien planet!"
"You didn't need to wonder, Tiny," Hilton assured him. "It was in the bag. He's incapable of abandonment."
Beverly Bell, the van der Moen twins and Temple Bells all stared at Hilton in awe; and Sandra felt much the same way.
"But suppose he had called you?" Sandra demanded.
"Speculating on the impossible is unprofitable," he said.
"Oh, you're the most exasperating thing!" Sandra stamped a foot. "Don't you—ever—answer a question intelligibly?"
"When the question is meaningless, chick, I can't."
At the lock Temple Bells, who had been hanging back, cocked an eyebrow at Hilton and he made his way to her side.
"What was it you started to say back there, boss?"
"Oh, yes. That we should see each other oftener."
"That's what I was hoping you were going to say." She put her hand under his elbow and pressed his arm lightly, fleetingly, against her side. "That would be indubitably the fondest thing I could be of."
He laughed and gave her arm a friendly squeeze. Then he studied her again, the most baffling member of his staff. About five feet six. Lithe, hard, trained down fine—as a tennis champion, she would be. Stacked—how she was stacked! Not as beautiful as Sandra or Teddy ... but with an ungodly lot of something that neither of them had ... nor any other woman he had ever known.
"Yes, I am a little difficult to classify," she said quietly, almost reading his mind.
"That's the understatement of the year! But I'm making some progress."
"Such as?" This was an open challenge.
"Except possibly Teddy, the best brain aboard."
"That isn't true, but go ahead."
"You're a powerhouse. A tightly organized, thoroughly integrated, smoothly functioning, beautifully camouflaged Juggernaut. A reasonable facsimile of an irresistible force."
"My God, Jarvis!" That had gone deep.
"Let me finish my analysis. You aren't head of your department because you don't want to be. You fooled the top psychs of the Board. You've been running ninety per cent submerged because you can work better that way and there's no glory-hound blood in you."
She stared at him, licking her lips. "I knew your mind was a razor, but I didn't know it was a diamond drill, too. That seals your doom, boss, unless ... no, you can't possibly know why I'm here."
"Why, of course I do."
"You just think you do. You see, I've been in love with you ever since, as a gangling, bony, knobby-kneed kid, I listened to your first doctorate disputation. Ever since then, my purpose in life has been to land you."
"But listen!" he exclaimed. "I can't, even if I want...."
"Of course you can't." Pure deviltry danced in her eyes. "You're the Director. It wouldn't be proper. But it's Standard Operating Procedure for simple, innocent, unsophisticated little country girls like me to go completely overboard for the boss."
"But you can't—you mustn't!" he protested in panic.
Temple Bells was getting plenty of revenge for the shocks he had given her. "I can't? Watch me!" She grinned up at him, her eyes still dancing. "Every chance I get, I'm going to hug your arm like I did a minute ago. And you'll take hold of my forearm, like you did! That can be taken, you see, as either: One, a reluctant acceptance of a mildly distasteful but not quite actionable situation, or: Two, a blocking move to keep me from climbing up you like a squirrel!"
"Confound it, Temple, you can't be serious!"
"Can't I?" She laughed gleefully. "Especially with half a dozen of those other cats watching? Just wait and see, boss!"
Sandra and her two guests came aboard. The natives looked around; the man at the various human men, the woman at each of the human women. The woman remained beside Sandra; the man took his place at Hilton's left, looking up—he was a couple of inches shorter than Hilton's six feet one—with an air of ... of expectancy!
"Why this arrangement, Sandy?" Hilton asked.
"Because we're tops. It's your move, Jarve. What's first?"
"Uranexite. Come along, Sport. I'll call you that until ..."
"Laro," the native said, in a deep resonant bass voice. He hit himself a blow on the head that would have floored any two ordinary men. "Sora," he announced, striking the alien woman a similar blow.
"Laro and Sora, I would like to have you look at our uranexite, with the idea of refueling our ship. Come with me, please?"
Both nodded and followed him. In the engine room he pointed at the engines, then to the lead-blocked labyrinth leading to the fuel holds. "Laro, do you understand 'hot'? Radioactive?"
Laro nodded—and started to open the heavy lead door!
"Hey!" Hilton yelped. "That's hot!" He seized Laro's arm to pull him away—and got the shock of his life. Laro weighed at least five hundred pounds! And the guy still looked human!
Laro nodded again and gave himself a terrific thump on the chest. Then he glanced at Sora, who stepped away from Sandra. He then went into the hold and came out with two fuel pellets in his hand, one of which he tossed to Sora. That is, the motion looked like a toss, but the pellet traveled like a bullet. Sora caught it unconcernedly and both natives flipped the pellets into their mouths. There was a half minute of rock-crusher crunching; then both natives opened their mouths.
The pellets had been pulverized and swallowed.
Hilton's voice rang out. "Poynter! How can these people be non-radioactive after eating a whole fuel pellet apiece?"
Poynter tested both natives again. "Cold," he reported. "Stone cold. No background even. Play that on your harmonica!"
* * * * *
Laro nodded, perfectly matter-of-factly, and in Hilton's mind there formed a picture. It was not clear, but it showed plainly enough a long line of aliens approaching the Perseus. Each carried on his or her shoulder a lead container holding two hundred pounds of Navy Regulation fuel pellets. A standard loading-tube was sealed into place and every fuel-hold was filled.
This picture, Laro indicated plainly, could become reality any time.
Sawtelle was notified and came on the run. "No fuel is coming aboard without being tested!" he roared.
"Of course not. But it'll pass, for all the tea in China. You haven't had a ten per cent load of fuel since you were launched. You can fill up or not—the fuel's here—just as you say."
"If they can make Navy standard, of course we want it."
The fuel arrived. Every load tested well above standard. Every fuel hold was filled to capacity, with no leakage and no emanation. The natives who had handled the stuff did not go away, but gathered in the engine-room; and more and more humans trickled in to see what was going on.
Sawtelle stiffened. "What's going on over there, Hilton?"
"I don't know; but let's let 'em go for a minute. I want to learn about these people and they've got me stopped cold."
"You aren't the only one. But if they wreck that Mayfield it'll cost you over twenty thousand dollars."
"Okay." The captain and director watched, wide eyed.
Two master mechanics had been getting ready to re-fit a tube—a job requiring both strength and skill. The tube was very heavy and made of superefract. The machine—the Mayfield—upon which the work was to be done, was extremely complex.
Two of the aliens had brushed the mechanics—very gently—aside and were doing their work for them. Ignoring the hoist, one native had picked the tube up and was holding it exactly in place on the Mayfield. The other, hands moving faster than the eye could follow, was locking it—micrometrically precise and immovably secure—into place.
"How about this?" one of the mechanics asked of his immediate superior. "If we throw 'em out, how do we do it?"
By a jerk of the head, the non-com passed the buck to a commissioned officer, who relayed it up the line to Sawtelle, who said, "Hilton, nobody can run a Mayfield without months of training. They'll wreck it and it'll cost you ... but I'm getting curious myself. Enough so to take half the damage. Let 'em go ahead."
"How about this, Mike?" one of the machinists asked of his fellow. "I'm going to like this, what?"
"Ya-as, my deah Chumley," the other drawled, affectedly. "My man relieves me of so much uncouth effort."
The natives had kept on working. The Mayfield was running. It had always howled and screamed at its work, but now it gave out only a smooth and even hum. The aliens had adjusted it with unhuman precision; they were one with it as no human being could possibly be. And every mind present knew that those aliens were, at long, long last, fulfilling their destiny and were, in that fulfillment, supremely happy. After tens of thousands of cycles of time they were doing a job for their adored, their revered and beloved MASTERS.
That was a stunning shock; but it was eclipsed by another.
* * * * *
"I am sorry, Master Hilton," Laro's tremendous bass voice boomed out, "that it has taken us so long to learn your Masters' language as it now is. Since you left us you have changed it radically; while we, of course, have not changed it at all."
"I'm sorry, but you're mistaken," Hilton said. "We are merely visitors. We have never been here before; nor, as far as we know, were any of our ancestors ever here."
"You need not test us, Master. We have kept your trust. Everything has been kept, changelessly the same, awaiting your return as you ordered so long ago."
"Can you read my mind?" Hilton demanded.
"Of course; but Omans can not read in Masters' minds anything except what Masters want Omans to read."
"Omans?" Harkins asked. "Where did you Omans and your masters come from? Originally?"
"As you know, Master, the Masters came originally from Arth. They populated Ardu, where we Omans were developed. When the Stretts drove us from Ardu, we all came to Ardry, which was your home world until you left it in our care. We keep also this, your half of the Fuel World, in trust for you."
"Listen, Jarve!" Harkins said, tensely. "Oman-human. Arth-Earth. Ardu-Earth Two. Ardry-Earth Three. You can't laugh them off ... but there never was an Atlantis!"
"This is getting no better fast. We need a full staff meeting. You, too, Sawtelle, and your best man. We need all the brains the Perseus can muster."
"You're right. But first, get those naked women out of here. It's bad enough, having women aboard at all, but this ... my men are spacemen, mister."
Laro spoke up. "If it is the Masters' pleasure to keep on testing us, so be it. We have forgotten nothing. A dwelling awaits each Master, in which each will be served by Omans who will know the Master's desires without being told. Every desire. While we Omans have no biological urges, we are of course highly skilled in relieving tensions and derive as much pleasure from that service as from any other."
Sawtelle broke the silence that followed. "Well, for the men—" He hesitated. "Especially on the ground ... well, talking in mixed company, you know, but I think ..."
"Think nothing of the mixed company, Captain Sawtelle," Sandra said. "We women are scientists, not shrinking violets. We are accustomed to discussing the facts of life just as frankly as any other facts."
Sawtelle jerked a thumb at Hilton, who followed him out into the corridor. "I have been a Navy mule," he said. "I admit now that I'm out-maneuvered, out-manned, and out-gunned."
"I'm just as baffled—at present—as you are, sir. But my training has been aimed specifically at the unexpected, while yours has not."
"That's letting me down easy, Jarve." Sawtelle smiled—the first time the startled Hilton had known that the hard, tough old spacehound could smile. "What I wanted to say is, lead on. I'll follow you through force-field and space-warps."
"Thanks, skipper. And by the way, I erased that record yesterday." The two gripped hands; and there came into being a relationship that was to become a lifelong friendship.
* * * * *
"We will start for Ardry immediately," Hilton said. "How do we make that jump without charts, Laro?"
"Very easily, Master. Kedo, as Master Captain Sawtelle's Oman, will give the orders. Nito will serve Master Snowden and supply the knowledge he says he has forgotten."
"Okay. We'll go up to the control room and get started."
And in the control room, Kedo's voice rasped into the captain's microphone. "Attention, all personnel! Master Captain Sawtelle orders take-off in two minutes. The countdown will begin at five seconds.... Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Lift!"
Nito, not Snowden, handled the controls. As perfectly as the human pilot had ever done it, at the top of his finest form, he picked the immense spaceship up and slipped it silkily into subspace.
"Well, I'll be a ..." Snowden gasped. "That's a better job than I ever did!"
"Not at all, Master, as you know," Nito said. "It was you who did this. I merely performed the labor."
A few minutes later, in the main lounge, Navy and BuSci personnel were mingling as they had never done before. Whatever had caused this relaxation of tension—the friendship of captain and director? The position in which they all were? Or what?—they all began to get acquainted with each other.
"Silence, please, and be seated," Hilton said. "While this is not exactly a formal meeting, it will be recorded for future reference. First, I will ask Laro a question. Were books or records left on Ardry by the race you call the Masters?"
"You know there are, Master. They are exactly as you left them. Undisturbed for over two hundred seventy-one thousand years."
"Therefore we will not question the Omans. We do not know what questions to ask. We have seen many things hitherto thought impossible. Hence, we must discard all preconceived opinions which conflict with facts. I will mention a few of the problems we face."
"The Omans. The Masters. The upgrading of the armament of the Perseus to Oman standards. The concentration of uranexite. What is that concentrate? How is it used? Total conversion—how is it accomplished? The skeletons—what are they and how are they controlled? Their ability to drain power. Who or what is back of them? Why a deadlock that has lasted over a quarter of a million years? How much danger are we and the Perseus actually in? How much danger is Terra in, because of our presence here? There are many other questions."
"Sandra and I will not take part. Nor will three others; de Vaux, Eisenstein, and Blake. You have more important work to do."
"What can that be?" asked Rebecca. "Of what possible use can a mathematician, a theoretician and a theoretical astronomer be in such a situation as this?"
"You can think powerfully in abstract terms, unhampered by Terran facts and laws which we now know are neither facts nor laws. I cannot even categorize the problems we face. Perhaps you three will be able to. You will listen, then consult, then tell me how to pick the teams to do the work. A more important job for you is this: Any problem, to be solved, must be stated clearly; and we don't know even what our basic problem is. I want something by the use of which I can break this thing open. Get it for me."
* * * * *
Rebecca and de Vaux merely smiled and nodded, but Teddy Blake said happily, "I was beginning to feel like a fifth wheel on this project, but that's something I can really stick my teeth into."
"Huh? How?" Karns demanded. "He didn't give you one single thing to go on; just compounded the confusion."
Hilton spoke before Teddy could. "That's their dish, Bill. If I had any data I'd work it myself. You first, Captain Sawtelle."
That conference was a very long one indeed. There were almost as many conclusions and recommendations as there were speakers. And through it all Hilton and Sandra listened. They weighed and tested and analyzed and made copious notes; in shorthand and in the more esoteric characters of symbolic logic. And at its end:
"I'm just about pooped, Sandy. How about you?"
"You and me both, boss. See you in the morning."
But she didn't. It was four o'clock in the afternoon when they met again.
"We made up one of the teams, Sandy," he said, with surprising diffidence. "I know we were going to do it together, but I got a hunch on the first team. A kind of a weirdie, but the brains checked me on it." He placed a card on her desk. "Don't blow your top until after I you've studied it."
"Why, I won't, of course...." Her voice died away. "Maybe you'd better cancel that 'of course'...." She studied, and when she spoke again she was exerting self-control. "A chemist, a planetographer, a theoretician, two sociologists, a psychologist and a radiationist. And six of the seven are three pairs of sweeties. What kind of a line-up is that to solve a problem in physics?"
"It isn't in any physics we know. I said think!"
"Oh," she said, then again "Oh," and "Oh," and "Oh." Four entirely different tones. "I see ... maybe. You're matching minds, not specialties; and supplementing?"
"I knew you were smart. Buy it?"
"It's weird, all right, but I'll buy it—for a trial run, anyway. But I'd hate like sin to have to sell any part of it to the Board.... But of course we're—I mean you're responsible only to yourself."
"Keep it 'we', Sandy. You're as important to this project as I am. But before we tackle the second team, what's your thought on Bernadine and Hermione? Separate or together?"
"Separate, I'd say. They're identical physically, and so nearly so mentally that of them would be just as good on a team as both of them. More and better work on different teams."
"My thought exactly." And so it went, hour after hour.
The teams were selected and meetings were held.
* * * * *
The Perseus reached Ardry, which was very much like Terra. There were continents, oceans, ice-caps, lakes, rivers, mountains and plains, forests and prairies. The ship landed on the spacefield of Omlu, the City of the Masters, and Sawtelle called Hilton into his cabin. The Omans Laro and Kedo went along, of course.
"Nobody knows how it leaked ..." Sawtelle began.
"No secrets around here," Hilton grinned. "Omans, you know."
"I suppose so. Anyway, every man aboard is all hyped up about living aground—especially with a harem. But before I grant liberty, suppose there's any VD around here that our prophylactics can't handle?"
"As you know, Masters," Laro replied for Hilton before the latter could open his mouth, "no disease, venereal or other, is allowed to exist on Ardry. No prophylaxis is either necessary or desirable."
"That ought to hold you for a while, Skipper." Hilton smiled at the flabbergasted captain and went back to the lounge.
"Everybody going ashore?" he asked.
"Yes." Karns said. "Unanimous vote for the first time."
"Who wouldn't?" Sandra asked. "I'm fed up with living like a sardine. I will scream for joy the minute I get into a real room."
"Cars" were waiting, in a stopping-and-starting line. Three-wheel jobs. All were empty. No drivers, no steering-wheels, no instruments or push-buttons. When the whole line moved ahead as one vehicle there was no noise, no gas, no blast.
An Oman helped a Master carefully into the rear seat of his car, leaped into the front seat and the car sped quietly away. The whole line of empty cars, acting in perfect synchronization, shot forward one space and stopped.
"This is your car, Master," Laro said, and made a production out of getting Hilton into the vehicle undamaged.
Hilton's plan had been beautifully simple. All the teams were to meet at the Hall of Records. The linguists and their Omans would study the records and pass them out. Specialty after specialty would be unveiled and teams would work on them. He and Sandy would sit in the office and analyze and synthesize and correlate. It was a very nice plan.
It was a very nice office, too. It contained every item of equipment that either Sandra or Hilton had ever worked with—it was a big office—and a great many that neither of them had ever heard of. It had a full staff of Omans, all eager to work.
Hilton and Sandra sat in that magnificent office for three hours, and no reports came in. Nothing happened at all.
"This gives me the howling howpers!" Hilton growled. "Why haven't I got brains enough to be on one of those teams?"
"I could shed a tear for you, you big dope, but I won't," Sandra retorted. "What do you want to be, besides the brain and the kingpin and the balance-wheel and the spark-plug of the outfit? Do you want to do everything yourself?"
"Well, I don't want to go completely nuts, and that's all I'm doing at the moment!" The argument might have become acrimonious, but it was interrupted by a call from Karns.
"Can you come out here, Jarve? We've struck a knot."
"'Smatter? Trouble with the Omans?" Hilton snapped.
"Not exactly. Just non-cooperation—squared. We can't even get started. I'd like to have you two come out here and see if you can do anything. I'm not trying rough stuff, because I know it wouldn't work."
"Coming up, Bill," and Hilton and Sandra, followed by Laro and Sora, dashed out to their cars.
* * * * *
The Hall of Records was a long, wide, low, windowless, very massive structure, built of a metal that looked like stainless steel. Kept highly polished, the vast expanse of seamless and jointless metal was mirror-bright. The one great door was open, and just inside it were the scientists and their Omans.
"Brief me, Bill," Hilton said.
"No lights. They won't turn 'em on and we can't. Can't find either lights or any possible kind of switches."
"Turn on the lights, Laro," Hilton said.
"You know that I cannot do that, Master. It is forbidden for any Oman to have anything to do with the illumination of this solemn and revered place."
"Then show me how to do it."
"That would be just as bad, Master," the Oman said proudly. "I will not fail any test you can devise!"
"Okay. All you Omans go back to the ship and bring over fifteen or twenty lights—the tripod jobs. Scat!"
They "scatted" and Hilton went on, "No use asking questions if you don't know what questions to ask. Let's see if we can cook up something. Lane—Kathy—what has Biology got to say?"
Dr. Lane Saunders and Dr. Kathryn Cook—the latter a willowy brown-eyed blonde—conferred briefly. Then Saunders spoke, running both hands through his unruly shock of fiery red hair. "So far, the best we can do is a more-or-less educated guess. They're atomic-powered, total-conversion androids. Their pseudo-flesh is composed mainly of silicon and fluorine. We don't know the formula yet, but it is as much more stable than our teflon as teflon is than corn-meal mush. As to the brains, no data. Bones are super-stainless steel. Teeth, harder than diamond, but won't break. Food, uranexite or its concentrated derivative, interchangeably. Storage reserve, indefinite. Laro and Sora won't have to eat again for at least twenty-five years...."
The group gasped as one, but Saunders went on: "They can eat and drink and breathe and so on, but only because the original Masters wanted them to. Non-functional. Skins and subcutaneous layers are soft, for the same reason. That's about it, up to now."
"Thanks, Lane. Hark, is it reasonable to believe that any culture whatever could run for a quarter of a million years without changing one word of its language or one iota of its behavior?"
"Reasonable or not, it seems to have happened."
"Now for Psychology. Alex?"
"It seems starkly incredible, but it seems to be true. If it is, their minds were subjected to a conditioning no Terran has ever imagined—an unyielding fixation."
"They can't be swayed, then, by reason or logic?" Hilton paused invitingly.
"Or anything else," Kincaid said, flatly. "If we're right they can't be swayed, period."
"I was afraid of that. Well, that's all the questions I know how to ask. Any contributions to this symposium?"
* * * * *
After a short silence de Vaux said, "I suppose you realize that the first half of the problem you posed us has now solved itself?"
"Why, no. No, you're 'way ahead of me."
"There is a basic problem and it can now be clearly stated," Rebecca said. "Problem: To determine a method of securing full cooperation from the Omans. The first step in the solution of this problem is to find the most appropriate operator. Teddy?"
"I have an operator—of sorts," Theodora said. "I've been hoping one of us could find a better."
"What is it?" Hilton demanded.
"The word 'until'."
"Teddy, you're a sweetheart!" Hilton exclaimed.
"How can 'until' be a mathematical operator?" Sandra asked.
"Easily." Hilton was already deep in thought. "This hard conditioning was to last only until the Masters returned. Then they'd break it. So all we have to do is figure out how a Master would do it."
"That's all," Kincaid said, meaningly.
Hilton pondered. Then, "Listen, all of you. I may have to try a colossal job of bluffing...."
"Just what would you call 'colossal' after what you did to the Navy?" Karns asked.
"That was a sure thing. This isn't. You see, to find out whether Laro is really an immovable object, I've got to make like an irresistible force, which I ain't. I don't know what I'm going to do; I'll have to roll it as I go along. So all of you keep on your toes and back any play I make. Here they come."
The Omans came in and Hilton faced Laro, eyes to eyes. "Laro," he said, "you refused to obey my direct order. Your reasoning seems to be that, whether the Masters wish it or not, you Omans will block any changes whatever in the status quo throughout all time to come. In other words, you deny the fact that Masters are in fact your Masters."
"But that is not exactly it, Master. The Masters ..."
"That is it. Exactly it. Either you are the Master here or you are not. That is a point to which your two-value logic can be strictly applied. You are wilfully neglecting the word 'until'. This stasis was to exist only until the Masters returned. Are we Masters? Have we returned? Note well: Upon that one word 'until' may depend the length of time your Oman race will continue to exist."
The Omans flinched; the humans gasped.
"But more of that later," Hilton went on, unmoved. "Your ancient Masters, being short-lived like us, changed materially with time, did they not? And you changed with them?"
"But we did not change ourselves, Master. The Masters ..."
"You did change yourselves. The Masters changed only the prototype brain. They ordered you to change yourselves and you obeyed their orders. We order you to change and you refuse to obey our orders. We have changed greatly from our ancestors. Right?"
"That is right, Master."
"We are stronger physically, more alert and more vigorous mentally, with a keener, sharper outlook on life?"
"You are, Master."
* * * * *
"That is because our ancestors decided to do without Omans. We do our own work and enjoy it. Your Masters died of futility and boredom. What I would like to do, Laro, is take you to the creche and put your disobedient brain back into the matrix. However, the decision is not mine alone to make. How about it, fellows and girls? Would you rather have alleged servants who won't do anything you tell them to or no servants at all?"
"As semantician, I protest!" Sandra backed his play. "That is the most viciously loaded question I ever heard—it can't be answered except in the wrong way!"
"Okay, I'll make it semantically sound. I think we'd better scrap this whole Oman race and start over and I want a vote that way!"
"You won't get it!" and everybody began to yell.
Hilton restored order and swung on Laro, his attitude stiff, hostile and reserved. "Since it is clear that no unanimous decision is to be expected at this time I will take no action at this time. Think over, very carefully, what I have said, for as far as I am concerned, this world has no place for Omans who will not obey orders. As soon as I convince my staff of the fact, I shall act as follows: I shall give you an order and if you do not obey it blast your head to a cinder. I shall then give the same order to another Oman and blast him. This process will continue until: First, I find an obedient Oman. Second, I run out of blasters. Third, the planet runs out of Omans. Now take these lights into the first room of records—that one over there." He pointed, and no Oman, and only four humans, realized that he had made the Omans telegraph their destination so that he could point it out to them!
Inside the room Hilton asked caustically of Laro: "The Masters didn't lift those heavy chests down themselves, did they?"
"Oh, no, Master, we did that."
"Do it, then. Number One first ... yes, that one ... open it and start playing the records in order."
The records were not tapes or flats or reels, but were spools of intricately-braided wire. The players were projectors of full-color, hi-fi sound, tri-di pictures.
Hilton canceled all moves aground and issued orders that no Oman was to be allowed aboard ship, then looked and listened with his staff.
The first chest contained only introductory and elementary stuff; but it was so interesting that the humans stayed overtime to finish it. Then they went back to the ship; and in the main lounge Hilton practically collapsed onto a davenport. He took out a cigarette and stared in surprise at his hand, which was shaking.
"I think I could use a drink," he remarked.
"What, before supper?" Karns marveled. Then, "Hey, Wally! Rush a flagon of avignognac—Arnaud Freres—for the boss and everything else for the rest of us. Chop-chop but quick!"
A hectic half-hour followed. Then, "Okay, boys and girls, I love you, too, but let's cut out the slurp and sloosh, get some supper and log us some sack time. I'm just about pooped. Sorry I had to queer the private-residence deal, Sandy, you poor little sardine. But you know how it is."
Sandra grimaced. "Uh-huh. I can take it a while longer if you can."
* * * * *
After breakfast next morning, the staff met in the lounge. As usual, Hilton and Sandra were the first to arrive.
"Hi, boss," she greeted him. "How do you feel?"
"Fine. I could whip a wildcat and give her the first two scratches. I was a bit beat up last night, though."
"I'll say ... but what I simply can't get over is the way you underplayed the climax. 'Third, the planet runs out of Omans'. Just like that—no emphasis at all. Wow! It had the impact of a delayed-action atomic bomb. It put goose-bumps all over me. But just s'pose they'd missed it?"
"No fear. They're smart. I had to play it as though the whole Oman race is no more important than a cigarette butt. The great big question, though, is whether I put it across or not."
At that point a dozen people came in, all talking about the same subject.
"Hi, Jarve," Karns said. "I still say you ought to take up poker as a life work. Tiny, let's you and him sit down now and play a few hands."
"Mais non!" de Vaux shook his head violently, shrugged his shoulders and threw both arms wide. "By the sacred name of a small blue cabbage, not me!"
Karns laughed. "How did you have the guts to state so many things as facts? If you'd guessed wrong just once—"
"I didn't." Hilton grinned. "Think back, Bill. The only thing I said as a fact was that we as a race are better than the Masters were, and that is obvious. Everything else was implication, logic, and bluff."
"That's right, at that. And they were neurotic and decadent. No question about that."
"But listen, boss." This was Stella Wing. "About this mind-reading business. If Laro could read your mind, he'd know you were bluffing and ... Oh, that 'Omans can read only what Masters wish Omans to read', eh? But d'you think that applies to us?"
"I'm sure it does, and I was thinking some pretty savage thoughts. And I want to caution all of you: whenever you're near any Oman, start thinking that you're beginning to agree with me that they're useless to us, and let them know it. Now get out on the job, all of you. Scat!"
"Just a minute," Poynter said. "We're going to have to keep on using the Omans and their cars, aren't we?"
"Of course. Just be superior and distant. They're on probation—we haven't decided yet what to do about them. Since that happens to be true, it'll be easy."
* * * * *
Hilton and Sandra went to their tiny office. There wasn't room to pace the floor, but Hilton tried to pace it anyway.
"Now don't say again that you want to do something," Sandra said, brightly. "Look what happened when you said that yesterday."
"I've got a job, but I don't know enough to do it. The creche—there's probably only one on the planet. So I want you to help me think. The Masters were very sensitive to radiation. Right?"
"Right. That city on Fuel Bin was kept deconned to zero, just in case some Master wanted to visit it."
"And the Masters had to work in the creche whenever anything really new had to be put into the prototype brain."
"I'd say so, yes."
"So they had armor. Probably as much better than our radiation suits as the rest of their stuff is. Now. Did they or did they not have thought screens?"
"Ouch! You think of the damnedest things, chief." She caught her lower lip between her teeth and concentrated. "... I don't know. There are at least fifty vectors, all pointing in different directions."
"I know it. The key one in my opinion is that the Masters gave 'em both telepathy and speech."
"I considered that and weighted it. Even so, the probability is only about point sixty-five. Can you take that much of a chance?"
"Yes. I can make one or two mistakes. Next, about finding that creche. Any spot of radiation on the planet would be it, but the search might take ..."
"Hold on. They'd have it heavily shielded—there'll be no leakage at all. Laro will have to take you."
"That's right. Want to come along? Nothing much will happen here today."
"Uh-uh, not me." Sandra shivered in distaste. "I never want to see brains and livers and things swimming around in nutrient solution if I can help it."
"Okay. It's all yours. I'll be back sometime," and Hilton went out onto the dock, where the dejected Laro was waiting for him.
"Hi, Laro. Get the car and take me to the Hall of Records." The android brightened up immediately and hurried to obey.
At the Hall, Hilton's first care was to see how the work was going on. Eight of the huge rooms were now open and brightly lighted—operating the lamps had been one of the first items on the first spool of instructions—with a cold, pure-white, sourceless light.
* * * * *
Every team had found its objective and was working on it. Some of them were doing nicely, but the First Team could not even get started. Its primary record would advance a fraction of an inch and stop; while Omans and humans sought out other records and other projectors in an attempt to elucidate some concept that simply could not be translated into any words or symbols known to Terran science. At the moment there were seventeen of those peculiar—projectors? Viewers? Playbacks—in use, and all of them were stopped.
"You know what we've got to do Jarve?" Karns, the team captain, exploded. "Go back to being college freshmen—or maybe grade school or kindergarten, we don't know yet—and learn a whole new system of mathematics before we can even begin to touch this stuff!"
"And you're bellyaching about that?" Hilton marveled. "I wish I could join you. That'd be fun." Then, as Karns started a snappy rejoinder—
"But I got troubles of my own," he added hastily. "'Bye, now," and beat a rejoinder—
Out in the hall again, Hilton took his chance. After all, the odds were about two to one that he would win.
"I want a couple of things, Laro. First, a thought screen."
"Very well, Master. They are in a distant room, Department Four Six Nine. Will you wait here on this cushioned bench, Master?"
"No, we don't like to rest too much. I'll go with you." Then, walking along, he went on thoughtfully. "I've been thinking since last night, Laro. There are tremendous advantages in having Omans ..."
"I am very glad you think so, Master. I want to serve you. It is my greatest need."
"... if they could be kept from smothering us to death. Thus, if our ancestors had kept their Omans, I would have known all about life on this world and about this Hall of Records, instead of having the fragmentary, confusing, and sometimes false information I now have ... oh, we're here?"
* * * * *
Laro had stopped and was opening a door. He stood aside. Hilton went in, touched with one finger a crystalline cube set conveniently into a wall, gave a mental command, and the lights went on.
Laro opened a cabinet and took out a disk about the size of a dime, pendant from a neck-chain. While Hilton had not known what to expect, he certainly had not expected anything as simple as that. Nevertheless, he kept his face straight and his thoughts unmoved as Laro hung the tiny thing around his neck and adjusted the chain to a loose fit.
"Thanks, Laro." Hilton removed it and put it into his pocket. "It won't work from there, will it?"
"No, Master. To function, it must be within eighteen inches of the brain. The second thing, Master?"
"A radiation-proof suit. Then you will please take me to the creche."
The android almost missed a step, but said nothing.
The radiation-proof suit—how glad Hilton was that he had not called it "armor"!—was as much of a surprise as the thought-screen generator had been. It was a coverall, made of something that looked like thin plastic, weighing less than one pound. It had one sealed box, about the size and weight of a cigarette case. No wires or apparatus could be seen. Air entered through two filters, one at each heel, flowed upward—for no reason at all that Hilton could see—and out through a filter above the top of his head. The suit neither flopped nor clung, but stood out, comfortably out of the way, all by itself.
Hilton, just barely, accepted the suit, too, without showing surprise.
The creche, it turned out, while not in the city of Omlu itself, was not too far out to reach easily by car.
En route, Laro said—stiffly? Tentatively? Hilton could not fit an adverb to the tone—"Master, have you then decided to destroy me? That is of course your right."
"Not this time, at least." Laro drew an entirely human breath of relief and Hilton went on: "I don't want to destroy you at all, and won't, unless I have to. But, some way or other, my silicon-fluoride friend, you are either going to learn how to cooperate or you won't last much longer."
"But, Master, that is exactly ..."
"Oh, hell! Do we have to go over that again?" At the blaze of frustrated fury in Hilton's mind Laro flinched away. "If you can't talk sense keep still."
* * * * *
In half an hour the car stopped in front of a small building which looked something like a subway kiosk—except for the door, which, built of steel-reinforced lead, swung on a piano hinge having a pin a good eight inches in diameter. Laro opened that door. They went in. As the tremendously massive portal clanged shut, lights flashed on.
Hilton glanced at his tell-tales, one inside, one outside, his suit. Both showed zero.
Down twenty steps, another door. Twenty more; another. And a fourth. Hilton's inside meter still read zero. The outside one was beginning to climb.
Into an elevator and straight down for what must have been four or five hundred feet. Another door. Hilton went through this final barrier gingerly, eyes nailed to his gauges. The outside needle was high in the red, almost against the pin, but the inside one still sat reassuringly on zero.
He stared at the android. "How can any possible brain take so much of this stuff without damage?"
"It does not reach the brain, Master. We convert it. Each minute of this is what you would call a 'good, square meal'."
"I see ... dimly. You can eat energy, or drink it, or soak it up through your skins. However it comes, it's all duck soup for you."
Hilton glanced ahead, toward the far end of the immensely long, comparatively narrow, room. It was, purely and simply, an assembly line; and fully automated in operation.
"You are replacing the Omans destroyed in the battle with the skeletons?"
Hilton covered the first half of the line at a fast walk. He was not particularly interested in the fabrication of super-stainless-steel skeletons, nor in the installation and connection of atomic engines, converters and so on.
He was more interested in the synthetic fluoro-silicon flesh, and paused long enough to get a general idea of its growth and application. He was very much interested in how such human-looking skin could act as both absorber and converter, but he could see nothing helpful.
"An application, I suppose, of the same principle used in this radiation suit."
* * * * *
At the end of the line he stopped. A brain, in place and connected to millions of infinitely fine wire nerves, but not yet surrounded by a skull, was being educated. Scanners—multitudes of incomprehensibly complex machines—most of them were doing nothing, apparently; but such beams would have to be invisibly, microscopically fine. But a bare brain, in such a hot environment as this....
He looked down at his gauges. Both read zero.
"Fields of force, Master," Laro said.
"But, damn it, this suit itself would re-radiate ..."
"The suit is self-decontaminating, Master."
Hilton was appalled. "With such stuff as that, and the plastic shield besides, why all the depth and all that solid lead?"
"The Masters' orders, Master. Machines can, and occasionally do, fail. So might, conceivably, the plastic."
"And that structure over there contains the original brain, from which all the copies are made."
"Yes, Master. We call it the 'Guide'."
"And you can't touch the Guide. Not even if it means total destruction, none of you can touch it."
"That is the case, Master."
"Okay. Back to the car and back to the Perseus."
At the car Hilton took off the suit and hung the thought-screen generator around his neck; and in the car, for twenty five solid minutes, he sat still and thought.
His bluff had worked, up to a point. A good, far point, but not quite far enough. Laro had stopped that "as you already know" stuff. He was eager to go as far in cooperation as he possibly could ... but he couldn't go far enough but there had to be a way....
Hilton considered way after way. Way after unworkable, useless way. Until finally he worked out one that might—just possibly might—work.
"Laro, I know that you derive pleasure and satisfaction from serving me—in doing what I ought to be doing myself. But has it ever occurred to you that that's a hell of a way to treat a first-class, highly capable brain? To waste it on second-hand, copycat, carbon-copy stuff?"
"Why, no, Master, it never did. Besides, anything else would be forbidden ... or would it?"
"Stop somewhere. Park this heap. We're too close to the ship; and besides, I want your full, undivided, concentrated attention. No, I don't think originality was expressly forbidden. It would have been, of course, if the Masters had thought of it, but neither they nor you ever even considered the possibility of such a thing. Right?"
"It may be.... Yes, Master, you are right."
"Okay." Hilton took off his necklace, the better to drive home the intensity and sincerity of his thought. "Now, suppose that you are not my slave and simple automatic relay station. Instead, we are fellow-students, working together upon problems too difficult for either of us to solve alone. Our minds, while independent, are linked or in mesh. Each is helping and instructing the other. Both are working at full power and under free rein at the exploration of brand-new vistas of thought—vistas and expanses which neither of us has ever previously ..."
"Stop, Master, stop!" Laro covered both ears with his hands and pulled his mind away from Hilton's. "You are overloading me!"
"That is quite a load to assimilate all at once," Hilton agreed. "To help you get used to it, stop calling me 'Master'. That's an order. You may call me Jarve or Jarvis or Hilton or whatever, but no more Master."
"Very well, sir."
* * * * *
Hilton laughed and slapped himself on the knee. "Okay, I'll let you get away with that—at least for a while. And to get away from that slavish 'o' ending on your name, I'll call you 'Larry'. You like?"
"I would like that immensely ... sir."
"Keep trying, Larry, you'll make it yet!" Hilton leaned forward and walloped the android a tremendous blow on the knee. "Home, James!"
The car shot forward and Hilton went on: "I don't expect even your brain to get the full value of this in any short space of time. So let it stew in its own juice for a week or two." The car swept out onto the dock and stopped. "So long, Larry."
"But ... can't I come in with you ... sir?"
"No. You aren't a copycat or a semaphore or a relay any longer. You're a free-wheeling, wide-swinging, hard-hitting, independent entity—monarch of all you survey—captain of your soul and so on. I want you to devote the imponderable force of the intellect to that concept until you understand it thoroughly. Until you have developed a top-bracket lot of top-bracket stuff—originality, initiative, force, drive, and thrust. As soon as you really understand it, you'll do something about it yourself, without being told. Go to it, chum."
In the ship, Hilton went directly to Kincaid's office. "Alex, I want to ask you a thing that's got a snapper on it." Then, slowly and hesitantly: "It's about Temple Bells. Has she ... is she ... well, does she remind you in any way of an iceberg?" Then, as the psychologist began to smile; "And no, damn it, I don't mean physically!"
"I know you don't." Kincaid's smile was rueful, not at all what Hilton had thought it was going to be. "She does. Would it be helpful to know that I first asked, then ordered her to trade places with me?"
"It would, very. I know why she refused. You're a damned good man, Alex."
"Thanks, Jarve. To answer the question you were going to ask next—no, I will not be at all perturbed or put out if you put her onto a job that some people might think should have been mine. What's the job, and when?"
"That's the devil of it—I don't know." Hilton brought Kincaid up to date. "So you see, it'll have to develop, and God only knows what line it will take. My thought is that Temple and I should form a Committee of Two to watch it develop."
"That one I'll buy, and I'll look on with glee."
"Thanks, fellow." Hilton went down to his office, stuck his big feet up onto his desk, settled back onto his spine, and buried himself in thought.
Hours later he got up, shrugged, and went to bed without bothering to eat.
"Look," said Stella Wing to Beverly Bell. "Over there."
"I've seen it before. It's simply disgusting."
"That's a laugh." Stella's tawny-brown eyes twinkled. "You made your bombing runs on that target, too, my sweet, and didn't score any higher than I did."
"I soon found out I didn't want him—much too stiff and serious. Frank's a lot more fun."
The staff had gathered in the lounge, as had become the custom, to spend an hour or so before bedtime in reading, conversation, dancing, light flirtation and even lighter drinking. Most of the girls, and many of the men, drank only soft drinks. Hilton took one drink per day of avignognac, a fine old brandy. So did de Vaux—the two usually making a ceremony of it.
Across the room from Stella and Beverly, Temple Bells was looking up at Hilton and laughing. She took his elbow and, in the gesture now familiar to all, pressed his arm quickly, but in no sense furtively, against her side. And he, equally openly, held her forearm for a moment in the full grasp of his hand.
"And he isn't a pawer," Stella said, thoughtfully. "He never touches any of the rest of us. She taught him to do that, damn her, without him ever knowing anything about it ... and I wish I knew how she did it."
"That isn't pawing," Beverly laughed lightly. "It's simply self-defense. If he didn't fend her off, God knows what she'd do. I still say it's disgusting. And the way she dances with him! She ought to be ashamed of herself. He ought to fire her."
"She's never been caught outside the safety zone, and we've all been watching her like hawks. In fact, she's the only one of us all who has never been alone with him for a minute. No, darling, she isn't playing games. She's playing for keeps, and she's a mighty smooth worker."
"Huh!" Beverly emitted a semi-ladylike snort. "What's so smooth about showing off man-hunger that way? Any of us could do that—if we would."
"Miaouw, miaouw. Who do you think you're kidding, Bev, you sanctimonious hypocrite—me? She has staked out the biggest claim she could find. She's posted notices all over it and is guarding it with a pistol. Half your month's salary gets you all of mine if she doesn't walk him up the center aisle as soon as we get back to Earth. We can both learn a lot from that girl, darling. And I, for one am going to."
"Uh-uh, she hasn't got a thing I want," Beverly laughed again, still lightly. Her friend's barbed shafts had not wounded her. "And I'd much rather be thought a hypocrite, even a sanctimonious one, than a ravening, slavering—I can't think of the technical name for a female wolf, so—wolfess, running around with teeth and claws bared, looking for another kill."
"You do get results, I admit." Stella, too, was undisturbed. "We don't seem to convince each other, do we, in the matter of technique?"
* * * * *
At this point the Hilton-Bells tete-a-tete was interrupted by Captain Sawtelle. "Got half an hour, Jarve?" he asked. "The commanders, especially Elliott and Fenway, would like to talk to you."
"Sure I have, Skipper. Be seeing you, Temple," and the two men went to the captain's cabin; in which room, blue with smoke despite the best efforts of the ventilators, six full commanders were arguing heatedly.
"Hi, men," Hilton greeted them.
"Hi, Jarve," from all six, and: "What'll you drink? Still making do with ginger ale?" asked Elliott (Engineering).
"That'll be fine, Steve. Thanks. You having as much trouble as we are?"
"More," the engineer said, glumly. "Want to know what it reminds me of? A bunch of Australian bushmen stumbling onto a ramjet and trying to figure out how it works. And yet Sam here has got the sublime guts to claim that he understands all about their detectors—and that they aren't anywhere nearly as good as ours are."
"And they aren't!" blazed Commander Samuel Bryant (Electronics). "We've spent six solid weeks looking for something that simply is not there. All they've got is the prehistoric Whitworth system and that's all it is. Nothing else. Detectors—hell! I tell you I can see better by moonlight than the very best they can do. With everything they've got you couldn't detect a woman in your own bed!"
"And this has been going on all night," Fenway (Astrogation) said. "So the rest of us thought we'd ask you in to help us pound some sense into Sam's thick, hard head."
Hilton frowned in thought while taking a couple of sips of his drink. Then, suddenly, his face cleared. "Sorry to disappoint you, gentlemen, but—at any odds you care to name and in anything from split peas to C-notes—Sam's right."
* * * * *
Commander Samuel and the six other officers exploded as one. When the clamor had subsided enough for him to be heard, Hilton went on: "I'm very glad to get that datum, Sam. It ties in perfectly with everything else I know about them."
"How do you figure that kind of twaddle ties in with anything?" Sawtelle demanded.
"Strict maintenance of the status quo," Hilton explained, flatly. "That's all they're interested in. You said yourself, Skipper, that it was a hell of a place to have a space-battle, practically in atmosphere. They never attack. They never scout. They simply don't care whether they're attacked or not. If and when attacked, they put up just enough ships to handle whatever force has arrived. When the attacker has been repulsed, they don't chase him a foot. They build as many ships and Omans as were lost in the battle—no more and no less—and then go on about their regular business. The Masters owned that half of the fuel bin, so the Omans are keeping that half. They will keep on keeping it for ever and ever. Amen."
"But that's no way to fight a war!" Three or four men said this, or its equivalent, at once.
"Don't judge them by human standards. They aren't even approximately human. Our personnel is not expendable. Theirs is—just as expendable as their materiel."
While the Navy men were not convinced, all were silenced except Sawtelle. "But suppose the Stretts had sent in a thousand more skeletons than they did?" he argued.
"According to the concept you fellows just helped me develop, it wouldn't have made any difference how many they sent," Hilton replied, thoughtfully. "One or a thousand or a million, the Omans have—must have—enough ships and inactivated Omans hidden away, both on Fuel World and on Ardry here, to maintain the balance."
"Oh, hell!" Elliott snapped. "If I helped you hatch out any such brainstorm as that, I'm going onto Tillinghast's couch for a six-week overhaul—or have him put me into his padded cell."
"Now that's what I would call a thought," Bryant began.
"Hold it, Sam," Hilton interrupted. "You can test it easily enough, Steve. Just ask your Oman."
"Yeah—and have him say 'Why, of course, Master, but why do you keep on testing me this way?' He'll ask me that about four times more, the stubborn, single-tracked, brainless skunk, and I'll really go nuts. Are you getting anywhere trying to make a Christian out of Laro?"
"It's too soon to really say, but I think so." Hilton paused in thought. "He's making progress, but I don't know how much. The devil of it is that it's up to him to make the next move; I can't. I haven't the faintest idea, whether it will take days yet or weeks."
* * * * *
"But not months or years, you think?" Sawtelle asked.
"No. We think that—but say, speaking of psychologists, is Tillinghast getting anywhere, Skipper? He's the only one of your big wheels who isn't in liaison with us."
"No. Nowhere at all," Sawtelle said, and Bryant added:
"I don't think he ever will. He still thinks human psychology will apply if he applies it hard enough. But what did you start to say about Laro?"
"We think the break is about due, and that if it doesn't come within about thirty days it won't come at all—we'll have to back up and start all over again."
"I hope it does. We're all pulling for you," Sawtelle said. "Especially since Karns's estimate is still years, and he won't be pinned down to any estimate even in years. By the way, Jarve, I've pulled my team off of that conversion stuff."
"Oh?" Hilton raised his eyebrows.
"Putting them at something they can do. The real reason is that Poindexter pulled himself and his crew off it at eighteen hours today."
"I see. I've heard that they weren't keeping up with our team."
"He says that there's nothing to keep up with, and I'm inclined to agree with him." The old spacehound's voice took on a quarter-deck rasp. "It's a combination of psionics, witchcraft and magic. None of it makes any kind of sense."
"The only trouble with that viewpoint is that, whatever the stuff may be, it works," Hilton said, quietly.
"But damn it, how can it work?"
"I don't know. I'm not qualified to be on that team. I can't even understand their reports. However, I know two things. First, they'll get it in time. Second, we BuSci people will stay here until they do. However, I'm still hopeful of finding a shortcut through Laro. Anyway, with this detector thing settled, you'll have plenty to do to keep all your boys out of mischief for the next few months."
"Yes, and I'm glad of it. We'll install our electronics systems on a squadron of these Oman ships and get them into distant-warning formation out in deep space where they belong. Then we'll at least know what is going on."
"That's a smart idea, Skipper. Go to it. Anything else before we hit our sacks?"
"One more thing. Our psych, Tillinghast. He's been talking to me and sending me memos, but today he gave me a formal tape to approve and hand personally to you. So here it is. By the way, I didn't approve it; I simply endorsed it 'Submitted to Director Hilton without recommendation'."
"Thanks." Hilton accepted the sealed canister. "What's the gist? I suppose he wants me to squeal for help already? To admit that we're licked before we're really started?"
* * * * *
"You guessed it. He agrees with you and Kincaid that the psychological approach is the best one, but your methods are all wrong. Based upon misunderstood and unresolved phenomena and applied with indefensibly faulty techniques, et cetera. And since he has 'no adequate laboratory equipment aboard', he wants to take a dozen or so Omans back to Terra, where he can really work on them."
"Wouldn't that be a something?" Hilton voiced a couple of highly descriptive deep-space expletives. "Not only quit before we start, but have all the top brass of the Octagon, all the hot-shot politicians of United Worlds, the whole damn Congress of Science and all the top-bracket industrialists of Terra out here lousing things up so that nobody could ever learn anything? Not in seven thousand years!"
"That's right. You said a mouthful, Jarve!" Everybody yelled something, and no one agreed with Tillinghast; who apparently was not very popular with his fellow officers.
Sawtelle added, slowly: "If it takes too long, though ... it's the uranexite I'm thinking of. Thousands of millions of tons of it, while we've been hoarding it by grams. We could equip enough Oman ships with detectors to guard Fuel Bin and our lines. I'm not recommending taking the Perseus back, and we're 'way out of hyper-space radio range. We could send one or two men in a torp, though, with the report that we have found all the uranexite we'll ever need."
"Yes, but damn it, Skipper, I want to wrap the whole thing up in a package and hand it to 'em on a platter. Not only the fuel, but whole new fields of science. And we've got plenty of time to do it in. They equipped us for ten years. They aren't going to start worrying about us for at least six or seven; and the fuel shortage isn't going to become acute for about twenty. Expensive, admitted, but not critical. Besides, if you send in a report now, you know who'll come out and grab all the glory in sight. Five-Jet Admiral Gordon himself, no less."
"Probably, and I don't pretend to relish the prospect. However, the fact remains that we came out here to look for fuel. We found it. We should have reported it the day we found it, and we can't put it off much longer."
"I don't agree. I intend to follow the directive to the letter. It says nothing whatever about reporting."
"But it's implicit...."
* * * * *
"No bearing. Your own Regulations expressly forbid extrapolation beyond or interpolation within a directive. The Brass is omnipotent, omniscient and infallible. So why don't you have your staff here give an opinion as to the time element?"
"This matter is not subject to discussion. It is my own personal responsibility. I'd like to give you all the time you want, Jarve, but ... well, damn it ... if you must have it, I've always tried to live up to my oath, but I'm not doing it now."
"I see." Hilton got up, jammed both hands into his pockets, sat down again. "I hadn't thought about your personal honor being involved, but of course it is. But, believe it or not, I'm thinking of humanity's best good, too. So I'll have to talk, even though I'm not half ready to—I don't know enough. Are these Omans people or machines?"